Friday, December 30, 2011

Lukewarm Faith or Politics?

God does not tolerate lukewarm Christians.

He says so in Revelation 3:16: "So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth."

Moderate faith is evil. We know that.

But are moderate politics?

I ask, because despite the fervent right-wing partisanship held by many people of faith, I can't find a Biblical justification for extreme politics. In other words, although we believers need to be strong in faith, political moderation is not a sin.

True, being politically moderate means that all government policy may not fit our Christian worldview. It means that compromise plays a key role in making sure enough gets done that suits our sensibilities, since we do not live in a church state, and our laws are civil, not religious. Yes, we may end up not favoring some social policies, especially since hard work, sexual purity, and living within one's means are Biblical concepts. But faith does not hinge on productivity - whether as a Christian, or as an American.

Does political moderation mean that we Christ-followers should, for example, give up the battle against abortion? Of course not. Why should anybody - whether us evangelicals or any heathen unbeliever - abdicate their Constitutional freedoms of advocating for their worldview in civic matters? It's just that since we live in a fallen world, and God never guarantees us that we will reign anywhere on this current Earth, and we all have equal rights in our country, there will be some issues of conscience upon which everyone will not agree.

However, just because Christ's Gospel does not directly address issues like the judiciary, or how much tax is too much, we do know what He expects. Christ's Gospel tells us how to conduct ourselves as we debate in the public square, since God is less concerned about the size of government than He is the size of our hearts.

Does that sound heretical? If so, perhaps that's because many Americans on both sides of the partisan aisle have bought into years of fire-and-brimstone political rhetoric that has been based on... lukewarm theology.

A Faith Greater than Politics

Politics consumes scant space in the Bible precisely because God is neither a Democrat or a Republican. This has meant that many Americans who consider themselves to be religious - both liberals and conservatives - have taken it upon themselves to craft public policy in frameworks of faith. While I agree with this practice in principle, since God's Word is applicable to all areas of life, I'm not sure it teaches that in a republic, we should be surprised if those who do not trust in Christ for salvation do not endorse the way we believe things should be done.

Isn't compromise on issues not pertaining to doctrine taught, at least indirectly, in the Bible? Remember, the Fruit of the Spirit isn't capitalism, small government, low taxes, and the right to bear arms, as good and beneficial as they may be. The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control. We believers are in the world, but not of it. God wants us, as much as we can, to live at peace with our neighbors. Oh yeah - we're supposed to love our neighbors, too.

How can we do that and live out the rest of our faith? A faith that, increasingly, is at odds with popular culture? The Book of Proverbs is replete with instructions for how to interact with people whose worldview is different from ours. Wisdom and logic are taught as essential to everyday life, which implies we will encounter many situations that are not as black and white as we like to think they are.

If all we had to do in politics was make automatic decisions based on Choice A or Choice B, why would we need wisdom or logic? Remember, Proverbs isn't about intelligence - the ability to automate actions based on quantifiable facts. It's about wisdom - the ability to analyze and evaluate, even when quantifiable facts are absent.  We can be intelligent without being wise. You can be wise without being intelligent. But wisdom requires a mental dexterity that intelligence doesn't.

Picking the Right Battles

I'm all about picking battles wisely. Sometimes I pick the wrong battle, but there's an art to sizing up the opposition, crafting an appropriate line of reasoning, and knowing how long to sustain one's inflexibility on an issue. Part of picking battles wisely involves knowing the right time to start considering compromises - and how much compromise can be sustained before you actually begin to suffer defeat.

After all, in the grayness of politics, defeat isn't so much a set point in time, or dollar amount, as much as it is the perception of weakness. But Who became weak for us, at least in the world's eyes? Does God call His people to win elections and force through legislation, or does He call us to honor Him by, um, protecting widows and orphans, treating other people more highly than ourselves, not loving money, and sharing each other's burdens? Every one of these scriptural mandates involves compromise - compromising what we want to do, even very good things, for the sake of others.

When it comes to testifying before other of the grace God has bestowed upon us, which our United States Constitution gives us plenty of opportunity to do, can politics remain primarily an ideological battle? Yes, we're free to stand against civic ills like bureaucratic waste, high taxation, and unbalanced budgets, but don't forget that God didn't send Christ to save His people from these things.

Has America's evangelical church gotten to the point where we've become so spoiled by prosperity and political freedom that we feel entitled to make enemies out of partisan opponents simply because, well, they don't vote the same way we do? What yanks your chain more: listening to California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, or Redeemer Presbyterian's Tim Keller?

Indeed, perhaps a good way to judge if you've become one of the irrational evangelicals regarding politics and opinions on political moderation would be to evaluate whether you get more excited by Rush Limbaugh or the Sermon on the Mount.

And if enough evangelicals would reconsider their political priorities, not in terms of what we should value, but how we work to protect these values, maybe some real change could start taking place in the United States.

Is political moderation truly the evil evangelicals consider it to be?  Or, might political intransigence actually be a sign of spiritual moderation?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Peggy Railey's 25-Year-Long Death

Peggy Railey has died.

Twenty-five years ago next April, Peggy was attacked in the garage of her comfortable Dallas home, and strangled so severely that she remained in a vegetative state until her death.*

Twenty.  Five.  Years ago.

During that time, naturally, many of us Texans let the memory of Peggy's horrific ordeal slip from our consciousness.  But as news began to surface yesterday about her final passing, it's been hard to avoid the waves of disbelief, disgust, and anger that revisit our minds upon hearing that last name.

That name she shared with the man we all think tried to kill her:  her husband, the Reverend Doctor Walker Railey.

Railey.  Railey.  Railey!  What images of evil that name can still conjure.

Twenty-five years ago, Walker Railey was the young, ambitious senior pastor at Dallas' historic First United Methodist Church downtown.  With thousands of members, a venerable building, and a prestigious reputation, First Methodist downtown was a plum pastoral assignment within Methodism.  Would somebody sophisticated enough to command its pulpit be stupid enough to try and kill their spouse?

As the city and church quickly became embroiled in the details of Peggy's attack, suspicion began answering that question, trumping disbelief that Walker would give up so much just so he could keep his secret girlfriend.

After all, that was the motive, right?

Walker, Texas Faker?

He must not have anticipated the incongruity the public would sense in his plan.  To us, it just didn't add up.  If it wasn't Walker, how else could a demure North Dallas mom, an organist, and the wife of a respected pastor in a liberal denomination, be almost killed?  Yes, Dallas has its violent streets, but murder in this fashionable neighborhood was extremely rare.  How could Peggy possibly have such ruthless enemies?

Banking on festering scars from Dallas' sordid abuses of civil rights, Walker clumsily floated the idea that he and his family were a target of skinheads unhappy with his advocacy of racial unity.  He left an unconvincing trail of phone messages to his wife in which he tutored her on personal safety.  Anonymous notes with mysterious threats appeared, and he had his church pay for a mobile phone to be installed in his car - a novel amenity at the time - ostensibly for security reasons.  But no angry skinheads ever surfaced, and police eventually deduced that the "security" messages from his car phone were all hoaxes.

Several years later, after still more allegations piled up against him, Walker took the Fifth Amendment 43 times in front of a grand jury convened to indict him.

Forty.  Three.  Times! 

Basically, Walker refused to say anything officially about the attack on his wife.  And the only reason we know he was having an affair with Lucy Papillon, the twice-divorced psychologist daughter of a former Methodist bishop, is because she admitted it without batting a false eyelash.

The two of them moved to California, where it's believed they still live today, albeit not together.  The Railey's two children grew up with their protective guardians in an undisclosed place outside of Texas, and have not been heard from in years.

Peggy's parents, who had retired from Wisconsin and moved to east Texas before she was attacked, arranged for her care at a nursing home near Tyler.  They visited her every day until they succumbed themselves to Alzheimer's and diabetes.  Peggy's brother quit his job, sold his house, and moved to Tyler to help care for all three of them.  He's the one making the private arrangements for her funeral, 25 years after everything but her breath was stolen from her.

Indeed, this story is as breath-taking as it is morose.  A beloved pastor's wife from a high-profile church and her husband with the free-spirited mistress.  Throw in a bizarre suicide attempt by the husband, a botched prosecution of his case which let him go free, and nary a visit by him to his vegetative wife's bedside in 25 years.  Not that she was still his wife - he divorced her before too long, and got out of having to pay any alimony by declaring personal bankruptcy.  Even their own kids thought their father had done it, and would practically freak out on the rare occasions he tried to visit them in their new home.

Then to cap off this miserable tale, Peggy dies on the day after Christmas,* 2011.  Alone, except for her brother, after being a prisoner of her own incapacitated body for a quarter of a century.  Being in a vegetative state, but not comatose, leaves open the possibility that for the past 25 years, Peggy could cognitively interpret what was going on around her, yet she physically could not respond to any of it.  How utterly horrible a scenario.

Reporters from the Dallas media have identified Walker as being on FaceBook, currently with 265 friends.  Nobody seems to know where he's working, although it's been said that he served on staff for a while at a Nazarene church in Pasadena.  Papillon apparently practices some combination of psychology and spirituality out of an office on Beverly Hills' posh Wilshire Boulevard, and has her own website.

Is it mean-spirited of me to not be glad they've been able to move on with their lives?

Are Methodists Like Birds of a Feather?

A former co-worker of mine, back in college when I sold mens' clothing at Jas. K. Wilson, had been hired by Walker at First Methodist Dallas shortly before Peggy's attack.  G.W. was a good ol' boy's good ol' boy, a bow-legged giant of a man who smoked a pipe on our store's selling floor and had been, years before, senior pastor of a large Methodist church in suburban Dallas.  That is, until his wife caught him having an affair with his church secretary.

But G.W. wasn't like Walker - he didn't try to hide much.  G.W. divorced his wife to marry the younger secretary, and left the ministry to work in retail.  At least, until Walker, who I presume was an acquaintance from Southern Methodist University, their mutual alma-mater, invited G.W. to serve as First Methodist Dallas' pastor to senior adults.

I can't remember why, but one morning in the early days of the Railey travesty, before Walker left Texas, and years before his criminal trial, I found myself driving past First Methodist's imposing edifice on Ross Avenue.  And I recalled that G.W. had extended to me an open invitation to stop by and visit him anytime.  I'd never been close to G.W., but now having him be a connection with the sinister goings-on ripping First Methodist apart, I figured now was as good a time as any to exercise his invite.  I found a place to park and ambled inside.

Somewhat to my amazement, G.W. was pleased to see me and wasted no time in giving me a tour of the church's grand, horseshoe-shaped sanctuary.  I'm sure he knew why I was there, and it wasn't long before we were talking about the Raileys.  G.W. insisted that he believed in Walker and his innocence, not only because Railey had generously offered him a relatively prestigious job despite his personal history as a pastor, but because only a fool would try using murder to cover up something as, well... relatively benign as an affair.

And I figured G.W. had enough expertise in that last subject to know what he was talking about.  At the time, since Railey had yet to practically trumpet his guilt by pleading the Fifth 43 times, and he'd yet to divorce his wife, or run off to California with a bleached blonde, I suppose I was willing enough to give Railey the benefit of the doubt.

After all, G.W. got caught cheating on his wife, and the Methodists didn't hold it against him forever.

Today, though, looking back through a jaded lens of memory, in which overwhelming circumstantial evidence usually proves to be terribly accurate, I think good ol' G.W. was snookered by Railey.

Just as Texas' legal system was. Although Peggy's family won a civil lawsuit against him, inexplicably, at Walker's criminal trial, the prosecutors from Dallas County never bothered introducing the bit about the Railey's son telling cops he saw his dad strangling his mom in their kitchen.  The poor kid was only five at the time.  Do 5-year-olds make up that kind of stuff?

At least for the sake of Peggy, who met her Maker on December 26,* Walker will one day meet his, too.  According to Hebrews 9:27, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment." 

I'm thinking Walker's repentance now, before he gets there, could make a big difference in how that celestial meeting will go.

*Note:  This essay was written with information gleaned from multiple news sources stating Mrs. Railey died on Sunday, December 25.  It has since been reported that her actual date of death was December 26, 2011.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Any Story Behind My Top Ten Stories?

As the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Eleven winds down, a lot of media sites will be spending the "dead week" between Christmas and New Year's by cataloging what has transpired over these past 365 days.

They'll look at who died this past year, the natural disasters which shook our planet, and other major events which will soon become the topics of history books.

Or, perhaps more accurately, history e-readers.

I'm not a huge fan of nostalgia, but readership of this blog will likely be fairly low this week, since many people are on vacation, so I've decided to do something similar to other websites.  Today, I've run the numbers on this blog, and posted which essays have had the most activity from my readers this year.

And the list isn't exactly what most of my readers might expecting.

Granted, it's no surprise that this year's most-read essay was my report on judging at a debate tournament of homeschooled teenagers.  I e-mailed the link to some friends of mine who either homeschool their own kids, or were homeschooled as kids, and they told two friends, and so on and so on.

Harbor inaccurate assumptions of homeschoolers being a sheltered, technologically-illiterate lot if you like, but they're an exceptionally wired group of people.  And if that doesn't square with your stereotype of today's new breed of homeschooling, you definitely need to read that essay of mine!

Inexplicably, however, is the second most-researched post this past year:  my end-of-year summary post I wrote - last year, in fact, during the dead week between Christmas and New Year's - about an even earlier essay about the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. 

You'd think that with all of my tirades on matters related to the Christian faith, or even American politics, those would be the top attention-getters on this blog.  But unless Google Analytics, the user-friendly software I use to track activity on my blog, isn't as user-friendly as I think it is, and the real data on this blog's activity is hidden elsewhere, my take on the Burj Khalifa somehow has captured a lot of attention.  Oddly enough, not nearly as many readers clicked on the link to read the full article as read my summary article about it.  So weird.

Google Analytics has not recorded access to my website from web servers in Muslim countries - probably because no Muslim countries allow server farms to link their people to the outside world - so I'm not sure who my audience was for this year-old essay.  I could flatter myself and imagine Tom Cruise and his handlers were referencing it while researching the Burj Khalifa for their new Mission Impossible sequel, but... I kinda doubt it.

Of further curiosity, four of the top ten essays this year were actually written last year.  I guess "going viral" takes longer for some Internet articles than others.

Overall, however, this list helps to explain why I've been rather eclectic in my topics as I've written my essays this year.  After all, I've had access to Google Analytics' reports on my blog since last year, and this isn't the first time I've compiled this list for my own reference.  During the year, I've known that my essay on the Burj Khalifa has remained consistently popular, even though I've been thinking surely something else will eclipse it.  I like to think that my amateur hobby of architectural theory has at least some merit, but I'm not sure this data provides overwhelming evidence of that.

Indeed, I wish people would provide more feedback to me about where they saw my essays referenced, how they found my blog, and why they were interested in a particular essay.  With Google Analytics, I can see the referencing sites, and even the keywords people use to find my content, but I'd like to know if people were satisfied with the information I provided, or at least intrigued by the perspective I offered.

Alas, I suspect it's as my editor for has told me:  sometimes, no feedback means that you either did a good job, or at least you didn't offend or anger anybody.

Somehow, I find the latter hard to believe, at least in relation to this blog!

1.  Thoughts after serving as a juror for a debate tournament between homeschooled teenagers

2.  Architectural critique of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

3.  Reflections on Japanese ethics in the wake of that country's severe earthquake and tsunami this year 

4.  Architectural critique of Antoni Gaudi's iconic Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain  (another essay from 2010)

5.  Thoughts on Detroit, Michigan's historic population decline 

6.  Blunt perspective on the solution to generational poverty and the welfare state  (another essay from 2010, perhaps because entitlements came under so much fire this year?)

7.  Sharing my intrigue over the new stay-fresh packaging for Oreo cookies  (this was relevant in 2010, but why did people find it interesting this year?)

8.  Reaction to the record-setting purchase price of a Silicon Valley trophy house 

9.  Analysis of a wildly controversial pro-life advertisement in New York City 

10.  Exploring how aquatic theme shows can prioritize profits over human life

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Eve Eve Concert

I'm supposed to be showcasing my writing on this blog, but since we're about to embark on the first of our Christian calendar's two holy-days, I wanted do something unique that celebrates the faith uniting us.

And I thought, why not create an online concert for you dear readers, who faithfully trudge through my essays with me day in and day out?  I could share with you some of my favorite Christmas music, and the stuff you may not like you can just skip, proceeding to the next entry in this order of worship.  Don't worry - this music isn't all from old, dead composers.  Two of the pieces are quite new, putting a delicious twist on the assumption that "contemporary" needs to be flaky.

Just be forewarned: you might find yourself enjoying some truly great musical masterpieces!

Indeed, I invite you to consider this a worshipful experience.  Consider taking out about an hour of your day sometime this weekend to work your way through this playlist in a contemplative, yet celebratory fashion.

So, without any further ado, let us proceed with our virtual concert.  Just click the link on each music title.  Please be sure all other communication devices are either turned to "mute" or "off," and allow me to also remind you that any recording or photography during this concert is not permitted.

(That was a joke!)

And now, would you please join me as we invite the Lord's blessing on this time:

"Oh great God, Whose incarnation we commemorate this season, help your people to worship you in spirit and truth, not just as we join in these praises to you, but as we continue throughout this weekend of celebration for your many good gifts to us, not the least of which is our very reason to be joyful, even your dear Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, in Whose name we pray.  Amen."

Opening Fanfare
J. S. Bach, "For the First Day of Christmas (Part 1)" from the Christmas Oratorio

"Of the Father's Love Begotten" Divinum Mysterium by Aurelius C. Prudentius, 413 A.D., translated by John. M. Neale and Henry W. Baker

1. Of the Father's love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see Evermore and evermore.

2. Oh, that birth forever blessed, When the Virgin, full of grace, By the Holy Ghost conceiving, Bare the Savior of our race, And the Babe, the world's Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face Evermore and evermore.

3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him; Angel hosts, His praises sing; Powers, dominions, bow before Him, And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring Evermore and evermore.

4. (Not sung on this recording, unfortunately) This is He whom Heaven-taught singers Sang of old with one accord; Whom the Scriptures of the prophets Promised in their faithful word. Now He shines, the Long-expected; Let creation praise its Lord Evermore and evermore.

5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee: Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving And unwearied praises be, Honor, glory, and dominion, And eternal victory Evermore and evermore!

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"

"Once in Royal David's City"

The Narrative
"From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable" by Stuart Townend

Despite its sub-par audio quality and quaint aesthetics, I chose this video because the girls who are singing come from an African orphanage, helping to represent the global breadth of God's salvific plans through the incarnation of His Son.

The Invitation
"O Come, All Ye Faithful"

An Affirmation
Hector Berlioz, "The Shepherd's Farewell" from L'enfance du Christ

Thou must leave thy lowly dwelling, The humble crib, the stable bare. Babe, all mortal babes excelling, Content our earthly lot to share. Loving father, Loving mother, Shelter thee with tender care!

Blessed Jesus, we implore thee With humble love and holy fear. In the land that lies before thee, Forget not us who linger here! May the shepherd's lowly calling, Ever to thy heart be dear!

Blest are ye beyond all measure, Thou happy father, mother mild! Guard ye well your heav'nly treasure, The Prince of Peace, The Holy Child! God go with you, God protect you, Guide you safely through the wild!

"O Magnum Mysterium" from the ancient Matins for Christmas; this version composed in 1994 by Morten Lauridsen of Los Angeles, California

Latin text:  O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!  Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.

English translation:  O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!  Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

The abrupt ending of this video cuts out the concluding prayer, so I took the liberty of crafting the last sentence:

"Eternal God, Who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of Thy one true Light, bring us who have known the revelation of that Light on Earth to see the radiance of Thy heavenly glory through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

"Christ, Who by His incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly fill you with peace and goodwill, and make you partakers in the joy of His love; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen."

J. S. Bach, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" and "Et in Terra Pax" from the Mass in B Minor

Yes, we have South Koreans singing in Latin!  The Gospel isn't just for English speakers, is it?  I hope I don't need to translate, but just in case, "gloria in excelsis Deo" means "Glory to God in the highest," and "et in terra pax" means "and peace on earth."

G. F. Handel, "Hallelujah Chorus" from Messiah

(And yes, tradition dictates that you now rise to stand in honor of the King of Kings - even if you're in your living room at home.)

I've chosen our new friends in South Korea to lead us in Handel's penultimate worship song - literally with tears in my eyes - as I rejoice with saints around our world who are celebrating the birth of our Savior this weekend along with us!  They sing the famous text from the Hallelujah Chorus in their native language, yet we don't need a translator to join along with them in joyous proclamation that He whose incarnation we commemorate will truly reign forever and ever!


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cancelling Worship Because it's Christmas?


That's what it is.

Churches closing for the day on Christmas Sunday.

Okay, maybe more "oxy" than "moronic."  Yet it's still counter-intuitive.

Sure, a lot of Christians today don't go to church when Christmas falls on Monday through Saturday. But maybe we should. When I was growing up and my family spent our Christmases in Brooklyn, we always went to Golgotha Finnish Congregational Church on 44th Street every Christmas night.  There was something about spending at least a short amount of time at church on that holy day that seemed appropriate.

Even if, every year, the service was rather inappropriately capped off by the minister's wife, Mrs. Salo, donning a Santa outfit and masquerading as Joulupukki down the center aisle of the sanctuary, handing out plastic fishnet stockings filled with hard candy to all us kids.

But we won't get into the Santa thing right now.  Her heart was in the right place!  Besides, it was less questionable because Joulupukki (pronounced "YOL-eh-bu-kee) is just a kind-hearted Finnish mortal, not an omniscient American deity.

Meanwhile... fast forward back to today, and consider the practice of evangelical churches hardly ever opening for corporate worship services when Christmas Day happens during the week.  Just because we don't go to church every Christmas Day now, you'd at least think believers in the day's Namesake would want to go to church and worship Him on what we call His birthday - on the same day we ordinarily go to church.

You'd "think" that would be the case, anyway, but in America, you'd likely be wrong. Local media here in north Texas are reporting that over 60 relatively prominent Protestant churches are cancelling corporate worship services this Sunday.

Not that you're a heretic for cancelling church on a Sunday.  Or that 60 churches not meeting this Sunday is a huge percentage of the total number of churches here in this religion-saturated part of the country.

Or that it's blasphemous to deny the sanctity of December 25.

There's nothing intrinsically sacred about the date.  It's almost a fact that Christ wasn't born on December 25.  History didn't record the date of His birth, and experts tell us it was more likely sometime in the spring than at the beginning of winter.  European tradition and the Roman Catholic Church selected December 25 more out of cultural contrivance than authentic historicity.  So December 25 is incidental, not inerrant.

But shouldn't what this date represents for Christians be symbolic and worthy of respect?  The incarnation of the one, holy, true God of the universe.  God with us - Emmanuel.  Christ, the Lord.  The most utterly fantastic miracle ever to take place on our planet.

And we're too busy unwrapping presents under conifers to bother ourselves by going to church?  Because, really: that's the only reason churches are cancelling Christmas.

Haven't we gotten the cart before the horse?  I use that imagery even though I hesitate at comparing the incarnation of our Savior to a horse.  But isn't that what churches are doing?  They're not even bothering to acknowledge the "reason for the season," like the trite saying goes.  It's too inconvenient.  It's not practical to expect enough Christian families to stifle their materialistic urges and assemble together for corporate worship.  We can't force people to attend by putting them on a guilt trip if they don't. Maybe if we have Christmas Eve services instead, our congregants who are upset about us not having church the next day will feel better.

Plus, with all those kids being deprived of their raids under the Christmas tree, knowing that every other kid in the world is being showered with toys at that very moment (as if even that were true), the service would be a cacophonous mess with parents shushing their squirming kids, and agitating themselves for the preacher to wind things up before Uncle Joe and Aunt Sally arrive for Christmas lunch.

Yeah, there's too many logistics to overcome for families to put aside everything else and congregate for worship.  Too many sacrifices to be made.  After all, Christ came to give us freedom, not shackle us to church schedules.  He wants us to be happy and enjoy our holidays free of church responsibilities.

Well, with that attitude, why not chuck corporate Sunday worship services out the window completely?  If we can't set aside the presents for one day every seven years (like the Jewish practice of forgiving debts every seven years - go figure) and attend church just because it's Sunday, and we're Christians, who serve Christ, Who tradition says was born on this day... then what is our faith worth?

Probably not much more than a plastic fishnet bag in the shape of a sock filled with hard candy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Not Getting the Write Job

Even though I blog almost every weekday, I like my privacy.

I write about personal convictions, yes, but they're convictions I'd tell almost anybody.

For example, I've written about my stance against gay marriage, but one of my best friends is gay, and I've already told him the same things I've blogged for you.  He doesn't agree with me, but we're still friends.

I've written about my centrist political opinions, even though those same opinions seem to cause more friction between my evangelical friends and me than my gay marriage opinions do between my gay friend and me.

Odd, huh?

Occasionally, I've even allowed myself to wander off into some musings about unemployment, an exceptionally personal subject for me, since aside from my monthly writing gigs with - for which I'm extremely grateful - I recently completed my second year of being jobless.

To be honest, I really don't like talking about myself. At least when it comes to topics where I'm seen as weak, unproductive, and insignificant.  Three things almost every working American considers the unemployed to be.

Weak, unproductive, and insignificant.

Conservatives figure something's drastically wrong with my work ethic, while liberals say I'm proof our economic system is broken.  Either way, in our culture, for the most part, if you're unemployed, you're disenfranchised socially.

Perhaps I've been woefully naive in thinking that if I could prove myself at writing, I'd be able to get a writing job.  My supportive editor at, upon learning that I wanted to write, suggested that about a year and a half of three blog entries each week oughta provide a decent portfolio for prospective employers to evaluate.

Which may be true... if anybody was hiring.  What few connections I have in the writing world paint as depressing an employment scenario in all forms of publishing as exists in virtually any other profession.  Basically, it seems as if employers in the United States - except for the federal government - are holding their collective breath, waiting for the current White House occupant to be voted out of office so they'll know what to expect tax-wise.  If there's one thing capitalism doesn't thrive upon, it's fiscal uncertainty.  And that's what we've got in Washington these days.

Not that it's just President Barack Obama's fault, especially since none other than the Wall Street Journal came out yesterday with an uncharacteristically negative assessment of Republican leadership in both the House and Senate.

But I think something else, other than national politics, may be at work.  Not just in America's employment numbers, but my own individual experience as one of the chronically unemployed.

God may be allowing our society to experience some fundamental changes in the way we view work, employment, financial rewards, and the purpose of money.

Living off of credit card debt and generous gifts of cash from family members isn't a healthy long-term plan for anybody.  But it's what many unemployed Americans - not just me - have been doing for a while now.  We're assuming that good times will return, and that debts will be repaid, and that we'll become givers again, instead of takers.

But the cynic in me increasingly wonders if, whenever any "good times" return, they will take more the form of adequate provision rather than abundance.

We were told that education is the key to financial reward, but these days, plenty of under-educated people can earn salaries larger than over-educated professionals in fields like education and healthcare.  Just ask anybody looking for employment, and anybody responsible for hiring, and they'll tell you that interpersonal connections weigh far more than education and experience in today's job market.  Statistically, it may still appear as though the more education people in our society receive, the more money they can earn; but individually, that's far from any guarantee.

Granted, I can't hold my BA in Sociology as a get-a-great-job-easily card.  But I never expected to get rich off of it.  I never thought it would be so worthless in our economy, either.  Liberal arts alumni, for all the gushing corporate America does over people qualified to think wholistically, have probably become the least-employable people on the planet, since it seems companies don't want employees who extrapolate information as much as they want robots to blindly process that information.

I can do both in a job.  Shucks, like many liberal arts majors, I've spent years doing more of the latter than the former in a variety of jobs!  But as many employees become less human in the eyes of their employers and more of a cost factor, the pay available for the mundane jobs continues to slide.  At least in terms of the cost of living, and executive pay.

We're told that it's because we're not worth as much as we used to be, now that we have a global economy.  Which may be quite true.  But at some point, even $10 an hour won't pay the expenses corporate America still expects the working class to accrue.  After all, ours is a consumer-based economy, and if the working class doesn't have the money to buy the stuff companies make, then whose fault is it that our economy suffers?

We hear of how our new generation of college graduates would prefer flex time over higher wages.  We're told that the conventional 9-to-5 job is quickly becoming outdated.  But how much of this is a product of employees actually getting what they want in our job market, and employees having to settle for what the job market offers them?

Even supposing I'd long ago given up on surviving on a simple BA and plowed ahead into a law degree, like many unemployed  (or, as employers claim, "unemployable") liberal arts people do, have you heard how many lawyers are getting laid off these days?

Meanwhile, as I pass through yet another Christmas season as an unemployed person, with my meager mutual fund long ago scraped clean, my savings account bone dry, and plenty of people telling me I write well - but none of them able to give me a job doing so for a living wage, I've come to see that one of my few options is to evaluate what God may be telling me about how I've spent money in the past, how grateful I should be for those who give me money now, and how I should leaven my desperation for employment against the writing I thought He was guiding me into over two years ago.

And frankly, it doesn't help me to realize that I'm not the only person in this predicament.

Actually, I'm surprised more Americans aren't concerned that so many people like me exist in our country.  Not so that I can feel an outpouring of sympathy, because sympathy is the last thing I and most of America's unemployed want.  Or need.

But because if our economy can limp along for three years now, with all of us out of work, who says it can't absorb the impact of even more people losing their job?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pay the Innocents from an Equity Bucket

"I am innocent."

"These charges have no basis in fact."

"I will vigorously defend myself against these charges."

Oh, be sure your sins will find you out, you liars.

Are you as tired as I am with all of the public figures who get accused of a major crime, insist they're innocent, and then either get proven guilty in a court of law or end up pleading guilty themselves?

They're never held to account for the way they misled the public by insisting they were innocent, even as they most likely knew all along their claims were bogus.

Case in point:  disgraced Brooklyn State Senator Carl Kruger, who when arrested and charged with $1 million in kickbacks this past March, claimed through his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, that he'd never accepted bribes or abused his position.

Granted, considering the cost of living in New York City, breaking the law for a paltry $1 million seems a little stupid on Kruger's part.  If he'd been smart, instead of simply saying he was not guilty, he'd have pled his case to his fellow New Yorkers:  "Hey, how far do you think I could go on $1 million in this town?  Do you think I'd forfeit my reputation for such cheap bribery?

Well, turns out, he did just that.  Today, after nine months of feigning innocence, Kruger turned himself in to the United States District Court in Manhattan to plead guilty on four of the five charges pending against him.  He's agreed that he's guilty of  two counts of fraud conspiracy and two counts of bribery conspiracy, which add up to a maximum of 25 years in prison.

It's hard to tell which is more embarrassing for him:  being forced to admit he's been lying all this time, or getting caught over a sum less than most one-family houses sell for in Brooklyn's best neighborhoods.

Granted, a New York State politician pleading guilty to corruption is hardly newsworthy in and of itself.  If the state really wanted to, it could probably turn its sprawling Modernist capitol complex into a prison to hold all of their corrupt public officials, and run the state's business out of a nearby Starbuck's with whomever's left.

The point is that just like so many other people who've been indicted and know they're guilty, former Senator Kruger - he resigned before pleading guilty to avoid being automatically terminated upon his plea - lied to the public without impunity for months.  Sure, a lot of people probably didn't believe him, but it could always be said that "a man's innocent until proven guilty."  And Kruger banked on that rhetoric to continue holding his Senate seat and exploiting a lavish - garishly gaudy, actually - lifestyle on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Yeah... about that lifestyle.  The never-married Kruger, 61, has been the State Senator for 16 years representing an upper-middle-class enclave called Mill Basin, along the murky shoreline of southeastern Brooklyn.  He lives with a pair of brothers, who are both unmarried gynecologists, and the brothers' divorced mother.  In a farcical stucco palace originally built for a Mafia crime boss.  A guy who reputedly had the architect for his home knocked off, probably for agreeing to design such a horrible-looking dwelling.

At four stories of somber gray walls and navy blue stripes - yeah, hideous, right? - with goofy white clip-art-looking decorations haphazardly stuck on, the "mansion" Kruger shares with the gynecologists and their mother boasts its own private dock, which was built on public land.  Metal sculptures sprout from the yard, evoking warped planking left over from some Mafia construction project.  A fake miniature mountain, replete with scraggly pine trees and disturbing statues of children, completes the bizarre homestead.

Maybe there's no law against having bad taste, but if there was, Kruger would already be in jail.

As the Feds were building their corruption case against Kruger, they compiled a series of recorded telephone calls in which the senator and one of the gynecologist brothers shared obvious proof of an intimate interpersonal relationship, yet even knowing the tapes will undoubtedly be played in court for the world to hear, Kruger has maintained that he's not gay.

And no, it's not a crime to be gay, either.  But continuing to insist the evidence proving the fact is wrong seems more of a case of serial denial than logical public relations.  After all, this is Brooklyn.  And a liberal part of Brooklyn, too.  He's already bought-off plenty of voters, back when he could still run for office. What's he got to lose by at least being honest about his sexual orientation?

It's as though he's living in a fantasy world, where reality is only what your lawyer can't get you out of.

Sadly, Kruger isn't the only public figure guilty of playing the public for a fool in this way.  He's just one of today's more interesting perpetrators of this deceit.

Unfortunately, all of these claims of innocence that inevitably get blown out of the water when the truth comes out do have victims.  The victims are all of those people who are accused of something they really didn't do.  They get hauled off to the courthouse, they're forced to do a perp walk, they hold impromptu press conferences pleading their innocence, all to the deaf ears of the public. 

The court of public opinion is often woefully unfair.

We've become desensitized to cries of innocence because "where there's smoke, there must be fire." But by the time an innocent person is proven to be so, the public doesn't care anymore, or the story isn't relayed properly, or the wrongly accused has already lost too much credibility and social standing to make up whatever they've lost while living under suspicion - if indeed they can even get back to where they'd been before being wrongly accused.

So, I have a solution to this inequity.

We should create an "equity bucket."

Everybody who gets accused or arrested for something and proclaims their innocence should be encouraged to put a significant amount of money in the "equity bucket."  If they manage to get all the way through a trial with proof of their innocence - and their integrity - intact, then they get all of that money back.  Plus interest - kind of a "we're sorry" for putting an innocent person through the wringer like that.

How does the amount paid out in interest get funded, you ask?  If the accused person finally admits that yeah, they're guilty as sin, or the courts prove they're guilty, the person forfeits all of the money they put into that "equity bucket."

Something tells me there will be more than enough money left over after the truly innocent are proven to be so, that the "equity bucket" will probably never run out of funds.

Unless enough people who are guilty of crimes actually 'fess up when they're caught.  And forgo the charade of innocence in public.

Because just as people who know they're guilty hope their claims of innocence can somehow morph into corroborating proof in a court of law, too many innocent people lose too much getting lumped in with all of the genuine losers.

"Be sure your sins will find you out."

That works most of the time.

Except if you were innocent to begin with.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rev. Driscoll - the New Dr. Ruth?

Sex sells.

Just ask Mark Driscoll, the controversial pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.  Driscoll came under fire in 2009 from several evangelical corners, including noted theologian John MacArthur, for preaching a saucy - some say heretical - set of sermons in Scotland from the Song of Solomon.

And I use the term "sermons" loosely.  He's been quoted as recalling for his Scottish congregation, like a jock in a locker room recounting romantic conquests, the time he asked his wife to promenade in front of him down a supermarket aisle so he could admire her, um, assets.  And that's just about the only family-friendly bit of the sermon I can relay on this blog.  For an outline of Driscoll's sex-saturated theology, click here, but you have been warned.

Now Christian blogger Tim Challies reports that Driscoll and his wife have co-authored a new book entitled Real Marriage, ostensibly following in the footprints of Tim Keller and other popular Christian writers who've penned how-to tomes about the holy covenant between husband, wife, and God.  Except the Driscoll's have thrown in a chapter they hope sounds smutty enough - without triggering morality censors - which they've entitled "Can We ____?"

Wink, wink.  Nudge, nudge.

Basically, Rev. and Mrs. Driscoll run through the broad spectrum of positions and practices available to lovemaking couples and then evaluate whether they're Biblical or not.


Let's think for a moment about all of the issues confronting the evangelical church today.  Famine in Africa.  War in Africa.  Terrorism.  Syria.  Churches being burned and Christians being persecuted from Egypt to Indonesia.  Gay marriage.  National debt.  Household debt.  Unemployment.  The collapse of public education.  Elder care.  Child abuse.

Into this vast panoply of ills and dilemmas, Driscoll thinks oral sex deserves a hearing?

Is this really what evangelical couples are worrying about these days? Of course, a lot of them probably did grow up listening to Dr. Ruth Westheimer on the radio.

When I first read Challies' gentle incredulity regarding some of Driscoll's theology, I half thought he was joking, until I browsed the reader comments and researched the racy Scotland sermons.  Churched people, just like the unchurched, seem to really be taking sides on what Christian spouses can do to each other in the bedroom.

And, by the way, not to deny Driscoll any royalties from the book; but basically, Challies reveals that Driscoll and his wife finally say everything is good between the sheets - and anyplace else, for that matter - except the two things we already know to be wrong:  abortion and abuse.

Thankfully, Challies points out that while actual practices may be both allowable and beneficial, the reasons why people pursue them may not be.  Plastic surgery, for example.  The reason why a person undergoes plastic surgery is more important to God, Challies rightfully clarifies, than whether the actual body part should be modified.  What a critical aspect for any pastor to omit from a book about Christians and sex.

Granted, I don't agree with Challies about everything all the time, but in his three blog posts on Driscoll's book, he's crafted a careful rebuttal on a delicate topic with a genuine desire for truth and minimal confrontationalism that are worth the read.

Unfortunately, some of Driscoll's defenders can't appreciate that.  Which only further highlights the possibility that we're getting to the point with this saint from Seattle where too many lines are being crossed for integrity to continue to be marginalized.

Back when another group of bloggers on Cripplegate had blasted Driscoll for yet another of his unwise ministry pursuits - at the time, Driscoll had become oddly obsessed with denouncing the Reformed doctrine of cessationism - they created a list of five ways many fans of bad theology insist on defending their favored preacher, whether it's Driscoll or anybody else. These were described as the "Five Uninvited Guests" on every blog wall where reader responses are welcomed.  In their feedback, these readers regurgitate the same five spurious reasons why Christians shouldn't point out the errors in the theology espoused by other believers.

It's another clever read that helps explain why so much bad theology persists in North American evangelical Christianity.

Suffice it to say that while Driscoll has as much right to preach what he wants to preach, just as I have as much right to write what I want to write, there remains a benchmark of unwavering truth against which anybody can measure what we say and write.  The Bible doesn't leave as much open to interpretation as we sometimes want to think it does.

For Driscoll and his wife to be enthusiastic about sex is one thing.  Indeed, sex is a gift of God for marriage partners intended not only for procreation, but enjoyment and sharing mutual affection.  And having yet another book about Christian marriage probably isn't the worst thing in the world, considering how weak many marriages of churched people have become.

Yet it's hard to corroborate Driscoll's juvenile libidenousness from his Scotland "sermons" with the legitimate pastoral advising he and his wife purport to provide in Real Marriage.  He says his book answers all the questions parishioners wouldn't dare ask their own pastor, even in private.

Which makes me wonder:  if those are the questions with which Driscoll's fans have been struggling, questions that have heretofore gone unanswered, then why hasn't their presumed theological astuteness in so many other areas - where they apparently have less urgent questions - been able to resolve their issues in the bedroom?

Challies says the new Christian sex book is due to be released on January 3. Just in time for the post-Christmas sales slump his publisher is probably hoping to avoid.

Friday, December 16, 2011

S'No Leadership Fabrication

What is the definition of "leadership?"

If leadership can be defined as the ability to get good people to do great work, despite your own inadequacies, then this story will show I'm probably a good leader.

Otherwise... not so much.

Many Christmases ago, while living in New York City, I attended historic Calvary Baptist Church on Manhattan's West 57th Street, a major cross-town boulevard.  Desperate for Christian fellowship in the big bad city, I had joined the volunteers at Calvary's primary outreach to the city's singles, a Friday night coffeehouse ministry featuring contemporary Christian music.

I know - I know!  Contemporary Christian music has never really been my thing, but as I said, I was desperate to connect with Christians of my own "age and stage" in a meaningful way.  And the Solid Rock Cafe, as the ministry was called - after the famous Hard Rock Cafe restaurant down the street - needed volunteers.

Plucked from Obscurity

Calvary in general, and the Solid Rock Cafe in particular, were wonderful microcosms of the city's diversity.  We had a college student of Indian descent who set up the lighting, a photographer who set up the sound equipment, a Ford fashion model who ran the kitchen, and various other believers of all backgrounds, professions, and skin colors who filled in wherever they were needed.  Surprisingly, perhaps, considering the evangelical wasteland most of America's Northeast has become, almost all of the musicians we auditioned lived in and around New York City.  And while some were obviously better than others, I don't really recall us ever having anyone who was downright awful.

As it happened, a few weeks after I joined this group, the woman who'd been leading the ministry announced she was pregnant and would be stepping aside.  Not to worry, however; Amy had been one of the few married volunteers.  She and her husband had purchased a house out on Long Island, and now they were starting their family.  So everything was great.

Except that all of the other long-time leaders in the ministry who could have stepped into her shoes had defected from Calvary to join Tim Keller's fledgling church, Redeemer Presbyterian.  And although Calvary didn't mind former church members volunteering at the Solid Rock Cafe, church leadership wanted a Calvary member in charge for accountability reasons. 

One evening, while still living in Brooklyn, I got a call from Amy asking me to consider taking over for her.  I was floored - I hadn't yet joined Calvary as a member, and I was still learning the ropes - but since I was eager to get further involved, I accepted.  Calvary's pastor who oversaw the ministry, an associate pastor named Ken, met with me and agreed with Amy's selection.  And since nobody else already in the ministry wanted the additional responsibility, they welcomed my promotion with open arms.  And probably a fair amount of relief that somebody else was willing to take over instead of them.

Hey - I was young and naive.  I didn't know until later about all of the intricate church politics at Calvary that squeezed Ken through the ringer sometimes.  Music-wise, Sunday mornings were strictly classical and traditional at Calvary, and I loved that about the church.  Yet even though I'd come from a church here in Texas that had gone completely contemporary, I didn't fully appreciate how threatened some of Calvary's long-time members were by the rock music going on downstairs every other Friday evening.


On coffeehouse nights, we'd set out a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk along 57th Street outside Calvary's sanctuary doors.  We'd bring up a table from the basement and collect the modest $5 cover charge right there in the narthex, often with the doors wide open, until Calvary's deacons decided - wisely, probably - that having a cash box right by an open door along a major cross-street in Manhattan wasn't the safest idea.  We later moved our welcome table back downstairs, to a mezzanine below the sanctuary near the fellowship fall, our usual coffeehouse venue.

When I say casual and understated, that's what our operation was.

One time, while sitting at the welcome table with the narthex doors opened to 57th Street, I watched as a few tourists walked by, and they saw our sandwich board announcing "Solid Rock Cafe."  They stopped, shook their heads, and then lamented something about how even New York's Baptist churches were going to Hell in a handbasket.

That's why to this day, despite my strenuous objections regarding most contemporary Christian music, and my contention that "Christian rock" is an oxymoron, I choose my words extremely carefully.  During my tenure at the Solid Rock Cafe, I learned that there is a difference between the music and the hearts of its performers, even though sometimes that difference is difficult to discern.

At any rate, since I was in charge, I instituted a regular schedule of administrative meetings for the entire volunteer staff, so we'd all be on-board with what was taking place in the ministry.  Not that we did anything earth-shaking.  I would draft agendas for our meetings, give everybody a copy, and we'd work through them at a steady clip.  In my youth and naivete, I thought that's how all church meetings ran, until Ken remarked that our meetings were among the quickest he'd ever endured during his years of church ministry.

And indeed, attendance at the meetings actually grew as more of our volunteers realized they were efficient and respected their time.  Somehow, we'd manage to address everybody's concerns and feedback without hopping onto a lot of rabbit trails - something I myself am woefully guilty of instigating during meetings for which I'm not in charge.

During one of these meetings, we came up with the idea of hosting a special Christmas concert for the Solid Rock Cafe, where we'd feature a catered meal and a major talent.  (That's show-biz lingo for a popular musician.)  We'd had large concerts before, with the likes of Kathy Troccoli and Scott Wesley Brown, but they were conventional productions in the sanctuary.  This time, we'd do something more intimate, with tablecloths and special lighting, making it more of an event than just a generic night out.

The first Christmas we sponsored this concert, featuring Calvary member and Broadway actor George Merritt, our concept was very well-received.  So the next year, we decided to take it a step further.

White Christmas in Fellowship Hall

Calvary's fellowship hall is like many Baptist fellowship halls - more functional than fancy.  To fix that, at least temporarily, we needed an inexpensive yet striking solution.

I learned that as a member of 57th Street's business association, which included such famous neighbors as the Russian Tea Room, Steinway Hall, and Carnegie Hall, Calvary had a standing offer for discounts from a fabric store down the block.  Apparently, 57th Street used to be part of New York's fabric district, and a few venerable shops remained nearby.

Remember, I was young and naive.  I came up with the wacky idea of completely covering the drab off-white walls of our fellowship hall with yards and yards of white fabric, with maybe some silver thread in it to conjure up the idea of snowbanks with softly glistening flakes.  Ken's secretary went down to the fabric shop and selected what seemed like miles of white fabric with silver string woven into it, which the shop sold us for next to nothing.  Granted, it wasn't stylish fabric; I wouldn't have wanted to wear anything made out of it. But it suited my idea, and the price was certainly right.  So the Thursday night before our Christmas concert that year, I met with several volunteers after work to drape it around the room.

Except... all of the walls were concrete.  Duhh... it was a basement room, after all, and the walls were structural!  For some reason, I had assumed we could just tack the fabric discretely into the walls, but we quickly determined that we'd need a staple gun, or a hammer and nails.  But remember - this is New York City, a place where things like staple guns, hammers, and nails aren't necessarily in ready supply.  Fortunately, somebody with keys rummaged around in the locked janitor closets and found a huge hammer, and finally some small tacks.

We had a tall stepladder, which I, as the leader, proceeded to climb, so I could tack the cloth up against the cracks between the walls and the suspended ceiling.  Except, as you might imagine, the tacks wouldn't hold much weight for very long.  Oh, it was so frustrating, getting this shiny fabric put in place, only to have tacks fall out after you'd moved the stepladder along a few feet for another attachment job.

I've never been known for my patience.  I had a pounding headache and could barely breathe from an intense sinus infection.  I was tired, I hadn't had any dinner, since I'd rushed uptown to the church from my office downtown, needing to project an image of responsibility and authority by being early for the project.  For some reason, none of us expected this to be a complicated endeavor.  Yet we were making no progress at all.

How many times I dropped the hammer onto the floor while trying to nail those small tacks, I can't recall.  We had enormous, surprisingly heavy bolts of fabric that I didn't want to cut - even though doing so would have made our job easier - because I wanted seamless rolls of the glistening white fabric wrapping around the room.

Finally, I dropped the hammer one too many times - into my face, as I was looking up - and it fell into my left eye socket, popping my glasses off of my nose.  The falling hammer pushed my glasses awkwardly into my face, bending the metal frames, and cutting a small section of skin around my eye.  I could immediately feel it turning black and blue.

Of course, the tack bounced to the floor below, followed by the hammer, so I asked my friends to pick them up for me so we could continue.  But standing on the tiled floor, they all looked up at me on the ladder, and told me that enough was enough.  It had been a good idea to decorate the fellowship hall so elaborately, but we were wasting our time trying to make it work.  We didn't know what we were doing, and by now, we'd wasted so much time figuring out that we didn't know what we were doing, that we'd run out of time to do anything right.  It was late, I'd nearly gauged my eye out, fabric walls weren't essential to the concert, and we all had to go to work in the morning.

Their logic was irrefutable, so ruefully, I concurred.  We fixed up a couple of other minor details in preparation for the next evening's event, turned off the lights, and went home.

No Dreaming of This White Christmas

At work the next day, my sinus infection made me miserable physically, but my ineffectiveness at our decorating efforts the night before humiliated me - even though nobody at the office had any idea about it.  The scar around my eye didn't turn out to be as bad as it looked Thursday night, and I don't think any of my co-workers had even paid much attention to it.  I managed to make it through the day, so bundling up my dented pride, I ventured back uptown to salvage the concert that evening.

Tired, with throbbing sinuses and another empty stomach, I trudged up the steps from the Subway at 7th Avenue, across from Carnegie Hall.  I turned the corner and made my way down a blustery 57th Street to the church.  I pulled open one of the sanctuary's heavy wood doors, and plodded down the corner stairs to the fellowship hall, where I could hear my volunteers already bustling around in preparation for the evening's program.

What a reliable group of people, I thought with a weary smile.

I made my way through the mezzanine towards the balcony overlooking the fellowship hall, and there was Ken.  With two of my volunteer staffers, Krista and Michelle, who had been helping Thursday evening as well. 

And behind them I could see a beautifully-decorated fellowship hall, swathed with glistening white fabric from floor to ceiling!

Ken was beaming.  Krista and Michelle were, too.  The two women had each taken the afternoon off from their jobs to come in and figure out how to hang the fabric. 


I was stunned.  Floored.  Embarrassed.  Immensely grateful.  And then, proud.  Proud to have such friends, fellow servants in Christ, who would do such a thing.  Not for me, necessarily, although they said they really felt sorry for me after the hammer fell onto my face.

But they wanted our Christmas concert to be what we had envisioned it to be during our planning meetings - something special, and a bit unique.

When I tell people today, "some of the best friends I've ever had, I made when I lived in New York City," this is the caliber of people I'm talking about.

Follow the Leader

Throughout that evening, I remember a number of our patrons telling me they couldn't believe they were in the bowels of Calvary's bland fellowship hall!  We dined on a full-course gourmet meal prepared by a church member who used to own an exclusive catering firm.  Then another member of the church, who ran both a public relations firm and a popular solo singing career, provided the lush music for our concert.  And the room glistened not only with people enjoying themselves and being ministered to, but the faint twinkles of what - if you squinted hard enough - could have been snowflakes sprinkled along the softly-lit floor-to-ceiling fabric.

To this day, I still don't know how Krista and Michelle managed to hang the fabric and keep it on the walls without causing permanent damage.  I'm sure they told me, but I was too stunned for it to register.  Today, I thought of e-mailing Michelle, with whom I'm a FaceBook friend, and asking her again, but I think I like keeping this part of the story a little mystery.  For all I know, they duct-taped the fabric on the walls, and incurred the wrath of Calvary's sextons who had to repair the damage when it all came down.  I have no recollection whatsoever of who took it down, or when.  Usually, we were responsible for leaving fellowship hall looking like the Solid Rock Cafe had never taken place.  But I was so humbled by the efforts of my friends that my mind has blocked out what we ever did with all that fabric.

I moved from New York City before the next Christmas concert, but even years later, a friend at Calvary relayed to me that they were still using that fabric for Christmas events at the church.

These days, I've become disenchanted with the incorporation of snow themes with Christmas.  Experts tell us that even though we don't know the exact time of year in which Christ was born, it most likely wasn't anytime in December.  Or even the winter.  And Israel rarely gets snow, even if it was.

Not only may the European traditions of Christmas corrupt the historical integrity of the birth of Christ, they could be becoming increasingly insignificant as more and more people around the globe learn about the Son of God.  People who have never even seen snow.  And have no idea how or why it figures into the Nativity.

Nevertheless, to me now, it's not so much that the fabric with the silver threads looked like snow on the walls of Calvary Baptist Church's fellowship hall.  It's that my friends thought it was a cool-enough idea to try and create the effect by quietly, willingly taking time off from work, and figuring out how to make it happen.

A really good leader would have probably forced themself to think up a way to make that happen on their own.  Or at least have done a bit more reconnaissance around the venue before determining an effective course of action.  Or maybe even pressured the sextons to hang the fabric themselves, since they're the facility experts.

Ultimately, however, I'm satisfied appreciating the fact that volunteer staffers, without being asked, were willing to make extraordinary efforts out of kindness, and with no guarantee of reward.

After all, that's what God wants in all of His true servants, right?

Whether we're called leaders or not.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Don't Ban Logic in Cell Phone Debate

So, you say letting other people driving while using cell phones is dangerous.

But you don't want the government banning you from doing the same thing.

Granted, the chances of banning drivers from cell phone use aren't very good.  It would take an extraordinarily gutsy politician to carry that banner in his or her state, and politicians don't like to be gutsy.

In the meantime, however, reaction to the news that the National Transportation Safety Board recommends a ban on cell phone use in the drivers' seat has brought a ton of anti-government ravers out of the woodwork, all squawking about how the Nanny State Police will soon smother the United States with silly laws.

And while I agree that we shouldn't need a law banning stupid behavior - like using cell phones while driving - plenty of Americans (myself included) have already proven that we're more than willing to risk this extraordinarily dangerous behavior simply because we can.

The only penalty we receive comes if we damage our vehicle - or ourselves - in an accident.

Precedents and Enforcement

But is banning cell phone use, even though it sounds like a draconian measure, entirely un-American?

Consider the rules imposed by the Federal Communications Commission against certain swear words and sexually-suggestive terminology on the nation's airwaves.  Rules that, were they abolished, would elicit howls of protest from many of the same people protesting the proposed ban on cell phone use.

And cuss words don't kill anybody.

To a degree, roadways are like airwaves, are they not?  They're both a form of public domain, shared by society, and intended for our overall protection, productivity, and enjoyment.  Yet just as we recognize the need to police the airwaves for the good of our entire society - particularly to protect children who do not need exposure to such content at such vulnerable ages - don't we also need to protect drivers and their passengers on our roadways?

Granted, one of the strongest arguments against outlawing cell phones is the question of enforcement.  For government to create a Nanny State law is one thing, but for it to create an unenforceable Nanny State law is rubbing salt into the wound.

Unfortunately, the only realistic way to force drivers to hang up and drive is to tie penalties to such a driver who gets involved in an automobile accident.  Their cell phone records would have to be researched by the police.  However, that doesn't sound like a terribly efficient process.  Neither am I sure whether a search warrant would need to be issued, or how much liability might be linked to the trail of cell phone activity.

Indeed, Canada and some US jurisdictions already ban most forms of cell phone use, and some experts claim that crash rates have not declined in those areas.  They try to draw the conclusion that laws banning cell phone use don't work. Yet might this apparent proof actually reflect a woefully ineffective enforcement of those laws?  In other words, the reason current laws don't seem to be reducing the number of accidents may have less to do with these laws being misguided and more to do with these laws incorporating unreliable enforcement methods.

The same number of people may be driving and using their cell phones, even with new laws against such behavior, knowing they won't get caught or penalized.  If and when they do get in a wreck, maybe they just don't tell law enforcement. After all, who's gonna know, if the police don't subpoena their data records?

Isn't the enforceability issue a red herring anyway?  Wouldn't a well-written cell phone ban be about as effective as laws against driving without car insurance?  Haven't most of us resigned ourselves to the fact that only a law will force some people to maintain proper car insurance?  But people driving without insurance don't get caught unless they get stopped for some other infraction, or they're involved in an accident.  So in a sense, laws already requiring insurance are about as "unenforceable" as a cell phone law would be.

The point is that people can throw opinions on the wall of objections all day long, hoping enough will stick to create a plausible scenario of justification as to why banning cell phones is a bad idea.

Is it the Nanny State's Fault that We Need One?

But it really isn't, is it?  It's unpopular, it's inconvenient, it's government-creep... but we Americans have a bad habit of taking liberties and taking them for granted, and in the process, abusing them.  It's like children whose parents give them an inch an they take a mile, only to recoil in distress when the parents realize that their kids can't handle the responsibility.

Ultimately, working through the logistics of banning cell phone use won't be an exercise in futility - even if broader bans on the practice never materialize - as long as Americans realize that driving while on the phone truly is a dangerous distraction, and we collectively make concerted efforts at curbing our own dangerous behavior.

As for making yet another law, just know that the distance between being accountable for your actions and being protected from people who don't sometimes requires a law prescribing just how much unaccountable behavior society can withstand.

And the longer it takes a society to figure out what that amount is, more lives generally end up being at stake.

I hope we can live with that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making a Call for Safety

This past Saturday, when rehearsal for our church choir's Christmas concert concluded, I walked to my car.

I got inside, checked my cell phone, and saw that I had two new messages.  So, I listened to my voicemail, and I returned my calls.

As I did so, I noticed three other choir members make their way individually to their parked cars, get inside, and then sit, like I was doing, listing to their cell phone messages and returning calls.  I could tell, because they kept holding little cell-phone-shaped devices up to their ears.

So there we all sat, in one of our church's parking lots, in our vehicles, conducting personal business on our cell phones.

Before we drove away.

We got on our cell phones and got done what needed to get done before we got onto city streets and freeways.  That's how responsible drivers use their cell phones.

Childishness by the Public Usually Leads to the Nanny State

Unfortunately, my fellow choir members and I this past Saturday are in the minority.  Not only because our church still has a chancel choir, and not even because we sing in it.  But because we respected our responsibility as safe drivers.

When other drivers abdicate that responsibility, who needs to compensate for that?  This is the question our government has decided it needs to answer by recommending a ban on using cell phones while driving.

Admit it:  we haven't needed our National Transportation Safety Board to identify drivers' use of cell phones as a dangerous behavior.  We all know it is.

The question is who protects the driving public from drivers who refuse to discontinue dangerous behaviors like cell phone use while driving?

I'm looking around, and I don't see anyone else but the government.  As unpleasant a notion as generating even more legislation may seem.

Not that banning cell phones in the interest of public safety would be a precedent.  A similar argument was used for creating mandatory seat belt laws.  The theory goes that even though a seat belt won't keep you alive in every automobile crash, people who wear them have a greater survival rate than those who don't.  Plus, wearing a seat belt helps keep drivers behind the wheel where they can better maintain control of their vehicle before they ever crash.  And hopefully avoid an accident altogether.

But with cell phones, the argument that banning their use strikes at more than just personal safety.  Many people conduct business on their cell phones while driving.  They check up on their kids, or their spouse.  They order dinner, they console a friend, or they call for directions out of a dangerous neighborhood.

You have to be flat-out ignorant to ignore the safety benefits of wearing a seat belt - benefits which help ameliorate the consternation of having government-mandated seat belts.  Nevertheless, the fact that we need to have a law requiring seat belt use demonstrates how belligerent the driving public can be when it comes to common sense. But cell phones aren't exactly seat belts; they have so many uses, and they've rapidly become practically indispensable for many people.

Couple the cell phone's perceived indispensability with our distaste for draconian laws against popular behavior, and the NTSB isn't winning many friends with their recommendation yesterday to ban all forms of cell phone use by drivers of moving vehicles.  Such a ban would include not only hand-held phones, but hands-free phones and texting.  The only exception would be in case a driver needs to call 9-1-1.

Although I'd like to think that we don't really need such a law, the statistics appear to prove differently.  And even anecdotal evidence suggests that far too many people assume they're the exception to the rule when it comes to distracted driving.  We've all driven or ridden past vehicles where the driver is floating around their lane, obviously so engrossed in their telephone conversation that what's happening on the roadway is of secondary concern at best.

Many of us - even when we're not on the phone as we drive - have forgotten that driving is not supposed to be a solitary activity.  When we turn on the engine to our vehicle, and back out of our driveway, we automatically begin a civic endeavor, becoming a joint user of a public conveyance.  We enter a realm in which we share reciprocal responsibilities with every other driver.  A realm in which safety for all of us is Job Number One.

Just getting from Point A to Point B doesn't matter if we cause a wreck along the way.  Or get involved in one.

Driving is not blank time.  It is not the dead zone between Point A and Point B.  Just because driving is so routine doesn't make it any less important as an activity.  Cars don't have autopilots, like planes do, because our pathways aren't as restricted as those for airplanes.  We don't ride on rails, like trains, whose courses are controlled by engineers hundreds of miles away.  And as America's streets become more and more congested, drivers are getting bombarded with more and more things to compromise safety.

In addition, our driving public has had more than a decade's worth of practice to adapt to driving while on cell phones, and we just haven't done a good job of it.  When cell phone technology was first introduced, America's drivers had a prime opportunity to demonstrate that we could handle the responsibility of driving safely while on the phone, but unfortunately, we blew it.  Maybe not you specifically, or me, but drivers in general.

Clarifying the Conversation Conundrum

Admittedly, frequent rebuttals to this idea include the valid contention that oftentimes, a person-to-person conversation with somebody riding in a vehicle with the driver can also be distracting.

Yet consider the difference in scenarios between passengers in the same vehicle all having a conversation, and people in two different places having a conversation.  Everybody riding in the same car likely will have a greater awareness of their shared surroundings, and be able to interpret compromising situations, cutting off conversations so the driver can make impromptu maneuvers to avoid danger.  Things like bumper-to-bumper traffic, or a car weaving towards yours at high speed:  everyone in the car shares a vested interest in letting the driver address each situation with minimal distraction. 

Compare that to talking with somebody driving a vehicle you're not inside of.  You're completely excluded from the driver's immediate environment.  You aren't aware of the moment-to-moment conditions they're facing and needing to accommodate.  In such conversations, both you and the driver will more likely attempt to continue an active dialog regardless of safety threats encountered by the driver and completely unbeknownst to you.  Or, the driver will slow their vehicle down so dramatically - or weave about mindlessly as they talk to you - that they become a hazard to other drivers.

You know you've seen it happen.  Maybe you're guilty of it yourself.  Even when no accident takes place, what makes up for the fact that as a distracted driver, you put yourself and other people at risk?

Do it enough times, and the law of averages starts to work against you. And the rest of us.

Equality Under the Law - This Does It, Right?

For better or worse, as a society, we bring laws upon ourselves to combat actions - or inaction - that sufficient numbers of our fellow citizens have proven as detrimental to our overall safety.

So don't blame the government for saying we need laws preventing cell phone use while driving.  Blame your fellow Americans for botching years of opportunity in which they could have proven such a law isn't necessary.

And if you're pro-life, like I am, what's the difference between legally recognizing behaviors that can imperil life either inside or outside the womb, behaviors about which too many people maintain a dangerous ambivalence?

Besides, for all of the businesspeople who have begun squawking that a cell phone ban would cripple their ability to conduct commerce: take heart.  Since the law would apply to everybody, it would mean that your competition wouldn't be able to make calls behind the wheel, either.

You can still pull into a parking lot to make an important telephone call or check messages.

Just like my fellow choir members did.

And if all that just sounds too old-fashioned for you, then think of it this way:  if America's drivers had proven we still can incorporate old-fashioned logic and common sense when it comes to safety, cell phones, and driving, we wouldn't be needing another law to protect us.

From ourselves.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Scoring Tebow-mania

Tim Tebow.

You don't need to be a football fanatic to have heard of him.

He's the sports cause célèbre of the moment; a new, young, dynamic, and photogenic NFL quarterback with a tall frame ensconced in enormous muscles and crowned by an all-American visage.

And claiming a faith in Jesus Christ he doesn't let anybody forget about.  Even as some of his fans in the sports world would rather dwell on his stellar athleticism instead.

So Young, and Already a Star

During his high school years, Tebow exhibited such outstanding football acumen, his parents rented an apartment in another district to establish residency so he could play on a better team.  Even despite his being homeschooled.  Today, as homeschooling continues growing in popularity, the precedent Tebow's family helped establish in Florida is directly contributing to new rules for letting homeschooled athletes in other states play on public school teams.

It was the multiple-award-winning collegiate pedigree Tebow accrued at the University of Florida that has given the sports media big expectations for his NFL career.  Perhaps Tebow's biggest prize to date came early, when he became the first sophomore to win college football's coveted Heisman Trophy.  While he was being groomed for prime time, however, Tebow's faith never lingered in the background.  Before graduating, he appeared as a national pitchman for conservative Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family, whose pro-life commercial airing during Super Bowl XLIV elicited howls of protest from pro-choice advocates.

The controversy fomented by the Super Bowl ad ultimately gave the commercial far more exposure to both the pro-life movement and Tebow than they otherwise might have gotten.  It also provided proof that Tim Tebow could attract broad, national recognition - whether it was good or bad, contributing to his allure in the media.

Turned out, too, that Tebow's mother had been encouraged by her doctors to abort his fetus due to some medical complications during her pregnancy with him, but she refused.  The contrast between that desperate hour years ago and the vibrant young man the Tebow's have raised doesn't favor the pro-choice agenda, after all.  It's the same faith-based belief of abortion equalling murder that Tebow, the football star, continues to profess in his own life.  And that continues to compete for attention with his gridiron prowess.

His is a faith that is not only Christian, but evangelical Christian, a flavor which has lost favor with many folks in our society.  And is misunderstood by many more.  For example, some sports pundits have begun crediting Tebow's faith with the improbable success Tebow's NFL employer, the Denver Broncos, has discovered this season; the Bronco's first season with Tebow, and Tebow's first post-college team.

It's an old superstition that refuses to die:  assuming God takes sides in sports.  Remember the late, great Tom Landry?  Even many Christians claimed he experienced success because of his faith, part of the long-observed fallacy that only good things happen to "good" people.  Yet the Bible teaches that the wicked sometimes prosper, while the righteous sometimes suffer.  And the countless "blessings" which God bestows on His faithful children don't necessarily come in the forms mankind considers desirable.

When it comes to sports, particularly since sometimes teams win for no good reason, and lose despite the odds in their favor, invoking the pleasure of God really only attempts to give the pastime more credibility than it deserves.

Football as the Catwalk Where Tebow Models His Faith?

To his credit, Tebow makes a point of supporting virtues like sobriety, chastity, and clean speech that have been marginalized in our society. Unfortunately, however, he sometimes appears to feed this stereotype about God, human performance, and the conventional Christian sports persona. He makes a now-famous spectacle of bowing to pray on one knee during games, and predictably gushes about God whenever a microphone is stuffed in his face.

Not that gushing about God at every opportunity is a bad thing.  But it could eventually become ineffective as a ministry tool.  It's like the age-old dilemma between street preaching and personal evangelism. In the same way that the Bible never tells us to literally couch every public interaction with overt theology, claims that Tebow is overdoing it with his constant proselytizing are not only understandable, they're not exclusive to the secular media.  After a while, making a dramatic public display of devotion to God after key plays during a game tends to appear more like sanctimonious shtick than sacrificial praise. 

But even then, mocking Tebow's demonstrativeness like many in the media and public do, however questionable those acts may be, is a dangerous practice.  God does not suffer lightly those who belittle any of His servants, whether it's Tim Tebow, or you, or me.

Interestingly, after he graduated from the University of Florida, the NCAA banned one of Tebow's favorite - and most intriguing - evangelism tools.  Tebow had become famous for wearing eye paint emblazoned with Scripture verses that tens of millions of people would Google after his games.  The NCAA maintains that other college athletes did the same thing, albeit with non-religious messages, and they wanted to end the trend before it got out of hand.  What's interesting about the NCAA's actions, though, is that plenty, far more questionable practices continue to abound in college sports than what athletes wear under their eyes.

Because that eye paint messaging in college - and a questionable residency switcheroo so he could play on a particular high school team - comprise the only remotely scandal-esque episodes attributable to Tim Tebow, there's not much controversy about the guy.  His squeaky-clean image, coupled with his proven athleticism, have helped Tebow become a media darling. But not because the media adores his morality any more than their consumers do. Tebow is a media darling precisely because his lifestyle so starkly contrasts with our culture, and ironically, Americans can't seem to get enough of it. Not to emulate it, necessarily.  But to ogle at it, and maybe even watch to see how long it lasts.

Fame, Faith, and What the Media Really Wants to See

Tebow news doesn't just run on the sports pages anymore.  We read about it in mainstream newspapers, we surf it on social blogs and websites, and we chat about it on FaceBook and Twitter.  For the most part, America's media machine either pretends it's really charmed by the guy, or at least convinced his undeniable success is more fluke than farce.  Yet increasingly, it's hard to escape the media's cynical build-up of a public character that many people may privately hope self-destructs in some dramatic fall from grace.

Because in the end, that's what entertainment in America has come to these days. Not celebrating a person during the good times, but gloating about a person's weaknesses during bad times.  Might spending all this time and effort on favorable coverage of Tebow be the price Big Media has to pay in order to score the big bucks when scandal eventually hits?

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of this is due to the fact that most writers and producers in American media don't have a clue about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nor do most of their consumers, if over 90 million viewers - ninety million! - have to Google "John 3:16" to know what it is.  To them, Tebow is speaking some ancient language of some relic religion that does more to validate his naive Southern upbringing than affirming adherence to a creed more powerful than anything on this planet.

Just today, in conjunction with a similarly-themed article, CNN ran a reader poll on its website asking, "Is the success of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow attributable to God?"

But that's not the question, is it?  Success in sports victories is not the type of reward God grants His followers simply because they're His followers.  What about all the athletes of faith who never make the team?  What about any of the born-again football players against whom Tebow has ever played?

If CNN knew what it was talking about, they'd have worded the question, "Is Tim Tebow attributing his success as the Denver Broncos quarterback to God?"

And I think that even people who don't believe in God would admit that yes, he is.  Not all of us may agree with how he's doing it, but nobody can deny that he's doing it.  And isn't that more than can be said for most of us?

Which also means that those of us who share his faith need to pray for him.  After all, he's good-looking enough to make really squalid headlines if he falls into sexual sin.  He's already won enough sporting awards to make imperious sports reporters crow incessantly should he collapse under the media glare.  And whether it's been through his own extraordinary effusiveness or the media's preoccupation with his faith, if Tebow compromises the Gospel, Christianity will likely take a massive public relations hit.

Not that people of faith live to relish the praise of others.  Or that Tebow needs to live under a constant fear of failure.  Yet to the extent that he's participated in the creation of a Christian sports persona for himself, we believers should care about him enough to not assume that Satan isn't watching from the sidelines, salivating at the chance to so publicly wreak a little havoc against the Kingdom.

After all, even with all that he's accomplished, Tebow's still only human.  With abilities that are more easily visible to the naked eye, surely, than perhaps yours or mine.  Yet with a soul just as significant to God as yours and mine.

To the extent that Tebow wants his fame deferred to His Creator, then let's prayerfully support him as we would any of the rest of us who name the name of Christ.