Friday, April 29, 2011

Struggling with Chronic Sins

Have you ever noticed that, during your devotions, as you're confessing your sins to God, your list never really seems to change much?

Or that the same old stuff usually crops up on the list, day after day, along with whatever new or irregular sins you may have recently committed?

Lately, I've become bothered by how my same list of sins never seems to get whittled down.  Now, I'm not going to tell you what's on this list, although you regular readers can probably guess what some of them are! You might even be able to imagine how I can beat myself up over them day after day. Maybe you do the same thing.

I know God wants us to confess our sins.  Sure, He already knows what they are, but our exercise of evaluating our behavior and benchmarking it against what we know does and doesn't please Him can be a spiritually beneficial regimen for our sanctification.  Because God has forgiven us, forgives us, and will keep forgiving us, because He is ours, and we are His.

Yet I often forget that God also provides us the Holy Spirit to help us act in ways that honor Him.  I frequently fail to allow the Holy Spirit to assist me in honoring God with my actions, attitudes, words, and desires.  And, unless you haven't noticed, I have a tendency to be pessimistic, which is just as bad as being overly optimistic.  Pessimists like me tend to dwell on our failures and inadequacies, while optimists tend to overlook their failures and inadequacies.  I can hear 'em now, saying, "well, that's because optimists don't have many failures!"  See what I mean?

I don't know about you, but I doubt I have a very accurate estimation of the power of God's grace.  That it saves me from myself, I gratefully believe.  That it sustains me during virtually every moment of my life, however, confounds me.  Perhaps this is why, as I grow older and hopefully am maturing in my faith, I continue to hold the world and our culture in disdain for the insidious ways it can derail my focus on Christ. 

Although technically, as Paul says, all things are permissible to people of faith, I am learning that very little of what we have available to us is actually beneficial.  At least in doses and volumes that our culture says we need.  So while some Christians would call me an acetic in terms of how I "enjoy" life, I prefer to consider myself selective in terms of avoiding those things I know can get me into trouble.  I'm finding that joy in life can be found without popular culture telling me what it should look like.

Even the Apostle Paul, of all people, had a "thorn in his side" that he couldn't overcome, and many theologians suspect he was relating to a particularly vexing sin pattern in his life.  So when we come to God to confess our sins, it's not in fear, but disappointment, leavened with His promise of forgiveness and restoration.  How comforting, then, to know that God's grace is sufficient for us, because His power is made perfect in our weakness.

As I've been writing out this essay, the words of a song that we sometimes sing in church has been running through my mind. These lyrics actually come from a poem written by the English poet Anne Steele, who lived from 1716 to 1778.

See if you can catch how she resolves what would be a recurring conundrum as we struggle over chronic sin. As she points out, it can be a vicious cycle as we wander, Christ bids us to return, we desire to stay at His feet... and yet returning to the first verse, we understand that our wretched, wandering hearts have established this cyclical pattern that I've described above.

How mysterious is this grace, that Christ's perfect patience comes as a manifestation of His eternal love for us!

How Oft, Alas!

How oft, alas! this wretched heart
Has wandered from the Lord,
How oft my roving thoughts depart,
Forgetful of His Word.

Yet sovereign mercy calls, “Return”;
Dear Lord, and may I come?
My vile ingratitude I mourn;
O take the wanderer home.

And canst Thou, wilt Thou yet forgive,
And bid my crimes remove?
And shall a pardoned rebel live
To speak Thy wondrous love?

Almighty grace, thy healing power
How glorious, how divine!
That can to bliss and life restore
So vile a heart as mine.

Thy pardoning love, so free, so sweet,
Dear Savior, I adore;
O keep me at Thy sacred feet,
And let me rove no more.

- Po­ems on Sub­jects Chief­ly De­vo­tion­al, 1760

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Before Cigar Bars, There was Wilkerson

Among the verdant green woods of East Texas yesterday, the man who pioneered a harrowing ministry to New York's street gangs died when he drove his luxury car into the path of an 18-wheeler.

The Cross and the Switchblade has proven to be a seminal account of conviction, insight, and tenacity against the odds. David Wilkerson, its author, was an ordinary, WASPish young preacher from small-town Pennsylvania. Yet, in the late 1950's, he felt God calling him to begin an outreach ministry to none other than the gang members and drug addicts of New York City's increasingly violent slums.

Meanwhile, the unprecedented phenomenon of white flight had gripped urban America, as post-war Caucasians scrambled for the pristine suburbs. In the vacuum created by the mass exodus of its employment base and middle class taxpayers, the Big Apple found itself reeling from an epic surge in crime, drug abuse, and acute social dysfunction.

David Wilkerson's Impact

For a white guy who didn't know Spanish, attempting evangelism in Gotham's hardened streets and lethal alleys struck many people as foolhardy. Even in the evangelical church. Most people of faith were fleeing the inner city as fast as everyone else. To them, it was like rushing from a burning building, and then seeing a lone, naiive figure dash back into the inferno to try and rescue others.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Wilkerson hadn't only evangelized one of Brooklyn's most ruthless thugs, Nicky Cruz, but he had charted a stark new course for how the church can minister cross-culturally.  He'd begun one of the country's first urban-based youth outreach programs, Teen Challenge, in Brooklyn.  He'd founded an improbable congregation targeted towards the Broadway theater industry and boldly named it Times Square Church. And he'd launched his own Christian leadership ministry, World Challenge, which, among other things, had him scheduled to preach in Haiti and Ireland later this year.

Oddly enough, I'd referenced Wilkerson myself only a few days ago in this very blog while discussing the early years of modern inner-city ministry in New York. If he wasn't the very first to do so, Wilkerson was among the very first to labor for the Kingdom when our modern-day inner city was not a popular place to do so.

Now that Manhattan has defied the odds and become more glamorous than ever, it almost seems like evangelists are swarming over it like it's some sort of lark, doing church with a hip grunge vibe.  Back in Wilkerson's early days, it literally was life and death, especially in Brooklyn, where even today, fashionable 'hoods for the newly-arriving Gen-Xers remain few and very far between. When Wilkerson stepped out into Brooklyn's gang-choked avenues, there were no trendy trinkets to salvage from the urban culture, like cigar bars, for helping Christianity fit in and claim credibility.  Preaching Christ was all that worked.

Back when I was in high school, I read a yellowed paperback copy of The Cross and the Switchblade that my father, himself a Brooklyn native, owned. Native New Yorkers of faith who stayed in the city had marveled - albeit with a dose of New York skepticism - that somebody from out of town wanted to help them reach their city. My father's family had remained in Brooklyn, even as the rest of the city seemed to be coming apart at the seams.

What struck me about the ministry God gave Wilkerson wasn't its more sensationally charismatic elements. And yes, he claimed to be a pentecostal. Even when I lived in Manhattan after college, my friends at the city's venerable Calvary Baptist Church never really credited Wilkerson as being completely orthodox, although Times Square Church was considered one of the three major evangelical churches in Manhattan at the time, including Redeemer Presbyterian.

No, it was Wilkerson's willingness to be used of God for something few others would embrace or celebrate, or even understand, that challenged me all those years ago.  I've never been a risk-taker, and maybe I didn't understand that what God was inviting Wilkerson to do involved considerably more risk than I would think was wise, even today.  But it didn't seem so much like risk as it did simple faith and trust in a sovereign Lord.  After all, how much risk is really involved if the One Who's leading us has already guaranteed ultimate success?

Which, as I contemplate the sudden passing of Wilkerson, returns to haunt me afresh as I look at where I am in this journey of life. What is risk? What's guaranteed in this journey, and what isn't?

Switchblades and Seatbelts

Unfortunately, a foolhardy element of risk shrouds Wilkerson's death in Texas' Cherokee County.  Police officials discovered  that he wasn't wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash.  Wilkerson died at the scene, while his wife, a passenger in their white 2008 Infiniti, was airlifted to a hospital in nearby Tyler.  The driver of the truck Wilkerson hit head-on was also hospitalized after his truck plunged over the bridge they were both crossing.

The Wilkerson's split their time between New York City and the tiny East Texas town of Lindale.  In his late 70's, he'd given up the pulpit ministry at Times Square Church and had been living somewhat under the radar, roving the globe giving seminars and preaching.  A small, private family funeral has been tentatively planned in Lindale, with a grander public memorial service in New York later in May.

But good grief - what's up with famous evangelicals not wearing their seatbelts? In 1997, you'll recall that Rich Mullins, driving without his seatbelt on, accidentally flipped his Jeep on a highway. Although being flung from his vehicle didn't kill him, being run-over by a passing tractor-trailer truck did. I'm being blunt to make an ancillary point: 65% of all people killed in car accidents died not wearing their seatbelts.  And it's not like buckling up takes a lot of time or is terribly difficult.  There aren't many good reasons for not wearing them. Especially for those who should be setting a good example.

Obviously, when it's your time to go, it's your time to go, and nothing can change that.  God's sovereignty is perfectly synchronized between our mortality and His eternity.  So, although death can come in tragic ways, people of faith have hope in believing His summons to Heaven won't be early or late. But, sheesh - for a man with Wilkerson's ministry pedigree to be killed while not wearing his seatbelt?  That's just so sad.

Parting Words

Still, at least as a native Brooklynite, I would be shamefully negligent if I didn't emphasize the extent to which God honored Wilkerson - and the faithfulness with which he served Jesus - among some of the most unloveable people in the world's greatest city.  Few people have ministered to New York's unloved in such a Christ-honoring and groundbreaking way.  While I'm wary of some of Wilkerson's pentecostal proclivities, I can't help but be grateful for his overall legacy.

Despite all of the success God gave Wilkerson, however, New York in many ways has deeper poverty, darker crime, and more blatant licentiousness than ever before.  Indeed, the back-to-the-city ethos Wilkerson helped start can't claim victory anytime soon.  But Wilkerson himself, on his blog yesterday sometime before going out on his fateful drive, posted these words:

"To those going through the valley and shadow of death, hear this word: Weeping will last through some dark, awful nights—and in that darkness you will soon hear the Father whisper, 'I am with you. I cannot tell you why right now, but one day it will all make sense. You will see it was all part of my plan. It was no accident. It was no failure on your part. Hold fast. Let me embrace you in your hour of pain.'

"Beloved, God has never failed to act but in goodness and love. When all means fail—his love prevails. Hold fast to your faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world."

And all God's people said, "Amen."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mired in Big Oil

Note:  If you read this carefully, you'll notice that I don't demonize Big Oil for their profits; particularly Exxon's announcement today of its particularly robust quarterly earnings.  - 4/28/11

Any faithful reader of this blog knows I am not an economist.

In addition, some faithful readers probably still doubt that I'm a political conservative, considering my inability to fall in lockstep with the Republican party line.

So you won't be surprised to learn that I'm struggling to understand our nation's current war over entitlements for Big Oil. And why conservatives want this taxpayer-funded gravy train to continue.

After all, if we're supposed to be anti-entitlement on everything else, why does Big Oil get to be the exception? Because they'll go out of business if they lose their $4 billion in annual subsidies from our government? Something tells me that of all the industries in the world at this moment in history, Big Oil is definitely too big to fail. And it won't anytime soon, even if they have to give up their multi-billion-dollar slush fund.

Not only is $4 billion a drop in the bucket for these oil companies, it stands to reason that since capitalism currently runs on their product, they should be able to survive quite handsomely on their net profits. After accounting for research and development, human resources, transportation, liability insurance, and, yes, taxes. Just like any other enterprise in the United States.

The Irony of Big Oil

Does free market economics rely on special perks for the biggest players? Doesn't manipulation at one end of the market jeopardize viability at the other end? Isn't that part of the whole argument against subsidies and entitlements that we've been waging these past few months? What exempts Big Oil from playing by the same rules as everyone else?

And speaking of everyone else, what about other companies and industries that could also use a multi-billion-dollar subsidy? How fair is this? Why can't companies rise and fall based on the pure market mechanisms conservatives love to extol when it comes to everyone else?

What about Republican entrepreneurs who are trying to develop new alternative fuel sources? How much of Big Oil's bullying is stifling these smaller firms in their efforts to innovate? Isn't innovation one of the hallmarks of America's great economy?

What scares conservatives about diversifying our energy solutions and bringing new fuel sources to market? Does everybody's 401k ride on ExxonMobil's good fortunes alone? Why can't Big Oil branch out into alternative and renewable fuels themselves? Don't tell me the industry's leaders and investors are scared of change!

Good grief - being afraid of change is for people like me! People who are usually wary of innovation and new ideas. Skeptics who find comfort in the status-quo, and can tolerate unhealthy levels of bad things as long as they're constant. Where would America's industry be if Republicans talked Henry Ford out of inventing the assembly line? What if Thomas Edison was a neo-con who owned too much stock in the candlemaking business?

Would iPhones and iPads exist had Steve Jobs been a card-carrying member of the Heritage Foundation? Does being a conservative now mean nothing's left to be invented? Surely fossil fuels aren't the best - and only - way to power our future.

We Can Either Be Creative, or We Can Play Catch-Up

Are you aware that Germany - of all places - leads the world in solar power generation? Or that South Korea has announced plans to construct the world's largest tidal power station? They claim it will generate 1320 megawatts of power, enough to provide electricity to power 60% of Inchon's homes.  And they'll be getting it from one of the most reliable and renewable natural sources of energy on the planet - tides.

I understand that for the foreseeable future, our global marketplace is pretty much joined at the hips with Big Oil. However, the United States, for all sorts of reasons, needs to seriously begin weening ourselves off of Middle East oil in particular, and petroleum in general. The environmental costs of oil dependency are proving to be too significant to ignore.

Not that Big Oil will ever become extinct.  We use petroleum byproducts in too many beneficial synthetic materials. However, if we could get most of our energy needs from alternative sources, we should still have plenty of oil reserves in the United States to keep us in plastics and silicone for generations. That would eliminate our dependency on foreign oil while providing opportunities for innovation that could lead to sustainable energy production here at home.

Meanwhile, the longer Big Oil fights progressive change, the worse it could end up being for the United States in terms of global competition for dwindling resources.  China has already begun industrializing pockets of Africa, and India's burgeoning middle class could outnumber our entire population in the US within 20 years.  The world around us is not standing still, and our standard of living has become too energy-dependant for us to rely on one dominant fuel source.

How does myopic genuflecting to the idol that is Big Oil provide America a solid plan for the future?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Faith, Smoke, and Mirrors

Giddy with self-adulation, two stylish white guys close up shop for the day. They've recently launched their latest venture, and it's exceeding their expectations. To celebrate their success, they visit their principle backer's favorite cigar bar.

A couple of Wall Street tycoons, you wonder? A pair of used car salesmen, perhaps? Or a novice politician's first campaign?

How about a duo of hipster preachers in New York City?

Yup, according to a recent article in the New York Times about evangelicals scrambling to ride Tim Keller's church-planting wave in the Big Apple, Pennsylvanian Guy Wasko and Australian Jon Tyson wrapped up their latest church start-up in the Lower East Side by celebrating "at Mr. Tyson's favorite cigar bar."

Excuse me while I sneeze.

The New, Hip Place to Evangelize

Seems as though lots of trendy churchlettes are popping up all over New York City.  But like the boom of mostly white, suburban, Gen X'ers seeking the big city's chic grunge vibe, they're not in the silk stocking districts of Gramercy Park, Sutton Place, or even the Upper West Side.  Nor are they in the relatively stable middle-class enclaves of Bay Ridge, Riverside, or Rego Park.

No, to qualify as a prime new church site these days, the 'hood has to be grim, with the requisite level of gritty urban angst.  These formulaic fellowships apparently breed via a brand of Jesus that they think cares less about doctrine and sanctification and more about social awareness.  Awareness of setting just the right air of urban credibility, as well as being aware of people perceived as disenfranchised.

Which, minus the glorification of urbanity's inner-city rawness, is one of the same ways people have been planting churches and starting ministries for centuries.  Except nowadays, these new outreaches in my hometown seem to strive less for modeling the broader mandate of honoring God than they do loving neighbors as themselves. 

Not that I'm anti-church-planting. I understand that seminaries teach preachers to spread the Gospel by emulating culture. So, since New York has more vacuous narcissists than most other places, catering to its culture won't exactly look pretty.  Yes, Christ ministered to the down-and-out, He socialized with reprobates, and He empathized with the hurting.  But in all these things, He remained pure and undefiled.  And He wasn't "legalistic" about any of it.

From What Have We Been Freed?

Interestingly enough, most evangelicals have developed a twisted perception of what "legalism" means these days. So imagine my surprise when we happened to recite this short prayer of confession in church a few weeks ago:

"Our God, we praise You for the riches of Your kindness and patience toward us.  Your Word teaches us that this should lead us to repentance, but too often we try to press the boundaries of your forbearance.  We frequently reason our way around our sin, justifying our actions by arguing that Your Word does not explicitly forbid a particular behavior.  We are much more interested in finding out if you make exceptions, rather than walking in the path You have clearly shown.  Forgive our desire to live independently from You, to exercise our "freedom."  Teach us again that true freedom is to be released from sin's power and dominion, that true freedom allows us to choose You rather than any substitute.  Impress us again with Your long-suffering, that we might in turn be patient and kind toward others."

Now, yes, I know I need to work on being "patient and kind toward others" myself.  But enough about me.  There is a reciprocity to this effort of patience that also obligates people who try to exercise "freedoms" in Christ, isn't there?  Assuming that behaviors like smoking is one of those gray areas where "freedom" is necessary in order to participate, shouldn't believers who may have no moral strictures against smoking still respect the pejoratively-termed mandate "tyranny of the weaker brother?"

What Part of "Smoking Can Cause Cancer" Don't You Believe?

Not that smoking - even cigar smoking - can really be considered a gray area anymore.  Plenty of scientific evidence has been complied in the past several decades proving the physical dangers of smoking cigars.  According to New York's prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital and cancer center, as well as Lance Armstrong's Live Strong foundation, we now have clinical proof that cigars can cause cancer in the lip, tongue, mouth, throat, and lung.

Granted, your chances of developing cancer depend on how much you smoke, but one good cigar can be as dangerous as an entire pack of cigarettes. And the better the cigar, the more nicotine and other dangerous chemicals in the tobacco and its byproducts. And, by the way, cigar smoke contains 200 poisons and carcinogens.  Does that sound harmless to you?

So what if your sainted great grandfather smoked cigars?  A lot of Godly people smoked all sorts of stuff back in the day, but that was before science proved how dangerous it is. Let's face it - you probably won't contract cancer just by smoking a cigar once a week.  But how wise is the risk?  Or, let me put it another way: what level of unnecessary behavior did Christ tolerate?

Perhaps bragging to the New York Times that you celebrate successful church launches by burning dollar bills at a tobacco lounge is a hip way of saying you're relevant.  That even though you're new to New York yourself, you can relate to the culture in a meaningful way.  Or that you simply choose to hope that not inhaling is safer than breathing second-hand smoke.

Do Real New Yorkers Need Smoking Saints?

Either way, I'm not convinced the street-savvy, battle-hardened, native New York welfare cases, prostitutes, and crack kids these pastors want to evangelize will take long to see through the smoke and mirrors of ministries contrived more on late-night showings of Friends than Barney Miller. Although the myopic middle-class suburban kids who regularly rotate through the City will, for a while, rotate through these transient churches as well, how dependable is their demographic? And what about those poor, generally minority New Yorkers who've been brought up in institutionalized poverty? Won't they stick around only as long as they can ride the newest wave of freebies and naiive affection from the transplanted church planters?  The rest of the city's disenfranchised will likely continue to regard such middle-class white-skinned interlopers with suspicion and disdain.

Aside from God's blessings upon some of the City's most well-known evangelical leaders, Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian works because it's a fully-functioning church, with a relatively affluent congregation, and a viable denomination lending credibility and initial funding.  Designing a church for disenfranchised people in a vacuum of urban blight worked for Jim Cymbala at Brooklyn Tabernacle and David Wilkerson at Times Square Church, but they ministered during a time when ministry in New York couldn't afford to be cozy with the culture.  Today, the Waskos and Tysons of culture-pandering evangelicalism walk a pretentious fine line between compassion and confection.  Celebrating first Sundays by burning money for smoke doesn't strike me as a compassionate understanding of their new congregation's economic plight.

Besides, as Manhattan continues to gentrify and evolve into a gilded island of million-dollar condominiums, the real inner-city work is moving to the corners of the outer boroughs, where the urbane trappings of cigar bars remain few and far between.

Meanwhile, whether you're a wannabie New York Bowery preacher or any other person of faith, you'll have a hard time convincing me those $6 cigars are anything more than a subversive oral fixation.

And I say that as a person who's always sticking his foot in his mouth.

So, if you feel the Lord calling you to move to New York City for ministry, then by all means, go!  But should you expect New Yorkers to put up with smoke and mirrors for long when it comes to communities of faith?

After all, does God?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Will Write for Right Profit

DAY 44 OF 46 - Maundy Thursday

Here's a joke for you: How do you get a professional theological blogger off your porch?

Answer: Pay him for the pizza!


For the past year, I've been using this blog as a resume in the hopes of landing some sort of writing job. Along the way, I've relied on a heavy dose of critiques, criticisms, and exhortations regarding contemporary Christianity for topics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, although most of what I've written on this blog has done a good job of expressing my opinions, it has failed to resonate well with most people who've read it.

It did help me land a monthly spot on the Singles channel of, for which I've been extremely grateful. But to be honest, this opportunity owes at least as much to my good friendship with the editor of that channel, and her willingness to give me a shot, as any writing skill of mine.

Lessons Learned

Nevertheless, a monthly article on a well-respected evangelical website does not a writing career make. That's become one of the big lessons I've learned from this 16-month blogging experiment. My editor at Crosswalk says a lot of what I write is "sticky content," meaning it's not easily ignored or considered irrelevant. So I have plodded on, hoping that some employer needing a writer will get stuck to my style.

Not that my style is for everybody. I realize that I've got enough New England frugality in me to be blunt, and enough New Yorker moxie in me not to really care. Yet I also have just enough Texas swagger in me to want to try and impress you anyway.

Another thing I've learned has been that most Christians don't really like thinking about why they do the things they do. Many of us tolerate restrictions on what we consider to be fun because we assume that's part of suffering for Christ. Sure, we eagerly absorb heady teachings of celebrity preachers and other professional Christians, but it's like perverting the cycle of osmosis - what first gets absorbed into our soul gets re-absorbed back into the world after it doesn't find a place in our lifestyle. We tend not to like the sticky stuff that we can't shake off; the challenging bits that make us ponder, evaluate, reassess, and maybe even - gasp! - change.

Which, combined with my New England starkness and New York frankness, has exasperated my Texas-bred desire to be liked, because the issues about which I've chosen to write and the positions I've taken aren't widely appreciated by most people. No surprises there. I kinda knew that going in. What has surprised me, however, is the reluctance of most people to reconsider things they haven't really thought out well for themselves to begin with.

Microscopic Beads of Sweat

Consider, for example, one of the most stubborn fallacies of the modern evangelical church: that the only place unsaved people should hear the Gospel proclaimed is, well, in church.

That has been one of the biggest justifications for the distressingly irrelevant seeker-sensitive movement. And even as Reformed theology trends back into mainstream evangelicalism, the abdication of personal evangelism seems to continue unabated.

Now, when I use the term "personal evangelism," a number of people automatically flinch, or wince, or have microscopic beads of sweat pop out across their forehead. Right? You react the same way I do when I hear an electric guitar in a corporate worship service! But at least I'm justified in my negative response; nowhere in the Bible is illegitimate sound supported as a legitimate way to praise our Lord. Yet exhortations for personal evangelism run rampant.

Hey - I used to be scared about personal evangelism, too. Until I realized that all of us who are saved do it every day, whether we realize it or not. Except some of us are more effective at communicating the truth of Christ than others, and some of us don't communicate much of anything edifying at all.

From the jokes we crack to the jokes we laugh at, from the way we treat subordinates to the way we interact with employers, and from the way we drive to the reasons why we speed; these all become part of the dialog regarding our view of the Gospel that we share with people around us.

Those of us who rely more on our culture than the Gospel for affirmation, fulfilment, direction, and inspiration probably do a worse job of modeling the Fruit of the Spirit that we could.

And when I try to point out that cultural benchmarks and trends don't provide the valid guideposts we believers should be using in our faith walks, I get all these blank stares.

Although we're taught to dislike making judgment calls on one culture over another, don't we make those hierarchical values every day anyway? Most middle-class wage earners consider the ghetto thug culture bad, but talk about discriminating against certain cultural influences in church, and people think you're intolerant.


What Barbara Mandrell Taught Me

As I compose my essays for this blog, and my articles for Crosswalk, I try to combine just enough unbiased logic with a hearty dollop of honest-to-goodness truth. For the most part, I'm not writing anything new.  I'm just rephrasing stories of life from my personal perspective. I have not tried to invent new terms or launch new philosophies, except for the brilliant artwork of Christoph Neimann, whose genre I coined as "digital colloquialism."

Can I tell you a secret?  I know I'm not the world's best writer.  I remember an interview given by country-western singer Barbara Mandrell back in the mists of time, when she was at the height of her fame.  She freely admitted that she wasn't the world's best singer.  She wasn't even in the top 100.  But she could sing, and she wasn't half bad.  Which put her right in the middle of thousands of other people with good talent, but whom none of us knew.  Mandrell said that what made her a star wasn't her being the best singer in the business, but being an exceptionally savvy marketer and promoter of herself.

Of course, you can draw all sorts of inferences from the fact that hardly anybody born in the last 20 years knows who Barbara Mandrell is.  And since Mandrell herself was banking her career on publicity instead of incomparable talent, perhaps she knew she had to make hay while she could.

Well, I don't even own my own field yet, so making hay seems a little out of the question. And I'm not crazy about the marketing part of Mandrell's story.

But I've been told I have the grain needed to make the hay.  I've just gotta figure out where to find a field.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Embarrassment of Resources

DAY 43 OF 46

Want to drive yourself crazy?

Spend two whole days surfing blogs and websites of supposedly important Christian organizations, preachers, theologians, and opinionated blowhards.

Granted, I fall squarely into that last category myself. Well, the "opinionated blowhards" part; I doubt anybody would consider this blog important.  But even this blog helps to illustrate how much evangelical content has been compiled just on the Internet. It's not until you flip from page to page and website to website like I did yesterday, though, that you risk getting really depressed. Not only does this plethora of content stake out all sorts of ideologies, perspectives, convictions, and obsessions regarding Christianity, but after a while, I realized how redundant non-essential most of this well-groomed content is.

Indeed, despite advanced technology, there really isn't anything new under the sun.

Building Bigger Barns?

Perhaps moreso than ever before, the evangelical church in North America has a crushing trove of accessible advice, reference material, sermons, reviews, workshops, articles, podcasts, critiques, Twitter feeds, and rhetoric waiting for its Biblically-astute audience. The sheer volume of these resources must be inexhaustible.

And still, into what has North American evangelical Christianity evolved? Most congregations have yet to be integrated racially and economically. Many congregations try to apologize for the Gospel by making their services appealing to popular culture, ignoring our mandate to be in the world but not of it. The divorce rate among churched people is the same as for unchurched. And we're quickly losing ground on most moral indicators, like drug abuse, extramarital sex, fiscal responsibility, and even scholastic aptitude.

Within these past couple of days, I've read about how some Reformed pastors like to drink beer because it upsets fellow believers, and they justify their churlish attitudes by warping scriptures regarding holiness and weaker brothers to suit their preferences. I've perused vast conference agendas covering all sorts of topics in minutiae for the high-energy preacher. I've waded through biographies of Christian leaders that include litanies of books they've written, parachurch organizations they've launched, and fellow Christian celebrities with which they've ministered. And I've skimmed impressive-sounding content covering topics like missional churches, soft universalists, sustainable evangelism, transformational ministry, transformance, new monasticism, and gender fluidity.

And you thought the Gospel was only about salvation through Christ!

Doctrinal Hedonism?

It all started as what I thought would be a simple research project regarding the emergent church and the Wild Goose Festival coming up this June in North Carolina. But then I learned through my research that the emergent church had pretty much stagnated in 2009, and has been re-branded as post-emergent. And even though most of the featured speakers at the Wild Goose Festival boast legitimate emergent credentials, some of the festival's supporters were also claimed by some trendy hipsters in the Mark Driscoll genre. And then I found where John Piper gave a speech to outline the differences between Reformed emerging churches, like Driscoll says his is, and the emergent fad.

Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. Discouraged. And even uninterested in associating with many of the people whose stuff I've been reading.

People with names you'd most likely be familiar, if you're an evangelical Christian. And some people you maybe even admire.

Not because they're smarter than me, or more spiritual than me, or famous or - as some are - wealthy.  All lumped together, they make faith seem sterile and esoteric.

Working for a church like I did years ago, I've already lost my ability to idolize or become infatuated with Christian leaders. I pray for my pastors, yes, and I value their contributions to the ministry of our church, but beyond that, preachers and teachers and opinionated blowhards are simply mere mortals, just like you and, well, me. It's just the famous ones have savvy publishers, publicists, website designers, and videographers.

It seems that all they really offer is a persona and charisma which we associate with competency, authority, and achievement in our society. And yes, many of the men - and women - we objectify in evangelical Christianity possess exceptional pedigrees in these qualities. But how much has all of this attention we've paid to them and their bullet points really helped believers in North America be authentic, vulnerable, and astute followers of Christ?

Are we, as part of the world's most economically successful and materialistic society, so stunted spiritually that we need these professional Christians to help us be as ineffectual and myopic as we are?  Are these professional Christians the problem, or the people who are paying their salaries?

After all, how many of us still expect our pastors to do most of the heavy-lifting when it comes to spiritual things? And to keep their jobs, might our pastors be perpetuating the problem by building their own little empires of influence they like to call "ministries?"

What if believers across the globe had the same access to this monstrous pile of elite exegesis on doctrines and theology that we have here in North America?  Might they put us to shame by their earnest devotion to Christ - as the persecuted church already does in unsung pockets of the globe?

Even in the Church Economy, We Consumers Share the Blame

Maybe instead of relying on our extensive Christian subculture for relevance, we can demonstrate our faith better not by flaunting our exercise of stereotypically forbidden activities like drinking and dancing, but by demonstrating a Biblical attitude both if you decide to do these things yourself, or if you know other believers don't.

Maybe we can work harder at trying to appreciate the underlying reasons for why a co-worker is treating us in a particularly way; not condoning the causes or the behavior, but having a level of empathy that could help us convey the love of Christ to that person in a meaningful way.

Maybe we could exercise far more discretion in what we allow ourselves to experience in the media that might, however subtly, distort our view of sin and its pernicious dangers.

Maybe we could spend more time in contemplative study of God's Word, as well as in prayer, so that the things we learn about God and our faith come first-generation from the Creator Himself, not necessarily second-generation through professional Christians.  Not that preachers and teachers can't be a valuable resource for developing our faith, but they can't substitute for the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

Think about it:  do we need more preachers in North America?  More church buildings?  More congregations?  More conferences, websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, books, and videos?

Or do we need people of faith to be more committed to Christ, more resolved to learning about Him, more repentant of their sin, more joyful from His grace, more eager to honor Him in all that we do, and more bold to talk about Him within their spheres of influence?

Remember, to whom much is given, much is required.  And here in North America, we have far more resources than we use or need. 

And like any good conservative, I dislike waste.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bread Broken Together

DAY 41 OF 46

This evening, Passover begins at dusk. Evangelical Christians aren't obligated to observe this historically Jewish commemoration, but for several years, some friends and I have gathered for a relatively traditional Seder.

Nothing exclusively Kosher, you understand, and me being a teetotaler, I don't drink wine when we partake of the four cups. We simply don't see the need to not take advantage of the rich symbolism inherent in the Passover Seder.

This year, I have been asked to prepare a brief New Testament meditation to share during dinner. And it's based on the Passover passages from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  I thought it would make an appropriate start for this Holy Week.

Fellowship In Christ, Our Passover

We eat here tonight surrounded with friendly associations and generous hospitality. Yet the last Passover Christ celebrated, He celebrated in the presence of mortality’s penultimate fiend.

An observance commemorating God’s covenantal relationship with His Chosen People would become, in the Upper Room, the launching pad for an even greater covenant between God and His elect.

Through the Last Supper, we see both in Christ’s honoring of tradition and recognition of God’s sovereignty not only our Savior’s affirmation of the timelessness and intentionality of His Father for His nation, but Christ’s own resolute patience, endurance, and commitment.

His disciples either didn’t take the initiative of making the arrangements themselves, or they were led of God to allow Jesus to perform more miracles in the appointments and provisions for this feast. Christ could have conveniently arranged for Judas Iscariot to be elsewhere that evening; perhaps not delaying His arrest in the Garden, which Judas apparently had already plotted, but at least allowing His last Passover to be a time of poignant fellowship among his 11 loyal followers.

Instead, how grueling that meal must have been for Jesus! Not only knowing that his betrayal would come within hours; such a tortuous inevitability would be more than enough to cancel out any ordinary appetite! But that His betrayer was sharing a holy meal with Him at the same table! Recall Paul’s later teaching on seeking forgiveness from any brother or sister in faith before partaking in Holy Communion. How galling it must have been for Christ, forcing Himself to sit through what must have times seemed like a charade of religiosity on the part of Judas.

Yet how often do we either feign innocence regarding sin, or attempt to contrive a fa├žade of submission to our Savior?

How often do we look at our Christ and say, “Surely not I, Lord?”

Granted, Judas’ deceit and eventual betrayal were ordained of God to accomplish the purpose for which Christ had come into the world. But as children of God, and joint heirs with Christ, how much more grievous our sins, since we have knowledge imparted to us by the Holy Spirit of Christ’s passion for us? And we still insist on our own way?

Indeed: who crucified Christ, the Bread of Life, if not every sinner who's ever lived?

And so it was, that God demonstrated His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Romans 5:8

How great the love that our Father has lavished on us – that we should be called His children – 1 John 3:1

And children, then also heirs with Christ – Romans 8:17

Hebrews 10:19-31:  A Call to Persevere

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.

How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?  For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people."

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

So today, as we share a table and a meal in congeniality and affection, remember Him whose last time at this table must have been fraught with heartache. As His disciples then feasted on food and heritage, let us feast on our Passover who is sacrificed for us – 1 Corinthians 5:7

He is our savior from sin, our friend in sorrow, our sanctifier through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the coming King.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. Hallelujah!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tales from Retail

DAY 38 OF 46

Trevor Bannister passed away in Surrey, England yesterday. He died of a heart attack at the age of 76.

To most Americans, this news will come as neither a surprise nor a particularly interesting bit of information. In Britain, however, it's the #1 story on the BBC's website today.

Bannister's claim to fame came during his years playing the character Mr. Lucas on the 1970's BBC television sitcom, Are You Being Served?(AYBS). Just as America has its brand of situation comedies for TV, so does England, and AYBS has been one of their best-loved shows. Set in a grand London department store, oddly named Grace Brothers, this series centered on the lives and foibles of the staff in the gentlemen's and ladies' departments. Mr. Lucas (we're never made privy to his character's first name) worked as the junior salesman behind the mens' counter, under the irrepressibly flamboyant Mr. Humphries.

Contrasted with Mr. Humphries' veiled homosexual proclivities, Bannister's Mr. Lucas considered himself quite the ladies man and playboy of the store. Yet being the novice salesman, he clung onto his job usually by the skin of his teeth. His character was the one who questioned authority the most, marveled at the illogical ways retail sometimes works, and generally would prefer giving up a sale than giving up an opportunity to have fun.

British comedy has been described as an acquired taste, and indeed, not a lot of Americans find it laugh-out-loud funny. Most of the time, English humor comes not from blatant jokes or hilarious storylines, but from the intricate writing which draws viewers into each character's persona. British comedies tend to engage our desire to live the shows vicariously through their characters, and scripts are written not just to elicit laughter but to convey an almost familial poignancy.

Welcome to Jas. K. Wilson

But even though I'm personally saddened to hear that the man who played Mr. Lucas has died, that's not what I think about most as I reminisce about the show. Back when I was still in high school, I got a job at an upscale mens' store at the mall, and I worked there for over six years until I started grad school. Whenever I watch AYBS, I can't ignore how the show parallels my own real-life experiences in retail.

Although it had become part of a nationwide corporation, the store for which I worked, Jas. K. Wilson, retained distinct characteristics of back when it was a fine mens' haberdashery in downtown Dallas, just down the street from the flagship Neiman Marcus.

Our clothes were expensive, and we were known for our service and attention to detail. The styles of our clothes ranged from the old-fashioned to the moderately trendy, and we were never reprimanded for evidencing a bit of snobbery when prospective customers asked for something either too modern or too bourgeoisie. We were fond of joking with customers that "there's no such thing as a short-sleeved dress shirt." And I can even recall managers clucking that "the customer is always right, except when they're wrong."

So maybe now some of my readers have a better idea of where I've gotten my spurts of attitude.

This job was the first place I heard a black person call another black person by the n-word. As it happened, a wonderfully amiable fellow clerk caught another black woman shoplifting, and could barely conceal her contempt.

I myself helped catch a thief: a customer reported that purchases she had taken back to her car were stolen during a burglary of her car. Imagine my surprise when the next day, a bedraggled, greasy-haired white man brought the very same stolen merchandise back to the store for a refund! I managed to keep the guy engaged in conversation at the cashier's desk until the police arrived to arrest him. For my bit of derring-do, my boss at the time rewarded me with a company-paid breakfast at a local hotel.

That particular store manager proved to be one of three I had who were eventually caught embezzling from the company. But those incidents paled in comparison to the thievery which eventually brought down the store's parent corporation. From the scuttlebutt we heard, two of the corporation's top executives plundered the firm's bank accounts and then high-tailed it to the Caribbean. Within weeks, vendors stopped shipping goods, inventory started to run out, and staffing levels were cut. Finishing us off was the explosion of casual Friday attire, which wiped out the market for business suits, dress shirts, and ties which were our mainstay. It only took a matter of months before we were in bankruptcy.

Minding the Store

Back in the day, we store staffers were often treated like royalty. Each quarter, a fancy sales meeting would be held at a local country club or posh hotel. There used to be formal training sessions at headquarters in Dallas. We were not expected to clean the store or water the live plants - custodians and porters did all that.

Kind of like they did at Grace Brothers, the fictional store where Trevor Bannister's character worked. Only we didn't treat the porters as if they were social trash, like the staff at Grace Brothers did. On the other end of the employee spectrum, our company management could sometimes be as clueless as the management at Grace Brothers, however. One time, a local manager who didn't think were were "pushing enough goods" tried to demonstrate to us some proper selling techniques one busy Saturday. He left quietly around noontime, not having sold any more than any of the rest of us.

When I started working at Jas. K. Wilson, an elderly gentleman named Coy Garrison worked part-time, but never on Saturdays. Saturday evenings, he always brought his equally-elderly wife to one of the mall's restaurants for dinner, and then they'd stroll by the store, fingering toothpicks like a lot of older folks do here in Texas after a meal.

Coy didn't really sell very much; for one reason, he was practically deaf, and almost as blind. Yet he lent a certain stateliness to the place, kind of like some of the characters on AYBS did. He also had been in retail long enough to know a thing or two about it.

He used to like to encourage us younger salespeople with his philosophies of life. He'd hold court at one corner of the massive wood and glass counters near the front cash register, ignoring the customers walking by as he shared his insights. One of his favorites was that everybody should work at least one year in retail when they get out of school, before they go into whatever other career they might really want. Retail, according to Coy, provided one of the best venues for learning about human nature in all of its quirky, goofy glory.

And you know what? Coy was right. Maybe not about everybody working in retail like it was a military draft. But in retail, particularly in our store, here in moderately affluent Arlington, we really had the chance to witness a wide range of personalities, attitudes, and expectations, not only from customers, but from staff as well.

I learned to value personal experience over book knowledge. If you saw the amount of junk we were expected to sell that had been ordered by corporate buyers who'd never worked one day on a sales floor, you'd understand why I don't give a lot of credit to people just because they have an MBA after their name.

I learned that sometimes, you have to go along to get along. I had one manager who tried to banish me to the stockroom every chance he got. Eventually, I figured out that everybody in the store was aware of my situation, and my ability to tolerate it gave me a lot more credibility with them than it did my manager. Maybe it didn't put money in my pocket, but people respected me, and to me, that was worth something.

And I also learned how hard people have to work sometimes for not a lot of money. Juggling three customers with spouses who can't make up their minds and eventually selling them just a fraction of the clothes they tried on isn't a very delightful way of earning a few bucks an hour. But at least among the people with which I worked, it was mostly honest labor. Done mostly by people without college degrees who weren't built for digging ditches in Texas' summer heat.

These days, retail even at the highest level pales in comparison to the service we provided our customers just 15 years ago. So much has been lost as profit margins have evaporated and management has given up trying to appease an increasingly fickle customer base. A lot of people say they want quality, but few are willing to actually pay for it.

So... when I learned today that the actor who brought Mr. Lucas to life had died, I felt compelled to spend a moment and commiserate over my own days in retail. When I, too, was young and learning the ropes. And even still had a lot of hair, like Bannister did.

Instead of asking our customers, "are you being served?" however, we were taught to ask, "how may I help you?"

I suppose if we had asked the question with a British accent, we might have gotten more sales.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

And the Experts Shall Lead Us

DAY 37 OF 46

Let there be rejoicing in the streets!

I have the perfect solution to our nation's budget woes.

Instead of letting people beholden to special interests make critical decisions about our national budget, why not give the experts a crack at it?

After all, can people who actually know what they're doing do a worse job prioritizing tax dollars than the partisan politicians who've gotten us into this mess in the first place?

If I sound supremely cynical about the chances of our current Congress patching together a fiscally-responsible budget that will both substantively reduce our national debt and fund humane government services at prudent benchmarks, then you're right.  I don't think political operatives can get that done in our present environment of acrimony, rhetoric, and grandstanding.  It's been said that the world has not seen a democracy last more than 300 years or so, because every time, the governed find a way to raid the treasury with the aid of the governors.  And right on schedule, it appears America may be heading in that same direction.

But I'm not cynical enough to think it's too late.  One big key for solving our partisanship stalemate could involve actually letting professionals tell the public what needs to take place.  Experts who work with our society's problems and challenges on a daily basis, and scholars who have studied the best ways of approaching dilemmas, all willing to operate outside the scope of political affiliation or financial reward for the good of the country.

Kinda like what politicians were originally supposed to do, until they became ensconced inside the Beltway and bellied up to the special interests trough.

Step Aside, Politicians!

Everybody's talking about cuts these days, and while I don't deny our government needs to spend significantly less than it is currently, maybe it will help to reconsider the very concept of a budget.  Perhaps instead of viewing government spending as as a vat of money (and I.O.U.'s) with a spigot needing to be shut off, or a giant redwood tree needing trunks sawn off, we should re-cast the budget as a funding template for minimum standards of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Obviously, within those three credos from the Declaration of Independence, a lot of antagonism has arisen between our two political parties over what government programs should actually receive taxpayer support. However, in the interest of time, let's go with our existing federal initiatives and work within the framework of what Congress is debating even today, and see how we can add some integrity to the process.

For example, speaking of preserving life, at what amount do we need to fund Social Security to keep current senior citizens from slipping any further into poverty?  I'm not talking benchmarks for middle-class bourgeoisie comfort; I'm talking keeping the elderly in their current home with enough heat and food so they don't lack basic essentials? Can we afford to under-fund this lifeline for people who may not be able to re-enter the workforce?

Of course, if the government's own statisticians already have these figures, might it be helpful to the debate for the rest of us to know what they are?  Wouldn't it be something if we'd need less money to fund some of these entitlements than even the Republican's cuts would leave?

And at what amount do we need to fund Medicare so that citizens with life-threatening health conditions don't die for lack of basic, humane care?  I'm not talking about providing everybody with motorized scooters, paying for batteries of negligibly-necessary tests, and making sure fertility and erectile dysfunction care is available to all.  I'm talking about identifying the basic life-sustaining procedures Americans need to remain productive contributors to our society.  I'm not talking simply being economically productive; I'm including care that can allow people to provide the intangible assets of affection, support, and comfort that, for example, grandparents are known for.

Who should make these determinations?  Who should set the benchmarks, standards, and thresholds? Who can be relied upon to provide statistically-relevant data so that tax dollars can be allocated wisely?

Certainly not our politicians, that's for sure.  Nobody who is currently elected to office.  We need experts - people who know what they're talking about, and are trained to deal with these issues.  For example, people like medical doctors and registered nurses should evaluate Medicare and Medicaid.  And certified financial planners, civil engineers, and even social workers could tackle Social Security.

With no ulterior motives.  No lobbyists, industry groups, political action committees, or union reps even communicating with the professionals selected to draft the benchmarks which should be based on hard, academic science.  Facts which can be proven and replicated.  And real-world dollar amounts showing cash flow scenarios based on universal accounting standards.

At What Are Politicians Expert?

Yes, I know this all sounds like modernist heuristics, where since is believed to provide the solution for everything. Personally, I believe that faith in Christ can provide a lot of answers to life's problems, but not everybody who's unsaved agrees with me. Politicians have proven that political science is more voodoo than virtue. So what's left?

I mean, this is the United States, people!  We have experts in everything here.  Good grief - we've created most of the industries that influence and control our standard of living.  Why have we gotten to the point where the only people involved in the great budget debate are lawyers trying to promote their incumbency?

What part of the Constitution prohibits Congress from seeking the expert advice of professionals?  Is it illegal for Congress to set up an executive committee to draft common-sense guidelines for practical legislation?  Did any of the Founding Fathers expect Congress to master every topic and issue that it would have to deal with?

Have our politicians become so ossified that they cannot understand nobody from any political party - or the general public, for that matter - trusts them anymore?  Too much political rhetoric has replaced reason and logic in the governance of our country.  It's not for no good reason that Americans have given Congress one of the worst ratings of any organization in the country.

I realize that from time to time, special commissions and panels are convened to explore certain issues and contribute to the development of specific policies and procedures. But usually these are niche projects of narrow scope and limited applicability; my idea proposes to tackle some major budget-busting programs to see what they should really be costing us. Not what politicians can arbitrarily secure for spending, but what actually is necessary to fund.

After all, who's sure that applying a dollar amount to how much we want cut from the budget will actually be enough? Or too much? Liberals may fear any cuts at all, and conservatives may want to jettison entire programs, but what if the experts give us a third scenario: what a program should legitimately cost, and what we should expect for the money we spend to fund that program.

Trying to Make the Budget Proactive

By breaking out the the nuts and bolts of the budget to professionals who understand the issues better and can bring a bias based on specific competence - instead of greedy influencers - voters may have more confidence in the process of decision-making that we've elected our representatives to perform.  Plus, by removing the burden of proof from Capitol Hill to experts beyond the bureaucracy, politicians can displace any angst voters may have over the conclusions these experts reach.  Don't like the fact that too many people are unnecessarily benefiting from Medicaid?  Hey - don't blame your local politico; he or she is just acting on the proof provided by a bipartisan panel of specialists.

Oh - haven't I mentioned the bipartisan aspect of these teams of experts?  Democrat lawmakers could appoint, say, 4 doctors to a panel; Republican lawmakers could appoint 4, and maybe all of those grass-roots third-party folks could caucus themselves together and appoint 1 expert, which would likely be the deciding vote on some issues.

Then the results of each panel's deliberations becomes the evidence upon which legislation is drafted and our budget is crafted.

Hey - maybe it's too simple an idea to work. But at least my idea can't be as ineffective as the way they're trying to perpetrate legislation on us now!

What have we got left to lose?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Should Winners Account for Economy's Losers?

DAY 36 OF 46

Last week at this time, many of us were fretting over the likelihood of our federal government shutting down from a political impasse over the nation's budget.

And perhaps not surprisingly, at the 11th hour last Friday, our political wizards pulled a rabbit out of their top hat which purportedly included a budget axing $38 billion in government spending.

But now, as details of the sloppily-crafted budget agreement have been coming to light in the media, right-wing Republicans have begun squawking about how many of these spending cuts are actually bogus. Which is true. Speaker Boehner's supposed triumph has turned out to be the same old Washington theatrics conservatives usually accuse liberals of staging.

All this has only further fanned the flames of sanctimonious conservatives who want to indiscriminately chop entitlement programs. Why should the economically moral among us be expected to accommodate the fiscal imprudence of society at large?  Wiping out social welfare sounds quick and easy, especially since we pious conservatives have been so prudent in our savings, temperate in our spending, and diligent in our hard, honest, high-salaried jobs.

Which, generally, theoretically, in a perfect world, is how things work. You get a job, it pays the bills as long as you live within your means, you save a lot, and you retire happy and care-free.

How Much Has What We Have Cost Our Society?

But how much of the stoic, financially-sound good life would middle class Republicans have if it wasn't for the many ways our economy has been sustained by programs and practices right-wingers now revile?

For example, we're all suffering today from the mortgage meltdown, but during America's build-up of property values, home construction, and banking expansion, how many conservatives profited from all of the spending consumers did to purchase, finance, furnish, and remodel their new homes?

When all of us conservatives moved out of the inner cities to the suburbs and exurbs, we depleted vast swaths of already-built infrastructure in urban cores, and deprived needy municipalities of normal tax revenue. The vacuum we created allowed liberal educators to perpetrate pernicious programs like social advancement in big city school districts. It also allowed welfare to take a stronger grip on urban life than might have otherwise occurred had we not abdicated poverty control to governments. Can we claim to not have been part of America's entitlement problem, that white flight didn't allow costly urban decay to take place, as well as the costly development of sprawling suburban schools with huge maintenance requirements of their own?

When we complain about taxation, do we understand how the greedy house-flippers of the mortgage boom helped deplete the limited resources of our elderly citizens, making them more reliant on Social Security? Do we forget how extravagant our expectations for the public education and sports training of our children have become? Have we forgotten that freeways to take us further and further away from the problems we don't want to face in the inner city cost more and more to construct and maintain?

And what about all of our jobs which go into creating and supporting the vast industries which prop up all of the things which we suddenly find so distasteful as taxpayers? Like all of the technology and weaponry our governments purchase to protect us at home and abroad?

I won't even mention the few managers and executives who get to keep their cushy jobs while they offshore everybody else's.  Or the companies that don't want to pay healthcare costs for retirees who spent their careers crafting products from dangerous chemicals or in hazardous environments.  Or the employers who contrive layoffs which impact workers just before their retirement age.

Something tells me that the percentage of our country's population that has had everything work right for themselves jobwise, healthwise, familywise, housewise, educationwise, and investmentwise is exceptionally, deceptively small. The rest of us have made mistakes, some of us have been downright stupid, and a few of us have been insufferably lazy.

Responsibility and Accountability on Micro and Macro Scales

Granted, no one else is responsible for paying my bills but me, myself, and I. And individually, few of us have been responsible for how our nation's economy has evolved. But can right-wingers assume that their perfect financial life hasn't come at somebody else's expense? Doesn't capitalism depend on a certain amount of stratification in the society? If everybody had the same education, earning power, and retirement plan, wouldn't that be socialism?

Face it, people: however good it is, your lifestyle hasn't been entirely achieved in a civic vacuum. There are prices we all need to pay for living in a country as diverse as ours. If you think your salary doesn't benefit from the diversity many Republicans disparage, then maybe your grasp of economics isn't as solid as you think it is.

Not that conservatives shouldn't pursue budget cuts and spending reductions. Clearly, our government needs to be drastically overhauled, and our entitlement programs will need to bear the brunt of this overhaul, since they comprise the bulk of government spending. Americans who contribute little to the economy and prosperity of our country should not expect significant rewards. And institutionalized poverty needs to be disavowed for what it truly represents: a new form of slavery.

But when conservatives evaluate what our government should and shouldn't be doing, we need to remember that the reason some people are poorer than us may not be entirely their own fault.

How many of us can assume that we haven't benefited from the pernicious policies and practices that've gotten us here, and which now may need to be cut? Not that everything we've earned and acquired are ill gotten gains. But they may not all be "earned" as much as "awarded."

After all, might having winners in our economy mean somebody else has lost?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hulu Lessons

DAY 35 OF 46

If there's anything on which I'm an undisputed expert, it's old habits dying hard.

A good friend of mine likes to joke that "Tim doesn't do new well."

Indeed, I'm one of those people who Type-A innovators can't understand.  I'm not convinced change is always good, and I'm usually vilified when I question the rationale of fixing that which isn't broken.  Doing things differently just because different must be better than status-quo doesn't usually make sense to me.

For example, it took me forever to get a cell phone.  And even now, I communicate more via e-mail than anything else.  My analog TV with its digital-reception rabbit ears works just fine, so why do I need a new high-definition wide screen?  Will the junk on TV these days automatically improve just because the picture is clearer?

Back when I worked for a company that was a Microsoft Certified Partner - meaning we were constantly swimming in tides of updates and upgrades - I balked whenever the techs would come by my cubicle to "improve" the software I'd just gotten used to using.

So maybe I'm an unlikely convert to Hulu, but I have to admit:  it's a great website.

Who Knew Hulu Could Do Commercials So Well?

Do you Hulu?  It's a relatively new Internet phenom with tons of old TV shows and movies archieved so you can watch them whenever you like. They also have current TV shows and recent programs, including complete series of some shows, and a break-down of seasons complete with popularity rankings.  You can sort what you want to watch by a variety of criteria, including genre and running time.  Don't like the show you thought you wanted to watch?  No problem - just click back to the menu to find something else.

Although they have a "premium" service to which you can subscribe for a monthly fee, most of Hulu is free.  Yes, you have to sit through commercials while watching your show, but even there, Hulu has tried to make the advertising as painless as possible.  Sometimes it's even interactive, so you feel you have some control over it.  Although most commercials still simply rotate through, during each commercial brake, you're told how many commercials are in the queue, and how long they'll take.

Surprisingly, instead of encouraging you to get up and do something else until your show comes back, Hulu's countdown clock actually convinces you that the commercials aren't really taking up as much time as you might think.  And so, I usually just sit through them, or check my e-mail with the volume of my Hulu show unmuted (which means I still hear the commercial).  Of course, they don't run five commercials in a row like broadcast television does; usually, just one or two are clumped together in a commercial break.  Having fewer commercials means you get to your show quicker, but there's also another benefit for advertisers: you can also remember the content and message of the commercials better than if you're forced to endure a litany of jingles, slogans, and brand names. Clever thinking on Hulu's part, right?

Why am I spending so much time describing the commercials on Hulu?  Because like just about any broadcasting venture, advertising is where the money is.  So it benefits enterprises relying on commercials to know how to optimize them.  And with Hulu, although it's still there, the advertising is more innocuous than anything on broadcast TV.  Sometimes, you get to even choose the commercial you want to watch; how counter-cultural is that?  Or sometimes you can rate the commercials, so Hulu can tailor the ads they associate with your browser's caching cookie like FaceBook does. Hey; so it's a little like Big Brother - what isn't these days?

The theory behind all of these kinder, gentler commercials seems to be that the more relevant the commercial is to the viewer, the greater the impact that commercial will have, and therefore, the greater the advertiser's ROI.  Which means eventually, Hulu's revenue can increase, as their viewers know they're not being beaten over the head for wanting free Internet TV shows, and advertisers know their money is being targeted more effectively.

The whole experience strikes me as being as user-friendly as advertising can be, at least at this time in the evolution of our still-nascent Internet journey.

So, I get to choose the shows I want to watch, whenever I'm ready to watch them.  I know how long each will take, the commercials I have to watch have been electronically cultivated to respect my time as much as commercials can, and the entire user interface is remarkably intuitive. The only real disappointment with Hulu is when you discover they haven't yet created a library of a particular favorite, like Hogan's Heroes or Get Smart.

These all represent reasons why Hulu has caught on with so many people.

To View Hulu Through Too Few Truths

Apparently, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Rumors have begun surfacing that Hulu's funders want to begin levying a fee for all users, not just premium subscribers, and cram in more commercials; two of the same tactics, by the way, that conventional legacy broadcast companies have used for their business models in the past.

Today's Los Angeles Times ran a story about how some of the entertainment industry's old guard has been caught off-guard by the surprising potential of running TV shows over the Internet.  Hulu is bankrolled by Disney, Fox, and NBC, and it was created several years ago to protect the television industry from being rendered obsolete by Internet technology.  Their idea was to run television programming online as a way to control the distribution and marketing of their shows, and prevent the industry implosion that technology sparked in the CD/DVD world.

To the dismay of its analog TV owners, however, the hoopla over Hulu has given the website a distinct life of its own.  You'd think they'd be happy that their investment has proven itself and begun to turn a profit, but like greedy executives everywhere, the suits at Fox, Disney, and NBC don't think they're making enough money fast enough.  They're comparing the half a billion in revenue from Hulu against the $30 billion gravy train from cable and satellite television, and not looking at the bigger picture as a new era begins to dawn on the entertainment industry.

Cable companies consistently rank high in consumer complaint listings, and some viewers have actually sparked a tiny - but growing - trend of ditching their boxes and dishes for cheap, digital rabbit ears.  Meanwhile, TV executives remain stuck in the 1970's, when the three networks still owned most of America's entertainment options. But even as I'm loathe to admit it myself, times have indeed changed.  Today, we have gaming consoles, a plethora of Internet diversions in addition to Hulu, NetFlix and movies on demand, TiVo, and even digital books.  Typing this out, I just realized I haven't watched one single hour of prime-time network programming in several years.  And I used to be one of those Americans who fastidiously worked his schedule around his favorite shows.

If even I have changed my viewing and entertainment habits, what are the chances millions of Americans have also already done so?  And what should that be telling the stodgy broadcast executives still living in the era and aura of The Cosby Show and Monday Night Football? Maybe Hulu isn't the only answer to what ails the TV world, but it certainly doesn't seem to need a re-work to make it more like conventional analog entertainment.  But that's what increasing the number of commercials and charging more fees would do.

In so many unfortunate ways, we live in a vastly different world that even a few years ago.  Hulu's owners should be glad Internet viewers are still willing to sit through even interactive commercials on the website when you consider that plenty of pirated videos can be easily obtained... for cheaper than free.  Without any revenue going to the networks. One of the things that sank the music industry was the realization on the part of millions of ethics-challenged consumers that with digital technology, illegally-copied songs sound the same as the original.  Gone are the days when you needed first-generation versions of a videotape or soundtrack to get decent audiovisual quality.  That's not a threat - it's an immoral reality.  But the TV suits apparently don't want to admit it.

Losing Hulu's Moolah Train?

Don't those folks at Fox, NBC, and Disney kinda sound like me?  Resistant to change, unable to process the new reality they have to deal with?  Unwilling to take a few risks and give their new Hulu concept the benefit of the doubt?

And like a lot of us, they want their money from Hulu now; they don't want to nuture it into something for which a new crop of entertainment consumers can develop a loyal affinity.  But isn't that one of the bonuses that Hulu could bring to the analog broadcasting kings?  Take my own experience with Hulu:  I don't watch broadcast TV any more, but I will settle into a comfy chair with my laptop to watch Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show.  If Disney, NBC, and Fox were smart, they'd develop an algorythm based on the viewing habits of Hulu vistors like me, and use that data in developing new shows for prime-time broadcasting that might appeal to us.  They wouldn't be using focus groups or arbitrary data, they'd be using hard-core facts from Hulu's own site as their proof that, based on what we've watched on Hulu, consumers might give network TV another try - if their products suit our interests.

Of course, for most of us who've ditched network TV, developing the quality that we pine for in the old shows may cost more time and money than the gold-digging network suits want to commit.

And maybe that's what's really bugging them: the fact that even they can't control the change sweeping over our society because of technology?

Well, I can understand that. But it's the real world, not a reality show.  At this point, network television still has a chance at controlling its amazing race of an extreme makeover.  Otherwise, they could be the biggest loser.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Social Climbers are a Realtor's Dream

DAY 30 OF 46

Keeping up with the Joneses just got a bit harder.

Apparently, though, it's not the Jones family we need to keep up with these days, either, but the Milner's.

And by harder, I'm talking $100 million harder.  That's the price Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner paid for his family's new house near San Francisco last month.  Which sets the new record for a private home purchase in the United States.


Yes, America:  Forget McMansions, gated communities, and doorman buildings.  Those may be the means by which lower life forms measure wealth and status, but not the new breed of conspicuous consumers.  Granted, the previous record of $95 million for Donald Trump's former Palm Beach spread had already set the bar pretty high.  Nevertheless, Milner's purchase now pegs the benchmark selling price of the American Dream at a round $100 million.  And like any good capitalist would say, it's the selling price that counts.

Set on 18 prime acres overlooking San Francisco Bay, the Milner family's new estate features a 25,000 square foot main house, a 5,000 square foot guest house, tennis courts, and both indoor and outdoor pools.  But quite honestly, aside from claiming such a huge swath of waterview Silicon Valley real estate, there's little aesthetically to justify the record-setting pricetag.  The landscaping is uninspired and dreary, and the architecture resembles pseudo-chateau-meets-Beverly-Hills in an even less flattering Beverly Hillbillies kind of way.  Let's just say that for a trophy house, it's not going to win any design awards.  Indeed, built by dot-com nouveau riche and bought with new money by a social media investor from Moscow, this property's dispassionate character appropriately disappoints after the initial buzz over its pricetag wears off.

Even though it reeks of bad taste, however, the financial transaction involved here must be good for business in the otherwise bleak world of California real estate.  Annual property taxes alone could probably fund a Third World country.  And it certainly seems to validate the recent chatter among financial wonks regarding renewed activity in the world of high-tech investing.  It hardly seems likely that such a sale could have been pulled off if Silicon Valley was deflating.

Although, having the sellers personally financing 50% of the purchase price for Milner does sound a bit unsettling, since the entire purchase represents a fraction of his supposed wealth.  Who's more eager in this transaction:  the sellers, or Milner?  Or Milner's wife and kids, anxious to escape dreary Russia?

Putting a $100 Million House in Perspective

Some bourgeoisie proletariats could find plenty of classist fodder in this story to blast away at the inequities in our society.  For example, how many homeless people could be sheltered for $100 million? How much does it cost for the central HVAC to heat and cool 25,000 square feet of living space? And even if you could afford to spend that much money yourself, should you?

Those sound like questions I myself might ask, don't they?  And I have to admit, if somehow I ended up with Milner's money, I would personally have a hard time justifying spending so much of it on a house like this.  Even if it was far better designed.  And not in California.

Still, I see some virtue in Milner's purchasing a house for a tenth of a billion dollars.  Consider what this does for setting the pecking order among the rest of us.  Whether you live in a $50,000 house or a $50 million dollar one, how much does that matter in comparison to $100 million?

Let's concede the fact that over 95% of Americans will never be players in Milner's type of housing market.  So why do so many of us pretend like we've got something to prove when it comes to the type of house we buy?  I don't mean to cripple our nation's residential construction industry, but doesn't the move-up syndrome sometimes causes more harm than good?  Granted, a lot of empty nesters these days are downsizing to economize on wasted space and property taxes, but even what many of them are downsizing into manage to have their own cache, especially since downsizing is considered an admirably prudent trend.  Jockeying for social status can be as infectious as it is universal.

But at the end of the day, even I have to admit that where you call home is more your business than anybody else's.  I wish Milner, his wife, and their two young daughters many good nights of sleep in their new mansion, even if it is more investment than home.  And I don't begrudge all of the people in this world (who can legitimately afford it) their lives in far nicer domiciles than mine.

But neither would I want the pressure of holding title to America's priciest house.  After all, keeping up with the Joneses means you're never out ahead for long.  As a matter of fact, an estate on Long Island built by Ira Rennert, creator of the Hummer, could reportedly go for a stratospheric $200 million if it were put on the market. Its main house is twice the size of Milner's California pad.

Can you imagine?  For the Rennerts, the Milner mansion would be downsizing!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Shut-Down Show-Down is a Let-Down

DAY 29 OF 46

I don't know about you, but I'm having a difficult time getting all worked up about a government shut-down this Friday.

I mean, we all know the government won't actually close up shop.  Although, I imagine plenty of people would be euphoric if that happened!  No, they'll just curtail the "non-essential" busywork of the federal bureaucracy because supposedly, no money has been properly appropriated to pay for the 800,000 people it takes to get done.

President Obama hopped on Air Force One this afternoon to give a couple of political speeches.  So he's obviously not that concerned.  And partisan leaders of both houses of Congress don't appear too upset; after all, who knows which side might benefit more from the glaring - or maybe not so glaring - loss of federal activities which might not happen with a shut-down.

No Cherry Blossom Festival for Washington, DC?  Cry me a river.

No IRS refund checks?  Well, that may smart a little, until you remember when it was you finally received last year's refund. And besides, this threat only applies to paper checks anyway.  If you requested direct-deposit for your refund, you've no worries.

No pay for our soldiers?  Now you're talking some legitimate hurt, especially since we've got two and a half wars going on right now.  Want to concede three fronts simultaneously?  Tell the troops doing all the dirty work diplomats and politicians don't want to do that their government can't meet payroll.

Of course, this is still Wednesday.  Plenty of compromises have yet to be floated in the sultry air within the Beltway.  Obama will return from nob-nobbing with Al Sharpton and wait for Boehner and Reid to shake on an 11th-hour budget - if not Friday, then this coming Monday, after the press has had the weekend to really spin the federal government's paralysis.  And then we'll hear about how hard everybody's been working in Washington to make sure our bills get paid.

Spare me the histrionics.  From both the Democrats, and the Republicans.  Because even though I think conservatives have the upper hand with their desire to reduce government spending, it doesn't seem they're really interested in doing so democratically.

Looking back over the past couple of decades, as the right-wing hawk syndrome has wafted across the country, conservative Republicans have duplicitiously used the ballot box to gain elected office, but they're loathe to use the very politics that got them in office to actually make government work the way they want it to.

True, politics is an unsavory business at best and a morally-criminal enterprise at worst, but in a democracy, politics are hard to avoid.  These days, it seems that most Republicans have forgotten that compromise is essential for getting anything done in politics.  That's one reason why a government shut-down is looming this week:  Republicans seem intent on proving a point, rather than winning converts to the discipline of fiscal prudence.

Yes, the point is worthy of being proven:  we need to cut expenses.  But isn't how that point gets made also important?

It's not like their former champion, George W. Bush, had nothing to do with the massive budget deficits conservatives now find appalling.  In a matter of two short years, do Republicans expect Washington to come full-circle, from Bush's blank checks to Boehner's blank accounts?

Like it or not, American democracy is all about give-and-take for the good of the country as a whole.  Remember, liberal Democrats have been democratically elected (with the possible exception of Chicago), just as conservative Republicans have.  This means the budget struggle on Capitol Hill isn't so much a matter of partisanship as it is the society in which we live.  That's not to say that Democratic politicians don't need to face facts and let budget axes do some dirty work.  But Republicans need to use a little logic themselves.

After all, Republicans may not be part of the problem.  But does shutting down the government make them part of the solution?