Friday, May 31, 2013

Sounds of Praise Worth the Effort

Was it worth it?

All that hard work.  The tedious practicing.  Hours of it.  Hours upon hours.  Those interviews with the press.  Time away from his fiance, family, and friends.

My musical friend, Alex McDonald, spent months in intensive preparation for the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition currently underway here in Fort Worth, Texas.  He has a day job as a piano instructor, both privately, and for a local college.  But in addition to that, Alex managed to squeeze in a full workweek's worth of practice to compete at the prestigious Cliburn.  And his fans were pleased when he survived the initial round of pressure-cooker tryouts - weeks before the actual competition - simply to win one of 30 coveted spots in the Cliburn's first official round.

When the Cliburn got under way last week, he played two different mini-concerts in the first round, and was warmly received by his audiences, if not his critics, who apparently weren't aware that Alex actually did some of his doctoral work at Julliard on the composers whose pieces he played.  I've always been skeptical of music critics - well, of critics who review most of the arts in our culture - because the ones who make a living doing so rarely seem to have the professional credentials they expect the artists they're reviewing to achieve.  Siskel and Ebert, for example, never produced a feature film in their lives.  Ada Louise Huxtable, the inimitable architecture critic for both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, was never a certified architect.  Although all three of these personalities were able to carve out good livings offering generally solid feedback on their preferred art forms, like another artist friend of mine advised me recently, when you're not the one having to design something for a client, it's easy to forget that it might not be the composer, director, or architect whose faults you're seeing, but the person who signed the check for it.

Suffice it to say that Alex did not get paid for competing in the Cliburn.  None of its contestants do.  In fact, there's a small army of volunteers that make sure it runs without a hitch during its quadrennial appearances on the music world's stage.  And it is a big international deal.  Musicians on the jury come from countries like Israel, France, and China, and many contestants come from Japan, Russia, and Italy.  It's been thirty years since this competition, always held in Fort Worth, had a contestant from anywhere in north Texas.

Indeed, the Cliburn is not the provincial talent show people outside of classical music's orbit may assume it to be.  When it first started, back in the early 1960's, some music teachers from what was then more of a small-town social club approached Van Cliburn - then one of the few fantastically-famous musical Texans who didn't strum or pluck a gee-tar - with the hopes that he would lend his name to their fledgling contest for young pianists.  Typical amateurish local-boy-makes-good publicity.  According to legend, Cliburn's fawning mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, encouraged her son, who was balking at the idea, to let the little people back in Texas use his name.  "It will only be a one-time contest," she's reputed to have dismissively advised.

So much for mother knowing best.  Today, that nice little contest in Cowtown has become one of the premiere classical music competitions on the planet.  According to the organization that runs the Cliburn, tens of thousands of people come from all over the globe to attend portions of the sprawling event, while over two million more watch online.  Not only does this add real cash to Fort Worth's tax coffers, but it provides the city with valuable publicity.  Dallas, Houston, and Austin - the other three arts capitals in the state - have nothing like it.

Okay.  So it's a big deal.  Even if classical piano music is more of a cultural niche than, say the Superbowl or the World Series.  But how did he do?

Well, last night, the names of those 12 contestants who will be advancing to the second round were released, and Alex's name wasn't on it.

Frankly, I can't imagine how disappointing that must have been for him.  I've never worked so hard for something so prestigious.  I've certainly never worked so hard and failed to gain something so prestigious!  In Alex's chosen profession, winning the Cliburn would have set his career on a trajectory of renown that only He and God could change.  The Cliburn's cash prize is a paltry $50,000, but it's the instant fame and professional booking services to manage that fame for which contestants are truly vying.  Having the Cliburn organization managing your new career in the classical music world can open a lifetime of coveted concert hall and recording studio doors.  That may not sound like much to many Americans, but classical musicians can gain iconic stature in places like Japan, China, and Russia.

Angling for all of that professional career management, however, soon came to trouble Alex.  He was a prodigy - hardly anybody can train themselves from scratch to compete at the Cliburn's level; you have to be born with the gift.  He's lived his whole life as a student of the craft that is part of his being.  As a follower of Christ, he knows he's been blessed with this ability, and he desires to use it primarily for God's glory, even if he has to commercialize it a bit to put food on the table.  Even there, he knows he's one of the fortunate ones:  somebody who knows what they do well and can earn a living at it.

So how much did he need the Cliburn?  Was trying out for - and winning a rare spot in - the Cliburn more an act of arrogance and blind ambition on his part?  Or was God in this, leading him, placing within him not only the ability, but the desire, and the tenacity?  As he pushed himself through his grueling practice regimen, he desired for God to be at the center of it all.  He didn't want to be like so many others of us who set a goal and try to drag God along for the ride, when He hasn't been the one opening those doors to begin with.

Anybody who has ever heard Alex play knows that if he didn't try for things like the Cliburn, it could almost be said that he risked suppressing the talent God has given him.  Such accusations are extremely dangerous to make, since few of us can get into the same wavelength of heart and mind between God and the individual to whom He's given such abilities.  But still, now many skills and proficiencies do we actually end up dishonoring God with by our ambivalence towards them?  This isn't about art necessarily, but maybe the gift of administration, or helps, or child-rearing, or evangelism, or writing computer code.  Maybe they won't earn us the type of money or privilege we think we want or need.  We can still honor God if we do something else, so that's what we do instead.  It's a tough call, especially with people to whom God has given such obvious expertise.

So I sent Alex a note today, and this is what I shared with him:

"From what I can tell, you've honored God with this effort, and that is the whole point. If success is doing what God wants us to do, you've been wonderfully successful! And you've treated us to some great music in the process. Thank you!"

For all practical purposes, as a professional pianist and music teacher, Alex will still be able to put on his resume that he made it through the first round of the Cliburn.  There's considerable prestige in simply being accepted into the competition.  He's not going to win the $50,000, or the instant-career-starter-kit promised by the Cliburn organization, but he's still a lot farther ahead than those who've never tried or never been accepted.

He also has now mastered - at least as far as the general public is concerned - an impressive repertoire of classical piano music that, besides making him Dallas' newest attraction at dinner parties, could help him with concert events that don't involve ticket prices topping out close to a monthly car payment.

Most importantly, however, remains the fact that Alex loves the Lord, sought His guidance and peace, and demonstrated well the gifting with which He has generously blessed him. 

So, was it worth it, even though he didn't make it to the second round?

Man looks at outward things, but God looks at the heart.  And while I would never intentionally put words in God's mouth, I can see no reason to doubt that God has seen Alex's heart all the way through this musical journey.  He was Alex's only true Audience.  Then, too, God not only knew Alex would "lose," as we mortals might say, but that even in losing, Alex would honor Him.  And that, as Alex has already done in front of those of us who've been following his musical journey, he would still give God glory.

Praise be to God!  And, bravo, Alex.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shooting in Black and White

He died in his garage.

Police reportedly shot him six times in the chest.

He was holding a handgun when the cops found him.  They were responding to a burglary alarm after midnight in a neighborhood near some high-crime apartment complexes where many blacks live.

The police say they felt threatened by the man, so they shot in self-defense.

They killed a 72-year-old white, wealthy, small-business owner, in his rambling two-story home on a golf course.  Hedges manicured into precise shapes and a meticulously-groomed lawn gracing his brick house bespeak the services of a well-paid landscaping crew.  His neighborhood of large, custom-built homes is an oasis of luxury in a section of east Fort Worth noted more for the blighted apartment complexes surrounding it.  Together, the neighborhood is called Woodhaven, but it probably holds the starkest contrasts of any planned development in the city.

Conceived as Cowtown's answer to luxury gated communities sprouting all over its suburbs, Woodhaven was built in the 1980's among gently-rolling hills and towering native trees.  Originally, the neighborhood was to have been almost completely executive homes, but when the savings and loan crisis hit Texas in the mid-80's, private money dried up fast.  Scrambling to cover their costs for developing the infrasctucture for their project, developers turned to some newly-created federal resources for multifamily residential units.  Legend has it that folks who'd already purchased the neighborhood's big homes protested, since apartments aren't the type of neighbors than help preserve property values.  But they were told that these apartments would command high rents, eliminating the likelihood that riff-raff would overrun the place.

And maybe that's what happened right after the complexes were constructed.  But it didn't take long before the owners of those complexes found another gravy train from the government:  Section 8 housing vouchers.  At about the time the first generation of renters were moving out, the federal government was looking to relocate thousands of mostly minority welfare recipients who were living in public housing.  And Woodhaven's apartments, built quickly to capitalize on those earlier government subsidies, were rapidly becoming dilapidated, meaning they couldn't command market rates.  Granted, the reason the federal government wanted to move residents out of public housing was because our nation's public housing stock had already succumbed to its own bad construction and abusive tenants.  But Woodhaven was still in better shape than those older, cinder-block structures built when public housing was supposed to be temporary housing, not the housing of choice for people caught in generational poverty.

So it came to be that those beautiful homes on large, well-groomed lots around Woodhaven Country Club have to co-exist with what today, for all practical purposes, is a tarted-up slum.  There are still some attractive benefits to living in the neighborhood's single-family homes, such as the area's scenic topography, unique to Texas'  normal flatness, and its proximity to downtown Fort Worth and some of the region's important freeways.  You also get a lot more house for your money in Woodhaven than you would in whiter, less ethnically-mixed parts of town.  Indeed, while the apartments are almost exclusively full of minority residents, Woodhaven's single-family homes boast an eclectic mix of races, even if most of the homeowners are white.  I know of one man, an evangelical who has been wildly successful with his own company, who could afford to live in many more prestigious neighorhoods, but feels comfortable living in Woodhaven because he's Hispanic.  That, plus he knows a good value when he sees it.  His home dwarfs the size of others in Dallas' fashionable Park Cities likely costing a third more.

Indeed, the best parts of Woodhaven might be a good value, but it's still no inner-city ghetto.  There are no abandoned, boarded-up houses.  Many of the storefronts along its commercial streets are vacant, but the same can be said for many strip-shopping-centers in aging neighborhoods across north Texas, as bricks-and-mortar retailing continues to struggle against over-building and Internet sales.  If a homeowner had been shot in, say, Fort Worth's Stop 6 neighborhood, or Poly neighborhood, or along Rosedale Street, it likely wouldn't have made the news.

And if it did, most of us whites wouldn't have paid much attention.  Another black man killed.  Another Hispanic man killed.  By the cops.  In his own garage, poor guy.  And when the black or Hispanic wife would get on TV and blame the cops for being trigger-happy, we'd just chuckle, as if to say, "yeah... right."

If the cops shot you in those 'hoods, they had some reason.  They were provoked.  When the victim is black or Hispanic, it is so easy to assume that.

But this guy was white.  Living in a nice, big house on a golf course.  He actually died in his garage, which doesn't even face the street, but the golf course.  Ostensibly, the cops were looking for a prowler who might have tried breaking into a house on the same street.  But what were they doing in the back of this guy's house, down the block from where the alarm had sounded?

His widow says that they heard the alarm going off, and since parts of Woodhaven are no innocent paradise, her husband got up to see what was going on.  He had a gun, which, considering the type of people who live in the apartments around his home, isn't being unreasonable.  Since his garage doesn't face the street, he likely wouldn't have seen the police cars parked out front.  And since he was apparently in his garage, he likely was surprised to see two figured clad in black - Fort Worth's police uniforms are black - come around the corner.  He was trapped in his own garage, if these two figures meant any harm.  And his wife was alone inside.

It all makes sense to us whites that the media would be all over this story, and that the general public would be right alongside his widow, demanding answers from the cops as to why her husband was killed in his own garage while their neighbor's alarm was what they were supposed to have been investigating.  A caregiver staying in the neighbor's house reports not being aware of any attempted break-in, and it's even possible that the caregiver themself accidentally tripped the alarm, since they likely were relatively unfamiliar with the house.  But no cops ever knocked on the front door to see what was going on.  Instead, they were poking around a neighbor's back yard.

If this wasn't an affluent block with residents far richer - and whiter - than the folks who live in the subsidized apartments nearby, would this be the story it's become here in north Texas?

How much faster do you think this widow will receive answers from the cops than, perhaps, the black and Hispanic widows who've gone through similar experiences in the past?

Or, like the cops apparently were, am I simply over-reacting?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

At Mount Olivet's Doughboy

That's me, just to the left of center (go figure!), in a light blue t-shirt, looking up to a nearby bridge,
where some Boy Scouts are preparing to toss a ceremonial wreath into the Trinity River
while a bagpiper plays.  This was during the maritime portion of yesterday's Memorial Day observance.


It gets shorter every year.

My friends and I guesstimate that we've been attending Fort Worth's annual Memorial Day observance at Mount Olivet Cemetery for fifteen years.  For 8 decades, Mount Olivet has hosted a traditional, no-frills commemoration of military servicemembers killed in the line of duty.  It's become the official Memorial Day event for both the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, usually attended by mayors, city councilmembers, county commissioners, and other local dignitaries. 

But unlike some ceremonies, this one has been getting shorter every year.

They've thrown in an extra speech - a speech to introduce the person who's giving the main speech.  This year, they added the sanctuary choir from one of the oldest congregations in Tarrant County, the politically and theologically liberal First Christian Church in downtown Fort Worth.  About 40 people dressed in red and black sang the National Anthem, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and a choral benediction.  They sounded quite good, considering they had no amplification and it was a breezy evening.

Maybe the singing helped the service seem to fly by.  But, then again...

It's never been a pretentious affair.  An executive from a local veterans association runs the show, which includes proclamations from the city and county thanking the private cemetery for underwriting the evening.  Interspersed are some military flourishes, such as a Presentation of the Colors, the playing of "Taps," a 21-gun salute by handicapped veterans in wheelchairs, and the solemn Retiring of the Colors, during which we in the audience stand in utter silence.  It's very cool hearing how respectful, dignified, and patient people can be when they want to be.

There's also usually a bagpiper from the Fort Worth Fire Department who bleats out "Amazing Grace" while marching in full regalia along rows of big American flags.

One year, the soldiers got it wrong while folding up the Stars and Stripes during the Retiring of the Colors.  They didn't have enough of the flag left over to tuck inside and create the appropriately-stiff triangle of star-spangled hallowedness.  So, instead of fudging it, they slowly and methodically unwrapped what they'd done, and started folding it again.  The whole thing must have taken ten minutes, and that's a long time when all you're doing is watching two young men fold up a piece of cloth.  But we all waited, quietly, almost religiously, to make sure it was done properly.  Veterans in attendance kept their sharp salutes the whole time, and in the stifling May heat we usually have for these ceremonies, that's no small feat.

One year, it had been raining all day, and it was drizzling as we gathered at the cemetery for the ceremony, so officials moved it indoors to one of the chapels.  I remember that the air conditioning was turned down so low that I was actually freezing - the only time I've been cold during these Memorial Day services!  I think they made the bagpiper play in another room down the hall; the low-ceilinged chapel being too small for the sound.

Yes, we could all fit into a funeral home's chapel back then.  When my friends and I started attending, the crowds were definitely small, which was one of the reasons we decided to keep attending.  The theology is thin to non-existent at these services, which are designed to be ecumenical.  And most of the speeches are by either politicians or commanders at one of our local military installations, so their quality is decidedly hollow.  But we've felt a certain obligation to make this yearly service a part of our Memorial Day Mondays, not out of a punitive sense of compulsion, but as a necessary reminder of the fact that real people have fought in real wars and died real deaths for our country.

No, we don't all agree on the merits of certain political causes, or the decisions our elected officials have made regarding warfare and picking fights with other nations, but the fact remains that our military consists of men and women who willingly - and often enthusiastically - agree to put their life on the line for the honor of our country and the freedom for which it stands.  Surely there's some sort of gratitude we're to demonstrate for such self-sacrifice?  Before being executed by the British, colonist Nathan Hale reportedly proclaimed his regret that he had "only one life to give for my country."   Even being willing to give that one life, and managing to escape armed conflict to retire from the service, never having to make good on that pledge, as most servicemembers are able to do, is worth more than many lesser Americans pledge for the lifestyle we so often take for granted.

After the main speech every year, representatives from area veterans groups line up and place ceremonial wreaths at the "Doughboy Statue," Mount Olivet's version of the "Tomb of the Unknowns."  Lest you've forgotten, the term "doughboy" comes from the Mexican-American War in which soldiers would get covered in colorless dust, and ate flavorless dough as part of their rations.  "Doughboy" became particularly popular as an affectionate reference for American soldiers during World War I.  At Fort Worth's Mount Olivet Cemetery, the "Doughboy Statue," dedicated in the 1980's, helps to anchor a section were many veterans are buried.

The number of veterans groups that participated in this part of the service used to be considerable, and the time it took for everybody to present their wreaths and observe a moment of silence could stretch for what seemed like hours, even though it was probably twenty minutes or so.  Yesterday, they were finished in less than five.  Veterans still march towards the statue in their dress uniforms, their spouses wearing outfits in patriotic colors; a few military widows and mothers, some white-haired, all of them usually dressed to the nines; many of them escorted by members of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternity of men who wear black tuxedos, sashes, and tall hats with plumes of feathers, holding long silver swords at attention.  Solemn and silent, they walk down, and their line tends to bunch up near the Doughboy as the ones in front of them linger a bit too long in their salutes.

Only there are far fewer of them than there used to be.

For a while, it seemed as though ever year, we could notice who wasn't there.  Particularly the older men, who would shuffle with a peculiar gait, or whose comb-over was exceptionally pronounced.  There was a Japanese woman who was a member of a Japanese wives auxiliary, but when she died, apparently so did that auxiliary.  And that's been the pattern over the past fifteen years we've been attending.

There's still one tall, elegant gentleman, always in a black suit and crisp white shirt, with a tie, no matter the heat or humidity.  His full head of thick white hair blows about whenever there's a breeze, and he never sits - he's constantly wandering the periphery of the event, tiny camera in hand, taking photos of everything and everybody.  Teetering about on long, thin legs that seem about to give out on him, but still, he makes his circuit, around and around, never even flinching during the ear-popping 21-gun salute.

Each year, although we have no idea who he is, my friends and I hope to see him, knowing that one of these years, we won't.

Afterwards, on the drive home last night, my friends and I joked about maybe having to form our own auxiliary and signing-up to present our own wreath during the Doughboy part of the ceremony.  My friends were dating when we started attending these, and now they have two elementary-school-aged kids they bring along for a lesson in patriotism.  Apparently, newer generations of GI's don't join veterans groups when they leave the service, and considering the rowdy, beer-swilling, vulgarity-laced reputation many of these VFW halls have had for decades, that's likely not a bad thing.  And since the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, the attendance at Mount Olivet has been climbing almost every year.  There were probably three hundred or so people in attendance yesterday, which my friends and I thought looked like the largest crowd yet.

But somebody's still gotta lay down the wreaths, right?

In remembrance of those who've laid down their lives for our country.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Scouting For Answers Despite the Vote

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America took a divisive vote.

During a meeting of the organization's National Council here in suburban Fort Worth, a vote was taken to approve a proposal allowing boys who claim a sexual orientation other than heterosexual to remain in the Scouts.  Although controversial, this proposal represented a choppy compromise over the even more contentious demands by some in the gay lobby to admit openly non-heterosexual adults as troop leaders.

That bigger battle over gay Scout leadership still looms in the organization's future.  For now, gay-rights activists have claimed a measure of vindication by officially overturning traditional scouting policy that excluded - in theory, if not in practice, openly-homosexual boys from participation in the organization.  Undoubtedly, before yesterday, boys who later determined that they were gay were matriculating through the Boy Scouts without much of a fuss.

Yesterday's vote passed by 61 percent, a considerable majority, prompting several conservative factions within Scouting to announce that they are exploring the possibility of forming a new organization for heterosexual boys exclusively.

Since the Boy Scouts are headquartered here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and yesterday's vote took place at a resort near our major international airport, our local media has been all over this story.  If it wasn't for the ongoing cleanup efforts underway after the historic tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, just a couple of hours north of us, and the stunning assassination of a reputed drug cartel lawyer in an exclusive shopping district locally, the Scouts' vote would have been the biggest news in town.  After all, north Texas isn't known as a bastion of liberal ideology.  To many people here, this vote by the Scouts' National Council represents further proof that the rest of our country is moving quickly and irrevocably towards left-wing immorality.

Of course, immorality still flourishes right here in north Texas as well.  It's simply not of the left-wing variety.

Another thing many conservatives are forgetting is that it's their highly rhetoricalized democracy that is helping create this sociological sea change in our country.  Although I benefit from our democratic republic as much as anybody, and am not proposing we adopt any other form of government, isn't it obvious that our system isn't perfect?  Democracy is fueling how increasingly accommodating we are of lifestyles and choices that our society used to deem inappropriate for private discussion, let alone Boy Scout votes.  Sixty-one percent of the Boy Scouts' National Council approved this measure, which, according to simple arithmetic and basic political science, is a clear majority.  People voted the way they felt compelled to vote.  Democracy worked, right?

Not so fast, some conservatives are saying.  We don't like the vote results, so we're taking our toys and going to play in somebody else's yard.  And while I understand their sentiment, and personally feel that the issue of sexual identity among adolescent boys needs to be handled in an entirely different manner, it's as if the parents and leaders who don't like the vote results have a tolerance for democracy only when it works in their favor.

Now, I know "tolerance" has become a politically-charged word these days, and while I find some initial reactions to yesterday's vote by its losers more childish than anything, they have the right to leave and create an organization that better represents their convictions.  After all, matters of sexuality are rarely insignificant, and broad interpretations of cultural mores administered in a bureaucracy like the Scouts have a habit of backfiring.  To God, a sin is a sin is a sin, but different sins have different repercussions, and homosexuality is an issue about which parents of faith are correctly concerned.

Problem is, of course, that inevitably, somebody with a different perspective will challenge any new replacement organization as well, and we'll probably end up in a similar situation down the line.  Maybe these folks already have anticipated that likelihood, but figure their kids will be grown up and out of their new organization by that time, so it will be somebody else's problem.  But do you see the over-arching dilemma here?  This issue is not going to go away, and if it ever does, it won't be anytime soon.  Trends don't reverse themselves just by democratic vote.  Democracy usually just represents how a group of voters think.

Indeed, democracy as a system of governance is only as popular as the majority opinion.  And the majority opinion isn't necessarily right, moral, justified, feasible, humane, ethical, or sustainable.  The bigger problem with this vote isn't so much the perceived threat of openly-gay boys participating equally in Scouting, but the apparent lack of context regarding the appropriateness of sexuality of any kind receiving this much attention in Scouting.  How involved are the Scouts in their young membership's sexual development and society's moral reality of modern child-rearing?  Why should this topic comprise a viable component of Scouting curriculum?

How many children know their sexual "identity" at such a young age anyway?  Should Scouting be considered an appropriate venue for encouraging young boys to be publicly expressing whatever sexual "identity" they presume they have?

This isn't just a critique of gay youngsters, but straight ones, too.  Isn't a conventionally permissible attitude about "boys being boys" part of what's helping to get younger and younger girls pregnant?  Do the Scouts already address such gender issues?  I understand that hormones and testosterone are ramping up in noticeable and natural ways during these kids' early years.  But if I was a parent, I'm not sure I'd want my boys being educated about their sexuality by their Scoutmaster.  Has sex so saturated our culture that a group of boys can't go on a camping trip without exploring their sexuality - whether gay or straight?

Votes like this one yesterday help me understand why many people with extremist ideologies are skeptical that compromise actually accomplishes even a fraction of what they'd like to see happen.  Although sticking to one's political principles also means that nothing substantive gets done, that can sometimes seem preferable to reaching accord on something that itself may have little overall value.  Although I don't really have a problem with the Boy Scouts admitting professing gay boys into its activities, and while I believe evangelical parents could use interactions with such boys as faith-building exercises of love and ministry, posing such a vote as a referendum of sorts on the bigger issue of gay leadership seems more threatening and rabble-rousing than affirming of civil rights.  This vote also lends credence to the claims of bigotry made by the gay community, while the whole issue of teenaged sexuality risks being trivialized and obscured.

In changing times, as we can see, this is what democracy can do.  For better or worse, at least we all know where the Scouting leadership now stands, and where it is likely to go in the future.  How glad I am that my hope isn't in any democracy, but The Monarchy - the Kingship of Jesus Christ!  There is no democracy in His Kingdom, but the only people who fear His autocracy are the ones who want no part of His sovereign grace.

Votes here on Earth will come and go.  I'm thankful that I live in a democratic republic, instead of a totalitarian state, but I'm not blind to democracy's limitations.  We believers in Christ need to remember that this world is not our home.  Democratic majorities will inevitably vote their preferences, which won't necessarily honor God, since human nature is intrinsically corrupt.  I mean, think about it:  how many parents have to train their children to misbehave?

For American parents who rely on the Boy Scouts to help train their children, I'm not sure there's any way yesterday's vote could have been beneficial for helping young boys "be prepared," since holding a vote to affirm or deny a particular pattern of sexuality is no way to prepare young minds for interacting with this topic later in life.  Nor am I sure that the reactionary creation of splinter groups will serve the best long-term interests of those groups.  It's not like this is an isolated dilemma.  How many church youth groups, for example, have to deal with this issue on a regular basis?  I'm assuming - and hoping - they do so with a great deal of prayer, parental interaction, and love.

Funny how a lot of these things always come back to love, isn't it?  I'm not very good at love, so I find I'm usually preaching to myself about how much God expects us to incorporate it into every avenue of our faith walk.  Not that you and I shouldn't take a stand against evil, but that when we do, we need to keep things in perspective.  Democracy is one thing, but our lives are being lived in the Kingdom of God for the King, Jesus Christ.

Talk about your ideal Scoutmaster!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Admit It: City Redemption Can Excite



Just look at these old photos I found!

I took them in 1993 from the passenger compartment of a large helicopter.  At the time, I was working for a freight forwarding firm in Lower Manhattan, and since we were part of the shipping industry regulated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, we had access to bookings for the Port Authority's helicopters that occasionally flew over and around Manhattan Island and New York Harbor.

Such helicopter tours were normally reserved for corporate titans and heads of state wanting to tour the metropolitan area's vast cargo transportation network, or scout prime locations for establishing what we called transmodal logistics centers.  Transmodal simply means "across modes of travel," so what sounds like impressive terminology simply translates into "how stuff gets moved from one place to another."  Obviously, one can see quite a lot from up high in a helicopter, and considering how miserable getting around New York City's roadways, tunnels, and bridges can be, helicopters also provide the quickest way of navigating the teeming metropolis, especially when you're trying impress visitors.

Today, there seems to be plenty of private, for-profit helicopter activity around New York City, and the Port Authority ended its own helicopter program in 2011.  I don't know if that's significant, but judging by the number of helicopter tour operators up there, it's hard to argue that the Port Authority doesn't have better things to spend its money on, what with the World Trade Center's construction project dragging on.

At any rate, back twenty years ago, when I took these photos, my company was hosting a client from Brazil, and my considerate boss thought that instead of him going with her on the ride, I'd like to go.  And boy, did I!  Back in Texas, my brother had just begun his career in helicopter aviation, and I'd flown with him a couple of times, but never around something as grand and thrilling as Manhattan Island.

In the top photo, we're flying across the harbor, near the New Jersey cargo terminals.  Even though these images are scanned from paper photos, their original quality is also especially bad because, well, they were taken in a fast-moving helicopter that was constantly vibrating!  But honestly, you couldn't take a bad photo of the Twin Towers.  Granted, I never admired those buildings for their architectural beauty, but as far back as I can remember, they stood sentry duty over Lower Manhattan in a brash signature punctuating the financial district's otherwise ubiquitous skyline.  Their replacements, one of which is almost complete, simply pale in comparison.

The next photo shows us high over Central Park, looking down onto Midtown with Lower Manhattan at the top of the photo, like the prow of a massive ship sailing out to the mighty Atlantic Ocean.  We were told by our pilot that only Port Authority, air ambulance, and police helicopters were allowed to fly over Manhattan; all other commercial helicopters had to fly around the periphery of the island.  Today, according to a map of approved flight routes from the FAA, this sky path over Central Park appears open to commercial traffic, but it's the only cross-town route available.

I took the third photo to capture a glimpse of Park Avenue as it marches broadly down to the elegant Helmsley Building and Grand Central Station.  One also gets a sense of the compactness and density of all the apartment buildings that are almost crushed up next to each other, squeezing out as much real estate as this narrow island will yield.  Of course, today, several of these grand old buildings have been torn town and replaced by sleeker, taller, yet less impressive residential skyscrapers, as developers build trophy apartments not for New Yorkers, but for international jet-setters who think paying $90 million for a penthouse is a cheaper alternative to London, England's prices.  Imagine!

Meanwhile, even many of New York's modestly rich residents are finding themselves outpriced in this new real estate trend.  Indeed, in the brave new world of Russian, Brazilian, and Chinese money, wealth is more relative than ever before.

What strikes me as I reminisce about my days in New York while contemplating these old photos is that New York is truly an exciting place.  Of course, that's not news to anybody.  You don't even have to like the place to begrudgingly admit that it's exciting, only perhaps not the type of excitement that excites you.  And then I keep reading articles and essays that still appear to be flooding evangelical websites concerning the virtues and fallacies of pursuing urban ministry.  Ardent advocates for Tim Keller's city-centric church model have been crowing for years now about following the hipsters back into neglected urbanity.  And evangelicals left in the suburbs have had enough of suddenly feeling like second-class citizens in God's Kingdom.

Perhaps it would help smooth the waters if we all just came out and admitted it:  places like New York City, despite their problems, are simply amazing.  They're far more interesting, compelling, and vibrant than suburbia.  And New York City is probably, all things considered, the most interesting, compelling, and vibrant city on the planet.  Keller and his peers haven't gone back into the cities because their Type-A personalities wanted to languish in obscurity.  They knew that the New York's, Chicago's, and Boston's of America still had plenty of life left in them, even if middle-class, white America wanted the relative safety and serenity of the 'burbs.

I mean, look at these photos again!  Think about the role so many of these iconic places have had in our culture:  the Twin Towers, the great harbor, the Empire State Building, Park Avenue, Central Park, even the Helmsley's.  Good and bad, big and bigger, posh and pastoral; if you were a person who thrives on grand challenges and prestigious opportunities, if you couldn't get to New York, wouldn't you try to get to the biggest city you could?

No, New York and cities in general aren't for everybody.  But like the old World War I song goes, "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"  I suppose suburbia has some iconic elements, such as the drive-in, the shopping mall, and the split-level house, but urban icons tend to be more charismatic, and even indelible identities for specific cities.  Meanwhile, split-level homes, for example, are only uncommon here in Texas because the suburban boom hit hardest after split-levels lost their popularity.

To the extent that God led Keller and his peers back into the city at a time when thousands of young hipsters were rediscovering the city, too, shows more of His sovereignty than anything else.  Even as many of these hipsters have matured, gotten married, and repatriated themselves back to suburbia to raise their families, hasn't the surge towards central cities helped ground a new generation of Christ-followers, thanks to the presence of evangelical congregations in newly-gentrified 'hoods?  God had this all mapped out, and we should be glad that He did.

Meanwhile, we can't ignore the reality that adrenaline plays a significant role in the "redeem the city" movement.  There's a certain rush and vibe in conventional downtown cores that you simply don't get in suburbia - hey, that rush and vibe were reasons many people left cities and moved to suburbia over the past sixty years!  It's just that the urban aesthetic is trendy again.  And there's nothing sinful about going to where people are going.

Is there anything extraordinarily significant about cities that make them Biblically compelling places for ministry?  No, at least not compared to suburbia.  The reasons for ministering to urbanites is the same as the reasons for ministering to suburbanites.  God is calling people to repentance all over the world, in cities, suburbs, rural areas, ghettos of both wealth and poverty, and everything in between.  City people aren't any more important to God than people who live anyplace else.  So let's not kid ourselves and assume that just because our ministry's target demographic happens to be what's currently trendy, that ours is the more "relevant" effort.

I've had people ask me if I miss New York, or if I'd ever move back.  I've gotta tell you, I miss the friends I made there more than I miss the city, although surprisingly, I miss many aspects of New York life.  I miss the convenience - if not the chaos - of the subway.  I liked being able to walk practically wherever I wanted to go.  I liked the museums (when they weren't crowded with tourists) and walking home to my apartment with spires for both the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in a single view.  I liked Gotham's cultural mix across the boroughs and was intrigued by the oftentimes bizarre juxtaposition of those cultures and lifestyles.

But I'm not the aggressive, goal-oriented, money-fixated, status-driven, high-energy person who thrives in such a demanding and challenging environment.  You don't have to be all of these things to be a successful New Yorker, but the more of these you lack, the less your chances at surviving the city's grueling lifestyle.  Or even being able to afford it.

Some evangelicals manage to thrive more in some of these areas than others, and they can make the mix work, with God's help.  So it's not like Christ followers in the Big Apple are money-hungry career-climbers bent on buying one of those exotic penthouses.  But I know I have even less of what it takes for Bible-believing people to serve God in such a demanding city.  So I know that I will not be going back there to live.

For the people whom Christ has called to the city, however, He will provide ways for them to serve Him there, just as He provides ways for me to serve Him here in suburbia.

Plus, I have the photos to help remind me of what truly was the most exciting time of my life.  It's just that excitement isn't all there is to life, is it?



Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Does God Love Unequally?

Does God love all of us equally?

Every man, woman, child, old person, evangelical, charismatic, atheist, convicted murderer, liberal, conservative, American, Russian, Nigerian, rich person, homeless person, New Yorker, Texan, Billy Graham, Joe Schmoe:  does God love all of us equally?

When He allows devastating tornadoes to wreak havoc on places like Moore, Oklahoma, is God making some sort of statement about how much He loves - or doesn't love - people living in Tornado Alley?  Or, when we Reformed evangelicals discuss the doctrine of election, are we asserting that God only loves those whom He saves?  Even if you believe in free will or Arminianism, which is the opposite of predestination, and you hear the phrase "God loves the saved and the unsaved equally," is that an accurate claim?

A New Command, But An Old Struggle

As much as I talk about how believers in Christ should minimize our differences and concentrate on our shared convictions, there's only so much we can smoothly share in utter unity with each other before we start running into some basic discrepancies of doctrine.

We believers should still love each other, since Christ tells us to do so.  That's a Biblical command, right from John 13:34.  But that still doesn't answer the question about how much God loves people.

Of course, the very concept of "love" has different manifestations, doesn't it?  You love your parents in a different way than you love your pastor, or your spouse, or even me!  Suffice it to say that when we're talking "love" here, you're going to have to work with me so this doesn't turn into a sprawling doctoral dissertation on the subject.  I'm no theologian, nor do I pretend to be, but there are some questions any run-of-the-mill follower of Christ should be able to answer without having a seminary degree.

And yes, the question does deserve an answer.  Frankly, it would be much easier to love each other if we could just gloss over areas such as this one where we may disagree, and sometimes, depending on the shared objective, we can.  Other times, however, we risk dishonoring God by trying to be so accepting that we're not judicious about the characteristics we accept as fact about our Heavenly Father.

One of these characteristics that keeps popping up is love, and specifically, whether God truly loves all mankind equally.  Some people say just that:  God indeed loves every human being in equal measure.  Others say God has greater love for people who are saved, and a lesser love for those who aren't.  Still others say God has no love for people who are not saved.  Which is right?

It matters because, regardless of which position you may currently hold, for better or worse, it likely shapes our faith practices.

Because the Bible does not explicitly enumerate love percentages, some of us may hope such an absence allows us to infer that this issue ranks low on the areas of agreement we believers are to share.  On the other hand, the Bible isn't a listing of hierarchies and rules, but God's revelation of Himself to mankind.  The degree to which we believe those things God tells us about Himself in His Word is the degree to which we can better know Him and serve Him.  Knowing how He loves, and whom He loves, should help to make our faith more honoring to Him and effective for us.

Love Without Confession

In terms of whether God can't love somebody, such as an unrepentant sinner, we can't apply our mortal perspective on His holy purposes.  Since God is love, and the creator of love, it's basically improper, if not modestly heretical, to evaluate God's love based on His incapacity for it.  In other words, it slights His holy character to say He can't love, or lacks love.  He created it, so He can't lack it.  Yes, this is flirting with semantic technicality, but it's important nevertheless.  God is love, so the corollary to that fact has to be that every person, throughout their lifetime, is in some way and to some extent a beneficiary of some measure of His love.

Besides, how can God completely, utterly, not love somebody?  Everybody on this planet benefits from what we call His "common grace," such as Creation itself, the sun and moon, gravity, breathable air, justice and laws, and even governments.  All of Earth's created order, including the value and dignity of human life, stands as a testament to God's love for all of us.  To a certain degree - a degree that is full and complete for everyone, regardless of their faith - America's Founding Fathers were right in saying that we have certain inalienable rights, and those rights come from God's loving care for all He has made.

Having said that, however, we need to recognize that the degree to which we're all entitled to basic human rights - rights reflective of God's love for all humanity - does not reflect the fullness or completeness of God's capacity for love.  Yes, according to Psalm 139, God has from eternity past loved every person even before they were conceived, and that is a powerful truth that we should all find immensely comforting.  But how do you reconcile the fact that, well, some people are reconciled to God, and others aren't?

It doesn't matter if you believe in predestination or not; believers in Christ know for a fact that some people are saved, and some aren't.  If God loved each of us equally, then we'd all be saved.  But not everyone is.  Therefore, it's intrinsically incompatible with scripture to claim that God loves every person to the same degree.  Otherwise, we deny His purposes for salvation, and indeed, for Christ's sacrifice.  That makes God's "equal love" heretical.  It's a fallacy.

Even last night as I read in Psalm 111, the psalmist praises God for providing food "for those who fear Him."  God provides for His people, which, taken in the context of salvation, and as a corollary, means that He's not obligated to provide food for those who are not saved.  Indeed, the fact that many unsaved people have enough food to eat is an example of God's common grace, not His saving grace.  They eat despite their lostness.  Meanwhile, God's people may not like what God provides for their meals, but through His ordinary way of working, we will not starve to death (seasons of extreme persecution notwithstanding).

If God determines to make exceptional provision "for those who fear Him," then He loves "those who fear Him" more than those who don't.  Right?

Remember, however, that God still loves the unsaved.  But how much?  And how much more does He love those of us who are saved?  God never tells us, which likely means it's none of our business.  It's His.  He is sovereign over all, including His love.  What we do know, however, is that He doesn't love everybody equally.  But He does love everybody.  He had some amount of love for Adolph Hitler, but from what we know, it was not a saving love.  He has some amount of love for Kermit Gosnell, the abortion doctor, but right now, we don't know if it's a saving love, although we should be praying that it is!

Little Children

For those of us who are saved, we should rejoice in His salvific love expressed through His grace and mercy.  And we should also recognize the responsibility that comes with God's salvific love.  "To whom much is given, much is required" is a Biblical phrase I repeat often, and has significant application in this discussion.  As God's people, we have a duty to express His love to the world around us, even if such expressions run counter to, say, right-wing or left-wing political ideology.

It's also important to note that, within our body of believers, God does not discriminate.  Everyone whom He saves He loves equally.  We each may have different roles and abilities within the body, but not one of us believers is especially important to Him or loved any more by Him.  That's hard for us to understand, especially since we live in a culture driven to reward individual merit and accomplishment.  That's not to say some believers won't achieve a higher social status than others here within our earthly experience.  Or that some believers have more of a visible impact within our earthly experience for God.  Billy Graham, for example, has had a far more public ministry than 99.9% of other evangelicals, but God doesn't love him any more than He loves me, or anybody else who professes faith in Christ.

That's the joy in this truth about God's love, isn't it?  Good parents can't love their kids to different degrees, even though one may be a dot-com billionaire, another one a brain surgeon, and another one a politician (yes, that was a slam on my part).  Meanwhile, God assures us that we believers are His children, and He is our Father.

When other kids came over to play at your house when you were a kid, your parents likely looked after them like they looked after you.  Your mom brought out lemonade and cookies to all of you, and cleaned their cuts and scrapes just like she cleaned yours.  Your dad grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for all of you.  But while your parents demonstrated a level of love to your friends that we commonly call kindness, and even affection, your parents still loved you more.  That's just the way it was.  And that's kinda how God's love is for both the saved and unsaved.

Where the analogy kinda loses its punch is the point at which God, just like our parents, expects us believers in His family to get along with our siblings, no matter how successful, smart, misbehaved, or dim-witted we think each other to be.  Instead, however, we bicker amongst our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ just like we bicker with our earthly siblings.  Sometimes, we get along better with people outside of our family than people within it.

Um... OK, so maybe this analogy maintains its credibility after all, but God would prefer that it not!  He has bestowed upon us a love that is higher and greater than the love he displays to the unsaved, but that's not an excuse for us to abuse it, or take it for granted.  After all, it's not even like we know for sure those whom God may be calling to Himself, and those who will never accept Christ as their Savior and Lord.  This means that how we interact with people who don't share our faith shouldn't be any different than how we're to interact with those who do.

God, in His sovereignty, may love the saved and unsaved in different measure, but He never says we can, too.

That's the short answer (!) for the question of whether God loves all of mankind equally.  If you still want to believe that He does, you may not be saved.  Yet those of us who are saved, and know that He doesn't, should still act like He does.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Sin Is A Sin Is A Sin

Inconsistency.

It can lead to hypocrisy.  Which can make the faith we profess look pretty goofy to the unsaved world.

For example, inconsistency with regards to the sanctity of marriage - and sex in general - has helped contribute to our society's growing struggle over gay marriage.  We evangelicals have historically been viewed as hypocritical when it comes to morality, and especially now that most of us have come out against gay marriage, we're finding our argument in favor of heterosexual monogamy falling on increasingly deaf ears.

Forget the reality that we have almost as bad a divorce rate within our faith communities as the unchurched world does.  What about our tolerance - and even open enjoyment of - sex-laced TV shows and movies?  What about our relative ambivalence towards celebrities who have extramarital affairs?  Aren't these all sins, too?  It used to be the unchurched who mocked tart-faced Christians for pointing out sexual sins, but these days, plenty of evangelicals run from the "fundamentalist" label, shrugging off sexual immorality in the media - and in our personal lives - as just part of living in our post-modern culture.

Then, when something like gay marriage begins to gain traction in our society, suddenly evangelicals are flying out of the woodwork claiming such a concept is beyond immoral.  Gay marriage strikes at the very core of the family unit, which itself is the basis for civilized society.

Which, of course, is true.  But making such a fuss over a particular sin being particularly evil because it's particularly vulgar sounds inconsistent, provoking the unsaved around us to sneer, "so, you're making up the rules for sexual propriety?  I thought your God did that."

Well, yes, He did, some of us evangelicals protest.  It's just that some sins are worse than others, and homosexuality is one of those sins that's worse than cheating on your spouse, or any number of other sexual sins involving any number of other people.

So... sexual sin is only really bad when gays do it?

Piper or Gagnon - All Sins Equal, or Not?

In his recent response to this inconsistency, Barnabas Piper wrote an op-ed for World magazine, "This Sin But Not That Sin," questioning "why Christians feel the need to respond with such bold clarity to homosexuality while not doing the same to other cultural sins."  Piper (son of celebrity pastor John Piper) wonders if evangelicals who argue for stiffer weights against gay sin do so because "standing up against homosexuality is much easier than decrying other sinful lifestyles."

After all, heterosexual fornication is likely far more popular and prevalent within evangelical congregations than homosexual fornication.  Which one will get a preacher fired more quickly?

"It is as if the sins of adultery or fornication are wrong, but a sort of normalized wrong," Piper writes, "whereas homosexuality is a 'weird' or 'unusual' sin.  What we fail to recognize is that every sin from the mildest gossip to the wildest orgy is a mark of the fall, proof of sins twisting God’s good creation."

Which, of course, is true, isn't it?  I've advanced the same logic many times here on my blog.

Meanwhile, seminary professor and Biblical sexuality expert Robert A. J. Gagnon, has taken a traditionalist's exception to Piper's even assessment of sin.  Gagnon claims in "A Response: Is It Wrong To Treat Some Sins Differently?" that God indeed has a hierarchy of sin.  Except, instead of any scriptural justification for his viewpoint, Gagnon relies on conventional conservative emotions to portray certain sins as particularly deviant.

Gagnon asks, for example, if cutting in line carries the same weight as Hitler's extermination of millions of Jews.  Isn't having sex with one's mother worse than "slight" gossip (whatever "slight" gossip is)?  He tries to quote scriptures pertaining to homosexuality as proof of his hierarchical argument, but those verses, taken in context, better prove Piper's point than Gagnon's.

Yes, we assign different civil penalties between cutting into a line and ethnic cleansing, but that is because humanity can better withstand the former than the latter.  And yes, we find it revolting to even consider the thought of having sex with one's parent, whereas gossip is far more acceptable a sin.  While these realities reflect our socialization regarding the appropriateness, popularity, and pervasiveness of particular sins, however, they don't reflect any God-designed scale of suitability.  Indeed, while there may be different practical and civil consequences for different sins, and yes, homosexuality can cripple God's design and intent for sex, procreation, and even love; the fact remains that all sin is sin.

And in God's eyes, there's only one eternal punishment.

Consider Lot's wife, or the guy who put his hand against the ark to keep it from falling into mud, or the couple who both lied to the Apostle Peter about how much money they got from selling some property:  they were all killed by God for their disobedience.  Yikes!  How many personalities in the Bible did God kill because they were gay?  Meanwhile, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband slaughtered on the front lines, and the child of David's illicit promiscuity was killed.  What does all this say about sin?  Not that there are varying degrees of it to God, but that God detests all of it. 

There is simply no list in the Bible where some sins are rated better or worse than others.

Sin As the Expression of Utter Depravity

In fact, I'd say that if anything, Piper did not go far enough to make his point. What is mankind's utter depravity, unless it’s the complete lack of virtue of any kind?  We don’t win any bonus points or partial credit by choosing to commit one sin instead of another.  God can’t look upon ANY sin – isn’t that what makes them equally abhorrent in His eyes?

On the other hand, you and I are so accustomed to sin that we don’t realize how thorough and visceral it is in each of us.  We're socialized to evaluate bad behavior based on its penalties and outcomes, as well as how our society conditions us to function within and readily accept a sinful environment.  Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, we've had a sin nature that completely corrupts us.  That is what makes Christ’s sacrifice for us so beautiful.  That’s what forces the necessity of salvation.  Christ died to pay the penalty for homosexually, gluttony, gossip, adultery, cutting in line, speeding, ethnic cleansing, hatred, lying - every sin!  We're not any better for thinking sexually impure thoughts instead of committing sexually impure acts.  We're rotten, filthy, vile to the core.  The Ten Commandments aren’t listed in order of severity, as much as they build upon each other to create an impregnable whole.  There is nothing we can do to merit the grace of God.

Nothing.

Meanwhile, might those of us who want to think that some sins are worse than others actually be undermining the integrity of the entire Gospel argument?  We say there is no salvation by works, but if we say God views some sins more punitively than others, then by default, we're kinda saying that we can be less bad by doing other things.  Yet that is a fallacy, isn't it?  The Gospel is that nobody is righteous.  Nobody.  We can't hold ourselves to be better than somebody else because we haven't committed the same sins they have.  The Gospel doesn't work that way.  We can't compare ourselves to our neighbors.  To see what sin truly is, we need to look to God's holiness.

And for those of us who are saved, we see not only God's holiness, but His grace, extended to us through the death, burial, and resurrection of His holy Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!  We see the penalty for our sins "paid in full" through Christ's sacrificial gift of His life for ours.  That is the beauty and majesty of the faith we've been given.  That is the glory of Christ and the sovereignty of God at work.  That is why we should not rank our sins based on how acceptable they are to society.  Society is not the standard!  God is!

God is not, however, a respecter of persons.  He will save the homosexual, the gossip, the fornicator, the glutton - He'll save whomsoever He will save!  Instead of inadvertently convincing gays that they're a disadvantaged step beyond grace and they need to change their extraordinarily sinful lifestyle so it's not as offensive, we need to repent of our own sin of condemning special classes of people because we've unilaterally decided we don't like their sin as much as somebody else's.

The late writer and artist Gertrude Stein has been credited with taking an obscure Shakespeare quote and turning it into "a rose is a rose is a rose."  Which means that some things simply exist as they are.  That's what sin does.  Sin exists.  Just as to Stein, all roses have equal value in their capacity to provide pleasure, to God, all sins have an equal capacity to incite His wrath.

Ironically enough, Stein, a lesbian, is also credited with being the first author to incorporate the word "gay" into a published manuscript and have it mean "homosexual."

A sin is a sin is a sin, indeed.


Friday, May 17, 2013

God's Provision? It's In the Mail

 Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord
 Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice
 Tender to me the promise of His Word
 In God my Saviour shall my heart rejoice  - Timothy Dudley Smith (1926 - )

_____

Now, this is cool!

A friend of mine recently underwent some minor yet necessary surgery.  She lost her job over a year ago when the company for which she was working went out of business.  Her husband has a good job with health insurance, but they were surprised - and a bit chagrined - to receive a bill this week for part of the surgery's costs that weren't covered by their insurance company.

Suffice it to say that money is not the most abundant commodity at their disposal these days.

But God's provision is!

Today, in the mail, they received a check via their church from somebody in their fellowship who wanted to remain anonymous.  The money came completely unsolicited - my friends had not petitioned their church for financial assistance.  Somebody from the congregation was simply led by our Lord to arrange with their church to quietly furnish an amount of money as a gift to my friends.

And get this:  it is the same amount as the surprise bill from the surgery center!

I don't know about you, but true stories like this from friends who are trustworthy - and don't make up this kind of stuff - provide me with such encouragement!  God truly knows our needs, doesn't He, financial and otherwise?  From the way my friend tells this story, it's not so much the monetary help from their anonymous benefactors, but the fact that they even thought of doing it that makes this so special.

Indeed, this lovely surprise isn't entirely anonymous, is it?  Ultimately, it came from God Himself, and somebody allowed Him to use themself for His glory.  Plus, whomever it was got to enjoy the fun of being a clandestine conduit of His generosity.  God loves a cheerful giver, doesn't He, and it's fun to give cheerfully.  The clerk in their church's office who processed this surprise also gets to share in the joy of seeing such love and service.  Doesn't the whole thing just make you smile?

There's not much more editorializing or opinionating that's necessary here for us to revel in God's goodness, providence, and timing.  So let's do so, with gratitude for these reminders that He truly cares for us!

 Great is Thy faithfulness!  Great is Thy faithfulness!
 Morning by morning, new mercies I see.
 All I have needed Thy hand has provided!
 Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.  - Thomas Chisholm (1866–1960)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hard Questions for Holy Hip Hoppers

What is it with middle-aged Christian white men and their infatuation with rap music?

Not me, silly!  I'm talking about people like the popular Christian personality Dr. Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky.  Christianity Today this month features an article by Moore entitled "W.W. Jay-Z?  How Christian hip-hop could call the American church back to the gospel—and hip-hop back to its roots."

Whew!

As you can tell from its wordy title, Moore's sprawling seven-page manuscript is an excruciatingly nuanced and cumbersome defense of rap and hip-hop in the evangelical realm.

"Listen to the new Christian hip-hop once, and you'll note just how theological it is," gushes Moore.  "The first time I heard a song by artist Flame was also the first time I heard the heresy 'modalistic monarchianism' denounced by name in any song."

Wow.  If that's all it takes for a song to be theological, are we Christians wrong for bashing Madonna and her trashy songs like "Like a Prayer?"

Of course, that's not what Moore is intending to say, but that's what he's implying.  It's as if theological jargon is sufficient for a genre of music to be considered legitimate.  "The new hip-hop artists aren't simply adapting apologetic arguments into their lyrics," Moore explains, upping the ante mostly because he agrees with the brand of theology some rappers are espousing.  "Instead, they are modeling a broadly Reformed system of Christian doctrine, which is characterized by an emphasis on humanity's depravity, God's sovereignty, and divine election."

Okay.  So their words aren't offensive.  They're actually educational, especially if you're into finding words that rhyme with "hypostatic union."

But let's go back to a quote Moore provides by Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio, an organization attempting to bridge faith and culture.  "'Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained,'" Moore quotes Myers as admitting.  "'It is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation.'"

I think we can all agree on that, right?

Myers continues.  "'Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence.'"  Moore consolidates Myers' further points this way:  "To use 'pious and humble' hip-hop lyrics would be to ignore or denigrate 'the musical vocabulary of hip-hop,' since it is a style 'more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty of spirit.'"

Again, I think most of us who know anything about the genre can agree on this, too.  Indeed, I allude to the depravity which has helped to nurture rap and hip-hop (we white guys tend to use the terms interchangeably) in my essay on Brooklyn the other day.  The music of the urban ghetto is not so much an evolution of the spirituals from the southern slave fields as it is a far more conflicted, narcissistic, and accusatory narrative of people who have been intentionally marginalized by the political party that claims to be their voice, and patronized by poverty-perpetuating welfare programs.

Hardly the stuff of orthodox grace, mercy, love, and sanctification, is it?

This is not to say that listening to rap and hip-hop - whether it's from the secular markets, or the Christian market - is, in and of itself, a sin.  To the extent that "Reformed" rappers can put theology to a rhythm and prose that is catchy and memorable can't be the worst way to learn what some of these big religious concepts mean.  I can't even deny that the uncanny ability Reformed rappers have of creating something like that isn't some sort of gifting, especially since the stuffy academics who came up with these Byzantine terms had no intention of making them easy for mere laymen to understand.  Take some of these lyrics out of the sound, and even the beat, and they could probably stand on their own as worthy poetry.

From there, however, Moore wanders off into a desperate search for parallels between church history and the disenfranchisement that is part and parcel of rap and hip-hop.  Like a lot of eager whites, he pooh-pooh's the hard-core hate and anger infused into so much rap, almost as if, by his embrace of it, he's proving the point some rap artists are trying to make:  whitey just don't get it.  Moore even debates the worthiness of contemporary Christian music and southern Gospel to address some of the issues rap can more darkly explore.  Of course, I hold much CCM with even greater disdain than rap, since CCM is nothing more than a commercial compromise at the altar of rock's anthem of rebellion.  At least rap and hip-hop, although moneymaking machines in their own right, do have the elements of justice and social awareness woven - however loosely - into their fabric.

As far as southern Gospel is concerned, well, I'm probably making enough enemies with this essay as it is.

Nevertheless, in terms of rap and hip-hop's general appropriateness for regular consumption by believers in Christ, is it simply a matter of finding Christian - and even Reformed - parallels within segments of carnal hedonism?  Instead, shouldn't we be considering the purposes of a cultural contrivance and whether those purposes stand in the light of the Gospel?  Don't authentic rap and hip-hop expressions stand exactly for what Moore quotes Myers as saying:  they are about everything except the Fruit of the Spirit?

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

How do rap and hip-hop fit into this fruit?

Now, maybe I'm missing something about how believers in Christ are supposed to live and model His work in our lives, but doesn't the Fruit of the Spirit represent a better measure by which we evaluate anything, instead of the extent to which something correlates with themes from theological and doctrinal history?

Otherwise, why am I praying that the holy Spirit will help me to speak the truth in love, be less cynical and moody, be less in love with status symbols, be less selfish and vain, and even be able to actually carry a tune in choir?  I know that's something for which my choir director at church is praying!  With rap and hip-hop, all I need to be able to do is bend my knees in cadence with a beat, and drone into a microphone stuffed halfway down my throat.

I also wonder if contemporary Christianity's infatuation with rap and hip-hop could actually create the illusion of racial harmony while deep-seated issues like generational poverty, income polarity, education and technological inequities, and divergent political interests continue to fester under the surface.  Even if there was nothing spiritually wrong with rap and hip-hop, how much does embracing a musical style with such socioeconomic and political baggage count towards inter-racial love and understanding?

Can we get jiggy with Jesus just because something rhymes with "hypostatic union?"  After all, isn't combining divinity with humanity something only Christ has been able to do?


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wasting Our Evangelical Industrial Complex?

If unchurched Joe Schmoe were to stumble across any of evangelical Christendom's many websites, how do you think he'd react to the content he'd find?

"Pope Francis and the Re-Marianization of the Papacy."

"Carl Henry: Not Just for Calvinists."

"How Dallas Willard Befriended Rookie Pastor Richard Foster."

"Making the Real Jesus Non-Ignorable In Our City and Far Beyond."

These headlines and bylines are from today's home pages for The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and Immanuel Church of Nashville.  And while you and I might recognize this subject matter, who else outside of our evangelical "ghetto" would?

Does it matter?

For some reason, it's struck me recently how our Christianized reality really is its own self-perpetuating universe.  Not that this is a bad thing, but how might it distort our purpose here on this planet?  Some of us really get worked-up over predestination, for example, but I don't think any of my unsaved friends know what "Reformed" and "Arminian" mean, and they don't really care.  To them, Calvinism is something to do with some old fashion designer.  Or maybe a defunct - albeit brilliant - cartoon character.  I don't even know what "re-marianization" means.  And what's up with "non-ignorable?"  Is Immanuel Church, the Acts 29 church in Music City that originated that term, making it up?

Oh - and by the way, - they go by the single word "Immanuel," assuming all of their website's visitors will automatically know it's a church.  Does God really need such haughty - or sly - marketing?

And how many Christians know what an "Acts 29" church is?

At first glace, for us churched folk, perhaps none of this seems very contrived, except for that Immanuel stuff, which isn't very non-ignorable.  It's just the way our churched culture has become.  For the unchurched like Joe Schmoe, however, for whose outreach all of this other content should at least partially be equipping us, it's likely all gibberish.

Not that the content behind these headlines and bylines isn't worthwhile and God-centered.  And it's not that any of this content has been written for an audience of unchurched people.  This isn't a critique on the legitimacy or efficacy of such content.  The point here isn't to advocate for everything in our evangelical ghetto to be instantly relevant to unsaved people who happen to come across it.  But can you see how prescient Dr. Carl Trueman has been with his description of our Christian culture as an "evangelical industrial complex?"

See how easy it is?  Even I name-dropped just there.

We make heroes of Christian leaders when we ignore the Apostle Paul's 1 Corinthians criticism of our tendency of "following" anybody but Christ.  We turn pastors and preachers into commodities based on how well they echo our opinions, instead of how the Holy Spirit uses them to shepherd His local flock.  We turn faith into some sort of exclusive codeword club like our government bureaucracy with all of its acronyms and insider jargon.  It also paints a picture of us evangelicals running some sort of clandestine world of programs, rituals, efficiency standards, protocols, advertising, and sales drives for souls, instead of ministry to real people hurting from real sin and a lack of real grace.

Granted, I talk a lot about "being in the world but not of it."  Many Christians try and see how close they can get to the world, its systems, and its pleasures, before they've crossed the line into sin.  In a way, then, having this Christian ghetto serves as an ironic juxtaposition to the flagrant worldliness in our churches.  Then too, growing in our faith is a noble and worthwhile goal towards which much of our evangelical industrial complex has been created to support.  There is also a certain value in being able to discuss theological and doctrinal concepts so that we can relate the practical aspects of these concepts to how we best serve and honor God - and, by extension, others.  In fact, I do a lot of that on this blog, and in my articles for Crosswalk.com.  It's not even like anything on these Gospel-themed websites - or any website, for that matter - can intentionally or unintentionally thwart God's salvific plans for Joe Schmoe or anybody else who visits them.

Isn't that a comforting and encouraging realization?!

Might it also mean, however, that a lot of our Christian rhetoric, posturing, and marketing has a lot less "Kingdom impact" than we assume it does?

Indeed, might the extent to which we ensconce ourselves into this contrived Christianized ghetto likely be the extent to which we package and parse our faith into a commodity we can use to measure ourselves against others?  Whether that's determining who's more spiritual, or what ministry is more "relevant,"or how to vote, we tend to instinctively check with people we perceive to be experts within our Christian ghetto even before we pray to our Creator or read His Word to us.

Think about it:  we Americans of faith are the most Christian-saturated people in the history of the world, and look at what's happening to our country all around us.  How many Bibles do you have in your home?  How many Christian music CDs, DVDs, and MP3s, do you have in your possession?  When was the last time it crossed your mind that most Christians around our planet worship in fear of facing death for their faith?  Are we salt and light, or salt that has lost its savor?  With all of the resources that we have at our disposal here in North America for God's glorious work around this world, how much of it is tied up in consumeristic stuff to prop up our ghetto?

We've been lulled into a false sense of security as we've let our evangelical industrial complex metastasize all around us.  Meanwhile, society is still as lost and consumed with its own vain pursuits as it ever was, only now, more brazenly.  So does this mean that all of our preachers, websites, writers, blogs, seminaries, churches, books, music, seminars, and charitable organizations are wrong, useless, or misguided?

Of course not.  Most of these resources feature solid, God-honoring content and are led by Godly people.

What it means is that we consumers of this evangelical industrial complex aren't putting this wealth of resources to good use.  We're not applying them personally.  Just like every other type of consumer who adopts the malaise of excess, we evangelicals don't understand that "to whom much is given, much is required."

To Joe Schmoe, that might sound like wealth redistribution.

To God, however, it's about not wasting good gifts.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Free Markets' Urban Rap

Writing about new urbanism these past few weeks, I've been taking some leisurely strolls down memory lane to the Brooklyn I know best.

It's not the trendy-hot Brooklyn most twentysomething hipsters know today, but a darker, more sinister Brooklyn.  A Brooklyn where memories aren't exactly nostalgic, and you certainly didn't stroll!  Once outside of your apartment, you constantly moved purposefully, quickly, and defensively.  Even offensively, if you were trying to cross the street, or grab a safe seat on public transportation in the middle subway car, or near the bus driver.  If you weren't keenly aware of your surroundings, or betrayed any lack of confidence in your ability to assert yourself if need be, you could end up as somebody else's prey.

It was a Brooklyn that, apparently, is all but gone these days, according to a revealing retrospective in the New York Times.  It chronicles the old haunts of rap music's pioneering stars, many of whom documented in rap their upbringing in Brooklyn's malevolent 'hoods, and what those places have become today.

There's A Reason Rap Music Has Brooklyn Ties

Back when I knew Brooklyn, neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Flatbush were all but off-limits to Gentile whites.  Hasidic Jews lived uncomfortably with blacks in Crown Heights, and ran most of the shops in all of the city's ghettos, but even that proved to be too much of a tinderbox.  Riots erupted in 1991 when a Hasidic man ran over a black youth with his car in Crown Heights.  Two white men ended up being murdered in "retaliation" by the mobs: one a Jew, the other suspected of being Jewish, since it was assumed no other whites would have any reason to be in Crown Heights.  Tensions after the initial violence continued to simmer on a high boil, and I recall a couple of summers later being invited to a college graduation party being held in the backyard of a church friend's home in the neighborhood, only to have it cancelled at the last minute because the family, who are black, feared for the safety of their white guests.

Indeed, the anger, resentment, and frustration of those miserable days - which contributed to rap music's ethos - provide considerable proof for my continuing refusal to sanction the rap genre for Christian worship.  I realize that "Christian rap," from DC Talk to Lecrae, has a popularity that itself attempts to prove its legitimacy, but in reality, it's virtually impossible to reconcile the hope and grace of the Gospel with rap's vulgar hedonism and morbidity.  Not to mention its reliance upon crime and personal demeanor for one's identity.

I may not like rap, but I can't deny its portrayal of how certain people vie for credibility.  It's a testament to how bad Brooklyn used to be that rap music was partially nurtured there during the borough's darkest days.

Nevertheless, just as Christians have tried to redeem rap, the borough of Brooklyn has found some measure of redemption in the stunning avalanche of new urbanism's unbridled adulation with all things Manhattan.  Fortunately for the gentrification industry, Manhattan is relatively small, meaning it can hardly accommodate the throngs of hipsters who pine to thrive off of its vibe.  Brooklyn, meanwhile, boasts among the closest subway stops to the Financial District, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side, making it the most logical locale for Manhattan's spill-over effect.  It's better than New Jersey, 'cause it's in the same city as Manhattan.  It's cooler than the more middle-class Queens, which never really got as bad as Brooklyn during the city's trial years.  And yeah, that badness plays well into the edgy elitism of urbanism being superior to the suburbs where we grew up.

In fact, as far as new urbanism goes, Brooklyn may now hold a slight advantage over Manhattan, which is home to all of those greedy banks and inhumane corporations.  Plus, mom and dad get a bit ancy when you talk about living in Brooklyn.  It's fun to make them worry about you 'cause their generation only knows of Brooklyn as a place people used to flee.

Winning the Urban Battles But Losing Your Ability To Stay

Have I ever told you about the time we were celebrating somebody's birthday in the apartment my aunt and grandmother owned near Sunset Park, and suddenly, gunshots rang out down the street?  As bullets flew through the air, we all hit the floor in their third-floor apartment, except my grandmother, who couldn't move fast enough.  Instead, she sat in her chair, laughing, with one hand over her face, at the absurdity of it all:  her family and invited guests on the floor, and guns cracking, and sirens wailing as a fleet of police cruisers charged down the block.

Good old days?  Not so much.  But we lived to tell about them, and they do make for more intriguing stories than what Brooklyn is turning into today.

Artisanal cheese and gourmet cupcakes?  In Bed-Stuy?  I guess that's somebody's idea of reality, but it sounds kinda boring.

Which, of course, is what gentrification is all about.  For the sake of people who had to endure the worst parts of Brooklyn during the borough's worst years, I'm glad that the crime rates are way down, and that a relative calm has been achieved between the races.  It's even a good thing that property values have risen, better stores have come into the neighborhoods, and other economic indicators have become relatively robust.

The problem with gentrification, however, is that it doesn't know when to stop.  Some people say gentrification is simply the free market at work.  But for whom is it working?

Gentrification, Free Markets, and Morality

The thing that bothers me about capitalism isn't its basis in freedom and equity, or its unbiased opportunities, or its checks and balances.  Those things may not appear to exist in America's economic system, but there's a reason for that, and it's not necessarily capitalism's fault.  You see, the thing that bothers me about capitalism revolves around the reasons why free markets assign certain values to things.

Back during white flight, middle-class Caucasians abandoned the inner city primarily because they feared their property values would only continue to deteriorate the more minorities moved into their neighborhood.  To me, that's a cruel tactic that negatively influenced the free market.  What's equally cruel now, however, is that the same neighborhoods whites abandoned are now experiencing unprecedented increases in property values because they're now hip places for new urbanists - most of whom are white - to live.  Housing values are out-pricing the middle and lower classes not because aging apartments and row houses have suddenly been reborn with state-of-the-art structural elements; they've likely only been dolled-up with granite countertops and designer paint.  Their value is all relative to trends that a more economically powerful class of people can wield against poorer folks.  Yes, demand has increased for housing, but that demand is coming from people who wouldn't have wanted to live anywhere near these same neighborhoods while their current residents were struggling with calamitous civic challenges.

I wish free markets weren't manipulated by things like racism, classism, and even fickle trends.  I wonder if a morally-aligned free market could even help alleviate some of the problems that have influenced not only the crime and degradation of Brooklyn's past but also the bizarre realignment of the borough's most marginal 'hoods that could end up pushing out the people who've struggled to make the best of what they could afford.

At least with free markets, we're free to pray that the Lord will help change the hearts and minds of people acting as agents of changes we see as being negative.  Such prayers likely helped to stem the tide of violence that was consuming the many Crown Heights' across urban America.  Maybe we should also be praying that the benefits of free markets don't now tip the scale too far in the opposite direction.

In terms of "redeeming the cities," God may be wanting less trendiness, and more bended knees.