Thursday, December 30, 2010

Essay Rewind: Why I Do What I Don't

[2010 In Review]

Perhaps revealing intimate personal idiosyncrasies lurks as just another risk that comes with blogging, or writing in general. I like to talk, but not necessarily about myself.

In my two-part essay back in September, "Nice or Vice?" I went out on a limb and described the reasons for why I choose not to flaunt certain activities which other believers enjoy under the blanket of grace. Although I don't do so to make fellow Christians feel maligned, nor to create a false piety on my part, I know my position in these matters is a lonely one.

So it was with considerable encouragement that I read a review yesterday on TouchStone Magazine's website of the book, Without God, Without Creed, the Origins of Unbelief in America by James Turner.

Not that I need buy-in from other people for me to continue my lifestyle, but it doesn't exactly hurt to hear other people reaching similar conclusions about what God may be expecting people of faith to do with the freedoms He's given us.

In his review, Ken Myers broaches the same scripture I did, 1 Corinthians 10:23, in which Paul cautions that while all things may be permissible, we still need to evaluate whether they're beneficial. Myers goes on to quote Paul from Ephesians 5:15-16, in which believers are instructed to be careful and wise in how we live and what we do.

Particularly in Reformed theology, for example, with its emphasis on church fathers who met in pubs, and its virtual beatification of Martin Luther, who bragged about his penchant for alcohol, freedoms like drinking only seem bizarre when people like me abstain. While I'm not advocating that all believers need to swear off their lagers, champagnes, and vodkas, I do think that those who drink need to have a better rationale for risking inebriation than vapid pleasure.

I suspect one reason all things are lawful but not necessarily useful involves our obligation to discern between essentials and luxuries. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with the latter, but the extent to which we prioritize the former, we might find ourselves freer for things which point others to the One Who is our Sufficiency in the first place.

But now I'm preaching, which I don't want to do. Instead, click on Part 1 and Part 2 for "Nice or Vice?"

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Essay Rewind: Cops Killed on Duty

[2010 In Review]

Almost one year ago, I was standing with other mourners on a bridge here in Arlington, Texas. We were watching the impressively long funeral motorcade of a city cop killed in the line of duty. They came from all over Texas: hundreds of police motorcycles and squad cars, joining private vehicles of family members and local dignitaries streaming in procession along the freeway underneath us.

Officer Craig Story died last January here in Arlington while trying to pull over a speeding motorist. The motorcycle Story had been plying through thick rush hour traffic clipped a school bus and exploded.

Last night, here in town, officer Jillian Smith was shot to death while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Although police investigators have yet to piece together all of the details, it appears Smith and the female complainant were killed by the male suspect, who then turned his gun on himself. It is believed Smith was attempting to shield the complainant's young daughter from being shot.

The state of Texas already led the nation in the number of cops killed in the line of duty this year, and Smith's murder only rubs salt in the wound. Some people like to claim the Lone Star State's gun-toting swagger has something to do with all the shooting going on here, but you have to admit that the National Rifle Association has it right: guns don't kill people, people do.

If the suspect who killed Smith was enraged enough to kill two people last night, wouldn't he have done it with or without a gun? Personally, I suspect that most violence - gun or otherwise - in our country comes more from our infatuation with lethal behavior rather than the equipment people deploy while committing their crimes. From movies to video games to television, people of all ages consume too much anti-social behavior designed as entertainment. And in the process, the value of life melts to insignificance.

That's why I think it's appropriate on today's Essay Rewind to revisit the woman standing by the side of the road that windy day last January, as a motorcade stretched as far as the eye could see, in honor of another fallen officer.

And may God have mercy on this latest family mourning the loss of one of Arlington's Finest.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Essay Rewind: Jos Violence

[2010 In Review]

While you and I were rejoicing over the birth of our Savior this past weekend, Christmas Eve bombings in Jos, Nigeria, claimed 38 lives and wounded 200 more. Most of the victims were ethnic* Christians.

At a Baptist church in Maiduguri, the pastor and two members of their choir were slaughtered by a Muslim gang before the Christmas Eve service was to begin. Imagine if that had been here in the United States - at your church, perhaps.

Our eyes may almost instinctively gloss over these images, and tune out these descriptions, since we're so used to this kind of news from that part of the world. However, the fact that these events took place in Africa make them no less a human atrocity.

Granted, from our vantage point, it sounds like a classic Christian - Muslim conflict, but reality is more complicated than that. Most of this violence in Nigeria stems not from purely religious tensions but from long-standing feuds over land and political influence. Still, the fact that this violence tends to fall along a religious Mason-Dixon line between Christians and Muslims increases the volatility of the strife.

So today, as we look back over this past year's collection of essays, we return to what I wrote for Monday, March 8, during 2010's season of Lent, when Nigeria's current conflict had taken another turn for the worse.

And, like yesterday's look back, what I wrote about Jos in March apparently - and unfortunately - isn't yet out of date.

*By the term "ethnic," I mean to describe people in Nigeria who are not Muslim and hold to conventional, religiously Christian doctrines. They're not all what I would consider to be orthodox evangelical believers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Essay Rewind: Burj Khalifa

[2010 In Review]

Do you realize that I've been blogging for over a year now? That means I have enough material to perform a time-tested year-end ritual for many periodicals. It comes after each Christmas: the special year-in-review. Or, in other words, trying to find content to cover a slow news week.

In a way, this walk down memory lane poses some melancholy for me: these essays haven't yet swept any editor off their feet and compelled them to offer me a job. Still, I've tried to explore some issues which pertain to both you and me in a way that, hopefully, enriches this experience called life. Or, at least, help us analyze it better.

Height Versus Depth

So, where shall we start? Since this is retro week at Outside, Looking In... let's go back to the beginning of 2010, and an essay from Monday, January 4 about Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper.

When I started this blog, I envisioned writing more about architecture than I've ended up doing. I started out majoring in architecture in college, but couldn't hack the program because of the intense drawing and math. Still, I consider architectural theory one of my hobbies, because you don't have to be particularly smart to recognize good design when you see it.

Even though the Burj Khalifa is currently the world's tallest building, the only really remarkable factor of its design is buried in sand - where nobody can see it. You see, the BK (as Arabs call it) isn't anchored to bedrock like virtually every other skyscraper on the planet. No; engineers in Dubai had to bury the pilings for the world's tallest phallic symbol into simple sand, and trust that friction between the granules would steady and hold the superstructure.

In plan view, the BK invokes repetitive Islamic triads to spin an evocative, flowery aesthetic. By incorporating a three-pronged base, the structure appears even broader than it really is without losing a flair of elegance. At least, for the lower half of the tower. Unfortunately, as the building continues to shoot upwards like a weed after a rainstorm, it just becomes absurd-looking.

Of the current 10-tallest buildings in the world, five are in China, two are in oppressive Muslim countries, and only two are in what most of us would consider the "Free World;" Chicago, to be precise, the birthplace of the skyscraper. The fact that so few super-skyscrapers exist in capitalist democracies should tell you something about who is building them now.

Build It and They Won't Come

Interestingly enough, almost immediately after the BK opened, it had to be closed for almost two months because of problems with the sophisticated elevator system. And because of the worldwide real estate recession, rents in the BK have slid downward 70%. If you're looking for a great studio apartment with marble countertops in a brand-new doorman building, you can't beat the $1,815 monthly rent now being offered at the BK.

Giorgio Armani personally designed several floors of apartments which brokers claim are selling well, but overall, the world's tallest building remains pretty much empty nearly one year after opening.

Which means my essay really isn't out of date yet. You can read it here.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Divinum Mysterium, a Turtle, and Two Cats

What would be a better gift to all you dear, long-suffering readers, than for me this Christmas Eve to simply not write a Friday essay at all?

Herewith let your wish be granted.

Instead, let's ponder a text entitled Of the Father's Love Begotten, written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, who lived from 348 to 413AD. Prudentius' exquisite Gospel narrative proclaims the salvific centrality of Christ's life - not just His birth - in both history and God's ultimate purpose in creation: His glory. This is my favorite Christmas carol.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a suitable corresponding video on YouTube, so I selected one of the more bizarre entries for this tune. It features a turtle and two cats listening to their owner eek out Divinum Mysterium (Plainsong) on a tired electric organ. There's so much bad about this video, it's actually almost intriguing.

But first, for real intrigue, consider this ancient Christmas jewel:

(Translated from Latin)
Of the Father's love begotten, 'ere the worlds began to be.
He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He.
of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore.

O, that birth forever blessed, when the virgin, full of grace
by the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race,
and the Babe, the world's Redeemer, first revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore.

This is He, Whom Heaven-taught singers sang of old with one accord
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the long-expected; let creation praise its Lord,
evermore and evermore.

O, ye heights of Heaven, adore Him! Angel hosts, His praises sing!
All dominions, bow before Him, and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on Earth be silent, every voice in concert ring,
evermore and evermore.

Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, and O Holy Ghost, to Thee:
hymn, and chant, and high thanksgiving and unwearied praises be;
honor, glory, and dominion, and eternal victory
evermore and evermore!

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose nativity we celebrate today, be with you now and always.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shepherds to The Shepherd

OK. So, I blasted Mary Did You Know out of the water the other day, and at the same time, mocked the traditional carol I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.

Judging from my disaffinity for one really new and one really old Christmas song, it might be tempting to write me off as some sort of Scrooge who can't be satisfied with much of anything. At least, not anything YOU'D like!

Well, depending on who you are, of course, and your taste in music, you might be right on the latter. But please don't think you're right on the former.

Because, contrary to what I've written recently, I think some exceptional Christmas music exists out there.

For example, have you heard The Shepherd's Farewell by Hector Berlioz?

The lyrics are below, and below them a YouTube video of the song sung by King's College, Cambridge:

(Translated from French)
Thou must leave thy lowly dwelling,
The humble crib, the stable bare.
Babe, all mortal babes excelling,
Content our earthly lot to share.
Loving father, loving mother,
Shelter thee with tender care. (repeat)

Blessed Jesus, we implore thee
With humble hearts and holy fear,
In that land that lies before thee,
Forget not us who linger here.
May the shepherd's lowly calling
Ever to thy heart be dear. (repeat)

Blessed are ye beyond all measure,
Thou loving father, mother mild;
Guard thee well thy heavenly treasure,
The Prince of peace, the holy child.
God go with you, God protect you,
Guide you safely through the wild. (repeat)

What's so special about this piece of music?

As you can tell, the setting is extra-Biblical, meaning we don't know what the shepherds actually said to Joseph and Mary as they left the stable after visiting the newly-born Christ Child. We know that as they left, they were rejoicing and telling others of Who they had seen. But surely there came poignant moment, however fleeting, when the shepherds felt like they had to address the conventional aspect of the sheer parental responsibility with which these two young parents were now tasked.

After all, when you visit a new parent in a hospital's maternity ward, what do you say before you leave? You offer some sort of encouragement to the family, you linger one final time over the crib, gazing at the new little lump of flesh, fresh life in this tired old world. And whether you're an ordained pastor or an ordinary well-wisher, you feel compelled to address the significance of the moment with something more than "well... goodbye."

And that's what The Shepherd's Farewell represents. Somewhat simplistic, bristling with awe, and resplendent with gravitas, this elegant piece by Berlioz intentionally gives the shepherds a dignity we don't often ascribe to men of such a drab, lonely profession.

Indeed, as the text in verse 2 implores, "may the shepherd's lowly calling ever to Thy heart be dear."

Christ is the Good Shepherd. His dear calling was to lay down His life for His sheep.

To guide us safely through the wild.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

43 Doesn't Deserve This

I almost feel sorry for George Bush.



Or, as the late liberal opinionator Molly Ivins called him - both derisively and sometimes somewhat affectionately, in a fellow Texan sort of way - "Shrub."

Conservatives grouse about our current president's lack of political street cred, but hey, Bush didn't have much more than Obama did. Dubya's two terms were won by thin margins, he dithered on illegal immigration, he started off strong then withered in Afghanistan, and invaded Iraq on mere hearsay about WMDs. In his new book, Bush at least has the guts to admit the whole Iraq fiasco was as much personal vendetta as it was anything else.

And, speaking of his new book, Bush as an author concedes to his critics many other mistakes he made while in office. Yes, the "Mission Accomplished" banner was ill-timed. No, he shouldn't have challenged terrorists to "bring it on." Yadda yadda yadda. By the time he left office, it seemed as many conservatives were holding the exit door for him as liberals.

Don't get me wrong: I'm still thankful we had Bush in office instead of Al Gore on 9/11. To be honest, I suspect Bush could have avoided many of his administration's gaffes and missed opportunities if he hadn't listened to the Rumsfelds, Roves, and Cheneys of his cabinet as much as he did. He apparently has a vibrant streak of personal morality, but it often got overshadowed by bigger egos from right-wing hawks who have as dim a view of public discourse as, well, Saddam Hussein.

Which leads to the reason I feel sorry for Bush - almost, anyway.

It Starts as Typical Bush-Bashing

In his review of 43's recent presidential memoirs, Politico's Michael Kinsley takes predictable delight in belittling the former Texas governor's personality and world view. Kinsley smugly attempts to smear Bush as an even more vapid pseudo-intellectual than Kinsley struggles to be himself. In a sense, Kinsley covers no new ground in his lambasting of Bush and conservatives in general, although he does concede parts of the book have actually been quite well written. An admission which, coming from the founder of Slate, is surprising in and of itself.

Other than that, Kinsley's critique of Bush and his book doesn't really get interesting until the very end - but not interesting in a good way.

After pointing out various foibles which Bush, the author, tries spinning towards his advantage now that he can control the medium, Kinsley decides to close his rambling critique with a curious topic.

Stem cell research.

Now, granted, I did not hang on to every word and deed of the Bush administration, but I didn't think the controversy of stem cell research - and the president's opposition to much of it - represented a critical part of those eight years. True, Bush took the unpopular position of advocating for life in all its forms, including the moments after conception. And true, many in the scientific and medical communities were outraged that such cutting-edge research was being thwarted by agents of the radical right. But on this issue, I happen to believe that not only was it not a defining issue of his presidency, but Bush was right.

Then It Gets Worse

Kinsley, obviously, doesn't. With complete disregard to all of the pompous indifference the liberal media claims makes them objective observers, Kinsley scoffs at what he perceives as Bush's negligible claim to morality, dismisses the pro-life camp as scientifically ignorant, and asserts - without any proof for any of this - that the stem cell issue has nothing to do with bioethics:

To call this a question of science versus morality is to stack the deck. Obviously morality wins. But what is immoral about stem cell research? Bush talks about how “new technologies like 3-D ultrasounds” will help “more Americans recognize the humanity of unborn babies.” He seems to think an embryo is like a fetus — a tiny human being — rather than what it is: a clump of a few dozen cells, invisible without a microscope, unthinking and unfeeling. Nature itself — or God himself, if you’re a believer — destroys most of the embryos it creates every year in miscarriages (usually before a woman even knows she’s pregnant). Thousands more are created and destroyed or frozen in fertility clinics — which Bush has no problem with and may even have used himself. (He and Laura, he says, tried unsuccessfully to have a baby and were ready to adopt when suddenly they had twins.) A very few of those surplus embryos from fertility clinics are used in stem cell research. By what logic do you bar the use of those few to do some real good, while ignoring all the others that come and go without doing any good for anyone?

Now, it's Kinsley's right to have his own opinions on the moral merits of stem cell research, and it's de rigueur for journalists of both left and right leanings to pepper their editorials with unsupported personal views. But Kinsley is reviewing a book. How professional is it of him to begin arguing with the author of the book he's supposedly reviewing about a legitimate matter of personal conscience?

Don't agree with Bush? Take a number - lots of people don't agree with him. But then again, lots of people don't agree with the liberal position on this issue either. So why start asking what's immoral about stem cell research? The question, as we all know, is both utterly complex and utterly simple, and has been addressed by better people in better forums than a book review by a self-avowed liberal. Up until this point in his review, Kinsley has managed to couch his disdain for Bush in clever prose and juicy morsels of Bush's own words, but to so blatantly strike out with an outburst about such a hotly debated issue smacks of Kinsley's own insolence and spite.

And Worse Still

But he didn't finish on such a sour note. No, he got even uglier.

Kinsley sulks:

The stem cell decision came early in Bush’s presidency. It would be nice to say that Bush grew in office — like Henry V, the wastrel youth and son of a famous father to whom he was often compared. But judging from this book, it didn’t happen. Although Bush is admirable for stopping, he probably was more fun when he drank.

Wow. Excuse me?

A man - who's a husband and a father - recognizes the control a particular substance has over him, he manages to wrest his life away from the plague of alcoholism, and you have the gall to suggest he probably was a lot more fun to be with when he was drunk?

Who does Kinsley think he is? What right does anybody have to say that a former alcoholic may have made a mistake by going sober? Try saying that to Laura Bush's face, or within earshot of either of their daughters.

Disagree with Bush on politics and policies. Shucks - disagree with Bush's claims that he's well-read and has a keen wit. But blast the man for not wanting to ruin his life by drinking?

Liberals complain that a lot of "hatred" emanates from conservatives.

With people like Kinsley in their ranks, I guess they should know.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Does What Mary Knew Matter?

Clay Aiken has one. So do Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, and Jessica Simpson.

They all sing their renditions of the pop Christmas hit song, Mary Did You Know?

And while I'm notoriously intolerant of many new things, I've tried to give this song, originally composed by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, the benefit of the doubt. After all, although heavy-laden with poetic license, it purports to provocatively explore the life of Christ from His mother's perspective.

What We Know About Mary Did You Know?

Written in 1984 and first recorded in 1992, Mary Did You Know? asks a series of questions, supposing to innocently ponder whether Mary struggled with the dual identity of her firstborn son. After all, how utterly incredible must it have been for a poor, common teenager who'd never had sex to be giving birth to the Son of God? Today, many of us evangelicals harbor a jaded dissonance towards the explosive details of Christ's incarnation, and Lowry's song reminds us how mind-blowing this pivotal historic event must have seemed to Mary.

On a basic level, the lyrics incorporate both imagery and fact to provide a compelling synopsis of Christ's earthly ministry and eternal purpose. Yet, on a deeper level, by framing facts within interrogative statements, these same lyrics also betray a myopic petulance that goes unnoticed by many modern Christians. An emotive score also helps convince the audience that we have a right to know what Mary knew. Instead of worshipping the Son, we become transfixed through word and note by supposition and intrigue. As if it matters whether Mary had a complete picture of what was taking place.

Bah-humbug, right?

Wouldn't it be easy to dismiss my Scrooge-like concern about this piece of music as intolerance for anything that isn't literal? And I couldn't even refute your suspicion entirely! Christ's parables are perfect allegorical vignettes, but I'm suspicious of man-made ones. I'm also suspicious about the evangelical church's penchant for putting the Bible in relevance boxes. Lowry and Greene may not have realized what they were doing: capitalizing on our culture's impudent contextualizing of holy Bible narratives within western social frameworks. But I consider it a cancer that spreads far beyond this one Christmas song. Tim Keller claims God is a prodigal, Russell Moore suggests Christ had AIDS, and the book Wild at Heart perverts God's sovereignty as risktaking.

Granted, Mary Did You Know? doesn't exactly go out on a limb the way these popular preachers and books have done. But as the song gains a wider affinity with each passing Christmas season, I become less and less convinced that it's worthy of joining the ranks of far more noble, Biblically-rigorous, and Christ-honoring Advent repertoire.

What the Song Says

A lot of Christmas carols fail to make my cut. For example, who cares if you saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning? Indeed, a lot of cultural baggage gets stowed on well-intentioned Christmas songs as generations go by. So, let's make the lyrics of Mary Did You Know? walk the plank:

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?

Did you know, that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?

Did you know, that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you've kissed the face of God.

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of The Lamb.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

Did you know, that your baby boy is heaven's perfect lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding, is the great I AM.

What Luke Says

Now, let's compare this song with some Biblical texts that explain what Mary knew and when she knew it concerning her giving birth to the Savior of the World:

Luke 1:26-55

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."

What Matthew Says

Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us."

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Fact, Fiction, and Poetic License

Right away, we can see that most of the questions to "Mary, Did You Know?" can be answered simply by the scripture which describes His incarnation. While Mary probably didn't have a clue as to the specific miracles her son would perform, nor would she have likely been granted the same perspective of His ministry that we enjoy through the benefit of hindsight, she certainly knew "nothing is impossible with God," her son would be blessed, and He would be a great ruler.

Assuming Joseph and Mary talked about the incredible situation they found themselves in, Mary would have learned from Joseph that her baby would save His people from their sins. Not that the angels provided these two young virginal parents with many details about how all this would be accomplished. But they trusted enough in their God to participate in this grand event. In my mind, that is far more amazing and challenging than to ponder if Mary knew how Jesus would save His people from their sins. Do we trust God nearly as fully as these two young people did?

It's Not Heresy... But That's Not a Compliment

When the lyrics describe Mary kissing the face of God, some people have claimed Lowry has simply gone too far. Of all the things we cannot know about how God could be incarnate, or how the Trinity could exist in human form, aren't we treading on dangerous ground when we say that somebody can kiss God?

I'm not prepared to say that such an idea, as posited in this song, is heretical. Even though Lowry has already pushed the poetic license envelope further than I think is beneficial, I can see the point he's trying to make here. We could take it uber-literally, and scoff at the pretension of ascribing a physical demonstration of love to incarnate Deity. But to take that approach would be to question whether everyone who came in contact with Christ during His earthly ministry actually touched God. In a way, of course, they did, but do we know enough about how that worked to characterize it as blasphemous?

It's not profound literature, but does Lowry sin by incorporating sloppy imagery to explore how Mary may have tried to reconcile God's transcendency, Christ's humanity, and her own natural motherly affection? I'm not sure, but as I've said, I try to give this song the benefit of the doubt.

Trust and Awe-bey

Speaking of which, can't we also give Mary at least an eensy-teensy benefit of the doubt? Certainly God chose her to be "blessed" in this way because He knew she wouldn't wig out at the concept. Her "magnificat" definitely expresses an extraordinary level of maturity and faith. Surely, considering all of the things she pondered in her heart, her answers to all of the questions posed to her in this song would be based on trust and awe - two virtues we evangelicals seem to lack today.

This is where our secular mindset of human cognizance trumping Biblical mystery comes into play. Ancient saints were content to let some Biblical truths be irreconcilable with the mortal experience. But ever since Industrialization, hasn't the Western drive to learn how things work eradicated the believers' call to let God be God? We can't compartmentalize Him. We can't put him in the proverbial box.

As a simple song, which may have been what Lowry originally intended it to be, Mary Did You Know? doesn't breach any sacred borders. But it doesn't serve any gainful purposes, either. I would even posit a darker scenario: For this song to have captured the pop market and saturated evangelical churches as forcefully as it has says more negative things about our church culture than the song itself.

Because instead of honoring the mystery of the incarnation, this song answers none of its questions, unjustifiably supposes an Old Testament illiteracy on Mary's part, and ignores well-known passages of scripture which refute much of the song's content and theme. It's simply not a good piece of Christian Christmas music.

For churches to continue using it seems to prove the evangelical community's susceptibility to shallow, gratuitous emotion over basic theology.

And although that isn't the song's fault, doesn't it serves as a symptom of what's wrong with the modern church?

It's what we know Mary knew that matters!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hattie the Foodie

A friend invited me for lunch today at a hip restaurant in Dallas' bustling, newly-chic Bishop Arts District.

I had my choice between Hattie's and a gourmet brick oven pizza place. I picked Hattie's.

Not because I'd ever been there before, because I hadn't. Or even because I knew what kind of food they served, because I didn't. I just liked the name.

My Aunt Hattie

You see, one of my mom's aunts in Maine was named Hattie, and what a character she was! Although I don't talk about Maine nearly as much as I do New York City, it's not because I don't have fond memories of people and places in the Pine Tree State. And Hattie was one of those people.

Aunt Hattie was married to my mom's Uncle Arthur, who was one of my grandmother's brothers. So, strictly speaking, she would have been my great-aunt, athough we never got that complicated about it.

Aunt Hattie and Uncle - even though she had several uncles, my mom always referred to Uncle Arthur simply as "Uncle" - were dairy farmers who also had a large vegetable garden. During the summers, back in the good old unregulated days, Uncle would dig up or pick fresh produce and bring it out to simple wooden tables set up in the front yard, where Aunt Hattie would sell it to customers driving by.

If they ran out of something and Uncle was in the fields with the cows, Aunt Hattie would hurry through the barn to the garden out back, pick whatever the customer wanted, and rush back to the front of the house with the fresh-from-the-earth veggies. Carrots, peas, string beans, potatoes, corn, squash. You couldn't get 'em any fresher if you'd gone with Hattie and picked 'em yourself. And that kind of honest-to-goodness freshness was what their neighbors and three months' worth of summer people wanted.

For Aunt Hattie and Uncle's year-round neighbors, back when salt-of-the-earth simplicity defined New England, this was just how you got your vegetables in Maine in the summer. Their village didn't have a grocery store. Most of them labored all day at their own dairy farms, in the woods, on the docks, or out on fishing and lobster boats. Just because they all lived in rural Maine didn't mean they all had time to tend their own gardens.

For the summer people, however, Aunt Hattie and Uncle's stand provided a kitchy, classic blast from the past. Something uniquely country. Virtually all of the summer people came from big cities and growing suburbs outside of Maine, so having a simple roadside stand run by a quiet farmer and his no-nonsense wife was a quaint anomaly. Of course, having fresh corn on the cob every night with one's catch of the day couldn't be beat, either.

Back in the Day

Not only was Uncle quiet, I can barely remember ever hearing him talk. He would smile and wink, and he liked showing my brother and me his cows whenever we visited my grandparents, but like a lot of Maine men, talking was just something guys did when there wasn't anything else to do. And in rural Maine, at least back then, there was always work to be done.

Aunt Hattie, on the other hand, had a gift for gab, along with a gravely, high-pitched voice. Both she and Uncle had weathered skin on their hands and faces, etched by the intense Maine weather and the constant manual labor they both apparently enjoyed. Aunt Hattie would serve customers at the front of the house, her wrinkled hands in constant motion, fingering the collar of her starched blouse, pressing creases out of her apron, washing carrots, shelling peas... and if she thought Uncle was within earshot, she'd call out for him into the clear Maine air with a shrill "Ah-tha! Ah-tha?" (Mainers don't pronounce the letter "R.")

Usually, only silence would greet Aunt Hattie's calls. At least in my memory, Uncle had an uncanny knack of disappearing to the back fields, usually without even a tractor. Or he'd be high up in the barn, further away from the garden than Aunt Hattie in the front yard. But with only a quick apology to the customer, Aunt Hattie would dash off, through the barn, to the back garden, then back to the stand.

That's simply how summers were spent at Aunt Hattie's.

Don't Have Time to Waste

Years later, after Uncle had passed away, and Aunt Hattie was alone in their rambling, quintessential New England farmhouse, my family visited her one summer afternoon.

Aunt Hattie still had children living nearby with their families, who checked on her regularly, but she was too independent to move in with any of them. Instead, she'd closed off the upstairs of her old home and set up a cozy bedroom for herself in the unused stairway hall. With no stairs to climb, and saving money by heating only half the house, why leave?

We pulled into the driveway, and parked near where they used to set up their vegetable stand, which by now had become a distant memory, as had the garden, and the cows.

Already parked in the grassy driveway was a silver car with Massachusetts license plates. Dad suggested that maybe now wasn't a good time, but Mom figured since the car wasn't from Maine, it wasn't anybody important, like Aunt Hattie's children. And sure enough, she was right.

We entered through the summer kitchen, an airy room between the barn and the main house with lots of windows (but no insulation, hence the room's name). Through the screen door between the summer kitchen and the real kitchen, we could see Aunt Hattie, seated, talking with a well-dressed woman who was obviously "from away."

When she saw us, Aunt Hattie burst into a smile, her mouth spreading generously across her broad, wrinkled face. She got up and invited us in with gusto.

Mom and the woman "from away" got into a conversation almost immediately, while Aunt Hattie escorted my father and me into her dining room. Dad leaned over to her and whispered, "who is she?"

"Oh, a former customer," Aunt Hattie's smile disappeared, but she didn't drop her voice like Dad had. At full volume, Aunt Hattie complained: "She's driving me crazy!"

"Shhh!" Dad quickly tried to hush Aunt Hattie, surprised at her apparent lack of tact. "She can hear you."

"Oh, I don't kaya," Aunt Hattie assured Dad, dropping her "R" like a true Mainer. "She's boring me to death!"

Different Hatties

Just as native New Yorkers have a unique quality about their character, so do native Mainers. I guess for people born and raised in one of the bleakest climates and economies in the United States, Mainers adopt stoicism and tenacity as basic survival skills.

Obviously, "Hattie" isn't strictly a New England name. For the restaurant here in Dallas' rapidly-gentrifying Bishop Arts District, "Hattie's" is meant to conjure images of a southern chef. With, as their website pretentiously describes, a "low-country" influence, whatever that means.

Not that it wasn't delicious food. A generous slab of deep-fried yet lightly crusted chicken with zesty Dijon mustard on some Hawaiian bread, with freshly-made onion rings.

Definitely not anything that would have come out of my Aunt Hattie's kitchen up in Maine.

Supposedly, "Hattie" is short for "Harriet" or "Henrietta," but I can't imagine my mother's aunt being called anything but "Hattie."

I don't know why, but I can imagine somebody named "Henrietta" putting a chicken sandwich in Hawaiian bread and still calling it Southern cooking!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Divine Tax?

Consider this famous Bible passage regarding Christ's nativity:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a [tax*] census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first [tax] census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register [to be taxed]. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:1-7

* The terms "tax" and "census" are used interchangeably between translations; please see comments below for details.

Have you ever wondered if there is any significance to the fact that a tax brought Mary and Joseph to the place where Jesus was to be born?

Why didn't God arrange for Joseph and Mary to already live in Bethlehem? Granted, Christ had been prophesied to be a Nazarene, but did God need to have Christ be a Nazarene born in Bethlehem?

If they didn't live in Bethlehem, but Christ needed to be born there, why didn't God arrange for Mary and Joseph to attend a family wedding or some other celebration in Bethlehem? Why force Joseph to schlep all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem for, of all things, a tax?

Considering Mary's pregnancy, I suppose the couple could have cancelled out if it was anything but a legal command that they travel there. After all, it was awkward enough to be unmarried, pregnant, and have to settle for a stable. What might it have been like to attend a family event in their condition in those days? Even if it had been a funeral they felt compelled to attend, how might the older women be clucking their tongues at Mary, and the men giving Joseph grief for not owning up to what they would have believed to be his impertinence?

So, do you suppose there is any significance in Mary and Joseph being forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted for a tax? And for Christ to be born in Bethlehem as a result of that tax? Why would the sovereign God, Ruler over all history and creation, use a tax? Is it just an onerous detail; what else might have been just as effective in setting the stage for the birth of our Savior?

Might this taxing situation symbolize Christ's earthly submission to governing authorities? Even His birth was timed during a tax season. Throughout all of His life on Earth, did Christ ever become an anarchist? Sure, He and His teachings proved vexing to those in authority, but He never rebelled, led a riot, or even ran for political office.

When suffering the indignities of that travesty of a trial in front of Pilate, He could have vanished from their presence. He could have killed them all. But He endured the torture and crucifixion to fulfill His salvific destiny while allowing the government to enact their vile, baseless punishment upon Him.

Even before that, when the pharisees tried to trick Christ over money and taxes, what did Christ instruct them? "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render to God the things that are God's." Period. End of discussion. No qualifiers for fairness, affordability, or how the revenue would be used.

Not exactly a commandment that warms the cockles of most Republican hearts, is it?

Don't think for one minute that I like paying taxes. Even in Christ's day, taxes were the bane of civilized society. And quite frankly, considering the nefarious crooks many tax collectors were in those days, our tax code here in the United States looks like a pittance. Fortunately for us, we live in an approximation of a democracy where we have the right to make our opinions known about how much taxes our government collects and where the money should go. And these days, we've got a lot to complain about in that regard! But even as Democratic Representatives currently wrangle over the tax compromise between President Obama and Republican Senators, I wonder if evangelical Christians might be protesting too much.

After all, God gave taxation a crucial role in Christ's prophesied birth.

Try treasuring THAT in your heart this Christmas season!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Wrong is Right Writing?

Marcus and Joni Lamb.

Chuck Colson.

Bill Hybels.

And, most recently, even Tim Keller, preacher extraordinaire from Redeemer Presbyterian in my hometown.

All famous Christians, and with the possible exception of the Lambs, revered evangelicals as well. Since the Lambs tilt heavily to the Pentecostal side, their street cred in orthodox Christian circles is decidedly thin.

But still, these are all leaders who have strong reputations both inside and outside the religious world. And people for whom I should hold careful respect.

Which I do - mostly. Even for the Lambs, despite much of their exasperatingly carnal programming, and for Hybels, one of the instigators of the severely flawed seeker movement. Not only do I not wish ill on any of them, I trust that as they yield their lives and ministries to Christ, He will be able to use them as well as any of us lesser Christians who want to serve Him. I also am regularly convicted of the insufficiency of my grace towards them, not only when I write about them, but regarding Christian leaders in general. Indeed, it's almost too easy to criticize and complain instead of edify and encourage.

Yet I don't believe any of us are called to sit idly by when we see fellow believers doing things - particularly in the public realm - that do not benefit the cause of Christ. To the extent that these Christian leaders privately have accountability partners holding their feet to the fire, I'd like to think that perhaps what you and I hear about them in the media is perhaps a less favorable account of what's really going on.

R - E - S - P - E - C - T

I take great care to not criticize fellow believers when the news we see depends more on hearsay than first-person accounts. Therefore, if you examine what I've written about these people, you will note that virtually all of what I discuss is based on provable facts.

In Colson's case, and yesterday for Keller, for example, I quote each man verbatim. While discussing the Lamb's recent predicament, I paraphrased from quotes on their website, as well as those given by one of the plaintiff's lawyers to the media. For Hybels, however, I have to admit that much of my opinion was formed when I worked in a seeker church modeled after his, and, even though I'm not a journalist for an international agency, I feel I must protect my sources.

Still, if anybody has any issue with any fact - and even any personal conclusion of mine - regarding any of these leaders, truth will come to the surface like oil in water.

Contrary to what you might think, I do not enjoy writing things that could be considered negative about people like Keller, Colson, or even the Lambs. Yesterday's essay on Keller wore me out. But I have to also confess that some of what I write just flows from my fingers as I type away on my keypad. It's not necessarily premeditated, or mentally chewed-over, as I analyze ways to organize my essays. Might these instances be inspired writing, perhaps?

Ha - I wouldn't be so foolish and vain - or heretical - to suppose anything I write is divine revelation. But sometimes I wonder if the Lord doesn't loosen my brain cells to let certain drops of conviction drip from my head and onto my laptop.

That's What It Means to Me

I suspect that many evangelicals have become so busy with work, family, and life in general that while we understand the need to be discerning and cautious with the religious material we consume, we simply feel pressured to prioritize other things higher on our daily to-do lists. We don't have time to analyze the sheer volume of Christian-themed data being generated.

Some people just don't like to complain. After all, it's such a negative vibe. Others would say that I should just lighten up, that all the bad stuff will come out in the wash. Still others may suspect I'm jealous, or an intrinsically bitter person. I must get my jollies over seeing other people fall.

Years ago, my boss at the time, who is a believer, was preparing to enter a business deal with a person who had already tricked him once. They wanted to develop a piece of property that used to be a garage. However, while acknowledging I'm not an expert, I pointed out that the estimates for their project seemed awfully low, considering the environmental remediation for which they would be responsible.

My boss pulled me aside with a flash of anger in his eyes, and informed me that I was too skeptical and negative to have a valid opinion. I always saw the bad; never the good. My judgmental spirit was corrosive and intrinsically inferior to the Christian brotherhood I was supposed to share with this partner, who also claimed to be saved. Therefore, I was to keep quiet and keep out of this project.

So I did. And to my dismay, not only was I right about the remediation, but the "partner" eventually turned around and tried to sue my boss for control of the project.

Sock It to Me

Even though I was right, I never taunted, "I told you so." I never said a word. I didn't want to be right. I simply was far enough removed from the heady discussions about the project to have a more objective perspective. That's what I hope to provide with my essays.

Even though I try to be objective, however, I've learned many people don't like it. They're mostly dismissive of objectivity in the form of non-affirmative questions or observations. It's easy to assume that if I'm not crazy mad in love with you or your idea, I'm simply being negative and unsupportive.

Why can't people treat questions as what they are: interrogative statements? Asking questions doesn't mean YOU'RE stupid or wrong; it means I don't understand your position. If anything, people who ask questions or voice observations are the weak ones; oftentimes, we're revealing our inability to appreciate the scope of a situation. If you don't like the tone with which I ask a question, that's one thing; but don't snub me just for asking the question.

Trust is like ice, isnt' it? You need to know how thick it is before you turn loose of your suspicions and stop your questioning. None of us are perfect, and some of us are even worse than imperfect. Maybe it's the New Yorker in me, but I have learned to take very little at face value. I don't care how famous you are, or what kind of degrees you have. If something doesn't make sense to me, I usually like to figure out why. Call it being nosey, curious, or even skeptical. Just don't accuse me of wanting you to fail.

Not that I'm perfect, either. And I invite you to call me out when you think I'm wrong. I hope, though, you'll be as gracious to me as I've tried to be.

After all, I hope to be honoring God by what I say. And write.

Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.
- Ecclesiastes 5:7

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God is NOT Reckless

Define the word "reckless."

This is Merriam - Webster's definition:

"Marked by lack of proper caution: careless of consequences; irresponsible."

Doesn't sound like a particularly admirable quality, does it? Yet in the past several years, the term has taken on a firestorm of popularity in some Christian circles to define an attribute of God.

While I suspect Wild at Heart author John Eldredge may be at least partly culpable for this unfortunate trend, it seems to have really taken off since Redeemer Presbyterian's Tim Keller's book, The Prodigal God, advances a variation of the phrase. In addition, Keller once tweeted, "God's reckless grace is our greatest hope" to his legion of fans.

Considering his dynamic ministry in New York City and his proven track record in reformed evangelical apologetics, I would be inclined to give Keller a pass on this issue, if not for its burgeoning popularity. I've heard there is a contemporary Christian band out there, a contemporary Christian DVD, and other pop-culture twists to Christianity that have jumped on the "reckless" bandwagon, turning it into a hot, hip byword for edgy evangelicalism.

A short post currently on Christianity Today's website spells is out a bit more, claiming that God is reckless in His love for us. Or at least, so says Nathan Foster, son of Christian author Richard Foster, who wrote Celebration of Discipline (1978).

But is God really reckless? Is calling God reckless and prodigal being clever while sacrificing clarity? Does portraying a risk-taking, rebel-happy god of sloppy proportions - which is the imagery "reckless" conjures up - a wise thing to do? God is many things, but a caricature of irresponsibility and waste?

A Word Aptly Spoken?

Don't say I'm splitting grammatical hairs or playing the vocabulary purist on this one. I realize it's fun and cheeky to strip evocative words of their conventional meanings and contrive new contexts for them. Politicians have been doing it for years, as have used car salesmen. However, just because the trend has finally hit a sort of mainstream with the advent of information technology, where rules get re-written constantly, doesn't mean the Gospel needs words re-contextualized to stay relevant.

Granted, when enough people in a culture use a word the wrong way, the wrong way ends up becoming the right context for that word. Take the term "gay," for instance. Thirty years ago, if you said Christ was gay at the wedding of Cana, everybody would have known you meant he was happy and having a good time. Today, if you said Christ was gay, everybody would assume you were saying Christ was a homosexual.

Is that what people who want to think their god is reckless are trying to do? Distort our language?

Because really, when you start investigating what these people intend to say by claiming God is reckless, you soon realize none of them have come up with new understandings of the Trinity. We already know God's love is lavish. We already know it's free, oftentimes contrary to what we would expect, limitless, and will not be thwarted. Do we need a new way to express eternal truths? If so, is this the best way?

Of What Prodigal Means

Of course, Keller has seized upon a word many of us use improperly anyway. The church fathers who compiled the Canon used the word "prodigal" in its traditional sense, with its original meaning. Which, as Keller explains below, isn't the same as what many of us have assumed it to be.

In his preface to Prodigal God, Keller explains his title this way:

“The word ‘prodigal’ does not mean ‘wayward’ but according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, ‘reckless spendthrift’. It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as the younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to ‘reckon’ or count his sin against him or demand repayment. This response offended the elder son and most likely the local community."

So for Keller, it seems plausible to jump from "reckless" to "prodigal," and then use the two words interchangeably when describing God.

But what's the flaw in this assumption? Which word most defined the son who took his inheritance early? It's not the "reckless" part of the definition, but "spendthrift," as in "wasteful expenditure" (which is the first listing in Merriam-Webster for the word "prodigal.") Just being reckless could have meant the Prodigal Son was irresponsible in any number of ways, but it was his unwise use of money that led him to eat pigs' slop.

We can't necessarily take the definition for a word or phrase and then use that definition to describe something else entirely. It's linguistic hubris predicated on the assumption taught by our culture that such correlations should be transferable.

Christ Wasn't Wasted

But they doesn't necessarily work out that way. Particularly when we're describing our Heavenly Father. Did God waste His resources to save us? Christ, His pure Son, was poured out as a holy sacrifice for our sins, but was that a reckless plan on God's part? Particularly since both of them knew Christ's death and burial were not going to permanently separate them from each other, or from the Elect?

Even if you don't believe in predestination, can you see how your salvation, as something you could never have earned, has been provided to you out of pure love? Even if Christ died for just one soul, would His death have been in vain? Would the defeat of sin, Hell, and Satan have been a reckless demonstration of God's sovereignty? How much of a box are we putting God in by ascribing such a contrivance as recklessness?

Who - and What - God Is

God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-present, which means He will save whom He will save, and He'll do whatever He needs to do to save His people. But that does not mean God is reckless.
Going back to our definition of the word, consider the fact that God does not ignore caution. He's God - who or what can caution Him about anything? What danger could He ever face? What problem might He encounter that He wouldn't be able to anticipate and overcome?

God is not careless of consequences. All things - ALL things - work TOGETHER for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes. God knows everything that has happened, is happening now, and will take place tomorrow and 23 million years from now. Everything He does is perfect - there are no negative "consequences" because everything that takes place ultimately points to His glory.

God is not irresponsible. Good grief, He MADE everything! He knows how everything works! Everything - from how blood circulates in our bodies to number of hair on your head (obviously, He's got a lot less my hair to keep track of) to the number of Islamic militants who are training as suicide bombers at this very moment. God can't not be responsible - everything is His for Him to do with as He pleases. He's it. The top. You can' get more trustworthy, reliable, or secure than God.

Can I have a witness here?

So let's stop with the borderline heresy of ascribing recklessness to God. I appreciate the point Keller tries to make about God's lavish love. But even the Prodigal Son's father was motivated by genuine love that was untainted by recklessness, as seen by the way he reasoned with the loyal son and understood his bitterness. Just as their father had the situation well in hand, even moreso does our Heavenly Father.

How thankful we should be that our God is not reckless!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Silent Night Plight

An elegant hush had settled down from the coffered ceiling high above.

Nestling in between garlands draped around the sanctuary and decorative chandeliers with real, lit candles, lushly satisfying orchestral music permeated the room like the alluring aroma of spiced tea. Ancient, classic music almost everyone can enjoy. During the one season of the year when tradition is most welcomed.

Soaring from behind us in the choir loft, silver organ pipes glistened with flickering dances of jeweled candlelight. Each of us, with our candles glowing amidst the poignant blackness, moved in a solemn, choreographed procession to form a ribbon of light around the front of the sanctuary. We were singing the beloved "Silent Night," near the conclusion of our church's annual Christmas service of lessons and carols.

As the evening approached its seminal hymn, to be sung in part by a noted operatic tenor, utterly exquisite sounds of the season were joining in harmonic testament to God's gift of the Christ Child.

But the door wouldn't open.

Rob Holden, our guest tenor, had been making his way down behind me, along the wall below the organ's pipes. In the elegant darkness, Holden felt his way for a hidden door built into woodwork paneling surrounding the chancel. He needed to dash from the back of the choir loft, through a back passageway, and to the front of the platform, all in about a minute, so he could sing part of a duet as the closing piece of the concert.

By running his hands along the woodwork, he thought he could find the door, but couldn't. In the darkness, one set of hand-carved paneling felt just like another. But he didn't have time to retrace his steps; the ribbon of fragile, dancing candlelight was nearing completion, and our choir had begun the third verse of Silent Night.

I could hear the rustling of Holden's choir robe, and the swishing of his hands as he began to rapidly smear the paneling with his free hand, holding his candle and music in the other while looking for the secret door. A tall, solid man, a veteran of live performances, Holden had probably never been befuddled by an invisible door before. It's not exactly something you plan for. So, as our row of singers descended down a step, I discreetly stepped out of formation to join Holden near the door, and being more familiar with the loft than he was, quickly found it for him.

But, as I've said, it wouldn't budge. And almost audibly, a big clock began ticking down our final minute, an increasing sense of urgency resonating between Holden and me.

Understandably, our guest tenor started getting a little anxious. Neither one of us needed to have the situation spelled out for us. By this point, a line of choir members would have blocked his only other route of escape, and his singing partner would have begun his approach to the platform for their duet. Do you holler out from the darkness, "Hey! This door won't open!" so the director will put the concert on "pause?" Can you do that in a Presbyterian church that doesn't use PowerPoint presentations in its services?

Under pressure, I found myself sputtering silently about the idiot who locked the chancel door on a concert night. Why does this door even have a lock on it? It's purely ornamental! The absurdity of the situation, while hardly a national crisis, seemed nonetheless personal and urgent.

Just over my shoulder stood one of our best sopranos, who could see our crisis. Tall, elegant, and supremely southern, Charlotte possesses a solid voice and years of experience as a choral conductor herself. Not to mention an authentic Arkansas drawl and a flair for the obvious. Turning her head towards us, she whispered hoarsely, drawing out the first vowel, "Is it locked?"

Having gone from mere agitation to full-blown panic, Rob Holden was kind of bouncing around now, and we both hissed "YES!!"

So Charlotte offered some priceless advice.

"Push it hard!" she said, as if neither of us had thought of that. Yet, obediently, I pushed again, as if hers was the talisman that would magically unseal the secret passage, like a mystical children's story.

Yet the door yielded not.

"PUSH IT HARDER!" Charlotte sternly commanded, with an exasperation in her voice similar to "why do women always have to think of these things?"

Up until this point, I had resisted a full-blown body slam against the door, since the rest of the choir was still softly singing "Silent Night." But which would be worse: a soloist singing only half a duet from the front of the platform, a duet being sung by two men in different parts of the church, or the brief blast of splintering wood so that the rest of the concert could proceed as scheduled? So I pushed harder, as Charlotte had ordered, and with a heaving shudder, the door suddenly swung open.

With gravity working against me, I staggered headlong into the secret hallway. Struggling to retain my balance, I had visions of votive and candle crashing onto 100% flammable carpet, my music folder flying from my hand into the nearby wall, and potentially ruining the climax of the service. Not to mention setting off the automatic fire sprinkler system.

Instead, none of that happened. I managed to quickly regain my composure, Holden did escape in time, not a drop of wax hit the floor, and I closed the door.

Well, I tried a couple of times, and it wouldn't close. Finally, figuring I had already broken the mood, I gave a good tug, and the door thudded shut with a heavy clap.

When I joined my fellow choir members in the candle line, one of them whispered something unsupportive about all the racket I was making. In the darkness, he hadn't seen anything, but judging by where the noise was coming from, he could figure out what was happening. The holder of an engineering degree, when the concert had concluded and I had filled him in on what had transpired, he kindly offered a detailed explanation of how the wood had expanded and how the custom door latch had gotten jammed.

And as it turned out, our director hadn't heard or suspected a thing.

Charlotte, meanwhile, struggled to suppress her urge to laugh out loud for the duration of the concert.

"Men!" she probably was thinking, but too genteel to admit.

So much for a silent night.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lambs Make Bad Shepherds

Note: Today's essay may simply seem like another in a series of Christian-bashing missives, but to be fair, yesterday's critique of Chuck Colson's editorial was to support his goal by endorsing a better battle plan. Today's essay is, unfortunately, your run-of-the-mill televangelist bashing, for which, I must admit, it's hard for me to muster any apologies...

Sad to say, but it's hardly a scandal anymore when a flashy televangelist gets caught with his pants down. Instead of reacting to the news in disbelief, we ask "what took so long?"

Well, at least I do, but then, I'm more cynical than most. So when word got out that Marcus Lamb, founder of the Daystar religious broadcasting network, had an affair several years ago and has tried to keep it quiet all this time, I think I rolled over in my bed and slapped the snooze button.

District Attorney Says No Shake-Down Took Place

Indeed, the way this story has been treated in the press, the "news" isn't that he had an affair, but how he kept it hidden, how he got the woman to move out of state, and why he and his wife never bothered to tell their television audience. This ambivalence about Lamb's violation of his marriage covenant speaks more to the sad state of televangelism in the United States than anything else.

Lamb and his wife, Joni, have rationalized away their cover-up of the affair by saying it was a private family matter they wanted to resolve without public scrutiny. Well, I hope they've gotten everything resolved by now, because lawyers have begun crawling all over things.

Last week, the Lambs went on their daytime show to announce his past affair, claiming three people were extorting them for millions in hush money. As it turns out, the Lambs, apparently true to their sensationalistic Pentecostal leanings, were making more of the "threats" than was true.

A lawyer for at least one former employee did notify the Lambs that his client was suing them over the trauma she had endured for keeping his affair secret. And yes, she's suing the Lambs for millions of dollars. But he claims to have in no way threatened to go to the media with the story if they didn't pay up. It was a court case, after all, not a back-room shake-down. Instead, the Lambs panicked and, realizing they'd made a big mistake by not coming clean with their viewers years ago, decided to try and deflect some of the attention off of themselves and onto their former employees.

How's that for a slimeball husband who's had an affair: blame your employees for having to tell the truth!

They're Both Trying to Spin Their Way Out of It

Joni Lamb hasn't exactly been a saint through all of this either. While she can hardly be blamed for her husband's affair, she apparently learned of it from the employee whose lawyer informed Daystar of the lawsuit. Although initially thankful to the employee, by outing her as an extortionist, Joni is hardly taking the high road in this situation. In fact, by her attitude and the way she's phrased her perspective on her husband's indiscretion, she seems more devoted to preserving their cash cow of a television empire.

Which is what this all comes down to, doesn't it?

If their TV ministry truly engaged with their virtual flock, wouldn't Marcus have felt enough remorse to confess to them what he'd done against his wife and God? Why didn't other executives at Daystar hold him accountable and insist on a sabbatical until counseling and reconciliation with his wife had been completed? This is standard procedure in other ministries - along with, on occasion, dismissal and replacement.

Instead, the Lambs posted the following on their website:

"After Joni told her husband the Lord convinced her he was worth fighting for, together they submitted to an intense process of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration through pastoral counseling and personal accountability under the leadership of an expanded church-based spiritual authority team."

What is "an expanded church-based spiritual authority team?" And why didn't this team consider the people who watch the Lamb's television ministry worth including in this reconciliation? Granted, the actual sexual component of an extra-marital affair affect the husband and wife the most. But if you're a preacher of the Gospel with a television ministry, don't you owe your congregation some sort of apology? Do you wait until you fear being exposed before you try and backtrack publicly?

And if it was, of all people, your employees who learned about the affair and told your wife, wouldn't you - and your wife! - want to lavish some Biblical therapy on them to help them sort through what has happened? After all, if they're the dedicated employees you'd want to have working for a TV ministry, they would be heartbroken, disillusioned, and angry. Why didn't the Lambs have pity for the people who found themselves caught in the middle? From all outward appearances, haven't they just concentrated on themselves?

All of This is Getting Old

Maybe they're the Gospel charlatans many televangelist critics have supposed them to be. Maybe because they have a horribly shallow faith that can't see beyond money and ratings? Maybe because they're so myopic and driven that one's personal reputation comes before treating one's employees fairly and with grace after they're the ones who learn of your affair?

Defenders of the Lambs might accuse me of charging into this story like a bull in a China shop. I don't know enough of the facts to render a judgment. This is still a private matter that we have no business interfering with.

To which I retort with an unequivocal: Balderdash! God holds ministers of His Gospel to a high standard, and fellow believers have the right to expect sin to be dealt with in accordance with those high standards. Notice, I didn't say we have the right to expect ministers to be perfect. Some people may have expected the Lambs to be saints, and I'm not blaming them because they're not. But believers do have the right to not be deceived by those who lead us.

Of course, the Lambs will be in court soon, explaining away how and why they did what they did - to each other, and their employees. And it will all become public record.

Oddly enough, if they had done the right thing - even after Marcus's unfaithfulness, they would probably have emerged from this mess with a lot more privacy than they're going to be left with now.

Which is too bad for all of us.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Colson's Misplaced Angst

In response to Apple's pulling of the Manhattan Declaration's iPhone app, Chuck Colson has written an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle. In his editorial, Colson tries to frame his argument for encouraging Apple to reinstate the Manhattan Declaration's app. But in doing so, he betrays some remarkable disconnects between his elite evangelical worldview and the secular worldview of many Apple consumers.

First, Colson claims it was news to him that the Manhattan Declaration would be considered offensive to large groups of people. Yet he can't be serious, since his very motivation for drafting the declaration stemmed from his concern over society's vast abandonment of traditional conservative values such as the sanctity of life, heterosexual marriage, and religious liberty. If Americans hadn't liberalized their opinions on these three signature topics of the declaration, why did Colson feel compelled to write it?

Second, Colson claims that by revoking the declaration's app, Apple "shut down the dialogue over one of the defining cultural issues of our time." Indeed, Apple plays a popular and formidable role in pop culture, and it recently eclipsed Microsoft as the world's most influential technology company, but is their app store so powerful that it actually controls social discourse? If Colson wanted to say that by revoking his app, Apple reduced society's access to the declaration, that would be far more accurate. Apple may be a powerful communications company, but it's not the thought police - yet.

Third, Colson writes, "If the Manhattan Declaration's positions are offensive, then so are those of mainstream Christianity for the past 2,000 years." As if such a concept is surprising to the evangelical community, or the secular world. You mean many people HAVEN'T been offended by Christianity during the past 2,000 years?

Of course they have! How many wars have been fought - however unjustifiably - with Christianity at their core? How many Christians have been martyred by majorities in cultures outraged by their faith? True Christianity has never been widely embraced, valued, and adored by overwhelming margins in any part of the world.

Yes, some basic tenets of our faith have been recognized as beneficial to society at large, and key principles which have proven advantageous for effective governance have been codified into universally-accepted laws. Customs like Christmas are celebrated the world over. But to the extent that all of these proofs of Christianity's influence over world history represent imperfect expressions of actual Biblical teaching, evangelicals should not be surprised that the number of the redeemed faithful has rarely - if ever - represented a super-majority of the Earth's inhabitants.

In other words, just because cultures across the globe know Who Jesus is and observe some form of Christmas doesn't mean most people in these cultures are saved. We all know you don't need to trust Christ as your Savior to enjoy Christmas. Yet Colson sounds like he's scoffing at the idea - or is stunned to consider the possibility - that Christianity is offensive to most people. Shouldn't he know better?

Of course, Colson does hit several nails squarely on their heads. Apple did cave in - and prematurely - to a warped version of political correctness. The declaration's wording carefully enshrines the Biblical concept of every person's intrinsic significance, regardless of their sexual preference. Disagreement is not hate. And Apple's action in this instance foretells a foreboding likelihood that other ideological apps related to other worldviews and faiths could also be just as easily dismissed by Apple in a sort of witch hunt by Apple executives looking to shape consumers' mindsets according to their personal philosophies.

Which, of course, is their right, too. Apple is a private product which, while it can't discriminate against those who buy it, can be discriminating regarding how it looks and works. To the extent that left-wing activists are using the declaration's app as a test run for dictating content in Apple's app store, then Colson and the declaration need to expose the realities of our new technological world, and state their case for preserving the value they - and to a larger extent, conservative theology in general - lend to the information age Apple has a significant role in creating.

But Colson can't rely on disingenuous, old-school, 1980's right-wing Moral Majority blather to get the job done. He can't fall into the prevalent American Christian trap of assuming we should be the popular crowd, when in fact, the Gospel of Christ is foolishness to the world. We shouldn't be surprised when our worldview is scorned by unsaved people. We happen to live in a country which gives us the freedom to stand up for our beliefs and advocate for our faith, but just because we're having to work at that a lot harder now shouldn't surprise us. It can disappoint us, but it shouldn't be surprising.

I don't know where Christians have gotten the idea that we should be mainstream. Maybe it's the popular - albeit misleading - assumption that America is a Christian nation. Maybe it's all of the revisionist, ethnocentric history being promulgated by right wing educators and elite Christian leaders who desperately want to believe the Founding Fathers were all saints. Whatever it is, the Bible makes it clear that if we're the popular crowd, we're doing something wrong. Don't believe me? Read James 4:4, Matthew 10:22, and John 15:19.

Colson and the folks at the Manhattan Declaration have been given a great opportunity to increase their profile at the expense of Apple's bungling of conventional free speech. They shouldn't squander this chance by playing the jilted lover.

America's evangelicals should never have considered ourselves God's gift to the world anyway. In case you've forgotten, that's what Christmas is all about!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pot, We'd Better Meet the Kettle

It's hard to talk about legalizing marijuana with a straight face. This narcotic has born the brunt of goofy jokes for years, and acquired a legion of pop-culture slang terms. Compared with much harder illicit drugs out there today, marijuana, or pot, or weed seems so relatively benign, it's hard to get worked into a lather about it.

We've heard all the reasons why some people would like to see it legalized:

  • It's a great pain medicine, and people suffering severe physical hardships should have legal access to it.

  • Legalizing marijuana could immediately wipe out a lot of drug-related crime, from human trafficking to illegal immigration to inner-city gang wars.

  • Legalizing pot means you can tax it, which could provide a lucrative revenue stream for taxing authorities.
We've also heard all the reasons why some people say it should never be legalized:

  • Marijuana isn't the only pain medicine out there. Why use a narcotic when we have legal drugs that have been clinically tested?

  • Legal access to marijuana won't cure the physical damage it causes in the health, earning potential, and longevity of its users.

  • Latin American drug cartels aren't going to simply close-up shop if marijuana is de-criminalized in the United States. They'll just move on to something else so they can preserve the empires they've built with other peoples' blood.

In a way, I'm rather amazed that the talk of legalizing marijuana continues to surface in our social dialog. The valedictorian of my high school class back in the 80's was advocating for the decriminalization of pot, and it was already an old idea at the time. Some First World countries and a few states have approved medical marijuana, although widespread acceptance of the drug still seems more the stuff of juvenile dreams and frat boy jokes than anything else.

Then again, we Americans have become so jaded by duplicitous politicians and their reasons for supporting or opposing legalization, talk of making marijuana legal sounds more like a pipedream (pardon the pun) than legitimate legislation. We hear contradictory scientific studies on the merits and disadvantages of marijuana, and a lot of myths on both sides of the argument masquerade as fact. Even our own increasing ambivalence towards morality in general encourages advocates for legalization to live in hope that one of these days, Americans will simply give in.

But what are the facts about marijuana? As it turns out, reality is a bit more murky than both sides care to admit.

  • It is not considered particularly addictive. Depending on a variety of factors, including frequency of use, dosage, and ancillary drug use like alcohol, between 9 and 10 percent of users develop a clinical addiction over time.

  • Doctors and scientists suspect that it causes some health problems, can harm the fetus if a pregnant woman uses it, and can lower worker productivity, but nobody can say whether marijuana use itself is the culprit, or other factors which can actually precipitate marijuana use.

  • Psychologically, marijuana can become a crutch, masking other problems and distorting one's ability to deal effectively with stressful or complicated situations.

  • Virtually everybody agrees that it alters the user's awareness, which makes pot as dangerous as alcohol for drivers, pilots, and other people who need to keep a clear head.

Maybe now you can see why the issue isn't as clear-cut as many people on both sides of the issue would like it to be.

What strikes me most about this topic, however, is how similar marijuana sounds to alcohol. Try to find a reputable source on the Internet which doesn't admit that marijuana consumed sporadically, by adults, in small doses, without other mood-altering drugs, causes more problems than the same type of alcohol consumption. If alcohol didn't enjoy the widespread social acclaim that it does, would we be having the same debates over beer and wine that we're having over marijuana?

By way of full disclosure, perhaps I should inform people who don't regularly read my blog that I don't drink. Maybe this makes it easier for me to imagine a world in which alcohol, a conventional drug, and marijuana, a drug with a bad reputation, can be compared. I'm sure most people at their country club's bar right now would consider me insane for even suggesting their gin & tonic or imported beer has the potential of inflicting the same type of damage we suspect marijuana of being capable of.

Nevertheless, doesn't it make sense that the apparent reality of marijuana's similar affects on consumers as alcohol plays a greater role in the discussion of marijuana's legalization? Why has alcohol enjoyed virtually a universally-cheered position in cultures the world over, while marijuana - which carries the same dangers and, frankly, quite similar pleasures - has been stigmatized as illicit?

If it's simple ignorance as to the similarity between marijuana and alcohol, then maybe, if society continues to frown on pot, we need to call the proverbial kettle black, too. Shouldn't we need to re-visit how harmful alcohol can be to our society? And whether or not we really benefit from having multinational conglomerates peddling all sorts of libations to people who need to keep a clear head?

Of course, if society decides that marijuana is harmless and should be legalized, then what does that say about our willingness to tolerate people driving under intoxicating influences, people getting hooked on substances that can distort their ability to function in the workplace, and people who need artificial crutches to cope with interpersonal relationships?

After all, we already have enough of those types of people with legal alcohol. And look how much good it's doing us.

And them.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Your Money or Your Life? Part 2

For Part 1, please click here

Yesterday, you may have thought I painted the case for lavish charity with too broad a brush. Perhaps I left a little too many blobs of paint on your worldview, or maybe I didn't color mine in well enough.

Well, lest you think I'm just letting off steam or railing against the mindsets of other people, let me remind you that in my essays, I'm often preaching to myself. So if any of my convictions stick in your consciousness, then by all means, work them out for yourself, but don't think I'm not doing the same thing in my own soul.

I'm no better - and probably a lot worse - than anybody reading these essays. And oftentimes, I find myself writing things that I had no idea would appear on my computer screen. Some people would say that's the Holy Spirit directing me to say things that maybe I wouldn't normally say. But at the risk of sounding pious or holier-than-thou, I'll simply admit that just because I write something in an essay doesn't mean I've already mastered it myself.

And don't all of us run the risk of spending so much time talking and debating, that gritty Kingdom work gets left on the back burner? I don't particularly enjoy ministering to people mired in raw poverty. I spent a semester in graduate school studying the fledgling homeless shelter here in Arlington, and have volunteered there some, but while I have friends who selflessly serve at the shelter, I feel conspicuous by my inadequacy.

I think I may have already shared the story of walking through Union Square one chilly, rainy evening, and encountering a homeless man begging for money to buy a meal. Like a good New Yorker, I brushed past him, pretending to ignore him, but I turned the corner and ducked into a pizzeria. After purchasing a thick, steaming slice of Sicilian pizza and a chilled bottle of orange juice, I went back outside to the beggar around the corner. In the pouring rain, I held up the pizza and juice to him, expecting at least a smile, if not outright gratitude. Instead, his face soured up, his fiery gaze glancing at the pizza and then scornfully at me.

"What the ---- is this?" he bellowed.

"You said you wanted money for food, so I thought you were hungry," I explained, realizing I had caught him in his lie. And sure enough, he batted the plate with the pizza disdainfully with a greasy hand, shot off some unimaginative expletives, and stalked off into the rain.

If you've ever been to New York City, you've probably seen plates of half-eaten food left on ledges and benches. People sometimes leave their leftovers for the homeless to eat, so they don't have to paw through garbage cans. It's hardly any more sanitary or appetizing, but that's what I did with the pizza and juice. I left it on a broad granite window ledge, and continued my journey home, vowing to never again pay any heed to street beggars.

We All Owe Someone

Indeed, I have my own preconceived ideas about why certain segments of the population are notoriously poor, and I struggle with the idea that God doesn't give a lot of caveats when He tells us to reallocate funds He's given us to them.

But that's really the core of this issue, isn't it? None of what we have is ours. Even if you've gone to college and graduate school and earn a six-figure income, working 60-hour weeks, the salary you receive isn't yours because you deserve it. Is it? Maybe on a basic economic level, but there's more to it than that, isn't there? God gave you talents and abilities, and He's placed you in a part of the world where you're privileged to leverage those abilities through education and work to create a profession that accomplishes something our society values. But are you entitled to what you earn solely on the basis of your own accomplishments?

Who put you in North America, within easy access to some of the best educational systems and most lucrative employment opportunities in the world? Who gave you the ability to think, process information, and learn? Who provided you a job to put your skills to work? Who created our society and sovereignly allows your profession to be one our society is willing to pay for? Who created our treasury and currency, without which your paycheck would be worthless?

Is Everybody Worth What They Earn?

You can see where I'm going with this, can't you? And maybe you're objecting, protesting that reality is much more complex than that. To which I'd also agree - God has allowed mankind to rig the system so that our Ultimate Benefactor gets easily obscured. Well, "rig the system" may seem a bit harsh to some evangelical capitalists, but that's what's happened, isn't it?

After all, the profession of public school teaching has become so marginalized in our society that far fewer highly-qualified people choose it as a profession, or stay in it after a few years. Our society values teachers so poorly that we pay them a fraction of their merit in terms of training future generations to be innovators and thinkers themselves. Nursing represents another profession - oddly, also staffed mostly by women - which demands exceptional proficiency without the financial reward.

On the other hand, stock brokers on Wall street can earn upwards of one billion dollars a year by gaming risks and betting other people's money. But since so many people stand to also reap a windfall if the risks fall on the right side of the ledger, we all cheer in the face of the utter futility such actions pose as legitimate ways to produce a viable commodity. After all, as we've seen in the past couple of years, electronic money doesn't have nearly as much value as what it's supposed to be able to buy.

Money Love

Not that money itself is the problem. Money is just another thing, like shirts, trees, and diplomas. It can sit in your bank account, or in a drawer at your home. It's neither good nor bad. It can be transferred, accidentally washed in the laundry, tossed into the air at the start of a game, pay for good things, pay for bad things, appreciate, and depreciate.

But we love it so much, don't we? We like the way a lot of it makes us feel. We like the things we can buy with it. We like how it can insulate us from people who don't have as much of it as we do.
And before we know it, the poor have fallen completely off our radar. The only times we think about them are when people like Rush Limbaugh rant about how much of our money those lazy poor ingrates want now.

Many Americans who consider themselves to be self-made people with an admirable net worth tend to forget that many things are relative. Yet there is an economic line in the sand, called the "cost of living" in the United States, which can make life incredibly hard or easy, depending on which side of the line you happen to sit.

Tale From the Village

As I've mentioned before, one of the reasons I like New York City so much involves its many contradictions and exaggerations of life. And Manhattan, in particular, offers a slice of American life that is more true than its cacophony of multiculturalism, sheer vertical audacity, and excess of almost everything might initially suggest.

One of these slices of life has to do with the cost of living. And in New York, factors related to costs of living smack you in the face all the time.

You might recall my essays describing the middle class housing experiments of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town along Manhattan's 14th Street, between Union Square and the East River. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, as it was called then, built the massive complexes after the Second World War as GI's came home and started families. Many servicemen checked in with their parents in New York's aging neighborhoods and took a quick turn out to Long Island, to the brand new invention called the suburbs, of which Levittown was the first.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, top business leaders saw the need for keeping middle class families in the heart of Manhattan. Teachers, nurses, hardware store owners, chefs, garbagemen, police officers, office clerks, and low-level managers still offered valuable services to the city's business class. However, ever since its founding, New York has not exactly boasted a low cost of living. Keeping enough attractive housing affordable enough in the city presented enough of a challenge on the open market, so to enhance the option of city living over the brand-new suburbs, New York's power brokers got the city to create some inventive incentives for Met Life to construct Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town. Even today, they remain bastions of middle-class housing on an island that has seen its open market real estate prices skyrocket.

So what? Does this have anything to do with poverty and money?

Well, I hope so. I'm trying to draw a picture of how capitalism doesn't necessarily value what it should. I'm not saying capitalism is evil or fatally flawed, but you have to admit that it isn't perfect. Sometimes situations are created through the course of economic dynamics that can't be ignored as simply the price we pay for enjoying capitalism. Sometimes, the rich - in New York's case, the corporate titans who didn't want their police officers and secretaries all forced to commute in from the suburbs - need to make allowances for people who would otherwise be shut out of certain economic realities. Call it limousine liberalism if you want, having some well-heeled New York businessmen take pity on lowly schoolteachers and bus drivers so they can have a corner of the city all to themselves. But it has worked - at least, up until now.

Granted, compared with the rest of the country, the rents residents of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town pay seem shockingly high, but for Manhattan rates, they're artificially low. You really need to have lived in Manhattan and forked out market rate rents for yourself to see how important this story is to the ethic of accommodating certain income disparities. Suffice it to say that while this experiment does indeed violate the principles of pure capitalism, its long-term benefits have proven valuable: it's ensured a sizable population of middle class consumers for local merchants, kept teachers close to public schools and other public servants close to city facilities, provided city companies with low-level employees who don't have long commutes, and maintained a stable neighborhood which has become an anchor for gentrification in adjoining neighborhoods. Those are all assets which may not have big dollars attached to them, but sometimes, it takes money to make money. And that's how I think the original intent of these complexes has been rewarded.

God's Economy Isn't Capitalism

Of course, I realize this is not a seamless comparison between conservatives grousing about entitlement programs and people who are poor because they are lazy. All the residents of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town have middle-class income and employment; these have never been public housing complexes in the slum sense of the term. And some developers, drooling over these properties' profit potential, have complained for years that these two complexes mock the very economic underpinnings that have made New York City the finance capital of the world.

Yet for all their dowdy aesthetics, contrived civic value, and limited applicability to other cities, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town represent an acknowledgement that society can benefit from financial grace. This wasn't an experiment in Utopian, altruistic good-for-goodness sake. It was a long-range endorsement of the value hard-working yet minimal-wage people contribute to a community. It represented an understanding that some people will be paid more than others, but that doesn't mean the lower-paid folks are scum.

Which is where it all comes down to relativity. Many middle-class Americans bristle with disdain at the notion of their taxes supporting welfare cases. But for those of us who believe in Christ, how can we reconcile that animosity with Ezekiel 16:49, "Now this was the sin of your sister, Sodom... they did not help the poor and needy..."

Some people need more help than others, and sometimes costs of living become inequitable. This is where poverty starts, and to the extent that we can help mitigate it, shouldn't we?

I'm not saying that everything liberals have done to address poverty is right, and all of the problems conservatives find in our current welfare state don't really exist. We have a distorted and ineffective entitlement system that needs to be overhauled.

But can we ignore our responsibility to participate in the solution? And not giving anything, even while the systems are broken, is not a Biblical option. Instead of saying entitlements reward laziness, and that taxation to fund entitlements is wealth redistribution, let's get serious about whose money we're talking about here.

God's economy isn't capitalism. Capitalism is a man-made economic contrivance, just like communism, feudalism, neo-colonialism, socialism, and all of the other "ism's" societies have used to structure their financial resources. While I happen to consider capitalism to be the most effective socioeconomic structure ever invented, I hold no false illusions as to its ability to cure everything that ails us. At best, capitalism can provide a robust framework for guiding our economy, but even the best-engineered framework is designed to flex a bit to accommodate adversity.

Now, I'm hardly the prototype of the flexible, accommodating personality. But when it comes to managing God's money and helping those in poverty, I'm trying! How about you?

In Memoriam

Before I close, please allow me to remember this day that "lives in infamy;" December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. The first residents of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town were people who fought in the war precipitated by that fateful day.