Friday, March 30, 2012

Death of a Self-Made Couple

Charles and Adrienne Snelling died yesterday at their home near Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Snelling had been murdered.  Mr. Snelling killed himself.  They were each 81 years old.  And with that information, you can tell what happened.  Only this wasn't any ordinary murder-suicide.

Adrienne had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years.  Not only was it killing her, it was killing her husband, Charles.  A man used to being in control, and who loved his wife dearly.  As he watched her degenerate from being a vivacious spouse, mother of five, grandmother of many more, and a celebrated photographer, into a shell of her former self, hardly recognizing anybody except her beloved husband, Charles couldn't take it any more.

61 years of marriage, and it ended yesterday in a relatively modest house on a hilltop among the fields near Allentown.

"Relatively modest," considering that Charles had been born into American privilege.  The son of a chemist and inventor who got rich selling patents to the likes of John D. Rockefeller and the founder of Conoco-Phillips,  Charles became an inventor in his own right, parlaying the brilliant entrepreneurial spirit he'd inherited from his father into an array of companies from cryogenics and thermodynamics to restaurants and orchards.

Charles and Adrienne Snelling
Adrienne's life had a flair of Americana, too.  Her father was an Italian immigrant who came through Ellis Island and started a marble business that became the premiere contractor for major marble installations along the East Coast.  The soaring panels of white marble encasing the massive mezzanine-level elevator banks in the original World Trade Center?  Adrienne's father built those.  The green marble wall behind the speaker's podium at the United Nations?  Adrienne's father again.

But coming from accomplished families didn't lure Adrienne and Charles into any sort of complacency.  They met while both of them were in college in Pennsylvania, and they got married - and started their family - before graduating.  Something that was hardly ever done in the 1950's.  They became fixtures in Pennsylvania's Republican circles, despite Charles' pro-abortion views.  In 2003, then-president George W. Bush appointed Charles, a private pilot, to the prestigious Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He was still a boardmember when he committed suicide yesterday.

If a suicide note has been found, authorities aren't saying.  The Snelling's children are shocked and saddened, of course, but considering the love their parents held for one another, they're not entirely surprised.  This is part of their statement to the media:

"After apparently reaching the point where he could no longer bear to see the love of his life deteriorate further, our father ended our mother's life and then took his own life as well. This is a total shock to everyone in the family, but we know he acted out of deep devotion and profound love."

Their father was resisting the suggestion to move their mother out of their home into a specialized care facility, yet the deterioration of both her physical and mental capacities were becoming even more painfully pronounced.  Whenever Charles had a board meeting in Washington, he drove down with Adrienne and two professional caretakers who would all stay at the same hotel.  Family friends quoted in the media today have called the couple virtually inseparable.

Indeed, it's not difficult at all to understand how devastating his wife's Alzheimer's was to Charles, and how he could develop the mindset that death - even death by murder - was the only "out."  And while it will sound calloused of me to point this out, Charles' advocacy for abortion obviously gave him the mindset that since our country doesn't yet find honor killings honorable, he would be charged with a felony were he not to take his own life as well.

Because of the mental diseases that are afflicting my own family, I struggle with condemning this man, because I have experienced a taste of the anguish he must have been living with for the past several years.  I don't know how long it will be before my family will be in his shoes, grasping for faith to understand how a once-vital life can still have value after being decimated by Alzheimer's.

So while I grieve for the Snelling family who today are planning funerals for their parents, at the same time, I spit with disdain at the corrupt ideology which casts human flesh, devoid of conventional functionality, as worthless.  I have to.  Frankly, it doesn't feel natural to do so, but intellectually, I know I have to spurn our society's construct of life's only value as being defined by the sum of one's abilities.

Society tells us that human life is valuable only when it can perform certain functions; to recognize, to interact, to compute, to reason, to love, to react, to work, to produce; to respond to our own needs.

Yet doesn't life have even more components that define it?  Life is even more than the manifestation of created order in a form representative of God Himself.  Yes, the nature around us has been created by God, and we are to respect it as part of God's creation, but we humans are indisputably more complex; we have been made in His image, and are the recipients of God's greatest gift:  salvation through faith in Christ.  And what part of us is saved?  Sure, we'll have a body in Heaven, but what will that body contain?

It's our soul, isn't it?  The life-force God gives every human being.  That intangible engine that can only be measured by being alive or dead.  Our parents start it.  But the Bible - and most civilized morality - teaches that no mortal should send it to Heaven by murder.  Even though sometimes, we think we want to.

Charles Snelling held about 20 patents.  He was friends with governors and presidents.  He raved in a poignant New York Times article last year about his wonderful family.  Yet when his wife literally lost her mind, his own life was over.

Hard-core, aching, brutal sadness is torture.  When this life is all there is, it must seem like such bitter relief to think that ending it by ourselves is the humane thing to do.

Knowing that this is God's realm, however, I have to believe His ways are better than our ways.  Maybe that sounds like a cop-out.  Maybe I'll feel differently six years into this Alzheimer's journey upon which my family has unhappily yet trustingly embarked.  But if you don't believe in the sanctity of life at the outset, you've no reason to agree with any reason for my hope.

And yesterday's tragedy near Allentown appear to make sense.  Which itself, is a tragedy, isn't it?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Prosperity Gospel Truth

Sometimes, I don't mind being poor.

Not often, mind you; but sometimes!  Like when I learned today that a court settlement has finally been reached in the bizarre saga of the late, great Brooke Astor's estate.  Or when I read an article in the New York Times discussing the hard sell parents of private school pupils in Manhattan are getting from school administrators.

$40,000 Per Year Ain't Enough

Turns out, not even $40,000 per year is enough to educate New York's most pampered offspring in the city's most prestigious private schools.  While plenty of folks around the United States manage to scrape by each year EARNING only $40,000, Manhattan's plethora of One Percenters are having to shell out that amount - and more - so their kids don't have to mingle with the riff-raff in parochial schools or - horrors! - public schools.

Granted, New York City's public schools don't have a reputation that is arbitrary and undeserved.  But more schools than we think are better than we think they are, particularly those located south of 96th Street.  Better at least in terms of educational opportunities.

It's not necessarily a sin to spend $40,000 per year on private school tuition, or to spend thousands more per year in extra donations to help keep the lights on and the toilets operational at their elite schoolhouses.  And when you consider that families paying those kinds of dollars are probably living in boxy apartments costing millions, and paying ridiculous income and property taxes, $40,000 per year to make sure your kid can afford to top your own lifestyle when they graduate is a drop in the bucket.

Imagine all the stress and hassle it is to keep all that going.  When I was younger, I used to think that perhaps one day I'd be able to figure out a way to maintain that type of existence, but at this point, it's looking less and less likely.

So whether I mind being poor or not, it's a lifestyle I'd be better off adjusting to, rather than keeping my hopes up for something "better."

Brooke No Arguments Over One Hundred Million

Too bad Anthony Marshall, the octogenarian son of New York City's last grande dame of society and philanthropy, didn't share the same mindset about adjusting to one's portion in life when it comes to money.

In terms of dot-com wealth, his mother's estate, clocking in at $100 million, is hardly staggering.  But that fact says more about the heady sums of money today's One Percenters bring home than the pittance they and their sympathizers might consider the Astor fortune.
New York's socialite extraordinaire, Brooke Astor
Yes, "that" Astor.  Well, the second wife of the grandson, anyway:  Brooke.  She was short, thin, and not particularly beautiful, but her mother had taught her how to climb the social ladder anyway, and she excelled at that.  When her famously wealthy husband suddenly died only a few years into their chilly marriage, she wasted no time establishing herself as the doyenne of New York's vast philanthropic universe.  And it must be said that at least part of her ambitions were altruistic:  reasoning that her late husband's family had earned their fortune in New York City, and in some less-than-altruistic ways, their money should be re-invested back into the same city from which it had come.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and other grand institutions in the city benefited from her largess over several decades of conspicuous charity.

Meanwhile, Anthony, who was no pauper, fell for an Episcopalian vicar's wife in Maine, and the two of them are believed to have set their sights on his mother's personal wealth and the trust fund she was, in their eyes, frittering away on poor people.  A few years ago, when Brooke was past 100 and stricken by dementia, Anthony (supposedly at his newest wife's bidding) tried to connive his mother into giving him greater control of what money she had left.  After all, that $100 million might not make a Silicon Valley venture capitalist turn his head, but even in New York City, with it's $40,000-per-year private schools, it can still go a long, long way.

Except that for Anthony, his machinations only got him as far as the courthouse, after one of his own sons contacted the Rockefeller family - yes, those Rockefellers - to see why his grandmother suddenly seemed to be living in penury.  Three years ago, Anthony was convicted of stealing money from his elderly mother, and although his case is still on appeal, nobody really wants him sent to prison.  His conviction helped convince the court settling Brooke's estate that he's not worthy of the greater authority he'd sought over her money, and that's what happened in the settlement of her will yesterday.

Still, it's a pretty ugly epitaph for someone who'd been one of New York's wealthiest women, and had built her reputation around money.  Money, and everything a lot of it can buy.

So, yes, sometimes, I don't mind being poor.  Might the problems we poor folk face on a daily basis be worth the agony we avoid by lusting too much after what it would take to, well, not be poor?

Our Lord Is Rich to His Own

Although, today, I was also reminded that I'm not as poor as I think I am.  Consider this verse Paul wrote to the Romans:

For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.  -  Romans 10:12

Now, of course, the riches Paul references in this passage aren't necessarily relating to money, or standards of wealth we mortals use to peg our net worth.  Some believers in Christ are indeed exceedingly rich in earthly goods, but we don't believe in the heretical "prosperity gospel" in which God rewards people who give certain sums of money to televangelists.

God's riches to us come in the form of salvation through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.  They come in the presence we have of the Holy Spirit to comfort and guide us, and the very grace He bestows upon us as heirs of His Kingdom.  And since God owns everything anyway, isn't the stuff that the One Percenters and Brooke Astors of our world enjoy simply on loan from Him?

OK, so maybe even all that stuff they have being on loan isn't the salve we like to think it is for those of us who are much poorer materially.  But remember, money's not the point.

"The same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him."    All of us who are together in Christ are guaranteed to be given in abundance the one thing that we most need:  salvation.  Salvation from ourselves.  From our sin.  From even our love of money.  

Two million years from now, that will still be true for us.  For the One Percenters and Brooke Astors of our world, it will only be true if they're redeemed by the blood of Christ.

Talk about your investment strategies!  This is the only true "prosperity Gospel," isn't it?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

From Vegas to Boondoggleville

It's one of the saddest things about politics.

You know this kind of stuff goes on all the time, but until you hear about it, life seems so much easier to live.

Call it "ignorance is bliss."  Bliss, at least, until you learn about more goofy pork barrel spending by people like Nevada's Senator Harry Reid out in the Mojave Desert.

A company called DesertXpress wants to build what they call a high-speed train between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  They already have all of the required permits in place, from both government agencies and Native American tribes, and are simply waiting for a final go-ahead from Uncle Sam so a $6 billion loan from the Obama administration will drop into their laps.

It's really a loan from you and me, but supporters of the project don't want us to get hung up over that detail.

DesertXpress claims the train will cut travel time between Los Angeles and Sin City (not that "Sin City" couldn't be LA's moniker, too) from four hours to one hour and twenty minutes.  It's ostensibly the big reason a high-speed train is needed - to cut the travel time separating Angelinos and their opportunity to squander their hard-earned cash.

According to Google Maps, however, the trip by car from Victorville to Las Vegas is only three hours.

Wait - Victorville?  Where's Victorville?  I thought this train was from LA to Vegas?

Ahh!  Here's the first trick in this ghost train.  Victorville is a scrubby little speck of a town on the far, far northeastern fringes of LA's vast metropolitan region.  It's a 1.5 hour all-city drive from downtown Los Angeles, provided you're not including all the time you're stuck in LA's notorious freeway gridlock.

Which begs the multi-billion-dollar question:  Who's going to bother driving for under two hours just to stop at a train station to wait for a train and go the rest of the distance?  By the time drivers get to Victorville, the worst of their commute is already over.  And how do Angelinos - famous for their loathing of mass transit - get around Vegas when they get there without their own car?

And who decides to gamble based on a train timetable anyway?  By definition, aren't gamblers the type of people who dash off across the desert to Vegas on a whim?  They don't do schedules and planning unless they're going to fly.  Plus, it's not like DesertXpress is going to have the robust timetable of a commuter train in New Jersey, or even charter buses.  Southwest Airlines already runs 12 flights a day for roughly double the cost DesertXpress claims it will charge, and flying is even quicker than the train.  At only 150 mph, DesertExpress is hardly what experts call "high speed" rail.  Plus, Southwest already has a far more reliable reputation than DesertXpress, which has experienced project delays for a decade.

Speaking of costs, nobody seems clear about what the pricetag will be, either.  Six billionFive billion?  How much private investment is involved?  Have any private corporations dares to gamble on this project, and with how much of their own money?  Answers are as elusive as estimates of how many people will actually ride the train.

Nevertheless, true to the ethics-challenged spirit of his home state, Senator Reid is pushing hard for this choo-choo.  He and Ray LaHood, the Obama administration's transportation secretary, say DesertXpress will create jobs and provide much-needed economic incentives to the beleaguered upside-down burg of Las Vegas.

Not that pork barrel spending is unique to people like Reid.  Or that Las Vegas doesn't deserve public transportation dollars just because it's an international gambling hub.  But at what point should elected leaders realize that this kind of spending just isn't in the nation's best interests?  Taxpayers have been complaining for years about bridges to nowhere, but Reid still wants his train to nowhere - I mean, Victorville.  I guess because Nevada is so arid, they don't need bridges like Alaska thinks it does.  So a train to pacify deep-pocketed campaign donors is the next best thing.

My fellow Americans, at the risk of sounding like Rush Limbaugh:  this is not democracy.  Five billion here, six billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.  Real money that isn't even yours; it belongs to taxpayers.  Spending tax dollars to develop Las Vegas' international airport is one thing; every major American city, despite the integrity of its primary industry, needs to have a safe and efficient airport.  Freeway dollars in Vegas aren't wasted, since the city serves not only as a gambling destination, but a through-way to other points of interest that need vehicular access.  But a slow "high speed" train?

It's like one of the unofficial slogans for Sin City:  "We've got what it takes to take what you've got."

Unfortunately for us, the DesertXpress is on the fast track to Boondoggleville. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Justice for Trayvon?

Have you been waiting for it?

I have.  And it appears to finally be happening.

The truth to begin flowing out of the Trayvon Martin death in Sanford, Florida.

This past February 26, an armed neighborhood watch volunteer shot the teenaged Martin to death in a gated community, but most of America outside of Florida didn't hear a word about it until last week, when suddenly, news of the tragedy rocketed through our media outlets.

And yes, it was a tragedy.  But it sounded eerily suspicious.  Zimmerman, himself a non-Caucasian, shooting an innocent, unarmed kid whose only possession at the time was a bag of Skittles candy.  His friends insisted Zimmerman isn't a hateful man, but our national media cast the story as a travesty:  yet another example of innocent black kids being preyed upon by the cops, and now neighborhood vigilantes.

Jesse Jackson gushed, "blacks are under attack," and that Martin was "murdered and martyred."  The New Black Panthers put out a $10,000 bounty of sorts on Zimmerman, who has gone into hiding with his family after director Spike Lee reportedly tweeted Zimmerman's home address. Even President Barak Obama weighed-in on the paranoia, rhapsodizing that "if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon."  National media outlets stumbled over each other rushing to judgments in their pity for Martin and thinly-veiled contempt for Zimmerman.  People wore hoodies to church after Heraldo Rivera, of all people, tried to claim a bit of the spotlight by sloppily suggesting oversized clothing might be to blame.

Not to be outdone, Al Sharpton fomented the rancor, claiming that what happened to "Trayvon represents a reckless disregard for our lives that we’ve seen too long."

Turns out, for once in a long while, Sharpton may be right.  But even then, he got it wrong.  Because Martin may not be the victim, but the attacker.

According to new information being released by the Orlando Sentinel, Zimmerman's initial reports on the event portraying himself as the victim have been corroborated by multiple witness statements.  According to these accounts, Zimmerman was attacked - perhaps even from behind - by Martin, pushed down to the ground, and punched in the nose by Martin.  Zimmerman suffered a cut to the back of his head, and was in fear of his life.

Whose "reckless disregard for our lives" was on display?  None other than the kid so many people hastily assumed was innocent.

Granted, when Zimmerman had called 911 to report a prowler, he ignored the 911 operator's instructions to remain inside his vehicle.  And it's not outside the realm of possibility that the teenaged Martin felt threatened - or at least challenged - by somebody he didn't know asking what he was up to.  But as long as we're hypothesizing, what are the chances that when Zimmerman realized Martin was a teenaged kid, he actually did not harbor the racist thoughts the Sharptons and Jacksons of this circus assume he did?  Instead, might Zimmerman have gotten out of his vehicle less out of bravado or a lust for violence, and obviously not profiling the teen as a brutish thug (otherwise why risk getting out of your vehicle?), but more in a neighborly act of investigation, assuming that maybe he (Zimmerman) was the one over-reacting?

Turns out, it was Martin who over-reacted.  Not that it's any comfort.  Martin's own girlfriend has testified to police that, over Martin's cell phone, she heard him being questioned - not attacked - by Zimmerman.  Plus, based on his behavior, Zimmerman had wondered if the teenager might have been on drugs, and sure enough, we've learned today that Martin had been expelled from school for having a baggie with marijuana residue.

Hmm.  Kinda all fits, doesn't it?  A kid using drugs goes on a rampage against an innocent crime watch volunteer because the drugs have somehow heightened his sense of feeling out of place in his father's girlfriend's gated community?  Out of place not because he's black, but because he's a product of a broken home.  And probably a borderline juvenile delinquent.

OK, so maybe that last statement is more assumption than fact.  So I'll be patient some more and let still more facts - like maybe an autopsy report - begin to emerge about this case.  Facts which will probably further render the spectacles our country's racist troublemakers, Jackson and Sharpton, have created even more exploitative.

After all, aside from Martin's death, nobody gets hurt in these farcical tirades from these two bogus clergymen more than black Americans.  Which only compounds the problem.  Yet even today, some black activists are blaming the Sanford Police Department for trying to malign Martin's character by releasing so much negative information about him.  It's as if facts don't matter any more.  Especially now that they've already tried and convicted both Zimmerman and the Sanford police chief in the court of public opinion.

And yes, if, as the facts continue to emerge about this case, the evidence that has already accumulated is contradicted, then I'm fully prepared to write again about my own mistakes as I, too, grapple with assembling the pieces of this sad story in some semblance of order.  In fact, it's imperative that all of us - from black activists to the news media to Martin's family - are willing to do the same.

Meanwhile, the vitriol, racism, and fear being stoked among many blacks remains unwarranted.  When people of color lament the state of race relations in the United States, they often point correctly to the ample examples of white bigotry which still exist in the "Land of the Free."  But when anybody takes advantage of emotionally-charged tales of violence and death between people who aren't like them without benefit of all the facts, the suspicion and apathy which sets in amongst the general populace only harms the greater cause of justice.

As it's slowly shaping up to look, the justice black activists say they want in the Trayvon Martin case may be just what he received that fateful night in a gated community in Florida.

And yes, that's a tragedy for everybody involved.

4/1/12:  And another thing, since Sharpton and Jackson persist in their portrayal of Zimmerman as a bloodthirsty bigot, consider why Zimmerman even bothered to call 911 before he fired his gun.  If he was packing heat on the off chance he could kill a black person, why not shoot to kill and pretend to "discover" the body afterward? Why risk the charade of calling 911 and banking on the chances Florida's "stand your ground" law would hold in his case?

Friday, March 23, 2012

I See Skies of Blue

Nuthin' but bloooo sky...

That's what I see when I look straight up into the heavens today.

And I like it!

Don't you, too?  Sparkling and clear blue sky.  Kinda darker, the deeper into space you look, with a soft whitish tint as your gaze travels to just about the treeline.  The kind of blue that you really can't photograph unless you have an expensive camera, otherwise everything kinda seems faded.

Here in Texas, in August, blue skies like today's are rare, even though we have plenty of sunny days.  Smog tends to add a brownish-purple tinge to the sky on cloudless days, as the sun scorches the chemicals in our air.  But in the springtime, when breezes are more reliable, and the air hasn't yet been cooked by the summer sun, the blue is as blue as blue skies should be.

Bluer than the signature powder-blue gift boxes at Tiffany's.  But not the cold blue of ordinary sunny days during the winter.

In a way, if you think about it, blue skies provide an indisputable testament to the validity of Creation science.  How so?  Well, consider how the pollutants we humans have introduced to our atmosphere over the past century or so.  Pollutants created from the mixing and emissions of chemicals which had never before taken place on our planet in such quantities and concentrations until the 1900's.

How would an evolutionist explain the fact that the chemical make-up of the atmosphere was prepared for the introduction of these new "man-made" chemicals?  Why didn't the atmosphere simply explode or ignite when these new chemical compositions reached the stratosphere?  How did evolution prepare the gasses - that previously existed uninterrupted up there for so long - for such a relatively new phenomenon as non-organic compounds invading such a previously untested environment?

Was it luck that our atmosphere didn't react in violent convulsions from the unanticipated intrusion of new chemicals into the air?  I understand that people who believe evolutionary theory say that some evolution cycles are faster than others, but with all of the pollution we've introduced into the atmosphere, shouldn't we be seeing some sort of evolutionary repercussions?

Of course, evolutionists say we are:  the melting ice caps, the rising sea levels, the loss of biodiversity.  That's evolution's way of reacting to man's pollution of our air, they claim.

And unlike many evangelicals, I don't doubt that man-made pollution is bad for the environment.  I wonder how many conservatives today would want to live in the Cleveland of the 1960's, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire from all of the chemicals being dumped into it.  How many Republicans in California get sick from all the smog - smog that used to blanket cities across the United States until pollution controls were enacted to help clean the air?

Pollution and its effects are indisputable, and all of our lives are better for efforts to reduce it.  And it's impossible to prove that all of the chemicals we've pumped into the air are not causing some impact on any possible changes to our climate.  But it's also impossible to prove the extent of that effect.  After all, the Earth has been colder before, and it's been warmer.  What about the Ice Age?  Something heated up, otherwise we'd still be living in the Ice Age, right?  So while pollution needs to be fought against, we can't blame it entirely for all of the ills some hard-line environmentalists want to.

Does that mean that we Americans need to adopt even more-stringent rules to further eliminate pollution?  Well, that depends, doesn't it, on what our fellow planetary citizens do to help with our air quality.  After all, we're not the globe's only polluters, and just as the rest of the world consumes our air, we also consume theirs.  So how are the subsistence farmers who burn piles of methane-releasing dung in Africa going to reduce their emissions?  How are the masses of impoverished people around the world who heat and cook by burning unregulated oil going to reduce their emissions?  How are all of the countries who burn coal while shunning modern air-scrubbing smokestack technology going to reduce their emissions?

Pollution isn't only an American problem, just as global warming may be more cyclical than some scientists want to admit.

Global warming still doesn't answer my original question, either.  Sure, we may be seeing some severe biological reactions to pollution now, but in the grand scheme of things, they're hardly cataclysmic.  Human lifespans around the world continue to increase - we're not dying off in droves from air-borne pollution.  Plenty of other predatory practices are contributing to the loss of biodiversity, not just pollution.  And we're still able to breathe the same air that existed on this planet before Columbus discovered the New World.

Yes, as good stewards of God's creation, we need to clean it up a bit more.  "Rule and subdue" doesn't mean "plunder and destroy."  Our forefathers kinda went overboard on the pollution thing back during the Industrial Revolution, and even today, our major chemical companies have only moved the worst of their business practices to impotent Majority World countries where people don't realize they're being exposed to carcinogens that North Americans wouldn't dare breathe.  Those people don't necessarily see the same blue sky I'm enjoying today.

And when I don't see this blue sky in August here in Texas, and I know it's because of pollution, I have greater sympathy for those folks in places like China, Bangladesh, India, and even parts of Russia where environmental regulations are mired in sub-human standards.

Still, the proof I see in skies like today's here in Texas give me hope, because not only is my heavenly home somewhere up beyond the farthest reaches of the space crowning this air, but this air helps prove that my God truly is great.  He created this air knowing that people like me would take it for granted and pollute it. And He designed it to accommodate just enough pollution to serve as a warning as to how important clean air is to our well-being.

And in the words of Louis Armstrong, "I think to myself, what a wonderful world!"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pro-Choicers Keep Marginalizing Life

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

After all, the duplicity exposed by pro-choice advocates has always been baffling:  ostensibly supporting a woman's right to choose, yet denying a pre-born life the opportunity to survive the womb.

But after reading an account today in the New York Times about how some pro-choice advocates are abruptly ending their financial support for the Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure, I really don't get it.

Sure, Komen stunned a lot of people by awkwardly cutting off a pittance in funding to Planned Parenthood this past winter.  But they re-instated the funding after pro-choice advocates raised a firestorm.  So now, pro-choicers are deciding that saving womens' lives by funding breast cancer screenings and research is... um, less important that continuing to pout about Komen's brief moment of pro-life vicissitude?

Duplicity, thy name is abortion rights.

Over the course of almost 30 years, the Komen organization has become the undisputed champion for women fighting breast cancer.  They raise $350 million annually for breast cancer research and prevention.  They have secured corporate partnerships with some of America's biggest blue-chip companies.  Millions of people across the country participate in their "races" every year.  They own the pink ribbon, and everyone knows what it stands for.  Shucks - if it wasn't for Mary Kay's venerable pink Cadillacs, Komen would probably own the rights to the color pink.

Yes, I am unabashedly pro-life, yet I was as stunned as pro-choicers when Komen dropped Planned Parenthood like a hot potato.  I was far less surprised when they flip-flopped and restored funding, even after we learned that the hundreds of thousands they budgeted for Planned Parenthood was chump change in both organizations' budgets.  And that Planned Parenthood farmed out breast cancer screenings - what Komen helped fund - anyway.  Turns out, no Planned Parenthood clinic has mammography equipment.

So Komen's pro-choice supporters got their Planned Parenthood money back.  Why are they still unhappy?  Why are top-level executives at Komen jumping ship?  Why are Komen's fundraisers cancelling events in the cash-flush and decidedly pro-choice New York metropolitan area?

Because pro-choicers are angry at Komen?  Because some staffers at Komen were concerned about money going to Planned Parenthood?  Because - gasp! - not everybody in Komen's executive ranks are pro-choice, and they feel entitled to their pro-life convictions?

Oh no!  I guess Komen is an evil empire.  It's not pro-lifers who are raging against Komen - at least not after the initial euphoria of Komen's de-funding of Planned Parenthood was crushed by Komen's policy reversal.  Pro-lifers may be less enamored by Komen now, but it's hard to argue that fighting breast cancer should suddenly become insignificant.

Granted, there are other organizations that help fight breast cancer, and who knows how many pro-choicers who used to support Komen will instead funnel their money to these other non-profits.  And even I can't ignore the sloppy handling of Komen's curious knee-jerks over the Planned Parenthood issue. But has Komen suddenly become the arch-enemy of women's health?

You'd think so, by the tone of this Times article.  But then again, perhaps the motivation of pro-choicers has never really been about women in general, or cancer prevention, or even abortion.  No, perhaps their motivation is so self-centered and narcissistic that they're willing to deny the very natural purposes for which their anatomy has been designed.  After all, a calloused disregard for humanity - whether it's pre-born or cancerous - is the only way to explain the duplicity of pro-choicers and their march towards moral oblivion.

Let's face it:  abortion is all about making sex convenient.  But is sex supposed to be convenient?  Pleasurable, yes; but not convenient.  Life isn't convenient.  Life isn't even for us as much as it is for God, as a demonstration of His creative powers in exaltation of His glory.  To the extent that life is given to each of us, we are also given opportunities to "make the most" of that life; but does restricting sex to the covenant of marriage - and even then with the full knowledge that one physically intimate moment could indeed produce more life - too wicked a penalty to the concept of self?

Apparently, the very sex that brought pro-choicers into the world isn't good enough for their own (potential) progeny.  Talk about having double-standards!  Indeed, it helps put their sociopolitical posturing into perspective.

Heaping scorn on Komen may be duplicitous, but their motivation seems anything but.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Don't Let Your Plates Speak for You

Should state license plates promote a particular religion?

Of course not.

I've never been a huge proponent of "vanity plates," the customized license plates that can feature anything from sports teams to popular slogans to tourist destinations.

Not that license places need to be plain with only numbers and letters on them.  But their primary function is to identify a vehicle as having the authority to be on publicly-funded roadways.  And vanity plates are simply a license for trouble.

How so?  For example, consider the process of deciding what merits a vanity plate.  What teams get included or excluded?  What tourist destinations, slogans, and other considerations get the green light or red light?  Why?  Because who says?

Here in Texas, you can purchase separate vanity plates for your Ford car or truck.  You can get some for your favorite power company or restaurant.  Breast cancer, Dr. Pepper, nurses, Realtors, wind farms - they all have special plates.

And now we've come to what I knew would happen eventually:  religion on license places.  For a while, Texas has allowed the slogan "In God We Trust" on vanity plates featuring an Americana motif, and certainly, as slogans go, I don't have a problem with the wording.  But it was only a matter of time before somebody took things a step further.

Which they've now done.

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has begun authorizing black and white plates featuring a rendition of three crosses and the phrase, "One State Under God."  And right on cue, protests have arisen over the blurring of the line between separation of church and state.

I wonder if the same people who rush to their DMV office to purchase these new "One State Under God" plates would be so eager to let Muslims affix an Islamic saying onto our license plates.  Would Satanists be able to promote their faith?  How about atheists?  After all, atheism is a faith.

Every vanity plate carries a surcharge which varies based on the extent to which its customized.  Here in Texas, different vanity plates celebrating various social causes are sold with a portion of their proceeds directed to a signature non-profit group promoting that particular social cause.  And no, I can't argue with that.

Yet our new "One State Under God" plates will benefit a charity called "The Glory Gang" that works with at-risk kids in the sparsely-populated East Texas town of Nacogdoches.  How this particular charity got singled out to benefit from the proceeds of these plates, when a plethora of Christian non-profits exist in Texas, isn't clear.

Of course, Glory Gang sees the plates as a win-win.

“We believe the new plate will appeal to a lot of Texans who believe as we do-- who will like knowing that sharing a Christian message from their cars will also help kids in need,” said Matt Rocco, a Glory Gang board member.

Even if you think I'm wrong, and that religious-themed license plates are a good idea, you still have to admit that the slogan chosen for this inaugural plate doesn't make much sense.  "One State Under God?"

Of course, Texas is one state.  But "One State Under God" ostensibly mimics the national slogan, "One Nation Under God," which envisions a collection of states united in a common solidarity under the lordship of God.

"One Nation Under God," therefore, makes sense.  "One State Under God" is a weak copy which trivializes not only the original slogan from which it's trying to borrow credibility, but also the concept of Christian-themed license plates in general.

I'd have thought that something like "God Bless Texas" - a popular slogan that has become a thoroughly Texan anthem with decidedly innocuous tones - would be more appropriate than the poorly-phrased "One State Under God."

But then, we wouldn't need to be having this discussion if our license plates simply stayed out of religion altogether.  It's not that we don't have the freedom to broadcast our faith from our car bumpers.  But our faith should be more interactive when it comes to how we drive.  After all, how many times have you been blasted by a speeding vehicle blowing past you bearing a Christian bumper sticker on its rear?

Let other drivers know you're a Christian by your love behind the wheel.  Not some slogan on your license plate.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Divorced From Reality?

Does it really matter?

Does it matter if the divorce rate between Christians and the unchurched is about the same?

Because that's what many people think.  Churched people divorce at approximately the same rate as unchurched folks.  The implication being that either religion doesn't do much to help marriages, or that the divorce rate really isn't all that bad to begin with.

Of course, it could also mean that America's evangelicals have significantly succumbed to carnal perversions of the covenant of marriage.  But we don't like to think about that.

However you look at it, though, the Christian values advocacy group Focus on the Family doesn't like it.  Not just divorce, of course, but they also don't like people assuming that Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians.  For the second time in a year, Focus on the Family's Glenn Stanton has had the same article appear on in which he tries to argue that the Christian divorce rate is a "myth" when compared with the secular world. In other words, Stanton claims that new studies debunk the popular notion that Christians divorce at the same rate as the unchurched.

Unfortunately, Stanton's argument contains some serious fallacies, about which I blogged last year when I first saw his article on Crosswalk.  Since that time, a couple hundred readers of the article have agreed with him, which only lends credibility to the secular community's suspicions about us evangelicals and our cognitive abilities.  While I suppose it would be nice if the Christian divorce rate was much lower than the secular divorce rate, does it really matter if it isn't?  And if you're going to try and make the case that it is, then shouldn't you base your claims on better data and research than Stanton does?

Can a Myth Disprove a Myth?

Entitled "The Christian Divorce Rate Myth," Stanton's article appears to make one key assumption that ends up undermining his whole argument.  He seems to believe that America's divorce rate hovers around 50%, which is another widely-held statistic about divorce and marriage in the United States.

However, that statistic is indeed a myth.  Contrary to popular opinion, our country's actual divorce rate has never been definitively quantified. The United States Census and the National Center for Health Statistics have both pegged our divorce rate at approximately 50% ever since 1980, but that figure has been widely disputed. For one thing, the Census cuts off their calculations for people aged 65 years and over, eliminating the count of people who, say, divorce during retirement. Experts have also questioned whether the inclusion by the Census of remarriage by divorcees actually skews the percentage upwards, since it puts remarriage back on the same playing field as first-time marriages.

Perhaps a more conservative estimate comes from the legal advocacy group Americans for Divorce Reform, which says America's divorce rate hovers around 38%.

Other experts have pegged it anywhere between 30 and 40%. In 1999, Barna Research Group, generally considered to be a mathematically-astute polling company sympathetic to Christian values, put the national divorce rate at about 30%.  So for the national divorce rate, let's average everything out and, all things considered, say the rate is 35%. Still a sobering percentage, of course, but not as sensational as 50% for the country as a whole.

Which brings us to churched folk. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, Barna found that divorce rates in churches ranged from 34% for people attending non-denominational churches, to 21% for Lutherans, the most fidelity-prone of Christians. But this was in 1999.

In 2008, Barna did another study, which found divorce rates between churched and unchurched people to be roughly equivalent: 33% for unchurched, 32% for churched. Which, factoring in the margin for error, makes the the difference statistically irrelevant.

So yes, Christians really do divorce at about the same rate as unchurched people.  Sad, but true.  But, not even realizing he hasn't proven that a myth exists, Stanton manages to make the numbers sound even worse.

"Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explains from his analysis of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, that 60 percent of these have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced."


Which part of this is good news? Can a churched divorce rate of 38% (even higher than my calculation) debunk the Christian divorce rate "myth?"

Several factors with this scenario seem incongruous. In addition to his data negatively exceeding even standard assumptions, one of Stanton's references is a 2002 family study from Oklahoma, of all places. Not exactly a state known for being representative of the country - or evangelicalism - as a whole.

How significant is Dr. Wright's qualification that people who "identify as Christians but rarely attend church" have a 60% divorce rate? What about Catholics, Jews, Muslims, or atheists? Here's where the lack of diversity in Oklahoma really makes me suspicious.

In addition, how disturbing is Stanton's suggestion that a 38% divorce rate among Christians is something we should cheer? He actually seems relieved that the rate is nearly 40% for regular churchgoers, at least according to the studies he's referenced.

Most importantly, however, Stanton quotes scholars who are trying to qualify spiritual growth, a futile task for anybody who understands that only God knows our hearts. Surely relying on personal professions of church membership and attendance, Bible readership, home group participation, praying, and other "faith" metrics represents an unreliable way to determine spirituality.

Besides, the world around us just looks at people who walk through church doors; they don't run algorithms of spirituality on all of us. If they have friends who go to church getting a divorce, whether it's fair or not, the message they get is "church was no help for them."

While it is likely true that the more time married people spend in faith metrics, the least likely they are to divorce, aren't we still left with an inability to quantify that spirituality?

This is one of the many times where I wouldn't mind being proven wrong!  But alas, and I say this with utmost respect to Stanton and the work that Focus on the Family has done over the years to buttress the institution of marriage, nothing in Stanton's article proves me wrong.

Reality Matters

But does it matter?  Does it matter that I'm right and that Stanton isn't?  Does it matter that, yes, Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as unchurched people?

Yes, I think it matters significantly that the latter is taking place.  Christians should not be marginalizing the covenant of marriage like we've been doing.  It's a travesty and a horrible testimony.  And it makes us poor stewards of an institution for which we're trying to prevent homosexuals from becoming legally eligible.

In terms of the former; that matters, too.  Not as significantly as our mockery of marriage, but it still matters.  What Stanton does in his sloppy analysis of spurious data in relation to a question that, by itself, isn't all that significant, is weaken the authority and integrity by which evangelicals broach a wide spectrum of social doctrines in American society.

There are far more critical claims to be making about how sin is perverting our lives than whether Christians and non-Christians do or don't divorce at the same rate.  But by dawdling over comparatively trivial matters like Stanton does undermines the legitimacy of groups like Focus on the Family in the scientific community, our social services industry, the secular media, and even our political spectrum.  If you're not making valid claims with relevant data, and you're not drawing the proper correlations, and you're swaying opinion on fuzzy logic, then you're no better than the world in its efforts to convince us that sin doesn't matter.  That divorce can even improve some relationships.  That marriage is an outmoded institution that the government should control instead of the church universal.  You know... small little diversions like these.

Maybe I'm the one who's out of touch here.  Maybe I should be glad that "only" 38% of Christians are divorced.  But wouldn't that be an even worse reaction to Stanton's claims?  Why give the body of Christ the impression that we should feel good about a percentage like that?

Holiness - that's what we need.  Holiness, integrity, and a baseline that is set on God, not on this world.  Which is more important:  the divorce rate between Christians and the world, or the divorce rate between Christians and what God expects from our observance of His marriage covenant?

No matter how you slice it, there's nothing to cheer about Stanton's article.  Until divorce becomes starkly uncommon among people of faith, we've got a lot more work to do than worry about comparisons.

After all, even if we get down into the single digits for a Christian divorce rate, it will still be too high for God's standard.

And isn't that the only one that counts?

PS -
Please excuse me while I crow, but if you've read my thoughts on increasing taxes for top income earners, now known as the Buffett Rule, you'll recall that although I didn't really oppose the idea, I didn't think it would actually raise that much additional tax revenue.  Well, apparently I was right:  today we learned that the Buffett Rule would probably bring in only $31 billion extra over ten years.  And here I've been, claiming not to be an economics expert!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dog Day Saturday

At first glance, it looked like a scraggly pile of leaves.

But when it got up, you could see that it had four legs.

Underneath a neighbor's pickup truck parked across the street, a mangy mutt of a dog appeared this past Saturday.  It could stand up underneath the full-sized Chevy, which tells you how tall it was.  And it wasn't much longer, either.  It's greyish-brown hair was matted and clumped, looking like cornrows in places.  Hair completely covered its eyes and spread out from each of its paws.  Other than hair, all that could be seen was a cute little black button nose.  And every now and then, a little pink mouth with perfectly-aligned itty-bitty white teeth.

It appeared as though this dog's previous owners had put braces on those teeth in its earlier life, they were so straight.  In that earlier life, it was probably well-groomed, well-fed, and even well-trained.  It certainly wasn't a wild dog who'd lived for years - or even many months - on the streets.  It didn't snap, or bark much at all.  It didn't dislike humans, but it was wary.  Eventually, with some coaxing, it decided to inch itself to the side of the pickup, closer to us humans, yet still well-protected by the underbelly of the Chevy.

A neighbor up the street saw it first, and came back with some dog food he purchased at a nearby convenience store, since he didn't have a dog of his own.  But this little mutt wouldn't come out from under the truck, so our neighbor tore off the side of a Styrofoam fast-food soda cup, filled it up with the dog food, and left it in the curb.

After the first neighbor went back home, I softly approached the pickup truck, talking to the dog in a hushed manner.  He wagged his mangy tail, but displayed little other interest.  I got down onto the pavement on my hands and knees, with my rear-end sticking up in the air, trying to coax the mutt out from under the truck, but he just moved from one spot to the other, wagging his tail in a decidedly noncommittal way.

Another neighbor drove by, saw the situation, and went home to get some doggie treats she had on-hand for her own two pets.  We made a little smorgasbord of the food on the pavement near the wayward stray, and after we moved back, he came out and gobbled up some of the pieces.

Yet another neighbor drove by, got out of her silver Cadillac, got down on her hands and knees, and tried to coax the mutt from underneath the pickup.

No success.  Although he seemed charmed by all of the attention he'd suddenly acquired, he didn't really trust any of us.

What do to?  Another neighbor drove by and suggested a no-kill shelter she knew of - about 30 miles away.  We couldn't even get the dog out from under the truck, let alone pick him up.  And did any of us have room in our Saturday to drive a couple of hours to take a stray dog to anyplace but the city pound, where they only keep strays for three days?

I decided that I could, but I needed more time to establish some sort of rapport with this little doggie.  So after talking to him some more, I went inside to try again later.  Only by then, our newest neighbor had moved on - to another, smaller pickup truck parked in our next-door-neighbor's driveway.  They were away on vacation, but I knew if they came home a day early and their two small children found a lost dog at their house, their parents would have a horrible time trying to convince them that it wasn't Providence giving them a new pet!

So I went next-door, and crouched beside their gold-colored Ford pick-up.  I talked to the dog, patting the concrete driveway with my hand, and generally trying to play dog whisperer to the shaggy-haired mutt.  At least the day was fairly cool and we had a bit of a breeze, so I wasn't perspiring like I would have done had this taken place during one of our notorious Texas summers.  But still, the dog seemed to enjoy the attention, but that was about it.

After a while, after I'd gone back inside, I noticed the neighbor up the street who'd gone out to purchase dog food had returned.  He was sitting on the curb, next to the white Chevy, talking to the dog, which had left the Ford and returned to the truck parked in the street.  "Good," I thought to myself.  "Maybe he'll be able to take care of the dog!"  I didn't want to have to take the stray myself to a shelter - no-kill or not.  But I knew we couldn't keep him.

After another hour or so, I looked again, and there was no scraggly-looking clump underneath the Chevy.  Had our neighbor taken him home?  Nope, I looked next-door, and the stray had simply returned to our next-door-neighbor's Ford.  So I went over again to talk to him, and to my surprise, it didn't take long for the little doggie to slowly work his way from underneath the truck into my reach.  So I stretched over and scratched his little head.

And he liked it!

I scratched behind his ear, under his chin, and across his back.  My hand turned brown and greasy from stroking such dirty hair.  But when I moved closer, the dog ducked back underneath the truck.

I'd done some research online and found a no-kill shelter in Fort Worth, which was closer to us, but they closed at 5pm on Saturdays, and it was 4:30 now.  And I still couldn't get to the dog to pick him up.  I started to walk away, and the dog came back from underneath the truck, and he started to follow me down the neighbor's driveway!

Was this my chance?  I turned around and bent down to scratch behind his ears again, and the dog came right up to my legs.  As I had been petting him, I'd noticed that fleas were running all over his skin.  The whole time he had been in our neighborhood, and all of us neighbors had been talking to him, he would suddenly attack his backside with his back feet in a scratching fit - obviously because of the fleas.  So as much as I wanted to help the little mutt, I didn't want to get covered in fleas myself.  So I didn't really want to pick him up.  But if I could get him to follow me to our house and into my car, then I could just spray the car's interior afterwards.

So I walked slowly across our lawn, and the little dog followed me.  We kept going, and he was following me, right up until the point where he seemed to start reading my mind as I mentally strategized about how I'd deal with his fleas and get him to the shelter, as time was running out.

Suddenly, he turned around and trotted back next door, and scooted himself underneath our neighbor's truck.

I went inside, and called the shelter to see if they could stay open a little while longer.  But they'd closed early for the day.

After dinner, I went back next door, and the dog came out from under the truck and let me pet him again and scratch behind his ears.  I killed a couple of fleas that made their way onto my arm and shirt, but I was really feeling sorry for the little fella.  I walked back into our yard, and the mutt followed me, and I thought maybe if I could get him into our fenced backyard for the evening, at least we could keep a better eye on him, and take him to the shelter after church Sunday morning.

About that time, yet another neighbor was walking her dog down our street, walking towards me and the stray.

"Oh, good!" she exclaimed.  "You got him to come out from underneath the truck!"

"Yes, but I don't know what to do with him right now," I replied.

"Well, Paul, our neighbor, wants to keep him."  I figured out that Paul was the guy who'd come down with the dog food earlier in the day, and who'd sat on the curb for a long while talking to the dog under the truck.

Wow - that was good news!  I had hoped that neighbor - who I'd never met before - would provide a good resolution for our problem, and he'd come through!  So we walked with the mutt - he was following me around quite obediently now - up the street to Paul's house.

And Paul was walking down the street - with even more dog food that he'd mixed with some hamburger!  When he saw us coming towards him with the stray, he broke out into a broad smile.

Turns out, he's an older single guy with some health issues who had a dog like this mutt back when he was much younger.  He was ready to deal with the fleas and the matted hair, and had a spacious, fenced backyard to keep him.  So we escorted the newly-christened "J.J." into the backyard, where he promptly did his business next to Paul's in-ground swimming pool!  It was as if he knew this was his new home!

Paul didn't care.  He was deeply pleased.  He was going to give J.J. a thorough bath and make an appointment with a dog groomer.  "I guess you'll see me more often now," he joked, since he'd realized he'd have to take J.J. out for daily constitutionals.

I walked back down the street to my home, leaving J.J. at his new one.  It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  Everything had worked out!  How nice that all of us neighbors were able to share a common concern, and how especially nice that one of us was in a position to take a stray right off the street, despite all of his fleas and however many other problems he might have.

It reminded me that some stories can still have happy endings.  And that redemption isn't as impossible as we often consider it to be.

Bow. Wow!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Put Some Clothes on that Anchor

Tyler Clementi's cyber-bully was found guilty today in New Jersey.

The Rutgers University freshman had been outed by a hidden webcam placed strategically over his bed by his roommate, Dharun Ravi.  Distraught over the calloused way Ravi had treated his sexuality, Clementi committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge.

That story should be troubling enough on several levels, from the way college students like Ravi cling to adolescent behavior patterns when they're supposed to be entering responsible adulthood, to the questions surrounding Clementi's apparent belief that no resources were available to him with regard to handling such a grievous breach of intimacy.

And then a CNN broadcast anchor, shown here in a video made of her on-air presentation of the story, helps reinforce some of the similar juvenile stereotypes in our society that contribute, in part, to mindsets like Ravi's:

(You don't need to watch the whole video to see what I'm talking about. I'm sorry, but the video is having issues in FireFox.)

Don't pay attention to the content of this video. Instead, compare the news anchor's clothing - or rather, her lack thereof - with the expert analyst's suit and tie. Isn't it striking to you how much flesh Suzanne Malveaux is exposing to the camera as opposed to the suited, buttoned-shirted, necktied Paul Callan?

Here's Malveaux, clucking somewhat sanctimoniously about the punishment meted out to one young perpetrator of severe chauvinism while she's exposing a considerable amount of chauvinism herself.  Look at all that skin she's showing on the air!  Granted, the crucial bits of anatomy are covered up, but not by much.  How much credibility does her attire lend her profession as a journalist?

Meanwhile, if Callan were dressed in a silk tank top, how much credibility do you think his audience would give him?  Malveaux looks like she's broadcasting from a studio with malfunctioning air conditioning.  Is it because she's a woman, and that black tanktop is in style?

It's so sexist - not that I think women shouldn't wear such revealing clothing on the job, but that Malveaux and her superiors think they should.  Ravi has been found guilty of what's essentially aggressive sexism, since he probably wouldn't have been cruel enough to record a heterosexual roommate's intimate encounters.  Yet Malveaux apparently is trying to play towards the stereotypical slut female TV personality, presumably since she's confident enough in her journalistic credentials that she doesn't see the need to remind her audience that she got her job only because she knows how to report the news.

There are appropriate places to wear the type of clothing Malveaux models as a supposed journalist.  At a picnic; at the mall; or even as a journalist, underneath a blazer or even a scarf.  Perhaps it wouldn't even be so noticeable if she wasn't paired on-screen with a far more appropriately-dressed person in a suit.

But the issue isn't just about Malveaux is - or isn't wearing.  Plenty of other women these days think dressing down means covering the barest minimum amount of skin.  Or at least, shall we say, accentuating the positive in their physique.  This trend is perhaps even more inappropriate in church than in a TV news studio.  Here in at my church in Dallas, come summertime, we chivalrous men spend a lot of time looking at the floor and the ceiling to avoid all the bare cleavage, thighs, and backs that prance around us in the sanctuary and hallways.  If these women want men who appreciate them for their intellect and integrity, they've got a funny way of showing it.  When men like me complain (which has happened - even from the pulpit), women invariably point to people in the media like Malveaux, saying if she can do it, so should they be able to.

Yeah, sure - this problem isn't new.  But it used to fall in the realm of teenaged hormones gone wild, where parents had to practically wage war to keep clothes on their adolescent daughters.  These days, the skin-baring has moved into the twenties and on into middle age - and sometimes, to the consternation of us all, beyond.

I could fall into the old mantra of "how you dress reveals what's in your heart," but the problem isn't even that complicated.  It's simple pridefulness in one's physical beauty, manifested in skimpy wardrobes to celebrate one's good looks.  "If you've got it, flaunt it" would be more accurate an assessment of the situation.

Then again, there's another phrase I heard years ago that I think also applies:

"If you're not in business, don't advertise."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

You Are Second

You've seen the billboards.

And the commercials, and the t-shirts, and the online advertising.

It claims "I am Second."  Supposedly a clever religious marketing slogan to indicate that God is first in purpose and priority, and since I believe that, I'm a Christian.  It's cool, hip, and minimalist, so nobody can really get offended.  And it fits so well with North America's pop theology.

And yes, God is first.  No doubt about it.

But are we really second?  Think about it.

Remember this encounter in the Gospels?

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'  The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."  (Mark 12:28-31)

Or how about the apostle Paul's admonishment from Philippians 2:3:  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

God, others, ourselves.  Isn't that the real order?

Ironically, the "I am Second" campaign reflects the humanistic reality that I'm assuming it's trying to challenge.  We do consider ourselves more important that others, don't we?  Many Americans will admit to some Higher Power being in charge of things, even as they're not eager to cede second place to anybody else.  But those of us who believe that the God of the Bible is first must also believe in the corollary to that doctrine:  God is first.  You are second.  I am further on down the list.

One of the greatest struggles of my life involves believing this and acting on it.  Acknowledging that your needs should come before my own has become profoundly heretical in the American mindset.  We hardly show affinity for each other, let alone affection and - gasp! - love.  Not romantic love, of course, but brotherly love.  The willingness to defer.  The eagerness to help.  The loathing of repayment - with interest.

And guess what - I am not second.  You are.  Even if you selfishly agree with me that you're second.

But don't assume that for too long.  Otherwise I'll have to start praying for your salvation.  Because believing "I am second" is apparently, according to the Bible, as sinful as believing you're first.

Who's on second?  Narcissism tells us what we want to believe.  God's Word tells us the truth.

So, yes, I believe you are second.  Even though sometimes I may not act like I believe it.  So when that happens, please forgive me.  Because technically, to you, I'm second.

We're taught that life isn't supposed to work this way - with others being more important than ourselves.  But things aren't really working out being motivated by our personal selfishness, are they?  Maybe "You Are Second" would be one of those faith things we usually defer to those really spiritual moments in our lives that we don't consider pragmatic for everyday living

So, am I off the hook?  Do I not really have to take being selfless seriously?

Why don't you tell me?

After all, you are second.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Shocked by Shock of Greed

Talk about employee rage!

It's difficult to know what to make of former Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith and his blistering critique of Goldman's corporate culture.  In an editorial today for the New York Times, Smith announces his resignation from Goldman to the world, along with what appears to be a heartfelt confession for his years of servitude at the altar of unbridled greed which he's only now realized Goldman is.

According to Smith, Goldman has just recently become the altar of unbridled greed and customer manipulation, and that twelve years into his tenure there, standards have only recently fallen enough to make him realize how morally bankrupt his peers have become.  Morally bankrupt, while at the same time lining their pockets and Goldman's bottom line with ill-gotten - yet perfectly legal - booty.  Booty from customers who were kicked in theirs; treated like gold mines from which Goldman's traders could plunder using questionable financial products.

"It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off," Smith contends in his op-ed for the Times.  "Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as 'muppets.'"

In their defense, Goldman's public relations folks have issued a hollow rebuttal to their former employee's claims.  "We disagree with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business,” a subjectively-phrased statement meagerly allows.  “In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.”

In other words, it's business as usual at Goldman, which for years has thrown out platitudes and morality terminology in sentences they hope people don't spend too much time digesting.

But what about Smith himself?  As an executive at Goldman, he must have been earning an income that, for most of the rest of us, likely amounts to a tidy sum.  In the New Testament account of Zacchaeus, the repentant tax collector vowed to repay everyone he defrauded, setting the model for a proper demonstration of turning over a new leaf in life.  No such offer has come from Smith.

Since he covers himself legally by saying nothing he or Goldman did was criminal, Smith can keep the personal wealth he's accrued during his dozen years at the firm without fear of prosecution or government fines.  But since he's the one waging a morality battle, what obligations might he owe his former clients in terms of ways he perpetrated against them the same things he accuses his former co-workers of doing?

Or was Smith about to be fired for not being as unethical towards his clients, and therefore far less valuable to Goldman? If that was the case, wouldn't Smith have had more ammunition in this fight after being fired?  Do his claims carry more water if he's a victim himself, or merely an employee who can no longer stomach the attitudes of his peers?

And does walking off an employment cliff, like Smith appears to be doing with his op-ed piece, spell the end of his Wall Street career?  After all, what firm - especially in the vicious financial industry - will hire somebody who so earnestly rats on his former employer?  Is he simply planning on returning to his native South Africa to surf?  Or does he think this stab at integrity might win him a stable-full of ex-Goldman clients so he can launch his own investment firm?

Although I have a good friend from my New York City days who still works in Goldman's back offices, I am not a fan of how the firm does business.  So I'm not exactly taking Goldman's side in this.  After all, Goldman was hardly a model of morality even twelve years ago, when Smith started with the firm.  He knew what he was getting into - nobody courts a Wall Street brokerage position wanting to plant flowers with clients while singing Kumbaya.  It's always been about the money, with clients as a means to an end.  If it took Smith twelve years to figure that out, who's the fool now?

And with all of his righteous indignation, couldn't Smith have stayed within the paneled walls of Goldman's executive suites and worked to change the flaws in their corporate culture from the inside?  If he'd already tried that, you'd think he'd have mentioned it in his op-ed piece.  Instead, he takes the holier-than-thou route and jumps ship with an editorial he naively thinks could be a catalyst for change among people who will probably hold him with as much disdain as they apparently hold their clients.

Sure, it would be nice if everybody on Wall Street wakes up from their delusional narcissism and confesses a renewed vow of ethical sobriety.  But as long as even Goldman's most disrespected clients continue to make money with them, what's the incentive to leave for a different firm?  A firm that still might hold them in derision?  After all, everything will still be all about the money.

What Smith needs to learn is that greed is not good.  Greed both on the part of Wall Street players and investor clients.

All Smith seems to be confessing is his shock at how evil greed can look.

And the New York Times found that newsworthy?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Identifying the True Voter ID Scare

Last May, voters in Texas overwhelmingly approved a state law establishing a voter identification system.

Yesterday, the United States Justice Department vetoed it.

It's become a contentious issue with ominous partisan overtones.  Who'd have thought presenting a photo ID when you vote would be so scary for some people?  Yet, here we are.  Democrats claim Republicans want to disenfranchise minorities at the ballot box, while Republicans claim Democrats don't want to eliminate a major loophole for voter fraud.

Democrats say voters would be disenfranchised because many minority and low-income voters don't already have any form of photo ID.  They say Republicans are trying to whittle away as many votes as they can, however they can do it, so as to win more elections.

Personally, I don't like the thought of needing voter ID cards.  I think it further advances Big Brother government intrusions into our privacy.  I think voter ID cards will be just another government document that can be too easily forged, potentially making them about as valid as some drivers licenses.  And I think obtaining a voter ID card could be a significant inconvenience for some elderly citizens of the United States who already have a hard enough time working their TV remote.

But as much as I don't like the thought of needing voter ID cards, I also realize that they are needed nevertheless.  We've got to be more proactive in preventing voter fraud, and voter ID cards will help in that regard.

It's been frustrating listening to Democrats - and only hard-line Democrats oppose voter ID cards - who "doth protest too much," to paraphrase Shakespeare.  I heard one professor at a Southern college claim that no cases of voter ID fraud exist, which only proves how uneducated some educators are.  Here in Texas, practically every election yields some form of voter fraud, and much of that fraud involves voter identity.  Just check out some of the stories from Dallas County to see how voter ID cards could help keep some of our elected officials out of jail.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the political party most often claimed by Dallas County politicians convicted in voter fraud is... Democrat.

Some liberals love to cloak Republican efforts towards voter ID cards in menacing terminology like "voter suppression."  As if Republicans are trying to prevent people from voting!  Okay, maybe Republicans are trying to prevent people from voting more than once in the same election, but if that's what liberals call "voter suppression," then who's the party with the weaker morals?  If "one person = one vote" isn't worth enforcing, then how genuine is democracy?

Yes, we all know that Republicans would love for everybody to vote straight-ticket Republican.  But the inverse is also true for Democrats.  So that's a non-issue.  More pointedly, however, is the fact that Democrats have a bad history with voter fraud.  We know they let dead people vote.  They've been known to bus black churchgoers to multiple polling places.  Feeding and even paying voters, filling out ballots for voters, and otherwise controlling (Republicans call it "rigging") elections.  Sure, Republicans have their own dirty tricks when it comes to elections, but just because Democrats haven't figured out how to outlaw them doesn't mean that Republican attempts at staunching rampant Democratic fraud aren't legit.

And if the Republicans really are playing dirty politics, why don't the Democrats call their bluff?  Why not have liberals carry the banner of election ethics instead of conservatives?  This is one of the ways of politics that baffles me:  why does the other party automatically have all the bad ideas?  Why don't partisan politicos put the energy they use bashing the opposition into portraying themselves as the champion of the underdog?  You'd think that Republicans would be the ones opposed to voter ID cards because of their Orwellian, regulatory tone.

Why should Democrats be scared of voter ID cards if Republican claims about their electioneering tactics aren't true?  If liberals really wanted to take the lead on election ethics, they would be taking the lead on election reform.  By blowing up the voter ID card issue into a grand partisan war, Democrats look like they're desperately holding on to the last few tricks of theirs that help them win elections.

Suffice it to say that the reason voter ID cards are necessary stems mostly from poor election practices among voters who generally vote Democratic.  So it makes sense that Democrats are going berserk trying to paint Republicans as anti-minority and anti-poor.  They say it's all about depriving people who don't drive - and therefore don't already have a drivers license - of the right to vote.  Funny, though; because my aunt, who's never driven a car or needed a drivers license, has always had a photo ID card from New York State.  It's just not called a drivers license.

And all these Hispanics whom Texas liberals claim don't have drivers licenses?  Pardon my political incorrectness, but are these people legal residents of the United States?  How do they get to work if they don't have a drivers license?  Texas isn't known for its robust public transit infrastructure.  Do you mean they're all driving around illegally?

If Democrats really want to push their weak reasons for opposing voter ID cards, then they'd better be careful.  Give Republicans enough information about all the other laws your constituents may be breaking, and pretty soon, those constituents might tell you to just hush up!

I don't like the fact that we need voter ID cards, but open and free elections remain one of the few trophies of American life that haven't been perverted by corruption.  By preventing the deployment of tools that could help minimize corruption in our elections, the Democratic Party tramples on the spirit of its very name.

Unless they can come up with a better way to keep the United States from turning into Chicago.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Caroline, Caring, and Kony2012

Sometimes, a good funeral can be a good kick in the pants.

This past Saturday, I attended the Dallas portion of a series of memorial services being held around the world for Caroline Gross, who lived practically her entire life on the mission field, first in South America, and then in Africa.

And when you've lived the kind of live Caroline lived, having a series of funerals held in your honor simply makes sense.  After all, considering the limited economic resources of all the people who'd want to attend her funeral, it was probably cheaper to take the funerals to them, instead of making them trek all the way around the globe for one grand ceremony.

If there was one thing that didn't typify Caroline, it was grand ceremony.

A Life Lived Flat-Out for Christ

I'd only ever met her once, and she had already aged past her years even then.  More recent photographs in the PowerPoint slideshow shown before Saturday's service portrayed a short, hunched, gray-haired old woman, creases of wrinkles covering her face and arms, skin brown and splotchy from years in the African sun.  Although she was Caucasian, she looked more comfortable in colorful African dresses than Western clothes; indeed, her home was Nigeria, not the United States.

When her husband had been alive, they'd planted churches and Christian schools in Nigeria.  When he left her a widow in her 50's, she stayed in Nigeria and took care of a severely handicapped girl, eventually adopting her, and setting a selfless example of service that soon attracted other orphans to her humble doorstep.

For any good funeral, which celebrates a life devoted to Christ, you need to be able to start with good material: a life devoted to Christ.  Many of us claim the name of Christ, but few of us model the focused, intentional love epitomized by Caroline.  When she died of natural causes in Pennsylvania late last fall, Caroline was supervising two orphanage ministries in Nigeria serving 400 children, with many more kids having already graduated from the program as adults.

And these weren't just orphans abandoned by their destitute parents or victims of Africa's many wars.  These were kids who'd been blinded or crippled by polio or other birth defects, or socially ostracized because of their albinism (lack of skin pigment).  Caroline and her workers fashioned crude yet functional wheelchairs out of bicycle wheels and plastic lawn furniture.  She structured a regimen of schoolwork, chores, and Bible education, while providing three nutritious meals a day, healthcare, and even international career development opportunities for willing graduates.

She never raised funds, at least not through our conventional North American non-profit solicitation patterns.  The pioneering missionary to India, Amy Carmichael, did not believe in fundraising, trusting instead that God's ability to provide is sufficient - and she fed hundreds of kids daily with that trust, just as Caroline committed to doing.  One of Caroline's brothers is a pastor in Arizona, and this past Saturday, he recounted the time his church held a special offering for his sister's ministry in Nigeria - at his request.  When he saw the total dollar amount of the offering, her brother was proud of his congregation, and pleased they had given so much, so he happily informed Caroline of the amount.  "Praise God," he told us she exclaimed with honest elation.  "That will feed our children for two whole days!"

The Hidden Lesson of Kony2012

Speaking of fundraising, perhaps you've seen the video making its rounds on social media sites calling for the capture and trial of Joseph Kony.  Produced by the non-profit advocacy group Invisible Children, Kony2012 has enlisted the support of major entertainment and political figures from across the ideological spectrum to encourage a massive public relations effort aimed at increasing the world's awareness of Africa's children of war in general, and the capture of the warlord Kony in particular.

Within a matter of weeks, about 70 million people have either watched the Kony2012 promotional video online or signed its petition urging swift justice for Kony and his victims.  I only learned about it last week on FaceBook, but I didn't pay any attention to it until this past weekend, when the media suddenly seemed consumed by the story.  But by that time, skeptics had already joined the frenzy, asking questions about who Invisible Children is, how it spends its money, and who Joseph Kony really is.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the skepticism was coming from countries in Africa where Kony has been operating, such as Uganda and the Republic of Congo.  Policy experts there have become alarmed that all of the vociferous publicity against Kony could work against itself to make him appear even more powerful and idolized among his followers.  Apparently, there is also some disappointment among human rights groups that have been working tirelessly for years to extricate child warriors from Africa's illegal militias.  Kony2012 is diverting attention and resources for what appears to be a flash-in-the-pan publicity stunt, instead of educating Westerners of work already in place serving the needy in war-torn Africa.

What nobody seems to be disputing, however, is the grave sociopolitical minefield much of tribal Africa is today.  Even as Kony2012 provides publicity to part of this reality, it doesn't begin to provide a comprehensive perspective, and that's not necessarily their fault.  There are both pros and cons in Invisible Children's approach, but perhaps the greatest danger appears to be us Westerners' fickle - and notoriously short - attention span.

Fortunately, what appears to be an astute and well-rounded synopsis of the crisis highlighted by Kony2012 can be found in a blog written by two American missionary doctors in Uganda.  Suffice it to say, their years of experience ministering in Africa validate the notion that a 30-minute video cannot possibly present the informed overview of this crisis many Americans think they're getting.

Which, according to doctors Scott and Jennifer Myhre in Uganda, needs to be rectified.  Packaging the story of Africa's child warriors in such a slick fashion juices Western audiences accustomed to the rush of soundbites and reflexive online donations to make themselves feel better.  It's better than nothing, of course, but that's not really saying much.  Watching this video - which I have not done (since the video itself is not the problem here) - and responding to it by posting FaceBook links and purchasing "action kits" and bracelets is a cool way of assuming you're being proactive regarding a humanitarian crisis without actually committing much of anything to the cause.

Caring for Humanity Costs More than $10

It's the same mindset, actually, which makes people like Caroline Gross such an anomaly.  And therefore, seem like such a bizarre humanitarian when we remember her life's story at a funeral.  One of several, remember.

And believe me - I'm preaching to myself here more than anybody else.  But I know I'm not the only person who needs to hear this!  I have a clean, crisp passport without anything in it.  I dislike traveling even to poor parts of town, let alone to thatched huts half a world away.  I'm as WASP as you can be without being rich like most WASPs are believed to be.  So sitting through Caroline's memorial service Saturday was both educational and convicting.

Most of us will never be called to long-term service for "the least of these" in Nigeria.  Obviously, the reason God placed you and me here in North America isn't because we're supposed to all move to Africa.  There is valid ministry to be done here in our own backyard.  Yet I wonder how many of us have been called to places like Nigeria, but we don't bother going?  Maybe not just for a short-term missions trip, but for a longer stay?  Becoming part of the community in places like Otutulu Village, Nigeria, or Banda, Republic of Congo?  Becoming a truly global citizen, comfortable and productive wherever God leads us?  Not as a tourist, but as a servant?

Overall, I think it's a good thing that Americans have been jilted out of complacency - for however short a timeframe - by the Kony2012 fuss.  But maybe God's using even these little reminders that while we indeed have problems here at home, most of us will finish a busy day of complaining about our democracy and churches, and head home to air-conditioned buildings with walls, floors, and ceilings built to code; to sleep in beds with clean sheets without any mosquito netting.  None of us worry of armed mercenaries ruthlessly attacking our gated communities during the night, hauling off our women and children for perverted servitude, slaughtering all the able-bodied men.  And then burning our split-levels down to the ground.

Caroline Gross lived several hours away from Jos, Nigeria, where such terror takes place regularly.  And against Christians specifically, not just anybody unfortunate enough to encounter a rogue militia.

Yet even as she was making her way through physical therapy in Pennsylvania last fall, fully intending to return to Africa at the ripe old age of 88, Caroline wasn't afraid.  Concerned, perhaps, as anybody with a brain would be; but not afraid.  And so in love with her adopted family - all 400 of them!

Each one called her "Mama."

Because she didn't just show she cared by purchasing a $10 bracelet online.

Note: This essay has been updated with more accurate information about the orphans and the distance to Jos.