Thursday, March 31, 2011

Laws Exist Where Logic Doesn't

DAY 23 OF 46

No doubt about it: America has become a nanny-state.

That means we have too many laws governing too much human behavior.  One of the most well-known critics of our nanny-state, TV personality John Stossel, complains in a recent edition of Readers Digest that our government should "leave people alone... I think people should be able to do whatever the heck they want to do as long as they don't hurt somebody else."

And at first glance, he's right.  Legislation-creep has radically increased the scope of government intrusion into the private lives of every American.  Far more than our Founding Fathers intended.

But even though I agree that we've allowed politicians to craft excessive legislation for controlling how and what we do, I'm hesitant to call for repeals of these laws.

Because in this day and age, I see laws as a way to minimize the impact stupid people have on my life.

Laws Protect Us From Selfishness and Stupidity

What do I mean by that?  Quite simply: most laws exist because at some point, logic didn't.  Very few laws get crafted in a vacuum; some negative activity usually precipitates the awareness of a need for legislation.  If every American could be trusted to act responsibly and think about how the things they do affect others, would the government have to protect each of us from each others' bad behavior?

For example, wearing seat belts while in a moving vehicle became codified into law when drivers refused to acknowledge the safety benefits on their own.  Seat belts don't just protect you and the occupants in your car, which are excellent benefits in and of themselves.  They also protect other drivers like me because, if you get hit hard and flail about inside the passenger compartment of your vehicle, chances are pretty good that you'll lose control of your vehicle and risk hitting one of us.  With a seat belt, you benefit from a greater ability to remain in the drivers seat and in a position - literally - to maintain control of your car.  Your passengers also won't be flying into you, risking even further loss of control.

Should we need a law to mandate something as logical as seat belt usage?  No, we shouldn't need one; but our society's need for such a law came about because too many people were selfish in their decisions not to wear them.  Now that enough drivers proved they couldn't be trusted to make a logical commitment on their own, the government felt it had to step in.  After all, protection is one of the fundamental roles of government.

Or consider another dangerous driving habit - talking and texting on cell phones.  Let's face it: it doesn't matter if you have a hand-held phone or a headset, using mobile phones is distracting in the best of circumstances.  Don't tell me you can multi-task when you drive; why should I have to be the guinea pig of your own myopic experiment?  Why should I take your word for it?  Would you trust me implicitly if I told you I could drive 70 mph headed towards you on a road, texting away about where to have dinner?  Yet many people continue to insist on engaging in dangerously distracting behavior while behind the wheel.  So, to protect people like me from people displaying morally reprehensible behavior, laws continue to be drafted about cell phone usage while driving.

Is Government the Only One to Blame?

Add up all these innocuous little laws, and pretty soon, our society appears to be drowning in the effluent of nanny state drivel.  People like Stossel get their knickers in a twist accusing the government of being greedy for power over mundane aspects of everyday life.  But it's those mundane aspects of everyday life that too many people have abused which have created the need for legislation to protect the rest of us.  How much can we really blame on the government?

Even Stossel himself claims that he's been hit by a cab in New York City as he was jaywalking.  And maybe he wonders why there are laws against jaywalking in America's most populous and pedestrian-oriented city!  Granted, taxi drivers aren't the world's most gracious road warriors, but if he's ever complained about the fares he pays to ride them, doesn't he realize that a tiny fraction of that fare includes the liability insurance all cabbies pay because of people like him who willingly jaywalk?  Sure; his one little incident is a drop in the insurance premium bucket, but multiply that by the millions of people who live in and visit New York, and you can see how jaywalking could become a serious problem.

Perhaps you and Stossel would prefer paying higher cab fares to cover damages caused by jaywalkers and simply chalk up the extra expense as part of the cost of living in a society full of selfish people.  But selfishness is really only a character trait we find admirable when it's we who are being selfish.  We rarely value selfishness when displayed by other people.  So what does that say about our society that more and more laws get crafted to counteract the selfishness of too many people in our community?

Have you ever heard of anomie?  It's a sociological term to describe the disconnect participants in a particular environment can develop as personal relationships remain scarce or tepid. The famous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens sparked a widespread recognition of the phenomenon of people who, although crowded together in a confined neighborhood, could hear the guttural screams of a woman being stabbed to death and shrug it off as somebody else's problem.  Nobody called the police during the entire half-hour it took her murderer to commit his heinous crime, because even people who paid any concern to the screams they heard assumed somebody else would get involved.

The Disconnect From Being Disconnected

Now, even most critics of our nanny state would agree that outlawing murder constitutes a basic government prerogative.  But isn't it interesting that even though I can't compare the Kitty Genovese murder to not wearing a seatbelt, the same indifference lies behind both scenarios, doesn't it?  We're almost always the ones who should be able to ignore what we want to ignore and do what we want to do.  Our worlds almost always revolve around ourselves and our spheres of influence.  We forget that we're part of a greater community of drivers on a freeway, neighbors on a residential block, parents of kids in an elementary school, and any other group of people who share the many slices of life that make up the American experience.

I'm not preaching the virtues of hounding everybody into suffocating conformity, or forcing us all to march in straight lines of precise activity.  But if we thought about how our actions - or inactions - affected other people before we did - or didn't - do them, we'd probably have a lot fewer laws on the books. That's not to say that every law currently on the books has a valid reason for being there.  But I suspect the number that are valid is higher than people like Stossel would care to admit.

It sounds real American to say that we're individuals and we should have the right to do what we want when we want. But you don't have the right to compromise my safety. Your right to swing your fist stops at my nose.

If we policed ourselves better, and held ourselves to a greater standard of accountability and responsibility, then our nanny state would become redundant.

But until we all get a lot more selfless, unfortunately, we're going to need to have our diapers changed a whole lot more than we like.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bike Path of Least Resistance

DAY 22 OF 46

New York Magazine has called it urban America's "newest culture war."

But unlike many culture wars, this one didn't start in New York.  And it certainly didn't start in car-crazy Los Angeles!

No, the war over bike lanes probably started in the politically liberal bastion of Portland, Oregon.  But it wasn't so much of a war there as it was a revolt against fossil-fuel-burning beasts.  Those evil contraptions the rest of us know as "cars."

Portland boasts that up to 9% of people who commute in its city commute by bike.  If you're as underwhelmed by that statistic as I am, you can see why plenty of people across the country aren't as crazy about bike lanes as Oregonians.  And that nine percent even benefits from a program which gives poor people a free bike including all of the requisite safety equipment.

Good luck getting a free bike in New York City, the latest North American town to be torn asunder by the zeitgeist of reducing traffic lanes to increase bike lanes.  It may be the welfare capital of the country, but the only people cheering for bike lanes in Gotham are folks who pay more for their carbon-fiber bicycles than some motorcyclists do for their machines which stomp out a carbon footprint. And something tells me that if all those kids from the Projects started wheeling through the green-painted bike lanes in Brownstone Brooklyn or Manhattan, plenty of New York's cycling elite would have second thoughts about bike lanes themselves.

Bike Lanes in Truck-Happy Texas

But, thankfully, New York's problems are New York's.  Even, ironically, the lawsuit over one bike lane near Brooklyn's verdant Prospect Park, which is sponsored in part by the wife of New York's Democratic senior Senator. It seems that even some liberals can't stand bike lanes. Which makes for a particularly complex battle being fought by the Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who's using federal funds to pay for his city's newest fad.

Here in Arlington, Texas, the bike lane wars have started heating up, too. Even though our summertime heat will probably fry the bike lanes city staffers have proposed to overlay on our street grid. As if being the largest city in the United States without mass transit didn't create enough private car congestion, a small but noisy pro-bike lobby has been pushing for some city streets to be designated exclusively for bikes.

Now, something tells me that in a city as temperate as Portland, if only 9% of commuters ride bikes, that figure will be far less here in Arlington, where more than half the population commutes daily to jobs in other cities. In weather that ranges from sub-freezing sleet in the winter to months of high-90's heat in the summer. And believe me, it's not always a dry heat.

Personally, I wonder how adding even more bikes to our streets prowled by behemoth SUV's and pickup trucks - this is Texas, after all - will increase anybody's safety.  Which, after all, is what bike advocates claim is one of the big attractions of bike lanes.  They also claim bike lanes will reduce traffic accidents because motorized vehicles will have to travel slower, due to the decrease in lanes they'll be allotted.  But nobody's been able to explain how making cars move more slowly helps reduce traffic congestion.

At a local citizens meeting on the issue last night, things got a little animated at times, such as when one man claimed bike lanes were the city's subversive way of maneuvering for a massive land grab to widen streets in the future.  Plenty of skinny bike advocates showed up wearing yellow shirts, but giving precious little credible evidence that bike lanes will do anything other than help an athletic subset of the population enjoy their weekends a bit more.

Of course, me being me, I felt compelled to grace the occasion with my own wisdom and insight, which included concerns about increased vehicular traffic congestion and pollution.  I also wondered about all of the tourists Arlington draws every year to our various entertainment venues: drivers coming to town from places without bike lanes might not know what they are or how to accommodate them.

How About a Compromise?

The more I listened to people last night, however, the more I began to see how a compromise might be unfolding from what both the bike lane opponents and proponents were saying.  For lack of a better term, I've dubbed it "lane share."

Instead of taking away vehicle lanes and turning them into underused bike lanes, why can't we simply encourage a better road-share environment between drivers and bicyclists? After all, like several speakers pointed out last night, bikes already have a legal right to the same roadways as cars. Why not capitalize on that, and encourage lane share? That way, entire lanes won't be taken away from vehicles during periods of high demand, visitors to the city won't have to figure out a new set of street rules, and no matter what street bicyclists decide to use, they will know motorists have been given fair warning to keep the streets safe for them.

It will be a lot cheaper, because it won't require extra maintenance, construction, restriping, or resurfacing. Preliminary estimates put the cost of converting existing traffic lanes into bike lanes at nearly $1 million over several years, plus maintenance after the program is in place.  In tough budget times like these, that amount of money seems like a lot to spend on something that will benefit only a handful of residents while inconveniencing everybody else.

Lane share would also be a much easier sell to the general populace, since no infrastructure work will threaten the status-quo or cost a lot.  Plus, promoting lane share might even make bike riding safer for bicyclists riding on streets that wouldn't otherwise have designated bike lanes.  After all, with designated bike lanes, might motorists be encouraged to become complacent in tolerating bikes on streets without bike lanes?  Understanding the need to accommodate bikes on any city road could make Arlington's drivers that much more cautious wherever they drive.  Right now, however, I'm not sure many drivers know about how existing bike laws affect them.

Indeed, the city has already admitted it's going to have to run an aggressive re-education and information campaign with its proposed bike lanes.  Instead, the city could publicize the lane share initiative with far less resistance by sending out inserts in water bills, running announcements on its cable station and website, and attaching colorful reminder signs to existing street sign poles.  Marketing language could encourage residents that drivers are saving money - literally - by sharing streets with bikes. Maybe our local school district could come up with a catchy way for schoolkids to promote lane share safety. Bike lane promoters could put up temporary lawn signs promoting lane share to remind motorists plying the streets. And the traffic fines involving motor vehicles and bicycles could be increased as an additional incentive for drivers - and bicyclists - to watch out for each other.

After all, isn't that the basic intent of bike lanes anyway?  Getting drivers to respect the rights bicyclists have to be sharing the same road surface?  Will giving traffic lanes to bike riders automatically make drivers more accommodating to them?  It may confuse or enrage drivers, and remind them that a small minority of people have been able to co-opt a major congestion-inducing change on them against their will. 

How much better would it be for bicycle advocates to embrace the path of least resistance?  And in this case, the path would be shared by cars, only with a pronounced campaign for road safety, civility, and even harmony.  Attributes that will only hold us in better stead as a community anyway.

After all, signs at the state line already say, "Drive friendly, the Texas Way!"

Some of them also say, "Don't mess with Texas."

FYI:  I am aware that there is an illegal maneuver practiced by some motorcyclists called "lane sharing." This is when motorcyclists travel between lines of cars stuck in traffic.  So I'm not committed to calling my idea lane share if it will invite confusion with what motorcyclists already do - against the law.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When It's OK to Take Another's Word

DAY 21 OF 46

It can be one of the weakest defenses anybody can raise:

"You can't say anything negative until you experience it for yourself."

Variations of this popular argument range among the following:
  • "Well, did you read it?"
  • "Have you seen it for yourself?"
  • "If you haven't heard that song, you can't judge it."
Funny - nobody challenges somebody with these misnomers when the opinions being expressed are positive!

We Can Learn From What Others Live

Sometimes, of course, it doesn't really hurt to go ahead and read the book or see the movie for yourself.  But other times, aren't we better off taking somebody else's word for it?

For example, we don't have to go to Japan and wander around the Fukushima Daiichi plant to know that we'll likely contract radiation sickness.

We don't have to read every Playboy magazine that comes out to know that its content is sexually immoral and demeaning to women - and men.

We don't have to be shot to know bullet wounds can be painful.

Shucks, we don't even have to read the Bible in order to receive God's gift of salvation. It certainly becomes crucial to our spiritual walk as we seek to honor God with our lives, but how many Christians ever read through the whole Bible?

Reading Above the Lines

The other day, Al Mohler posted an essay refuting the controversial Rob Bell book, Love Wins, and was inevitably blasted by people wondering if Mohler had even read the book.

If you've never heard of Rob Bell, or his new book, or even Al Mohler, then don't worry: they're actually ancillary to the point I'm trying to make. Which is that people can still speak with integrity about something without sullying themselves by experiencing the material they oppose.

For example, when John Eldridge's book, Wild at Heart, came out, people didn't need to read the book to dispute his claim that God takes risks. Some tried to challenge my negative assessment of its theme by asking if I'd read the book, and I was baffled by that logic. Reading the book or not reading the book doesn't change the fact that Eldridge thinks God takes risks. Nor does it change the fact that God absolutely does not take any risks, because He's eternally sovereign and omniscient. Why should I pay good money to buy a book which espouses a viewpoint I don't believe?

I got my facts about the book from hearing and reading the reviews and impressions of friends and leaders in the evangelical community who actually did read Eldredge's book. When the evidence from one source was corroborated by another, and then another, should I have seen the need to refute their reactions to the book with my own personal experience?

Now, in the Rob Bell case, Al Mohler actually wrote a book review, so it's rather silly of people to ask him if he ever read the book. But still - its a moot point. Mohler isn't the only evangelical who's troubled by the contents of Bell's book. Enough material has reached the public sphere for the rest of us - who have no interest in buying a book which defames Christ - to know what's inside.

Truth Isn't Always Learned in the First Person

Granted, if nobody on the planet ever bothered to read Wild at Heart of Love Wins, then no, we wouldn't know the unBiblical content of these books. If nobody on the planet knew what Playboy was, we wouldn't know its content was immoral. But one of the interesting facets of modern society is that as consumers, we have access to a lot of information about the stuff available for consumption. And we've been given a brain with logic functions in order to determine what is profitable from what is unprofitable.

Obviously, when it comes to personal taste, aesthetics, and other negligibles, your opinion probably won't be valid without personal experience with the subject. For example, if you say you would never eat at a certain restaurant because the food is bad, but you'd never eaten there yourself, then how much is your opinion worth? Why even bother making such a nonsensical statement?

If it seems like I'm splitting hairs, then consider the penchant many of us have to try things out for ourselves, even after we've been told they're not beneficial, wholesome, or true. Sometimes, the harm we might subject ourselves to is little more than a miserable-tasting meal or a boring movie. But do we really need to be cluttering our minds with a lot of the drivel being shilled in the marketplace of ideas these days?

Discernment and the ability to evaluate the viewpoints of trusted advisers has an important place in a world full of messages, advertisements, and persuasion. Doubting Thomas didn't exactly set a stellar example by refusing to believe the Lord had risen until he could put his hands in Christ's wounds.

Sometimes is good to take somebody else's word for it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Church Cloning Via Video Feeds

DAY 20 OF 46

Once again, I'm forced to ask: Can anybody tell me the merits of satellite churches?

No, not churches that have been shot into Earth's orbit, silly! I'm sure if that were possible, plenty of us would find great benefit in the idea. Even though astronauts would be forced to contend with even more space junk.

By the term "satellite church," I refer to the recent trend of large churches cloning themselves by launching separate campuses linked by videos of the same preacher. Kinda like franchising the church experience, with a dose of Brave New World autocracy.

Granted, most satellite preachers don't wear glasses,
and they look a lot younger.
Remember the eerily prophetic commercials for the world's first Apple computers? Homogeneous autotrons watching a hypnotic talking face on a big glass screen?

OK, so maybe attending a satellite church isn't as much mind control as it is petty egotism. After all, don't churches that create replicas of themselves and pipe in preaching from the mother ship pretty much bow to the senior pastor's awesomeness? At least they're not forcing anybody to attend.

I simply can't get over wondering if the teaching minister wasn't so full of himself, why his church can't plant daughter churches the old-fashioned way: by launching new congregations with their own preachers?

Coming Home?

Hmm... have I just answered my own question? After all, how many preachers today like anything that even smells old-fashioned? So what if we have a glut of seminary graduates who can't find preaching jobs? So what if some churches can't compete because they don't have the media budgets that other mega-churches have? So what if 21st Century Americans have become so enamored with vicarious living through digital technology that having a video for a preacher seems to make perfect sense?

Yesterday, Prestonwood Baptist Church here in North Texas announced that it will be acquiring a smaller church campus inside the northern section of Dallas for the site of its second satellite church.  Just a few years ago, Prestonwood was located a couple of miles up the road from the building it's going to purchase, but they relocated to what had been farmland in suburban Plano (pronounced "PLAY-no"), constructing a monstrous campus that some people have described as an aircraft hangar on steroids.

Not that Prestonwood's original campus in far north Dallas was tiny. One of the world's first mega-churches, the old Prestonwood was known far and wide for its cavernous sanctuary, notorious lack of parking, and its shopping-mall-meets-college-hall layout, complete with two levels of walkways, sitting areas, fountains, an on-site bookstore, and a coffee shop.

But even then, not all of its members worshipped on the same campus. A private Bible study was held on Sunday mornings at a nearby country club for church members who apparently couldn't bring themselves to sit in the same pews with people of lower tax brackets. Of course, that was before digital video technology, so I guess the country club group wasn't an official satellite church.

Perhaps it's uncharitably un-Christian of me to denigrate the way such a publicly successful church pursues growth. If anybody who's a member of Prestonwood read this essay, they'd probably chalk up my cynicism to a lack of faith, jealousy, or small-mindedness.

Yet I'm comfortable challenging the integrity of satellite churches based on those same three elements.

Satellite Church Small-Mindedness

We'll start with small-mindedness, since it was Prestonwood's senior pastor, Jack Graham himself, who was quoted in our local media yesterday as saying that there are thousands of young families now living in the area of Dallas targeted by Prestonwood that aren't attending church.  As if that demographic didn't exist in this same densely-populated neighborhood when Prestonwood bailed for the suburbs in the first place.

Or that the reason people in this neighborhood aren't going to church is because no churches exist nearby. Hey, this is Dallas, Texas, where there's virtually a church on every corner. One of Dallas' biggest contemporary churches, Watermark, is located just a couple of blocks away from Prestonwood's proposed acquisition. If people in this neighborhood aren't going to church, it's not because no churches are convenient. Good grief - they're even buying a church building from an existing congregation!

The reason the church which currently owns the property is moving - a church with a contemporary style - is because its congregation is shrinking, and existing members need to downsize their mortgage. Might the reason the current church is losing membership have something to do with the relatively new Watermark nearby, poaching membership with its hipper, slicker brand of contemporary worship?

What makes Prestonwood think its Baptist product will be different enough to compete with the popular, nondenominational Watermark? Or be so unique that the neighborhood will give church another chance?

Something tells me instead that Prestonwood's existing congregants who live in north Dallas have simply grown weary of schlepping all the way up to Plano to attend church. And they'll likely comprise the bulk of the new satellite congregation. This scenario would require a lot less spin, and probably also pacify any banks funding the purchase.

Satellite Church Jealousy

Second is jealousy. One of the largest churches in the country is Fellowship Church in Grapevine, a suburb of nearby Fort Worth, and a sister Southern Baptist congregation.  Fellowship Church already has five satellite churches, including one in Miami, Florida, of all places.

Southern Baptists are notorious for keeping up with their intra-denominational Joneses.  Might Prestonwood, feeling as though their longtime luster as a trendsetting church needs some polishing, be feeling the itch to play copy-cat with the satellite trend?

Satellite Church and Faith

Third is a lack of faith.  I realize it sounds presumptuous of me to suggest that Prestonwood's leadership exhibits a lack of faith by buying another campus to expand its ministry.  But that's not what I'm asking. What is any church using the satellite prototype saying about the Gospel of Jesus Christ when they imply that their pastor is the best man to evangelize multiple congregations?

North America is flush with seminary graduates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few of them want to minister in small, rural churches or poor inner city ones. Which is a problem in and of itself. But let's go with the theory which says large, affluent urban/suburban populations need more professional Christians. Still, we have a glut of churchless pastors, at least according to this Fuller Seminary professor.

Not that mega-churches like Prestonwood, Fellowship Church, and all the other satellite players are single-handedly responsible for reducing the backlog of churchless seminary grads.  It's just that if these graduates have been genuinely led of God to pursue a seminary degree, to what degree are churches responsible for providing opportunities for service so the skills learned by these folks don't go to waste? (Or, for that matter, seminaries; if they're creating an illusion of urgent demand?)

By placing video feeds of one preacher in multiple "congregations," how do satellite churches support the integrity of the pastoral profession? Are they more interested in having a shepherd for their flock, or marketing a man with good pulpit vibes? Sure, some preachers are more gifted at teaching the Word of God than others, but how much better is Jack Graham than any of the guys out there looking for a preaching ministry?

Think about it: we can't say the cream rises to the top when the supply is greater than the demand; not everybody gets a chance to rise or fall.  So is Jack Graham really as good as his church thinks he is?  Yeah, he pastors a large church, but how much does size matter?  Are satellite preachers afraid there might be somebody out there better than themselves, so they try and monopolize their pulpit?  All we know for certain is that congregations like Prestonwood think preachers like Jack Graham are better than the other preachers they've heard.

Besides, being able to teach is only one part of being a minister, isn't it?  Preachers who preach via video feed may be evangelizing, but they're not really shepherding, are they?  For example, do congregants have an opportunity to go up to the video preacher after the service, shake his hand, and look him in the eye? Not that all of us do that anyway with our in-the-flesh preachers, but we like knowing we could if we needed or wanted to.

Indeed, one of the luxuries of being a preacher in a mega-church is that the larger your congregation, the more distance you can place between yourself and your congregants.  To top it off, most of them understand that even though they'll feel like they know you, they really won't.  Does that sound like the kind of leadership the New Testament writers were thinking about when they listed God's qualifications and duties for those who would lead His flock on Earth?

After all, it's God's flock, isn't it?  With the superstar preacher mentality many congregations have in North America, it's easy to forget that the church losing membership in north Dallas is part of God's flock, as is Prestonwood, and Fellowship, and all other churches claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit.

It's not that the Bible teaches against technology. But discipleship is uniquely dependant on relationships, isn't it?  And evangelism is only the first step in discipleship.  Being a mega church pastor already has built-in drawbacks to building genuine community between pastors and congregants, but don't those drawbacks increase exponentially when you throw in the fact that the preacher ain't even live?

Satellite Church is a Bad Way to Plant

Now, please be careful: If you think I'm against church planting, then you haven't read this essay well. Done properly, church planting is a viable, even essential component of how Christ builds His Kingdom, and I would be woefully, regrettably wrong if I were to speak against the concept. Instead, I'm concerned about the growing temptation of congregations to market their preachers through satellite churches, and claim it's legitimate church planting.

As a Bible-believing, God-led minister of the Gospel, there's absolutely nothing that Jack Graham or any satellite preacher can say or preach regarding salvation or anything else pertinent to Christ's Gospel that any other man, sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, cannot. There are no new visions, prophecies, or truths being revealed that any Godly minister can claim as their own, or that deprive other congregations of the Gospel if they don't hear it from a specific mortal. At least, not as long as you're preaching the Bible.

If people in north Dallas aren't going to get saved unless they hear Jack Graham's preaching, then it's probably not salvation they're receiving.

Friday, March 25, 2011

S'no Good Driving Badly

DAY 17 OF 46

This past Tuesday, a young father in Maine died when his Honda Civic wiped out on a snowy road in front of a full-sized GMC pickup truck coming from the opposite direction.

Just yesterday, 70 vehicles were involved in one of the largest chain-reaction multi-vehicle wrecks ever in the tiny, frozen country of Finland. Although fortunately, no fatalities were reported, several people were hospitalized.

Now, would you please glance at your calendar and tell me what month this is?

March Madness

These represent just two incidents this week - in the waning days of winter - of people who live in northern climes being involved in serious accidents because of winter weather conditions.

Maybe this isn't really headline news for most people, but both of these crashes incontrovertibly point to one sobering fact: even at the tail-end of a long, snowy season of cold winds, icy roads, and treacherous conditions, it doesn't matter if you're an American from Maine or a Finn in Europe, dangerous driving can still trump safe driving. And months of conditioning by driving to accommodate specific sub-freezing hazards still don't matter.

When my family lived in Upstate New York, I remember how bad the roads used to get during a winter storm. Even with snow tires and tire chains, my parents would sometimes drive so slowly that you could legitimately wonder if we would ever get to our destination before the first Spring thaw.

And I remember being so disgusted with snow and ice one Spring that my brother and I got the snow shovels and went to work on the back yard, digging down to clear a patch of grass. Both to check and make sure we still had a lawn, and also to remind ourselves what it looked like!

I'm not the smartest or wisest person on the planet, and my impatience can still get the better of me in traffic. But one of the things I simply can't understand is the incessant drumbeat of weather-related accidents even at the tail-end of winter in parts of the world where driving in the precipitation of the season should be second-nature.

One of my mother's cousins actually knows the family of the guy in Maine who lost control of his Honda Tuesday.  The deceased comes from several generations of hard-working native Mainers.  His widow works as a secretary at a local school, and his father actually used to work summers on my Uncle Arthur's farm years ago.  You'd think winter driving skills would be second-nature to these folks.

Look But Don't Learn

Even though a lot of us don't bother to read stories about highway accidents anymore, plenty of people still cause massive traffic jams to gawk as they drive past accident scenes. If viewing the raw wreckage of other peoples' misfortune would actually convince some drivers to change their road habits, then I would consider the time we spend stuck in gridlock accommodating rubberneckers well spent. But unfortunately, bad wrecks are like freak shows: oddly entertaining, but rarely teachable moments.

Every fall - since Finland starts their winters usually before Halloween - a cousin there will e-mail me with news of his country's first weather-related accidents of the season.  It seems that it's an annual event for Finns to be  caught flat-footed at the first snow, having forgotten everything they were ever supposed to have learned about driving on ice, snow, and sleet.  Since my cousin often walks or bicycles to work, and isn't dependant on his car like Americans are, he finds it rather comical when his countrymen express such stupid driving behavior in one of the most wintry places on Earth.

Granted, not every person in the snowbelt wrecks out in bad weather.  I don't recall my parents ever getting into wintertime accidents when we lived in New York State.  It's kinda like my octogenarian aunt who's lived in Brooklyn all her life and never been mugged or had her apartment broken into, even though muggings and burglaries are staples of Big Apple life.   But it's a much grander claim to have been spared personal crimes, since there's only so much you can do to protect yourself and your home.

With all due respect, isn't wrecking out in the snow in March a particularly senseless way to go?  There's so much more you can do to prevent killing yourself while driving on snow.  All it takes is a little slower speed, a little more caution, and a little less bravado, and chances can improve exponentially that you'll get to your destination safely.  Maybe a little late, unfortunately, but safely.

After all, we're never late to our own funeral, are we?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Appreciating Winter's Last Hurrah

DAY 16 OF 46

Bright sunshine, about 75 degrees, and just the slightest touch of a light breeze.

Sound wonderful? It has been, at least here in the Dallas area today.

But as I surf the Internet, listen to the news, and read posts on FaceBook, I realize that many people across the United States continue to suffer through what seems to be an interminable winter of snow, freezing rain, and biting wind.

So, instead of rubbing salt into the wound by going on and on about our great Spring weather here in North Texas, how about some classic, laugh-out-loud winter humor from the greatest comic strip of all time, Calvin and Hobbes?

Besides, come August, the weather down here will be absolutely nothing to brag about.

So, without any further ado, in Bill Waterson's own inimitable style, I hope you enjoy this sampling from the outrageous Snowman Series, featuring the irascible talents of one incredibly precocious little boy:

For the complete series, click here.

Now, don't the last gasps of winter seem a little less depressing?

DISCLAIMER: Since Bill Waterson's own site featuring his comic strip has been shut down, and I'm not sure who owns the digital rights to these images, I don't know how to get official permission to use them. As far as I've been able to research, his Calvin and Hobbes books are now out of print. At least I'm not making any money off of their use here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Liz Taylor Ends an Era, and Chicago Busts a Move

DAY 15 OF 46

Elizabeth Taylor, the "Last Star," Dies at 79

Perhaps it's a bit incongruous for a person who derides pop culture as much as I do to mention the passing of Elizabeth Taylor even in, well, passing. But although I've never seen any of her movies all the way through, and I consider her private life a tutorial in how not to live, I find myself agreeing with those movie writers who today are heralding her death as being that of the last real Hollywood star.

The last legend. The end of an era.

She may have faded from the silver screen years ago, but like a genuine celebrity, she never really faded from the hollow gristmill of fame by which stardom is validated. After all, wasn't it just last year that Internet chat rooms lit up with gossip about whether she was marrying again? She had an active Twitter account, and despite being confined to a wheelchair, still managed to pull off stunning photo ops with her dazzling jewelry and remarkable eyes.

The point being that it's hard to imagine the celebrity and aura of anybody making movies today lasting into their seventies like hers did. Even though Taylor wasn't the world's best actress, she managed to possess and cultivate everything it takes to be a bona-fide, world-famous celebrity.

Not exactly what every parent wants for their daughter, but oddly alluring, nonetheless. After all, her morality may have been worse than others', but only by category. She was an ardent supporter of Jewish causes after converting to the faith for one of her marriages, and she became the face of AIDS compassion when evangelicals wanted to ostracize its victims. Apparently, all four of her children were at her bedside when she died, which is more than can be said for some parents. And even her explosive betrayal of fellow star Debbie Reynolds managed to dissolve into a considerable degree of equanimity years later.

To the extent that movie stars have become enmeshed into the fabric of Western life, I concede the value in noting that the woman who most fully epitomized the best and worst of the genre has departed this plane of reality. It's to her credit that Taylor became and will probably remain a case study in celebrity glamor. Both because of what it can get you in this life, however, and what it can't in the next.

After all, without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, despite all of her fame and vivacity during her 79 years here, Taylor faces a grim eternity. Not because she wasn't good enough, or had too many marriages, but because she may, like a lot of her fans, never have committed her life to Christ.

I'd like to think that in her final days, the Holy Spirit used the truth of the Gospel to change her heart, and that right now, she's in the presence of God. Maybe we can hope this is the case, but something in my cynical nature tells me the best part of her life was probably the final take that just wrapped this morning.

Which should spell woe to those of us who are unaware that these days on Earth may be the best we'll ever have for all eternity.

When death brings to each of us an end of our own era.

Chicago Busts a Move With Population Decline

With all of the clucking over the spectacular free-fall in Detroit's 2010 population numbers, it may have been easy to notice that Chicago didn't have a much better decade than Detroit. At least in terms of numbers.

From 2000 to 2010, the Windy City lost almost 7% of its population, or 200,000 people. That's about 38,000 people less than Detroit lost.

Of course, Chicago is a much bigger city, and it hasn't lost half its population during the last 60 years like Detroit has. At 2,695,598, Chicago is still really big, even if it hasn't been this small since 1910. It has its problems, but Illinois' largest city enjoys a vibrant downtown, a relatively stable housing market, and temperate race relations. Nobody's looking at Chicago's 7% population decline and predicting the end is in sight.

For a while in the 1990's, Chicago saw a 4% rise in population, it's first growth decade since the 1950's. It seems that during this past decade, however, Chicago couldn't hold onto its gains.

Like other old American cities, the suburban revolution drastically re-shaped urbanized Chicago, which has struggled ever since to maintain its relevance as a place for people to live. Unlike Detroit, Chicago has been able to maintain its corporate allure, and keep well-paid executives ensconced in its high-rise condominiums. Middle class families, however, vacillate between the city's amenity-laden neighborhoods and the less expensive, more spacious offerings in the 'burbs.

In addition, older ethnic whites who stayed in their legendary Chicago enclaves while their kids moved out to suburbia decades ago are themselves passing away in significant numbers, or seeking elder care outside of the city. To top it off, Chicago finished tearing down most of its notorious Cabrini Green public housing complex during the past decade, relocating a significant portion of its residents to poor suburbs, and watching others move out of Illinois altogether.

In fact, reading between the lines of some Chicagoans commenting on the city's population decline, "good riddance" seems to replace the angst Detroiters are experiencing.

One phenomenon that seems to have caught many people by surprise has been the apparent black flight from Chicago back to the South. Not black flight by people forced out when Cabrini Green was condemned, but middle-class blacks who have as much freedom to choose where they want to live as middle class whites.

Cities in places like Georgia and the Carolinas are posting significant population increases from blacks resettling in former Rebel territory from the North. Part of this trend has been traced to stubbornly high costs of living in northern cities, an increasingly receptive social climate for blacks in the South, and better employment opportunities as corporations continue their own migration from high-cost northern states to non-union southern ones.

Yet more proof, I dare say, of racism's continuing decline in the American narrative. Which, even though it may come at Chicago's expense, should be at least a smidgen of good news for us all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dramatically Disappearing Detroit

DAY 14 OF 46

Yo! Will the last person to leave Detroit please turn off the lights?

If the electricity hasn't already been disconnected, that is.

This morning, the U.S. Census announced that within the past decade, Motor City's population shrank 25%; a loss of 238,270 people in just ten years. Which puts the population of Detroit at 713,777 in 2010, down from 951,270 in 2000, and 1.8 million in 1950, when it was the country's fifth-largest city. Motown is now smaller than Fort Worth, Texas.

If you're doing the math, Detroit has lost over 1 million people in the relatively short span of 60 years. More than half the population it ever had. In a stunning coda to what can only be described as the utter failure of a community which, in its prime, literally shaped the landscape of the industrialized world.

True, the automobile itself wasn't invented in Detroit. But if Henry Ford hadn't invented the assembly line there, the automobile revolution might never have happened. Or at least, not in Detroit. And if not for the automobile revolution, freeways would never have been invented. Suburbs would probably have never been invented, and the post-World-War-Two transformation of American society from city apartments to roomy split-levels with two-car garages would have looked completely different.

Dreary - On a Good Day

After my brother and his family moved to suburban Detroit several years ago, he took me on a grand tour of what's left of downtown Detroit.  We drove by the towering, pock-marked Michigan Central Station, and through downtown's desolate streetscapes. Most of the office buildings betray dreary neglect from years of standing empty in Detroit's grueling weather. Some even had trees growing out of roofs, and through broken windows. Although downtown's streets and sidewalks are clean and traffic flows freely, that's because hardly anybody goes down there anymore.

The city's tallest office tower, One Detroit Center, was built in 1993 for Comerica Bank, which, just a couple of years ago, relocated its corporate headquarters to Dallas. It seems to be the typical scenario for Detroit, and Michigan as a whole: businesses just don't want to stay, even with new facilities.

As far back as the 1970's, Detroit's decline had sparked the development of another ambitious project downtown. Then, it was a Ford heir who spearheaded the multi-use Renaissance Center along the riverfront. Ford eventually sold his interests in the confection of tubular glass towers which, through a contrivance of public funding, became the headquarters for General Motors long before it got its government bailout. Ren-Cen, as the office and hotel complex is called, squats on the water's edge, anchoring what's left of downtown Detroit to the riverbank, like a stone trying to prevent the city from falling overboard.

The Incredible Shrinking City

Of course, much has been made regarding the very public demise of Detroit. After all, you can't hide the decrepitude resulting from a city losing over a million people over six decades.

Some people blame the Japanese, whose reliable cars decimated the Big Three's market share when Americans figured out Pintos shouldn't explode into fireballs just because they get rear-ended. Others blame Detroit's lucrative welfare system, which like socialized entitlement programs across the United States, has created and reinforced a particularly crude iteration of institutionalized poverty. Then there's Michigan's notorious weather, absurd tax structure, and militant unions. Not to mention a corrupt political machine which has ravaged Detroit's finances.

Some of these factors deserve more blame than others for causing Detroit to emplode, but I suspect another vile menace has been at play, even before the city's eroding socioeconomic fabric became manifest.

Consider this little factoid from PBS' video series on Detroit's race riots. Not in the 1960's, but in 1943:

By the 1940s Detroit already had a long history of racial conflict. Race riots had occurred in 1863 and as recently as 1941. By the 1920s the city had become a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization committed to white supremacy. The industrial plants provided jobs but not housing. White communities militantly guarded the dividing lines imposed by segregation throughout Detroit's history.

During the 1940's through the early 1960's, more and more blacks moved to Michigan from the South for auto plant jobs that whites thought were theirs. Detroit's whites who didn't want to live next-door to blacks bailed to the pristine suburbs, lured in part by the very automobile culture their city had spawned.

However, as whites left Detroit, starting in the late 1950's, the Big Three had already begun spreading their manufacturing base beyond Michigan, so job growth in metro Detroit began to stagnate. The tension only fueled white flight, a phenomenon that went white hot after the destructive riots of 1967.

Racism Can Run Both Ways

Indeed, just as racism isn't only a southern problem, it's not only whites who perpetrate it. These days, black racism against whites has solidified Detroit's decay. The vacuum created by white flight left voids in all aspects of city life, particularly in the public schools. Blacks came to despise whites for leaving, just as whites despised blacks for coming to begin with. By the time white leaders from the suburbs became alarmed at the appalling state of their urban core, black leaders in Detroit wouldn't listen to them or take their advice on anything.

Eventually, corrupt black-centric Detroit politics and the Democratic machine put Coleman Young in power, and through his ineptitude, the city pretty much finished itself off. Middle-class blacks who were holding out hope for better times, staying behind in Detroit's languishing neighborhoods on principle, began realizing that they couldn't sacrifice their safety and their childrens' education any longer, and they steadily moved out to the suburbs.

Detroit's legendary stores and hotels closed up shop, companies relocated to the suburbs or southern states, and the city's tax base shriveled up. Crime rates soared, corruption ran rampant through city government, and the city pretty much broke down. The few pockets of white and black elites left in the grand mansions along the city's prettiest boulevards became bizarre outposts of privilege in a desert of urban blight.

Even middle-class blacks who escaped Detroit during the last 30 years to the suburbs are getting fed up with all of the marginally-educated, socially-deviant, minimum-wage blacks now fleeing the remains of Detroit. The new generation of blacks that have grown up in this dysfunctional city may share the same skin color, but that's about it. Surprisingly, as suburban blacks begin to protest a new influx of city blacks seeking life beyond Motown, racism seems to have run its course.

Classism May Now Nail the Lid

In an unprecedented twist, the situation evolving in suburban Detroit today isn't so much a problem of racism any more as it is classism. MSNBC actually posted a piece last week talking about how middle-class blacks in Detroit's close-in suburbs are moving further away, themselves fleeing the neo-ghetto blacks which are moving in from Detroit, now that the foreclosure crisis has made modest suburban homes ludicrously affordable.

Even the black family my nephews and niece carpooled with back and forth to school moved to a nicer subdivision one town further away to avoid the dubious class of blacks coming in from the inner city.

So, as the crisis that is Detroit evolves from the blistering wounds of racism to the crusty scabs of classism, little comfort can be wrenched from the city's new population statistics. It's difficult to blame suburban blacks for not wanting to live next-door to the current crop of Detroit refugees. It's not like most of the people left in Detroit have the marketable skills that can lift them into the productive middle class. It's not like the gritty, survivalist thug culture these Detroiters have slapped together for themselves will translate well into life outside Motor City. Or, for that matter, even the plans some have for propping up what remains of the urban core: trendy havens of new urbanism among the ruins that Gen-X'ers love, or the semi-rural utopia some dreamers propose for those swaths of dormant space between the city's crumbling freeways.

I could play the role of hard-nosed right-wing Republican and point out that the Detroit we're faced with today is the direct result of every imaginable liberal fallacy: unions, welfare, Section 8 housing, political machines, anti-white vitriol, bureaucratic incompetence, affirmative action, taxation, and social promotion. Although these elements do share varying levels of culpability, there's even more to it, isn't there?

Detroit's Flame-Out?

Detroit was built for convenience, located as it is near vital waterways and the crossroads of America's Northeast and Midwest. Not to mention most of Canada's population. Founded in 1701, the city experienced modest success as a trading port until the continent's expansion westward, coupled with the Industrial Revolution, began to validate it's geographic importance. Detroit grew rapidly after the turn of the 20th Century, climaxing, as we now know, in the 1950's.

However, unlike some other old American cities that figured out how to diversify and re-invent themselves as the country's fortunes waxed and waned, Detroit pretty much flamed-out over the manufacture of transportation equipment - not only cars, but planes and other vehicles, too. Adding to that flame-out was the searing racism that never wanted to let go of the city's soul. The additional baggage of liberals in denial - plus all of the social programming and suffocating taxation which came along with that denial - prevented Detroit from recovering and catching itself amidst its free-fall.

Today's Census numbers confirm a portrait of bleakness which both liberals and conservatives have been painting for the past 60 years. This means we should all be able to learn a lesson from the legacy of Detroit.

If that sounds like I'm nailing down the lid on the Motor City's coffin, you hear me correctly. Aside from deploying a fleet of bulldozers to consolidate the city's redundant infrastructure, shrinking its crippled political boundaries, performing a mass lobotomy on the entitlement group-thinkers at city hall, and conducting a cultural reindoctrination program for its gangsta-loving residents, I'm thinking we're hoping for too much to change for the better.

But then, what do I know? If the people still in Detroit will use this Census data as incentive to finally take responsibility for the future of their hometown, I wouldn't mind being proven wrong.

I just don't think Michigan's taxpayers should keep paying the light bill.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dancing Around the Issue

DAY 13 OF 46

Sometimes I wonder if, just maybe, I've been thinking too hard about this holiness thing.

When the Apostle Paul instructs believers to refute conformity with this world (Romans 12:2), I've thought that to mean we shouldn't automatically emulate the practices and methods of the culture around us. "In the world, but not of it."


When God reprimanded the Israelites for following the customs and patterns of the heathen kingdoms around them, I've thought that God wants us to learn from the mistakes His Chosen People continued to make throughout the Old Testament. Like all those times they wanted what everybody else had and did.

So I've kinda developed a worldview which diminishes the culture around us and elevates the Deity we profess to worship and adore. My reading of the scriptures is that we can't serve two masters. I've also found that I can't read the Bible for very long without stumbling over all of those warnings in there about unholy living in general and sexual immorality in particular.

You know - all those things that get in the way of holiness.

Don't Do Do's and Don'ts

Over the millennia, a lot of what Christianity is supposed to be about has been perverted into a foreboding list of do's and don'ts. Instead of a life lived by faith in the Fruit of the Spirit, it's become a framework of rules and deprivations which is supposed to make us feel morally superior. Except none of this is how Christ intended for His redeemed to live.

Reacting to this strict behavior pattern espoused by more ascetic Christians, other believers have decided that, in order to not err on the side of caution, they should swerve to the opposite side of the straight and narrow. To them, holiness becomes less a list of what's right and wrong and more of a smorgasbord of stuff lathered with grace and topped with a dollop of freedom in Christ. Which makes for a very appetizing diet for the spiritual life.

Except, like a lot of other things in our hedonistic society, I often wonder how healthy it really is.

Take the polarizing issue of dancing, for example. Some Christians forbid it outright, more concerned about appearances of impropriety than Biblical historicity. Other Christians try to ignore it, or tolerate its more banal genres like folk dancing as cute cultural novelties. Some Christians take a snobbish tone, green-lighting waltzes and ballet, yet steering clear of anything involving pop music. Then there are those Christians who dismissively paint any restrictions on their fun as mere legalism. Anything that gets any body part wiggling and jiggling is OK by them.

Analyzing Dancing

Like a lot of things, however, I tend to look not at style, but substance. And when it comes to dancing, substance plays a key role when determining its appropriateness for people of faith. After all, what does dancing involve? Perhaps breaking down the components of this physical activity and applying principles of holiness and Christian living to them can help us reconsider the pitfalls and benefits of dancing for believers.

1. Dancing is in the Bible

Yes, dancing can be Biblical. This shouldn't be surprising; remember, the Israelites danced spontaneously, and also during religious festivals. However, this dancing was designed as an expression of joy and celebration for God's glory. The physical gyrations of the dancers were not sexual in nature, but actually appropriate for entire families. The music was culturally authentic, yes, but it was not immoral.

2. Music usually accompanies dancing

I suppose you can dance to complete silence, but most dancing takes place with music. In Biblical times, the music to which God's people danced was intentionally spiritual and its lyrics doctrinally authentic. In our day, however, most of the music to which people dance is, frankly, secular rubbish, full of sexual innuendo or blatant sexuality. Not to mention nihilism, carnality, debauchery, anarchy, and other themes of moral relativism.

3. Dancing involves moving your body

With the possible exception of King David dancing before the Lord in an inadvertently immodest manner, the dancing of God's people in the Bible may have been exultant, but it was hardly bawdy or exhibitionistic. These days, however, the way people move their bodies while dancing to popular music usually borders on the sensual. Which, yes, may be a subjective term, but let's face it - we're all sexual beings, and different people can get turned on by a variety of body movements which may or may not be intended to entice sexual reactions. Many Christian women who like to dance scoff when I bring this up, but I believe men have more of a problem with this than women. For some of us men, seeing a woman do certain things with certain parts of her anatomy - and not just the famously attractive parts - can conjure thoughts which are sinful.

4. People dance with non-spousal partners

Wiggling and writhing to seductive music in front of somebody to whom you're not married: does that sound like a wholesome activity? If you're dancing with - or in the presence of - somebody who isn't your spouse, what kind of sexual energy might you be misdirecting?

So, You Think You Can Dance?

I am not anti-dance or anti-fun, but neither am I convinced that most dancing in our post-modern culture benefits our spiritual walk. That being said, some forms of dance actually do have a substance other than moral risk. For example, I've witnessed a formal quadrille that New York's Junior League has to pay people to learn and perform. To be honest, it's hard to fault the artistry of the quadrille's precision and kaleidoscope of movement, where regulated footwork trumps licentious gyrations. There's nothing that isn't rated G.

Hmm... Does that make me a Christian snob? Well, I've been accused of worse things. Does it help that I don't care much for ballet?

For contemporary dancing to popular music, however, I just don't see how you can reconcile its characteristics with the principles of holy living. Not that I'm an expert in holy living myself. In fact, one of the reasons I feel so strongly about this topic stems from the unholy thoughts I'm tempted to have about other Christians I see dancing, say, at weddings.

If I'm the only single Christian male who feels and thinks things that don't honor God, then please forgive me for ascribing my abnormal sin nature on the rest of the evangelical community. If I'm the only guy whose mind can get flooded with lust watching people dance to pop music, then maybe I need to be tied up and shipped off to the loony bin. (Yes, I know some of you have dreamed of doing that to me anyway...)

But something tells me I'm not the only person who struggles with immorality when there's dancing going on. Remember, just thinking about adultery means you're guilty of it. That's not my law, that's God's. I don't know about you, but I have trouble avoiding that sin just walking down the street on a summer day, let alone intentionally placing myself in an environment conducive to it. God doesn't measure sin on a sliding scale, does He? Either something is sin, or it's not, right?

Lust indeed is a sin, but here's a question: can married people lust after each other? Think about it: having sexually provocative thoughts about your spouse is actually a good thing, right? Even God wants His spousal couplings to be physically happy with each other. In fact, some dry, stagnant marriages could even benefit from a healthy dose of sexual awakening. So is contemporary dancing always wrong for believers? Perhaps not for married people, dancing together in the privacy of their own home, for instance. After all, some of which makes contemporary dancing dangerous in public might just be the spark a languishing marriage needs.

After all, my problem with dancing centers on lust being a dangerous thing. Except when it's not lust, such as spouses dancing together to God-honoring music. So the maxim which applies here doesn't involve the activity of dancing as much as it does what happens while you're dancing.

We believers enjoy freedom in Christ from enslavement to sin. Christ purchased that freedom for us, and for His glory. Should we squander God's invaluable gift to us on frivolities like dancing to the same soundtrack as the world around us?

After all, if you'll pardon the expression, doesn't the One who pays the piper get to call the tune?

Friday, March 18, 2011

No Debate About These Homeschooled Kids

DAY 10 OF 46

I've gotta tell ya: Yesterday, I was stunned.

I walked by a gymnasium full of teenagers at a large Baptist church in Keller, Texas, and the din emanating from the huge hall with horrible acoustics was... about as loud a murmur as you get in an airport terminal.

I didn't walk by just once, catching the kids in a freak moment of good behavior. No, I walked by a number of times (because I was lost in the labyrinthine building!). One wall of the gym was glass, and I could look inside and see the kids - hundreds of them - milling about in groups, chatting and laughing, fidgeting and walking around, but completely devoid of the hyperactivity, hyper noise, and pandemonium most people expect from today's teenagers.

What Was I Doing There?

Completely out of character for me, I had volunteered to judge a regional debate tournament for homeschoolers. Hundreds of kids being educated at home by their parents have been in this event all week, but I signed up for just yesterday evening and this afternoon. I had little idea what to expect, since I'm not around kids much at all. I've none of my own, you know, and my nephews and niece all live in Michigan. I see teenagers at church on Sundays, but not usually in packs.

I mean, "gangs."

Oops - I mean, "groups."

So, why did I bother volunteering?

The tournament had been organized in part as a fundraiser for a local family whose son - who had just graduated from homeschool high school - was critically injured in an automobile accident last year. Driving to his summer job one morning near Fort Worth, he got T-boned by a speeding motorist in a pickup truck.

After countless surgeries and hundreds of hours of physical therapy, this young man remains in a relatively vegetative state, unable to communicate except for slight twitches and eye movements. Remarkably, his doctors say his progress has been consistent and discernible, and friends have joined family members in providing in-home therapy every day, all day, since his latest release from the hospital.

As a high school student, he had been an avid participant in these debate tourneys, so the homeschooling community decided to use this spring's event as a way to show support for his family, whose medical bills continue to mount by the day.

Genuine Difference

I must say these are some of the best-behaved, polite, articulate, and confident kids I've ever seen. Being homeschooled, and considering the negative stereotypes about homeschooling in our culture, you'd think a lot of them might have had their childhood beaten out of them by strict fundamentalist parents. But nope; they were eager, poised, good-natured, and quick-thinking. Not exactly traits of kids who've been repressively denied their individual personalities.

One of the debates I helped judge had a timekeeper who must have been 8 years old, but who conducted himself like a modest teenager. The kids in that event had to give an impromptu speech on a previously undisclosed topic, and while a couple of them plainly didn't understand the topic they drew from a hat, they all made winsome efforts at trying to convince we three judges they knew what they were talking about.

Kinda like politicians, actually.

Which really struck me as one of the prevailing purposes for these debates. I quickly got the impression that the parents of these kids genuinely wanted them to end up in careers with an impact on public policy and social discourse. Many homeschoolers are evangelical Christians with deeply conservative politics, and they believe that one of the reasons America is lapsing into decline stems from a lack of coherent, resolute conservative leadership in our country. Which, of course, is true. It's just that instead of bemoaning the status-quo, these parents hope they're on the front-lines of positive change.

And they've raised their kids to believe they can be part of the solution to our country's problems. In the first debate, where I served as the lone judge, four remarkably bright and ambitious teenagers - all in charcoal gray suits - staged a mock courtroom trial on the merits of the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Never heard of it? Neither had I, but I learned from these kids that the Jackson-Vanik amendment is a “freedom-of-emigration” requirement of Title IV of the Trade Act of 1974. Apparently, it's become a major sticking-point in the continuing debate regarding the normalization of trade relations between the United States and Russia.

Specifically, these debaters argued whether or not Russia had satisfied basic human rights requirements so that free trade between our nations could be enhanced.

Good grief - did you study stuff like this when you were in high school? I certainly didn't.

I'm actually glad to be going back this afternoon. Who knows what else I can learn?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Virtue in Funding NPR

DAY 9 OF 46

Sometimes, it's not just about the money.

At least, not when you're controlling the purse strings.

This past Tuesday, Colorado Republican Representative Doug Lamborn introduced a bill in Congress that would strip all federal funding from National Public Radio (NPR), and it could come up for a vote today or tomorrow. Conservatives have had NPR in their gun sights for years, suspicious that the content on this non-commercial radio network tilts leftward in its perspective.

Not that NPR has much proof to the contrary. Indeed, conservative activist James O'Keefe has produced a video in which an NPR executive belittled Tea Partiers and called the Republican's bluff of stripping the network's federal funding. Although some Democrats have accused O'Keefe of doctoring the video to make it appear more malicious than it really is, Republicans think momentum is finally on their side.

Just because taxpayers could save tens of millions of dollars out of a multi-billion-dollar deficit by cutting funding for NPR, however, does that mean we should? Hey, I'm all for cutting costs, lowering deficits, and saving money. But let's think this through a minute.

Let's assume that conservatives are correct in their assertions that NPR is a liberal, left-leaning propaganda tool. Does cutting off taxpayer support help or hurt the conservative cause? Right now, Republican lawmakers can put their opinions on the record and introduce punitive legislation when NPR is seen to overstep its boundaries. If we remove the public funding incentive from NPR, how much of a voice will conservatives have over its content in the future?

It's the same with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting Service. Republicans squawk about the millions spent on propping up the budgets of these entities, but the amount taxpayers spend is a drop in the bucket when compared with the nation's overall deficit. True, as I've said before, ten million here, and ten million there, and pretty soon, we're talking about real money. But what do we get for this money?

Taxpayers get to have a say in the content, direction, and scope of the programming by virtue of the fact that we're financial stakeholders. Don't like calling a crucifix submerged in urine art? Then we taxpayers can protest and threaten the funding spicket. Don't like Bert and Ernie being typecast as gay cohabitors, or think Nina Totenberg peddles too much socialistic drivel? Write your congressman!

Take away all of the funding, and what recourse do conservatives - or liberals, for that matter - have? The same old stock-in-trade of professional complainers everywhere. Sure, sometimes boycotts work, but nothing speaks as loud as reaching for the budget axe.

Just don't swing it too decisively, right-wingers.

You might find yourself cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japanese Morality's Shame Factor

DAY 8 OF 46

Have you noticed it?

A sense of panic and disorder that's conspicuous by its absence.

The long, silent, lines. Full of utterly patient Japanese. In the train stations, waiting for blackouts to end so their trains will run again. At supermarkets, waiting to buy basic supplies and food. At gas stations, waiting to refuel their cars.

The live broadcast feeds via the Internet from Japanese television, with anchors obediently wearing goofy-looking hardhats, their voices barely betraying any anxiety or fear.

The clusters of loved ones, usually standing under makeshift tents, waiting patiently for news as rescuers scurry around piles of debris that used to be somebody's home.

The anecdotal tales of shopkeepers actually lowering prices after the earthquake. Restaurants serving free hot soup. And hardly any looting.

What - are all these people strung out on Xanax? In America, we'd be seeing fistfights among shoppers and people cutting in line all over the place.

Glaring Differences

At first, upon looking at the empty grocery store shelves, one foreign reporter thought that the Japanese were hoarding supplies after the quake. Then she realized that the empty shelves were the simple result of too many customers for not enough food. Japanese shoppers had left groceries for other people to buy, but demand soon outstripped supply.

And the crime! What's so wild about the crime is the utter lack of it. No thugs smashing windows and looting stores in downtown Tokyo during blackouts. No brazen muggings, carjackings, arson, murders, or general mayhem. Think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in reverse, and you've got Japan after a trifeca of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency.

America's finest moments don't always follow a disaster. In New York City, after 9/11, rescue workers looted a luxury jewelry store in the mall below crumpled remains of the World Trade Center. A friend of mine witnessed firemen breaking into a bank in the lobby of his powerless apartment building in Battery Park City and smashing open an ATM. After hurricanes in Florida, people camp out in their damaged homes with shotguns to ward off criminals. Here in Texas, police have to patrol neighborhoods damaged by tornadoes. And I've already mentioned the atrocity which was Katrina.

Japanese prisons are notoriously harsh. The United Nation's Human Rights Watch claims that prisoners there regularly experience excessive restrictions and brutal treatment. Perhaps this helps serve as an incentive for would-be criminals to think twice before breaking the law.

But this can't explain the pervasive dignity and stoicism exhibited by so many Japanese as they inscrutably process the catastrophe which has hit their country. Sure, their emperor made an unprecedented television appearance today, encouraging his countrymen to remain hopeful. But even he couldn't pass up the chance to acknowledge how world leaders have commented to him about how civic-minded and socially courteous the Japanese are being.

Flashes of anger appear to be flickering from some city officials in parts of the country that have been the hardest-hit. In particular, administrators of the prefecture around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant are growing impatient at the government's slow response to their requests for supplies. But even these expressions of exasperation seem unusually sedate, considering how animated most officials in American cities would be acting at such a time.

Trying to Explain it

Some people have tried to explain away this national serenity as an intrinsic component of the ancient Japanese culture. It's been pointed out that even though Japan is a technologically-advanced, first-world country, it's society has remained remarkably homogeneous, which has helped preserve an almost militant nationalistic fervor. Others attribute this national serenity to the dispassionate natures of Buddhism and Shinto, the country's two main religions. Perhaps even the Japanese love of rules and conformity, combined with their remarkable trust in their government, play crucial roles in maintaining order in the face of calamity.

The thing about rules, though, is that we all know you can't legislate morality. Isn't it easier to abide by a moral code than a legal one? You can believe in morals and trust that they serve a purpose, even when no one else is watching. Morality keeps you honest when doing your taxes, not necessarily because you might get audited, but just because if you expect everyone to pay their fair share, you should too (with "fair share," obviously, up for debate, but you see what I mean).

On the other hand, laws are usually the minimum for what people can get away with, especially when no one else is watching. Kind of like waiting through a red light at an empty intersection at two in the morning. Morality might keep you at the light until it turns green, but if you've scanned the horizon for oncoming traffic and no cop is in sight, how many of us will impatiently drive through the red light?

After all, evangelical Christianity isn't the only religion in the world with a moral code. Perhaps one reason why Christian proselytization in Japan has been so slow and difficult comes from a Japanese assumption which considers their high standards of morality and Western religious behavior to be redundant.

Shame, Sin, and Salvation

Which brings us to sin and shame. In Japan, shame has become a powerful tool for subjugation and conformity. Knowing they were flying to their deaths, Kamikaze pilots willingly died for the glory of their country, in a desperate attempt to spare it from shame. It has been said that the reason the Japanese love American culture so much comes from the fact that the United States has been the only country to decisively defeat them in global combat. Children there are taught that it's shameful to display ostentation, and government officials have resigned in shame over issues we Westerners would simply chalk up to politicians being politicians.

Shame isn't all bad, however. After all, shame is what helps us recognize our need of a Savior. The laws God lays out for the Jews in the Bible are meant to help us realize our inferior state before the holy and righteous Creator of the universe. Shame is a natural byproduct of sin in the heart of people who operate with a moral compass. Since sin is what separates us from God, shame can be used by the Holy Spirit to convince us of that which we oftentimes cannot see in ourselves otherwise.

Yes, it would be good for our country if we Americans exhibited more shame once in a while. We make a lot of mistakes that we then try to either explain away, ignore, or rationalize. But when it comes to our individual relationships with God, we can't explain or rationalize anything away, and our shame becomes too heavy to ignore.

It is at this point where we fall on our face in contrition, confessing our sins, receiving God's forgiveness through the blood of His holy Son, and rejoicing in our new-found fellowship with our Heavenly Father. We then allow the Holy Spirit to begin the process of our being conformed to the image of Christ.

The Japanese may use both shame and conformity to achieve some admirable social qualities in the face of disaster, and doing so may indeed see them through their country's recovery. But all the morality in the world won't get any of them - or any of us - to Heaven.

As patient as they may be, the Japanese are like the rest of humanity when it comes to being saved from what truly plagues them. Both in this world, and the next.

Thanks be to God that He has given us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Preaching Change

DAY 7 OF 46

What's the one thing that usually gives churches more headaches than music styles?

New pastors, right?

Churches get new pastors for all sorts of reasons. Pastors retire, want bigger churches, get embroiled in scandals, or simply get moved in rotation by their denomination. Congregations grow or shrink, get bored, or... get embroiled in scandals.

Small churches usually only have one or two pastors, which means any change behind the pulpit can definitely set a different tone in the substance of the congregation's ministry. On the other hand, larger churches can usually absorb adjustment curves with new second-tier ministers, but changing the senior pastor can sometimes be even more daunting a prospect than for smaller congregations.

Part of the problem involves the fact that virtually every evangelical congregation in North America derives its identity and character from the senior pastor. I don't think this is Biblical, prudent, or particularly healthy, but given our culture, that's the way it is. We're trained to think in terms of hierarchical pyramids, with one person at the top, and multiple worker bees at the bottom, with layers of management in between.

This structure tends to work well for corporations and governments, so we've simply assumed it should work well for churches, too. Sometimes it does, but unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't.

Triumvirate of Three Pastors

When I was in college, the elder board for the church I attended came up with the idea of having a triumvirate of pastors, instead of just one senior minister. The church had been searching for a new senior pastor, but - surprise! - had encountered difficulties in pleasing every member. We already had three dynamic leaders in the congregation with seminary degrees who were doing most of the preaching and ministry oversight, so many of us were intrigued to consider how effective they might be as an official executive team.

Their assignments would fall within each man's skill sets: one was more proficient at preaching than anything else, so he would be responsible for coordinating most of the Sunday morning pulpit and worship duties. Another was a seminary professor with years of teaching and mentorship experience, so he would be responsible for coordinating all of the Sunday School curriculum development for adults, teens, and children. The third was a former missionary to Europe who spearheaded the church's world missions and local outreach programs, so he'd carry on in that role, expanding it to include congregational care.

Sound logical?

Ostensibly, the benefit for having three leaders instead of one came from the fact that while ordinary responsibilities would be separated by specialty, major decisions would be shared by all three. Having one senior pastor spending his week running around to meetings covering all aspects of church governance wasn't seen as an ideal way to spend time and administrate. Splitting up oversight could free pastors to get more done in the areas of their best competency. Ministry could be less frustrating, and burn-out less likely. Plus, having each pastor operating in their specialty could increase the overall quality of their actual work.

And to keep the risks of a power struggle within the triumvirate to a minimum, the elder board would hold all three to the same accountability standards.

Alas, too many people in the congregation simply couldn't envision a sizable church like ours not having one man at the top. The guy who preaches the most will automatically be presumed to be the lead pastor, so why can't the other two be associate pastors? What will people outside the church think when they learn we don't have one senior pastor? It's too new, it's untried, it won't work, it shows we can't make a decision on just one guy, and it's simply too radical.

Sound like arguments I'd make, don't they? But remember, I actually embraced the proposal, and thought our elders had really hit a home run. No, it probably wouldn't be perfect, and yes, it would take some getting used to, but we were a non-denominational Bible church, and since the position of senior pastor isn't in the Bible, we wouldn't be doing anything unBiblical.

Well, as you might have guessed, although a number of members were willing to give this novel approach to leadership a try, many more people just couldn't get their head around it, and voted it down. Eventually, after a little more acrimony and dissension, the guy who would have done most of the preaching ended up getting voted in as the sole senior pastor, the seminary professor ended up writing our adult education curriculum in his spare time, and the outreach director went to work for Mission Arlington, our city's highly-regarded mercy ministry.

Which, in my mind, at least, proved that the triumvirate idea probably would have worked better than the naysayers feared it wouldn't.

So, there: sometimes I really CAN think outside the box! I don't necessarily fear change.

Change Isn't Always Necessary

Fast forward many, many, years to this past Saturday. A friend of mine who just graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary commented that one of his professors told his class that pastors should really only concentrate on making one big change when they come to a new church.

Hmm. One big change. As if their sudden presence in a newly-different congregation isn't change enough?

"Why should they think they need to make any changes at all?" I blurted out, perturbed that a professor seemed to automatically assume new pastors should make changes for change's sake.

And sure enough, my friend looked at me like, "well, duh - every pastor should be entitled to make changes to their new church." His was the conventional expression of our North American mindset which, again, is based more on performance than patience.

Nevertheless, I continued with my own perspective. "Hopefully, if a church is elder-led, and has been led well, it will not need much change just because a new pastor comes on board." After all, should we automatically expect that every new pastor is walking into a disaster zone?

To the relief of my friend, who I obviously caught off-guard, somebody else changed the subject.

Now, perhaps my mindset betrays a personal assumption that the senior pastor isn't necessarily supposed to be the church dictator. He may be the most visible face of the church's leadership team, and he may be the leader with the most theological education, but where is the senior pastor position in the Bible? And yes, you can blame my prior exposure to the triumvirate pastorship idea for making me challenge the status quo on this topic!

Not all churches get new pastors because big changes are needed. Not all new pastors come fully-equipped to immediately evaluate what's wrong and needs fixing. And not all of the things new pastors think they want are legitimate needs.

Let's face it: most preachers are Type-A guys who thrive on action. They like being in charge, in front, and in demand. New stuff means something's getting done. "Change is good" could be their life motto. And a lot of times, elder boards, which generally are comprised of the same type of people preachers are, can easily be deluded into thinking change for change's sake is a sign of progress.

It shouldn't take long after a new pastor arrives that changes needing to be made will make themselves readily apparent through normal circumstances, the prodding of the Holy Spirit, or both. Walking in brimming with new ideas and old assumptions isn't necessarily leadership. It's more like selfishness. Maybe some arrogance. And likely, some impatience. Not exactly Fruits of the Spirit.

Gonna Make That Change

I'm not ranting on this just because, generally speaking, I'm not a fan of change. I've simply been through enough pastoral changes in my church-going career to know the difference between pastors wanting God's best for a congregation and pastors wanting whatever's best for their own career.

Obviously, in some situations, change may actually be welcomed by everyone. Such as when a new pastor is ushered in before the dust has even settled from the coup which ousted the last guy. Or when the Bible hasn't been preached for years, or other ministries of the church have been neglected.

But let's not forget: the only time complete change is absolutely, 100% essential is when God welcomes sinners into His Kingdom. And even then, it's not something we accomplish on our own. It's the Holy Spirit working in and through us for God's glory. With Christ as our new pastor-shepherd.

That's Change - with a capital "C" - we can believe in!