Monday, November 29, 2010

Pulling No Punches

Is this the next big thing in evangelism?

Boxing. Coming soon to a church ministry near you.

At least, it has here in Dallas, where an inner-city ministry supported by my church has started a boxing "ministry."

According to my church newsletter, the Dallas Leadership Foundation's new Ring of Hope boxing gym provides at-risk youth "relationships with Christian coaches and mentors, Bible study, and opportunities to share the Gospel."


I Don't Sting Like a Bee

Now, granted, I am not very avant-garde. Change is not my friend. Although I have lived in New York City and have a godson in Finland, I am not well-traveled, cosmopolitan, open-minded, or conversant with pop culture.

I live in an aging suburb, attend a Presbyterian church, drive a Honda, and write on a PC. I am a white male who votes more Republican than Democrat, my favorite movie is Airplane! (RIP, Leslie Nielsen), I happen to like eating at chain restaurants, but I only go to Starbucks an average of once a month.

So no, urban ghetto culture has never been something I've been able to relate to. Even when I lived in Brooklyn, and there was a brazen gang murder down the block, I didn't let the kid thugs playing posse at their sidewalk shrine keep me from walking down the stretch of turf they had claimed. I didn't pretend to understand their misguided expressions of angst, but neither did I let them know they intimidated me. Some Christians may accuse me of missing a great opportunity for ministering to these pistol-packing punks, but quite honestly, I wouldn't have known where to begin. Starting a boxing ministry there on 8th Avenue, however, between the storefront sweatshops and unlicensed social clubs, would never have occured to me.

Not that some Christians aren't cut out for ministry to America's urban gangstas. Kids who've been abused by their parents and grown up in a world where crime is king. Violence is to these kids as lawns are to conventional suburban church kids. For evangelical groups who work in our big-city ghettos, I'm sure success is measured in inches. Considering the generational poverty and entrenched dysfunctionality they're dealing with, I wouldn't blame them for grasping at straws, co-opting dubious strategies in the face of such daunting challenges.

But really; boxing? As a ministry?

Mopping Up the Floor

Correct me if I'm wrong, but boxing involves taking advantage of somebody's weakness to inflict physical harm. Right?

Not that physical harm itself is objectionable enough. Kids get hurt playing all kinds of sports. But can the physical dangers of boxing compare to the physical dangers in more conventional sports like football? In conventional sports, intending to cause injury is considered unsportsmanlike conduct, because physical injury is not the objective in football or baseball. In boxing, on the other hand, it's the only way you win. And that's what makes it objectionable.

Of course, some free-grace advocates will chime in here about believers having freedom to do anything we want. Others might accuse me of being legalistic by raining on their boxing parade. But hey, all you people who take God's grace out of context: even the Apostle Paul warns that all things are permissible, but they may not be prudent (1 Corinthians 10:23). And in the case of boxing as an evangelical tool, prudence is the key word.

For example, has anybody thought through these issues:
  • What kind of insurance does a boxing ministry require? Who is liable if - or when - somebody gets physically hurt? Is suffering a concussion in a boxing ring from an intentional blow the same as accidentally breaking your ankle playing basketball?

  • Are there better outlets for pent-up rage? Is boxing a legitimate anger-management tool? I understand urban young adults may be dealing with a lot of angst, and that strenuous physical exercise is a good way to release some of it. But why can't something more constructive like weight-lifting suffice?

  • Does boxing help or hinder the teaching of good conflict-resolution skills? What the Dallas Leadership Foundation provides likely represents the first sound instruction these kids have ever received for dealing with rage, disillusionment, or even physical intimidation. What kind of mixed signals might they receive by learning to "turn the other cheek" in chapel and then sparring for several rounds in the ring?

  • And most importantly, let's consider the Fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self control. Hmm. Where does boxing fit in? Aren't we getting the cart before the horse by taking boxing and trying to incorporate Christian principles into it? I'm not a proponent of "doormat Christianity," where we feebly let the world walk all over us, but how can one model Christ through boxing?

Does Boxing Perpetuate Racism?

If struggling to clarify how boxing fits with Christ's Gospel isn't difficult enough, consider this touchy question: does boxing quietly perpetuate racism?

In other words, does the fact that most of these urban kids are black or Latino somehow mean their cultures are better suited to something like boxing? Or that boxing more appropriately translates to their cultural backgrounds? How many middle-class evangelical churches sponsor boxing ministries to their own teenagers? What kind of white parents support boxing as an appropriate "sport" for their children?

Does the gritty street life in Oak Cliff and West Dallas makes a better backdrop for the dim, sweaty punches of a grim boxing gym? Or is it because these minority kids are predisposed to such violent activity? Where is the line between nature and nurture? I realize you don't need to be a minority to be a boxer, but at what point do the double-standards grate against each other?

I believe one of the reasons race-based socioeconomic disparities persist in the United States involves our tendency to view white middle class and minority lower class lives as two parallel entities IN THE CHURCH. We have churches for wealthy Christians and poor Christians; black, white, and Hispanic Christians; urban Christians and exurban Christians. Many of us acknowledge these divisions, yet I'm not convinced they're not based on cheap stereotypes.

We like to say that our church demographics have evolved along with geopolitical stratification, but that's not the whole story, is it? Are we really so fundamentally different? Most of us have cars, and many of us think nothing of driving 40 minutes to work and back home 5 times a week. So suddenly we become unable to drive 20 minutes to church - because it's on the other side of the tracks - once or twice a week?

Having different expectations and styles based on race and income does nothing to bridge all that divides our communities of faith. And boxing as a plausible ghetto ministry may testify to that dichotomy.

Considering Other Angles

But I digress.

One of recent history's most famous boxers is Evander Holyfield, a self-avowed born-again Christian, whose personal website even has a Bible "verse of the day" posted on its Home Page. Despite all of his professional success in the ring, Holyfield probably will be most remembered for having both ears bitten by the savage Mike Tyson during a 1997 fight.

Some people have tried to hang a victorious victim mantle across Holyfield's boxing resume, borrowing a bit of spiritual imagery for his legacy. But as a brother in Christ, I would encourage Holyfield to weigh the profits from his chosen profession against the teachings of Scripture if he thinks the two balance out. I'm not saying he doesn't have the right to earn a living, but I struggle to see how his livelihood serves as a legitimate testimony of the Gospel.

There's also the passage in the Bible where the Apostle Paul describes beating the air like a boxer (1 Corinthians 9:26). One of the most liberal translations, the Good News, has Paul saying, "that is why I am like a boxer who does not waste his punches." But even if this were an accurate translation, does it convey the principle that Paul condones boxing?

Just as I know what a typical swing looks like in boxing, even though I don't condone it, so the audience of Paul's day would know what he was describing, since boxing is such an ancient sport. It's descriptive language, not doctrine. Therefore, taken in the context of the whole Bible, this one passage loses its punch - pardon the pun - as boxing advocacy when considered with the other passages I've already referenced.

Down for the Count

I realize that by what I've said, I have betrayed my status as an armchair Christian when it comes to urban ministry. I'm not in the thick of things over in West Dallas, grappling with the complexities of inner city outreach. As I've already admitted, I am not an expert on teens who have grown up in urban poverty. Shucks, I'm not even a parent, so I can't speak with personal experience on what activities suit some kids better than others. Neither am I a sports nut who can strain to see the good side - if there is any - to boxing. But I don't believe that what I lack in these specialties disqualifies me from the basic observation that boxing as a Christian ministry seems counter-productive at best and marginally heretical at worst.

I'm not trying to malign the Dallas Leadership Foundation; if they're a ministry partner with my church, then they must be doing a lot of things right. I'm simply trying to reconcile this new outreach of theirs with what logic would define as effectual ministry.

Sure, kids who've grown up on tough ghetto streets have hardened shells. Ministry to "the least of these" may require some methods the rest of us may find unconventional.

But since it's the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts and lives of His people, should we employ methods which contradict the Fruits of His Spirit?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New York on Parade

Growing up, every Thanksgiving in memory started with watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. Live television is fine, but I used to wonder what it would be like to experience the whole parade thing in person. So when I was living in Manhattan, one year I decided to do just that.

Most people think the parade is just that: a parade. Floats, bands, drill teams, clowns, and Santa bringing up the rear. And while the Macy's extravaganza usually has all of these components, their flagship store at Herald Square was still the largest department store in the world back when I lived there (South Korea's new Shinsengae Centumcity Department Store, opened in 2009, is now the title holder) so they're compelled to do things over-the-top.

During Thanksgiving week, Macy's bombards the city with reminders of the parade, either to drum up support among the locals so the parade route will be stuffed with cheering throngs, or to warn the locals to git outta Dodge before the West Side and Midtown become gridlocked Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, the media machine in North America's largest metropolitan area publishes routes, recommends viewing areas, gushes about the newest balloons, runs poignant nostalgia stories about the parades of yore, and banters trivia about the Big Apple tradition. If it wasn't for the fact that this was New York City, it would be easy to wonder if the original holiday for being thankful wasn't being co-opted for a dazzling marketing barrage. After all, just how do the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes commemorate the Pilgrims?

They don't, of course. They're just advertising the season's mega-show at the storied Rockefeller Center performance hall, the Christmas Spectacular. Which, all kidding aside, actually is a must-see and so moving, I teared up both times I experienced it. If you travel to New York between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, the Christmas Spectacular is just that - spectacular. And you know I don't use that term lightly.

Backstage Before the Parade

After the traditional Thanksgiving Eve service at Manhattan's Calvary Baptist Church on West 57th Street, I walked with some friends through Central Park to the American Museum of Natural History at West 77th Street. A heavy, cold mist shrouded the park in a dark suspense, enhancing the glow from the Tavern on the Green's twinkling lights wrapped amongst its garden's trees.

Within earshot of Central Park West and the museum, we could hear the gleeful chatter of children and see the hazy glow of spotlights. Emerging from the park, we were swallowed up in a good-natured crowd of parents with children propped on their shoulders, video recorders drinking in the memories.

Memories of what? Of blowing up the famous balloons, of course! Every year, Macy's spends the entire night before the parade inflating Garfield, Betty Boop, Snoopy, Superman, and other icons of Western society. Beguiled by the scene of so much taking place so effortlessly - humming inflation machines were doing all the work - my friends and I strolled among the sprawling lumps of Mylar that were slowly taking shape, noses lifting off the pavement, fingers getting fatter, wrinkles vanishing from faces. On the balloons, I mean; not us.

For generations, families have made a tradition of watching these creatures take shape on the streets and lawns around the Natural History museum. On Thanksgiving morning, the parade belongs mostly to tourists and the rest of the country via television. But this ritual of the balloons' inflation, however, is New York's own little celebration, and some quirky sentiment inside me appreciated this backstage revelry.

Indeed, none of my friends from church who were admiring these misty, serene transformations with me were planning on attending the parade the next morning. For Gotham denziens starved for intimacy in America's most congested yet isolating city, these up-close-and-personal encounters with creatures which would later float above the crowds had become the part of the parade they most treasured.

Show Time

Thanksgiving morning didn't so much dawn as emerge grimly from the night, still chilly, and now drizzly. Being a vacation day, I slept in and watched the beginning of the parade on TV. As it begins on the Upper West Side, I had time before the real show arrived in Herald Square, a mere 15-minute walk from my apartment, where I planned on taking in the festivities.

Walking westward down a nearly-deserted 34th Street, I could see Pluto bobbing around the corner above Broadway four blocks ahead. If New York didn't already have enough bizarre sights, that would probably have been quite funny. As it was, with the raw breeze and spitting rain, Pluto's handlers probably didn't want him to get as high in the air as would be necessary to look really thrilling. It would have been nicer if we had the cold temperatures counterbalanced with bright sunshine and calm air. Oh well, this was still the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, I told myself.

In Herald Square, grandstands towered over the sidewalks, but television cranes and on-location RVs blocked most of the good views. Hundreds of people were milling about, no one seeing much of anything except probably those at the tops of the grandstands. Plus, since it was raining, we had to dodge umbrellas. So much for not arriving early, I chided myself! I could tell the crowd must have been mostly tourists - despite the weather and poor views, few people were as grumpy as I was. I kept forgetting this was the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Finally, I found a good spot in a corner near 35th Street that police had barricaded, but were letting spectators occupy anyway. Remember, this was before 9/11, back before terrorism lurked around every New York corner. I found myself near one of the on-location RVs, and when I couldn't see the action in front of Macy's, I watched the action as people who probably were famous came and went. Although I didn't see anybody I actually recognized as being famous, by the way they acted, a couple of people apparently thought they were anyway.

Before long, yet far sooner than I expected, Santa Claus suddenly rolled through Herald Square, and without any fanfare, the parade was over. No announcer wishing the crowd "Happy Thanksgiving!" No encore. No scrolling of credits. Santa's sleight turned the corner headed to Madison Square Garden, and that was that.

Turning Towards Home

I turned around and went back to my apartment, the excitement of the parade fading with each block I walked. I couldn't escape a nagging disappointment that watching the parade on TV is actually better than being there live. The weather didn't make that much difference, the crowds didn't make that much difference. Even the lousy amplification - we could barely hear what was going on - didn't make up for the sheer confusion taking place within one short block in front of Macy's east entrance. So many acts, so many people, so much activity was churning through this small piece of real estate, that you didn't know what was what. Things were obviously being orchestrated for the TV audience, and those of us in the crowds were part of Macy's window dressing.

But did that mean the morning was a waste? Surprisingly, I didn't think so. Sure, it's all part of the commercialization of a holiday whose original intentions were faith-based. But considering how garish Christmas has become, a parade down the west side of Manhattan's Midtown seems almost tame these days.

Besides, as I turned to walk up my block, my mind shifted to the Thanksgiving feast I would be joining later in the day in Brooklyn with my aunt and family friends. Delicious food, loving family, good friends, a warm house...

Thankfulness has its privileges!

Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend! See you back here on Monday.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pouty Palin and LA's Fall Fault

Complaining About Reporters is an Unbecoming Ploy

So, Sarah Palin doesn't like CBS News anchor Katie Couric?

Well, neither do I. Couric makes no pretense of disguising her liberal bias on the air, her droning voice is annoying, and she talks like she has marbles in her mouth. Like many media stars, Couric enjoys a high-flying Manhattan and Hamptons lifestyle, yet pretends, with far less success than her other network peers, to be a common person attuned to how the news affects the rest of us.

None of this, however, grants Palin license to censure the press if she decides to run for President. Which, of course, is a race she's already decided to run; her aw-shucks cave-in to supporters who want her to run just needs to be timed right. Palin may not like certain members of the press, but most politicians don't get to pick who interviews them.

On today's Sean Hannity talk show, Palin claims to live in a different reality:

"As for doing an interview, though, with a reporter [Couric] who already has such a bias against whatever it is that I would come out and say? Why waste my time? No. I want to help clean up the state that is so sorry today of journalism."

(And yes, that last sentence is verbatim, according to CNN and Time magazine. I'm not exactly sure what it means, but Palin's supporters probably do, and that's not a compliment.)

Granted, Palin's past experience with Couric has not been stellar. And nobody's saying Palin doesn't have the right to dislike her. But come on folks; Palin's dislike of Couric stems from those painful interviews during the McCain presidential campaign when Couric lobbed curveball questions to Palin like, "what newspapers do you read?" to which Palin absurdly replied, "all of them."

Or any Supreme Court decisions, other than Roe v. Wade, with which Palin disagrees. Palin couldn't think of one.

Or about Hamas winning an election in a bitter setback for Arab-Israeli relations. Palin mumbled something about respecting democracy, appearing to endorse an organization the United States considers a sponsor of terrorism.

Come on, Palin! It's not Couric's fault when a vice presidential candidate can't answer basic political questions from a former morning talkshow host. And to simply dismiss Couric as a non-reporter unworthy of asking any questions of Alaska's former governor displays a laughable misunderstanding of the Bill of Rights.

Sometimes I suspect Palin's 15 minutes of fame has been extended in part by the very news media that holds her with such contempt. Palin is media gold, particularly because she doesn't realize the joke's on her.

Unfortunately, with Hannity and the other right-wing windbags continuing to give her air time, Palin has plenty of opportunities to trip herself up. At first, I found the possibility of a novice vice president somewhat intriguing. But the intrigue has now worn off, and if Palin continues to masquerade as a viable national political candidate, she needs to learn the issues and memorize facts instead of sound bites. That way, she won't have to be as concerned about marble-mouthed Couric.

Otherwise, she might do more good for Democrats than Republicans in 2012.

Bad Parenting Allows Toddler's Death

Two-year-old toddler Lucas Tang fell to his death Sunday evening in Los Angeles' Staples Center at the end of a Lakers game. After posing with his parents in a luxury box with a balcony, Tang was left to look after himself as his mother and father reviewed the just-taken photos on a digital camera. Thirty feet later, Lucas was splayed across the plastic seats below, and died at the hospital.

Now, since I am a single, never-married male, I try hard to refrain from commenting too harshly on peoples' parenting skills. Faith, politics, governance, economics, and culture exist as human experiences and theaters in which my perspective holds as much validity as (almost!) everyone else's. However, out of respect for people engaged in the intensive activity of parenting, I try to keep my own opinions on the subject to myself. Most of the time.

But this isn't one of those times.

How many wrong things manifest themselves in Lucas Tang's tragic story?

First, at 2 years old, should his parents have taken him to an NBA game? Where is the common sense? Particularly if they were enjoying the game from a luxury box, they probably had the means to pay for a baby sitter. They should not have assumed that watching a basketball game from a luxury box is the same as watching a basketball game on TV in the comfort of your living room. Although Staples Center is a modern building which meets all city building codes, it is not McPlayPlace.

Second, this was an evening game, and little Lucas fell shortly after 9 pm. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but shouldn't 2-year-olds be in bed at that hour? Am I wrong in suspecting that poor Lucas, after surviving the sensory overload of a Lakers game, was by now over-stimulated, over-tired, and over-cranky? Even if his parents were paying him a fraction of the attention he needed in that open-air luxury box, Lucas probably had little energy for - or interest in - obeying them.

Third, Staples Center is designed for watching events like basketball games, not defying the laws of gravity. Anybody who claims Plexiglas barriers and low railings are unsafe in a modern, American area needs to keep in mind that for places like the Staples Center to be 100% idiot-proof, you wouldn't be able to see the game. It's like building the world's safest car: it can be done, but it isn't, because nobody would buy it. People with common sense use a building in a manner commensurate with its purpose. Once again, Staples Center is not McPlayPlace.

Fourth, most media reports describe how the parents had just been posing with their 2-year-old near the railing of their luxury box. One assumes the person taking the photos was facing into the arena to capture the view from their perch. So everybody knew how high up they were. Doesn't any of this translate into the need for caution with a toddler in the same luxury box? Did his parents not realize Lucas could climb? Isn't climbing a major activity for 2-year-olds? Remember, I'm not an expert here, since I'm not a parent, but I have four nephews and one niece, and I can distinctly recall that when they were that age, they liked to crawl and explore. It's what 2-year-olds do. This reality should not have been lost on Lucas' parents, should it?

Of course, at number five, wimpy parents will, by now, be protesting, saying it's impossible to keep your eyes on your 2-year-old 100% of the time. To which I say: "YES! You are exactly right! Which is why you need to use discernment as to the environments into which you allow your toddler." You should be able to distinguish environments which are appropriate for 2-year-olds, and which are not. For example, do you turn your back on a toddler near a bridge railing? Are escalators suitable substitutes for playgrounds? Do parents use kiddie fencing to keep their 2-year-olds IN the kitchen?

Obviously, looking at just-taken photos is not a crime. And would a quick glance at the camera by the parents - the natural thing to do after having a digital picture taken - have given the toddler enough time to climb upon the balcony? If the 2-year-old was that quick at acrobatics, wouldn't his activity have caught somebody's attention out of the corner of their eye? Something tells me the parents were ignoring their child a lot longer than the time it takes to look at a camera screen. But now I'll admit I'm starting to speculate. What I don't need to speculate about concerns whether the parents should have brought their toddler into that environment to begin with. I think common sense says they should have known that too many variables would be out of their control, even in such a modern arena.

Despite all of these proofs for why Lucas' parents displayed shoddy parenting skills, Child Protective Services will probably give them a pass. His death remains a horrific story about being oblivious to risks, yet who's going to get hit the hardest? Chances are, Lucas' parents will try to sue Staples Center for big bucks, and a jury of their peers - which means 12 equally-feeble-minded people - will award those big bucks out of sympathy rather than logic.

The insurance company covering Staples Center will have to pay out, even though the fall was no fault of their own. And although the parents whose multiple failures actually precipitated the environment suitable for this tragedy will, of course, be haunted by the loss of their son, are we satisfied that is sufficient punishment? I can't help but wonder why they shouldn't be subject to some sort of civil penalty. After all, wouldn't Lucas be alive today if his parents took his well-being a bit more seriously? How much culpability do they bear for this awful event? Lucas needed a disciplined parent to provide enough discipline to keep him off the railing. Can it be argued that his fall was at least partly the fault of his parents?

Yes, accidents will happen. But was this really an accident? I'm a firm believer that people should be licensed before becoming parents. It may sound harsh of me to say, but Lucas' parents make my case for me.

I don't have any kids of my own, but I shudder when I think of the weight of responsibility parents have - and how many don't seem to realize it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Airport Security We Can Live With

For being so intent on infesting the airwaves and Internet with objectionable programming, America's media companies are sure fired up about protecting the flying public's decency.

With news organizations currently hyperventilating over new security measures at United States airports, you'd think the TSA was running a pilot program for the next sex-themed show on the Fox network.

Granted, the near-nude imagery generated by the TSA's new full-body-scan X-ray machines, combined with the "intrusive" pat-down of erotic zones, make for some attention-grabbing headlines. It's not hard for news organizations to capture viewer interest with photos of hands between thighs and curvaceous female reporters posing for the salacious full-body X-ray.

Hype or Help?

But how much of all this is hype? Do these new security measures actually increase air travel safety? Or are they simply the next generation of sugar-coated security on which our government has been wasting billions to create the illusion of a proactive anti-terrorism bureaucracy?

If you believe Homeland Security and the TSA, yes, these new screening methods represent the latest and greatest advancements in our security arsenal. However, at what point do we make the cure worse than the disease? What else might the TSA find to be more effective in screening passengers before enough of us decide it's simply not worth the bother to fly anymore?

1. Where should airport security start? When a passenger purchases a ticket? Why not mandate that any tickets purchased within 48 hours of a flight be purchased exclusively online? This would give the airlines more time to run passenger checks against government lists of terror suspects.

2. If a passenger purchases a ticket within the 24-hour window before a flight's departure, the purchase should be immediately scrutinized against the government database.

3. The TSA's current infatuation with lotions and fluids isn't worth the confusion, distrust, and anxiety it causes. Too much passenger cooperation and good-will is lost by the Baggie police. Wouldn't it be easier to introduce better security measures if passengers weren't already encumbered with such silly requirements as packing their deodorant in their checked baggage?

4. The plain and simple fact is that 99.999% of the flying public simply wants to get to their destination, not blow up a plane. What characteristics do the 0.001% of passengers who want to blow up a plane share? They're Muslim males. If this isn't clear-cut logic for racial profiling, I don't know what is.

However, how do you pick out male Muslims? You can't just use physical appearance as a guide. What about WASPs who convert to Islam? You can't even rely on Muslim terrorists to follow the Koran's teachings about male supremacy; what about the increasing popularity of female suicide bombers? These and other complications to the racial profiling argument mean that instead of picking out generic Arab-looking people from airport security lines, the burden of suspicion rests squarely on the no-fly lists being compiled by the federal government. But is this list as accurate as it can be?

5. Have you noticed a trend in my suggestions? Increasing reliance on the government's no-fly list. Yet anecdotal evidence has portrayed this list as a comedy of errors, which is why Americans are rightfully afraid of our government's takeover of healthcare. Isn't it time the government either fished or cut bait on running the no-fly list themselves? If private insurance companies can create massive algorithms for identifying and managing their customer base, why can't the government do the same for suspected terrorists? Surely there are fewer suspected terrorists in the world than there are life insurance customers. And if the government can't do it, and private industry can, then what changes need to be made to fix that scenario? Surely the Baggie police and intrusive body scans aren't sufficient stop-gap measures.

6. Since airlines have a vested interest in the integrity of the no-fly list, they should have a say in how it is administered. Maybe they should maintain the list themselves. Since it will be used to conduct forms of racial profiling, I don't know about the legal implications of removing the government completely from the picture, especially since the list will still rely heavily on secret CIA, FBI, Secret Service, and Homeland Security information. But maybe the airlines have expertise and insight on how to make the list serve them - and us - better.

7. At the end of the day, how many terrorists have been detained by the genital pat-downs, detailed X-rays, shoe removal programs, and fluid bans? This past Christmas in the skies above Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had a bomb in his underwear that - pardon my vivid imagination - a brush of the back of the hand probably wouldn't have detected. What about the fact that the TSA's new full-image X-rays don't detect items hidden in body cavities anyway - where they'd also be hidden from a pat-down?

Doesn't weeding out suspects before they even get to the airport make more sense?

The Weight of the Matter

Whether we Americans like it or not, our economy needs to have a vibrant airline industry to not only provide travelers with reasonably-priced aviation options, but also fulfill its diverse economic and innovation opportunities in the international aviation industry. Increasingly, however, our government's bureaucratic restrictions and oftentimes silly hoop-jumping in the name of safety only fetter the airlines with unavoidable rules. Rules which discourage business people from flying when they could teleconference instead. Or which discourage pleasure travelers from flying when they could drive in almost as much time as the combined flight and security line. With all the luggage they want. And deodorant.

As it is, we've got security gates rusted in their "open" positions at one major airport in Michigan (for security reasons, I won't tell you which one) and a vehicle gate so flimsy a speeding pickup truck, whose driver was attempting to evade police, crashed right through and onto the grass by a runway, within yards of passenger jets waiting to take off. This spectacular violation of security - which airport officials have tried hard to downplay - took place right here in Texas, but again, I won't tell you where.

You see, the TSA has decided the easiest way to try and secure our skies is by accusing all of the flying public and subjecting them to extraordinary searches in public. That's because you and I are bigger patsies than the government regulators who are responsible for making sure our tarmacs, runways, taxiways, and other airport infrastructure are terrorist-proof.

Do airlines let the TSA perpetrate this charade because they know it's cheaper than upgrading our many airports with more robust security measures?

Or are all these new "invasive" body searches maybe a subversive tactic by Michelle Obama's fitness gurus to get us all to lose weight?

After all, I don't think I'd mind as much if some TSA worker saw my body mass on a computer screen if there wasn't so much of it for them to look at.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Art as Solace of the Mind

Show and Tell

"Majesty of God" by Judy Franklin, 2010

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

"I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."

"To each his own."

You'll be happy to know I'm not going to get into a lecture on art appreciation or how beauty should be defined. These popular phrases above reflect the subjective nature of our cultural encounters with the creative arts, and there's little point in anybody telling anybody else what they should or shouldn't appreciate.


Yet I'm not convinced that, overall, our society has done a good job of maintaining a beneficial interest in the creative arts. Maybe because over time, we've let subjectivism generate a nihilistic mindset concerning things that used to be important. Particularly in western civilization, we've become extremely pragmatic and efficient, to the point where if something doesn't serve a practical function, save us money, or make something easier, we're not interested in it. So art loses its importance.

Which is a bit perplexing, considering that compared with less sophisticated epochs in history, Westerners have more free time and expendable income at our disposal than ever before. But many of us fill this time with quantitative things like superiority-oriented sports, destination-centric travel, instant-pleasure amusements, passive movies, intense video games, and other goal-oriented activity. We measure things by scores, distances, fun, proficiency, and the like.

Just as I'm not going to set parameters for that which constitutes art, I'm not going to rate the ways we spend our free time as good or bad. I'm simply trying to point out that very little of what we choose to do involves the solace of the mind.

By "solace of the mind," I'm not talking about dumping everything that's in your brain into a bucket. Or abdicating common sense, propriety, and ethics. By "solace of the mind," without sounding like a New Age guru, I'm trying to convey the concept of engaging with beauty for beauty's sake.

Consider the infectious joy conveyed by the "flash culture mob" in Macy's downtown Philadelphia store a couple of weekends ago. Several hundred singers from the Philadelphia area convened in the main hall of the former Wanamaker's store and broke out into an unannounced rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. Shoppers, caught off-guard, were delighted by the "random act of culture" which has been viewed on YouTube over 3.6 million times.

At the risk of sounding flaky, esoteric, or goofy, may I suggest that as our society has given up on the classic arts, which were intentionally designed to express beauty, we've lost a little bit of the humanity that has helped to smooth life's rougher edges? Is that a silly thing to suggest? I realize that here, my brave attempt at not telling you what I think good art is has faltered a bit; I can't deny having the "Hallelujah Chorus" soaring throughout the vast atrium at Macy's proved far more pleasurable than if it had been a rock anthem instead. But take the question in the spirit with which it is intended: have we forgotten how beneficial good art can be?

Museum attendance across the country has stagnated, dependant more on clever marketing and hip new buildings than the public's insatiable demand for timeless paintings, sculpture, and other visual media.

Symphonies, orchestras, opera and ballet companies, and live theater troupes have all begun strategizing for both their short-term and long-term survival as their audiences consolidate into an older, smaller, and less committed demographic. Perhaps now more than ever, the arts are perceived as being elitist and old-fashioned, which society at large automatically translates into unnecessary and hard to appreciate. Fun is far more easily obtainable from pop culture, even if pop culture doesn't provide the same rewards.

Which is the real issue here, isn't it? Not all art is as universally appreciated as the "Hallelujah Chorus," which while not everybody's cup of tea, certainly didn't cause anybody to erupt in anger in Macy's. But how many of those shoppers would prefer purchasing tickets to a rock concert instead of using free tickets to hear Messiah in concert? See what I mean?

Some paintings require more than a quick glance for their beauty to be seen. Sometimes you have to sit still and be patient as a musical score unfolds. Most sculpture requires at least a couple of complete 360's for the entire piece to make sense. Yet today's culture actually conditions most of us to expect instant gratification instead of expending much effort for a reward.

For something to be a solace to the mind, how much extra work is involved, really? Not that people can't find comfort in their favorite non-classical pursuits. But should we expect all of the bits of information and stimulation we stuff into our heads to be sufficiently dislodged by quick and/or easy entertainment? Can we mentally relax with good art in the same way we enjoy a video game or skiing? All pastimes provide fleeting encounters with enjoyment, but the afterglow of good art sticks with me longer than the afterglow of a B movie. Maybe I'm just different that way?

Not that art provides a magical cure-all, or is the fountain of youth. Great art can cure a gloomy day, but it can't cure diabetes. Nor am I advocating a revolt against pop culture entirely, because moderation in a variety of activities and interests can be like diversification in one's financial portfolio.

Just don't dismiss good art as irrelevant or outdated. And don't assume I'm some snobby Renaissance man who can tell his libretto from his ritornello. I'm not crazy about opera, and I don't care for ballet at all. But play anything by Bach, Beethoven, and sometimes even Mahler, and my mind can find its solace quite nicely, thank you very much.

You don't even have to pay a lot to get a bit of culture. My church hosts an annual arts festival, and the photo in today's essay shows one of the entries, a cut-glass and crushed-glass mosaic by Judy Franklin. Entitled "Majesty of God," Franklin's work uses the birth of Christ to express a grand theme of the Incarnation with a pastel palette suitable for swaddling an infant.

So maybe it will never hang in MoMA or the National Gallery. But it's good therapy to consider the crushed glass as not only snow, perhaps, but diffusers of light. Amidst all of the pastel coloration rises the golden sun (Christ as "beauteous Heavenly Light") and the stark red field punctuating the cross. Indeed, at the center of Franklin's work is the Cross of Christ, Trinitarian triangle, and further afield, a beveled gold radiance.

Why is it good therapy? For one thing, each of these components gives testimony to the deity and holiness of Christ. Perhaps we don't actually see a visual representation of Christ, but that's not an entirely unBiblical consideration, is it? Franklin does not concern herself with what God Incarnate may have looked like, because she's creating a depiction of His majesty, which for us today is far more important.

If you just glance at this work and tick off its obvious attributes; "broken glass: check; fang-looking things: check; pretty colors: check; cross in the middle: check;" then you're not engaging with the message Franklin has woven into each of her components.

Here's a challenge for you: don't look at this photo - gaze at it instead. No matter how much theology and doctrine you know about Christmas, what is this composition telling you about the Christ child? As you work these truths over in your mind, do you realize how things you were thinking about before you began reading today's essay here have been placed on your brain's back burner?

That's the solace of the mind I'm talking about.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Warning: I Like Feedback

Should my blog feature its own warning label?

Maybe something like "'recovering cynic' with an emphasis on the 'cynic' at the expense of the 'recovering'"?

Has spending over a year without gainful employment rendered me even less socially compatible than ever?

In any event, I have to say that the feedback I received this morning from somebody who apparently is a regular reader of this blog has actually been a welcomed turn of events for me.

Thanks to "Anonymous"

I don't know who "Anonymous" is, and maybe they thought by writing they were risking offending me. Maybe "Anonymous" is a friend of mine who wants to offer some constructive criticism while knowing I'm not the world's most humble person. I laugh at another possibility - that "Anonymous" has never personally met me and assumes I deserve more credibility than I am due! Any any rate, I want "Anonymous" to know that I am neither offended by your feedback, and at least in this case, nor do I take it lightly.

Yesterday's essay to which "Anonymous" responded wasn't an easy one for me to write. Perhaps it's because I'm not an economics expert, a fact which apparently seeps through the cracks of my sentence structure like sunshine through an old barn! And when I ask the rhetorical question of whether people who fuss about income inequity do so out of envy, I can hardly deny that yes; there are times when I look at some people and wonder how they've gotten the money they've gotten.

Respect or Jealousy?

Now, high-net-worth medical doctors don't faze me at all, since they work exceptionally hard and assume significant responsibility in their profession. Inventors and innovators who profit from their personal ideas and better mousetraps also deserve their financial rewards. I think I can honestly say that I don't begrudge any legitimate contributor to our society the money they earn putting their skills and energies to good use.

But I struggle to value the mind-bending financial packages given to many CEOs and Wall Street brokers, figureheads who sit astride organizations whose profit can rarely be ascribed to a single person or group. At least, not in the manner such exaggerated rewards seem to be lavished. Even when large organizations falter, their exiting executives receive absurd golden parachutes which appear to mock the very incentives corporate boards claim such payments ensure.

I'll admit it: I'm a bit jealous of what people like that get paid. And I get flustered when our society seems to accept such pay packages as part of how capitalism works. Maybe this is where my lack of strategic economic theory proves itself - for example, with my bafflement over airline pilot pay contrasted with paper-pushers in corporate. But many of these people, as wealthy as they may be, don't even reach the stratospheric tiers of wealth I describe as "two-percenters" and "elite capitalists."

The Two Percenters

No, these are people you and I will probably never meet. At least, we'll probably never have their personal cell phone numbers. They comprise literally two percent - some categorizations put the figure at five percent - of the American population. There aren't many of them, but they're more powerful than you think. They're the people who earn millions of dollars a year - sometimes tens of millions - even as they're laying off employees, mucking through corporate scandals, or, in the case of personal injury lawyer types, taking advantage of legal loopholes and honest mistakes at the expense of common sense.

On Wall Street, they're the people who bet against their own firm, constantly ferret out new ways to re-sell other people's money, and bank on the weakest links in society's moral character. In all of these scenarios, the Biblical metric of an honest day's pay for an honest day's work receives short shrift, and I find it difficult to apologize for my lack in incentive to simply shrug my shoulders and turn a blind eye.

Yet these are the people who, increasingly, are calling the shots in our economy and our politics. They're the people who fund both sides of the political divide; the George Soros types for the liberals, and the Koch brothers types for the conservatives. And when I say "fund," I'm not talking about a thousand here and a thousand there for their favorite candidates and causes. I'm talking millions. At a time. And over time, they've come to a point where they're warping the political dialog and debate in this country beyond anything most liberal activists and conservative talk radio fans realize.

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their ilk milk the conservative masses with exaggerated scare tactics and oversimplifications of issues. They have to - it's how you keep regular listeners. And it's easy - after all, making fun of politicians doesn't really require you to come up with your own original material. But how much of what talk radio's stars say is accurate? How much is credible? Who are their sources? Inflammatory hyperbole may make good entertainment, but it makes horrible policy.

The conservative ideology undermines its own credibility with these loose cannons as pitchmen.

Unsupported Claims?

Unfortunately, "Anonymous" finds some of my claims "completely unsupported," which I don't doubt. I would, however, have appreciated more hints as to what those unsupported claims have been. In my defense, I suspect that those claims were probably supportable, albeit by data "Anonymous" would discredit. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that "Anonymous" actually perseveres through my entries despite having issues with some of my content. Actually, it's flattering when people who don't always agree with me continue to listen to me anyway. Or at least try to give me the benefit of the doubt. It's a good practice to pursue, and for me to emulate.

For the record, I do check in with the websites of Limbaugh and Beck every so often, and you might be surprised to learn that I actually agree with many perspectives advocated by the Koch brothers. And I realize that to an extent, conservative ideology can benefit from the hyperbole and machinations of the extreme right, if only to counteract the blithe obfuscation by liberal pundits of the damage being done to our country by their leadership's agenda.

If conservatives will continue to bear with me, I think you'll find that I'm more on your side than you think. You may feel like saying "thanks, but no thanks!" when it sounds like I'm giving too much credit to the opposition, but we all need to remember that economics and politics are not exact sciences.

For proof, just look at where we've gotten ourselves as a nation today. How we extricate ourselves from this malaise will require people of all political stripes working together in an imperfect compromise for our common good.

When both the conservative and liberal elites recognize this simple reality, then maybe we can make some progress. After all, conservatives like to trot out the Founding Fathers at every opportunity, and two of them were Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry.

One quote both of them made famous (derived, actually, from Aesop's Fables) was this:

"United we stand. Divided we fall."

I'm just sayin'.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does Income Inequity Raise the Tide?

Has a second Gilded Age dawned on America? Is the new economic morning we’re seeing all around us - damp with high unemployment, offshoring, and stagnant wages - a precursor to another depression or lost generation? Is what we're seeing dimly these days being illuminated by light refracted from the wealth America’s top earners have amassed?

Many conservatives bristle at the notion that exaggerated income disparity could be any sort of economic problem. Many liberals – even rich ones – bristle at the notion that America’s new super rich shouldn’t share more of their wealth with our lower economic classes. In between are, well, the rest of us. Only being in the middle doesn't have the same ring of prosperity that it did even a decade ago.

According to the liberal-leaning Institute for Policy Studies*, the top 1 percent of Americans received 23% of the income in 2007, the most since 1928. Is that true? Did one percent of wage earners get almost a quarter of 2007's entire payroll? If this statistic is true, does it depict a healthy economy?

Adjusted for inflation, America's average hourly wage was $20.06 in 1972, and $18.52 in 2008. Does this mean that middle-income workers are losing financial ground? Are the rich getting richer at the expense of everybody else, or have they simply managed to leverage their assets better than everybody else? Have we reached the upper limits of capitalism, where raw greed trumps innovation? Or do economic slumps simply make us have-nots more grumpy?

Indeed, is it petty jealousy which causes us to complain about how other people have more money than we do? Have the super-rich really earned their money, or have they simply benefited from a skewed system of rewards? Why do executives who manage but don't create merit significantly greater compensation than workers who actually produce the product for sale?

Why do airline pilots - by whose expertise an airline sinks or swims - earn less than their top-tier bosses? Why do doctors have to justify their life-saving skills to MBA's at insurance companies who earn more than them? Hasn't the system of value and rewards become woefully imbalanced in our country?

How do we all benefit when a small group of us amasses disproportionate wealth? Does a rising tide really lift all boats? Or have systemic subordinations, born of Darwinian economic ideologies, become the means by which income disparity has begun to whittle away at the middle class? Has Wall Street really provided the best method for paying people what they're worth to our economy?

Many conservatives claim taxation based on income represents another form of wealth redistribution. Some high-income folks balk at being subjected to higher taxation rates than lower-income folks, but if somebody who earns $1 million a year is taxed at the same rate as somebody earning $50,000, is the lower-wage-earner actually being taxed more in relation to the cost of living? Some evangelical conservatives point to the 10% benchmark provided in the Bible for tithing, saying that if a flat rate is good enough for God, it should be good enough for the IRS. What people who make this argument are missing is that the 10% is ONLY a benchmark - indeed, Luke 12:48 says that to whom much is given, much will be required. Is Christ talking about a dollar amount, or a percentage?

A lot these questions actually boil down to the intrinsic value a middle income class has within a society. If the super-rich keep firing employees to make their companies leaner so they're more profitable, will the society's overall buying power be adequate to support what these companies are trying to sell? If the super-rich are banking on global markets to compensate for their shrinking US market, then what's to stop corporations in other countries from poaching the remaining customers here? For example, what will happen if and when China comes up with a fantastic new computer operating system? Or SUV? Or any number of other widgets and services American countries are currently offshoring? Do conservatives go crying to Washington, wanting even stricter tariffs to keep foreign competition at bay?

I guess, after all of these questions, my one basic question is this: why do conservative elites** dislike the middle class? What have we done to offend you? Aren't middle class workers industrious and productive? Are we simply higher-paid lower class grunts? Why do you think everybody should be rich like you? If all 300 million of us were rich like you, who would be your business analyst, graphic designer, school teacher, police officer, nurse, or salesperson?

If income inequity is actually a rising tide that lifts all boats, then mine must have sprung a leak. And for all of you conservatives who are aspiring two-percenters, dreaming of being on Forbes' lists: don't look now, but your ship may have already sailed... with none other than limousine liberals like Gates and Buffet at the helm.

* Apparently, the Institute for Policy Studies has incurred the wrath of Koch brothers puppet Glenn Beck, which considering his feeble credibility, and the Koch brothers' Soros-esque machinations, probably says more about the Institute than Beck.

** After considering the feedback from a reader (see below) I have changed my wording in this sentence to better reflect the group to whom my question is addressed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Making Music at Macy's

People may accuse me of many things, but being at the cutting edge of cultural fads will never be one of them.

For example, I'm just now getting around to talking about the October 30 "flash culture mob" event at the old Wanamaker's Department Store - now a Macy's - in downtown Philadelphia. Over 2 million people have already viewed the YouTube video of several hundred singers gathered in the department store's main hall who break into an unannounced rendition of Handel's thrilling "Hallelujah Chorus" from the Messiah.

You may recall that earlier this year, the City of Brotherly Love was plagued by a violent social phenomenon called "flash mobs," in which large gangs of rowdy teenagers would congregate and storm through city streets en mass, destroying private property, injuring passersby, and generally inciting chaos which wreaked havoc on businesses, imperiled racial harmony, and generally make Philadelphia life miserable. One flash mob even tore through the very same Macy's which hosted the "Hallelujah Chorus" singers, with punks punching stunned shoppers and destroying store fixtures and merchandise.

What a great juxtaposition, then, to have this event at the very same venue, showcasing the best of Philadelphia against its worst. In case you haven't yet seen it, click here for the most wonderful five minutes of Christmas shopping you'll ever spend.

Of course, the accolades reverberating around cyberspace by people responding to this video don't need repeating here. They're simply proof that the arts remain capable of moving the soul. As part of the "Random Acts of Culture" project by advocacy group Knight Arts, the Philadelphia event wasn't the first such production, nor will it be the last. The purpose for these events is to remind average Americans that the arts provide a surprisingly humanizing balm to our lives. Good art is good because we don't need somebody to explain to us why we're enjoying it. Sure, there were probably a lot of shoppers in Macy's who would never list classical music as their favorite, but they could still appreciate the grandeur they were witnessing. Chances are, blasting a rock anthem throughout the store would probably not have the same effect at all.

And kudos to Macy's, which could have just as easily nixed the whole idea, fearful of offending customers who might object to a Christian song being belted through the sales floors of the historic shopping mecca. Granted, Philadelphia's flagship Wanamaker's makes an ideal venue for just such an event, with its soaring atrium and historic pipe organ, the world's largest. And art lovers of many different faiths can appreciate the aesthetics of Handel's music on a purely artistic level, even if, as I've said, the oratorio genre isn't their favorite. Still, Macy's could have approved the general idea but insisted on a different song. As it was, however, with Christmas shopping underway and the doldrums of a weak economy to shake off, the right choices were made all around.

Oddly enough, I've watched the video several times with both the sound on and with the sound muted, and either way, I get kind of a goose-pimply vibe when I realize that black and white, young and old, are joining together to sing this incredible piece of music. At the end, there's a broad, tall black man, raising his right arm as he sings the final "Hallelujah," a wide smile breaking across his face. Indeed, the expressions on so many faces in this video - spontaneous wonderment, joyful surprise, incredulous awe, and realizing they were witnessing something incredibly special - tell a story all their own.

And yes, that story needs to be told in this day and age, as our society slides into sociopolitcal frustration, economic despair, and personal anomie. Not exactly because of the Biblical text enshrined by Handel's Messiah, although even those who consider this masterwork as just a nice piece of music will be forced one day to acknowledge what it says.

If we could start at a base level, however, of acknowledging that great art has value, we all have five minutes in our day to stop and be personally touched by it.

I can't resist wondering if the impact would have been the same if the singers had performed something more saccharine like "White Christmas," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," or even "Hey, Santa Baby." As well-known as these songs may be, they don't make you stop in your tracks or otherwise pause to take in the moment. But the "Hallelujah Chorus" does, doesn't it? There's some element of transcendency about it that takes us away from the everyday and adopt a comparatively reverential demeanor, even if you just appreciate the music as music, not as a triumphant anthem of Christianity.

Indeed, doesn't it make you stop and bask in the beauty of something that takes a bit of ourselves and flashes visions of your "happy place" across your brain?

That's why this video has become a YouTube sensation. And probably why you'd like to see it again - so here's the link, again!

See? A little bit of culture does a body good!

Sneak peek: I'm planning a follow-up to this essay later this week!

Friday, November 12, 2010

When Racism Tends to Prove Itself

Sometimes, it seems as though I'm fighting a losing battle.

Yes, I know: to you, it probably seems like I fight a lot of losing battles! Like I'm some sort of Don Quixote of the blogosphere, picking fights with windmills in the form of elite Republicans and constitution-crossed Christians. Alas, if only I were as skinny as he was.

But no; while those battles may indeed be lost in the court of public opinion, I'm still convinced I'm right. Truth is truth regardless of whether or not the majority of people think it to be. Instead of my windmill wars, the battle I think I'm losing is my battle to be racially tolerant and non-prejudiced against people from other cultures. To lose this battle will mean I am unequivocally wrong.

And oddly enough, even here, the majority of people will probably think I am right to harbor mistrust of different cultures. Well, people who disagree with me when I pick on conservatives, anyway.

Tale of the Suspicious Honda

Yesterday morning, I witnessed two cars that I didn't recognize come slowly down the street in front of my house. One of them, a dark blue older-model Honda Accord, stopped, and the other, a dark green older-model Buick Century, pulled ahead of it and U-turned in the street.

A short, thin, Hispanic male got out of the Honda, opened its trunk, and took what appeared to be an overstuffed bag of something from the Honda to the trunk of the Buick. He returned to the Honda, got another bag out of its back seat, put it in the Buick's back seat, and jumped in the car himself. Then the Buick tore off up the street, in the direction from which it had just come.

Suspicious, I got my camera phone and went to the Honda which had been left in the street. About this time, a neighbor came out of her house, and we both began to chat about the Honda, which both of us knew didn't belong to anybody in the neighborhood.

Suddenly, the Buick returned from another direction, and the Hispanic guy hopped out with a car battery in his hands. We watched as he popped the hood of the Honda and proceeded to change out the batteries. My neighbor and I automatically assumed that the guy was having simple engine trouble, and we even casually called out to him that we thought the car was stolen. He laughed, but still couldn't get the car started. The Buick drove off, up the street, and eventually, the Hispanic guy closed the Honda's hood and walked up the street, presumably to a friend's house.

The Honda stayed in the street for the rest of the day, and on into this morning. That's when I began to get suspicious again.

By about 10:30 this morning, nobody had come to work on the Honda, and I smelled a rat. I got my cell phone and went out to the car, calling 911 to report an abandoned vehicle. The operator asked me for the license plate number, and when I told her, she quickly asked me to repeat it.

"Sir, that car has been reported as stolen," she sternly confirmed to me. "We'll have the police out to file a report shortly."

As it turns out, at about 9:00 am yesterday morning, a woman in Grand Prairie, the town between Arlington and Dallas, reported that her Honda had been stolen. The Hispanic guy turned up in our neighborhood only an hour later, probably intent on stealing something else, but surprisingly for him, the car he'd stolen only an hour ago died in the street. His partners in crime, following behind in the Buick, took him someplace to get a battery, but it, too, was dead. At least, whatever was broken in the Honda wasn't fixed by getting a different battery. At any rate, the Accord still wouldn't start, so they abandoned it there on our street.

Thinking It Through

Now, a lot of things don't add up. The police said car thieves often cruise suburban neighborhoods to ditch stolen cars, but if that's what they were doing in our neighborhood, why did they bother to come back with a different battery? And why did they even take the risk of stopping in front of my neighbor's house, when the two of us were on her front walk, looking at the Honda? Why did they think the battery was the Honda's problem, after they had smashed the ignition switch to start it in the first place? (The police said that was how they stole the car.) The Hispanic guy had even muttered something to me about needing a jump start, but that's where the story got weirder still.

I've always heard preachers say that men should stop and offer to fix broken-down cars on the side of the road. But I've never done that, mostly because I'm not a mechanic, but also because of my good ol' New York training to not get involved. So I just walked into my house, although something in my conscience chided me that I should get my car and help the guy out. But I ignored that little voice, and didn't really think about it again until the cop told me the car was stolen.

What if I'd gotten my car - a much newer Honda Accord - out of my garage to help jump-start the guy's battery? Since he'd just stolen the older Honda, might he have pulled a gun on me and demanded my own car instead? What about if he'd pulled a gun on my neighbor and me when he returned to the old Honda?

Why Did He Have to be Hispanic?

I should have called 911 when my neighbor and I first had suspicions about that old Honda. If I had, the police might have caught the criminals, or at least gotten the stolen car returned to its rightful owner sooner. But my neighbor and I both tried to give the Hispanic guy the benefit of the doubt.

For me, at least, my thought process went this way: if this was a young white guy, would I automatically think there was something nefarious about this situation? Was it because it was a young Hispanic male that I had gotten suspicious? It's not a crime for people - Hispanic or otherwise - to have car trouble, even if they don't live in your neighborhood. If I was in a Hispanic neighborhood, and had car trouble, would the Hispanic residents get upset having a white guy leave his car in the street to go and get help?

To what extent did my efforts at being politically correct allow this Hispanic guy to get away with auto theft? It had rained between yesterday and when I called 911, so the police didn't even bother to check for fingerprints. Granted, if I had called 911 yesterday, the car wasn't stolen, and the Hispanic guy came back with a tow truck as the police were inspecting the car, I'd have looked pretty stupid.

But as it turns out, the Hispanic guy was a crook, and I would have been interpreting the situation correctly had I not fought the artificial element of refuting racial profiling. Because racial profiling is the more natural response, isn't it? Down here in the southwest, the statistics run hard against Hispanics and blacks when it comes to crime. Granted, a plethora of reasons exists for this reality, but still, it's reality. We have a few white bank robbers, but most street crime comes at the hands of people with darker skin.

I Want to do the Right Thing, but What Is It?

I'm an odd person - I readily admit it. And because I'm different, I don't like being pigeonholed by other people, or having other people making false assumptions about me. So I try hard not to do the same to other people. It may not seem like it sometimes, but I do.

So it's extremely discouraging to me when things happen that tend to prove why many people actually are racist. I don't want to be forced to look at everybody who I don't recognize as belonging in my neighborhood - which is about 95% white, an anomaly in central Arlington - with a suspicious eye, particularly if their skin tone is different than mine.

But it sure seems like this Hispanic auto thief has given me plenty of reason to justify it. And maybe that's what I dislike most of all.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sagrada Familia's Exuberant Homage

So, there we were, my longtime friend Gretchen Schwab and I, browsing through Barnes & Noble, and suddenly she shrieks with excitement. To her noisy delight, she'd stumbled upon a big photo book of the architect Antoni Gaudi. Gretchen could barely contain herself. With giddy enthusiasm, she held it up for me to see.

"Isn't he the guy who designed wavy building facades in Spain?" I groaned, betraying my own personal distaste for Gaudi despite my friend's obvious admiration. Not that Gretchen, an avant-garde spirit herself, could be dissuaded. The fact that we didn't share the same opinion about such a polarizing designer didn't faze her one bit.

In case you've never heard of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, he's not as obscure a historical figure as you might think. If you've visited Barcelona, you may have seen at least some of his striking apartment houses and curvaceous windows. But just by looking at Barcelona's skyline, you'll learn all you really need to know about him by his most famous commission. Indeed, his phantasmagorical Sagrada Familia basilica, which towers over the city, serves as an apt metaphor for his unusual life and ardent Roman Catholic faith.

After 130 years of construction, it remains unfinished, yet every bit as controversial and improbable as when he took over what was supposed to be a conventional neo-Gothic project in a conventional Spanish city. Indeed, even with completion still two decades away, a mere photo of Sagrada Familia will elicit an emphatic response. Not many buildings have that power.

Of Spain and Modernists

Gaudi is to architecture what Salvador Dali is to art, which since both men were Spaniards and cohorts in Modernism, probably shouldn't be surprising. Almost everybody has seen Dali's bizarre "Persistence of Memory" with its limp, dripping clock faces. Gaudi takes surrealism one flamboyant step further with his signature facades and windows. Only he's working in 3D, which meant that for Sagrada Familia, his only limitations came from physics and finances.

Interestingly enough, Sagrada Familia has been a pay-as-you-go, or expiatory, project for the Catholic church. In other words, faithful parishioners in Barcelona, not the treasury in Rome, have funded the construction of Gaudi's vision. That says a lot about the commitment to this vast undertaking by the people that have claimed it as their legacy.

But aside from special services, they've only been officially worshipping in Sagrada Familia for less than a week. After 130 years, the church has just recently been consecrated for regular use. On November 7, Pope Benedict XVI sprinkled "holy water" on the church's massive altar, making it suitable for use during daily Mass.

Tourists, meanwhile, have been visiting the site for decades, making it a stunning, world-famous attraction while masking its ineffectiveness as a working Catholic religious building.

Indeed, the church is still a living construction site. Its website even warns tourists that during strong rain or wind, the church will be closed because the elements can still enter the building. Officials hope to have the enormous basilica finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. Even though Sagrada Familia has already become part of the Catholic lexicon in Barcelona.

Church as Really Expensive Art

As intriguing as it is, however, and as exquisite as many of its architectural flourishes may be, and as impressive as the hand-crafted engineering of the towering structures have proven to be, there's an uncomfortable question that remains: is it all worth it? Along with New York City's incomplete Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Sagrada Familia pays hallowed homage to the ancient construction techniques of centuries-old cathedrals. It's no secret why Sagrada Familia and Saint John's are the only two projects of their kind in the world today: their exorbitant cost, the poor availability of skilled labor, and the sheer amount of time required to hand-craft key structural elements fly in the face of modern efficiencies. How viable a religious project is Sagrada Familia when this year's cost alone could reach $24 million?

Gray-suited accountants could quickly rattle off the conventional religious items $24 million could more readily purchase today. Protestant scholars could bemoan the extravagance as typical hubris by the Roman Catholics. Secularists would question whether the ancillary financial benefits to Barcelona's tourism industry exceed annual construction expenditures. Some critics even wonder if Pope Benedict's consecration, timed as it was after recent priest sex scandals in Europe, represented a splashy way to jump-start a moribund Spanish branch of his church.

Sagrada Familia certainly stuns the senses. Its size trumpets majesty. Its exterior embellishments put the "gaudy" in "Gaudi." Its soaring interior spaces audaciously subordinate mortal visitors. Its exquisite ceiling coffering is literally over the top.

Years ago, as an architecture student, I saw slides and photos of Sagrada Familia in lectures and textbooks, and scoffed at the absurdity of it all. At first, the tube-like latticework spires reminded me of war correspondent footage of pockmarked churches bombed during the World Wars in Europe. Indeed, even the novelist George Orwell called Sagrada Familia one of the world's most hideous buildings.

Maybe because Gaudi seems to be mocking the reverential classicism inherent in the great Gothic cathedrals, the traditionalist in me silently revolted against Sagrada Familia. Having already become prejudiced against Gaudi because of those silly windows and wavy building facades that we students had already encountered in theory lectures, Sagrada Familia just seemed like more of the same petulance and contempt for conventionalism.

Extra or Ordinary?

But now, looking at fresh images from the basilica, with more windows, parts of a roof, and a greater sense of cohesion as distinct components begin to resemble a spacial unit, I'm tempted to wonder if Gaudi's contempt for conventionalism may actually be appropriate for a house of worship. I still don't like parts of Sagrada Familia; the Nativity Facade looks like something sculpted from bleu cheese, the spires still seem caricaturish, and some of the vaults look like bats wings. Indeed, none of it is ordinary.

God is holy, which means He's set apart from the everyday. Yes, He's the Creator of the everyday, but only He is worshipped by all of His creation. Who else could possibly claim that? Do Gaudi's exuberant flourishes and garnishments draw attention to themselves as surreal elements of the structure? Or, do they individually and corporately point to the Deity towards Whom the activities within these spaces are intended?

I'm not going to get into the distinctives of Roman Catholicism vis-a-vis evangelical Christianity, particularly since arguments can be made that some aspects of Catholic liturgy are blasphemous to evangelicals. But ultimately, it is the God of both Jews and Christians to Whom acts of worship will be conducted in Sagrada Familia. Maybe not in ways most evangelicals, including myself, will embrace. Yet what Gaudi has envisioned for this basilica doesn't much depend on the forms this worship will take. By all appearances, his building embodies its own proclamation of the excellencies of our Creator God. Even if that proclamation defies convention.

Architecturally speaking, many religious structures today betray a slavish devotion to money and budgets more than they do a distinct acknowledgement of the deific properties of the Person being celebrated in the space. While prudence and fiscal discipline remain important Christian virtues, the story of the woman who broke open the expensive bottle of perfume to wash Christ's feet gets far less pulpit time.

Or household budget time. With many statistics showing less than half of all members contributing financially to their church, yet with many Christians enjoying discretionary income for a variety of unnecessary trinkets, trips, and trophies - and I'm preaching to myself here more than anybody else - no wonder Gaudi's effusive Sagrada Familia seems almost ludicrous next to our warehouse-looking megachurches. Even little country churches - which historically have embraced the best expressions of their local cultural aesthetics - now exude all the charm of a brick box.

What are we worshipping in these functional yet uninspiring places? Are we worshipping our hoarding mentality, spending just enough so that church members don't need to compromise their materialistic lifestyle? Or are we lavishing our Creator with material expressions of our love for Him?

Not that good design and inspiring architecture need to cost a lot of money. God-given creativity can do a lot with not a lot of cash. And not every faith community can - or should - come up with $24 million a year for their building fund. Sometimes, though, I wonder: don't we need to acknowledge that God doesn't want our ordinary stuff when we come to Him in worship?

Is He worth our ordinary effort, or our extraordinary effort?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Right Talkers Can Be So Wrong

By now, most of us know it was a hoax. Or, at the very least, a poorly-reported story.

As I write this, President Barak Obama is jetting his way across the globe with his wife and daughters to begin a 10-day trip to Asia that starts in India, where it was reported that security costs would run $200 million per day. It was estimated that over 30 warships, 40 planes, several bullet-proof limousines, 3,000 staffmembers, and dozens of hotel rooms would be involved in an excursion to break all previous records for a presidential state visit.

And right-wing elites were hopping mad. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other conservative pundits pounced on the story as just more proof about how out-of-touch the Obamas really are. First it was Michelle's lavish trip to Spain, which even drew gasps of surprise from the liberal press. There was the family's 27-hour snub of the oil-stricken Gulf Coast in favor of an impromptu weekend in Bar Harbor, Maine, and a longer vacation on Cape Cod, two New England havens of exclusivity.

At least when George Bush took his vacations, he usually went to his personal ranch here in Texas, which even his ardent left-wing detractors struggled to call fancy.

For Obama, the hapless limousine liberal, a $200 million-per-day junket to Asia, at the start of Diwali, no less, just seemed like more of the same wasteful spending from which Republican talking heads make their livings.

Except nobody bothered to run down the story's sources. Nobody checked leads. Nobody tried corroborating the validity of any facts. Nobody ran the security financials. Not even me when I posted a link to the story on my FaceBook page. I found the original story from an Indian news outlet on Google, and assumed media standards in India were at least as strong as ours. In addition, I figured the scathing implications from this story for our Democratic president would be enough to silence the American media, which would explain why nobody else was onto the story. The liberal media elite were still smarting over the results of Tuesday's elections; why would they heap any more bad news on Obama's plate?

I Apologize

But, I should have known better. Not that North America's leading press agencies report the news perfectly all the time, or exist in a vacuum free of bias. But it wasn't until yesterday that conventional media outlets decided the rumors had festered long enough, and spokesmen from both the White House and the Pentagon addressed the phantom scandal as nonsense.

So, to all my FaceBook friends and their friends who responded to my post, I'm truly sorry for being complicit in spreading falsehoods about our president and this Asia trip. Sometimes it may not seem like it, but I strive to make sure the things I tell my friends aren't rumors or gossip. I'll try to be more careful in the future.

Anybody Else? Rush? Glenn? We're Waiting...

There's more to this incident, however. I'm also taking this opportunity to prove why I don't believe Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck deserve much credibility. Not because I was gullible enough to think they might be right. And not even because we were all wrong. But because of what they haven't done.

Although this story has been proven false, neither of these two blowhards have acknowledged that. None have yet made any public retractions, which media personalities with any integrity would have done. They haven't even bothered to apologize for misleading their audience, which proves their sullen disrespect for people who hang onto their every word. And of course, they haven't apologized to the president. Apparently, free speech only goes one-way for these right-wingers.

For the record, Rush appears to have simply dropped the story. Like it never existed. But as of 11:56 am CST today, Beck's website still carried the story, "Financial crisis? What crisis? Obama spending $2 billion to visit Mumbai" on its home page.

This is what Beck says:

"If Mumbai sounds familiar to you it's because less than 2 years ago, radical Islamic terrorists carried out massive attacks that killed 173 people and wounded 308. It's so dangerous there that the President is traveling with 3,000 people, bringing 34 warships, and spending $200 million a day to make the trip. What in the world is so important to take such a risk, and the financial burden in the middle of a crisis? Something isn't right."

It's Not Right of the Right

Well, you are correct, Pontificator Beck. Something isn't right, and it's your own warped desire to make a name for yourself at the expense of somebody many conservatives don't like anyway. Obama's presidency, as ineffective and wasteful as it may be, is expendable in your pursuit of ratings and sensationalism. Granted, you couch your story in the form of a curious question, perhaps thinking that gives you the leeway to backtrack later and say you were just presenting a rumor to your audience without actually endorsing it yourself. But is that a hallmark of a trustworthy person?

What harm does any of this do? What's another negative story about Obama when so many already-angry voters have participated in one of the most anti-incumbent elections in history?

For one thing, it harms the conservative agenda by further obfuscating the relevancy and accuracy of the information they disseminate to their base. You can't say this is the first time Rush, Beck, & Co. have sacrificed integrity for ratings.

Second, it demeans the office of the US presidency, not so much for getting information wrong but failing to own up and apologize. Rush, Beck, & Co. hate it when their mortal enemy, the media, demeans Republican presidents, but apparently Democratic administrations are expendable.

Third, it shows to Third World idiots how easy it is to get Americans all worked up over something that isn't true. As new media takes more and more control of our information flow, propaganda can only become more insidious and more difficult to qualify.

Fourth, it's simply wrong ethically. If you make a mistake, don't we all still need to apologize and take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again? Have maturity, respectability, and integrity simply ceased to be important?

Two months ago, Glenn Beck hosted a rally in Washington DC with the slogan of "restoring honor."

See the discrepancy?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Missed Transit

Note: I'll just tell my regular readers (Ha!) that today's post is more for people here in Arlington who check my blog every now and then.

At a community meeting hosted by my city councilwoman, Lana Wolf, this past Tuesday, I had several conversations with fellow residents and city officials about some proposed transit plans.

As I chatted, some pencil-thin young guy kept following me around with a video recorder, and another guy with a bouncy afro kept sticking a microphone in my personal space. Finally, they introduced themselves as students at the University of Texas at Arlington working on a video documentary.

And wouldn't you know it, but their topic was why Arlington is the largest city in the United States without a mass transit system.

OK, I figured, that is a topic for which I'd be happy to share my opinion! The videographer gave me his card, and I e-mailed him the same letter I'm posting below. Oddly enough, it's as true today as it was when I wrote it in 2002:

Op-Ed piece printed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as part of a pro-con debate related to a pending city vote on approving a tax increase to fund a proposed mass transit system.

As printed on Wednesday, April 3, 2002:

Special to the Star-Telegram

We’ve all heard the saying: “It’s better late than never.”

Unfortunately, with Arlington’s proposed mass transit plan, it may just be too little, too late.

At the very least, our City Council should be given credit for tackling the subject at all. The fact that Arlington is the largest city in America without a bus system has been almost a point of pride for residents who are obviously content to let the automobile reign supreme in our community.

This love affair with the automobile has driven development in Arlington. Subdivisions of single-family homes, strip shopping centers, big-box retailers, and small office buildings – all products of the automobile phenomenon – have been scattered across town with hardly a thought to comprehensive density strategies or long-term transportation logistics.

Although Arlington has needed to get serious about mass transit for years, only now, when the city is approaching build-out, are people realizing that traffic congestion and air pollution are directly related to the city’s poor transportation system.

Unfortunately, our current council is living with the results of previous council mistakes, the largest of which has been to grant de facto city planning to residential and commercial developers. There are virtually no population centers, pedestrian-friendly commercial centers, or other activity-dense “destination areas” to be served by a mass transit system.

None of our streets have room for designated bus lanes, and many don’t even have sidewalks. There are no rail lines south of the Division Street corridor to utilize for light rail options. In addition, many major intersections are simply too wide and too dangerous for pedestrian traffic that might transfer from one bus line to another.

Would you want to walk across Cooper Street at Pioneer Parkway, or Collins Street at Lamar Boulevard?

There’s more: Our downtown district is years from becoming a viable destination center, and even then it won’t office the thousands of workers needed to support a cost-effective transit system.

The University of Texas at Arlington already runs its own shuttle service, and steep parking fees at The Ballpark already force many Arlington residents to carpool to games. The majority of Arlington workers commute to jobs in other cities and would benefit far more from the Trinity Railway Express than from a municipal transit service.

Arlington’s few large employers like General Motors, National Semiconductor, and AmeriCredit have facilities that sprawl over many acres with multiple entrances – not the type of buildings that mass transit easily accommodates. Even our large churches draw people from across the Metroplex, but usually only for a couple of hours one day a week.

Suppose that we did have mass transit. How long would it take you to walk from your house to the periphery of your subdivision, where a bus stop might logically be located?

For me, it would be about eight to 12 minutes, depending on where the city might put a bus stop. That’s not even including the length of time I’d need to stand around waiting for a bus. By then, I could have driven to many of my local destinations. In addition, some Arlington subdivisions are gated, some have streets that wind around forever; and some have no sidewalks.

On a scorching August day, only a fool would be willing to leave an air-conditioned car in the garage and hike for blocks to wait in the sun for a city bus.

Today, as Arlington approaches build-out, our leaders are just starting to ask questions that should have been addressed decades ago.

The problem with that strategy is obvious: Much of what might have worked back then just won’t work today. Our neighborhoods and commercial centers simply have not been designed to allow for mass transit. And too much of our city has already been built for a comprehensive, mass-transit-friendly plan to be implemented.

Viable mass transit programs need to meet at least three objectives: efficient mobility, fiscal responsibility, and economic development.

People need to be taken from Point A to Point B in as short a time as possible, for as little money as possible, and in large enough numbers so that they and the businesses where they work and shop can function properly and not be taxed out of town.

If there are mass transit options that meet these objectives, then I’d support raising taxes to fund them. Instead, we’ve been presented with a well-intentioned plan that fails in the three basic criteria.

Although that’s not surprising, it’s still unfortunate, because our entire way of life as built on the automobile will itself inevitably suffocate our community.

Answers? I don’t have any. And, with the exception of expanding Handitran, neither does the transit plan that our council has presented to us.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Striving Rivals? Competition's Place in Church

Here's a topic that doesn't often come up when discussing Christian disciplines: competition.

Yet within the past few days, I've come across two different Presbyterians with two diverse opinions on the subject.

One, Louis Weeks, used to be a missionary in Africa, and currently is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. The other is Patrick Lafferty, currently on staff at my own Park Cities Presbyterian Church here in Texas. And while my personal prejudices may immediately be evidenced simply by introducing these two men, let's give Dr. Weeks the honor of setting the framework for considering the validity of competition as a Biblical characteristic.

Competition Good for Consumers, but Fellow Believers?

In his essay entitled Striving Together: Is There a Place for Competition in Ministry? which first appeared in Duke Divinity School's publication, Faith & Leadership, Weeks himself professes to never having seriously considered competition as a viable motivator for people of faith.

That is, not until a mentor of his boasted of its attributes.

This mentor had made competition the motivating factor for becoming a more educated Christian leader and preacher. He benchmarked his own progress in his professional faith life against other preachers and teachers, and whether the others knew it or not, engaged in a phantom race with them in his lifelong pursuit of learning.

Now, I understand that's not what most people would consider to be a negative form of competition. And, after all, it's the negative form of competition that raises the eyebrows in the context of things good Christians shouldn't do, isn't it? We think Christians should work together for the cause of Christ, and view competition as introducing unnecessary and even damaging behavior.

Competition, after all, implies that somebody is better at something than somebody else, and other people need to work harder to erase that lead. In economic terms, competition can benefit society by encouraging innovation and cost savings. At its core, competition involves discovering the weaknesses in competitors and exploiting those weaknesses for our own benefit. But it's one thing to invent a better widget through competition. It's another thing entirely to place yourself in competition with a fellow believer. To do so, you're forced to discover ways in which they struggle in their faith walk, lack the education you have, or have been led astray by the Devil. In reality, we end up using a fellow believer's weaknesses as leverage for us to succeed. Is that a proper demonstration of Christ-likeness? Isn't the world supposed to know we're Christians by our love for each other?

Sanctification Isn't Competition

Weeks appears to ignore these questions. He launches into an extrapolation of competition as a striving towards something in a fashion which God blesses because, after all, He gave us the desire to compete. Sports fanatics will abruptly stop here and endorse Weeks' theory heartily, because it appears to make a lot of sense. Many people derive considerable entertainment and even a physical adrenaline rush from participating in an intense sporting event. Even when I was watching the Texas Rangers play in the World Series this weekend, I found myself getting caught up in the excitement. And to a certain extent, there's nothing wrong with playing so as to prove who the better team is.

But when it comes to Christianity, we already know who the better team is. Indeed, we know Who is perfect at everything. So where does competition fit within communities of faith? Isn't it one of the weakest of arguments to justify doing something because "God gave us the desire to do it?" With that logic, we could sweep a whole ocean of sins under divine grace thanks to emotive proclivities. Any parent worth their salt can see right through the "it feels good, so it must be right" rationale, can't they?

Yet Weeks continues. He takes Paul's "running the race" analogy from 1 Corinthians 9 and "winning the prize" to validate the competitive spirit. If Paul did it, certainly we can compete against each other. But can we use such simplistic logic on this verse? Is Paul talking about running a race just to win a prize which will distinguish him as a purer follower of Christ than you and I? Instead, isn't he talking about the process of sanctification? In his analogy, a runner who values the significance of a race will train and discipline themself for their own good and the approval of the race officials. Where else in Scripture is sanctification compared to a competition between saints? When we reach those fabled Pearly Gates, will God be standing outside with gold, silver, and bronze medallions for win, place, or show?

Yes, we will get rewards of some kind based on what we've done with the opportunities God has given us for our earthly faith walks. But since He bestows the Fruits of the Spirit differently to His various children, can we tell what all of His benchmarks are for optimum performance so we can exceed what somebody else has done? Can we know how high-achieving somebody else's faith is? We can guess, based on their spiritual fruits, and we have Scripture to show us how to live lives that please God, but only He knows our hearts and the level of our true devotion to Him. Which means only He knows how well we're doing in the ministry opportunities with which He's blessed us.

Pegging our faith journey on what we see happening around us, how well we think other people preach, how well we think they teach or serve or cook or exercise their spiritual gifts, yadda, yadda, yadda... is this what Paul is talking about in his analogy of the race? We run so as to win the prize. But is God's prize based on a comparison between what you and I do here on Earth? Are we running against Paul, or Peter, or Billy Graham? Can you see how self-centered, humanistic, and ethnocentric such an approach can be? Is it really about us?

If Weeks' mentor wanted to please God as a preacher, and since being an effective communicator of Biblical exposition would be an appropriate use of the speaking and educational gifting God had given him, that still doesn't mean that pegging "success" on a pattern established by another preacher is a good way to gauge his own use of the gifts God had given him. Does it? Where in scripture do we receive instruction on how to quantify our faith performance and rank it against other believers? We can deploy Biblical discretion, but that's to help us be pure before God in a vertical relationship, not better than somebody else in a horizontal relationship.

The Personal Side of Competition

How does the concept of competition fit with the analogy of the Body of Christ as a physical body with many parts, organs, bones, and tissues? If the heart could compete against the eye, what would happen? If you left thumb wanted to race against your liver, what would happen?

No, I don't think competition is a good idea for fellow believers. Instead, let's move to Lafferty's viewpoint, which encompasses a far more holistically Biblical ethos.

Writing for Every Thought Captive, my church's weekly devotional e-mail, Lafferty takes a more relational perspective of competition, and in the essay from which I'm quoting him, talks about rivalry instead. After all, rivalry doesn't exist without competition, does it?

He writes: "Working out our own salvation [or, sanctification; what Paul was talking about when Weeks incorrectly applied the "running the race" analogy] first means to pause and reflect upon our priorities and practices — to take note of our patterns and how we conduct ourselves in them. Rivalry insists on proving ourselves right or better than others. It seeks to surpass them and it often manifests either in a delight over their loss or a despair at your own."

"If by what Jesus has done I am not only acceptable to God but beloved by Him, then my attempt to establish my worth through rivalry is not only a waste of effort, but entirely futile since it will only deliver a fleeting satisfaction, if any—in that is my folly."

"So rivalry offends God and destroys us as it seeks to best another. Whereas trust in the gospel assures us of an irrevocable acceptance by no less than God which a rivalrous spirit at first ignores, and then seduces me into a series of choices that will never yield abiding satisfaction. A preliminary grasp of the offensiveness and folly of rivalry is for now enough to move us to a new obedience—even if our walk by faith in that obedience is more often like a stumbling in it."

Reality Check

Seeking to serve God with the whole of your heart and being is certainly a noble ambition. But it's also a holy one. By invoking practices which require subjective interpretations about what God may or may not be doing in fellow believers, how do we position ourselves as their betters? To take Weeks' initial example, in the deceptively egocentric world of Christian preachers, benchmarking one's performance against someone else's may seem like an easy way to grade yourself and make improvements, but should Weeks and his mentor fall for such a beguiling trap?

Or should we? If we are to serve one another in love, bear with one another, and live in peace with each other (Colossians 3:12-15), where does competition fit in?

Maybe during a friendly round of golf or game of football. Or maybe even Scrabble.

But that's about it, isn't it? Not that this is a church rule or penalty meant to discourage improvement, but if we really love Christ and His people, we join with them in service.

Not against them.

1 Corinthians 9
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.