Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nice or Vice? Part 2

For Part 1, click here

Part 2:

A lot of the decisions I've made about my lifestyle wouldn't mean much to anybody else if they were simply personal preferences and pragmatic habits. And I don't deny that preferences and pragmatism play a part in my choosing not to drink, limiting my movie-watching, and so on.

In addition, I hesitate invoking the apostle Paul's instruction for protecting "weaker" believers from freedoms some enjoy but others consider to be sins. Not only do I not like thinking of myself as a weak person because I don't drink, but, because I don't think it's necessarily a sin TO drink, nobody of faith who drinks in my presence challenges my perspective on the subject. I have had friends ask me first if I minded if they had a beer or glass of wine, and while I've appreciated their courtesy in asking, I'm not offended when they don't. I don't like it when believers joke about getting drunk, because the Bible repeatedly identifies inebriation as sinful. But that requires a different response than worrying if I'm going to sin if I sip somebody's margarita.

So the scripture I believe best reflects my conclusions on the subject of freedom to participate in "vices" comes from 1 Corinthians 6:12, which says "all things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial" (paraphrased). In other words, for areas in life where options exist that aren't prohibited by scripture, we have the freedom to engage those options, but we need to understand that doing so won't necessarily be to our advantage.

For example, although Christians have the freedom to drink as long as they don't get drunk, there could be situations and circumstances where it would be better if you didn't. If you think simply going to someone's house and dancing to contemporary Christian music with a group of people is harmless fun, you may be right, but you could be putting yourself in a situation which invites other sin. You might dismiss concerns about yoga as irrelevant since you don't study all of the eastern spirituality that traditionally goes along with it, but practicing the physical manifestations of the Hindu religion risks compromising the Holy Spirit's working in your life. Maybe nothing bad will happen. At least not that you'll notice. But contrary to some popular teaching on the issue, is taking risks such as these - under the guise of freedom in Christ - wise?

It's Not Easy Being a Freedom Flaunter

In a way, people of faith who flaunt their Biblical freedoms aren't as free as they like to think they are. Think about it:

  • Christians who drink need to monitor their intake and remain vigilant against getting drunk.
  • Christians who go to movies need to carefully preview what they want to see, since there's little excuse any more for watching sinfully-explicit movies with all of the reviews available in cyberspace.

  • Christians who like to dance - even just awkwardly jiggling their bodies at wedding receptions - need to be evaluating the music, the words, and their imaginations, all while trying to have a good time.

Maybe it's worth it for some people of faith to voluntarily put themselves in situations where they constantly have to be on guard against sin, but I know that at least for me, I can wander into sin on my own quite nicely, thank you very much, without the additional incentives provided by things I don't need in the first place.

Indeed, abstinence can free you from need, want, and anxiety. At least, if you really want to exercise freedom. God isn't standing in Heaven with a humongous mallet, waiting for us to sin so He can pound us into the dirt for our indiscretion, but neither does He expect us to willingly make ourselves available to sin. His grace may be free, infinite, and lavish, but should we take it for granted?

Christ died to free us from our sins, and His death on the cross grieved the Trinity in ways you and I will never, ever be able to comprehend. If we really want to serve our Creator Savior, then shouldn't we actively seek to honor His sacrifice, even though doing so won't earn us any more freedom than we already enjoy in Him?

Balancing the Benefits of Freedom

Then there are people who claim that the very exploitation of our Christian freedoms helps to confirm Christ's love for us and God's desire that we enjoy life to its fullest. After all, life is a precious gift, and since all things have been made by God and none are intrinsically evil, believers display the authority given to us by our Creator to be rulers and subduers of the Earth when we reclaim fallen pleasures for our use.

Since there's nothing in the Bible that explicitly contradicts this theory, I suppose believers can go off and practice it if they like. But don't we Christians have bigger fish to fry? Does not having a direct refutation from scripture mean a green light is automatically flashing? Aren't there other aspects of our faith walks which are, in fact, spoken to directly in scripture and for which we will be held directly accountable? Have you already mastered discipleship, outreach to widows and orphans, honoring your parents, and other responsibilities expected of all believers? I know I haven't, but then, I don't multi-task well. When we get to the Great White Throne, will God be as interested in what wines we enjoyed as how we've worshipped Him in spirit and in truth? How much of our enjoyment of Biblical freedoms exists more as a phenomenon of our affluent society and hedonistic pursuits than a sincere desire to honor God with every area of our lives?

True, freedom in Christ means we don't need to be scared by the eternal consequences of pushing the envelopes of prudence, modesty, and conventional worldly behaviors. But before any of us goes off into our liberty-laced lifestyles, shouldn't we ask ourselves questions like these:

  • Which is more important: demonstrating freedom in Christ by dancing in mixed company, or modeling the principle of being set apart by voluntarily limiting your dancing to environments in which you don't open yourself up to sin?

  • Which is more important: demonstrating freedom in Christ by exercising with yoga, or obfuscating any connection with a demonic religion by choosing another form of physical fitness?

  • Which is more important: demonstrating freedom in Christ by smoking cigars (talk about your oral fixations!), or admitting that the smell really isn't as great as your buddies tell you it is, and that cigar smoke can also cause cancer?


Remember, we'll all be held accountable to God for how we answer these questions - or whether we even consider them at all.

Not that I have any greater edge over anybody else when it comes to living a holy life. I'm not saying that people who've answered these questions differently than I have are on the road to you-know-where. After all, piety can become the sin of pride.

And we all know what pride comes before!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nice or Vice? Part 1

I do a lot of things differently than fellow evangelicals with our freedoms in Christ.

There. I've said it. I know it makes me an oddball Christian, but that's the way I am.

My parents raised my brother and me with relatively strict guidelines about what were and weren't appropriate behaviors for followers of Christ. And yes, that helps explain what some might call my prudish mindset today. My parents taught us that it was acceptable to deny one's self pleasure, a concept which has practically vanished from popular consciousness. Today, I refrain from drinking, smoking, dancing, gambling, and doing yoga. I hardly ever go to the movies. And fellow Christians think I'm weird.

I don't do these things because I believe they'll keep me from going to Heaven. Nor is my lifestyle a direct hold-over from when my parents controlled my habits. Rather, the maturation process I've been undergoing as a person of faith has forced me to evaluate why I would or wouldn't continue in the behavioral path laid out for me by my parents. And while, yes, I've ended up making some of the same conclusions they did for their own lives, I haven't done so with a regimented mindset tempered by mere traditionalism or fear.

Instead, a more accurate estimation of my behavior would be to say that I've developed my own rationale for choosing to participate - or not to participate - in certain things for one reason: honoring God.

I'm Not the Prude You Might Think I Am

Now, before you think I'm getting all holier-than-thou, trying to take you on a guilt trip or crush you with layers of legalism, let me explain.

There comes a time for all of us when we make decisions about whether we're going to drink, dance, go to movies, and all the other vices that society at large used to frown upon, but now embrace as part of modern life. While in the evangelical church a wide range of opinions still exists regarding the appropriateness of such activities, the tide has definitely turned towards a wider practice of them, mostly in reaction to the generations of fuzzy logic which prohibited them.

You know what I mean: the hell-fire and brimstone preachers who damned anybody to Hell who drank so much as a glass of beer or wine. The Sunday School teacher who warned nice girls not to compromise their virtue by going to the movies. Back in the olden days, a lot of rules were based on real concerns about societal mores, but the rationale behind them seemed to lack its own integrity.

And although it may not be readily apparent, that is the crux of the issue when we make decisions about the activities in which we choose to engage. Most of what used to be considered vices aren't actually wrong in and of themselves. Rather, the mindset with which we participate in them can speak louder than the actual activity.

I'm not here to preach against any of these things, or to set up parameters for salvation whereby you or I can determine if somebody is saved or not based on whether they do them. While I'd love to lay down the gauntlet and insist that everybody needs to share my perspective on these issues, I realize the plank that is in my own eye may be obscuring my ability to remove the speck that may be in yours.

Instead, as I've journeyed along my path contemplating the holiness of God and how we are to serve Him with our lives, I've had to cross a number of bridges spanning legalism, habits, propensities, and historical tradition to come up with rationales for why I do what I do and don't do what I don't.

So just let me tell you how I've reached the decisions I've made for myself.

Oral Fixations

Interestingly, one of the vices mentioned in the Bible but receiving very little attention today concerns overeating and gluttony. For years, I scoffed at Christians who'd drink themselves under the table, while I scarfed down as many pastries, pizzas, and whole pints of Ben & Jerry's as I could. Of course, now that I've got a belly the size of Rhode Island, it's finally hit me that gluttony is as much a sin as drunkenness. It's just doesn't kill other people like alcoholism can.

And as for drinking, I can't say people who drink wine with dinner or have a beer at a ballgame are sinning. I have to assume that the Bible accurately describes the wine Jesus created at the wedding feast as a vintner's bouquet. I don't deny that the apostle Paul advised Timothy to medicate his upset stomach with wine.

No, my reason for not drinking is twofold: first, my grandfather was a dastardly alcoholic, and I'm not convinced that the propensity for alcoholism isn't genetic. Second, since I have such an oral fixation on food, I hate to think how I'd treat booze. Some people say a good meal isn't perfect unless accompanied by the right wine, but I already have a problem with idolizing food, so how might adding liquor to the mix solve anything? Others say Holy Communion is best celebrated with fine wine, so as to echo the Bible's many metaphors about the fruit of the vine, but unless you're using the most expensive wine available, isn't grape juice just as good? North Americans benefit from healthy, safe water from the tap, so wine isn't necessary to satiate thirst. No, it's just more prudent for me to abstain, and so far, I've been able to.

Interestingly, for those of you who do drink alcohol, one of the best guidelines for doing so comes from none other than liberal actor Alan Alda and his character, Hawkeye Pierce, on M*A*S*H. Towards the end of the series, he told his cohorts at the 4077 he had learned to drink when he wanted to, not when he needed to. Needing something indicates the control of that something over you; drinking when you want to generally will help keep you from overdoing it, because you'll probably be at an event you'll want to enjoy and remember.

I'm More Flexible With Movies

When I was growing up, my parents didn't want my brother and me going to the movies, and that lasted until we were in high school. By that time, however, I'd realized how destructive my daily doses of television had become to my ability to concentrate, read, and use my imagination. So I've intentionally moderated my movie intake, especially since you have to pay for movies, as opposed to free TV (I've never had cable).

Some people can spend hours discussing cinematic stories, but not me. It's not a sin to go to the movies, but I question the merit of spending so much time consuming so much that, in the grand scheme of things, isn't necessary. Sometimes when friends become engrossed in movie talk, I try to tally the hours they've spent watching these flicks; not that I can judge if their expenditure of time is any worse than how I spend my own free time, but rather, how differently we view our options for time management. I prefer being outside, good conversation, or even running errands at a leisurely pace to sitting in a dark room for two hours being spoon-fed somebody else's interpretation of a story. Entertainment is one thing, but needing so much of it - and of such oftentimes questionable quality - seems to speak more to a conviviality with the world than a respectful acknowledgement that we should be separate from it.

Not that I didn't enjoy "Toy Story 3" this past summer. But it was the first movie I'd seen in about a year. My favorite movie is the first Airplane, with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a close runner-up. The only chick-flick I've ever enjoyed is Crossing Delancey, but mostly because the grandmother in the movie reminds me so much of my father's mother. I've never seen Star Wars - an admission which draws gasps from most people - yet I consider Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, despite their raw content, must-see's, if for nothing else than their historical importance.

I also think the last half of the epic Titanic is worth it for the phenomenal animation. But that's about as far as I go with movie talk!

Shake that Groove Thang

Dancing presents a far trickier line of logic. Because I don't deny that dancing is referenced in the Bible, I obviously can't say that dancing in and of itself is sinful. Indeed, as you'll soon discover, I actually think it can be beneficial in the proper context. But we have some ground to cover before we get to that point.

We at least need to agree that the dancing which took place in Biblical times was directed to the Lord and the mighty deeds God had accomplished for His people. With the possible exception of King David's dance witnessed by his jealous wife Michal, during which the modesty of his attire was compromised, the civic exuberance displayed by the gyrations of those dancing honored God and were set in the context of a wholesome celebration.

However, we need to draw a distinction between celebrating the goodness of God and moving our bodies to music not designed for God's pleasure. If you don't accept that music doesn't exist in a moral vacuum, then you're not going to agree with anything I say further. But if you affirm the qualitative properties of music, then you can appreciate the lines I'm drawing.

While dancing itself isn't necessarily sinful, it can be a slippery slope. As an activity, dancing can invite bodily movements to both non-edifying (secular) and Christian music, which can generate lustful thoughts, which can corrupt its participants. I know that involves a lot of assumptions and sounds old-fashioned, but it's true, isn't it? Of course, dancing a waltz can be far removed from the primalness of hip-hop or hellish cacophony of hard rock, but if you're not dancing to a legitimate song of praise to God, then you should at least seriously monitor the music to which you're dancing. And how you move your body.

Why? The human body is a beautiful assortment of sexually provocative curves and appendages, which we often forget in our carnal world. While some women can spark lust in a man just by walking down the street, many more women can take men on a fantasy ride with a little subtle help from the poses their body strikes while dancing.

While women don't seem to have as much of a problem with lustful thoughts while dancing as men do, it's not unheard of for women to develop sexual thoughts while males gyrate provocatively to human-focused music. Call me a prude if you like, but I'm not really the one making up the rules here, am I? Biology and psychology play greater roles than we like to admit.

Personally, I believe that dancing is an activity best left to a husband and wife, because I don’t think spouses can have sinfully lustful thoughts of their covenant partner. Actually, judging by the marriage relationship some of my friends have, a healthy dose of "lust" for one's spouse could work wonders! As a single man, however, I know that for myself, I have enough problems with lustful thoughts in ordinary situations than to attend a dance of any kind, because society tends to import all sorts of sexual innuendo at most types of dances.

Next: Abstinence frees you from both need and want. At least, if you really want to exercise freedom.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Falling for Autumn Weather

Show and Tell

I can't help it - we're in the middle of a glorious day here in north Texas, and I'm playing hooky. Instead of finishing up the original essay I started this morning, I can't pass up this opportunity to revel in our 69-degree, no-clouds no-humidity luxury. I've gotta tell you about the deep, kelly-green grass shining across the lawn, the crisp dapples of sunlight glowing from the trees, and the perfect blue sky running along the tops of trees across the street.

In the back yard, three crepe myrtles celebrate the day with lush bursts of pink flowers amidst soft green leaves. While in other parts of the country, leaves may actually have started falling in their traditional ritual, here in north Texas, we won't be burdened with raking for at least another month. So things here still boast full, green foliage.

The day's beauty even comes inside. Every now and then, a soft breath of fresh air puffs through open windows, cool but not uncomfortably so, carrying with it the unusual odor of... well, nothing, actually. Living in the geographic center of five million people here between Dallas and Fort Worth, it's not common to have odor-free air. And I'm not missing the smell of cooked exhaust.

Indeed, many of us in this part of the country don't generally enjoy summertime like the rest of America. We get brutal, incessant heat and low temperatures in the 80's. We don't live for summer like they do up North. No, we live for days like today, which start becoming pretty regular throughout autumn, and can also be fairly common in the spring. For this autumn, today heralds the beginning of the rewards for enduring a typically grueling summer.

And winters? Well, they can be downright pleasant in our corner of Texas. I can remember wearing shorts on Christmas Day here, although such attire doesn't really begin to get regular use until February at the earliest. Not that we don't get shocked back into the reality of winter every once in a while, like the massive 9" snowstorm we suffered this past February.

Now, undoubtedly, we still risk getting shocked with another day or two of hot heat before summer finally says "goodbye" to Texas for another year. The State Fair only just started, and 100-degree days don't usually pack up for the winter until after it ends in the middle of October.

But days like today serve to usher in the reality that cooler, better weather will soon be settling in over north Texas, and for a while at least, we won't dread the weather forecasts.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Humiliated by Conceit? - Part 3

So we return to the text from Philippians, which I’ll paraphrase as “not being conceited, but treating other people with deference, looking out for their interests as you do your own.”

Reading this passage in context with all of Philippians 2, you’ll see how Paul constructs an imperative for unity within the church. From other passages we also know that unsaved people should know we believe in Christ because of how we care for each other (John 13:35), and that we are to serve each other out of love (Galatians 5:13).

Do you wince when you read those passages, like I do? I know I don’t love my fellow believers – at least, not like that. Sure, I have my social circles within which I express care and concern for the people I know, and I try to be polite to everybody, but I don’t go out of my way to look after the interests of others in the same way I do my own.

Our Church Culture Can Be Surprising Unhelpful

As I look around me at the vast evangelical sub-culture, I see books and trinkets, conferences and seminars, well-groomed pastors pitching teaching series, and a plethora of other Christian self-help paraphernalia to help us become more spiritual.

Yet believers in other countries have neither these resources nor, in many cases, the sheer freedom to obtain them even if they were available. And reportedly, communities of faith across the globe are flourishing, while the American church has ossified into just another marketing enterprise and political faction. It seems to me as though our mentality of consumerism has saturated our faith to the point where we assume that the act of buying stuff can itself instigate change, or sitting under the right celebrity preacher's teaching. Yet the explosive growth of Christianity in places like China proves we don't need anything but a desire for the Holy Spirit to work His will within us.

I can’t preach the virtues of Christ-like charity because I don’t display much of it in my own life. So please don’t think I’m trying to put you on a guilt trip while I’m sailing down the freeway of joyous morality.

Instead, consider this your invitation to take the initiative with me.

Don’t wait for your pastor to start modeling Christ-like charity. They’re as fallen as we are.

Don’t wait for some conservative political leader to craft Biblical social policy. Economics, not ethics, powers Washington, and the Gospel is not a political movement.

Each of us believers is called to take up our own cross and follow Christ. I think that means that ultimately, if anything is going to change for the better in our North American evangelical culture, it’s not going to start in the pulpit.

Until you and I are humiliated before Christ by our own conceit, the unity we profess to love as Americans won’t even be present in our churches.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Humiliated by Conceit? - Part 2

Many Churches, but Still One Body?

(For Part 1, click here)

Now, before you think I’m being too pious - or liberal - the reason I’m asking these questions is because these are issues I’m struggling with myself. This isn’t just some random theoretical mind-bender. Is the reason why evangelical Christianity has become so tedious, duplicitous, and oftentimes hollow at least partly because we really don't care about each other? We really don't want to live in unity? We have contrived reasons for getting around Paul's admonition for treating others better than ourselves, and consider conceit and envy only undesirable instead of intolerable?

I suspect that if this is the case, it helps to explain why believers have become so ineffective in our North American culture.

For instance, is the reason evangelical voters in the United States are so quick to assail universal healthcare not because we really fear big government's control of healthcare, but because we've lost genuine compassion for people facing huge medical costs? Has our individual wealth become our own property to the extent where the thought of sharing another person's financial burdens for their physical care seems blasphemous?

I'm not saying that Obamacare represents fiscally-responsible legislation. Personally, I think the Obama/Pelosi/Reid plan is a travesty of belligerent political hubris which does nothing to address the real crisis in healthcare these days: out-of-control costs. To oppose this current iteration of healthcare "reform" isn't unBiblical. But many conservative opponents want nothing to do with paying for the needs of other people whatsoever, calling any such attempts wealth redistribution for unearned entitlements. It's to those people - many of them self-proclaimed pew-warmers - I direct my questions of whether the Bible gives us the luxury of deciding unilaterally what we can do with the money entrusted to us.

Niche Christianity

Let's step away from politics and look at an even more universally-accepted phenomenon in Christianity: the continuous niche-carving of churches in North America.

I’ve attended the same Presbyterian church for almost 11 years now, but I'm not officially a member. One of the reasons I’ve never become a member of this church involves their practice of infant baptism. I don’t think it’s wrong, but neither do I consider infant baptism to be the best expression of the baptismal sacrament. So for myself, I’ve set up some strictures which distinguish how I view one of the two sacraments of the church universal. Indeed, I’d make an ideal Reformed Baptist, if we had one here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that also met my stringent criteria for corporate worship.

My point is that most of us believers have already developed some sophisticated rationales for why we worship where we worship. And we feel justified in doing so for a number of reasons, including the basic religious freedoms readily available in the United States, the plethora of seminary grads who all seem destined to plant their own churches regardless of community need, and the good ol’ individualistic American mindset which affirms multiplicity of values and expression. We also have, as the church has evolved, developed some sophisticated rationales for not following basic Biblical commands and precepts, which has led to the existence of denominations which do not preach the Gospel, which do not seek to honor God, and from which many believers have been led in their search for genuine doctrine.

With all of this, however, unity becomes ever more fractured, and while we all know this intellectually, we have a hard time overcoming it in practice. Which makes me wonder the extent to which we’re doing ourselves a disservice – and more importantly, dishonoring God – by actually being champions of social, political, economic, and even doctrinal policies which create divisions in our churches and secular communities. I'll come back to this thought later.

Church Saturation in North America

Regarding our multiplicity of denominations and churches, however, I understand why we have the major divisions that have developed in Christianity; why Calvinist Presbyterians and Armenian Baptists worship separately, for example. But even within our present-day stratification of evangelicalism, seminary graduates - and even people without seminary degrees - continue to insist on setting up their own personal churches.

Within the past month, I've learned of two people here in Arlington, Texas, who have either started or are about to start new churches. They have come up with come funky names and identified target audiences which they hope to attract. I've seen this sort of thing for so long, that I know these pastors justify their niche marketing by saying that they've got to take the Gospel to where the people are. And on an intellectual level, I can see that. After all, we send cross-cultural missionaries half-way around the world because that's where lost people live.

But with the hundreds of churches here in our city of 350,000, representing every denomination known to mankind, I do not believe the Gospel has yet to penetrate every single neighborhood. No, 100% of Arlington's population does not attend religious services, but in terms of every person having an opportunity to hear the Gospel (if everybody who did attend church would minister to their spheres of influence), there are dozens of nations around the planet with millions of people who have yet to meet a born-again evangelical. Isn't planting more churches and creating more stratification within Arlington' s evangelical community simply a waste of resources, initiative, and seminary training?

Reclaiming Well-Care from the Main-Liners

It's no secret that in North America, several "main-line" denominations have abdicated basic Gospel theology for liberal interpretations of how the church should interact with the world. Some have actually developed a pattern of being far less conceited when it comes to material things than more evangelical churches. They look out for the welfare of others far better than conventional Gospel-preaching churches. Those of us who attend theologically conservative churches, instead of pitching in to help, often sneer and say that all these social welfare programs are doing are creating an entire sub-class of lazy people who drain resources from taxpayers.

And when we do help, such as building homes for Habitat for Humanity, we do it in groups to make it more fun. When donating clothing to a shelter, we give away mostly faded fashions, and when we buy stuff for those Christmas shoe boxes, we buy plastic junk at dollar stores instead of the same quality of things we'd buy for loved ones.

We figure "it's the thought that counts," and that "it's better than nothing," even though deep down, we know better. How do I know? Because I've done it myself.

But, as usual, I digress.

To the extent that yes, some policies have been proven to support phenomena like institutionalized poverty, I realize that some welfare programs should be completely gutted and re-worked to make people more responsible for their own well-being. To the extent that conservatives can help make this happen for the good of the needy, then we should act accordingly.

But in other cases, such as unemployment assistance, some forms of health insurance, and Social Security, Christians have yet to prove Biblically why looking after the interests of others is such a vile concept. True, the basic audience and benefactors of Paul’s mandate are believers in Christ, but since the Christian community is more vast than most of us can identify, and since church folk like to say America is a Christian nation, and since there is no efficient way to survey the American populace to determine who really is saved and who isn’t, how much more effective would it be to simply extend charity to all citizens? Instead of "welfare," we could call it "well-care."

I’m not saying evangelicals should make sure the government provides blank checks with no follow-up to anybody who wants free money. That's neither prudent nor moral. But instead of saying “my money is mine,” maybe evangelicals should be saying “the money we pay in taxes should be spent as wisely as possible,” and we should work towards strict government rules on immigration, welfare, and other well-vetted programs as long as churches aren’t going to step up to the plate and aggressively care for their own people themselves.

Because if we believe our money has been entrusted to us by God, then doesn't what Paul encourages us to do in Philippians have greater weight than our desires to bankroll our American lifestyles?

Tomorrow: Conclusion

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Humiliated by Conceit? - Part 1

I take as my text today Philippians 2:3-4:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

I've been reading and re-reading this scripture with the same questions running through my mind. Is the Apostle Paul simply offering a suggestion to the Christian church? When he says to “do nothing from rivalry,” what part of “nothing” can we take figuratively? Does looking after the interests of others grant a license to be nosey, or, as I suspect, is there more to it than that?

In other words, should our own conceit humiliate us?

Southern Hospitality or Genuine Deference?

I'm asking these questions because I perceive little enthusiasm in the North American evangelical church for suppressing rivalry and treating others better than ourselves. I'm not just pointing fingers at my fellow worshippers, because I don't necessarily treat others better than myself, either. In fact, I think I'm doing well if I treat them equally, instead of disdainfully!

Now, here in Texas and across the South, the thin veneer of hospitality southerners profess to show does indeed masquerade as deference given to others. However, most of the time, it's not intended to actually indicate you think the person you're holding the door for is better than you.

Which, in fact, is how many churchgoers treat other people in their pew, isn't it? Politeness is a good thing, of course, but how much of it is just a reflex from how we were socially trained, and how much of the way we treat others is based on a desire to show actual deference?

Maybe I'm Assuming Too Much?

Does it matter? Maybe not, but superficiality doesn't go very far in the secular world, does it? And within communities of faith, superficiality either tends to inoculate everyone against growth in the Fruits of the Spirit, or helps lead us down a road of relativism and nihilism. Yet another threat of superficiality is the sociological term "anomie," which means "a condition of instability (or alienation) resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals." In other words, a formerly stable group begins to splinter apart, resulting in a lack of purpose or a misguided purpose for the members of the group.

Then again, maybe I'm just reading too much into the text? Maybe Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi intending for them to be his only audience?

Maybe the fact that only one group of believers existed in Philippi at that time made the fractious character of that church easier to identify. Maybe Paul's instructions are best interpreted within the confines of localized communities of faith, like the Philippian church would have been. After all, Paul didn't send his letter to the First Baptist Church of Philippi, intending that copies also be sent to First Presbyterian, Oak Crest Bible, Family Fellowship, and the other Philippian congregations. No, this was pre-denominations and pre-church-splits, so maybe we North American evangelicals are correct in only paying lip service to his letter to the Philippians.

But we know better, don't we? The church of Christ – not the denomination, but the actual group of believers – had already begin splintering and fracturing, so Paul was writing them encouraging unity of purpose, fully aware that the Philippians would know how to apply his writings within their faith community.

However, for God to allow his letter to be included in the cannon of scripture, we can infer that the apostle’s admonitions – inspired by God Himself – apply to us as well. Everything in the bible is for our benefit. The problem is that while Paul’s instruction might have more easily applied to one group in one city than a bunch of congregations across the globe, we’re still beholden to them. All of us. Right?

Can We Define Limits to Paul's Instructions?

In other words, among all the Bible-teaching churches that exist where you live, this scripture passage should help guide our interpersonal interactions. Not only within the membership of each individual congregation, but within each of the congregations. Right?

So instead of not being conceited towards people we know in our own fellowships, that lack of conceit should extend beyond the boundaries of our churches to other believers in our city, our county, our state… most of whom we will not know. So to paraphrase the verse, not only should we look after the interests of other people within our own congregation, but also believers in other congregations, some of whom we may never meet until we get to Heaven. Right?

Hmm. How do you do that?

The logistics get pretty complicated pretty quickly, don’t they? After all, in some larger churches, adult Sunday school classes may approximate the size of the church at Philippi during Paul’s day. At my own church of 5,000 members, I personally only know about 100 of them. Almost all of them are richer than I am, which is a starting point for my own rivalry right there.

Maybe Paul doesn’t really expect us to work that hard at this. Maybe this is a nice theory that Paul knew would sound encouraging, even if he didn’t really expect the Philippians – and us – to actually take him seriously. After all, we’ve already given up on the whole unity thing by having different denominations and even different congregations of the same denomination in the same town. God understands that we’re all separate because we follow a better interpretation of the Gospel. Right?

How come I'm not convinced?

Next: Part 2; "Many Churches, Still One Body?"

Monday, September 20, 2010

Too Big for Capitalism?

Last year, we all learned the phrase "too big to fail."*

Within the past few months, we're also learning about "Angry Americans" and "Angry Voters."

It seems we've become a country consumed with anger against politicians, political parties, the rich, the poor...

Yes, just as there are poor people angry at rich people, there are rich Americans angry at poor people.

Of course, richies don't call it that. They say poor people are just too lazy and want too many government entitlement programs. That's the easy way for them to disguise their anger and any culpability they may have in creating our growing class divide; the vitriol they're hurling at taxation sounds more virtuous if they're seen blasting government programs which deny personal responsibility.

In a nutshell, doesn't that pretty much explain the explosive rise in the Tea Party and middle America's fondness for any non-establishment politician? We've dug a deep socialist hole, the prevailing theory goes, and it's only getting deeper now that we've got a black Democrat in the White House.

And don't deny that President Obama's race doesn't have anything to do with it. During President Clinton's 8-year administration, plenty of conservatives squawked at his leadership style and policies, but we didn't have the dire urgency and outright hatred displayed by some of the more aggressive advocates for sociopolitical change. Granted, the economy hadn't ground to a halt during Clinton's tenure like it has Obama's, and we weren't in two simultaneous wars started by a Republican president.

But I digress. The basic point is that government spending and indebtedness has finally reached the tipping point, where a lot of Americans - even without the racial factor - have simply had enough. Poor people look to the elites with anger, asking if this is the best their Ivy League brains can do. Rich people, as I've already noted, look down at the poor angrily, believing if everyone was rich, we wouldn't be having these problems. The rest of us are looking around, wondering how long we can sustain these financial dramas before our viability as a world power gets compromised... Beyond repair, that is: many people argue that we've already breached the economic pale with our atrocious borrowing from China, and I agree.

Obviously, even though some experts had the audacity - or astonishing naivete? - to declare today that the "Great Recession" actually ended over a year ago, our country is in a world of hurt created mostly by our own doing. Before going any further, I have to salve my incredulity by pointing out only a bunch of employed, well-paid think-tankers could look around themselves in this economy and ask what everybody's so worried about.
  • Indeed, as the world's lone super power for nearly twenty years, who else do we have to blame but ourselves? Haven't we whittled away a golden opportunity to perpetuate an economic vitality which should be more impregnable than we're realizing it is?
  • What happened to all of the tax savings we were supposed to realize after the Soviet Union's demise and the corresponding end of the Cold War? How can we preach fiscal solvency to Third World despots when we're in hock to the Chinese for the next several generations?
  • Why didn't corporations and investors learn anything from the dot-com implosion (except how to squander more quick cash during their next contrivance, the sub-prime mortgage fiasco)?
  • How did we let China capture so much of the worldwide marketplace for everything from sovereign debts to software to plastic trinkets?
  • How come we can't properly staff our hospitals and rural medical offices with doctors and nurses, if not because wheeling and dealing on Wall Street with funny money is more lucrative in the short term than slaving over a medical degree for delayed gratification and long hours?
  • How can people live with the knowledge that, at least here in Texas, high school football coaches easily earn six figures, while rank-and-file educators earn half as much? Has entertainment really co-opted intelligence in America?
  • How many Tea Party activists are actually living off of some measure of Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid? If these entitlement programs are actually sacred cows for some conservatives, how do we determine what the government should and shouldn't provide for people less fortunate than ourselves?
  • If you think that programs like Social Security and Medicare are flagrant money pits that only give money to people that didn't work hard enough to earn enough wealth to retire on, then how do you fix that cycle at the end of these people's work life? Besides, hasn't encouraging people not to hoard for retirement actually benefited the economy? In order to hoard all of the money people are using in their declining years, wouldn't people have had to forego many of the things that have helped drive our economy - like cars, dinners out, move-up homes, new clothes, new appliances, etc.? Isn't Social Security just "part of the cost of doing business" in our society?
  • Even if we could ween our government off of non-essential spending, can we agree on what government services we're willing to do without? Even people who just want a strong defense can't agree on what wars we should be fighting. What about the argument that pork is the only way politicians can get projects done at home? How does that myopic mindset get changed?
  • Have all of us just gotten too greedy for our own good?
  • Has our society gotten too big where failure is becoming an option to be managed instead of avoided outright?
  • Has our democracy become too complicated for capitalism?
I'm just askin'.

* Just in case you'd noticed; I've gone back to using conventional punctuation rules for ending my quotations. (I had been sticking the sentence endings outside of the quotemarks; quotemarks denote the actual phrase, when sometimes punctuation wasn't included.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Warren and Obama Throwing Glitter in the Air

In what has become one of the worst-kept secrets in the Obama presidency, Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren will most likely be appointed to a politically-contrived leadership post at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Maybe before I even get to finish today’s essay.

Never heard of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)? That’s because it’s brand new, only not the type of brand-new that excites most people. No, this is yet another layer of federal bureaucracy, proposed in the Wall Street financial overhaul bill approved this past July.

Ostensibly, the CFPB will act as a watchdog on the behalf of ordinary taxpayers who use credit to fund their American lives. Obama envisions a department which will hold credit issuers’ feet to the fire, eliminate small-print legalese, free debtors from extraordinary fees and rates, and in every way give the appearance that in fact, credit is virtually a right not to be denied anyone in the United States of America.

Which, if you have the intelligence of a worm, would sound pretty good. Who wouldn’t want free money? At least, loans free of responsibility. Plus, who can deny that banks and other lenders of credit haven’t written the current rules with weights in their favor? Even the most conservative capitalist can’t deny feeling nickle'd and dime'd to death by new fees. But is that really the problem with the credit situation we have in this country?

Consider this overview of the mandate for the CFPB, according to the New York Times:

The bureau will consolidate employees and responsibilities from a host of other regulatory bodies, including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and even the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is expected to have hundreds of employees and a budget of up to $500 million.

The bureau will nominally be part of the Fed, which is obligated to finance its budget, but the central bank may not influence its personnel or rules.

The bureau will have the authority to write and enforce new standards for mortgages, credit cards, payday loans and a wide array of other financial products, and the White House said it believed it was imperative that Ms. Warren promptly begin to shape that process.

Can Ivy Leaguer's Be This Clueless?

With this as the template for understanding the rationale behind creating the CFPB, one would think that mortgages, credit cards, and payday loans were responsible for the recent financial melt-down which helped spark our current Great Recession. But they weren’t, were they?

True, many mortgages were sold to people who couldn’t possibly afford them. Banks played a big role in colluding with various financial institutions to create our sub-prime scandal. But while the mortgage issuer bears culpability for selling something they knew their client couldn’t afford, their client also bears responsibility for knowing what they can realistically pay for, and what they can’t. You don’t purchase a home like you do a pair of shoes. If you’re looking at a house listed for $300,000, and you only earn $40,000, even the new math they teach today should tell you it’s out of your price range.

If you can't remember to pay your credit card bills on time, then why shouldn't your card issuers begin to wonder about your credit worthiness and make penalties kick in? And yes, the legibility of fine print can be challenging to read, but it's not what the fine print says that's objectionable, is it? It's more like how much it costs you by not playing by someone else's rules. We already have plenty of laws in place which provide consumer protection by regulating how and when lenders can change fees and rates. Why do we need a brand-new layer of bureaucracy? Doesn't this all smack of the traditional Democratic mindset of treating taxpayers like immature teenagers, instead of holding people accountable for their own decisions?

Isn’t the real problem with our financial industry pure and simple greed? Greed by banks, yes, but also greed by borrowers. And what have we said about legislating morality? It can’t be done. The current administration can try throwing Ivy League machinations at problems, but all the CFPB will do is provide employment to even more federal bureaucrats, and foolishly lend credibility to yet another spurious theory by a Harvard economist who appears to be, as a boss of mine used to say, educated beyond her intelligence.

Speaking of Professor Warren, whose idea this whole thing was to begin with, how discouraging is it to note that she has wholeheartedly agreed to join the administration in yet another fallacy? She and Obama have concocted an end-run around conventional Senate appointment protocols so she can jump-start her new baby. It’s hard enough to swallow the needless inflation of big government for such a silly idea as the CFPB, but then for the President to stage a defiant, controversial move for its de-facto head represents the epitome of arrogance on both of their parts.

Everyone acknowledges that Warren’s confirmation to head the CFPB would have sparked contentious hearings, but aren’t public hearings partly what government is about? America is still government by and for the people, right? And even though Warren has claimed propriety of this daft idea for another federal agency, is she really the best person to run it? Is there no logic in Republicans questioning how a person so supposedly intelligent as Warren could come up with such an irrational black hole as the CFPB? Or why we’d want somebody so obviously separated from reality to run it?

Painting the Titanic's Deck Chairs Before Rearranging Them

Several months ago, I wrote that Obama, with his scary flashes of incompetence, was turning me into a Republican. The President likes to chide conservatives for balking at his initiatives and policies, but when you throw so much glitter up into the air, a lot of it is going to come right back down, because glitter can’t stick to air. Sure, you've created the illusion that there's something to look at, but all you've done is divert attention onto something that accomplishes nothing. It's the same with exclusively blaming lenders for our financial mess by building another layer of bureaucracy. How will it solve the root cause of why we insist on spending beyond our means?

If Obama hadn’t showered so much money on his banking buddies last year, would there be the huge discrepancy this year between the foreclosure rate and high bank profits? If he hadn’t splurged on his stimulus plan that is spending an average of a quarter-million-dollars for every job it's creating, would the massive debt load he’s piling atop taxpayers be suffocating small businesses trying to sputter back to life and rehire workers?

I’ve never claimed to be an economist, but I know enough about common sense to realize when leaders don’t have a clue about how to fix a problem. Many other Americans appear to be realizing the same thing. Yet Obama, whose party has a big mid-term election coming up in a few weeks, seem intent on finding any way he can to get his fellow Democrats voted out of office.

Here – let me hold the door open for you and your moving boxes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reflections of Strike One - New Reality

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

Part One - click here
Two - click here
Part Three - click here


Back at the office, I discovered how brown-outs got their name. The elevators worked just fine, but on our floor, the fluorescent ceiling lights were decidedly dull. Combined with the overcast skies outside, the office actually had an eerie yellowish-brownish tinge when I walked in.

By now, the computers were completely useless, with software programs refusing to open even when hard drives managed to reboot. Several of my co-workers had simply turned off their desktops and were doing the manual component of invoicing – literally, by hand.

As a freight forwarding firm, we dealt daily with steamship companies, many of whom were located in the World Trade Center (WTC), and our messenger wanted to know if there was any point in him trying to run documents over there. Which, of course, there wasn’t.

My boss called in again from California, by now having seen live footage of the scene on television. Knowing that a lot of the documentation we'd need for invoicing would still be over in the Twin Towers, and assuming no one among the thousands of soot-covered evacuees would have thought to bring our paperwork out with them, he realized we were limited in what we could get done. In addition, he expressed concern about our own welfare, knowing that although our building wasn’t affected, getting out of Lower Manhattan that day would only get more complicated as the afternoon wore on. Remember, this was before the recent fad of residential conversions in Lower Manhattan - back then, the streets still cleared out after quitting time. (As it happens, our old office building is now a condominium.)

Freaky Friday

Since the brown-out had knocked out our computers, and we didn’t know how - or how long - the elevators were still running, we decided to get what we could to the post office, and then call it a day.

Three of my co-workers lived on Staten Island, just a ferry’s ride away from the pier near our office building. A fourth co-worker who lived in New Jersey and always commuted via the PATH train underneath the WTC decided to take the ferry with them, and called her boyfriend to have him drive over and meet her at the terminal on Staten Island.

I lived between Gramercy Park and Murray Hill on the eastern side of Manhattan, and I’d walked home before. Today being Friday, however, I would be headed straight uptown to Calvary Baptist Church, where I was a member, near Central Park. I would have a quick dinner at a small diner near Calvary (they had a great pasta salad – nothing greasy!) and then MC the contemporary Christian music ministry at my church, an event held every other Friday evening.

After everyone else had gone, I stayed behind in the office for a while just listening to the radio, which by now had gone to an all-news format with constant coverage of the emergency at the WTC. Apparently, our radio station was one of the few left on the air, since the main broadcast tower atop One World Trade had been put out of commission by the explosion. We'd discover later that several television stations would be without their signal for days.

Staff at the law firm next door were getting ready to head home early, too, so before they left, I went into their office to look out at the Twin Towers again. This time, the garage entrance was clearly visible; I don’t remember seeing any smoke, and rescue workers were busy going in and out. As far as I could see, West Street remained choked with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, responders who’d come from all over the city when officials still weren’t sure what they were dealing with. Was it a disaster involving Consolidated Edison and their combustible steam pipes, as my co-workers and I imagined? Was there some sort of massive structural failure within the bowels of the WTC? Or, as some reporters were suggesting, was this some sort of terrorist act?

Terrorism Not Yet a Part of Life

Back in 1993, terrorism on United States soil remained almost unimaginable. It hadn’t happened before, at least on this scale. There was the LaGuardia Airport Christmas bombing in 1975, but even though it killed 11 people - five more than we'd learn died at the WTC - it destroyed only a baggage claim area. The Oklahoma City bombing would still be two years in the future.

Within hours of the Trade Center explosion, New York media was reporting that over 100 claims of responsibility had been phoned in from terrorist organizations just within the city. Before then, most of us had no idea so many hate groups existed in the United States, let alone the Big Apple. Since that sounded so absurd to us, it made the idea of terrorists striking the WTC that much more unlikely to us. At the time, anyway.

As I closed up the office and struck out for Uptown, mapping out in my mind the subway routes that were probably open to me, I once again crossed the pedestrian bridge spanning the gaping mouth of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Just like it had been at lunchtime, the ramps below me were eerily empty and quiet. They should have been bumper-to-bumper with rush hour traffic. I looked to my left, and gazed at the Twin Towers soaring four blocks away, a bright blue police helicopter hovering mid-way up Tower Two. Perhaps it was scanning the buildings from the outside, or supervising the last stage of their evacuation. By now, we still didn’t know anybody had died; we assumed somebody must have been killed, but police and fire officials were still crawling around all of the buildings in the WTC, making sure everybody had gotten out.

Without any problems, I got the N and R straight up to 57th Street, at Carnegie Hall, just half a block away from Calvary Baptist. After an early dinner, I arrived at the church’s fellowship hall with plenty of time to help transform it into a coffeehouse for the evening. About a dozen volunteers and I ran the show. A college student and graphic designer set up the lights and sound system, a genuine Ford fashion model cooked delicious hors d'oeuvres, an accountant and private school teacher staffed the ticket desk, and different local Christian bands provided the music. Only because nobody else wanted to, I MC’d the evenings, and that night, I commented to the crowd of about 40 on the day’s drama downtown at the WTC.

Unbelievably to me, a couple of people still hadn’t heard about it, many others hadn’t heard how serious it was, and nobody seemed overly concerned. Even late on that Friday evening, I think most of us still assumed it was a Con Ed accident.

New Era Dawning

By the end of that weekend, however, we would learn it wasn’t Con-Ed’s fault at all. Instead, Muslim terrorists had rented a yellow Ryder truck in New Jersey, loaded it with explosives, and detonated it in the WTC’s underground parking garage. Apparently, their plan was to topple Tower One with their bomb, and that as it fell, Tower One would destroy Tower Two (assuming, of course, that Tower One didn’t fall into West Street, the old AT&T building behind it, or the open plaza to its right; or, as we all witnessed on 9/11, basically collapse in on itself).

I remember our office staff laughing out loud when we heard on the radio days later that the FBI had arrested a couple of the terrorists after they reported the Ryder truck stolen and went back to where they rented it to claim their deposit. With idiots like that trying to blow up New York landmarks, we quickly assumed that while the city might be plagued with other major disruptions like February 26’s in the future, we had little else to fear.

In fact, after the WTC was cleaned, repaired, remodeled, and reopened, I was standing in line in the lobby of Tower Two, waiting to get a photo identification badge that would give me open access to the complex, since I often ran errands for the company there. I remember chatting with a couple of other guys in line, also waiting for their badges, and we got to joking about the foiled destruction of the very building we were in.

Like typical civilians who mock government bureaucracy, we saw the I.D. procurement process as useless red tape meant to pacify building tenants who might be leery about moving back into the towers. Just another hoop to jump through, just a veneer of security to try and show that the Port Authority is serious about protecting their headquarters. After all, nobody would be insane enough to attempt the destruction of the Twin Towers ever again.

I so wish we were right.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reflections of Strike One - the Drama

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

Part One - click here
Part Two - click here

Part Three:

I was taken aback. Talking to the damsels in distress at Burger King, it didn’t occur to me just what it looked like for these thousands of people to leave the World Trade Center (WTC) all at the same time. (FYI, police helicopters did pluck over 100 people from the tower roofs that day, including a pregnant woman who gave birth soon after being rescued.)

Evacuation can be a great equalizer. At least from skyscrapers. When you’re emptying two 110-story buildings, executives, managers, secretaries, clerks, and custodians who were interspersed across 220 floors worth of offices and one very exclusive restaurant suddenly become one human mass facing the same predicament. There isn’t one emergency stairwell for million-dollar CEOs, and another one for hourly employees. It’s sheer physical fitness, not your job title, that spells the difference between getting out with enough energy to make it home, or just getting out.

Indeed, all ages, body types, and physical conditions were represented in the grim, sooty lines of WTC tenants shuffling out of the towers. Some were walking arm-in-arm for mutual support, some were almost being carried by two other people. None were talking, many were coughing. Women were walking barefoot, having taken off their high heels back on the twentieth floor landing, or maybe the 82nd. I remember seeing photos of handicapped people who were forced to leave their wheelchairs behind, and had been carried down by gracious co-workers.

Trudging down 90, 60, 30 floors in smoky dimness, with hundreds of people in front of you, and hundreds more pressing down behind you, with more being added floor by floor as you descended. Can you imagine?! The claustrophobia alone must have been oppressive, let alone the anxiety of not really knowing what was going on. What energy that must have required for everyone involved!

Whenever tragedy strikes the Big Apple, its mayors always like to say these are times when New Yorkers shine. And sure enough, everybody had worked together to get out of the buildings alive. Nobody was complaining, nobody was bickering. Everybody was too exhausted. They also seemed to be dazed, since nothing like this had ever happened to them before.

Lines of Soot-Covered Survivors

Oddly enough, the long lines of huddled evacuees slowly marching from the towers were being herded by police officers to walk alongside the towers themselves, instead of letting them roam out into the plaza. As I walked back around to the eastern side of the WTC plaza, I could see why.

Craning my neck and looking high into the snowy sky, bits of stuff were falling from the upper floors of the Twin Towers, and it wasn’t snow. It was… furniture! Later, when I got back to the office, I heard on the radio that people waiting for congestion to clear in the emergency stairwells were smashing office furniture through windows to try and let the smoke escape and allow fresh air in. So bits of furnishings and shards of glass would occasionally rain down, onto the rooftops of shorter buildings around the towers, and into the plaza below. I don't want it to sound like leather chairs and sofas were crashing onto the plaza like bombs during the London Blitz, but enough debris was falling to make walking out from the relative shelter of the plaza’s periphery exceedingly dangerous. That’s why the police were forcing evacuees to stay in their narrow lines alongside the buildings.

Another reason also became clear: as the evacuees came towards the parking lot that was never used, more police officers were ready in a surprisingly well-organized distribution system with bottled water, blankets, and towels, handing them out to the grateful, freezing, exhausted, soot-covered office workers one by one. For evacuees who could barely walk, cops draped blankets over them and helped them onto waiting stretchers. Ambulances had lined up in rows, filling the otherwise unused parking lot and turning it into a sort of triage.

I vividly remember one tall woman with what we Texans call "big hair" that was dusted with soot. She was wearing a plush, knee-length mink coat – obviously having taken the time to retrieve her valuable fur before vacating her office – and still had on her high heels. After all, even in an emergency, some New Yorkers wouldn’t dare forego their fashion sense. She walked towards me, patting the sleeves of her thick mink, and each time she did, soot puffed out of her coat. It was obviously ruined, and by the look on her face, she knew it. Undaunted, or perhaps simply resigned to reality, she strode past me and into the throngs of people milling about the ambulances, on into the bizarre afternoon.

Sing it With Me: "We Need Dirty Laundry"

By this time, news crews were everywhere, and as evacuees from the towers came towards the parking lot triage area, some reporters would dart towards them, trying to get an interview. Some were shooed away by cops who were trying to assess evacuees with medical needs. But not many evacuees had the interest – or the breath – to talk with the reporters anyway. They just pushed by the media folks, only wanting to go home.

Other evacuees lined themselves up at the backs of ambulances staged in the parking lot. Paramedics worked feverishly with oxygen tanks and masks, helping people clean their faces, and even cleaning up after some evacuees simply vomited what they’d inhaled in the towers. Even as the medics were multi-tasking on multiple patients, the lines at the back doors to their ambulances continued to grow. But the evacuees were patient, for the most part; glad to be safely out of the towers.

Patience, however, was lost on the news crews who were roving around the triage area, like vultures looking for prey. Who could get the best story? Who could find the evacuee with the most harrowing tale to tell? What better place to look for provocative stories than these ambulances, where weary survivors were being treated?

The only time I became disgusted at what I saw came when I watched TV news crews try to push their way into the backs of ambulances where paramedics were treating injured people on stretchers. Reporters and their technicians actually pushed aside waiting patients and tried to clamor inside the ambulances, light poles and microphone poles being stuck inside with absolutely no regard to the people or equipment that was being poked and jabbed inside. This happened repeatedly, from ambulance to ambulance, as all of New York’s media hounds tried to scoop each other with interviews of the sick.

At first, it was disturbing, but as I witnessed it happening multiple times, it became appalling. I couldn’t believe that here we were, in the face of what was rapidly being realized as a major emergency, and sick people were being pushed aside and jostled so news reporters could try and advance their own careers. This had nothing to do with getting first-hand accounts of what went on inside the Twin Towers. Those reports could be collected after everybody was safely home and over the day’s shock. The only reason for those reporters to be as belligerent as they were in aggressive pursuit of interviews and video of sick people in ambulances was their own lust for making a headline. I’ve never held the media in very high regard, but after that day, news reporters have ranked just above used car salesmen in my book.

Suddenly, a cop saw a particularly insensitive reporter trying to shove his way into the back of an ambulance, pushing back a cluster of evacuees waiting for help. “Hey!” she yelled, a hefty black officer, reaching over and physically pulling the reporter by his arm out of the ambulance, his hand-held microphone dropping to the pavement. The evacuees who had been pushed aside gave the reporter looks that matched the sooty marks on their faces, otherwise too weary to express their own anger at the reporter. When the reporter started to protest, the officer simply ordered him to stay back and not get in anybody’s way.

By now, the snow had mostly stopped, and the smoke drifting from the tops of the Twin Towers was clearly visible. After soaking in a bit more of the human drama unfolding before me, and finally seeing one too many reporter push aside evacuees waiting for help at the ambulances, I decided to return to the office, having more than enough material of my own to share with my co-workers who had stayed behind.

I headed back past the Burger King, walking down Trinity Place, to the relative sanity of our busy little firm.

Tomorrow: Conclusion

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reflections of Strike One - Lunch

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

Part One - click here

Part 2

Of all the streets in New York City famous in their own right, Trinity Place isn't one of them. It's practically the back door service road for its far more stellar sibling, Broadway, another block east. Some office buildings and restaurants which feature prominent entrances on Broadway literally have their back doors on Trinity Place.

Indeed, as dowdy Trinity Place parallels the part of iconic Broadway slicing through the world's financial capital, it provides the quiet yin to Broadway’s teeming yang.  Even its traffic flows in the opposite direction: north.

Its name comes from the grand old Trinity Church, consecrated in 1846, which faces Broadway at the head of Wall Street, and whose historic graveyard – including the remains of Alexander Hamilton and steamboat inventor Robert Fulton – looks out over the suitably quiet roadway as it links Battery Park to the eastern flanks of the World Trade Center (WTC).

On this dreary February Friday, I walked up Trinity Place, past the solemn stone wall buttressing Trinity Church’s cemetery, and past what was then the American Stock Exchange.  Usually the only people I ever saw on this walk were traders from the exchange, outside on their smoke breaks, always in shirtsleeves, no matter the weather.

Business as Usual?

Before 9/11, the WTC complex consisted not only of the Twin Towers, but also a collection of much shorter buildings scattered around the feet of their much taller siblings.  They were squat, odd things clad in black metal, surrounded by a parking lot that I only ever saw used once – during a marketing promotion for new Ford Probe sportscars.

When I turned the corner at Liberty Street, my gaze passed over the WTC complex there in front of me, and apart from all of the emergency vehicles lining the street, I couldn't see much that didn't look normal.

In New York, it's not unusual to see what civilians might consider to be an inordinate number of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances at the scene of what turns out to be a minor emergency. You can't really complain when dozens of first responders turn out for a dumpster fire in a city with so much unpredictability.

In addition, the snowy skies obscured the towers' upper reaches, masking the smoke which, by now, had begun billowing out of their tops as if they were two cigarettes (which I had always thought they looked like anyway).

Things almost looked placid enough for me to go on into the WTC's underground mall and have lunch in their food court. But that was back before the Port Authority started modernizing its public spaces with national retailers and better restaurants.  Unless you liked tasteless hotdogs, or dining in a plastic wood ambiance of vintage 1970's diner kitsch, for all of its wonder, the Twin Towers were gastronomically disappointing.  At the very top, both literally and figuratively, sat the multi-star Windows on the World restaurant, where my office used to hold its annual Christmas dinners.  And then at the bottom - and I do mean the bottom, near a yawning cavern lined with escalators descending to the PATH station - were those dimly-lit, decidedly non-gourmet offerings for the masses.

No, I didn't feel like walking much further for greasy fast food when Burger King was right here, and their chicken sandwich was actually quite tasty. So as I turned the corner onto Liberty Street, I ducked into the two-story Burger King which still stands today.  This very same Burger King narrowly missed being destroyed on 9/11, and the police turned into their temporary command post on that fateful day.

Everything seemed normal at Burger King.  I got my order, and walked upstairs to their main dining area.  Looking out a window facing Liberty Plaza (now called Zuccotti Park), munching away, I figured that with everything appearing so routine, our concerns about the brown-out, the smoke from the WTC’s garage, and the emergency vehicles still parked all over the place seemed overblown.

Not Everything is Normal

Then I started glancing around the dining room at my fellow customers, and at the next table, I noticed several young women huddled over hot teas and coffees.  They had no coats on this frigid day, and their blouses were dingy gray.  Come to think of it, their hair had fine soot on it, and their faces looked like they had been hastily washed, maybe in Burger King's bathroom?  They were talking in earnest about the PATH commuter trains to New Jersey being diverted from the Trade Center.

So I interrupted them, and asked if they were from the WTC.  Yes, as a matter of fact, they had been evacuated from one of the towers, with not even enough time to go and get their coats from a nearby closet.  They had perspired from trudging down what seemed like miles of emergency stairs, they had frozen when hustling across the open plaza at the base of the towers, and they were coughing from all of the soot they’d inhaled both inside and outside the buildings.  To cap it all off, they’d learned that both the commuter trains and the subways with stops in the basement of the WTC were shut down.  This was before regular passenger ferry service had been established between Jersey City, Hoboken, and the World Financial Center (near the WTC).  How were they supposed to get back to their homes in New Jersey, across the Hudson River?

Well!  Here were three beautiful young women with a problem I could help solve.  I rarely get such an opportunity.  I assumed as much of a knight-in-shining-armor pose as I could muster, and I shared with them my admittedly well-honed knowledge of the other local subway stops they could try.  They’d probably be able to catch the Lexington Avenue line or the N and R and go up to 42nd Street, then hike over to the Port Authority bus terminal for any number of bus lines into the Garden State.

“Oh, I’ve heard bad things about the bus terminal,” one of the young women cautioned.  So I assured them about how much safer the bus terminal is during the day than it is at nighttime, and how if they stick together, they should be fine.

So with that, these damsels in distress decided to hit the restroom one last time before striking out on what might be a long commute back home.

My work being done at Burger King, I decided that before I headed back to the office, I’d just stroll around the WTC one last time to see if anything at all exciting was taking place.  I bundled myself up – wondering if maybe I should make a chivalrous gesture and offer my wool coat to the damsels... but then thinking that plenty of stores were nearby where they could buy their own coats if they really wanted to.

Chivalry isn't dead, but sometimes it can be over-done!

Figures in Coal, Shuffling

I stepped out into the raw, snowy air, and made my way past all of the fire trucks and ambulances idling silently along Liberty Street and the southern edge of the WTC complex.  Huddled in my overcoat for protection from the biting wind, I walked down to the Bankers Trust tower (demolished after 9/11), which had an elevated mezzanine looking over Liberty Street to the entrance to Tower Two.

Throngs of people had gathered on the mezzanine, looking to the Trade Center, with faces marked by bewilderment and pensiveness.

I turned to follow their gaze.

And there I saw them.

Long, shuffling lines of gray and black, some people wearing coats, others coatless, but all covered to varying degrees in soot.  Coughing, but otherwise silent, without expression or vigor.

These were the evacuees from the Twin Towers - thousands of them.  About 50,000 people worked in and visited the WTC daily.  Take the entire population of Biloxi, or Ames, or Sheboygan, and funnel them out of two 110-story towers, four shorter buildings, and a shopping mall, one by one.  It would be quite a sight, even in the best of circumstances.

They moved like a line of insects in a cartoon, or more morosely, like the ill-fated lines of prisoners being herded to the gas chambers. Although not deathly, the mood was somber.  And quiet.

And so utterly still.

Part 3 - click here

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reflections of Strike One - The Hit

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

I can still remember the sudden shudder and muffled explosion that rocked our 25th-floor office.

My desk faced north, and it was as if a sonic boom had rolled our building backwards, and then forwards.  Just for the briefest of moments.

Lights went out, cables clanged in elevator shafts down the hall, computers went dead.

It all happened so fast, we didn’t have time to be scared.  Our desktop computers immediately clicked and beeped back to life, florescent ceiling lights flickered back on, fax machines that had been in mid-transmission began squawking error messages, and alarm bells from the elevators started ringing.

And of course, a chorus of muttered expletives erupted from co-workers who, like me, did not welcome this disconcerting setback.  It was almost lunchtime.  It was also Friday, invoice day, and billables needed to go out the door.  Crashed computers and jammed fax machines were even less tolerated than on a normal day.

As we rebooted our computers and reset the fax machines, we wondered aloud about what had happened.  Did something blow up in our building, a 30-story pre-war office tower perched along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan?  Maybe there was a massive car wreck at the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which snaked by the entrance to our building?  Nah, is was probably stupid Con-Ed’s fault (New York’s power provider); one of their steam pipes probably blew.

And being New York City, a thick grid of streets and towers piled atop Consolidated Edison’s primitive pipes and substations, our concerns subsided quickly.  After all, even a trickle of melting snow could short out a third rail on subway tracks two stories underground.  With New York generally, and Manhattan particularly, one worries less about what you can’t see and even less about why it might be important.  As I’ve said before, New York life is lived in inches.  Your power's coming back on?  Then get moving again and don't look back.

So we were only marginally curious when the office manager in the law firm across the hall came over and invited us to come take a look out their north-facing windows.

“All this black smoke is coming out of the Trade Center garage,” she informed us.

Where There's Smoke...

Located four blocks south of the World Trade Center (WTC), our aging edifice featured a beautifully ornate lobby... and a vacancy rate past 75%.  Our 25th floor housed just two tenants - our freight forwarding company, with stunning views of the harbor and the Hudson River; and the law firm, which looked up West Street straight towards the Twin Towers.

Sure enough, from the law firm's office with a vista looking due north as the street below us curved slightly, we saw thick, sooty smoke billowing out of the entrance to the Trade Center's parking garage.  Not just puffs of gray; but heavy, charcoal-colored plumes.

And true to the New Yorkness of the moment, cars continued to plow through the smoke as it blew across West Street.  Pedestrians still plied the sidewalks and crosswalks, more concerned about dodging traffic than the smoke which must have been making their eyes water.  We could hear sirens, though, and within moments, a couple of police cars rolled up the street.

Actually, the sound of sirens would fill the air for the next hour or so as police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and emergency officials converged on the World Trade Center, jamming West Street down past our building all the way to the Battery.  The whap-whap clipping noise of helicopter rotors would buffet the soundwaves around Lower Manhattan until after I left for the evening.

We looked at each other and agreed this was bigger than just an exploding steam pipe.  "Con-Ed has a lot of 'splaining' to do," I recall us mimicking in Ricky Ricardo spanglish.


From what I can recall, the owner of our company, who lived out on Long Island, had taken that Friday off.  His son, my boss, was on a business trip to California.  Our sales manager was out sick, so the rest of us – about six in all – were holding down the fort.

Not that the lack of managerial supervision meant we could simply goof off.  On most days, our office ran itself quite efficiently, with all of us knowing what needed to get done and how to do it.  Our firm's executives knew they didn’t need to be on-site for us to be productive.  Besides, as I’ve said, Fridays were when we invoiced, and the woman who was in charge of billables had done it for so long she could do it in her sleep if she had to.  The one thing we couldn’t do without was computers.

Which, to our chagrin, started crashing multiple times, or failing to reboot.  Our screens dimmed, and software programs wouldn't open.  Between the staff at the law firm next door and ourselves, we realized we were having a brown-out.

Normally, we kept a radio on in the office, but today, the news announcers provided little help with what was going on.  This being before cell phones, the Internet, and texting, we were probably a bit more self-sufficient than people are today.  We didn’t wait for a play-by-play on the problems at the WTC, we just kept working as much as we could.

I remember that by the time we'd deduced we were having a brown-out, some announcement came over the radio that electricity was being reduced below the Brooklyn Bridge because of a fire at the Trade Center.  But here again, that was not unprecedented, either.  The summer before, a transformer fire had shut down half of the financial district and forced subway riders to walk across the bridge to catch their trains.  For all that is modern in New York City, so much remains so ancient.

My aunt, then a legal secretary for a Midtown firm, called me after a co-worker of hers heard that streets were being shut down around the WTC, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was closed except for emergency vehicles.  I told her we were fine, apart from the slow computers and constant wailing of sirens from the street below.  Soon, I would be going out to lunch, and I'd let her know what was happening.

My boss also called in from California, having heard of an emergency at the Twin Towers.  About all I could add was that we were having a brown-out and the computers weren’t working properly.  At least the invoices we’d already printed were getting out.  He simply encouraged us to get done whatever we could without our usual technology, although I'm sure he could hear his father grumbling on Monday that "we never had that problem before computers!"

Since our day's workload was rapidly being curtailed through no fault of our own, most of my co-workers decided to simply have a long lunch, and maybe things would be back to normal in a couple of hours.  So they placed an order from the diner down the block.

Being the nosy guy I am, however, and having never developed a taste for the burnt grease that diner called food, I decided to stroll up to the Twin Towers to see what was going on.  Since it was a snowy, windy, bitter day, and the diner delivered, nobody else wanted to walk up there with me.

By then, the elevators were back to normal, after some people had gotten stuck when the power came back on.  So I went downstairs, and across the pedestrian bridge spanning the mouth of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.  I marveled at how even though emergency equipment idled all along West Street, the wide ramps leading to the tunnels, instead of sucking in or spitting out cars and trucks like normal, were eerily quiet and empty.

And so utterly still.

Click here for Part 2
Click here for Part 3

Friday, September 10, 2010

Contempt of Misfortune

Conventional conservative ideology posits that individuals hold their own fate in their hands. If they're poor, they're responsible for earning wealth. If they're sick, they're responsible for procuring healing medicine. If they're ignorant, they're responsible for getting their own education.

And on the whole, there's not a lot to argue about with this basic assumption about the human condition, is there? Indeed, personal responsibility is essential for being a productive citizen and contributor to society. It's also a key component for what the Bible calls wise and Godly living. So there you have it - a neat little lifestyle philosophy tied up with a bow and presented to each person on earth by our beneficent Republicans - complete with endorsements from none other than God Himself. And Glenn Beck.

(Sorry - just had to get that jab in to all my Beck fans.)

Right-Wing Money Fixation?

So when it comes to talking about a social Gospel, redistribution of wealth, and entitlement programs, a lot of conservatives think they're on solid ground when they criticize government safety nets, taxation, Social Security, and the Democratic Party in general. Even people of faith - who fear socialism and big government more than they fear their own sin - feel justified in complaining about how our government spends our money on people who aren't like us.

And to a certain degree, being Americans and benefiting from one of the most voter-centric constitutions in the world, we have a right and a duty to ensure that our government is responsive to our opinions and dictates, not the other way around. We have the enviable freedom to second-guess policy and lobby for our own. We have an obligation to vote based on Biblical principles and personal convictions, and we should never take for granted the opportunities we have to abide by high levels of personal responsibility for the sake of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our faith.

Yet for years, I've had the nagging suspicion that people of faith who vote Republican are motivated more by financial greed than mere ethics. Conservatives like to fuss about social depravity and sagging morality when it comes to hot topics like gay marriage, stem cell research, high taxes, abortion, government-run healthcare, unaccountable politicians, and the like. And I'm opposed to all of these things.

But when it comes to how we're supposed to deal with people less fortunate than ourselves, conservatives still charge down the path of intolerance, indifference, belligerence, and even disdain. Conservatives seem to view society by financial factors more than any other. Where somebody lives, who they marry, what they drive, how educated they claim to be, and the job they hold can be evaluated by money: how much they have, or how much they don't.

For some historians, the grand idea is that America, as the land of opportunity, can help mute money's pull on social polarity by virtue of the fact that we don't have castes and honorific titles. You can be the child of a destitute welfare mom and become incredibly wealthy without anyone saying that's not your place. The dream of financial success probably remains less elusive in the United States than anyplace else on Earth.

Yet the idea that poor people may deserve to be poor, and that unlimited wealth is just out there waiting to be earned, makes a lot of sense when you view the world through financial lenses. However, when we evaluate reality on the basis of money, we come awfully close to being lovers of money, if not being in an illicit affair with it.

Men at Ease

Now, before you think I'm wandering down the path of Communism, consider the passage that was in my Scripture reading this morning. I've even provided several different translations of Job 12:5:

· New International Version:
Men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.

· English Standard Version:
In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune; it is ready for those whose feet slip.

· New Revised Standard:
Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet are unstable.

For most of us, "misfortune" can easily be translated "poverty" because that's what we fear the most. Yeah, sure, right-wing talking heads may say they mostly fear the loss of freedom, but that's partly because their income stream would dry up without it.

Many Americans also translate "ease" as "financial security," or at least, "financial stability." We've worked hard, we've enjoyed the fruits of our labor, and we're entitled to enjoy vintage alcoholic beverages poolside while Jeeves polishes the Rolls behind manicured hedges.

Of course, only a small fraction of Americans actually have enough wealth to enjoy what we consider to be the finer things of life. But masses of conservatives still pine for those things, and we've gotten used to assuming that if there's anyplace in the world where an average Joe can work his way up to such luxury, it's the United States. As my brother is fond of saying in reference to wealth, "I've never had a job offer from somebody poorer than me."

So it doesn't really matter how much money you have, but the attitude you hold while also holding your money. According to Job, who knew a thing or two about having - and losing - wealth, people who are financially comfortable tend to belittle those who are in trouble. And I'm not wrong, am I, in accusing virtually all of us conservatives for holding that attitude to a certain degree?

It's as if the wealthier we get, the more we forget that not everyone in a capitalist society can be rich. Think about it: if everyone was equally wealthy, then we'd have... socialism?

Capitalism Is Still a Sliding Scale

Even if we're not talking about "misfortune" in a financially-literal sense, the corollaries still hold true for many conservatives, doesn't it? What about all of those social programs many right-wingers blithely discredit as socialist entitlements, unfairly raising taxes for the wealthy so unproductive poor folk can get something for nothing? (OK, so maybe we're still talking money here, which just proves my point that conservatives worry about their money too much.)

For example, critics of Social Security say its recipients are simply reaping a lifetime of poor-paying jobs. If they need Medicare, that means they haven't saved enough for private healthcare. But what's so wrong about making sure people have something to live on in their old age? Particularly people who, for whatever reason their job wasn't valued as highly as yours, didn't have the six-figure incomes and 401k-matching? Not everyone who is poor is - or was - lazy. Consider the example of your chauffeur, Jeeves: did you pay him a hefty salary well beyond the cost of living, so he could invest some of it for his retirement? Or did you provide him with a pension? Could he afford to pay for his own healthcare?

Or, suppose you terminated Jeeves to drive yourself around. Should unemployed people starve rather than be provided unemployment benefits? After all, aren’t unemployed people simply lazy? Doesn’t unemployment pay much more than a real job?

What's really rich about this debate is that many of those who hold this view are the corporate big-shots who've hacked away at their staffing and helped create the high unemployment rate we have today. But beware: just because you can't get fired doesn't mean that, in this increasingly unfair world, you do an honest day's work. Probably moreso than ever before, simply having a good job and a high income is no guarantee that you're actually worthy of them.

Fella, Can Ya Spare a Grand?

Indeed, we cannot look down on people we consider to be less fortunate. People of integrity can be poor as dirt, facing incomprehensible struggles, while greedy liars can be wallowing in wealth that would shame better people. Drunken louts can be slothful bums, while imaginative innovators can create entirely new industries. But we can't always tell just by looking at the outside.

Some conservatives claim that they're not in love with money; they just believe that what's mine is mine until I decide to give it away. Only people of faith know that's not true, either. What's ours has been given to us, no matter how hard we've worked. If it's been given to us, it's not really ours, is it? So we're to acknowledge the desire of the One who's given that money to us, and be its trustees, instead of its jailers.

Not without discretion, of course. But not disdainfully, either.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dallas Joining Race to the Bottom?

Does Dallas have a permanent inferiority complex? As long as I’ve lived in north Texas, Big D has been trying to prove it’s good enough – or bad enough – to play with the big boys when it comes to just about everything, especially urban sophistication.

Pick anything to do with New York City – Dallas’ archrival (but only it its own eyes) – or Los Angeles, and Dallas has to try and be glitzier and splashier. Take its skyscrapers, its shopping, its restaurants, its crime… And now, after local reps from both New York and Los Angeles got into deep ethics trouble, would J.R. Ewing's hometown be far behind?

Enter Dallas’ own Eddie Bernice Johnson who, as local media recently discovered, granted over thirty thousand dollars in exclusive scholarships to children of her own family and staff. Now, granted, shady scholarships hardly compares with tax evasion, hogging scarce rent-controlled apartments, or bank fraud, does it? At least Johnson wanted kids to get a college education.

But it turns out she’s now the one getting an education.

What a Train Wreck Looks Like

First, let’s consider the facts: Johnson, a nine-term veteran representative from one of Dallas’ poorest Congressional districts, violated ethics rules starting in 2005 by distributing 23 scholarhips to four of her own grandkids and two children of staffers. The money came from the Congressional Black Caucus which doles out $10,000 a year in college scholarships. So for at least half of the last six years, all of the available scholarship money went to Johnson's friends and family.

According to their website, the Congressional Black Caucus was founded 40 years ago to “positively influence the course of events pertinent to African Americans and others of similar experience and situation." Its current chair, Barbara Lee, boasts that they consider themselves to be "the conscience of the congress.”

I see.

Have I mentioned that Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters are also members of the Congressional Black Caucus?

Johnson's excuses have ranged from the dubious to the downright absurd. First, she claimed no knowledge of the rules for handing out scholarship money, but couldn't explain why she didn't bother to figure out what they were. Second, when asked if she ever thought that there might be a conflict of interest or ethics problem with awarding scholarships to her own kinfolk, particularly in this era of procedural watchdogs and congressional scandals, she admitted that no, she's ethicaly-challenged. She actually admitted to a reporter that "I did not have an ethical alarm go off" when she claimed these scholarships for her inner circle.

Third, after word got out that five of the recipients didn't even meet basic residency requirements for the scolarships, Johnson had the gall to rationalize her ethics vacuum by saying there weren't any other people in her district eligible for the scholarships anyway. Can you imagine a constituency being willing to even consider a candidate for office after that candidate slams your collective intelligence in the media?

Finally, after she paid back the $31,000 dollars in illicit scholarships and insinuated that it was a mere pittance anyway, a reporter asked her why she cheated the system to begin with, if she considered the amount so paltry. Johnson accused the press of trying to smear her reputation (too late) and refusing to let the issue fade away.

Oh - did I mention this is an election year? And that for the first time in ages, Johnson is facing a serious challenge by a black Republican minister with a squeaky-clean record of genuine civic engagement? That's why the press won't let it fade away.

Happy (Paper) Trails

Yesterday, somebody anonymously provided two letters to the campaign office of Johnson's opponent, Stephen Broden. Although Johnson had tried to shift at least some of the blame onto her chief of staff, claiming she couldn't possibly be held responsible for all of the decisions made in her office, these two letters bearing Johnson's own signature were addressed to the Congressional Black Caucus, asking that the scholarship monies be paid directly to the students, not their respective colleges. Once they're authenticated, the letters will pretty much prove that Johnson personally orchestrated major elements of the scheme - something she has tried to deny.

Oh, those nasty paper trails.

So now, not only has Johnson gone on record as admitting to have played the scholarship system to her personal advantage, demeaning her constituents, and having poor ethics, she's also brazenly lied about the extent of her culpability at the expense of her already-maligned chief of staff.

She'll Probably Still Win

Local political pundits predict her constitutents - who Johnson herself dismissed as non-college-material louts - won't care enough about the truth to vote her out of office. And she still thinks she's qualified for yet another term in Congress. Well, I guess it depends on what she means by "qualified."

First, it was New York's flamboyant Charlie Rangel, charged with a laundry list of ethics lapses including a collection of rent-controlled apartments in one of Harlem's best residential towers. Next it was California's beligerant Maxine Waters, who insists her husband's investments in a bank she favored meant absolutely nothing. Indeed, Johnson is setting the bar pretty low if Rangel and Waters define the qualifications for being in Congress.

But as I said, Dallas has always languished in the shadows of bigger burgs like New York and Los Angeles. It was only a matter of time before somebody here got caught following Rangel's and Waters' lead.

I suppose we north Texans should be grateful Johnson's sticky fingers actually did try to improve the lives of teenagers, instead of lining her own pockets like her mentors did.