Thursday, January 31, 2013

Noisy Debates Need Sound Logic

"Even if one new gun law saved a life, it would be worth it."

How often have you heard somebody give that argument in the debate over our Second Amendment?

It's been a one-liner opponents of more gun laws have had a difficult time refuting.

Well, I'm neither a gun owner, nor do I want to own a gun, and I don't think evangelicals have any sort of mandate from God to spend a lot of energy fighting over this issue, but the more times I hear the "if even one new law saves one life" rationale, I think I'm going to scream.

We're fighting battles on catch phrases, slogans, and sound bites that we're not thinking through.  And when you think this one through, you see that it doesn't make sense.

It may sound like it, since protecting human life is something governments and laws are supposed to do.  But if it were true, it should apply in other cases, right?  Meanwhile, most of the people who are spouting it in advocacy of more gun laws are... the same people who support abortion.

Think about it:  each abortion takes a life.  Not every gun that is shot is involved in hurting anything, let alone death.  Hardly any gun owners, considering how many there are and how few of them use guns inappropriately, kill people with a gun.  But each abortion is a human being's death.

Every time.

Life, Laws, and Abortion

So, using the type of rationale that presumes more laws are good, as long as one life is saved by them, our society should be outlawing abortion, right?  If more gun control laws that infringe on the rights of Americans to own guns will save even one life, which would make the new laws worthwhile, shouldn't the "rights" of women to kill their unborn offspring be secondary to the laws limiting a woman's freedom to pursue inconsequential sex so her baby could live?

Isn't that the corollary to "even if one new law saved a life, it would be worth it" in the abortion debate?

Of course, since it works to the advantage of pro-lifers, perhaps gun advocates should re-think their opposition to more gun laws.  But the fact is, "even if one new law saved a life" needs to be balanced against the wider scope - pardon the pun - of civil rights and basic morality.  In the case of gun rights, since so few guns are involved in the horrific crimes that have captured our nation's emotions, and since so many gun owners act responsibly with the weapons they own, curbing gun violence has more to do with societal attitudes towards violence and conflict resolution than more legislation.

In terms of abortion, it's not just one life that is saved by making abortion illegal, but millions.  And it's not a mother's rights to irresponsible sex that government needs to protect, but the right of life that begins at conception to make it through birth alive.  Since the mother is opting for murder, the state needs to protect innocent life.

This is the logic behind gun rights advocates resisting more gun control, and pro-life advocates working to save the unborn.  Not "even if one new law saved a life."

Love the Sinner, Accommodate the Sin?

By the way, speaking of logic - or the lack of it, advocates of amnesty for illegal immigrants are increasingly relying on the "treat them as people" argument for letting illegals stay in the United States despite their status as lawbreakers.

"We need to sympathize over the plight of these people, and understand that simply kicking them out of our country and back into a culture that their kids, especially, would find foreign is inhumane."

OK, if that is the case, then why should evangelicals insist, for example, that homosexuals who come to Christ abandon their homosexual lifestyle?  Homosexuality is as much against God's law as breaking national sovereignty laws, is it not?  What's the difference?  I imagine it would be just as difficult - if not more so - for a gay person to leave their sexual relationships, than for a family here illegally to return to their native country.  If we're talking inhumanity and lack of love, what's the difference?

Christians who advocate for amnesty rely on the "sojourners and strangers in your midst" scriptures that teach us to treat people unlike us with kindness and dignity.  However, couldn't "sojourners and strangers" be the unsaved people who populate our pews alongside us on Sunday mornings in our churches?  But do we preach that people can stay in their sin after they repent and turn to Christ?

Of course not!  We believers pursue discipleship so we can learn how to better love our Savior and demonstrate our faith by committing our ways - sins and all - to His lordship in our lives.  If that means we need to make lifestyle changes, then we make those changes.

How is that different for illegals?  Granted, most evangelicals have not displayed much Christ-like love to illegals, let alone gays.  So, to the extent that we still need to learn how to demonstrate love to these people groups, the point being made by the "sojourners and strangers" crowd is well taken.  For example, although I oppose amnesty, I support a moratorium on deportations, while efforts to encourage illegals to return to their native countries have time to take effect.

Meanwhile, do you see how careful we need to be in the sides we take and what we say to support our positions?  Logic is a critical component in every conversation, particularly ones in which emotions can run high.  We need to use the brains God has given us more effectively as we represent Christ in our fallen world.

It may not win us popularity, but popularity is like guns and living in a country illegally.  God doesn't guarantee us the right to have or do any of them.  But He does expect us to choose our positions on these issues with integrity and compassion.

While we rely far less on laws, and totally on Him.
_____

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Drought Could Shrink Texas City

A crisis is brewing in Plainview, Texas.

Years of drought have reduced the once-mighty cattle industry anchored across the vast plains of west Texas to a scrawny herd, and recently, the city's largest employer, a beef processing plant, announced it was shutting down.

Forced to close because there isn't enough cattle nearby to justify its existence anymore.

For its relatively unpopulated region of the Lone Star State, Plainview is a sizable city, with approximately 22,000 residents.  Statistically, these 22,000 people live in 7,600 households.  And this plant that's closing, Plainview's largest employer by far, has 2,000 people on its $80 million annual payroll.

That means a lot of families will be hit hard when the plant, owned by Kansas-based Cargill, ceases operations on February 1.

That's this coming Friday.

Of course, they've seen it coming in Plainview.  Not only because the city sits on land about as flat as it gets, and seeing far into the distance is easy to do.  A company for which I used to work had a customer in Plainview, and after the president of our firm made a visit out there, he commented, "I've never seen a city with a more appropriate name."

Plain.  View.

All kidding aside, Friday's closure has been dreaded by Plainview for a while now because the drought they've been experiencing for the past several years has left the region with few options.  Ranchers can neither afford to fatten their herds for market nor maintain them on a meager diet, since their ranchland has withered up.  Imported food is costly, whether it's for us humans buying it at Whole Foods, or farmers trying to find it and truck it in from parts of the country that have it to spare.  West Texas has seen droughts before, but not like this one.

An ethanol plant in Plainview has been forced to shut down its primary operations due to the lack of corn, but it hopes to deploy its 45 employees on other ancillary assignments in its facility through the summer.  Cargill says it's already strung along its plant in Plainview for as long as it can, and considering how west Texas' drought is staring everybody there in the face, it's hard to fault the company.

Texas, after all, isn't the only state facing drought conditions.  And it's not like Cargill is shipping production to Mexico or China; this is pretty much a localized business they're in.  And the locale in which Plainview sits can't sustain it.

Workers at Cargill's plant weren't living like kings off of their salaries, but they were earning a good living that kept them in Plainview, paid the taxes that supported a robust public school system, and created a thriving community boasting a hospital, a Baptist college, and several museums.  Perhaps it's not the most exciting city on the planet, but considering how many communities across America's formerly "great" plains are shriveling up and blowing away like tumbleweeds, Plainview held its own, which is saying something good about the place.

Cargill's Plainview plant, meanwhile, churned out four percent of America's annual beef production all on its own.  Earlier this month, when the company first announced its plans for Plainview, live cattle futures collapsed, Cargill's operations were that important.  Indeed, it's a significant blow, not just to the city of Plainview and the plant's employees, but America's entire beef industry.  Experts predict that in the long run, as the market contracts to match production with cattle supply, the industry will be remain relatively healthy, even if collateral damage is suffered by folks in places like west Texas.  But it's small comfort to see such a hit coming due to something no rancher or food processor can control:  the weather.

Some Plainview residents know Who does control the weather, however, and yesterday, approximately 300 residents joined a dozen civic leaders and pastors to pray for rain and other solutions to the imminent economic disaster their city is facing.

And already, at least one company has begun poaching employees for its own plant in South Dakota, sending corporate recruiters to Plainview in search of experienced meat cutters willing to relocate.  Otherwise, the options for people wanting to stay in west Texas appear pretty slim.  Granted, the larger city of Lubbock, home to almost a quarter-million people and the acclaimed Texas Tech University, is only 40 miles or so from Plainview, and workers willing to commute may be able to find something in that far more bustling environment.  But however you look at it, losing 14% of a county's jobs in one day will change the social and economic landscape of Plainview for quite some time.
 
Before today, and before you read this essay, you'd probably never heard of Plainview, Texas.  And chances are, if you hear about this city again, it won't be in the most positive of contexts.  Some people would probably blame Plainview's misfortunes on global warming, since the historic drought plaguing our nation's midsection might be the result of ozone emissions.  Some people might shrug their shoulders and say a severe drought every now and then is part of the ecology of the Great Plains, and simply weeds out the stronger from the weaker.

Instead, I submit that the relevance of Plainview to you and me today isn't so much in the politically-charged debate it could foment, or a fatalistic factoid for academic historians, but the reality that God sometimes allows pain to afflict some people so that others of us will be jolted out of our own complacency.  We take far too many things in America for granted, especially when it comes to the food we eat, and the people who process it.

You and I will likely not see a shortage of beef in our grocery stores because of Cargill's shutdown in Plainview.  But that doesn't mean there isn't a shortage of beef.

A whole city in dusty west Texas can testify to that.
_____

Monday, January 28, 2013

Let's Respect Senate's Talk on Illegals

Being in the middle is a lot harder than being an extremist.

Take today's announced compromise regarding immigration reform.  An elite group of eight powerful senators - evenly split between parties - has proposed the framework for legislation that claims to strengthen border security, penalize employers who hire undocumented workers, and provide a citizenship pathway for illegals who meet certain criteria.

Considering how much I preach compromise, I'm pleased to see that four senators from each party were willing to sit down and negotiate illegal immigration calmly and diplomatically, even if Republicans, smarting from their election defeats this past November, are obviously the most desperate and vulnerable in this discussion.

This is still very early in the proposed compromise, and plenty of critics have already rendered their judgement on it, even as its official language is still in the draft stage.  For example, it's not hard to see why foes of amnesty - including me - are suspicious of the GOP's newfound urgency on this topic.  Tackling immigration reform with an eye towards the disproportionate number of Hispanics comprising that demographic risks corrupting any possible solution as racist propaganda.

Both by Republicans eager to build bridges to Hispanics, and those of us wary of further destabilizing our nation's sovereignty.

We have proof from Ronald Reagan's stab at it that amnesty doesn't work to inhibit illegal immigration.  It only grandfathers-in proven lawbreakers, and even deprives those illegal workers of the one value they have in an employer's eyes:  being illegal, they can be hired below the government's radar, which means immunity from work safety and fair wage laws.  So amnesty, politically, is as much an attempt at wooing votes as a logical approach to treating people with dignity.  After all, treating illegal immigrants with dignity is what many amnesty-averse people like me are accused of not doing.  But if we look at illegal immigration as a broader sociological phenomenon, with implications that extend beyond economics and politics to morality and sustainable justice, any bill our legislature passes that disproportionately relies on amnesty will be short-sighted at best.

Still, who knows if this latest compromise will grow legs and make any headway in Congress?  Perhaps it's far too early to tell how significant today's announcement is, but in the interest of bipartisanship, it's at least a step in the right direction.  That we should do nothing about the current state of immigration affairs - and illegal immigration affairs - is a far more difficult and morally objectionable argument to make.  Unequivocally dismissing today's proposal as being dead in the water is simply unhelpful.  Treating it as a viable starting point leaves the door open for some sort of progress.  And progress usually can only continue with participation.

Realistically, it's probably unlikely that any form of amnesty will be absent from any final version of legislation overhauling immigration.  As it is in almost any policy issue, the political will is too weak - likely on both sides of the aisle - to face all the hard facts.  But as long as politicians are talking, it will be easier for us to advocate for what we think will work best.

Suspending automatic deportations - something I've suggested in earlier essays - is one of the components of this new plan, and represents an area where conservatives have yielded on the "illegal immigration is illegal" mantra.  Being willing to give and take to find our overall common ground could help us determine some sort of system for accommodating children who've been brought to this country illegally by their parents, since even though the Bible talks about "the sins of the fathers," it could be argued that we should have had a more comprehensive process to deal with illegals years ago, before all these kids grew up here.  And, most definitely, we'll need to deploy stronger enforcement of employment laws already on our books, and stiffer penalties for non-compliant employers.

Along the way, perhaps we'll be able to remind the illegal Hispanics in our midst that they're not the only people group anxious for participating in America's way of life.  They just had an easier time breaching our borders because of the land bridge that is our Western Hemisphere.

The laws we'll be drafting will apply to people who want to come here from impoverished countries all over the globe.  That will be civil rights in action, without regard to country of origin.

Indeed, you can still find the American ethic in this debate if you look for it!
_____

Friday, January 25, 2013

Weak Stance on Purchasing Power

Who was surprised this past Monday when President Obama laid out a liberally progressive agenda for his next term?

And who was surprised to read in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal that America's stagnant middle class is a "myth?"

While a Democratic president portrays our country's middle class as being under attack by conservative business values, a financial newspaper owned by a staunchly conservative One Percenter begs to differ.

Well, duh.

And while plenty of us have read the opinion piece by economics professors Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry with hopes of salving our concerns regarding middle-income America's buying power, how many of us have been disappointed to discover that these esteemed conservative scholars are merely playing the same smoke-and-mirrors ploy that's the stock-in-trade of political partisans on both sides of the aisle?

Boudreaux and Perry presume to challenge the notion that our country's legendary middle class is losing ground when it comes to paying for our enviable lifestyle.  Liberals like to say that the upper and lower classes are increasing in size, while the economic backbone of America, our middle class, is shrinking.  Conservatives have lately been trying to re-frame the scenario as, yes, the lower class increasing due to government handouts, and perhaps, the upper class experiencing an increase in its wealth, if not its actual membership.  Republicans have resorted to the specter of a shrinking middle class only in its political warfare during last year's election season.

Except now that Mitt Romney lost the election, Boudreaux and Perry figure it's OK to slap some spurious data on the argument and challenge Democrats on the whole middle-class-in-crisis thing.  And they've done just that, irresponsibly contriving an argument disproving Democrats using real data, but data with anecdotal, insufficient relevance as proof of their claim.

First, Boudreaux and Perry claim that longer life expectancy helps show that the middle class isn't stagnating.  Second, they point out that while we're living longer, we're also spending less on life's basic necessities.  In 1970, 40% of our disposable income went to pay for things like groceries, cars, and utilities, while today, we pay 32%.  Third, they say that middle class Americans can pretty much enjoy the same things that used to be available only to the rich; for example, it takes the same length of time for an American to fly across the globe whether they're a billionaire or an office clerk.

All of what the professors say is generally true, if you ignore the fact that life expectancy can have a devastating effect on one's life savings:  how many Americans end up destitute when they die?  Then there's what we're spending on basic necessities, since most of what we buy today is made in Asia for a fraction of what it cost Americans to make it a generation ago, which is another economic conundrum entirely:  is what we're saving buying all this foreign-made stuff greater than our lost manufacturing wages?

And frankly, it's hard to see what difference it makes if both Bill Gates and I can fly to Moscow in the same amount of time if he's still able to fly on his schedule in his corporate jet, and I have to work my flight around an airline's timetable.  Ends hardly ever justify the means, and that's true for morality as well as economics.

But even more than these discrepancies in the glowing tableaux Boudreaux and Perry paint for the middle class, what about the things they're not talking about?  What about the high amount of unsecured debt Americans are carrying?  What about the fact that middle class purchasing power used to be based on one income per family, while now, it takes two incomes to make ends meet?  What about the fact that many Americans don't have enough savings to see them through retirement because they're living paycheck-to-paycheck during their working years?  What about the fact that we're more educated than ever before, but wages have remained stagnant - as the professors readily admit - for decades?  If we're more educated, shouldn't we be worth more to employers, and shouldn't that translate into higher wages?

Boudreaux and Perry argue that middle-class Americans should stop whining, and that our politicians should stop catering to our fears.  We should be content with having more buying power than ever before, living longer lives, and enjoying unprecedented access to the same goods and services billionaires do.  If we'd stop worrying about our shrinking paychecks, our world would look a lot rosier.

Funny how it all sounds like what some liberals have been saying all along, isn't it?  About how the One Percenters throw the middle class bones from their tables with leftover fat on them to try and pacify us.  About how One Percenters have contempt for the middle class and our inability - disinterest, even - in amassing large sums of money.  About how middle class workers don't have the right to be disgruntled at their purchasing power vis-a-vis our One Percenters.

"Enjoy your longer lives, your ability to fly coach around the globe, and your leased BMWs, and quit harassing us about your stagnant wages," Boudreaux and Perry appear to be saying for their elite benefactors at the heavily biased Mercatus Center and American Enterprise Institute, both of which receive significant funding from the right-wing Koch brothers, David and Charles.

If enough conservative, middle-class voters buy this schtick, maybe capitalism and free markets will survive another term of Barak Obama.

Hey - it's one thing to not to like what the President had to say about his plans for the next four years, but if conservatives hope to mount some opposition and advocate for more common-sense economics, does it really help to have people like Boudreaux and Perry running interference with platitudes about longer life and consumeristic gimmicks?

We all know that if you ask ten economists to tell you what 2 + 2 equals, you'll probably get ten different answers.  So it's not like many people are going to take seriously what these two professors have written.  It doesn't take a lot of work to see through the gaping holes in their propaganda.  But neither does it set a very good tone for the next four years if this kind of stuff is what the Journal thinks represents a logical rebuff to the President's grand plans.

If right-wingers have about as much faith in integrity as left-wingers, it might not be much longer before we're through arguing over whether our middle class is stagnating.

We'll know for a fact we're sinking.  And our loss of credibility will be one of the reasons.
_____

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pro-Choicers' Vulgar Capitulation

They're pulling out all the stops.

And it ain't pretty.

While conservatives are mourning the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, liberals are rejoicing.  And not just liberals, but far-left-wing liberals.  And they're not just rejoicing.  They're gleefully writhing in public displays of shocking depths of depravity.

We're told abortion is a last resort for women faced with unbearable choices after malicious abuses have been made against their bodies.  But to hear abortion advocates tell it this week, women are merely sexual objects that need Roe v. Wade to perpetuate their singular value in our male-dominated culture.

Don't believe me?  Consider two of the most brazen bits of humanity-bashing propaganda making the rounds on the Internet this week.  First is an article by Mary Elizabeth Williams, an editor at Salon.com, which concludes that while life does indeed begin at conception, it's a life that is wholly expendable for the sake of its mother's sexual freedom.

Then there's a commercial by the Center for Reproductive Rights in which a sexy black man gets all Barry White-ish about his freedom to continue objectifying women since abortion can take care of any mistakes along the way.

These two advocacy pieces aren't just pro-choice and pro-abortion.  They're blatantly evil in their overt marginalization of human life, their utter obfuscation of genuine love, and their endorsement of legalized infanticide.

And Williams calls pro-lifers "wingnuts!"  She has no problem saying that life begins at conception, but she also has no problem arguing that the life in her womb is hers to do with as she pleases - including killing it, since, as she claims, all life is not equal.

At the end of her amazingly illogical and socially deviant article, she issues this chilling proclamation:  "I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time - even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing."

What mother "sacrifices" her own child for what Williams defends earlier in her article as her need to accommodate her "circumstances?"  It's come to this, folks, and it's a pro-choicer who's laid it out in dystopian relativism.  Talk about "intolerance!"

Granted, Williams tries to play the "health" card, but it's nothing but a non-sequitur.  Hardly any pro-lifer, in the statistically irrelevant number of cases in which a mother's health is at risk, insists that the unborn life should be saved at the expense of its mother's.  Except in Williams' case, health has even less to do with it, since economics, politics, and even happenstance are all more valuable than the life she's contributed to creating in her own womb.

Breath-taking.  In more ways than one.

Then there's former underwear model Mehcad Brooks getting all sultry in what can only be described as one of the most sexist, chauvinistic commercials to come out of Madison Avenue since the same pro-choice feminists who commissioned it forced advertisers to adopt male-emasculating characters years ago.  It's as if the female empowerment we've been told is so crucial to society, and for which abortion plays a crucial role, really is the charade that America's powerful, family-phobic men have contrived it to be.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a woman's ability to hold a man's attention long enough to get what she wants from him really does depend more on her ability to eradicate the telltale signs of his lust than anything else.  How is that a message of female empowerment?

It's as if George Orwell's 1984 and "death of God" existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche joined forces to push the abortion debate from mere pretense over a woman's right to choose into a full-blown admission that, sure, the whole thing really is about sex without consequence or conscience.  Only sex is never without consequence, is it?  Or even conscience.  Whether it's done within a relationship honed by pure, unadulterated, Biblical love, or whether it's as vile and self-serving as Williams and Brooks misguidedly portray it as being, are the participants in intercourse ever the same afterwards in terms of their relationships, emotions, and outlook on life?

Not to mention those times when baby makes three?

At first blush, reading Williams' article and watching Brooks' commercial, I gasped in astonishment at their open vulgarity, and in the case of the Salon.com editorial, a chill went up my spine.  She says she's a mother, but if I were a child of hers, and I read her article, how devastated I would be!  While I was a fetus, she would have expected me to still exist at her whim - a whim that meant only when I plopped out of her womb, her murder of me should be illegal?

At least Brooks takes the easy out - we all know the statistics about fatherless black children, and he willingly plays right into that sad spectacle by relishing the advantages abortion gives men like him.  If I were a black man, I'd be particularly offended by such sleazy machismo.

Perhaps, however, both Williams and Brooks, along with their supporters, have dealt more of a setback to abortion rights than they realize.  I don't know many pro-choice Americans, but the ones I do know don't strike me as the type who would endorse either Williams' or Brooks' perspective of the debate.  Maybe they're trapped in old, dated arguments about abortion, but I suspect that they, along with many pro-choicers, have never thought through their opinions on this issue to the extent Williams, Brooks, and the Center for Reproductive Rights have.

Hopefully, after seeing the raw depiction of what hard-core liberals want abortion to accomplish for themselves, more moderate factions of the pro-choice movement will be forced to re-think their position on "choice," sex, immorality, lust, and gender degradation.

Not that anything has really changed about the abortion debate, mind you.

It's just that now, what abortion advocacy genuinely wants to secure for itself is undeniable.  And they're the ones drawing away the curtains, not pro-lifers.

Meanwhile, truly defending human rights has been kicked back to the crowd for whom it should always have been sacred:  pro-lifers who've all along insisted that abortion is dehumanizing.

Who'd have thought the pro-choice movement would have capitulated so dramatically?
_____

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two Ushers Talking Legalism

Usher!

No, not the singer.  This past Saturday, I had the honor of serving as an usher at a wedding.

And in case you think being a wedding usher is lowly stuff, please allow me to name-drop, and inform you that among the guests I seated were the famed Elizabeth Elliott; her husband, Lars Gren; and her aide.

Mrs. Elliott was confined to a wheelchair and uncommunicative, due to her advanced age and failing health, but still, my youngest nephew was named after her martyred first husband, so I thought the moment was special just the same.

At any rate, following the ceremony, while another usher and I were waiting for our turn in front of the wedding photographer, we struck up what I thought would be a fairly bland conversation.  We didn't know each other, and the other usher was far younger than me.

"Wow," I exclaimed mildly, as I collapsed next to him in a pew.  "I sure could use a nice, cold glass of water!  I don't know why my mouth is so dry."

The younger usher snorted.  "I'm thinkin' about going outside for a smoke!"

Not knowing this young man, but knowing the groom's family has a lot of unsaved - or at least, unchurched - people in it, I wasn't particularly surprised at the smoking reference, but I was disturbed nonetheless.

"Oh... well, there's no way smoking can be good for you," I cautioned him.  "How old are you anyway, if you don't mind my asking?"

He said he was 21, and I think he said something about his girlfriend not liking him to smoke either.  "She didn't come with me down here... and now that I'm back in Texas, around these people, I'm reminded why I left," he offered, his awkward, loaded answer completely unsolicited.

"Oh?  Where do you live now?" I queried, piqued by his bluntness.  He had no idea who I was, or if I would be offended by his dismissive attitude regarding his family.  Yet he obviously didn't care, and he wanted to get something off of his chest.

"I live in Iowa now, and I like it up there," he replied, along with something about this wedding being the first time he'd set foot into a church since he'd left Texas.

This was turning into a far juicier conversation that I'd expected!

"Yeah," he continued, "churches like this make me uncomfortable.  I'm afraid I'm gonna break something."  He indicated the grand Steinway piano, our sanctuary's impressive wood-and-wrought-iron pulpit, and wedding flowers atop carved wood stands.

I followed the direction of his gaze and hand gesture, smiling.  Not exactly fragile, breakable stuff.

"Don't worry," I tried to assure him.  "All this stuff is quite sturdy and well-built!"

I didn't really believe the fixtures in our building were what he was talking about, and sure enough, he came clean.

"Well, I'm not really talking about the furniture," he admitted.  "I was kicked out of my mom's church by some jerk who didn't like me wearing a hat inside it."

I could tell he wanted to talk about it, so I let him.

"Yeah, I walked into my mom's church wearing a hat, and this guy came up to me and told me to take it off, and I wouldn't," he recounted, somewhat pleased with himself at the recollection.  "When I didn't take off my hat, the guy said he didn't like my attitude, so he made me leave.  They didn't like me at that church anyway.  They thought I was trouble."

Before the ceremony, when a group of us ushers had taken a shortcut across a parking lot to get to the sanctuary, one of the wedding guests was making his way across the busy avenue in front of our church, and he was wearing a large, black felt cowboy hat.  The ushers saw him and were admiring his hat.  I know the guy, and sitting there talking with this young usher now, I quickly glanced about the sanctuary, wondering if my friend with the hat was available to talk.  He wasn't, since the reception had been going on for awhile now without us.

My friend would likely have plopped his hat on his head right there in the sanctuary just to prove to the kid that not wearing one in God's house has more to do with politeness than legalism.

But legalism is what this young usher wanted to complain about.

"I like to drink, I like to smoke, and my mom's church didn't want me doing any of that."

Being a non-smoking teetotaler myself, I first felt awkward, feeling compelled to defend activities in which I myself choose not to engage.  But I don't drink alcohol because of the alcoholism that runs in my family, and I don't smoke simply because it's unhealthy and obnoxious, not because there's a Biblical commandment against it.

"Smoking, drinking, and wearing hats in church isn't any reason to kick you out," I began, choosing my words carefully.  "It's what's in your heart, not your actions, that matters most to God."

And dad-burnit, wouldn't you know, but the photographer called out right then and there for us ushers to come for our photo-op!

That isn't the timing we're taught in evangelism class, is it?  You're supposed to be able to let the person to whom you're witnessing mull over the "heart, not actions" thing for a moment or two, and then follow-up with faith not being a system of laws, but love for Christ.

In the flurry of activity as we ushers scrambled to where the groom and photographer were waiting, the conversation evaporated into thin air.  After the photographer was done with us, my new friend dashed off with some other guys, while somebody else told some of us the guests were waiting for the wedding party to join the reception.  We needed to start trickling in to the church's fellowship hall to help pacify the increasingly impatient crowd of well-wishers.

I saw my new friend only once more after that - he was weaving through throngs of guests, the top buttons of his shirt undone, his necktie nowhere to be seen, and his face damp and flushed.  It was a chilly day outside, and the temperature was quite comfortable inside, so I didn't really want to know why he was so disheveled.

Not after the conversation we'd been having, anyway.

So I simply prayed that the Holy Spirit would be able to use my attitude during that conversation - and hopefully my demeanor when he mentioned the smoking and drinking bits - to perhaps show him that the guy at his mother's church who kicked him out displayed only one side of our church culture. 

For all I know, this young usher had been a rascal all during his growing-up years, and the guy against whom he harbored resentment had finally had enough of it.  Then too, this young usher could have been looking for any reason he could find to use as rationale for dropping out of church, and he used his belligerence over a hat as his ticket to churchless freedom.  It's not like not going to church prevents you from believing that Jesus Christ died for your sins.  But I got the distinct impression that not going to church wasn't the deepest problem this young man had.

I don't know for sure.  But when the groom gets back into the country from his honeymoon, I'm going to ask him.  And if I can't pick up from where we left off last Saturday afternoon, maybe somebody else can.

I have a feeling his mother - without knowing who we are - is praying that one of us will.
_____

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Roe v. Wade is About Love v. Hate

Even tragic anniversaries need to be acknowledged.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.  It's an anniversary for which we evangelicals mourn, while militant feminists gloat.  During the past 40 years, tens of millions of murders have been committed in the one place God designed for life to be at its most nurtured:  the womb.

After all this carnage, there's not much more that can be said or argued about - regarding either the court's ruling, or abortion in general - that hasn't already been said and argued.

Either you believe that all human life is worth protecting, whether it can walk, talk, and breathe on its own, or not.  Or you believe that only human life that is convenient has value.

No matter what you personally believe about abortion, or how much wiggle room you like to think you have on this subject, these two options are what this debate boils down to.

Pro-life advocates may not be able to definitively pinpoint to a pro-choice advocate's satisfaction the point at which life actually begins, but science is increasingly proving that it begins a lot earlier than pro-choicers want to claim.  And even if science can't currently convince skeptics that conception is the start of human life, the viability factor of a fetus' ability to survive outside of its mother's womb should by itself be enough to secure recognition as something worthy of greater dignity than murder.

Civil Liberty for Whom?

Yet for those who don't want to admit that their sexual activity has produced its biological intent, ignoring science under the guise of civil liberties becomes a convenient crutch, especially since women who can walk, talk, and breathe on their own have a far greater ability to advocate on their own misguided behalf, and cut off the dialog given by pro-lifers on behalf of those who can't yet walk, talk, and breathe on their own.

Killing those within a society who can't advocate on their own behalf is not new.  World history is replete with infanticide and it's generational parallel, elder abuse.  Contrasted with such barbarism, it's been relatively easy for pro-choicers to cloak their own murderous deceit in a charade of human rights for women.  "Choice," after all, is liberalism's catch-word for liberty (except when it comes to education), and what's more American than liberty?

So we've de-criminalized murder in cases where a woman can claim she deserves a sexual do-over.  While legalizing anything that's wrong doesn't make it right, many Americans have deluded themselves into hoping that there's enough rape, incest, and medical challenges to a pregnant woman's life to justify blanket amnesty for the vast majority of women who simply want to erase the product of a moment of passion they've reconsidered in the light of practicality.

Maybe this is what freedom has come to be redefined as:  the ability to be released from responsibility, accountability, and authority.  The liberty and equality pro-choicers claim is theirs through abortion is based on a worldview in which personal integrity is a relative concept, discernible more through a lens of satisfaction than sacrifice.

Can We Ignore the Pleasure Principle?

If that is indeed the case, however, then might it not just be abortion advocates who've stumbled into a myopic abyss of carnality?  Fun and pleasure represent goals for America's evangelicals, too, only under the guise of enjoying God's vast creation.  Increasingly, we Americans spend a lot of our resources on ourselves, while pegging our generosity towards others on stingy societal norms or ostensibly churchy percentages.  The verse teaching us that "it's better to give than to receive" is treated more like an old wives' tale than a prescription for genuine "fun" and "pleasure" being found in joyful service to others.

After all, God indeed wants us to enjoy the things He's created for us.  But might we have deluded ourselves into ascribing for ourselves permission to acquire a preponderance of ownership over God's creation at the expense of sharing those things with those less able to dominate the acquisition process?  In other words, might we have bought into a worldly, hedonistic system where selfishness and hoarding is perfectly acceptable in terms of deriving enjoyment out of life?

"Wait a minute," you may be saying; "this is supposed to be about the evils of abortion, not the sins of God's people!  What right do you have to go telling me I'm having too much fun?"

The thing about fun is this:  statistics say that 95% of abortions are for convenience, which means the fetus being terminated is the product of unwise, irresponsible sexual activity.  In other words, the parents were having too much fun to think about the parenthood they were on the brink of christening.  With righteous anger, we evangelicals decry abortion as the taking of life, but before we spit out vitriol at those who participate in this court-sanctioned homicide, let's not forget Christ's warning about casting the first stone.

Or maybe I'm the only one with a warped interpretation of how we're to enjoy God's blessings to us.

Even if I am, I can console myself with the fact that even though I may waste God's blessings, and take them for granted, I still have the Holy Spirit living in me to help encourage, teach, support, cheer, and pacify me.  How easy it becomes, then, to forget how utterly miserable those people must be who don't know Christ and who aren't indwelt with the Holy Spirit.  Chasing after wealth, significance, happiness, pleasure, and fun through mortal means are all they can do to scratch any meaning and energy out of the life they think they can control.

Aren't Varying Degrees of Sexual Perversion All Still Sin?

Sex, of course, represents one of God's most misunderstood blessings.  It's also one of the easiest ways for people whose morality is otherwise contrived to lunge at the mirage of fun.  Since sex is a biological process, it's easily explained as something we're compelled to do.  We can't penalize a woman for her sexual activity since she's the one biology has arbitrarily assigned with the birthing role.  She has as much right to sexual pleasure as a man does.  Abortion simply removes the double-standard nature has apparently left unresolved between the genders.

If morality is going to be the argument we evangelicals use to dissuade women from pursuing abortions, perhaps our argument would be more persuasive if we admitted the extent the pleasure principle plays not only in sexual activity, but in the pursuits of significance, fun, and contentment in which we all engage.

After all, the sin of murder by abortion carries the same penalty in God's eyes as our own wasteful mismanagement of the resources - including, yes, our sexuality - He's given each of us.  It's just that the results of our sins can look quite a bit different in our eyes than the results of abortion.

Just because most of us evangelicals haven't had an abortion, or don't know of anybody who's had one, we tend to smugly demarcate this debate between upright pro-lifers and evil pro-choicers.  And in the narrow view of the sin of murder, for all practical purposes, this is an accurate clarification.

However, to the extent that we find arguing over the issue and demonizing those of opposing views from ours as being easier, more gratifying, and more practical than anything else we can do about it, how do we honor God?

How much compassion do we have for the women who are being falsely instructed that they don't have a moral choice, but a practical one?  How complicit are we in endorsing the pleasure principle in our society?  How far do we go in allowing sexuality, sexual suggestion and imagery, lust, and adultery to enjoy dalliances - however fleeting - in our consciousness?  It's not like unwanted pregnancies always come from out of the blue.  Most of the time, there is a series of sexual perversions that come to pass before an abortion is contemplated.

Of course, those sexual perversions are perverse more often in God's eyes than ours, aren't they?

Writing In the Dirt

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that our own sexual sin makes us responsible for somebody else's.  Or that our rates of adultery, teenaged pregnancy, and other sexual perversions within America's churched culture invalidate our collective stance against abortion.

To a certain degree, unfortunately, our own sins will discredit our testimony as being salt and light in our society.  But we have been granted grace through Christ.  The life we live in the flesh - including our advocacy for the unborn - we live by faith in Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is our hope, and the hope we should be demonstrating to the killers of unborn children all around us.

In a way, the battle over abortion isn't just between good and evil, but love and hate.  Perhaps the legislation, agitation, and advocacy we've waged to protect unborn life for the past 40 years - some of which has been more successful than others - has been used by God in ways we haven't been able to see.  But just as God sees our battle with perfect perspective, He also sees our individual hearts, and He knows whether we love our enemies or hate them.  He knows whether we love our own private sexual immorality, or whether we hate it and grieve over it.

Some ardent pro-lifers, if abortion were ever made illegal again, would like to see women who still procure one tried and punished for murder, since that's what we're saying it is even today as it's legal.  But Christ, when the crowd brought the woman accused of adultery and they wanted to stone her to death, simply bent over, wrote in the dirt, and forgave her when her accusers were shamed into silence.

As we continue to work to overthrow Roe v. Wade, let's not forget how Christ bent over and wrote in the dirt.  We can't pardon those who advocate for abortion, but Christ can.

Just as He has pardoned us.
_____

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration About More Than Presidents

For all the political distractions of the day, America's presidential inauguration is still a pretty big deal.

It's easy to forget that America is more than one political party or another.  It's more than who's president.  Indeed, regardless of what you and I think of the person being sworn in as our Commander-in-Chief, the fact that we go through this ritual every four years without a civil war breaking out from coast to coast speaks more to the integrity of our country's purpose and promise than mere petty, party politics.

Although, in a way, it's that hot contention sparking between our political parties - and indeed, within them -  that contributes the most to our inauguration days being so remarkable.

Whether it's a Republican or a Democrat who's won the presidential election, our country has spent three years, twelve months, and thirty days bickering, threatening, demeaning, complaining, protesting, marching, legislating against, and fretting amongst each other.  And then on a singular day in January, whomever the opposition is at that time tones down its rhetoric, and lets the majority team relish its day in the political sun.

Sure, a lot of other democracies and republics around the world do pretty much the same thing when political parties observe transitions in rule, but America is the largest and most diverse to have them conducted free of violence.  India, the world's largest democracy, has a horrible history of violence during its elections, which casts a pall over its actual inaugurations of presidents and prime ministers.

Here in the United States, deep divisions, mistrust, and even outright hatred exist between advocates of left-wing and right-wing political philosophies, and those don't serendipitously evaporate on inauguration day.  But for all of our bluster, incivility, and rudeness on every other day of our election cycles, whenever we Americans are on the minority side of an inauguration, we manage to let the day go by with at least muted disdain, if not outright resignation that the person whose presidency we're acknowledging is still a better option than, say, North Korea's rule of law.

Not the highest of praise, of course, for our incoming president from an opposition party, but enough of a mollifier to keep at least a pretense of unity and continuity.

Then, too, there's the fact that American society tends to elect the representation it deserves.  Which means the person being welcomed into the presidency hasn't gotten there by failing to attract the most votes.  And the person who attracted the most votes didn't accomplish that by failing to connect emotionally and intellectually with more voters than their opposition.

Which means that it's the emotional and intellectual integrity of the electorate that each presidential election gauges.  And when you and your candidate lose an election, you're often slapped upside the head with that reality:  not everybody thinks the same way you do, and they don't react to the same conditions in the same way you do.  For us Americans, that reality can be more sobering than inflammatory, since, regardless of who wins, we've got a massive social and economic infrastructure that needs to be sustained.  Inauguration days in America, then, are kind of like the Cold War, when both sides realize they have more to lose by attacking the other, and that works to help keep things in check.

At least for the day.

Then there's the fact that Americans are easily entertained as much as they're easily provoked.  Sure, federal workers and school children have the day off, but stores are still open, most corporations are operating on a regular schedule, and unless you're a resident of Washington, DC, life is going on like normal.  Consider, too, that our attention spans are notoriously short, and the inauguration of Barak Obama to his second term in office is just one of many items competing for it.  On the CBS News website this afternoon, for example, the top three stories were what Michelle Obama was wearing today, the 49ers beating the Falcons, and the Obama girls "growing up in front of our eyes."  Not exactly incendiary or controversial news, unless you're a football fan from Atlanta.  And while an inauguration-themed story led in popularity, it was what designer our First Lady had selected to dress her, not anything to do with her husband being the president our country had selected.

The most popular video on CNN.com this afternoon wasn't anything at all related to the inauguration, but a story about killer whales trapped in Canadian ice.  The top news story on Fox News' website was Phil Mickelson's threat to move out of California to avoid its new, more punitive tax code.  Meanwhile, the normally rancorous Drudge Report restrained itself with a "1461 More Days" banner, a multi-tasker of a headline if there every was one: begrudgingly giving Obama the win, holding little enthusiasm for the next four years, but also casting hope for future opportunity during the next presidential election.

In other words, we keep marching forward.

Or at least, we hope that's what America does.

But... forward to what?  More of what the left wants, or a renewed sense of purpose for what the right wants?

Today, we celebrate the reality that not all Americans voted for the person taking their presidential hike down Pennsylvania Avenue, yet those who didn't vote for that person aren't obstructing or denying that reality.  And we're also celebrating the fact that in four years, the political shoe has the opportunity to be on the other foot.  When one's candidate loses an election, does that speak more to that candidate's appeal, or the appeal of the candidate who won?  Disagree with a president on their political merits if you want, but ignoring the populist sentiment that put that president in office will not benefit your choice's chances next time around.

Some conservatives may find plenty to personally grouse about whose inauguration this is, but it's in our best interests to let liberals have this day, and to even share it with them to the extent that it commemorates our resolve to continue our participation in what has been dubbed this grand experiment called America.

If nothing else, today is a day symbolizing opportunity.  Even if some Americans are happier about its short-term implications than others.
_____

Friday, January 18, 2013

Vetting Another Corvette's Allure


And then there's this:

A paint-pitted, faded Corvette for $225,000?

On Monday, I wrote about Chevy's brand-new 2014 Corvette Stingray being introduced at Detroit's auto show.  Although most people won't be able to justify the purchase of such a car for their personal use, since Corvettes take a sports car's usual inefficiencies as a passenger vehicle to the extreme, the Corvette is still a bellwether of how American drivers expect their dream rides to look and perform.

Oftentimes, America's premiere sports car doesn't make waves in the international automotive media the way next year's Vette did this week, but the nameplate's legend and aura consistently boasts remarkable resiliency.  Since it holds a revered place in the hearts and minds of automotive enthusiasts, even during Detroit's decline, when Chevrolet shipped hunks of misfitting fiberglass out to the carbuying public and labeled them "Corvettes," longsuffering fans would patiently admire their model's glory years and console themselves that somehow, someday, the Corvette would be back.

The car is that iconic.

That's why it's not really much of a surprise to learn that a yellowed, paint-pitted 1954 model from Maine is going on the auction block in Florida tomorrow with a plausible selling price estimated to be between $175,000 and $225,000.

Two hundred and twenty five thousand dollars!  For a completely unrestored, as-is 1954 car that hasn't been driven since it was entombed by its original owner into a grocery store in Brunswick, Maine, in 1959.

That's Corvette love for ya, folks!

It also helps to explain how this car's story is part of its value.  As they say in the antiques trade, it has a great "provenance," or history.

Purchased new by Maine grocery story magnate Richard Sampson, the car was driven mildly for about five years.  I say "mildly," because there are only 2,331 miles on the untouched odometer.  With winter weather being exceptionally grueling in the Pine Tree State, many owners of exotic or "cream puff" cars put them in storage for the snow and ice season, and while I don't know it for a fact, it's likely that Sampson only got this car out of mothballs for the few days during Maine's glorious summers when driving is indeed pure pleasure.

And this Corvette, being a convertible, likely made it an ideal cruising car for both the back roads of Maine, as well as its narrow lanes that wind along its shoreline.  A while ago, I commented that I used to find it remarkable that so many Maine residents own convertibles, considering the state's brutal weather, but I can't help but acknowledge that a perfect day in Maine really is a perfect day, and a convertible is a great way to enjoy those few yet glorious perfect days.

Anyway, at one point in 1959, Sampson decided to preserve his wonderful little two-seater for posterity, and had it bricked into its own tomb in a store under construction in Brunswick.  Eventually, the brick coffin was taken down, and the car was enshrined in Sampson's daughter's home in Florida.

Can you imagine having your father's vintage white Corvette convertible sitting in your living room?  Its years of being bricked away in Brunswick were amazingly kind to the car, with the only serious visible damage being to the paint job - it pitted, which, considering GM's abysmal record of bad paint jobs over the decades, isn't surprising - and the wide white sidewalls yellowed with age like untended fine linen.  The convertible top has stains from being left out in Maine's many rainy days, but the interior is practically flawless, as are its flashes of chrome.

Experts estimate it's the only unretouched, completely original 1954 Corvette in existence.  And fortunately, 1954 was a glorious year for the Corvette.  No warped fiberglass on this beauty, but plenty of elegant flourishes and sexy lines, along with chic wire "veils" over each oval headlight, mimicking the veils women of that era wore on their hats.

If its fetching looks don't grab you, or the price it may well fetch this weekend at auction, how about this stunning bit of trivia:  even if it sells for $225,000, this "entombed Corvette" won't be the most expensive Corvette ever.  That distinction goes to a far less glamorous 1969 Corvette L88, which sold for $446,250 in 2007.

Almost half a million dollars!  And that's for one of Chevy's newer 'Vettes.  Granted, the grand champion Corvette was built for racing, while the 1954 model was mostly for prestige touring.  But still, it tells you something about the Corvette market out there, and the interest these cars command.

As does our prized 1954 model.

One guy bricked up his pampered convertible for 27 years, his daughter displayed it inside her house, and even with pitted paint and yellow sidewalls, it could command upwards of a quarter-million-dollars at auction tomorrow.

Yesterday I warned that we Americans don't know as much about our history as we should.  Judging by the keen interest people still have in our vintage cars, and the prices they're willing to pay for them, maybe I was wrong about that.

The antique car market, and Corvette aficionados in particular, prove that we Americans can learn our history when we want to!
_____

Update:  Our "entombed Corvette" was Lot #S187; updated selling info has yet to be posted as of Monday evening.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

History's Lesson From TV and Sports

Do you like watching old TV sitcoms?

Actually, instead of "old," television stations these days call them "classic" sitcoms, and I suppose there is a difference.  Just because a TV show is old, that doesn't make it a classic.  Some old shows should never have been aired to begin with, let alone today.

Others, however, have stood the test of time, and are about as funny today as they were when they originally appeared in our culture's consciousness.  Granted, sometimes the humor today comes from how dated some of the storylines are, compared with today's lifestyles and current events.  Seeing people use rotary phones attached to cords of tight spirals, for example, likely baffles today's iPhone generation.

I've noticed from these shows, however, that the more some things may change, the more they stay the same.  Even back in the 1970's, people were complaining about do-nothing politicians and America's horrible economy.  In the 1960's and 1950's it was high food prices.  In the 1980's, it was how violent our cities were, and the lack of jobs.

History sure has a way of repeating itself, doesn't it?  Some people say that history proves human existence is little more than cycles of booms and busts.  Moral standards, political objectives, and even economies rotate through periods of progress and regression.  Politics seems to be about the only thing that never changes - it's always a negative factor on society.

Rabbit Ears and Cathode Ray Tubes

I was reminded of what classic TV sitcoms are teaching me as I had lunch today with a good friend of mine, J.C. Derrick, who works for World magazine.  He told me that last week, after the Baseball Writers Association of America refused to vote several players known to have used steroids into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he wrote an editorial for World's website in which he expressed disappointment in the writers' action.  In other words, he thought those 'roid boys should have been voted in.

I didn't read his article last week, but I read it today, after I got back from lunch with him, and he'd explained his position a bit more.

At first, I was surprised at my friend's take on what struck me as stunning news - J.C. disagreed with the writers, and thought these juiced-up players deserved to be in the Hall?  Wouldn't overlooking all of those violations be the same as endorsing them?

Not necessarily, J.C. explained to me.  While several readers of his article tried to take him to task for apparently being ambivalent about performance enhancing drugs, J.C. took me through a quick history of the game - and a list of other successfully-inducted Hall of Fame players about whom many of us today have forgotten.

Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, for example, were each sleazy womanizers.  Not exactly against the rules in baseball, of course, but if we're talking about players our youth could emulate, philandering isn't hardly a wholesome trait.

Then there was Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, both of whom took primitive versions of what today we'd call performance enhancing drugs, as did Mickey Mantle.  My friend rattled off the names of other Hall of Famers who doctored balls and did other unethical stuff, but since I'm not a baseball historian, I didn't get those.  But I didn't need to - he'd made his point.

Many baseball fans who've cheered that their sport's most notorious steroid users were not voted into the Hall don't know their sport's history.  Like many of us have done in many areas of our modern society, we've allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security and estimation of how real our reality is.  Unfortunately, reality can be quite different than what we think it is.  Particularly the reality that we think tells us everything in our fuzzy past constitutes the golden years, while today, everything's going to Hell in a handbasket.  Or vice versa.

Sometimes things were worse than they are today, and sometimes, things are just as bad now as they were then.  Fortunately, some things are better today.  For example, rates of crime and violence in many major American cities actually peaked years ago.  But despite all our frustration about taxes, did you know federal income taxes peaked at a staggering 94% in 1944 and 1945?  A lot of us call our current batch of elected representatives in Washington the "do-nothing Congress," but did you know we're just recycling a term President Harry Truman coined back in 1948 for the 80th Congress?

Buddy and Sally, Ted and Georgette, Oscar and Felix

Turns out, history isn't the irrelevant abstraction many Americans consider it to be.  At the very least, it contains patterns of human experience that can help us gain a more accurate perspective on what's happening to us and around us today.

It's been said that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it.  Perhaps it's also true that those who don't study history have a harder time understanding why things are the way they are today.  And maybe, if today's not better than how things used to be, that things still aren't as bad now as they've been before.

Maybe such knowledge provides small comfort, considering we're the ones living with our present reality, and responsible for interacting with it for our benefit.  And the benefit of future generations as well.

Which likely means we should try to treat history less like the academic stepchild we often treat it as, and more like a chart of clues to help keep future generations from suffering through the same things we are today.

Otherwise, our future generations may look at the way we've fumbled around at what becomes their history as less sitcom and more blooper reel.
_____

By the way:  As reported on Drudge Report, the Vatican has announced a morality campaign for international sports with hopes of recruiting Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin to "to help put healthy values back into sport."  Actually, it sounds like the Vatican wants to reduce the influence capitalism has in sports, which frankly, is probably as unrealistic as making the industry morally "healthy."  Sports may not have been as lucrative a business "back "in the day," but when have any of them been as pure as the Vatican apparently assumes them to have been?  Consider this:  after he talked about baseball, my friend J.C. told me that football used to be a far more bloodier - and lethal - sport than it is today.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Talking the Walk We Want

By now, it should be obvious.

We evangelical Christians are in the minority here in the United States.

It's hard to look at the results of last November's elections, the omens of Obamacare, and our nation's ambivalence towards things like gay marriage and not draw that conclusion.

Personally, I suspect that true believers in Christ have always been in the minority in the United States, as they are everywhere else.  Oh sure, over the centuries, plenty of Americans have talked with churchy words and modeled - publicly, at least - a religious lifestyle, but in terms of people who've lived out the Fruits of the Spirit, the percentage relative to our overall population has likely been slim.

Now that America has apparently caught up with the post-Christian era that took hold in Europe during the Cold War, we evangelicals are beginning to stick out more.  We're not blending in with the overall fabric of society like we used to.  This new vulnerability seems to scare many of us, at least in terms of being ill at ease because our minority status is so noticeable now.

But curiously, that vulnerability isn't inhibiting the way we're conducting ourselves in matters of our national dialog.

Should We Let Our Culture Calibrate Our Dialog?

Just check out the comments your friends are probably posting today on Facebook about President Obama's executive orders regarding gun control.  For an issue that has little direct relevance to our faith in Christ, plenty of churchgoers seem to be grossly overreacting.  Like many fellow evangelicals, I don't think any more gun control is the answer to gun violence, but you can't convince me this issue is worth staking the Prince of Peace's reputation on.  By the way things in our country seem to be going, there will be plenty of issues pertaining to biblical doctrine for us to get riled up over.

It's also been easy for us this week to let ourselves get carried away over the whole Lance Armstrong circus.  Did he or didn't he?  Even today, news websites are saying that his Livestrong cancer charity is advancing its stakeholder status in the outcome of his pre-recorded interview with Oprah Winfrey.

To me, this particular saga represents nothing more than two fading stars trying to grab a fleeting glimmer of former fame.  Armstrong is aging rapidly, and will likely never reclaim the athletic dominance he used to expect.  For her part, Winfrey gambled on shutting down her popular daytime talk show and lost, and her subsequent OWN network has struggled for relevance from day one.  Normally, I like rooting for the underdog, but when situations like the one Armstrong and Winfrey videotaped get manipulated from a personal act of repentance to a generic publicity stunt, people like them loose credibility in my eyes.  It's hardly worth the space my comments take up on this blog, but since it's obvious Armstrong's desire to leverage his confession betrays his lack of contrition, why do we feel so sorry for him?

I'm not trying to bash my own faith family, but when we evangelicals participate in public discourse, shouldn't we at least be consistent?  If we're going to feel sorry for a guy who probably doped his way through seven major international championships and threw his fans, sponsors, and teammates under the bus while he did it, can't we at least withhold some of our vitriol from our president who's only responding to populist pressure like any politician would?  Yes, I think the sums of money he and Joe Biden are dishing out from the Treasury for (ostensibly) safer schools is a staggering sum, especially considering how relatively rare massacres like Newtown's are.  But if we haven't learned it by now, better late than never:  politics is a sloppy and illogical business.  Most Americans want these protections, however overpriced and ineffective they may be.

Just look at our national ambivalence towards the Transportation Security Administration.  Most any safety expert will insist that the TSA is pure window-dressing, a tissue of illusions as we're wanded through machines that take images of our physique.  But apparently, since it was George W. Bush's team that concocted this tableau of shoeless shuffling and granny-searching, Republicans are about as silent as anybody when it comes to overhauling airport security measures.

Garbage In, Garbage Out?

Which brings me to one of my familiar rants, that evangelicals spend too much time listening to what people like Rush Limbaugh think, rather than studying what Christ tells us is true and honorable.  Petty partisan politics plays too great a role in evangelical American Christianity, and all it's doing is earning us enemies on issues Christ never tells us to weigh as unequivocally as His Gospel.

Take, for example, illegal immigration.  I was reminded by a very close friend of mine today that it's not just the topic of illegal immigration that requires diligent attention from us evangelicals, but the tone of our language that needs to reflect Christ's heart on this topic.  While I still disagree with my friend on the ways we demonstrate Christ-like love to people who feel as though they need to come here illegally, and I still personally oppose gimmicks like granting amnesty to illegals, I agree with my friend that we still need to temper our attitudes and convictions in this debate so we're mindful of the innate humanity of the people involved.

But is that the message we're conveying to our watching country?  Not by a long shot.  While a group of liberal-leaning professional Christians are attempting to build bridges to the community of illegals in our country, the far-right side of our faith chuckles at reckless partisan sniping from officials in places like Arizona, and we paint too broad a brush when it comes to illegal workers and our country's high unemployment rate.  Since this is a political issue, and it deals with our government's response to a question of national sovereignty, it will be resolved by some sort of political compromise, unless factions of American voters insist on stalling any accord and letting the status quo perpetuate the problem.  How sad would it be for evangelicals to comprise one of those factions that refuses to even consider less acrimonious dogma?

Speaking Truth in Love

We believers are to "speak the truth in love," right?  That doesn't mean we don't broach controversial topics, and it doesn't mean we don't hold fast to incontrovertible truth.  But it in no way gives us license to belittle, berate, or begrudge other people who don't share our viewpoints.  In fact, the onus is on us to examine each policy scenario and evaluate it on the basis of God's Word, not what Fox News, Sean Hannity, or even Huffington Post has to say about it.

Hey, I'm preaching to myself here as much as anybody else.  Although I try hard to not offend anybody with how I say something, I realize that sometimes the viewpoints I hold disturb people who don't agree with me.  Isn't there a difference?  Evangelicals get blamed for dispensing "hate" speech all the time, and we react in confused derisiveness, instead of a realization that God's standards aren't our culture's.  Indeed, the standards for which we advocate will be disturbing - and even offensive - to people who do not love Christ, but what point is there in stacking the deck by combining those standards with vitriol, sarcasm, and contempt?

Remember, we're living in a democratic republic, which means the minority side of a particular proposition needs to be smart - not smarmy - about how to protect its interests.

If there's ever been any doubt that we evangelicals are the minority in America, there isn't any more.  We may pray to God for His will and purposes for our country, but if we're going to engage in sabotage against His sovereignty by our non-Christlike attitudes and actions, what does that say about our faith?

God never promises us low taxes, the right to hoard weapons, or a society free from evil.  In fact, He promises us that life here on this planet He created for us will be tough and challenging.  He expects us to trust Him, and He's given us Americans a rare luxury of being able to participate in the direction of our ship of state.  It's not like He expects us to win these political arguments anyway.  He expects us to honor Him by how we live our lives.  Standing up for what we think is right is one thing.  How we do that is quite another, and unfortunately, does not always honor God.

Let's not waste what voice we have as evangelical Americans!  Not simply to see justice and righteousness prevail in our country, but to honor God in the opportunities of advocacy He gives us.

This is our time and place to serve Him.  If our country can benefit along the way, so much the better.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Insider Movement: A New Culture War?

If anybody can find a theme across the diverse topics of my blog's essays, perhaps it would be that we erroneously rely too much on our culture for our faith.

Obviously, many of us see the world around us through a cultural lens.  Naturally, then, we unwittingly allow the society in which we live to frame every facet of life.  This is true for those of us living a post-modern, post-Christian life in North America, and those living in the jungles of Irian Jaya, the savanna of Burkina Faso, or the Russian tundra.

We see those cultures, and they see us, through metrics that have been developed by the people group with which we're most familiar.  We look at the economy, lifestyle, and religion of another culture through our own.  And we look at our own faith through the lens of our own culture, because we assume our culture is worthy of being a lens.

Again, this is all natural for us to do, and we all do it to varying degrees.  But just because it comes naturally to us doesn't mean it's right.  That's one of the reasons I harp against seeker churches and contemporary worship music so much.

The more educated we become about the different ways different people groups accomplish - or fail to accomplish - similar objectives, the more we can pick and choose the things that work, and discard the things that don't.  We also, as it happens, generally become less ethnocentric as we realize that the reasons some cultures are more "successful" than others are far more complex than our sound-bite media here in the United States simplifies them to be.

Unfortunately, knowledge tends to puff us up, doesn't it?  The more sophisticated we become in our navigation of cultures, we risk falling into a trap of focusing on culture so much, we forget that cultures themselves are not pure forms of organic socialization.  No culture on the planet is 100% wholesome; without the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we're all depraved heathens, and our cultures reflect the degree to which God's holiness has been honored by a people group.

When it comes to international, cross-cultural missions, which historically has been the purview of Westerners, we've run the gamut, from trying to foist Western ways on indigenous tribespeople, to letting local norms dominate our approaches to ministry.  However we've done it, we've let a culture of some sort dictate the Gospel; either ours, or theirs.

And just as forcing jungle people to wear pants and long dresses was misguided 150 years ago, the way some missionaries are trying to evangelize across cultures today appears equally so.

The Insider Movement and Its New Champion

Last summer, I wrote several essays on the increasingly popular movement in evangelical missiology called "contextualization," or "C5," or "Muslim Idiom Translations," or the "Insider Movement."  Technically, experts argue that each of these terms pertains to specific nuances in modern cross-cultural missions methods, but they all tie in to what some missionaries to Muslims are doing in their efforts at converting people from Islam to Christianity.

Basically, some missiologists want to grant Muslims a blanket dispensation and give them a free ride when it comes to proclaiming their faith in Christ.  To put it bluntly, if you're Muslim and want to be saved by faith in Christ, it's OK to claim Christianity but still follow the practices, traditions, and lifestyle of a Muslim.  You can still worship in mosques.  You don't need to proselytize openly.  You don't need to identify yourself as a Christ-follower to anybody you don't want to.

It's all safe, low-key, duplicitous, and relatively popular.

Actually, it all sounds like the kind of lifestyle many American churchgoers heartily embrace for themselves, doesn't it?  Allowing people to remain in their familiar cultural surroundings - while subversively saying they worship Jesus Christ - is what many churched Americans do.  And is likely one of the reasons why contextualization and the Insider Movement have been able to flourish for so long under the radar of many stateside evangelicals.

Last summer, however, it all kind of hit the fan, when my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, became one of the most significant evangelical organizations to sit down and analyze what Insider Movement advocates are teaching.  For a fairly exhaustive article on the subject, click here to read PCA pastor and theologian David Garner's thoroughly-researched views.  Thankfully, a committee established by the PCA to report on the Insider Movement decided that these new paradigms for missions contain basic rationales that are biblically flawed.

Insider Movement proponents, however, apparently remain unbowed.  Their intransigence on the subject is on full display in the current edition of Christianity Today magazine.  With articles entitled "The Hidden History of Insider Movements," "Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque," and "Why Evangelicals Should be Thankful for Muslim Insiders," the legacy periodical Billy Graham founded may be attempting to legitimize theories of ministry earnestly opposed by plenty of evangelicals.

Longtime readers of my blog know I'm no fan of Christianity Today.  I used to be a subscriber of their print edition, but a number of years ago, when CT's editors called for a re-think of conventional Biblical justifications for capital punishment, I realized what the magazine's growing list of detractors were saying was true.

CT was going liberal.

This month, their three articles bend over backwards to portray the cultural challenges of evangelizing Muslims.  CT's editors even try to remove the Biblical implications of what's at stake by belittling those of us who disapprove of their view.

"Many Christians have taken positions on insider movements without ever having met or spoken with someone who belongs to one," CT's editors point out, as if one's understanding of the Bible can't compete with cultural context.  In other words, Christianity Today justifies their legitimizing of Insider Movement beliefs as concepts that can stand alone outside of what we know from God's Word to be true about His Gospel.

And here I've thought the Gospel of Jesus Christ is applicable to all cultures through all time periods and places.  Is there a caveat for Muslims that's been left out of my Bible?

What the Bible Says About Our Faith in Action

Let's ignore for the moment that respected missionaries who evangelize among Muslims still oppose the Insider Movement.  Let's ignore for the moment that converts to orthodox, evangelical Christianity from Islam also oppose the Insider Movement.  Instead, what does the Bible say about those who believe Christ's Gospel?

"And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."  Matthew 19:29

Not a whole lot of wiggle room about staying in one's former, false religion, is there?

One of the Scripture passages used by Insider Movement advocates is 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, in which Paul says, "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."

Now, taken out of context, it could be interpreted that the apostle is saying that, in order to win people to Christ, we need to adopt the very sins in which they're comfortable, or endorse the viewpoints that the unsaved endorse, or live the lifestyle that the unsaved live.  Yet is that what Paul is saying?  After all, earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians, Paul also wishes that believers in Christ never marry, but isn't that more hyperbole than doctrine?

We don't necessarily take every psalm verbatim, since the psalmists wrote in poetic and allegorical prose.  In the same way, we can't take the gregarious tone of Paul's writing and interpret it in a biblical vacuum.  So we read the 1 Corinthians passage with an understanding of Paul's exhortation to not let our cultural blinders - even those blinders we wear in our Christian culture - prohibit us from recognizing and reaching out to the lost around us.

To the extent that advocates of the Insider Movement recognize the unique worldview of Muslims, and seek to bridge the gaps in their understanding of the personhood of Christ, I would say that they're honoring Paul's charge to us in 1 Corinthians.  However, in their enthusiasm to inhibit their own cultural baggage while they evangelize, aren't Insider Movement proponents ceding too much Christian doctrine, and enabling Muslim "converts" into a sloppy theology based more on culture than commitment to Christ?

Discipleship is Messy, But Who's Causing Some of the Mess?

If we're not teaching that Christ is our All, and if we don't believe that Christ Himself saves people, not our personal testimonies, then we're not spreading the Gospel, are we?  If we let "converts" wallow in comforts like religious tradition and family acceptance, and marginalize what a personal stand for Christ looks like, how is that any different than letting "converts" in the United States continue to frequent brothels, if prostitution was their habit before coming to know Christ?

When we allow cultural standards to dictate what faith in Christ looks like, how do we know the genuineness of that faith?  By how the Fruits of the Spirit are manifested in their lives, right?  Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self control.  How does feigning allegiance to one's former faith fit into the Fruits of the Spirit?  How does failing to separate one's self from the corrupting influences in one's former faith?

This past December, in an editorial, Christianity Today endorsed the Insider Movement by pointing out that "discipleship is messy."  They wrote of the Insider Movement as encouraging "new believers to remain in their culture as long as possible, as long as Scripture doesn't explicitly forbid the practices in question."

So, we're going to let rules determine what people can and cannot do in their newfound religion?  How is that any better than the false religion they're supposed to be leaving?  Christianity is a faith of grace, and while I'm hardly an expert on grace, I do know that Christ loves us despite our sins, but if the Holy Spirit lives within us, we're supposed to want to love Christ in return.  And when you love somebody, you generally want to demonstrate that love in some tangible way.  But does that include rules?

How does the Insider Movement help new believers "worship God and enjoy Him forever," as we covenantalists believe to be our reason for living?  How can encouraging people to hang on to false practices, false relationships, and other religious pretenses help them discover freedom through Christ's grace?

Indeed, discipleship can be messy, and it's not easy.  But denying people the ability to experience the fullness of the Gospel to which they've supposedly been converted doesn't make much sense, does it?

Granted, in our Western culture, we do it all the time to ourselves.  But our excuse is that we're really in love with our culture, oftentimes more than we're in love with Christ.

Going to the opposite side of the cultural spectrum and teaching "converts" from Islam that it's OK to do the same thing may not be worse than the cultural Christianity from which the Western church has suffered for years.

But look at how much it's helped us.
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Monday, January 14, 2013

Corvette Mania Tests Driverless Allure

They're being hailed as America's next great lifestyle revolution.

Driverless cars.

Automakers are increasingly exploring the market for such an innovative transportation option, and creating new technologies in anticipation of its promise.  But who's really on-board with the whole concept?

Sure, the number of lives experts say can be saved by taking humans out of the driving equation is high.  And it's not like driverless cars will take over our roadways anytime soon; plenty of the technology, laws, and standards necessary to implement the driverless concept still need to be invented, not just refined.  That means we have time to prepare, both logistically, and in terms of our driving mindset.

However, isn't it just a bit ironic that, just when America's environmentalists and techno-geeks have been able to froth up their pitch for driverless cars, the North American International Auto Show opened today in Detroit?

And instead of a driverless car, the new automobile commanding most of the attention today was Chevrolet's brand-new 2014 Corvette?  This isn't just any Corvette either, mind you, but the 2014 Stingray, a rare breed of Corvette that boasts extraordinary power and - for this fiberglass fantasy - remarkable fuel efficiency and structural rigidity.  It's Chevy's no-holes-barred attempt to muscle back into the elite halo of muscle car bragging rights, which helps explain its uncanny resemblance to its brand's lesser sibling, the mass-market Camaro.

Now, while the automotive world and sports car enthusiasts debate the merits - or lack of them - in the Corvette's evolution, isn't it odd that with so many people supposedly wild about removing the driver from the controls of our vehicles, we're even talking about the Corvette anymore?

After all, if the public is pushing for self-driven cars, why should we care whether this new Corvette carries on America's premiere sports car legacy or not?

Most of the journalists who are writing stories about driverless cars live either in California or the Northeast, where congested roadways and hours-long commutes are frustratingly common.  Most of these writers are also men whose idea of a commute is probably more singular, in terms of getting to the office and back home, rather than tangential, like a woman's list of errands she runs before and after work.  Since the average American rush hour commute is 25 minutes one-way, however, the grief experienced by these male journalists in our big cities likely isn't as bad for everybody else as they assume it to be.  Granted, nobody likes being stuck in traffic, but are most Americans anxious to give up conventional driving for self-driving cars?

If we are, why the fuss over Chevy's newest hot rod, or Detroit's flagship auto show in general?  It's not that today is an otherwise slow news day; we get heavy reporting of Detroit's annual winter car carnival every year.  And if news organizations didn't think the public was interested in the new offerings from the world's automakers, isn't there plenty of other non-news to report instead of what next year's Jeeps are going to look like?

Rather, isn't this fuss over the new Corvette simply to be expected from a car buying public that loves cars?  Sure, most of us understand most of us only need - or can afford - a utilitarian vehicle, but we still like to drool over hot automobiles, don't we?  Sure, a driverless car sounds wonderful for people who endure a mind-numbing and nerve-wracking bumper-to-bumper crawl to and from work every day.  But how many people purchase the Corvette Stingray for ordinary commutes?  Corvettes are about a state of mind, much like Bentleys, which ooze idyllic luxury, or massive 4x4 pickup trucks, which reek of testosterone.  They're illogical vehicles, but we still ogle them.

And that can't be good news for fans of the driverless car.

As much common sense as such driverless technology may hold, American society does not value common sense as much as it does power, speed, luxury, image, and individuality - all things that driverless cars will minimize, if not obliterate.

Who needs a powerful car when a street grid adapted for driverless cars tells your onboard computer how much you can accelerate?  And who needs speed when your computer will regulate how fast you can go?

Who needs luxury when so many of a car's gadgets will become standardized so computers from different vehicles can communicate more seamlessly?  After all, our idea of luxury isn't based on how many gadgets a car has, but how many gadgets your car has that other cars don't.

Who needs image when the standardization this technology will inevitably require levels the automotive playing field?  And by this time, you've no individuality left, since it's not your car anymore, but in reality, the street's.  According to some proposed driverless scenarios, which include massive car-swapping paradigms, the car you ride home may not even be the same one you ride back to the office in the morning.

Take the concept of driverless cars to their logical conclusion, and you don't have the Great American Automobile anymore, but a glorified mass transit system in the form of individualized pods.

To the extent that, yes, such a system would save tens of thousands of lives per year, thanks to incredible accident-avoidance technology, it could be argued that driverless cars would be worth the investment.  Even if the auto industry never makes it to a totally driverless future, some of the safety inventions it comes up with in the meantime could themselves be worth the ride.  Just don't be sucked into thinking all that technology would cost you less than what you drive now!

But as Americans - and indeed, drivers around the world - react to Chevy's new Corvette this week, do any of the environmentalists and computer nerds pushing for driverless technology think their battle for driverless cars - and by extension, driverless driveways, streets, and freeways - will be won on the basis of safety and efficiency?

Who actually needs a two-seater fiberglass box on wheels that can rocket from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds?  Who needs 450 horsepower or a multi-tone exhaust system?  Nobody needs the new Corvette, but a lot of people would love to own one.  The dream of roaring down a deserted road with your love interest sitting beside you, eating up the pavement as your mighty machine responds instinctively to your every turn of the wheel or shift of its gears... it's the stuff that car commercials are made of, and it's what car buyers want to imagine for themselves.

Even as we putz along in morning traffic, the reality of our daily grind slapping us in the face every time we have to tap the brakes, crawling through one accident scene after another, wondering why life has to be so hard... there's a little bit of Corvette owner in many of us that hopes for a faster, sexier, automotive future.

Right now, however, it's unlikely driverless cars will be faster or sexier.  Safe and convenient, maybe, but oh, so dull.  Yes, they may take away much of the pain we experience in normal driving scenarios, but are Americans willing to give up the Corvette dream for a commute that's all about equalizing the experience for everybody on the road?

Just look at what most people are talking about in Detroit's auto show.  And that's probably your answer.
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