Friday, February 26, 2010

Mercy, Me, Jim, and Pudge

Day 10 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Show and Tell

Although I’m not a sports fan, I have to admit I sense a palpable whiff of spring when Texas Rangers baseball training camp opens each winter. And open it did this week in the oddly-named city of Surprise, Arizona. Yay! The season of soft, mellow breezes, longer sunny days, and newly-green trees can’t be far away now.

Of course, here in Texas, spring’s beauty only lasts about three weeks before we’re pelted with hail from vicious thunderstorms. Then the dreaded heat of summer takes over until Thanksgiving. But we won’t think about that right now. Spring training is the time for optimism, opportunity, and the perennial question about whether the Rangers will have any decent pitching this year. Isn’t it funny about how the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Arlington, Texas, has been home to the American League’s Texas Rangers since our legendary mayor, Tom Vandergriff, lured the former Washington Senators down from the nation’s capital back in the mists of time. Which, for Texas, is about 40 years ago. I remember when they played in a dumpy yet oddly comfortable minor-league stadium next to I-30, where you could get a sunburn from practically any corner of the stands. These days, the Rangers play in a grand baseball palace that former president George W. Bush helped build when he owned part of the team.

Fields of Dreams

Not that I’m an expert on baseball stadiums. Besides the Ballpark in Arlington – a more obvious name you’ll never find – I’ve only been to the old Yankee and Shea stadiums in New York City.

While the old “House that Ruth Built” in the Bronx was dated and gargantuan, history oozed out of every square inch. When you attended a game at Yankee Stadium, you were there for one purpose only: to watch a baseball game. Here in Arlington, a lot of people come to games on dates or in groups with friends. They chatter, wander around, spend ages in line for food and drinks, and generally use the game as a sideline for when their conversations trail off. Not at Yankee Stadium. You go, you sit, and you watch. You yell, you argue, you complain, you cheer, and you order from the vendors walking the stands if you have time to eat or drink anything. Have to use the restrooms? Fuggedaboudit. Hold it until the inning – or the game – is over.

One time, a little kid with a fishing net was trying to capture a pop fly ball over the net at home plate. The kid had the ball momentarily, but it rolled out of his net. The whole stadium – we were all watching – erupted into a deafening “BOOO!” as the poor kid sank into his seat. Wow, I thought. Talk about a tough crowd! Even a little kid can’t catch a break in this place.

Over in Queens, Shea Stadium didn’t have nearly the historic vibe or white-collar-ish crowd you can find in the Bronx. But Mets fans held their own in a stadium boasting all the charm of an aircraft hangar. There, too – attending a game wasn’t a social event. Hard-core baseball happened there, and the intensity for what was taking place on the field was the same as at Yankee Stadium. Once people got to their seats, they stayed there all nine innings.

I have yet to visit the new stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets. I hear they’re somewhat disappointing, especially considering the cost to build each of them, and the irreplaceable aura each old structure held. Judging from the pictures, I also think they tend to look a bit like our own Ballpark in Arlington, but with different facades tacked on. Ours is smaller than theirs, but size isn’t the only thing that matters in baseball.

Good Athletes Play Good Baseball

Skill - that matters more. Skill is one of baseball’s hallmarks that helps me respect it as a sport. Any overweight clod can wrestle another overweight clod while a skinny white guy runs around behind them, trying to throw a football. Kicking a white ball around a huge field has become the world’s largest sport, but I just don’t get why people riot over it. Basketball used to be a sport, but now, it’s just a few seconds of dribbling followed by endless fouls. Hockey? My nephews love it, but up in Michigan, baseball fields don’t thaw out until August, so that’s understandable.

You have to admit that baseball requires real, admirable skill. Hitting a little white blur of leather shooting towards you at 90 mph? Sliding along ten feet of dirt on one thigh? Running towards a ball sailing high in the air, catching it with one hand, and turning to throw it in the other – all within seconds? I’ve got a lot of respect for people who can do that while making it look so easy.

I don’t know all the stats, rules, or players, but I did once work for a former Texas Rangers star. Jim Sundberg is a six-time Gold Glove winner who used to be a catcher for the Rangers, and he helped win the World Series one year when he played for Kansas City. Sundberg and his wife, Janet, used to own a company that developed and marketed sports training material for young athletes.

I’ll be honest – one of the reasons they hired me was because I know so little about sports, so I’m not in awe of superstar athletes. Yes, I admire their skill, but I’m cynical enough that celebrities of any type don’t make me gaga. Since the Sundbergs know so many people in the sports world, they didn’t want employees who would drool all over their friends and business partners. They hired me as their first full-time employee, and I worked for them for three years.

Mercy!

Their very first employee, however, was a vivacious woman named Mercy Hukill. She worked part-time for the Sundbergs. A merry, older-than-she-acted widow who attended the same church we all did, Mercy had a great sense of humor, although I never did appreciate her always calling me “Timmy”. And she’s the only person I let call me that – so don’t even think about it.

Mercy passed away a couple of years ago after a valiant struggle with cancer. She shrunk down from the woman you see in this photo to literally skin and bones. The story goes that as she was being wheeled into ICU after her last surgery, all weak and IV’d and emaciated, her sister walked up alongside her bed and asked, “Mercy, can I get you anything”?

Mercy motioned for her sister to lean in closer, and she whispered hoarsely: “A man”.

Knowing Mercy, she was probably only half-kidding.

The day this photo was taken, Mercy and I were busy working while Jim was preparing to attend a press conference at the Ballpark with the Rangers. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez had just won his sixth Gold Glove, tying Jim’s record.

Jim thought Mercy and I would get a kick out of going with him to the press conference, so I went and asked Mercy if she wanted to go.

“Hmmuh” Mercy retorted, not looking up from whatever she was doing.

“Come on, it’ll be fun. Jim says he'll arrange for us to have our picture taken with Pudge afterwards. You know you want to meet him”.

“Yeahhh, well, I don’t know…” Mercy hedged, her indifference a marked contrast to her usual brightness when it came to conversations about Rodriguez.

So, I went and informed Jim that Mercy didn’t want to go. He immediately went to Mercy and managed to persuade her that he would like the two of us there for business purposes, or something like that. So begrudgingly, Mercy went along with us.

Of course, we got to the Ballpark, watched the press conference, and then Jim invited us to pose with Pudge. Mercy still had an uncharacteristically frumpy look on her face. But when she turned around to face the cameraman, here she is with a ready smile and a look of, “Oh, yes, I guess I can have my photo taken with Pudge”!

Maybe to people who didn't know Mercy, this is just a faintly silly story. But considering some of the conversations the two of us had, be thankful this is the one I chose to tell!

Rounding the Bases

After a rapid-fire series of consolidations in the sports retailing world reduced their customer base, Jim and Janet decided to change their business model and ramp down the company. Jim is now the senior executive vice president of the Texas Rangers. As an interesting sidenote, one of Jim’s business partners, Dave Burchett, writes a blog for Crosswalk.com, when he’s not directing Texas Rangers broadcasts on television.

For the record, Pudge is the guy in the black shirt and jeans. He went on to win 13 Gold Gloves, and he’s been an All-Star 14 times. Now 38 years old, he’s a $3-million-a-year back-up catcher for the relatively-new Washington Senators. Remember the Senators? The franchise was revived for the nation’s capital to replace the team that left to play here in Texas.

And as a Senator, Pudge will probably be one of the most productive people with that title in all of Washington, DC.

Aren't you glad spring training is here?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Milking Tragedies For All They're Worth

Day 9 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Somebody, please make it stop!

On Monday, lawyers for the family of a Dallas police officer killed in the line of duty filed a lawsuit over his death. The officer was riding in a motorcycle escort for Senator Hillary Clinton when she visited Dallas as a presidential candidate in 2008. He wiped out in a freak, one-vehicle accident, and now his family wants the City of Dallas, the manufacturer of his helmet, and Clinton’s former campaign to pay up.

Also on Monday, the wife of the IRS employee killed when nutty taxpayer Joe Stack flew a plane into an IRS building filed a lawsuit against Stack’s distraught widow, claiming she knew her husband was unstable and could have stopped his ill-fated flight. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Motorcycle Cop Dies During Clinton Motorcade

A 20-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, Senior Cpl. Victor Lozada - Tirado had only recently graduated from the department’s motorcycle training course when he was assigned to the motorcade detail during Clinton’s visit. Lawyers claim that Clinton’s campaign staff gave the police less than 24-hour’s notice when requesting a police escort for her visit.

You’ve probably watched funeral processions where motorcycle cops “hand-off” the tail end of the motorcade to another cop while one of the cyclists zooms on ahead to block another intersection. Well, apparently that’s what Lozada was supposed to be doing – zooming on ahead in the procession. Lawyers estimate he was going about 70 mph when he failed to negotiate a turn. Lozada clipped the curb and flew off his bike, the strap of his helmet detatching during his high-impact roll along the pavement. Upon hearing news of the tragedy, Clinton cancelled her appearances for the day and visited the officer’s family in the ER.

Two years to the day, Lozada’s widow and her lawyers with the firm of David A. Schiller decided to make their move in the courts. Schiller’s team claims the City of Dallas did not provide enough training for Lozada, the Clinton campaign didn’t request an escort in a timely fashion, and the helmet’s construction was faulty.

Now, to be fair, the helmet claim may have veracity. Experts may find a defect in the helmet, and if that’s the case, prudence would dictate attempts at preventing future failures. However, for a helmet strap to withstand the physical forces deployed by an adult male crashing into concrete at 70 mph, my guess is that the strap’s durability to accommodate such stress would make it significantly more uncomfortable and unwieldy than most cops would tolerate. Besides, common sense says any helmet’s protection only goes so far.

That still leaves us with the curious claims against Clinton’s campaign and the police department itself. For their part, Schiller’s firm has obtained a document in which Lozada's motorcycle trainer purportedly expresses skepticism about Lozada's proficiency on a bike. According to the Dallas Morning News, this document, written a month before Lozada’s death, describes one of his trainers as being scared by all of the mistakes Lozada was making on his motorcycle. However, upon questioning by the Morning News, both the author and recipient of the letter say it was a joke in which they were simply poking fun of Lozada, as part of the cop’s code of camaraderie. If they really thought Lozada was a menace to the driving public and himself, they wouldn’t have signed-off on his final training papers.

Of course, the DPD may need to re-examine their protocols for handling training documents, particularly those that deal with an officer’s suitability for a particular task. I’m not sure the documents Schiller’s team found are the proverbial “smoking guns” that prove Lozada was improperly certified. If they’re just practical jokes, however, this may be a prime example of how practical jokes can be dangerous.

In the very least, having the widow hear how officers made fun of her husband’s motorcycle aptitude after his untimely death while riding one is something that may shame his trainers into being more careful in the future.

Blaming Clinton Is Too Easy

Which leaves us with the celebrity factor in this case: Hillary Clinton, current US Secretary of State, and former presidential contender. No matter what you think politically about Hillary – we don’t need to call her “Mrs. Clinton”, do we? – you can’t dispute the absurdity of blaming her campaign for Lozada’s accident. So what if the campaign didn’t file a motorcade request 24 hours in advance? 911 callers don’t plan out their emergencies 24 hours in advance, do they?

You can’t logically blame Clinton’s campaign without also criticizing the crisis calls police officers respond to all the time. Are you and I now going to have to notify DPD on the off chance that we might need their services in the future?

“Yeah, Dallas Police? I’m going to be driving through on LBJ Freeway this afternoon, and I might get carjacked, or somebody may hit my car, or I might cause a wreck, or my tire might blow out. Just wanted to give you a head’s up before I come your way so that you won’t sue me… Oh – I’m supposed to give you more than two hour’s notice? Sorry. Let me file my notice now so I can drive through LBJ next week”.

Stupid, right? And that’s what suing the Clinton campaign is. I understand that the DPD might have liked all the advance preparation in the world, but they’re a police department, not a Presbyterian church committee. Sure, the Clinton campaign may have made some unwise plans - hey, these are politicians we’re talking about. But as long as they weren’t expecting their motorcade to scale the side of downtown’s tallest building, what’s the problem?

Beating A Widow When She's Down

When I read about Valerie Hunter’s lawsuit against pilot Joe Stack’s widow, I couldn’t believe it. Here I’ve just been writing about stupid lawsuits, and then another one pops up on CNN. One widow blaming another for the tragedy that killed both of their husbands. Good grief – I’m getting a headache.

Apparently, Hunter wants to suck money from the widow of a guy who's in debt to the IRS, been unemployed for ages, and just burned down their house! Hunter says Stack's widow should have known her husband was out for blood, so she's reponsible for not stopping him.

Does Hunter think Sheryl Stack, his widow, should have run out onto the tarmac and laid down in front of her husband’s plane as he was trying to take off? Should she have locked him in a closet and fed him through the keyhole? The man set fire to his own home; don’t you think his wife would have tried to stop him if she could?

And even if she only vaguely knew her husband wanted to carry out a vendetta against the IRS, do you think Mrs. Stack would have known how he was going to do it? A plane, are you kidding me? The IRS isn’t even headquartered in Austin. Can’t “pound of flesh” mean all sorts of things, meshed as it was in that rambling Internet message?

What would the cops have said if she called them up with a tip about her husband's smoldering anger? He hadn't yet done anything criminal. Ahh, that old "innocent until guilty" thing can be such a pain in the neck.

I know grief can make people do weird things. But something tells me it took a personal injury lawyer to cook this one up.

Trying to Milk the Cash Cows

It didn’t take much digging on the Internet for me to find a similar case that the Lozada family’s lawyer brought to trial. Back in 2007, Schiller represented an alarm technician who sued his employer after he fell while descending a ladder. Apparently, the technician was trying to carry too much in his trip down the ladder, one of his hands missed a rung, and he tumbled 10 feet, breaking both wrists.

Fortunately, the jury saw right through the case, and figured that with 13 years as an alarm technician, the plaintiff should have known how to descend a ladder. No damages were awarded, and a motion for a new trial (!) was denied.

Would you ever think of suing your employer if you injured yourself performing a basic function of your job for which best practices are widely known and proper equipment is available? If you were new to riding a motorcycle, why would you intentionally approach a sharp curve at 70 mph? Do you need extra training to know that isn’t smart? And if your spouse was killed by a genius-level software engineer, would you blame the wife who couldn’t read his mind?

Come on, people – stop it already. Aren’t you taking our legal system for a joy ride? Is tragedy now the secret word for “cash cow”?

If it is, I think the dairy cows in my late great-uncle Arthur's barnyard in Maine smelled better.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Stylin', the Rich, and their Wardrobes

Day 8 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

You’ve heard the complaints – and maybe made them yourself – about people who get all dressed up for church. Men in tailored suits, and women whose jewelry all but screams royalty. What show-offs these people are. Does their fancy wardrobe make them better Christians? They probably scare visitors away by being so dressed up. What about people who can’t afford similar duds?

It’s become part of our church culture, hasn’t it? We shouldn’t dress up for church anymore because dressing up leads to pride, and can also be offensive to visitors and poor people. Instead, at a lot of churches, people make a concerted effort to embrace the opposite end of the spectrum – a grungy mixture of ratty-looking jeans, poorly-tailored shirts and sweaters, five-o’clock-shadow that’s days old, and even knit hats. Inside. Church.

Casualwear is part of being relevant, right?

Replacing One Snob Standard With Another

On his blog, stuffchristianslike.net, Jon Acuff discusses a number of Christian-culture topics in a lighthearted manner that oftentimes masks legitimate critiques. Acuff’s blog entry #269 is entitled “Understanding How Metrosexual Your Worship Leader Is”, and it’s an amazingly accurate “handy guide” for exploring the fashion sub-culture in many “seeker” and contemporary churches.

For example, does your worship leader wear black-rimmed glasses – without a prescription? Does he wear designer jeans onstage, with a tie as a belt? Did he name his kid after a color or number? And does his kid dress cooler than you do?

It’s a hilarious list of characteristics that you can use to score your worship leader. Fortunately, we don’t have a worship leader at my church, and our choir director always wears a simple black robe. Although he does own a silver Volkswagen Passat (one of the criteria).

But do you realize what Acuff is doing? He is describing the new clothing culture at church. It’s not suits, dresses, and jewelry anymore. It’s like my parents thinking that rich people still buy Cadillacs. Cadillacs are for old people these days; rich people are plunking down $100,000 for foreign cars with stick shifts and subwoofers. So when people pull into your church parking lot, Cadillacs mean nothing. Just like suits can mean very little to people concerned about their appearance.

Today, self-centered fashionistas and other clothes-conscious people look for the $100 jeans with the fashionable holes, the graphic t-shirts boasting logos from overpriced designers, the hot greasy-hair look, clunky military shoes, sweatshirts, and stubble that isn't supposed to look like you're lazy. And not just on teenagers – the over-30 crowd wears this stuff, too, trying to make a statement.

And what is the statement? That I’m cool, with it, and relevant. The same statements people used to be trying to make with their suits and jewelry. It’s just that the times have changed, but not the people or the attitudes. We’re still looking for ways to justify our existence through our appearance.

Which is the big, fat fallacy in all of this, isn’t it? It doesn’t really matter that suits make you look important or that grunge jeans make you look hip. It’s what you’re trying to tell other people through what you’re wearing. It’s the image you’re trying to convey – an image that may or may not fit what you’re really like inside. It’s a show. It’s shallow.

It’s Not Appropriate for Church

That’s right. If what you wear to church is supposed to say something about yourself, try the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Nah, on second thought, we need to wear something. And I'm not saying wearing dowdy, frumpy clothing will score you any points with God. Fashion itself isn't the problem here, anyway. It's what we expect fashion to do for us. Nice clothes that fit well and happen to be stylish may make us look good in church, but should that be our aim when we open the closet doors on Sunday mornings?

Think about it: Who is the audience at your church? Hint: it’s not you and everybody else in the pews. The audience is God. He alone is the subject of your worship and the Person to Whom your corporate worship services should be directed.

Now, I know the old cliché about dressing for church as if you were going to meet the Queen of England. And while HRH may be a wonderful woman, she’s judging you based on what she can see, whereas God looks at the heart. He knows what you’ve got in your closet, He knows what you earn and how much money you have to purchase the necessities of life. He knows whether or not you own a suit, whether you need to own a suit, the number of jeans you own, and how much money you threw away – I mean, “spent” – on your favorite designer pair.

Instead of preparing to meet the Queen, perhaps a better rule of thumb would be to dress for church the same way you’d dress going to Grandmother’s house. If you’re going over to help her clean up her yard or just watch TV, you’d wear jeans, right? If you’re going over to celebrate a milestone or share a meal, you’d probably wear something a little more dignified and respectable, because you want to acknowledge the significance represented by the event.

Your grandmother isn’t omniscient, but she has a pretty good idea of the financial resources available to you. She knows your personality and probably a good deal more of your secrets than you realize. She remembers when you were born and she loves you very much. And hopefully, you want to respect your grandmother and the efforts she’s made on your behalf over all these years.

If grunge jeans and greasy hair are the best way to acknowledge the respect and affection you hold for your grandmother, then she probably won’t be offended if you show up to dinner that way. By the same token, however, if you come to dinner wearing a suit, but trying to impress her and maybe wheedle a favor out of her, don’t you think she’ll catch on pretty quick and be suspicious of your dapper clothing?

Search for Significance

Shouldn’t you dress according to the purpose and significance of the occasion, not the group that will be there? Depending on the setting, other people around you will have a range of expectations for the style of dress that is considered conventional – that’s part of the way society functions. And, to the degree that society changes and expectations evolve, what people wear to Grandmother’s house, to work, and to church will change. After all, nobody attends church in a top hat and tails anymore. Well, not in Dallas, anyway.

We should come to corporate worship with the primary intention of meeting with God. And believers in different cultures around the globe will dress differently when they gather for corporate worship. Native African tribes probably don’t worship in designer jeans or high heels. Eskimos and Papua New Guineans will dress quite differently based on their geography. But what is the constant wardrobe factor between cultures? If any particular fashion is promoted in conjunction with any attitude that deflects attention away from God, the people involved in perpetuating that attitude contribute to the ineffectiveness of the worship service.

Just as in old traditional churches, where suits and dresses can be used by people to establish a social hierarchy within the congregation, contemporary churches can flaunt our society’s increasingly visual responsiveness by manipulating trends like metrosexuality. Contemporary churches spend a lot of time and energy trying to create a vibe of cool Christianity, creating the same type of social stratification within the congregation. Both are wrong, aren’t they?

Dress to Suit the Occasion

Some people will wear suits and dresses because that’s how they’ve been taught to show respect and decorum, but they shouldn’t “dress up” just to impress other people. Some people will wear jeans because it’s the best they can afford, not because they’re trendy and expensive, or because they haven’t taken their dress pants to the cleaners.

The point is this: whatever you wear to church, don’t wear it because you either think other people expect you to wear it, because you’ll appeal to the popular crowd, or because you’re trying to make some sort of statement.

Don’t be a slave to superficial cultural trends. They’re not all that.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I’ll Tell You No Lies

Day 7 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Do I look fat?

Don’t answer that – it’s a rhetorical question for demonstration purposes only.

“Oh, no, you don’t look fat” you’re supposed to reply… “Your clothes have just shrunk in the wash”…

Which brings us to the real question – is it OK to lie in superficial and inconsequential ways, such as mild flattery? Or is lying always wrong?

Yesterday, I mentioned falsifying your personal information when filling out online forms. The idea is to try and protect your identity. For example, I routinely put an incorrect date on non-official forms asking for my birthday, but doing so troubles me a little bit. You see, Wes Kelly, a NASA engineer and a friend of mine, enjoys positing conundrums like this: is falsifying information to protect yourself a sin? Aren’t you still lying?

Maybe in your circle of friends, ethics topics rarely come up in normal conversation, but among my friends, questions like this aren’t uncommon.

“Ah,” you say… “that explains a lot”.

Isn’t a White Lie OK?

Telling falsehoods is wrong, right? A falsehood is intentionally denying your audience the ability to evaluate a situation based on the same information you have. However, if you reply to a question about a subject for which you don’t have complete expertise, and you’re wrong, you wouldn’t be lying; you’d just be wrong. Wrong or incomplete answers aren’t lies unless you intentionally manipulate your answer for the benefit of something other than the truth as you know it to be.

Most of the time, we manage to avoid the blatant, flat-out lies that politicians are known for, but the issue of white lies – or the oxymoron, “half-truths” – is usually ignored in favor of politeness or downright apathy, isn’t it? But should it be?

If the wife of your best friend is trying to throw a surprise birthday party for him, what do you do if he catches on? If he asks you, “Hey, is my wife throwing me a surprise birthday party”? do you say “I have no idea” or “I don’t think so”? Or, do you blow the wife’s hard work and planning and spill the beans?

This is the type of question my friend Wes is asking. Is it a lie to deny that a party is in the works? If you lie, you spare your friend’s wife the agony of doing all the planning for nothing. If you tell the truth, you get the wife mad at you, plus everybody else who’s been lying all this time to keep things secret. It’s not telling a falsehood when you’re trying to spare an innocent party their feelings, right?

I’m not married, but I hear a lot of men get asked by their wife for responses to the way they look. Is this dress flattering? Do you like my new hairstyle? And the queen of all questions: do I look fat?

Now, while some women may actually want the literal truth, my male friends say that’s more myth than reality. So, suppose you don’t want to offend her. Suppose the easiest thing would be to just reply in the manner that she is expecting. That’s actually the polite thing to do, right?

Granted, politeness has become an under-rated virtue in our society. But these types of leading questions aren’t asking for a polite response. They are designed to solicit a form of flattery that is beguiling and self-centered.

Whether it’s women preening over their appearance or men seeking similar types of affirmation, isn’t it improper to set up your audience with a question that puts them on the spot? That’s more than impolite, and it’s more than being self-centered. You’re relying on the protocols of etiquette, practically inviting them to lie.

Half of the Truth Equals a Negative

How about if you respond to a question with only half of the answer? Can a person withhold part of the answer, even though they have possession of it, and still avoid telling a lie? What if the part of the answer that you withhold can add a shade of meaning or difference to the overall answer?

Well, if you give an answer that contains only part of the whole truth, and the part you’re leaving out changes the meaning of your answer, you’re denying your audience the ability to evaluate a situation, aren’t you? So that’s a sin, right?

Let’s say a corporation wants to sell one of their divisions. If they just provided one year’s worth of profit statements, but didn’t provide statements for all the years they lost money in that division, that would be a form of lying, correct?

But let’s bring it a little closer to home. Suppose you’re trying to sell your house, and you know of five problems that need to be fixed. A prospective buyer asks you point-blank what is wrong with the house, and you truthfully tell them about four of the five problems – didn’t you just lie? Yes, you did. You have conveyed the impression that there are only four problems, when in reality, there are five.

White Lies Aren’t Necessary

Let’s revisit the scenario where your friend’s wife is planning the surprise birthday party. To the extent that surprise parties can be enjoyable, there’s nothing wrong with keeping the party’s existence away from the honoree. However, if you have to engage in any deceit in order to pull off the party, since when do the ends justify the means? Is the fun of watching the look on your loved one’s face when you yell “surprise!” worth the deception?

But hey – the husband shouldn’t be such a boor about it; he obviously knows when his birthday is. And if his wife loves surprise parties, it shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that she’d want to throw a surprise party for her husband. So he shouldn’t set her up for needing to lie. Maybe she’s planning something, maybe she isn’t. Don’t ask questions, and don’t make other people lie on her behalf! Don’t be so concerned about looking goofy when everybody jumps out from the corners when you least expect it. If she loves you and respects you, she’ll plan something that you’ll enjoy. And if you absolutely despise surprise parties, a loving wife won’t be planning one for you anyway.

A friend related the scenario about the time a terminally-ill relative, floating in and out of lucidity, asked him if she was about to die. Already grieving because he knew her time was short, he tried to calm her with a comforting “no”. Was that a lie?

We’re taught, aren’t we, that gentle answers calm the soul, even if they’re another one of those “white” lies. Wouldn’t it be so easy to soothe an anxious relative with hollow words of encouragement? Are there times when we can abdicate the responsibility to speak the truth in love and just tell people what they want to hear? Can’t we evaluate the merits of telling the truth or a lie based on the circumstances of the case?

Maybe instead of a lie, we can rephrase our answer with truth. For example, in the deathbed scenario, a better response might have been to recite a favorite Bible passage or remind the loved one of God’s sovereignty. Obviously, I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t asked that question. But I’d like to think that is how I’d have responded if I had been.

Why This Is Important

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? A lot of times, we don’t plan out the lies we’re going to tell. We don’t plot fiendish pursuits of overt deception and cruel hoaxes. Unless you’re a particularly selfish and corrupt person, lies don’t usually stalk our every ambition and motive. In reality, lies sneak up on most of us, even when we’re trying to be helpful, encouraging, and loving.

But lies are still lies, aren’t they? Black or white. We forget the power of words, and that what we speak often belies the temperament of the soul. And truly, what is any lie except an exercise in self-centeredness. To the extent that lies can lay the groundwork for skepticism and cynicism, seeds of discord have a more fertile soil from which to spring, either now or later.

Community happens best when participants can rely on an atmosphere of transparency and honesty. Even if you’re a party animal and your birthday is rolling around. But even when you’re online, and you put down the wrong birth date to try and protect your identity? Shouldn’t you trust God to honor your truthfulness, even on a form only a computer will evaluate?

If I was perfect, I could say no, put down all of the information correctly and if your ID gets hacked, have faith that God will help work it all out. I also think we have some level of personal responsibility for how we protect ourselves.

You know those supermarket shopper-reward cards? You fill out your information and get a card that entitles you to discounts. I have friends that refuse to participate in those, because they don’t want to give out their personal information to obtain one. They would rather give up the money they would save and maintain their integrity than go ahead and pocket the savings even though they lied on the application to get a card...

I think I’ve just answered my own question.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More Ammo in China Cyberwar

Day 6 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

First, A Lenten Confession:

A seasoned newspaperman once told me there are a million idiots out there who would just love the opportunity to tell the world what’s wrong with it.

Not only was he right, but how many times have you read an editorial or a blog and thought, “what a self-righteous person that writer is”! As I re-read some of the essays I’ve written for this blog, I think the same thing. Unfortunately, the writer I’m criticizing is yours truly!

So before I launch into today’s essay, allow me to clarify a fairly significant point. I am imperfect. Which means I sometimes ignore personal blind spots. I’m rarely careful enough to point out somebody else’s flaws without first addressing those flaws in myself. In the Bible, that mistake is called trying to remove a speck of sawdust from another person’s eye without first removing the log from your own eye.

By now, you’ve no doubt realized that I hold some fairly controversial opinions on a variety of topics, and I write about them with a fair degree of conviction and impunity. Sometimes it seems like I’m pontificating from a position of sanctimonious, elitist superiority. However, in most instances, the reader should not conclude that I have personally overcome the problems or flaws I find in others.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m on the freeway, driving along just over the speed limit in the middle lane, when a pack of vehicles representing everyday life appears in my rear-view mirror, then speeds past on both sides, charging on ahead, leaving me in their dust.

But hey, I’m breaking the law, too, since I’m going over the speed limit… just because I’m not going as fast as the other cars, I’m not Mr. Innocent.

The cop could still pull any of us over and give us a ticket. Believe me – I’ve learned that the hard way – particularly in Dallas County!

And Now...
On to China!

A lot of my conservative friends refuse to read the New York Times because of its blatantly liberal leanings. Although I subscribe to a digital version of the Times, I usually read the New York Metro section for city news, and sometimes the International section, since the American press hardly acknowledges any part of the planet that average citizens can’t find on a map.

However, as Republican politicians know, reading the Times – even with its liberal baggage – can be akin to keeping ones’ friends close and your enemies even closer. It’s also an invaluable resource for obscure yet potentially explosive stories that most people might consider “boutique news” – news that is fairly specific to an industry or social group.

For example, in yesterday’s Times, an article about suspected hackers in China may have made the eyes of many readers glaze over with disinterest. According to the article, two universities in China have become focal points in an international investigation into incidents of hacking and cyberattacks. One of these universities, Shanghai Jiaotong University, has considerable ties with the University of Michigan, Microsoft, Cysco Systems, and Intel. The model Jiaotong University has created with American institutions serves as the archetype for other such ventures between China and the United States. The other school is the lesser-known Lanxiang Vocational School in Shandong Province.

Experts have traced Internet security breaches at dozens of organizations last year to these two schools. Victims purportedly include corporations as well as human rights activists.

Now, before anybody jumps to wild conclusions, it should be said that the very nature of cyberattacks makes the determination of perpetrators extremely difficult. Hackers can disguise their identities to the point where they can mask their point of origin and hijack other computers to do their dirty work. The incidents that have prompted a scrutiny of Jiaotong and Lanxiang could very well have been red-herring projects by hackers who were intending to send officials on a wild goose chase in finding the perpetrators. Of course, experts know this is a strong possibility, so they’re proceeding with caution and diplomacy until more facts can be determined.

Marching in Step?

Speculation has mounted against these two schools not only because of their academic prestige and influence, but also their associations with China’s People’s Liberation Army. Perhaps unwittingly, they have been helping to dig their way into this situation by hosting tutorial lectures on hacking, including one at Jiaotong University by a known Chinese hacker affiliated with China’s military. They also have participated with the Chinese government on Internet privacy projects, endeavors that do not sit well with Internet censorship opponents around the world. To top it off, at least two of Jiaotong’s leaders have been consultants to China’s military.

For their part, the two schools resent the charges and claim innocence of any wrongdoing, while the Chinese government won’t commit to any investigation of the charges implicating the two schools. So far, companies and organizations that have suffered dozens of cyberattacks in the past year have refused to comment on the issue, either out of legitimate legal protocol or private fears of continued Internet security risks and industrial espionage.

In the meantime, IBM’s internationally-prestigious Battle of the Brains computer competition was won by Jiaotong students just two weeks ago, besting efforts by elite engineering programs in universities across the world.

Hints for Online Safety

What does any of this mean to you and me? Well, maybe nothing, if experts can prove the suspicious cyberattacks came from someplace else. It’s probably still too early to sound alarm bells and raise the specter of China’s visceral grip on Internet technology. If anything, the clamor from international experts about last year’s attacks may force hackers into new levels of secrecy and subterfuge, making investigations even more complex.

What we can learn, however, is that we simply cannot take Internet security for granted. Particularly as our reliance on it continues to expand, we should at least take basic precautions for protecting the identities of our family members and ourselves.

For example, here are some easy things you can do today:
  1. Change passwords to your online accounts; consider incorporating symbols like “@” for “a”; “3” for “e”; “5” for “s”, and so on. That way, you don't need really long passwords that are harder to remember.
  2. If you’re on FaceBook, remove any reference to your age and/or birthdate. Like any social networking site, FaceBook is NOT family-friend or security-friendly.
  3. Also on FaceBook, remove all references to your child(ren) and their age(s) and/or birthdate(s); however, if you’re naming your kids in a photo, use just their first name.
  4. For any portrait photo of yourself online, try to avoid having your full name listed (unless you’re in a group of people, and all of their names are going to be listed as well). If you’re going to be listed on a company website’s contact page, make sure your webmaster encrypts your photo, caption, and e-mail address.
  5. Be suspicious of anything "free" online. Those gorgeous screensavers and cute emoticons? They could be hosting Trojan horses that could infiltrate your hard drive.
  6. Don't click on any online ad unless you're sure you want to visit their site. If you think you need to click on the ad to find out more about what they're offering, Google the company instead.
  7. Refrain from filling out online forms, but if you must, only do it on sites you know you can trust. If it’s an unofficial survey, consider using a fake name and e-mail address. I don’t believe supplying such “false” information is lying; there is room for being prudent with your personal information. If providing "false" information is troubling for you, consider opening a ghost e-mail account that you won't use for more personal communication.
  8. NEVER fill out a raffle form and provide your e-mail address or street address. Even if the "prize" is a new car, how do you think the organization sponsoring the raffle is going to pay for it? They're probably going to sell your contact information.
  9. Absolutely DO NOT reply to or forward chain e-mails. Not only are they annoying to almost everybody, you could be unwittingly assisting in the spread of malicious spyware and viruses.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Church Without A Congregation

Day 3 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Show and Tell


You’ve got three guesses to name the region of North America where this stately church can be found, and the first two don’t count!

Yes, this iconic New England church is located along the coast of Maine, in the village of Sedgwick. The congregation of First Baptist Church was formed in 1804, and this structure constructed in 1837. But while the building remains, the 209-year-old congregation does not.

That’s right. After 209 years, the last two members of the congregation, the pastor and his wife, decided to fold the church after a summer which saw themselves as the only people attending services. Several times, they had offered to step aside if other members thought another preacher could stoke the fires, but even after membership dipped below 20, then 10, the congregation knew the problem wasn't with the pastor.

Indeed, those members who were unhappy had already left years earlier to form a more fundamentalist church. Other local villagers in the town of 500 politely rejected the culture of church. While nobody’s surprised the end has come to the 209-year-old congregation, a more disturbing realization is that only a handful of people are even disappointed.

The Challenges of Rural New England

Coastal Maine stretches from the highly-trafficked southeastern corner of the state to its sparsely populated northeastern tip. In between lies Sedgwick, which even in its heyday decades ago wasn’t much more than a local fishing and lumber community. A couple of stately sea captain houses grace the town’s short Main Street, and the old country store now caters to the refined and pricey tastes of wealthy summer people. Some middle-income families remain, but have to commute miles to schools, grocery stores, and whatever work they can find that pays a living wage.

Indeed, the only economy left in town is what revolves around summer people – the properties they buy and sell, and all of their renovation, maintenance, and construction projects. Not enough day-trippers or tourists come through town because it’s too far from Boston and too close to famous Bar Harbor. Even popular Deer Isle, with its world-famous Haystack art school and picturesque Stonington Harbor, makes Sedgwick a wallflower along the rocky shore.

Not that First Baptist Church Sedgwick could survive on tourists anyway. Without the interest of local residents, and as long-time members simply passed away, the church marched headlong into what some people would call oblivion. Remaining true to his calling, the Rev. George Springer refused to compromise the Gospel message to put people in the pews, even after years of meeting with ambivalence from townspeople when it came to spiritual matters.

Who Cares?

Nobody in town was unaware of the church or its ministry – indeed, the Springers were well-known for their care of elderly residents in Sedgwick and Deer Isle. And virtually all of Sedgwick’s life-long residents had, at some point during their childhood, been to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School there.

Plus, you can't miss it: the church building proudly commands the highest point in town – with a gold-leaf steeple that used to glisten in Maine’s all-to-infrequent sun. When the 4-level steeple began to collapse into the sanctuary, wealthy summer residents and visitors who valued the look of the church took up a collection to repair it. Indeed, having such an iconic structure in an otherwise undistinguishable village was good for real estate values. So it was that year the steeple’s supports failed, the church received over $250,000 from people who’d never even been inside – including a vacationing Walter Cronkite – so it could be fixed and the structural integrity of the church restored. Not for worshipping in, mind you – but for the quintessential aesthetic that the building provided the community.

And speaking of aesthetics, consider the windows. In 1904, to commemorate the congregation’s centennial, six towering stained-glass windows in the sanctuary and three portal windows in the vestibule were commissioned from the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. An unsolicited appraisal by an independent stained glass expert in the mid-1990’s placed the value of the collection at between $4 to $6 million – and even more, if as rumored, one of the vestibule windows was by Tiffany himself.

Gone, But Not Entirely

Not that its closing means First Baptist Church has completely died. During its 209 years, Sedgwick's First Baptist spawned several other congregations in nearby hamlets, as well as smaller, seasonal chapels, although today they’re mostly private homes or used for community events. Two nearby churches remain in North Sedgwick and nearby Brooklin, and they, along with the dispersed progeny from First Baptist's 209 years of ministry, will be its legacy.

As far as the building itself is concerned, the Springers turned over the sanctuary, a smaller chapel building, and a traditional Colonial-style parsonage over to the town's preservation trust a few months ago. The church was independent, not belonging to any denomination, and without any debts or lienholders. Currently, it is unknown if the new caretakers of the property even have the funds to maintain the level of upkeep the Springers struggled to perform. The windows from Tiffany’s studios have been in need of professional – and prohibitively expensive – attention for years. How long they – and the church they adorn – will remain standing in coastal Maine's unforgiving climate is anybody’s guess.

First Baptist Church of Sedgwick is where my mother’s parents came to Christ. Indeed, a number of my mother’s relatives were faithful members of the church for decades. But as my mother, and others of her generation, moved away, they were never replaced. This has been due partly because of economic transition dynamics familiar to many New England villages, but mostly because of an increasing embrace by New England residents of the post-religion ethos sweeping across the Atlantic from Europe.

Coming Soon?

Indeed, what’s happened in Sedgwick has become de rigueur for churches across the oldest parts of our nation, which have been dwindling to nothing and either torn down or converted into homes, restaurants, and even nightclubs.

But just as the United States couldn’t be contained in the original 13 colonies, it has been surmised that neither will the march of post-religion society. What has been happening for years in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts is sweeping through places like New York City and the coastal Southern states.

Heading west, just like the fabled pioneers. And just like the last migration, the natives may not survive this time either.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

You Gotta Have Philios

Day 2 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Friends. Friendships. Friendly. Isn’t it funny how the more you say or type a word, the odder it seems?

This past Monday, Crosswalk.com posted the results of a survey that found 17% of respondents consider churches to be the friendliest place in town. “Friendliest place in town”.

Really? Isn’t that a rather odd assessment? Should churches be the friendliest place in town?

How you answer that depends largely on the function you think church should have. Should it be a local hang-out where you and your kids can fraternize comfortably in your respective peer groups? Should it be a religious country club, where you can celebrate social events and milestones among other people of similar socioeconomic status? Should it be a religious Rotary Club, where you get together for public service projects and score faith points?

Popularity Has Its Privileges

Group Publishing, based in Colorado, commissioned the study, “The Friendliest Place in Town”, as part of its “State of the Church 2010” series. They solicited responses from churched and unchurched participants across the country. In addition to asking where the friendliest place in town was, they also asked who the friendliest people in town were, where the best place was to make new friends, and what makes a place friendly.

Yes, researchers found that church is considered to be the second-friendliest place in town, which sounds good, but that pales in prestige when you consider there were 15 other options, and one of those was a car repair shop. Although 17% put church at number two in terms of friendliness, that means 83% of respondents thought other places were friendlier.

But, what is the point of all this research? Obviously, Group Publishing assumes that friendliness is a desirable quality to have in a church, and even I can’t argue against that. Basic etiquette dictates that we gladly welcome those who would desire to fellowship with us.

However, in the grand scheme of the purposes and functions of communities of faith, does friendliness rank as an indispensable asset worthy of national research? Should friendliness be a hallmark of evangelical churches? And if so, what would that friendliness look like?

Church as a Social Destination

In a voyeuristic sort of way, isn’t it interesting to see what the “outside” world thinks of churches? How do their assumptions about our faith communities compare with our own assumptions about how we’re seen?

As a person who’s attended church all his life, I’ve never really seen church as a social destination, but that appears to be one of the underlying assumptions of Group Publishing’s survey. I’m aware that many churches today are more religious in theory than in practice – they maintain a superficial link to religion but serve mostly as glorified social clubs. A friend of mine in the deep South laments how rural churches there are actually dismissing their pastor and reverting to the itinerant preacher model. What services they hold have become tired sing-songs with a happy devotional, and their scaled-back offerings pay for maintaining quaint facilities and hosting church fellowships. Apparently, they figure anybody can preach, but the cost of paper napkins and plastic forks at Wal-Mart just keeps going through the roof.

Of course, large, suburban mega-churches can easily fall into the same social trap, but on a grander scale that obscures the same social club mentality that’s more easily seen in smaller churches.

The Friendship Factor

The problem is, aside from a legitimate concern for reduced theological integrity, how friendly are many of these types of churches? Small churches with memberships that have been stagnant for years can tend to ossify and become brittle when newcomers show up. Sure, the regular-attenders may grin and shake hands, but do they really want somebody coming in and upsetting the social applecart? In large churches, enormous efforts at defying the sheer volume of people and programs try to mask the inhospitableness inherent in anything oversized. Volunteers are recruited as greeters and parking lot attendants, but are their smiles and handshakes any less superficial than at our previously-described “ossified” churches?

And what is our desire for “friendliness” anyway, except an expectation at being personally satisfied that we are affirmed as a desirable participant in something? What is this value for which we pine? Isn’t it just another extension of self-gratification? Something to tell us we’re worth something, that we matter, that we belong.

How will I be received when I enter this church? Will somebody shake my hand at the door? Will people welcome me and talk to me? Will the pastor be jovial and make me comfortable?

It’s really become all about you and me, hasn’t it? One church motto here in north Texas is “we’re all about people”. Hmm… it’s all about us.

Except it’s not. Not all of it. Participating in corporate worship of our holy God involves our being present in mind, body, and spirit. To the extent we act as the participants, we should extend the love of Christ to all those with whom we are sharing the opportunity to worship. But God remains the object of our worship. He is the entity towards which our corporate worship is directed and for Whom it should be designed. With that vertical perspective in place, we can see that the lateral interaction between people participating in the service becomes less important than many churchgoers like to assume.

"Forsake Not the Assembling of Yourselves Together”

Believers are exhorted to gather corporately for worship, to participate in the sacraments, to perpetuate a community of peace and philios amongst each other, to look out for each other’s needs, and to practice discipleship ("philios" is Greek for the type of love friends share). To the extent that people of faith should live in harmony with our neighbors as much as possible, churches should be a welcoming and hospitable place. To the degree that we can extrapolate a palpable sense of friendliness out of that hospitality, so we should act.

I’ve seen studies showing how insulted some people get if they aren’t greeted at the door when they visit a new church. Now, I would never advocate that a church should abdicate basic social etiquette and refuse to greet people, but if first impressions are so strongly based on whether or not you’re greeted at the door, may I suggest you re-think why you’re going to church in the first place.

Let’s get beyond the superficial fluff of “friendliness” and cut to the chase:

To the extent friendliness is a component of community, then by all means, churches should extend their hand of fellowship to those who desire to receive it. But we can’t start with the visitors or infrequent attenders. We need to start with ourselves, the people who are already sharing in the fellowship of community.

Are we acting out our faith in our interpersonal relationships within our congregation? Do we voluntarily initiate gatherings for coffee or dinner - not just with our close friends, but with people we may not know as well or maybe not even particularly like? And have we worked on our attitudes towards those people we don't particularly like? Do we have the liberty to discretely admonish the teenaged daughter of a fellow churchmember who’s just charged into the church parking lot at top speed in her new car? Do we pour over the daily or weekly e-mail of prayer requests and spend time praying for them? Do we tithe and give of our time, talents, and treasures to the point that our church is overflowing in generosity? Is our congregation so consumed by God-focused worship that unchurched people around us can’t help but wonder what we’ve got that they don’t?

Sure: greet the visitors. Smile, thank, and defer with winsomeness to those who are new to your congregation.

But most of it won’t mean much if, when they look across the sanctuary or fellowship hall or parking lot, visitors see insular people or cliques that act as loose beads being poured into a bowl. No genuine interaction, no affection for one another, no friendliness among people who supposedly should already know each other.

If we, in our faith communities, are focusing on the One without Whom the church would not exist, how compelling should our fellowship be that the outside world would look upon us and say, “I want – no, I NEED – to be a part of that”!


Proof Texts:
- John 13 & 15
- Romans 12
- Galatians 5
- 1 John 4

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

Day 1 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Walking past the venerable St. Stephens Church on my way to the Subway, I noticed the usual clutch of elderly parishioners gingerly descended the stairs, clinging to the railing, but with dusty patches on their foreheads.

Every morning, passing the circa-1854 edifice on my way to work, seeing almost the same little group of people leaving morning Mass at the same time, I’d never noticed the smudges before.

Down at the 28th Street Subway station platform, other people waited for the train, the same smudges on their foreheads; on the train, more smudges. Down in the Financial District, still more smudges. I got to work, and co-workers were arriving with smudges, too.

New York City, of course, is a city of Catholics. Jews, yes, and Greek Orthodox, with a considerable Episcopalian presence; a few Baptists, and Korean Presbyterians thrown in for good measure, with a quiet Buddhist community in the city’s multiple Chinatowns. These days, Islam is the new kid on the block, but Catholicism has been Gotham’s most widely-practiced religion for almost two centuries, first brought over by Europeans and sustained today by Hispanics, Philippinos, and a few still-vibrant Italian and Irish neighborhoods tucked among the boroughs.

But as a recent transplant from Baptist Texas, the smudges on foreheads baffled me. It wasn’t until a couple of people started complaining about the long line at the little chapel down by the Staten Island Ferry that I learned the reason: Ash Wednesday!

Isn't Mardi Gras Redundant?

Ash Wednesday, today, marks the beginning of Lent, which runs through Saturday, April 3. Most people know that Lent is what follows Mardi Gras down in New Orleans, and most of us also know the kind of hedonism and carnality that just wrapped up down there. I won’t get into that mess except to wonder – like I do during every Mardi Gras – what makes the days leading up to Lent such an acceptable time for people to participate in and celebrate debauchery and fornication that would be considered inappropriate during other parts of the year. I know WHY people do it – sin usually is pretty fun at the time – I just don’t understand how they can justify it, especially those that claim there’s a religious significance to it. But like I said, that’s as far as I’m going on that tangent today.

Yes, the decadence of Mardi Gras serves to mark the contrast from celebration to somberness, as during Lent, people give up something to help them observe the time leading up to the crucifixion of Christ. You don’t have to be Catholic to give up something for Lent. In fact, it can be a good exercise in restraint and piety, as long as we don’t objectify it and expect it to have curative or salvific powers. Some people start off in the shallow end, cutting chocolate from their diet, while others try to wean themselves from TV, the news, or some other habit. Very few of us actually try to tackle an overpowering sin issue or some other vice with which we struggle daily. I know I don’t. I’ve never even tried to give up chocolate.

Die to Self

Back in the mists of time, my good friend Clyde Eure led a single adults Sunday School class at our “seeker” church while he attended seminary. Our class had a good-sized group of core participants, plus we normally hosted a number of visitors on any given Sunday. Being in a “seeker” church, and a singles class, we were expected to walk a tricky line between social fluff and solid Bible teaching. In practice, we did the Bible teaching much better than the social fluff (although some of Andrea's parties were legendary).

One Sunday, Clyde started the class with an uncharacteristically long, rambling soliloquy about sacrifice and suffering. Clyde has a burden for teaching the Gospel with simplicity and starkness – no adornments of gratuitous humor, anecdotes, and illustrations; not quite on par with the "seeker" teacher model, but that day was stark, even for Clyde.

He drew an outline on the whiteboard, with arrows, underlines, and circles, taking up almost all of the space. After what seemed like ages, although he kept us all spellbound with his conviction and sincerity, Clyde concluded with a dramatic challenge he’d already spent the time diagramming: die to self. In everything we do, give ourselves over to the leading and purposes of Christ. For His glory, not ours. Period.

Then he (Jesus) said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it…” Luke 9:23-24

We all sat there in silence. The room, full of people, both regulars and visitors, quiet and still.

Finally, doing what I do so well, I piped up inappropriately, “well, thank you for coming today, visitors. I hope we'll see you again”! And the whole class chuckled awkwardly in thinly-veiled relief.

Ever since then, at our infrequent “reunions”, former class members sometimes dredge up that “die to self’ story. We know what Clyde was teaching, and we know how far we continue to fall from that metaphoric standard. Maybe we think there's some sort of delay clause, or maybe since everyone we know is balking, it makes our own inaction comfortable. And what if we actually put to death our own desires and dreams for what Christ may be wanting us to do and be? Do we really want what Christ wants? Maybe we know what we’re supposed to do, but still we hesitate, almost like kids on the banks of a river someplace, daring somebody to be the first to jump in and tell us if the water’s fine or not.

Jump In!

Maybe this season of Lent, some of you could join me in jumping into the river, whether we think the water is fine or not. I don’t know that I’ll necessarily commit to giving up a habit or comfort food, because dying to self means giving up something more than a pleasure I plan on resuming after Easter.

Smudges on foreheads represent the Genesis 1:13 reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from the ashes of palm fronds burned after the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. Ashes from the burned palms are crushed into soot, signifying death and repentance. Thus, Ash Wednesday provides a liturgical symbolism of dying to self.

But while the message behind Ash Wednesday carries somber significance, denying ourselves and taking up our cross – the wordy version of “die to self” – isn’t just a one-Wednesday-a-year process, is it? It’s not even a Lenten process, during which we prepare ourselves to observe Christ’s death but also His glorious resurrection.

Indeed, Christ Himself acknowledges that death to self represents a daily process of confession, commitment, and expectancy. Paul said he died daily. Some people may consider this a dour interpretation of the sanctification process, because our culture exalts self-gratification. We in faith communities still try to pack as much fun as we think we can into our lives, but this pesky “death to self” won’t be denied.

If and when you see people today with the sign of the cross smudged in ash across their foreheads, or even if you participate in this observance yourself, let’s commit to making this more than a one-day exercise.

Dying to self is a life-long process. But isn’t today as good a day as any to start?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Outside the Box Thinking

Have you seen them yet? Those incredible easy-open stay-fresh seals on the new packaging for Oreo cookies… aren’t they cool? I think they’re an amazing little feat of engineering.

This handy invention started with baby products, as manufacturers used resealable plastics for packaging sanitary wipes. They kept the moisture in and the dirt out. But since I’m neither a parent nor obsessively sanitary, I didn’t know this neat idea existed.

In 2006, Kraft launched new packaging for their Chips Ahoy! cookies, and they incorporated the resealable plastics idea but in an innovative food-preservative kind of way. However, since I think Chips Ahoy! cookies taste like brown sugar glued onto cardboard, I didn’t notice it then either. It wasn’t until Nabisco, owned by Kraft, started incorporating it with the updated Oreo packages that this splendid little invention got my attention.

Fresh is Good

What’s so great about it? If you don’t eat Chips Ahoy! or Oreo cookies; well, first, boo-hoo to you for being so health conscious! What is great about this new packaging is the resealable top that Kraft engineers have designed to help keep the cookies fresh. The design is called “snack ‘n seal” and for the first time in what seems like a long time, a food processor has hit upon an idea to actually keep their stuff from spoiling on you.

Although folks in the baby products industry had used the idea before cookie people caught on to it, Kraft’s repurposing of resealable plastics was so innovative that it won an award: DuPont’s 19th annual Gold Award in packaging for 2006.

What makes it unique isn’t just that it’s used to keep the cookies fresh. Any number of ziplock bags could handle that task. Kraft took the packaging a step further and actually incorporated the resealable feature into the only layer of wrapping that holds the cookies in the container. This reduces excess packaging material, and therefore creates less waste when the cookies are all gone.

But Kraft faced another problem besides freshness: stores can’t sell cookies after the package has been opened. These days, one has to take into consideration the idiot who might tamper with the packaging and douse the cookies with e-coli or something. How could they ensure the cookies stay sealed in their packaging until the customer gets them home?

We Can Put A Man on the Moon...

Did you know an entire packing industry has developed out of our consumeristic society? There exists a thriving community of people who live and breathe cardboard boxes and plastic wraps. Colleges offer degrees in package engineering and design. Virtually everything we purchase comes in some sort of container, box, package, wrapping, or other sealed component that has been designed not only to appeal to potential customers, but securely hold and support the product inside. A lot of art, math, and science go into what many of us simply discard in our attempt to reach what is being contained. Do you ever stop and marvel at the thought that went into the box you’re ripping apart as you open your latest gadget, toy, or appliance? It’s all part of the wonderful world of consumerism.

Anyway, back to the Oreos bag that needs to be both tamper-resistant and resealable. When you pull the “easy open” tab, you’ll notice that the cutout for the resealable, sticky part of the top has two flange-type bits that scroll off to the sides. Those two thin strips of plastic break off as you pull the tab open to reveal the cookies inside, and you can’t get to the cookies without ripping off the thin plastic strips. Ingenious, huh? That way, when you look at a bag in the supermarket, you can easily determine if some bozo has already tried to break into it.

When you’re done accessing the cookie compartment of the package, you simply fold the top back over the opening. You don’t even have to make an extra effort to make sure the top settles back down evenly across the opening to securely close – the plastic usually folds down right in place. Now it’s all sealed up until the next time you crave an Oreo fix.

The Bigger Picture

So, what’s the big deal? New packaging for cookies: check. Keeps cookies fresh: check. Keeps bioterrorism crooks out: check. Keeps lots of creative people employed: check. Um, that’s it, right?

Well, not exactly. If you think about it, Kraft could have kept the old wrapping and avoided the year and a half – plus the expense – it took to develop this new packaging system. Remember the old, crunchy plastic package? It ripped so easily that it was impossible to re-seal; a separate zip-lock bag was your only solution for keeping the cookies fresh. Kraft could have stuck with that and few people would have been the wiser.

Instead, what Kraft did is take a risk that a lot of companies decide not to take. What is the one thing that would make you lose business selling stuff like Double Stuff Oreos, other than an insane national strike against junk food? A greater supply of fresh cookies, right? Kraft could have kept selling their products in packaging that increased the chances of cookies going stale, and consumers would have just bought more and more to keep a fresh supply. About the only other way that pattern could be broken would have been for a Kraft competitor to put two and two together after cleaning their baby’s bottom for the tenth time that day.

So, why not go ahead and do something beneficial for the customer that may cost a little money in the short run but actually build brand loyalty in the long run? Get some of those engineering grads down in packaging to tinker with increasing the freshness duration, obtain buy-in from retailers and the FDA, and even pacify the wonks over in finance, legal, and distribution with its simplicity. Remember, there’s no “I” in “team”.

No, it’s not rocket science. It won’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, or save a life. Sure, it’s still plastic, which means every wrapper will be around long after the Internet is obsolete. And it’s only marginally better than sliced bread.

But if you think about a corporation like Kraft actually doing something to benefit their customers without anybody telling them to, what might our country look like if more companies took such a proactive approach to their businesses?

As They Say, "Good... Works"

Now, I don’t own any stock in Kraft or Nabisco. I have no relatives or close friends working for these companies, or for DuPont, who awarded the prize. Nor do I hold any other ulterior motive.

I’m just pointing out how sometimes even those things that seem like part of the natural evolution of business, commerce, marketing – and even the obscure world of packaging – can point to themes larger than themselves. Sure, maybe Kraft was trying to beat a competitor to market with their resealable idea. Maybe some executive at Kraft had a freshly-graduated kid at home from engineering school whose thesis had been on sticky plastic. Maybe some employee was smuggling cookies home in an old resealable babywipe package.

You guys think I’m cynical enough already, so give me a break when I try to credit a corporation with something as altruistic as the resealable cookie bag! I know I can’t eat an Oreo without marveling at that easy-open feature.

After reading this, you probably won’t, either.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Saint George He Isn't

Today is the third Monday in February, which means it’s Presidents Day here in America. More accurately, it's the observance of George Washington's birthday. Originally meant to honor the Father of Our Country, it now is the de-facto umbrella holiday for all of our presidents.

With Presidents Day often comes a wistful nostalgia for the country we imagined America was back in its early, formative years. Kind of like middle-aged people reminiscing about their heyday as teenagers. Back then always seems so much better than it really was.

Teach Your Children Well

In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, historical writer Russell Shorto touches on the penchant for historical nostalgia in his essay “How Christian Were the Founders?” Now, read the title carefully: you’ll notice Shorto isn’t debating whether the Founders practiced the Christian religion, but whether they were faithful Christians. Any evangelical will have to admit that is the question all of us face. For his part, Shorto mostly reviews the personalities and practices of the Texas State Board of Education, which approves content for schoolbooks bought for Texas pupils, but whose decisions are emulated by state school boards across the nation.

The subject of whether or not America’s Founding Fathers possessed strong Christian faith takes on various degrees of legitimacy and urgency depending on who you talk to. Some people vehemently advocate an embrace of what they consider to be a purer, more moral form of civic deportment, like what they believe the Founding Fathers emulated. These advocates, generally with the support of faith-based organizations, champion a return to the guiding principles they contend the Founding Fathers intended as fundamental pillars of our society. Others scoff at what they consider to be a naïve notion that the Founding Fathers were the religiously fervent, Biblically-motivated, and spiritually stalwart leaders portrayed by today’s far right wingers (FRW’s).

And while some Christians may dock me some patriotism points, I'm skeptical that America was ordained by God to be a city on a hill, the beacon for truth and hope as taught in the Bible. Ronald Reagan was fond of the imagery, but as good a politician as he was, that’s as much weight as the analogy carries – political rhapsodizing. I’ve never understood the fervor so many evangelicals have to wrap the Declaration of Independence within the pages of the Bible. They’re two distinct documents – one is divine, and the other is not.

These were Fallible Men, Not Saints

By most accounts, George Washington was what people of any faith would consider to be a good man. His peers wrote of his integrity, even though they were white and owned slaves – one of our country's most despicable legacies. While a lot of evangelicals like to sweep that bit of uncomfortable truth under the rug, it is part of the public record. So before we go submitting Washington for sainthood, let’s be realistic about the Founding Fathers.

Are any of them more worthy than Christ to be followed?

Why do so many evangelicals spend so much time, effort, and money trying to move the United States of America back to 1776? Was that year so pure and undefiled in our country? Was religion really the harmonious entity that provided the solid base for sociopolitical theory? How much of this historical romanticizing – even if it’s 100% true – is valid enough to re-craft today?

Women couldn’t vote then. Slavery was legal. Native Americans were being slaughtered. Ethics of the Revolutionary War were being debated in churches. Sure, the Ten Commandments got a lot more lip service then, but Thomas Jefferson fathered more children with his slaves that he did his wife, and Benjamin Franklin was by many accounts a dirty old man.

I’m proud to be an American, and I’m thankful to God for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy here today. We all owe the Founding Fathers a debt of gratitude for the cornerstone they laid upon which our republic could be built. But Washington, of all people, would probably be aghast at the reverence many FRW’s bestow upon his memory.

What Are We Really Talking About?

Sometimes I wonder if the FRW’s live in ivory palaces and wear rose-colored glasses. Are they so bent on their brand of Americana that they’ve turned it into their own religion?

Before you burn me at the stake, consider:

  • Before Washington, there were the Puritans, who came to American to practice their strict interpretation of Christianity. If today, our country were to pursue a return to the Christian “roots” of our country, why don’t we go all the way back to Plymouth Rock? Or is the faith practiced by the Puritans too, um, stoic for us?
  • In his essay, Shorto describes the poor treatment early 19th Century Connecticut Baptists faced from Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Is that the type of religiosity upon which our country should be based, and of which we should be proud?
  • Many evangelicals today say that Thomas Jefferson taught against the separation of church and state, and they call for a return to government endorsement of Christianity. Why would Jefferson advocate a religion whose tenets he himself chose to defy?
  • We all know that you can’t legislate morality. What makes evangelicals think they can legislate Christianity?
  • America’s evangelical church has had one of the most remarkable opportunities in history for believers to model a Christian worldview. However, what kind of example has the evangelical church provided our country in terms of morality and ethics? What is the divorce rate among your church membership? How sexually active are the teens in your church youth group? How many people in your church live beyond their means, refuse to tithe, dishonor their employees or employer, dabble with pornography, and know more trivia about their favorite sports team or movies than they do scripture references?
  • What kind of example has the evangelical church provided our country in terms of living in harmony and community? How many different churches of the same denomination are in your city today? How liquid is your church’s benevolence fund? How often do widows in your congregation go home to a lonely lunch after Sunday morning services?

(By way of disclaimer, while I've got my index finger pointing at you, I've got 3 other fingers pointing back at me.)

Not That There's Anything Wrong With It

The type of country for which some far-right-wing activists pine might actually be a nice place to live. People would respect each other, they would care for each other, they would hold each other accountable through the tough times and the easy times, they would work hard and help those who can’t. Their children would grow up in safe neighborhoods and respect their parents. I'm assuming people of all races and ethnicities would be treated equally as fellow members of humanity. Companies would insist on integrity as they invent, produce, sell, and service products of benefit to the community. There would be no sexual impurity, no divorce, no teen pregnancies…

Ain’t gonna happen, is it? And why not? Because we’re all fallen people. We’re not going to do anything good apart from God’s working in our lives. And besides, what’s happening in our country today that prevents FRW’s from practicing all of these principles themselves? Nothing… except sin.

Why is our country in its current mess? It can't be because Washington's faith hasn't been transferred to our public consciousness, because nobody's faith is transferable. Is it because the evangelical church hasn't maintained an effective witness to our society, even though we've been here all this time? Hmmm...

Are FRW's engaging – perhaps unwittingly – in a massive smokescreen obscuring the real reason for our country's problems? Turning back the clock isn’t going to fix anything. Falling on our faces in repentance just might.

Today, our country exists as an amalgamation of over 300 million individual lives, the result of choices people have been making since Adam and Eve. Even if July 4, 1776 was the zenith of sociopolitical perfection, it cannot be perpetuated throughout history, nor can it be re-created in a country whose trajectory was unleashed that summer by mere mortals and has been manipulated by sinful mankind ever since.

Don't Wait for Washington

Actually, I don’t have a problem with schoolbook committees portraying our Founding Fathers in a manner that highlights positive accomplishments at the expense of personal weaknesses. And if a void is created by FRW's backing out of the schoolbook content debate, you know far-LEFT-wingers are chomping at the bits to indoctrinate kids with their version of reality. But I wonder the extent to which FRW's secretly fret over changing demographics in our country that are destabilizing the economic dominance of WASPs. While that doesn't bother me, I do see America's increasing pluralism as a reason to support the separation of church and state – as the Christian religion continues to melt from prominence, I don’t want to risk symbols from faiths other than mine taking center stage at City Hall, and I can understand why peoples of other faiths feel the same.

Here is the rub: faith isn’t what you see at City Hall or what politicians tell you it is. Faith is what you believe and how you act every day. It’s the worldview with which you interact between people and reality. It’s what shapes your values and morals. And in the context of today's discussion, all of this becomes the sum total of your contribution to our country.

Yes, evangelicals have good reason to be concerned by the erosion of “family” values and morality in our society. And we should be thankful that we have the opportunity to participate in the democratic processes afforded to us to make our opinions heard. But our country is where it is today because of choices people inside and outside the church have made. Merely championing select morals from our Founding Fathers won’t bring any change unless our society embraces the principles behind the ethics. And before we expect the people outside our faith communities to respond, we ourselves, as people of faith, need to change how we live.

Act your faith. Don’t let school textbook committees do it for you. Don’t expect politicians to set the example. Don’t regret that today isn’t yesteryear – people of faith are placed in their generation for a purpose. What is yours – today, here?

Friday, February 12, 2010

One Can Hear the Falling Snow...and Trees

Show and Tell

Wintertime in north central Texas generally means a generous mix of cool and cold days, with some deceptively balmy ones thrown in for good measure. Some years we’ll get a fierce ice storm, and maybe a flurry or two, but usually we just coast through, biding our time from when the summer heat abates in October until it cooks up again in May.

This winter, however, has seen an extremely rare white Christmas, and then yesterday, the most record-breaking snowfall of all, up to nearly a foot across Dallas, Fort Worth, and our sprawling exurbs.

The photo above was taken yesterday, when the snow was only half as deep as it is today. Even though we have much more snow now, the streetscape isn't nearly as pretty. Yards and streets are littered with branches and limbs that have fallen from the weight of so much snow, and things are considerably messy. It’s a sticky, wet, thick snow, which while ideal for snowmen (our neighbor's is probably nearly 7 feet tall), has decimated our heavily-treed neighborhood.

Late yesterday, two limbs crashed down onto the end of our driveway, and the 50-foot-tall magnolia in the back yard lost several major limbs. In other parts of the country, losing limbs off of trees is an inconvenience. Here in Texas, trees are our major source of protection from the summer sun, and many people value big trees over a lush lawn. So seeing the damage around the yard was hard – but at least, nothing fell onto the house.

This morning, I went out to clear away the driveway, and was making very good progress. Despite losing two limbs, the tree canopy over the driveway remained full. All of sudden, a telltale cracking and popping of limbs about to fall struck me with fear. I was right underneath them! As fast as I could scramble, I charged the opposite way, towards the garage, but with all of the snow and slush on the concrete driveway, I couldn't establish a solid footing. I found myself sprawling arms-first into the slush, as two more large branches exploded onto the driveway where I had just been standing.

Years ago, lightening struck that tree, and it hasn't performed well in storms since. Wind and rain have battered it considerably, but yesterday’s snowfall more than took its toll. I’m not sure if there will be enough remaining to make it worth keeping – with all of the snow still on it, making a determination is rather difficult. At any rate, a neighbor who owns a landscaping business just happened to be driving by, and said he’d clear away everything for $100. Sold!

Snow Daze

From Virginia to New England this week, snow has also been the big topic, and maybe instead of a snow scene from Texas, a photo from a tropical paradise would be more enjoyable – for all of us! However, we have winter for a reason, even if some of that reason is to make us appreciate the other seasons all the more!

I remember a winter years ago, when my family lived in Upstate New York, when the snow was so high it was above our kitchen window. You could look out the window, and see just a bluish frost. Another winter, my brother and I built impressive forts in the huge snowbanks down at the end of our long driveway. I remember it was so cold, we carried pans of water from the house down to the forts and reinforced our structures with ice! The next day, we were in the house when I heard a snowplow coming down the road... and then the hollow, muffled “crunch” as the plow hit the iced forts. I’m sure the snowplow driver thought he had hit our mailbox, although he’d never hit it before. Needless to say, Mom had neither realized where exactly we had built our forts, nor would she allow them to be rebuilt when she heard my brother and me lamenting the destruction.

Indeed, I think kids get far more out of wintertime than adults to. Kids don’t have to get up at 5am to dig out the driveway. Kids don’t have to drive in the winter precipitation or worry about too much snow on the roof. And best of all, kids get snow days from school – what fun those are! You can play in the snow and come inside for some hot soup mom has made. Sure, grown-ups can go skiing and ice fishing, but by far, kids get the better end of the deal.

Life's Cycle

For people who live "up North", wintertime is the season around which they plan their year. For example, if you built a house, you automatically built a steeply-pitched roof in anticipation of snowfall accumulations, and some roofs have built-in shields and spikes to prevent ice buildup. In rural areas, mailboxes are set away from the road, to give room for snowplow blades. Everything is insulated, even before it became tax-deductible, except winterized buildings are also taxed at a higher rate. Many towns build sidewalks further away from the streets, to allow for snowbanks. Exclusive new homes are built with heated driveways and mudrooms with plenty of storage for bulky coats.

Here in Texas, life tends to rotate the opposite direction, with summer being the season that dominates the year. Air conditioning is standard equipment in cars, homes, businesses, stores – everything! Eaves of roofs are wider to help shield homes from the sun. You think twice about wearing dark colors during the summertime, you can skip buying coats every year, short sleeves stay in the closet year-round, and insulation is meant to keep the heat out, not in.

Still, even in Texas, we get cold snaps and snow that, like yesterday, can wreak havoc on ordinary life. Our neighborhood looks like a disaster zone, with limbs resting on cars, laying across roofs, and even one whole tree that fell over, slicing right through a two-level wooden playset (maybe the kids in that family are hating winter right about now?). People "up North" might scoff at our comparatively wimpy trees and amazement at all the snow, but hey - who's better at living in months of 100-degree heat? Well, nobody, actually; but at least that's what we brag about, instead of how much snow we get each winter.

Yes, a photo of a tropical paradise would be nice, and being there in person right now might be even nicer.

But then again, maybe not... That heat will be here before you know it. And don't believe any Texan when they say, "but it's a DRY heat"!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Schools "Made In China" Test the Truth

With the increasingly insular nature of our news media here in the United States, it may have slipped by many Americans that one of the activists investigating school collapses during China’s 2008 earthquake has been imprisoned.

Not that the news we’ve been getting isn’t unimportant: Haiti remains a major focus for obvious reasons, the second blizzard to hit Washington DC in a week has kept the federal government shut down for days (probably the most productive time Capitol Hill has seen in years), and petulant Iran is saber-rattling again.

With all of this as a backdrop, maybe China thought it was a good time to sentence one of its more bothersome "subversives" to five years in prison in what human rights watchers claim is a travesty of justice, even by Chinese standards. Indeed, little seems to be changing in this emerging superpower, as Beijing continues to take the world’s money while oppressing its own people at the same time.

Why Did So Many Schoolhouses Collapse?

In 2008, the world’s attention was riveted to the Sichuan province of China after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake there killed over 80,000 people. The disaster came as China prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet while world leaders offered aid, Chinese officials rebuffed most efforts to help, instead committing themselves to the Herculean task of caring for their dead, injured, and homeless. So effective were they, in fact, that relief agencies lauded the Chinese for apparently responding in such an efficient and comprehensive fashion.

Except there was one glaring problem that many local Chinese residents noticed right away. Walking among the ruins of their communities, townspeople immediately noticed that many of the school buildings constructed by the government had fallen flat, killing many of the students inside. The significance – and perplexity – of this scenario was that buildings right next to destroyed schools were still standing, or only moderately damaged. Why the discrepancy between so many school buildings that collapsed, and their neighboring structures that didn’t?

Chinese citizen Tan Zuoren, an environmentalist and writer, who already had a record with the government police for purportedly “subversive” civil rights activities, joined the increasing chorus of people who were alarmed by this incongruity. Was there an explanation for the pattern of destroyed schools among other intact structures? Why did the schools display such apparently inferior construction causing so many children to be crushed in their collapse?

In December of 2008, unable to get answers from conventional sources, Tan began his own investigation. Rumors that Chinese officials were bought-off by rogue contractors flickered about the closed country. Were some people so corrupt that they knowingly allowed sub-standard construction of school buildings within an earthquake-prone area?

The One-Child Policy and the Loss of So Many Children

Of course, while any child's death is tragic, the loss of schoolchildren to families in China becomes even more unbearable when considering the government’s one-child policy. Officially, couples in China can only have one child. In the Communist country’s large, urbanized, westernized cities, wealthier couples can bribe officials to look the other way when they have more than one child; indeed, ancient Chinese tradition holds that a family's status can hinge on having multiple children.

However, many families in the less urbanized, less wealthy, and less westernized parts of China don’t have the means to defy the one-child policy. Losing their only child can mean a bitter future for Chinese adults who depend on their child for help in their old age, and who may not be young enough to conceive another child anymore. Knowing your only child was killed in a building improperly constructed by the same government that enforces the one-child policy would just boggle the mind.

Instead of Kangaroo Court, "Panda Court"?

Which brings us back to Tan, who although knowing the risks, went ahead with an ambitious investigation to first determine exactly how many children died – the government initially refused to release the figure of over 5,000 – and why. He had the support of many distraught parents, some of whom tried to attend his court trial in August of 2009 and sentencing this week, but were roughed-up by guards and forbidden to monitor the proceedings.

When the dust cleared, Tan was sentenced to five years for inciting subversion related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. In 2007, Tan had written an essay about the landmark pro-democracy demonstrations, and in 2008, he helped organize a blood drive – of all the dastardly things – in commemoration of the protests. Apparently, no mention was made in court to his schoolhouse investigation, the cause for which he's become famous.

Obviously, the Chinese government has never come to terms with that fateful day in 1989. Even now, they consider the Tiananmen event to be an aberration in their population’s adoration of their rule. Officials were none too pleased that Tan stuck his neck out so far in 2007 and 2008, as Tiananmen's twentieth anniversary was approaching, and the world was in awe of the spectacle Beijing was crafting for the Olympic games.

So when Tan began rocking the boat and probing the collapse of school buildings after the Sichuan earthquake, it seemed as good a time as any for authorities to kill two birds with one stone.

Business As Usual

Tan wasn't even the first person jailed for pursuing an investigation into allegedly negligent schoolhouse construction in China. That dubious honor goes to Huang Qi, who is already serving a three-year sentence for "revealing state secrets" in relation to his inquiry on the same topic.

Amazingly, what the Chinese government fails to recognize in all of their posturing, puppet courts, and prosecution of dissidents – not just Tan and Huang – is that nobody is convinced they’re telling the truth. The parents who support Tan know what is happening, civil rights activists in China know what is happening, and from what I’ve heard from friends who’ve visited China, virtually all of its citizens know their government is lying to them.

I’m assuming that this latest apparent example of egregious denial of justice on the part of the Chinese will simply be added to the dossier our State Department already has for civil rights abuses in the world’s second-largest economy. When China recently surpassed Japan to become second only to the United States in financial might, there was some hope that its historically repressive government would soften its humanitarian stance. Either Tan’s sentence is the old guard’s last gasp at power, or it’s just more of the same, with no change in sight.

Indeed, no less a world power than search engine giant Google continues drawing lines in the sand regarding China’s draconian surveillance and censorship of Internet content. Indignant, Chinese officials tried to bluff their way into good graces with the information technology industry by boasting of their hundreds of thousands of bloggers. What they failed to acknowledge is numbers mean nothing – it’s the content that is important. Are these bloggers able to write about anything they want?

For its part, the United States has made a formal protest of Tan’s imprisonment. Maybe it’s also a good sign that some press were allowed in the courthouse building to report on the verdict.

However, for every "Made in China" trinket and appliance Americans buy, and every bridge built in the States with Chinese steel, we apparently continue to enable one of the most powerful governments in the world to suppress freedoms we take for granted all the time.

Obviously, there’s not much you and I can do about it right now that hasn’t already been done. But the next time you or someone you know goes on a business trip to China, or you pick up something in the store and see the “Made in China” label, maybe it would help to remember people like Tan Zuoren. People you’ll never see – because they’ve been banished to prisons – but who represent a struggle for something China’s newfound wealth has yet been able to purchase.

And something sometimes our wealth makes us forget.