Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Food Forethought

Day 43 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010
Passion Week - Holy Wednesday

Take one look at me and you can automatically tell I like to eat. Recently, I heard that some people have a biological propensity for certain types of food, and maybe that’s part of my problem… but not all of it, of course. I just happen to be living in the era before science has figured out how to neutralize all the bad stuff in red velvet cake and chicken scallopini.

Actually, I don’t mind confessing that I used to be a glutton. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that on both spiritual and physical levels, indiscriminate food consumption causes a lot of problems. So watching the amount I eat – not just watching what I eat (I’ve never had a problem viewing my food) – has become somewhat of a habit for me. Not a preoccupation, mind you, but at least a mealtime consideration.

The Theology of Food

Ever since Biblical times, alcohol abuse has been a thorn in the side of societies the world over, while gluttony has been an invisible vice. In fact, some cultures view gluttony as a sign of wealth or prestige, while others consider overeating a great compliment to one’s hostess. In places where freezing temperatures dictate most aspects of life, hearty eating actually helps keep people warm with layers of body fat – and surprisingly, some Arctic cultures have quite healthy diets despite their, um, insulation.

But have you ever thought about how food and eating play important roles in the Bible? Not simply as pleasures which can be abused, but as integral components of ceremonies, covenants, and other significant observances. Even the common meal, made with common staples, serves multiple purposes. Not only has God given His people the ability to grow, prepare, and enjoy a variety of gastronomic delights, but He’s actually ordained that these edible aspects of His creation be used to honor Him.

Back during college, our campus pastor used to talk about the theology of food. I don’t think he actually used the term “theology of food,” but Dr. Davey Naugle challenged us to consider all of the times God incorporates mealtime into significant Biblical events and observances. Whenever you sit down to eat – whether by yourself, with a couple of friends, a dinner table ringed with beloved family members, or a hotel banquet hall full of revelers, you participate in a type of ceremony in which God’s bounty, faithfulness, goodness, provision, and blessing can be found in abundance.

Even if it’s a scrap of stale bread in a prison camp, freeze-dried astronaut fare, or roasted insects in a tribal diet. There is a theology of food which points to our beneficent Creator and portrays His care for us and sovereignty over us. Our thanksgiving should be a mealtime event.

God designed virtually all components of His Earth to depend on something for their basic sustenance. Nourishment is part of nature. As the “rulers and subduers,” He equipped mankind both biologically and anatomically to be able to plant, harvest, kill, fish for, milk, prepare, and enjoy food; we can digest an amazing array of things; and we can store up for lean years and create distribution mechanisms to satiate hunger across the globe. Obviously, lesser animals can do these various tasks effectively for their species, but they can’t do all of them with the ability God has provided humans. Indeed, we sit atop an incredibly interwoven food chain.

Food, Feasting, and Faithfulness

At least eight Jewish feasts are mentioned in the Bible. Covenant meals, life-stage feasts (weddings, birthdays, funerals), and even the lavish dinner thrown by the Prodigal Son’s father all illustrate the prominent role food played in the Bible. Even the New Covenant, from which the New Testament Church can be traced, began at a meal.

Obviously, in Biblical times, preparing food for any meal consisted of considerable hard work and long hours. For most people, food wasn’t abundant enough to be taken for granted. And sugar wasn’t imported to the Holy Land until 642 AD, so imagine what some flavorings were like.

This past Monday marked the beginning of Passover, the Jewish celebration of the Exodus. As has become customary among a few of my friends, we met for a Seder dinner with all of the essential trimmings, but a decidedly Messianic flavor. We had a child ask the traditional Four Questions, we drank the Four Cups, but we had delicious, non-Kosher hand-rubbed roast lamb and pork.

We solemnly partook of the searing horseradish to get just a taste of the vile bitterness of our sin, we dipped parsley in salt water to recall the abject sorrow of the Israelites, and we drank the Fourth Cup with a toast to “Next year, in New Jerusalem!”

Ironically enough, when we had finished washing down the aftereffects of the horseradish, one of our friends confessed, “I actually like the taste of horseradish.” Which, if horseradish symbolizes sin, is true of us all, isn’t it?

Among all of the symbolism and traditions infused within the Seder include many references to the actual rituals of collecting, preparing, cooking, and eating food. Not just snacks and sandwiches, but full-blown feasts. In fact, the household is instructed in Exodus 12:16 to spend all day preparing for the Seder dinner.

During our Seder, each guest has been instructed in advance to prepare a short discourse on some aspect of the historic Passover and/or our observance of Holy Week. This year, one of our friends shared what she’d been learning about the Salt Covenant – something of which I’d never heard before. Part of the salt covenant involves people agreeing to engage into an agreement by mixing salt granules together, and if they want to leave the covenant in the future, they first have to reclaim all of the granules of salt that they had contributed to the mixture. Kind of impossible, right?

The American Diner

Of course today, many American families eat together as little as possible, and if they do manage to hit the dining table within minutes of each other, their delicacies include foodstuffs that require as little preparation as possible. Usually, that is not so much a reflection on the culinary expertise of cooks in the household, but simply the reality of the amount of time left over after all the details of our busy lives have been either completed or put on hold.

Here in Arlington, Texas, we’re known as one of the most restaurant-saturated cities in North America, because so many of us go out to eat so often. Blame it on having a suburban lifestyle between two large cities and four freeways. Eating out has become a social pastime here, even if most of our choices consist of national chain restaurants instead of hip fusion hotspots.

Wherever you eat, though, and whatever you eat, I think it would be helpful for all of us if people of faith took more time to recognize what sharing a meal symbolizes. We don’t need to wait for grand events and traditional family dinners to celebrate being together and acknowledging God’s goodness to us.

So… What’s for Dinner?

No matter what you’re having tonight, why not make dinner more intentional? Make the effort to get the kids around the table – at the same time, with you, and with the TV off and iPods in another room. Even if you’re dining on PP&Js, why not set out some lit candles on the table – they’re not just for romance. Eating out? Don’t let the waiter – or the lady with the mop at McDonalds – rush you along. And by all means – if you’ve dropped out of the habit of saying grace before each meal, do you really think you provided the food?

Whatever and wherever you’re eating tonight, make a point of marveling at how what you’re putting in your body has been provided to you today.

And go easy on the horseradish. Better yet, throw it out.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Travesty in Corpus Christi

Day 42 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010
Passion Week - Holy Tuesday

Oh, folks: this one is just too easy. I’m almost embarrassed to even bring myself down to this level. But as I re-read an e-mail sent by a friend last night, I find I just can’t resist.

Have you heard about the seeker mega-church in Corpus Christi, Texas, and their million-dollar giveaway this coming Easter Sunday? You heard right – Bay Area Fellowship plans to give away one million dollars’ worth of goodies to people who show up to services this weekend in the city named for the body of Christ.

Now, even right there, I could stop and blast away at all that's wrong with a church giving away a mansion’s worth of cars, bikes, electronics, and furniture on the Lord’s Day. Not to mention Resurrection Sunday – the climax to Christendom’s holiest week of the year.

But the pastor actually says they’re doing it to demonstrate the story of the Resurrection: salvation, free, for all. Yeah, right: more like “salvation free-for-all.”

I’ll be the first to confess that I am a sinner, and that even though I try not to, I usually superimpose my judgementalism upon other people and churches without giving them the benefit of the doubt. On this blog, I try to look at issues from a broad perspective. But in this case – can I have a witness? – I find myself in no danger of sinning when I proclaim Bay Area Fellowship is 100%, completely, unequivocally WRONG.

Somebody help me!

Only For the Love of God

No matter if you’re a predestination advocate like me, or a free-will advocate like I used to be, right off the bat you have to admit that giving away anything does not illustrate salvation. One of the holiest, purest, and dearest characteristics of salvation through Christ is that it has been bought with the very blood of God’s only Son. There is nothing on Earth or that mankind can even imagine that would be so bitter and painful a price to even come close to matching the cost of salvation to God. For any church claiming to be Bible-believing, and at the same time suggesting freebies mimic salvation, they actually proclaim unadulterated heresy. I’ve attended churches which distribute books, magnets, CDs, and other things for free, but in no way has the lack of cost been compared to salvation. Baptist or Presbyterian, you can back me up on that one, can’t you?

Second, does handing out anything of which there is a limited supply (only $1 million worth of stuff here) adequately depict the lavishness of salvation? Here again, whether you’re free-will or predestination, we both agree that God’s gift of grace is abundant and beyond our ability to fathom. God doesn’t have a “salvation budget” in Heaven. He doesn’t offer salvation to the first two million people who call right now. Sheesh – I feel creepy even entertaining such thoughts.

Used Cars Don’t Symbolize Salvation

And then, there are the prizes themselves. A lot of fuss has been made over the news that at least 15 of the prizes are automobiles. But if you read the fine print, you see that all of them are used cars. Used cars!! Used cars to illustrate salvation. What an abomination.

Not only are they used, but the list includes such notoriously unreliable brands as Jaguar, Jeep, Audi, and two Mitsubishi products! Good grief – Mitsubishi dealers can’t give away their cars! Bay Area Fellowship might actually make history just by giving away two used ones in one day. I’ve heard that an insurance agent will be on-site at the church to sign up any uninsured driver so they can take the car home with them, but the smarter move would be having a mechanic on hand as well.

Some people complain that all of this emphasis on material goods focuses too much attention on hedonism, and that’s true, isn’t it? Flat-screen TVs, recliners, and $300 gift bags apparently trump Biblical teaching when they’re for such a good cause: playing unconventional church. What if they gave away $1 million worth of free bilingual Bibles? What about $1 million in sponsorships for short-term missions trips? What about $1 million worth of living assistance to the elderly or adoption assistance for orphans – the two front lines in the church’s mission of charity?

Look Up “Cult” in the Dictionary

Which brings me to the church members themselves who support and defend what their pastor has cooked up. They say that the only way to get unchurched heathens through their doors is by wooing them with trinkets and baubles. How will they get sinners to hear the Gospel if they can’t drag them into Bay Area Fellowship with such splashes of materialism?

How out of line am I to say that people who think like that don’t understand salvation and the Gospel message?

Who does the work of the Gospel? Who ministers salvation to lost souls? Who else but the Holy Spirit Himself? If Christ is lifted up, He will draw all manner of mankind unto Himself. And you can quote me on that!

Reading through online comments on the topic, you can find instances where church members “pray” for their opponents… people like me who are incredulous at what they’re doing. Church members say that hey, just because we’re doing something different doesn’t mean it’s bad. You’re just jealous ‘cause we can do it and you can’t. We’ve got the inside track on how to snag the world for Christ – you’ve just gotta think outside the box.

I’m fighting the urge to be utterly scathing towards people with such myopic and – can I say it – cultish viewpoints. I don’t know anybody at this church, so I’m trying hard not to be personal, but this certainly proves how necessary it is to have a strong, Bible-based faith so believers don’t get led astray.

Losing Not Only Salvation, but Tax-Exempt Status

Not that any of this controversy has been lost on the unchurched world. For years, cynics have scoffed at the spectacle of mega-church excesses in general. Now, they point to the notion of a $1 million giveaway as proof that churches need to be taxed. Doesn't raising that kind of money in such a short time and spending it so frivolously (basically, just attracting bigger attendance numbers) violate the intent of our tax code?

Charitable organizations that raise a million bucks without plowing it back into the community through their value-added services aren’t non-profits. And that kind of logic is hard to refute, isn’t it? Which spells all kinds of trouble for honest, legitimate faith-based organizations who rely on their tax-exempt status to help pay what bills they already have.

I used to work in a church accounting office, and we were scrupulous when it came to IRS guidelines. Boy, I’d like to be a fly on the wall in the Corpus Christi federal building next Monday morning: “Hey, Walt: did you get all of those gift forms back from that mega-church?” “Do we have to red-flag all of those memberships for improper charity donations?” “All time off is cancelled until we get this mega-church fiasco straightened out.”

Eeyore Is My Favorite

Sometimes I feel like Winnie the Pooh, when he’s trying to think of how to fix something.

“Think… think… think… I haven’t thought of anything yet; have you?”

I’m racking my brain, trying to figure out some angle that blows all of my criticism of Bay Area Fellowships’ stunt to smithereens, and… nope, I’m not coming up with anything.

“Somebody who can’t afford a car might get one?” If the church knows of somebody who needs transportation and they’ve withheld one of these cars so they can make a show of giving it way on Sunday, I’m not really seeing any charity here.

“Flat screen TV’s help shut-in parishioners watch TV church better?” Not if it’s going to be anybody of Bay Area Fellowship’s ilk.

“The congregation has really banded together and modeled the body of Christ in action?” I’m seeing something more along the lines of Christ’s body in action as He angrily cleared the temple of the money changers during Holy Week.

Holy Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Liturgy Literally Enlivens

Day 41 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010
Passion Week - Holy Monday

Mention the term “liturgy” in most evangelical churches today and people respond with a visible shudder. Admit it – you probably slumped a bit when you saw the word in the title of today's essay.

Liturgy, liturgy, liturgy!

There – that has probably scared off a bunch of people now, don’t you think? Some scoff at liturgy as stuffy, smells-and-bells, Catholic-y stuff. Not just the creeds and confessions that liturgical churches use in their worship services - but all of the accouterments that traditionally accompany them.

Who needs formality and rigidity that nobody understands and contrasts so starkly against the world around us modern North Americans? It’s too easy to get swallowed up in liturgy and make it the focus of worship. Besides, it's not prescribed in the Bible, which makes it extra-Biblical, which makes it wrong.

Oh, Really?

Hmmm… Well, electricity isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but we all use it in our church buildings today. Come to think of it, church buildings aren’t mentioned in the Bible, either, but almost every church today has one, or is saving money to buy one. Let’s face it – being extra-Biblical doesn’t automatically disqualify something from being used in corporate worship.

For many evangelicals, the liturgy with which we’ve become most familiar takes place in traditional Catholic and Episcopal churches, where people genuflect towards a central crucifix and worship leaders wail Latin chants nobody understands. Wordy rites are recited out of standardized books, people automatically stand and sit and kneel according to a private code, and everything seems so… needlessly complex.

At the opposite extreme, some emergent churches have reawakened interest in liturgical practices to make the corporate worship of our Almighty Savior unnecessarily mysterious and unbiblically pagan. They are adopting methodologies of intrigue from the ancient church to intentionally craft a Harry Potter-esque cloak to shroud the mundane aspects of corporate worship. They want to extrapolate some sort of mystical experience out of what should be honest and overt.

Let’s face it – most evangelicals today don’t associate liturgy with biblical worship, which is a real shame. Many churchgoers have become so comfortable in their casual lifestyles and contemporary everything that liturgy has become counter-cultural. But isn't that part of its attraction? Just because our culture has gotten so casual, should we defer to it when it comes to our worship of God?

Granted, when we don’t know why we do something, it becomes meaningless, and therefore irrelevant. When we objectify rituals and subordinate the Gospel to them, we blaspheme the very Savior we claim to be worshipping. But can’t there be a happy medium? Can’t we find something more meaningful and significant than the freeze-dried corporate worship that many churches shrink-wrap and pass off as “relevant” every weekend?

Indeed, some experts point to the emergent church as a response to the bland manufacture of corporate worship in many congregations today. They point to the massive seeker and contemporary church movement from the past twenty years and an increasing disaffection among churchgoers to what was supposed to be a livelier, more spontaneous, modern-culture-oriented breakthrough in doing church. After the dust had settled, many congregations found their new stuff quickly becoming as mediocre as the old stuff – just louder, with jeans, and in buildings looking like warehouses.

Not that evangelicals should rush to embrace liturgy simply as a response to the lackluster contemporary experiment. Bouncing from one fad to another won’t solve much of anything. Instead, can’t evangelicals evaluate the benefits of liturgical worship on face value? After all, they’ve served Bible-confessing churches long before we came along.

Form Following Function

Without a clear understanding of the purpose for corporate worship, no church will have authentic corporate worship, so whether it’s also liturgical doesn’t really even matter. In the same way, having a liturgical service without a focus on the triune God is a waste of time.

Which points to what I consider to be one of the greatest fallacies in corporate worship today: the misplaced priority of the focus for corporate worship. Evangelical liturgicalism will make little sense if the audience of your church’s corporate worship is anyone other than God. Many churchgoers continue to labor under the false assumption that corporate worship is for unchurched, unsaved people. But unsaved people can’t worship, can they? Why take what could be a meaningful worship time for believers and chop away at the very things necessary for the adoration of our Creator to make it user-friendly for unsaved people? Is Sunday morning the only time during the week your church has to evangelize? Are your pastors and paid staff the only people who are allowed to evangelize? What do you think the rest of your week is for?

Christ wants to see us worshipping Him in spirit and truth. He is our reason for being alive and saved. Welcome the unsaved to our communities of faith, but understand they are not our reason for worshipping. We are to show them Who is.

Have you ever heard the phrase “form follows function?” It means that purpose dictates how something gets done. In the case of corporate worship, the purpose is the exaltation of our holy God, so logic (and the Bible) dictate that we seek those things that will glorify Him. Remember Psalm 29:2 and Psalm 96:9? We’re talking about glorifying God by being set apart (holiness). I didn’t make that up – read the scriptures if you don’t believe me.

This is where liturgy can play a valuable role. Rather than being an unnecessary adornment, liturgy can assist in focusing the congregation’s attentions, efforts, and desires away from worldly things and common distractions. Rather than being distractions in and of themselves, liturgical elements can symbolize Biblical concepts (ex., the crucifer), reinforce Christian best-practices (ex., confessions), and communicate Biblical truth (ex., creeds). They can also reposition the congregation from being merely an audience to becoming active participants within the components of the service.

User-Friendly Liturgy

Are you still struggling with the whole liturgy idea? Perhaps instead of thinking liturgy is either old-fashioned or stilted, maybe you just don’t understand it? Hey - that's nothing to be ashamed of these days; hardly any evangelical really knows much about liturgy anymore, since none of us have seen it practiced well in an evangelical setting. I don’t even claim to be an expert about it, but I know enough to say that its general relevance maintains all of the vigor and application it ever had.

Some people break down liturgy between high-church and low-church practices, but such stratification can easily make the eyes of many evangelicals simply glaze over. So I’m not going to deal with the heavy, elaborate side of liturgy that is considered “high.”

Instead, let’s consider some mild forms of liturgy and how effective they can be:

Creeds: Throughout the history of the evangelical church, groups of leaders have gathered and crafted documents professing statements of faith and explanations of doctrine. Over time, the best of these have risen to the top like cream, and today serve as significant illustrations of the work of the Holy Spirit among His people, oftentimes during periods of considerable duress. These doctrinal statements are called "creeds," and while they possess no divine revelation, they help explain why we believe what we believe. They also testify to the generational integrity of Christ's redemptive power from the New Testament Church to today.

Confession of Sin: What’s wrong with confessing the sins of omission and commission of the church body together?

Affirmation of Faith: By the same token, what’s wrong with affirming what we believe as a congregation?

Greeting of Peace: Usually, the greeting of peace consists of a recitation from the day’s preaching pastor of a scripture related to peaceful relationships. The congregation responds with “and also with you." What’s the point? If for some reason, you cannot “greet” your pastor in peace, you should meet with the pastor beforehand to clear up the matter. If you just mumble “and also with you” while harboring bitterness, you further compound the sin that is separating you. This is meant to serve as a weekly reminder to be in harmony with the leaders of your church.

Of course, the incorporation of liturgical elements in a corporate worship service can become quite elaborate, particularly if a church follows the Christian calendar, which covers all major New Testament Church observances.

Do you need liturgy to worship well? Of course not. But maybe if you’re looking for something to make corporate worship more relevant, significant, and purposeful, liturgy has the answers you thought it couldn’t provide.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Christoph Niemann's Digital Colloquialism

Day 38 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Show and Tell

Have you ever admired Google’s maps? I mean, have you ever stopped to consider not only what a technical marvel they are, with the spider’s web of streets scrolling along by just putting in an address or landmark, but also the aesthetic quality of their colors and shapes?

Neither had I, until a good friend sent me a link to the artwork of Christoph Niemann. I mean, for years I’ve been amazed at how accurate Google’s maps have proven to be, and when they superimpose the satellite images, you wonder what mankind won’t think of next. But the artistic merit of those smooth, tube-like streets and soothing colors didn’t really strike me until seeing Niemann’s work.

And it’s not just Google’s maps that Niemann has been able to turn into art. His non-pixelated, digital pen has become for 21st Century graphic humorists what Sharpies were to 20th Century cartoonists. Scoff at his technological invasion of the craft if you like, but Niemann has been able to carve out a surprisingly compelling medium with a computer and imaging software.

What Does "Digital Colloquial" Mean?

I haven’t been able to find a term for Niemann’s style, so I’ll call it “digital colloquial” since it has the crispness and polish of modern iconography set to a popular theme, with nuances of current social commentary thrown in for good measure.

He’s already won awards for his work, has published several books, and is virtually an artist-in-residence for several New York periodicals. At the age of 40, Niemann has grown up around technology long enough to be a master at digital design, while also being old enough to have a finely developed wit and satirical observation skills.

For my long-suffering friends who tire easily of my references to New York City, please bear with me, but anybody who has ever tried driving into Manhattan from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel can appreciate Niemann’s take on the convoluted route:

And although I doubt Niemann had America’s current healthcare debate in mind when he crafted this image below, can’t you see how "drowning in red ink" takes on an even more sinister - yet appropriate - theme? Bleeding taxpayers to death had yielded the red ink an officious person is going to use for writing an important document:

Niemann may be best known for his downright creative “Bio-Diversity” series, in which he took scissors to leaves and created amazingly simple humor:

Be honest, now: have you ever seen a leaf and thought, "that looks just like a bolt"? Leaves themselves can be considered works of art - except when hundreds of thousands of them fall on your yard every autumn. Can you see the genius of taking what most of us consider ordinary byproducts of tree exfoliation and re-using them so creatively? Talk about recycling!

Of course, he's an artist, so not all of Niemann's work is politically correct. There's a digital composition of cigarette butts shaped as the symbols for major world religions which I consider to be in very bad taste, but at least Niemann's an equal-opportunity blasphemer. Another image portrays "W" as a blockhead - with literally a stone cube above the shoulders. And accurately enough, one of his New Yorker covers depicts Asian "Rosie the Riveters" sewing American flags.

Which considering Niemann is a German, somehow makes ironic sense.

All images (c) copyright Christoph Niemann

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Marching on the Wrong Side of Racism

Day 37 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Roving through the streets of predominantly white Philadelphia neighborhoods, gangs of black youths have taken ownership of the latest urban gangsta trend: the flash mob.

Summoned by subversive texts on their cell phones, up to hundreds of teens gather at a location specified in text messages, and when critical mass has been achieved, they all start doing their thing: yelling, pushing and shoving, punching innocent passersby, fighting amongst themselves, and even once trashing a Macy’s department store.

Four violent flash mobs have already taken place in Philadelphia, although smaller and less-violent flash mobs have occurred in Boston, New Jersey and Brooklyn. The trend seems to have come to life this past December, and is loosely based on a 2003 phenomenon started by Bill Wasik who used websites and cell phone texting to innocuously summon a bunch of New Yorkers for a massive pillow fight.

In Philadelphia, mayor Michael Nutter has already taken a strong stance against the intimidation and violence that the flash mob youths have been perpetrating. When parents had the audacity to complain that the city isn’t providing enough after-school programs, Nutter retorted, “I don’t think people should be finding excuses for inappropriate behavior. There is no racial component to stupid behavior, and parents should not be looking to the government to provide entertainment for their children.”

When a reporter asked him why he thought flash mobs had suddenly become so popular in the City of Brotherly Love, Nutter shot back, “"I ran for mayor. I didn't run for mother… I don't know what causes someone to act like a jacka**."

Hopefully, Mayor Nutter’s non-nonsense approach to dealing with this latest spurt of aggression will help calm tensions in his notoriously violence-prone city. And maybe this trend will flame out as quickly as it was sparked, as kids realize it’s just a quick way to get arrested – or some innocent bystander they attack turns out to be the holder of a concealed handgun permit.

News Flash: Flash Mobs Set Us All Back

So far, Philadelphia's mayor, who happens to be black, and other city officials have tried to keep the racial component out of their flash mob situation. However, does a pervasive gangsta culture exist among white kids, or would having throngs of white kids in a predominantly black neighborhood instill fear in anybody?

Is it any secret that racial tensions can be perpetrated and exploited by members of the historically subjugated party? Some black youths know they can intimidate whites, and they revel in that fact. I rode an otherwise empty subway home early from a Yankees game one night with two other white friends, and a group of about 4 black teenagers tried threatening us in the subway car because we were white. We all just looked straight ahead and, fighting our instinct to look scared, tried to ignore them.

Some people say that it’s up to whites to adjust to the posturing that blacks use to express themselves. They say that it’s our fault that we get intimidated when black young people act in certain ways towards or around us. If we weren’t so racist, these kids would know they can’t incite fear in us merely by the way they talk and behave when they’re near us. Don’t be so sensitive.

To an extent, it can be easy to mis-read situations and jump to conclusions based on skewed stereotypes. But don't the kids participating in flash mobs utilize the well-known stereotypes and actually perpetuate those stereotypes against themselves, as well as people on the street just trying to shop or get home? The swaggers, language, roughhousing, and noise that accompanied the flash mobs – even without the criminal activity – is designed to intimidate. And it's successful.

Why can't we call it like it is? These kids have the ability to recognize methodologies for threatening and harassing people while using their skin color to make their actions more convincing. Its obvious their parents and families have not instilled in these kids values not only of respect for other people, but respect for one's self and the race you represent.

Dr. King Marched, Too

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to march among throngs of black people to demonstrate against bigotry. The people then who found King and his marches intimidating had good reason: the era of segregation was crumbling down around them, and about time, too. Perpetrators of racism should have been intimidated, and ashamed, particularly those who had walked in white robes against minorities in their communities. Dr. King walked on the right side of racism: to defeat it.

Some people may wonder what right a white guy has to write about this topic - all the way from Texas? They assume this is a black issue, and for whites to comment is racist. To them I’d say that to limit the discussion on this topic to just the black community actually perpetuates the very racism we’re supposed to be trying to overcome. Public activity - and flash mobs certainly fit that description - are by definition public, aren't they? Shouldn't anybody of any color be able to make a respectful contribution?

In modern-day Philadelphia, where even the rumor of a flash mob yesterday led stores to close early, the historic crowds from King’s era would be appalled at the arrogance of kids trying to use their skin color as some sort of weapon.

Intimidation does not instill respect.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

'Tis the Season... for Texas Twisters

Day 36 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Ten years ago this coming Sunday, towards the end of the evening rush hour, a tornadic system tore through Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas, killing two people and causing half a billion dollars of damage.

One skyscraper in downtown Fort Worth received such extensive damage its owners nearly tore it down before deciding to convert it from offices into luxury apartments. Destruction along portions of the city’s aging West Seventh Street area resulted in a brand-new neighborhood between Fort Worth’s world-class cultural district and its popular downtown.

Lying due east of Fort Worth, the city of Arlington received a second tornado that skipped around two neighborhoods south of the bustling I-20 corridor. For hours into the night, eight lanes of traffic sat still in darkness as downed power lines laced the freeway.

When daylight arrived, the full scope of destruction could be seen, from the spooky pock-marked towers of downtown Fort Worth to the mangled mess of suburban homes ripped apart just a few blocks from where I live.

Two days later, I joined some co-workers on a workday to help clean up the rubble here in Arlington. The city had already made one pass through the affected neighborhoods, making sure everybody had been accounted for, utilities were safely shut off, and emergency vehicles could get through. But the amount of destruction represented too momentous a chore for each family to accomplish by themselves, so volunteers were enlisted to help remove debris and even assist homeowners with personal tasks like recovering furniture and cookware.

I’m not sure I’d want a bunch of strangers poking around my home, even if they were just there to help. But with the shock of what had happened and the sheer magnitude of rebuilding they were facing, I guess most homeowners figured what more did they have to lose?

After my experiences of that day, I wrote an op-ed piece for our local newspaper (you remember, those thin paper bundles whose ink got all over your fingers?) Ten years ago, newspapers were still the main distribution method for local news.

As we near the tenth anniversary of the 2000 tornado, I thought maybe another look at the article might be appropriate – even as I watch the clouds thicken and darken on this humid afternoon, with strong storms in the forecast for this evening.

Did Class Come Into Play in Post-Tornado Arlington?
Originally printed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram - April 10, 2000

Were you as stunned as I was to learn about the tornadoes that tore through southeast Arlington? Things like that don’t happen here. Traffic jams at Krispy Kreme happen in Arlington; major natural disasters happen someplace else.

By now we all know that natural disasters do happen here. The March 28 tornado could have been worse, but it was bad enough. Although our own taste of tornadic weather wreaked havoc upon plenty of Arlington families, it also provided an excellent laboratory for studying and improving our preparedness and response for the next disaster that the skies may have in store.

In that spirit, I’d like to comment on the response to this disaster rendered by the city and various other organizations. I participated as a volunteer in two economically distinct neighborhoods flanking Matlock Road, and the disparities in public and private assistance between the two neighborhoods were clear.

On the morning of March 30, armed with lawn tools and a power saw, some co-workers and I trudged into what looked like a war zone. In reality, it was what was left of the upper-middle-class Chasemore Lane neighborhood. Chunks of roofs had been ripped away, windows blown out, vehicles tossed around like toys, and fences ripped from the ground.

The city’s presence amid all this destruction appeared impressive – dump trucks, bulldozers and other equipment created a cacophony of commotion. Police were everywhere: on foot, motorcycles, and in squad cars. In fact, we had to go through three checkpoints to get in, and every vehicle had to have a color-coded permit. The Red Cross staffed two vans offering hot food, but we opted to have lunch at the abundantly stocked table set up by Farmers Insurance.

After lunch, I returned to my regular job while my volunteer co-workers went to work on Embercrest Drive, west of Matlock. A couple of hours later, I was called back to help a family being forced to leave their condemned home. They needed someone to drive them to Mission Arlington.

When I turned onto their street, it was like a different world from the Chasemore neighborhood. Embercrest Drive presented a scene of nearly complete devastation. The homes there are much smaller and more densely spaced than those in the Chasemore neighborhood, which probably accounted for some of the visual disarray. They’re also less expensive, and probably not as well insured.

I saw at least two homes with nothing more standing than a few interior walls. Debris was everywhere; I could barely see the ground.

Among all this destruction, I saw many volunteers, including roving bands of Mormon teenagers who made quick work of whatever project they encountered. TV and radio crews seemed to be everywhere. A co-worker of mine said he’d been interviewed three times just that afternoon.

What amazed me more than the destruction, though, was the apparent lack of city personnel along Embercrest. I did find one city worker putting out bins of ice and bottled water, and occasionally a police car would cruise down the street, but there were no security checkpoints to discourage looting, and curious rubber-neckers clogged the street.

A lone Red Cross truck had hungry volunteers waiting in a long line among stacks of debris waiting to be carted away. Although insurance agents were swarming over the Chasemore neighborhood, not one could be seen along Embercrest. I also learned later that some upscale restaurants set up hospitality tables along Chasemore Lane, but we never saw them on Embercrest.

This is Arlington’s first major tornado disaster, so a considerable amount of leniency should be extended for the inequitable response to these two disparate neighborhoods. Resources may have been limited, and initial volunteer efforts may have been disorganized. And I suppose it’s only fair for restaurants to promote themselves where a larger percentage of their customer base resides.

Still, it’s troubling to see people – despite their concern – disproportionately skew their otherwise noble efforts toward the wealthier side of the tracks.

The outpouring of concern and assistance from people across the Metroplex has been encouraging to see. Still, shades of class distinction have shadowed even the best of intentions.

Let’s take the opportunity to not only review and improve our strategies for response, assessment, and protection, but also to remember that economic class cannot be even a subconscious criterion for meting out sorely needed resources. We’re all residents of Arlington, and we all deserve equitable support from the municipal employees, private companies, and volunteers who make this city a great place to live for all of us.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Field Trip!

Day 35 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Today, my first online article for has been published, and you can read it here. For five months, once a month I'll be writing an article about singles in the church. But even if you're married, there's something in it for you, so please check it out!

To help you save time, I have no essay for today. Think of it as a field trip to another website, like your grade school classes probably had to visit another location of interest.

We'll be back to normal tomorrow with an essay about the 10-year anniversary of a killer tornado that swept through Fort Worth and Arlington.

Monday, March 22, 2010

When Opposites Befriend

Day 34 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Are you opinionated? Do you find it difficult to separate issues from the people who promote them? Sometimes we hold opinions so strongly that we can’t see the other side for all of our pontificating. Or, maybe that's just me?

True, we need to think through issues and evaluate ideas based on intellect and logic. But in the heady world of thought and analysis, we can’t forget the human element.

You may recall a short series of essays I wrote about church music and the popular trend of incorporating contemporary Christian music (CCM) into corporate worship services. Well, for all my bluster on the subject, I neglected to acknowledge the human side of the equation, and the respect I held for a CCM proponent who served in a church I used to attend.

The church was Pantego Bible Church, now located in Fort Worth. For a few years in the 1990's, I worked in their accounting office while Kevin Walker was music pastor. Several years ago, he moved to Colorado to start a musicians' mentoring ministry for CCM workers.

This past weekend, Kevin passed away after suffering from cancer, only a few years older than I. As I've reminisced about his life and ministry, I’ve been reminded that although I hold strong views on controversial topics, I can’t ignore people of similar conscience whose opinions stand in stark contrast.

Kevin Walker

In some ways, Kevin was not your typical CCM musician. He wasn’t particularly stylish or hip. He wasn’t a showman, nor could he read music. He was balding… well, OK, bald. Indeed, it was said that when he started cancer treatments, Kevin quipped that at least his hair wouldn’t fall out!

In other ways, Kevin’s music typified the very characteristics of CCM that drive me nuts: inane repetition, incessant beat, saccharine rhymes, and noise. It was no secret that when I attended and worked at Pantego, I intentionally arrived at worship services late to avoid most of the music.

But as much as I disliked his craft, I found Kevin himself to be a warm, sincere, humble, witty, and servant-hearted person who, unlike me, never criticized or complained. We were never close, and I haven’t seen him in years, but during the time I worked at Pantego, I quickly and easily came to respect him for his understanding of the Gospel and his love for people.

He knew I wasn’t crazy about CCM, but he never pushed me on that topic. Indeed, a lot of people at church didn’t like what was going on in the music ministry, but he worked within the realm of differing opinions and won over a lot of us with his aw-shucks demeanor.

Kevin worked long, hard hours. He composed most of the music sung at Pantego, and their content and theology were much stronger than most of the fluff I heard other churches doing. The songs in which he put Scriptures to music served as an easy way to memorize those passages.

And of course, Kevin’s tenure at Pantego occurred during the whole upheaval of the seeker movement in evangelical churches across North America. A lot of the vitriol aimed in his direction wasn’t intended for him per say, but at all of the changes in general. That’s part of the price any music director faces as being the visible representation of corporate worship in a church. But Kevin faced the rancor and frustration with amazing amounts of grace.

Agree to Disagree

Of course, some people think that if you don’t like their music, you really can’t relate to the musician, since they’re intrinsically part of each other. To a certain degree, for some musicians, that may be the case, but with Kevin, I’m comfortable in assuming that the relationship we had while we were both at Pantego existed to a great degree in spite of our personal preferences and differences. After all, can’t we disagree on processes and functionality while still being appreciative of another person? Must we necessarily disassociate ourselves based on unshared opinions or viewpoints? What is the extent to which personal convictions unnecessarily drive wedges between people?

Do you see where I’m going with this? A lot of conservatives, which means a lot of evangelicals, have been worked up into a froth lately over the healthcare reform vote. Indeed, there has been considerable animosity on both sides of the debate. Some might shrug their shoulders and say that’s how politics gets done in America these days, but the level of vitriol exchanged in the debate has risen to levels unbecoming civilized society. This past weekend, some reform opponents even shouted the n-word to black representatives as they arrived on Capitol Hill. To use such a despicable term belies a temperament woefully devoid of care, respect, and integrity.

Part of me wonders, though, if there were any evangelical Christians who voted for the healthcare reform bill, or at least supported it? Sometimes we white evangelicals forget that faith is color-blind and apolitical. How much of the animosity some of us have been fostering towards liberal Democrats has actually been directed at brothers and sisters in Christ who have a different opinion on this issue? It’s one thing to take a position on legislation – we have the constitutional freedom to do that. We also have the constitutional freedom to aggressively display our emotions, but we don’t necessarily have that right Biblically, do we? Especially not to fellow members in our broader community of faith.

Finding Similarities Among the Differences

Now, would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that the way I respected Kevin despite our significant differences should be a model for respectable political discourse? I’m not perfect, and the only reason Kevin is perfect is because he’s now in the presence of Christ. In His sovereignty, God placed the two of us in our respective positions at Pantego for a variety of reasons, and I believe one of those was for me to learn a thing or two about how to value a person on multiple levels. It's not quite the same as having different viewpoints on the purpose of government, but isn't the point still valid?

This past weekend, God called Kevin to his eternal reward, and He also ordained that a highly controversial vote would fall against the opinions held by many evangelicals. Some people come back from both events and console themselves by reminding us that “God is still in control,” which, of course, is true.

But it was true before Kevin passed away, it was true during the healthcare vote, and it’s just as true today. It’s not just a calming reassurance, it’s reality that holds true regardless of whether we like or don't like the things that happen.

Someday in Heaven, I’ll see Kevin – although I may not recognize him if God gives him a full head of hair (for the record, I still had hair when Kevin knew me). Won’t yesterday’s vote probably be a distant memory, too?

Meanwhile, will all the baggage we may carry around between now and then be worth the weight?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ed and Me

Day 31 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Show and Tell

“Wow – who’s that old guy?” you may be asking. Not the guy with the glasses; the man wearing the suit and tie.

I’m the guy in the glasses, and the fellow to the right of my photo is the inimitable Ed Koch, New York City's 105th mayor back in the late 1970's and 1980’s and still one of the city’s most die-hard supporters.

Koch’s mayoral administration inherited a bankrupt city heaving in the throws of middle-class flight. Crime stalked virtually everybody, infrastructure was literally falling apart, and experts saw the city’s future as being darker than the polluted East River.

He's No Mr. Ed

During his roller-coaster three-term tenure, however, Koch managed to right the city's abysmal finances, staunch much of the middle-class and corporate flight from the city, and reinvigorate the pride New Yorkers thought had also fled. Ultimately, though, political corruption within his administration cost Koch his hoped-for fourth term to the elegant, soft-spoken David Dinkins (who I met once, btw, on the steps of City Hall when I was an intern).

Even if you couldn’t stand his liberal biases, you had to admire the sheer chutzpah with which the Bronx-born Koch dove into his job. Single and childless, he seemed to have all the time in the world to devote to salvaging his hometown. Everywhere he went, he’d stop people on the street or in building lobbies and bluntly quiz them: “Hey – How’m I doin’?”

Unlike those who considered suburbia Eden, Koch embraced the city New York was evolving into – a city whose apex had already crested in terms of its economic might and the hometown for most of America's corporations. People and headquarters were gone and not coming back, so Koch helped the Big Apple re-confront the diversity which had made it great to begin with. Most of the renewed interest in central-city employment and living that has reversed dying urban areas all over North America during the last decade can ultimately be traced to Ed Koch and his simple yet controversial recipe for making lemonade out of lemons.

Maybe another mayor during those 12 years could have done a better job. But New York didn’t have another mayor, it had Koch. And certainly, a lot of people could have done a lot worse than he did. Koch was and is a liberal, but a liberal with a better grasp on reality than most of his ilk. For example, he is a staunch supporter of current celebrity mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, although some dismiss him as a Democrat in Republican clothing. Koch also opposed affirmative action, saying that it was demeaning to minorities since it assumed they intrinsically needed extra help to get and keep a job.

Author, Author!

So why did I strike an Ed Koch pose in the picture to the left? Many of my friends believe I’m another Democrat in Republican garb, but that’s not why I was trying to look like Koch.

Actually, I didn’t have anybody in mind when that picture was taken. My editor at needed a photo for my inaugural article to appear on her site next Tuesday, and I don't like having my picture taken and was goofing off. It wasn't until she sent me the image file that I realized the resemblance to Hizzonor (what New Yorkers call their mayors). That is the real reason I’m posting this picture here on Show-and-Tell day! This is my way of announcing that I’ll be a published Internet author as of next week.

I have to qualify that because I’m already a paid, published author. Back when I was in high school, my aunt was working for a textbook company in Greenwich Village, and they needed a story about the old west for one of their books. She suggested that one of her nephews in Texas could write it, and they paid me the princely sum of $35 to do so. Of course, I don’t have a copy of what I wrote for them, but I remember it had something to do with a horse pumping water with one of those old hand pumps. The story I wrote doesn't matter anyway, because when they got ahold of it, they edited the living daylight out of it so I could barely recognize it when my aunt sent me the final version. Leave it to a bunch of New York City editors to re-write a story about the Wild West from their offices in Greenwich Village.

Of course, that all took place during the Koch administration, back when vast stretches of New York could probably have been considered as violent and lawless as the Wild West reputedly was. So maybe those editors weren’t as disconnected from my story as I thought.

I invite you to look for my article on this coming Tuesday. It’s the first in a five-part series on singles in the church. Whether you’re single, married, or something in-between, hopefully you can get something out of it.

And then you can tell me "how I'm doin'!"

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Healthcare Saga Just Gets Worse

Day 30 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Amazing. Doesn’t that adequately describe the sudden resurrection of President Obama’s healthcare bill that seemed dead in the water only a couple of weeks ago?

Actually, some people might call it downright petrifying, especially if you consider there’s more unknown about this bill than known. It’s not even written yet, and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi wants a vote by this coming Sunday. Sunday, of all days!

Hardly anybody thinks Pelosi and Obama have the votes they need to win with an ordinary roll call, so they’re rumored to be considering some parliamentary tricks to run an end game around Democratic holdouts and score from the bleachers - or in this case, the parking lot. “Budget reconciliation” has become the newest term in the American political lexicon, even though it’s been around for ages and used by both parties for far less significant votes on far less significant bills.

OK, I've tipped my hand - I'm against the current healthcare bill.

But no matter where you stand in the healthcare debate, you have to admit that any bill’s legitimacy gets significantly murky if such tactical maneuvers provide the only means for passage.

They Said It: Quotes from the Times

Assuming Pelosi and Obama have completely altruistic motivations for - by any standard - stuffing this bill down America’s throat, what about it so enthralls liberals? For help in understanding the mentality behind the healthcare juggernaut’s surprising surge, what better resource to consult than a primer for the liberal agenda, the New York Times?

Ever willing to oblige, today’s issue of the Times contains a bubbly update* on the pending healthcare overhaul vote in the House of Representatives. Entitled “Democrats Cheer Budget Forecast on Health Care Bill” and written by David Herszenhorn and Robert Pear, the Times’ latest article raises several red flags that not only fail to bolster the liberal claims in this debate, but significantly weaken them.

Here are just a few highlights from the Times piece, followed by my observations:

1. “In the first ten years, the legislation would reduce deficits by $130 billion, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip, said after a meeting of the party’s caucus. The effect on deficits over the following decade would be much greater, a total of $1.2 trillion, he said. The savings would come largely from reductions in the growth of Medicare spending, with new fees and tax increases also contributing.”

Will the government actually be saving any money? Won’t money saved by the alleged reduction in Medicare spending actually be spent somewhere else in Obama’s plan? People aren’t just going to stop aging or getting sick. The government has a woeful track record of trumpeting savings in one area, only to see costs rise in another area where the costs have secretly been transferred. It’s one big game of whack-a-mole.

Also, won't deficit reductions a further decade removed mostly come from attrition in the Medicare program? Twenty years from now, the massive Boomer generation will be passing away in droves, automatically reducing Medicare costs as their number shrinks. Isn’t it disingenuous to credit Obama’s bill with saving money when the actual savings will come as millions of patients simply die of old age?

2. “The endorsement from Mr. Kucinich suggested that Democrats who have been pushing for more ambitious legislation might put aside their reservations and unite behind the bill as their best opportunity to secure health insurance for millions of Americans who now lack it. The backing from Mr. Kildee — and new support from nuns who lead major Roman Catholic religious orders — indicated that Democrats were having some success in addressing an issue that has cost the votes of some Democrats who oppose abortion rights.”

By now, we all know that Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich was strong-armed by Obama during a private round-trip flight on Air Force One from Washington to Ohio and back. Considering the staggering amount of pork already stuffed into the healthcare legislation, I suppose the approximately $113,036** it cost to fly Air Force One to and from suburban Cleveland is mere pocket change for politicians.

Michigan’s Dale Kildee has been a holdout on the legislation because of concerns over expanded abortion coverage, but apparently (as the article goes on to state) some liberal groups of nuns have been jumping through hoops trying to justify increased abortions with the promise of broader coverage for all – which makes sense, I guess, if you consider that Obama’s bill would make abortions available for more women. That’s still not progress, though, is it?

Perhaps more telling is the casual mention towards the end of the article that the powerful and scholarly US Conference of Catholic Bishops remains firmly opposed to the current wording of the Senate bill. How can the same bill be seen as both pro-abortion and anti-abortion?

What a mess.

3. “In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Obama dismissed Republican criticisms of the parliamentary tactics, saying he does not ‘spend a lot of time worrying about what the procedural rules are.’”

Now, former president Bush may have been able to get away with saying something like that, considering what some believed to be his weak grasp of Washington power plays (something his supporters viewed as a positive trait). But Obama, who campaigned on the promise to change the way business gets done in Washington, actually exposes the central fallacy of his administration when he relies on the old “whatever works” ethos of politics. Sure, the “budget reconciliation” trick Democrats have proposed works for smaller bills, but not for issues like the sweeping government overhaul of healthcare.

People elect their representatives for a reason, even if they’re the wrong ones. Once they’re in office, their vote should be respected - not coerced - by the president. The Executive Branch should not run roughshod over the Legislative Branch like this. If something as crucial as Obama’s plan can’t pass through a conventional vote, then in a way, the people have spoken.

4. “Mr. Obama likened the measure to fixing the financial system or passing the economic recovery act. ‘I knew these things might not be popular, but I was absolutely positive that it was the right thing to do,’ he said.”

Continuing my point from #3, consider the arrogance of this statement. Popularity? For better or worse, a democratic republic is all about popularity, isn’t it? That’s why we elect people to represent us, to act on our behalf. Of course, Congress has a popularity rating which is flat-lining at the moment, but that doesn’t give Obama the right to plow through with his agenda without securing the will of the people – something he has failed to do. We’ve yet to see a final bill, and the vote is four days away. That’s appalling leadership in anybody’s book, and a stunning display of snubbing a citizenry overwhelmingly opposed to his plan.

Referencing the financial system “fix” and the economic recovery act as legitimate leadership decisions hardly supports Obama’s claim to be acting on precedent. Banks and Wall Street have made a killing this past year at the expense of taxpayers – two boondoggles Bush and Obama were warned about before they threw away so many tax dollars.

With this statement, doesn't Obama continue to demonstrate a naivete regarding capitalism and economic reality?

5. “Explaining factors he had considered in making his decision, Mr. Kucinich said, ‘We have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama’s presidency not be destroyed by this debate.’”

Where do you begin to refute everything that’s wrong with this statement? The only way debate – a keystone of democracy – can destroy a presidency is when the content of the debate proves the fallacy of the subject president. So is Kucinich admitting that Democrats had better go ahead and get this vote over with because the stuffing is falling out of Obama’s hastily-stitched-together program?

And to succumb to pressure from a sitting president who obviously painted a dire future for himself if this bill doesn’t pass reveals the spineless side of Kucinich. Granted, he’s never been a conventional congressman, but such a statement is a new low for this presidential also-ran.

Add it all up, and doesn't it look like we’ve got a bunch of people lobbying for and being pressured to support a bill nobody really likes and doesn’t really solve anything?

This report in the New York Times gives that impression.

* The original article in the online version of the New York Times has since been updated, with some of the content quoted in this essay removed. For an exact iteration of this article, please consult today's print edition.
** Calculated at $56,518 per hour for two hours; distance is less than 300 nautical miles.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A St. Patrick Most Revelers Don't Know

Day 29 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Have you ever eaten Irish nachos? Yummm... they’re so good, and so drenched with fats and salt that a doctor explicitly told a friend of mine to stop eating them.

Local dive restaurant J. Gilligan’s here in Arlington, Texas invented Irish nachos, and has even been featured on a cable travel show with the delicacy. You take thick slices of potatoes, fry them just a bit, then smother them with cheddar cheese, sour cream, jalapenos, bacon bits, and diced onions.

My friend’s doctor was right, wasn’t he?

I bring up the specialty of the house at J. Gilligan’s because today is St. Patrick’s Day, when this and all other Irish-themed restaurants throw beer-fueled bashes and anybody can be Irish until midnight. The city actually closes down streets around J. Gilligan’s so the crowds can dance on them. People come from all over Fort Worth and Dallas to participate.

Last Saturday, Dallas threw its annual St. Patrick’s Day parade down the older, quaint part of it’s bar-lined Greenville Avenue. In actually, it’s less parade and more beerfest, although sponsors keep saying it’s a family-friendly event. Not that drinking beer is a sin, but negligent parenting can be.

Granted, there’s more to St. Patrick’s Day than drinking beer… but not much. If you were to tell green-clad revelers who the day’s patron saint really was, they’d probably wonder about the connection between him and why they can barely remember the day’s date.

I’ve wondered that, too.

Would the Real Saint Patrick Please Stand Up?

Catholics call him the patron saint of Ireland, but St. Patrick has never been officially canonized. He wasn’t even Irish, but Scottish. Catholics like to say that Patrick introduced the Irish to Christianity, but in actually, Palladius brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle a few years before Patrick first arrived. And contrary to popular mythology, no snakes ever existed in Ireland for Patrick to banish.

Although born into privilege, he became a slave while still a teenager. Scholars estimate it took him 15 years to graduate from divinity school. He professed to having visions and visitations, which today many Catholics and most evangelicals would find disconcerting. Indeed, his certainly was not the normal path to the pastorate, but not the background of a wallflower, either. In his proclamation of the Gospel, in his compassion for his adopted homeland, and in his personal convictions, Patrick displayed resolute fervency. For whatever hype has flourished around the legend of St. Patrick, to him goes the undisputed credit for helping establish Christianity in Ireland.

He used Ireland's ubiquitous three-leaf clover to help explain the concept of the Trinity. During his captivity, he spent virtually six years solid in prayer. His writings invoke dark imagery from the Celtic witchcraft and symbolism that haunted his Irish flock. Patrick took the pagan superstition of the sun as the origin of power and applied it to the crucifix, creating what we know today as the Celtic cross.

His earnest devotion to his faith permeates his writings. Consider this excerpt from his “Confession:”

”But I entreat those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to examine or receive this document composed by the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick in Ireland, that nobody shall ever ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing that I achieved or may have expounded that was pleasing to God, but accept and truly believe that it would have been the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die.” (# 62)

If You're Partying, Shouldn't the Celebration Fit the Honoree?

As a man of his day, his personal habits were undoubtedly different than ours, and the Irish have never been known for throwing a dull party. Yet for all that he is known today, most of which has been proven false, but much of which remains deeply theological and unfashionably pious, Patrick would probably quake with horror if he could see how most people celebrate his memory.

One town in Ireland celebrates with a bawdy parade between their two pubs. The very superstitions Patrick sought to contradict with the clover have returned in the four-leaf variety. Raucous debauchery characterizes most parties Irish-themed restaurants throw on March 17, the anniversary of Patrick’s death. About the only dignity in honor of the occasion is – yes, I’ve got to get my New York reference in here somehow! – the grand Irish parade down Fifth Avenue.

Not that a country as proud as Ireland and a people who’ve endured so much as the Irish don’t deserve their day in the international sun. So go ahead, wear green today, and if you think food coloring in beer is fun and harmless, don’t let me stop you.

Before you go out and party, though, maybe you should at least read a bit from Patrick and his “Breast-Plate” prayer:

“…I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me,
God's host to secure me:
against snares of devils, against temptations of vices,
against inclinations of nature, against everyone who
shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd…

“…Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right,
Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length,
Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

“I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the
Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the
Oneness of the Creator of creation.
Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.”
(Excerpts from “The Breast-Plate of St. Patrick”)

Wouldn’t you think this sounds more like the way in which Patrick would like to be remembered?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Postal's Going?

Day 28 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

"You’ve got mail!"

Whether the message comes from a computerized voice on your e-mail program or your friendly neighborhood mailman approaching you in your yard, most of us gladly welcome the opportunity to see who wants to communicate with us.

Of course, as quickly as it builds, our enthusiasm usually fades as we see how much junk mail – both the snail-mail and electronic kind – we’ve gotten, and how little person-to-person mail has graced our mailbox. It’s as if the mail provides a form of affirmation for our lives and who we are, and when we don’t get what we're looking for, it seems like a wasted effort, doesn't it?

Bills are just reminders of stuff we’ve already bought, and which probably has already lost its luster.

Credit card applications are just further proof that the people who send us bills have sold our information to other people who want to send us bills, too.

What we’re all looking for when we open our mail is something from somebody we like, or love, or want to love. Maybe we’re looking for something that will benefit us financially, like an approved contract for a business proposal. We’re looking for feedback on something we’ve produced or an idea we’ve suggested.

Postmaster General Franklin

Even before America’s Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as head of this country’s first postal system. As Postmaster General, Franklin’s responsibilities included providing a national information network that was cutting-edge for its day. This information network included not only post offices, but postal roads connecting them. Indeed, some communities in New England have major highways that trace the routes Franklin’s old postal roads took over 200 years ago.

For a fledgling democracy, the postal service provided a crucial cross-country link that helped businesses and families stay connected as the colonies expanded westward. Post offices served as local gathering spots and the face of government in far-flung places. Men could register for the military at post offices, a person’s official location was registered as a postal address, and even today, your mailbox is technically considered government property.

But the grand objectives of our early postal system have largely been eclipsed by technology, haven’t they? As access to and use of digital information has become virtually universal, the need to mail hard copies of documentation has dwindled. The art of penmanship has practically vanished, the poetry of love letters has eroded to staccato pecking for instant messaging, and even good ol’ reliable bills have gone online for automatic withdrawal convenience.

These days, your letter carrier probably delivers mostly junk mail of the most inane variety that immediately ends up in your trashcan. And we’re paying these people how much money to deliver all this stuff we don’t want?

Forever Stamps?

Not that the US Postal Service has managed its money well over the years, nor has it done a good job of adapting to a changing society. It’s still the monopolistic behemoth it’s been for generations, only these days, it’s finding its marginalized role in American life a tough reversal of fortune.

Gone are the days when it could erect grand postal palaces, its employees symbolized government efficiency, and its power as an information provider stood unparalleled. What architectural marvels the postal service still inhabits are run-down and under-used. Both the quality of mail delivery and the quality of mail delivered have become punchline fodder.

It’s definitely past time for the postal service to downsize.

Many small towns across America still rely on their local post office for a sense of location and identity, but how many of them can be closed down and resources consolidated in centralized locations?

Talk of eliminating Saturday delivery has been gaining steam, and makes a lot of sense when you consider that Saturdays are not an official workday for banks and government offices, the two institutions that use the mail the most.

Whenever I’ve seen the postal service advertising on the Super Bowl and other major sporting events, I’ve wondered why they spend so much money telling people they exist. The reason most people don’t use the mail these days isn’t because we’ve forgotten them, but simply because they’re too slow.

Can't Keep Up

And that’s the crux of the postal services’ dilemma, isn’t it?

For today’s business needs, speed is of the essence. Even for most personal communication, we Americans want to know stuff quicker. And there’s not really anything wrong with that. Why wait five days for a letter via snail mail that may contain information that is old by the time it arrives? Sometimes, it’s easy to vilify the push for speed and quickness. But in this case, with technology providing so many affordable and accessible alternatives to snail mail, the morality of instant information doesn’t really come into play. It’s up to the postal service to adapt.

Unfortunately, not even budget deficits and reduced volume can make the postal service see their old ways of doing things don't work any more. Last summer, when a sweeping list of proposed post office closures was announced, one of the most heavily-used locations here in Arlington, Texas, appeared on the list. Incredulous, civic and business leaders protested the irrationality of closing our central post office. Sure, it has lousy service (the clerks all seem to take their lunch break at noon – the same time most of their customers show up), the parking lot is poorly designed, and they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for rent on a larger lot for employee parking.

It wasn’t long before postal officials took Arlington’s central post office off of the closure list. Postal employees I know told me that the whole idea was a trial balloon to see who would squeal the loudest – the post office’s idea of efficiency. Apparently, they did without the processing volume studies and threw a bunch of locations out in the public domain to see which ones caught the most resistance. How’s that for planning?

Of course, that may have just been idle talk from the letter carrier union. They’ve been a thorn in the side of the post office for years, and one reason why snail mail costs remain so high. Here in Texas, a lot of union letter carriers have been replaced by non-union temporary workers, who rarely wear uniforms, walk through flower beds, and rarely show up until dusk.

So much for "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." (From the inscription on the James Farley Post Office in midtown Manhattan, near Madison Square Garden.)

Mail Bonding

These days, a lot of organizations that are downsizing do so to give shareholders more money. And others do it simply to stay afloat. The postal service not only has to figure out how to stay afloat, it needs to figure out how to remain relevant. How many Gen-X'ers and Tweens did you see during your last trip to the post office? When was your last trip to the post office?

It might help to realize though, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even if the postal service as we Americans know it ceases to exist within the next few years, mail will still be delivered. And that little burst of anticipation when we hear or see “You’ve Got Mail!” will still precede the moment when we look and see who’s sent us something.

Yeah, and there will probably still be all that junk mail, too!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Rest of the Sabbath

Day 27 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

So we’re listening to this tall, lanky, African man with dark chocolate skin, talking in French to an interpreter. The two of them were standing at the wrought-iron and carved-wood pulpit in our church's sanctuary, describing his ministry in Senegal.

Mamadou Djop doesn’t speak English well, but he’s fluent in French, so a church member who also speaks French helped translate Djop’s story for the congregation this past Sunday. Djop described how his abandonment of Islam and coming to faith in Christ harmed his own mother, one of his father’s four wives. Among other things, having her son disgrace their family by adopting Christianity automatically thrust her to the bottom of the intra-wife hierarchy.

For Americans unused to plural marriage and the severe subjugation of women, the plight of Djop and his mother seems too foreign to comprehend. Yet for Djop, whose conviction of faith could not be denied by familial ties, the burden of seeing how his mother unwittingly suffered from his conversion must have been heartbreaking.

Convicted of how I take my faith for granted, I marveled at how God can both utilize the family structure for the nurture of familial relationships, and also instigate the pain of dislodging those same relationships for His glory. I don’t know if Djop and his parents have been able to forge any sort of reconciliation, but it certainly seemed as though the peace of Christ has been a balm of sorts for whatever brokenness took place within this family that Djop obviously loves.

Sunday Fun Day?

Of course, his is but one story of the many people around the world who have had to relinquish so much to “take hold of the prize” through faith in Christ. Whether in the persecuted church or in countries with strict cultural norms such as Senegal, believers are living testimonies of suffering for the sake of the Gospel that, to be frank, should make we American Christians blush with shame. Sure, we sometimes get made fun of by opinionated boors in the media, and anecdotal stories about illicit nativity scenes and Ten Commandments plaques sound like persecution in our privileged society. But don’t kid yourself – that’s not persecution, is it?

So we go to our churches on Sunday mornings and then play all afternoon. Does that sound like a bunch of persecuted religious zealots? Even after a compelling testimony of God’s work in Senegal, our ethnocentrism inevitably takes over and by the time we’re driving out of the parking lot, many of us have already been consumed by plans for the afternoon.

Not that the persecuted church would begrudge American believers our Sunday delights. Or even our Sunday chores. But how often do we sit through a God-focused worship service only to revert back to our own small worlds, failing to fully appreciate God’s goodness and blessings to us? In the bustle of our everyday lives, have we unwittingly drawn Sunday out of its Biblical context and fashioned it into just another day for us to get stuff done?

Weekend Warrior

Some people view Sundays as a day for still, solemn meditation about God and His Gospel. Quite honestly, that may be an ideal pursuit for Sundays, but how realistic would it be? How many people can sit for hours on end, mentally exercising their faith, without falling asleep or fighting a running battle with concentration? How restful is struggling to stay awake or keep kids quiet all afternoon?

Indeed, the concept of rest and recreation on Sunday afternoons has evolved along with society. Time was, people who went to church didn’t really have the luxury of leisure like we have today. And you can bash unions all you want, but in many western countries, the two-day weekend is mostly an invention of workers rights groups. Of course, the idea of “Sabbath rest” comes from Genesis 2, where God Himself set the example of taking a break from one’s ordinary labor. But by tacking Saturday onto Sunday, which many cultures associate with the day of the week Christ rose from the dead, we’ve stretched the “Sabbath rest” concept until it’s practically lost its significance.

Not that everybody gets weekends off from work. Farmers have to work just about every day. Doctors, nurses, police officers, and other round-the-clock careers sometimes have Sunday hours. And of course, pastors and church workers punch in every Sunday. But the idea of taking time off for rest is still a good idea, isn’t it, even if you can’t do it on Sundays.

Instead, so many churchgoers seem to shoehorn Sunday services into a day they’ve intentionally crammed full of a lot of other stuff. Most of us sleep late, which automatically means we’re running late for church. Then a lot of us go out to lunch – which, btw, a lot of restaurant workers don’t like because a lot of us tip horribly. And then the afternoons quickly become congested with trips to the mall, homework, mowing the yard, and everything else that didn’t get done on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Christians around the world meet in secret to fellowship together on the Lord’s Day. Not that we should spend Sundays in mourning for them. But maybe we can do a better job of spending our Sundays more intentionally. Why waste them cleaning the bathroom or trimming the hedges? By not taking advantage of the same opportunity that God took – and ordained – for Sundays, do you think maybe you view your time as being more important than God’s?

It’s not just about what we do on Sundays, but why we do them. Why didn’t you get all your chores done Saturday? Are you bending over backwards keeping your yard as perfect as the Jones’? Did the kids have too much on their sports schedule that their homework waited until Sunday? Did you put in extra hours at the office on Saturday (or Sunday) to impress the boss? Is your lifestyle linked to your income, and your income linked to a heavy work schedule?

Hmm… maybe I’m getting too personal. Maybe some seasons in life are more hectic than others. Certainly in this economy, keeping a job is hard enough without complaining about extra hours. And lots of kids in sports must play their games both Saturdays and Sundays.

Best Sabbath Rest

Indeed, should we have hard and fast rules for what believers should and shouldn’t do on Sundays? If you’re going to make people jump through hoops to be spiritual on a certain day of the week, how many scriptures can we find to prove the fallacy in that?

For example, there’s a school of thought that says we shouldn’t go out to eat on Sundays, because we’re obligating other people to work, even though people who want to attend church usually can find a way, even if they work in a restaurant. What if an elderly widow’s lawn needs to be mowed, but it rained all day Saturday? What if your child is sick all day Sunday, and you have to spend the day tending to their needs, washing soiled laundry, and going to the store for medicine?

Even if you wanted to spend the day away from the office, the mall, and the little league park, don’t all sorts of people have all sorts of ways to “rest and recreate?” For people like me, a nice long nap is pure luxury. But for others, unwinding on the golf course, decompressing with a brisk walk, contemplating the hues in some beautiful music, or even – gasp! – wading through the Sunday edition of the New York Times can be just the tonic for brains, bones, and muscles tensed up by a weeks’ worth of toil.

Somebody once tried to convince me that they found mowing their lawn to be relaxing, and therefore a perfectly appropriate Sunday activity. Now, I understand that a sense of accomplishment usually follows one’s labors at a lawn mower, and there may be weeks when Sunday offers the only time to mow. But relaxing? Please – if mowing the lawn is restful to you, do it on a Saturday and be both rested and efficient. Mowing the lawn is noisy and laborious any way you look at it. You may not sin if you mow your yard on Sundays, but you will annoy any neighbors trying to use their Sundays for quieter pursuits.

Back when I lived in Brooklyn, I used to enjoy strolling through parts of its Borough Park neighborhood on idyllic Saturday afternoons. Home to a sizeable community of Hasidic Jews, Borough Park can be downright quiet on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Only gentiles would be driving down its tree-shaded streets, lined by row houses where kids played quietly on the stoops. Casual clutches of bearded men wearing white shirts and black pants would be interspersed down the blocks, with women leaning through open windows, chatting softly with their next door neighbors. I almost felt like I was intruding into their private sanctuary; that I needed to apologize for disturbing them, the serenity was that palpable. Hushed and ordered, their Sabbath observance bespeaks a simple method for taking advantage of what rejuvenation we can snatch away from our frenzied world.

Of Law and Commandment

Granted, Borough Park’s Hasidic Jews may have mostly observed their religion’s Sabbath rules out of a rigorous, traditional, do-and-don’t mentality. In Christianity, we believe that because God looks at the heart, why we do the things we do matters significantly to Him. Why do you mow your yard on Sundays, or why don’t you? Does not mowing your lawn on Sundays make you more spiritual? Of course not. But if you spend the time you would have spent mowing the lawn on something that will physically benefit your body, your mind, and your soul, how much closer to God’s model for rest have you come?

Honor the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Where have you heard that before? It’s one of the Ten Commandments, isn’t it? If it’s a Commandment, then why don’t we do it? Why don’t we honor the day by keeping it separate, which is what “holy” means? Many believers around the world live in fear because of what they celebrate on Sundays. We don’t live in fear, but maybe we should do a better job of living with respectful observance of freedoms God Himself commands of us.

Think about it. How many other religions tell its adherents to rest? To take a day off? Indeed, all other religions require constant, hard work from their followers before they earn their "salvation."

By contrast, what is the degree to which we demonstrate our trust in Christ’s atoning sacrifice by taking advantage of Sabbath rest, acknowledging that there’s nothing we can do to work for salvation? I’m not saying we demonstrate Christ’s substitutionary atonement by taking a nap on Sunday afternoons, but it’s not as far of a stretch as it sounds, is it?

God could have snapped His immortal fingers to instantly create our world. Instead, He paced out His creation over six days. And rested on the seventh.

What did you do yesterday?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Of What Jos Photos Bespeak

Day 24 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Show and Tell

Normally, Friday’s Show & Tell presents a light-hearted respite from the week's more heady news and stern topics. Even when I talked about my mother's family's church in coastal Maine, the accompanying photo had a charming poignancy to it.

Today, however, I’m compelled to provide not one picture, but a link to a web page with images capturing the atrocities that occurred in Jos, Nigeria, last weekend.

Be forewarned: these images depict raw scenes of death and mutilation which are incredibly disturbing. They have been posted by the Anglican Diocese of Jos for the world to see. Because of their shocking nature, I’m not posting any of them here. I'm not even trying to be exploitative by providing the link. Sometimes people simply have to see it to believe it.

A Crisis in Central Nigeria

You will recall from my post this past Monday that I have friends in Jos who've been within sight and earshot of central Nigeria's recent conflicts. These friends sent me some photos yesterday of a peaceful march by thousands of Jos women demonstrating against the violence. Dressed in simple clothes or elaborately woven dresses, these women waved freshly-plucked plant fronds and held signs asking “Why? Why? Why?” and “Stop the Murder.” For security reasons, my friends asked me not to post the photos, their reticence further evidence of the thick tensions which envelop their community.

My editor at wanted to interview my friends regarding the Jos violence, but they demurred, hesitant for how their comments as white Christian Americans might be interpreted by the Nigerian Muslim rioters who also have access to the Internet.

Indeed, although their world is constrained by violence, my friends in Africa live lives that exemplify how people of faith should live wherever we are: in this world, but not of it. We should constantly be mindful of what other people see in us, and how our words and actions can affect others. And although we may not understand what is happening around us, we can be confident that our sovereign God does.

Don't Try to Understand, Just Consider the Plight

The violence in and around Jos has been difficult to qualify and quantify. Indeed, even among perpetrators on both sides of the bloodshed and destruction, reporters have obtained conflicting reasons for the anger and objectives which motivate them. Some riot, pillage and murder for religious reasons, some for control over fertile land, some for the respectability of their social group, and some for political power. Although you’ll note the Anglican Diocese website simplifies the violence along Christian/Muslim lines, the situation is unfortunately more complex than that.

But as I said on Monday, I’m not sure that we Americans are obligated to try and understand what is happening in Jos – at least, not right now. I’m not even sure my friends – who have lived there for almost two decades – could describe the intricacies of the conflicts there.

Just because we can’t digest it doesn’t mean we should ignore it, though, does it? A measure of dignity for the lives lost this past weekend may be granted by our acknowledgement of the heinousness of hatred, as well as our affirmation of the value of life. Even as it is destroyed half a world away.