Friday, June 29, 2012

Crying Foul on Fowls' Foul Organ

Between yesterday's SCOTUS verdict, the wildfires in Colorado Springs, and flooding in the Florida panhandle, it's been one tough week for the United States.

Which makes today a good time to flip over to the golden side of life and check out how our wonderfully tanned brethren over in Cal-i-for-nee-ay are doing in the land of balmy weather and even balmier people.

Turns out, tomorrow is a big day for Californians, as it's the last day they'll get to buy foie gras legally.  Of course, for many Californians, "legally" is a relative term already, but for the sake of discussion, let's say that come July 1, the fatty liver of ducks and geese will be that mystery meat kids no longer will be forced to eat.

Not that kids eat much foie gras anyway, since it's considered a delicacy, and priced accordingly.  But personally, having never, ever liked plain liver, I can't imagine how adding lard to it can turn it into something for which I'm willing to pay $100 a serving.

Leave it to Californians, however, to have developed a whole subculture devoted to the historically prized garbagecan of some fowls' digestive tracts.  Apparently, a war has been waging in Europe for decades over foie gras, and whether the popular way of creating it amounts to animal cruelty.  But here in the Colonies, it's taken the nutty euro-socialist denizens of the Golden State to make theirs the first state to outlaw this foul organ of unfortunate fowls.

So, how is foie gras made?  By sticking a 15-inch tube down the necks of ducks and geese and force-feeding them extra food, usually a mush of corn boiled in fat.  Animal rights activists claim that despite ducks and geese not having a gag reflex, this feeding method is inhumane.  As opposed to actually killing the birds, presumably.

Not that I'm a vegetarian.  I've had duck, but not goose (I feel the song to a children's game coming on).  I understand that raising animals that will be slaughtered to feed humanity isn't necessarily a pleasant job, or something that animal rights folks embrace.  And I understand that there remains considerable debate in the culinary world - known for its liberal policy advocates - over whether the birds suffer psychological harm at being force fed, even if they don't suffer physical harm.

Which kinda surprises me, because I'd have thought California would already have some board-certified duck and geese psychologists.  Maybe they couldn't get the birds to lie on their backs for their therapy sessions at the offices of their Beverly Hills quacks.

At any rate, there is a way to feed ducks and geese that requires no force at all - some farms scatter nuts and other fatty foods onto the ground in pens where ducks and geese can eat and eat to their hearts' delight... or as much delight as a heart can get on a concentrated diet most doctors would ban for their human patients.  I presume the cost of this type of foie gras farming is significantly higher than the conventional tube method.  And technically, it's only the tube method that's being banned in California.  But it seems that all foie gras, floor-fed or tubed, is meeting the same fate come this Sunday.

So fatty liver lovers all over the state are pigging out on the stuff before prohibition kicks in.  They've given up hope that the Mafia will have any interest in running bootleg foie gras operations like they did when liquor was banned early in the last century.

As much as we'd like to chuckle over this inane bit of Californian legislative overkill, however, there lies a much more foul aspect to it.  The humble duck and goose may have won their right to not be force fed for California foodies, but might this new law on their behalf be yet another brick closing in on the freedoms that help keep us from being like birds penned into cages?

Foie gras today, French fries tomorrow?  The mayor of New York City wants to eliminate large servings of soft drinks.  Sounds ominous, doesn't it?

We already can't eat wild Beluga caviar, since sturgeon eggs have become endangered.  Also already banned are shark fins because of international harvesting laws, and the national fruit of Jamaica, ackee, because it can severely mess with your blood sugar and even cause death.

On the whole, those food bans are rather understandable.  But foie gras?  Granted, few people eat it anyway, so its loss in California will only be felt by a few elite gastronomes.  It used to be banned in Chicago, but the ban was repealed after the Windy City's famous chefs decided it was cruel and inhuman punishment for their deprived human customers.

Something tells me this ban in California may stick, however.  Chicago used to be the hog butcher to the world, so meat is in its blood.  When California bleeds, however, it's usually whine from bleeding-heart liberals.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Health Costs Defy SCOTUS Ruling

If you spent any time in the United States today, you'll be forgiven for thinking that nothing newsworthy happened except the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare.

Throughout our media spectrum here, that's all anybody's really talking and writing about.

Granted, what many people are saying about the SCOTUS decision isn't entire accurate.  The Supremes' majority opinion has little to do with whether or not Obamacare is good legislation, and everything to do with whether it's constitutional.  Republican Chief Justice John Roberts pointed that out.  And since, despite President Obama's disingenuous insistence to the contrary, the individual mandate component of the health care law is funded in part by what amounts to a tax, and our federal government has the constitutional right to levy taxes, five of the nine justices deemed that technicality sufficient to allow virtually all of Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to stand.

Yet this act provides no patient protection from unaffordable care, and the cost of heathcare lies at the crux of our national debate on this issue.  Some people argue that they oppose Obamacare because it represents too much intrusion into private health matters, and that may be true.  Others oppose Obamacare because it implements unprecedented restrictions on religious liberty, and that is indeed disturbingly true.  Still others say Obamacare is simply a shell game in which taxpayers get stuck with paying for the healthcare of others.  A common interpretation of the complex law holds that people below a certain income level will be exempted from participating even in the individual mandate.

But don't taxpayers get stuck paying for the medical care of the indigent already?  And isn't that because of the cost?  It has nothing to do with the availability of healthcare.

Just Because It May Be Constitutional Doesn't Mean It'll Work

Some politically conservative critics of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act scoff at the notion that heathcare costs lie at the heart of our increasingly unaffordable medical industry.  Ideas that people like me advocate seem to threaten the very concept of Americana some right-wingers hold dear.

For example, I believe we should prevent ambulance-chasing lawyers from abusing our malpractice standards.  We should staunch the blatant fraud running amok in our Medicare and Medicaid systems.  We should reduce pharma extravagance, which is partially obscured by what may be excessively restrictive processes for FDA approvals of new treatments.

And we should all be encouraging healthcare consumers - that's you and me - to take more responsibility for how and what we eat, whether we smoke or drink alcoholic beverages, and how our pursuit of reckless habits and pastimes - ranging from rock climbing to skateboarding to not keeping ourselves hydrated in the summer - makes us more costly to insure.

I'd have thought right-wing Republicans would be all over things like reducing waste in our pharmaceutical industry, but then, I guess that would mean Republicans who hold executive positions in such firms would get paid less.

Why wouldn't right-wingers like the idea of holding Americans more accountable for how they maintained their health?  After all, if heart disease is one of the main medical concerns in the United States, and since most causes of heart disease can be easily controlled by diet and exercise, what's not to embrace?  I guess maybe that whole if-you-like-risky-activities-like-rock-climbing-you-should-pay-higher-insurance-premiums bit doesn't sit too well with folks who'd rather spend their spare cash on enjoying the great outdoors, rather than stale insurance invoices.

After all, risk is what built this country!  It's un-American to penalize people who take risks!  That takes the fun out of everything dangerous!

I could reply with this question:  what gives you the right to expect to pay the same insurance premiums I do when you're the one taking all these physical risks to your health, and I'm not?

Healthcare Isn't a Civil Right, but It's Not a Commodity, Either

But there's something even worse than the discrepancies of logic represented by people who seem to oppose the very notion that healthcare costs aren't the main problem:  the insinuation that it's OK to deny people healthcare because they can't afford it.

You won't hear these right-wingers phrase it like that; only Democrats wage class warfare, right?  But if you distill healthcare to just another commodity whose costs rise and fall based on crude free market theory, what are you doing?  You're putting money above life.

When you say, "Healthcare is a commodity; we simply need to pay the costs," you're saying that if only rich people can afford good care, you're OK with that.  Even if you're not rich, which obviously, means you're either not ever planning to get sick, or you've got a strategy to make it into the One Percenters club before you do get sick.

Either way, isn't that a terribly immoral way to look at healthcare and society?  "The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil."  It's not sacrilegious to admit that some things are more important than money.

Free market economics does not reward its players based on morality.  Indeed, morality is what keeps free markets from destroying a nation's economy.

Think about it:  human traffickers make a lot of money.  According to a bare-bones analysis of free market and supply-and-demand economics, the money human traffickers earn makes their industry just as valid as the nursing industry, or coal mining, or making surf boards.  But human trafficking is a despicable industry, isn't it?

All things are not equal in free markets.  Unless you have absolutely no moral compass or sense of ethics.

"United We Stand" is a Foundational American Slogan

Having said that, a civilized society should be able to come together and figure out those things that are important, and how they're going to pay for them.  Even though we're a republic, and healthcare is itself not a civil right, we should be able to agree that inequities in access to healthcare based on ability to pay is not in the best interests of national unity.  If I get mad because I can't afford a Lexus, I can still purchase a cheaper vehicle that I can afford, and it will get to the same place a Lexus can take me.  If I die because I can't afford medical care, and there's no cheaper way to avoid death, how is that ethical?  What does that say about the 'inalienable right of life" that's enshrined in our Declaration of Independence?

Isn't one of the purposes of government to help its people when there's no other way of accomplishing something?  I'm not saying that government-run healthcare is the solution.  But sometimes, laws and rules need to be established so fairness and access can be maintained.

For the most part, insurance works towards this noble goal of accessible healthcare because a whole lot of policyholders pay premiums but don't all need the same costly care at the same time. Hence my focus on costs. To the extent that components of our healthcare system are wasting money in areas that are not pertinent to healthcare - from the insurance companies themselves to hospitals to we healthcare consumers - we need to get rid of that waste to help control costs.

Isn't that an economic theory, too?  Lower costs mean greater access, right?

If you haven't read this essay carefully, it may sound like I'm an advocate for Obamacare.  But that would be because you may not understand what Obamacare really is:  a personal-responsibility-diluting, faith-bashing, pro-abortion, cost-ignoring government encroachment into not only the economics of healthcare, but the politics of personal freedom.  Even if it wasn't any of those things, Obamacare still does not address the fundamental problem with healthcare delivery in America:  its cost.

Republicans will rightly rebuff the SCOTUS decision today as too much concentration on constitutionality and too little concentration on whether this legislation really is the right bill for America.

I just hope that the common Republican aversion towards addressing blatant economic problems with our healthcare system doesn't scare conservatives away from working towards genuine, sustainable reform.  Since so far, Republicans have not made any attempt to take the lead on healthcare reform, I'm not holding my breath.  It will just raise my blood pressure.

And high blood pressure won't help keep my healthcare costs down.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Might Lotto Unite NAACP and GOP?

When the Dallas chapter of the NAACP and Texas' Republican committee agree on something, officials in the Lone Star State need to take notice.

Earlier this June, at their convention in Fort Worth, Texas Republicans affirmed a resolution in their platform calling for an end to the state's lottery.  This week, by a unanimous vote of the board of the NAACP's chapter in Dallas, one of the state's most influential Democratic and minority organizations did the same thing.

Juanita Wallace, president of the NAACP's Dallas chapter, put it quite simply:  "People with very little money are spending their money on the lottery."  She added that her group has been concerned for a while about how gambling affects poor people, and whether government should encourage gambling.

Of course, gaming officials in Texas aren't about to let their cash cow go to the slaughterhouse.  One state senator who is a strong advocate of the lottery, a black Democrat from Houston, dismisses one of the claims Wallace and the Dallas NAACP made in conjunction with their request that the lottery be terminated.  Senator Rodney Ellis is satisfied that only 63% of lottery profits goes to fund public education.  Many Texans have been under the impression that the percentage would be much higher.  It was one of the vague promises gaming advocates made when Texas first voted to establish a lottery in 1991.

Another state senator from Wallace's own district in Dallas, Royce West, said he wouldn't comment until he's talked personally with her and his friends at his local NAACP chapter.  Obviously, he's not overjoyed that a group who usually marches lock-step with his own political agenda has broken ranks and pointed out the obvious fallacy behind lotteries:

They really are a poor man's tax.

Dollar by dollar, playing the lotto won't put anybody in the poorhouse.  But no lotto can survive if its players spend just a dollar a week for the fun of it.  And what about the morality of gambling in general?  Spending money on a system rigged against you just for the opportunity to defy the odds and receive a windfall you haven't earned?  I have an idea:  that dollar you're thinking of spending to purchase a lottery ticket?  Please mail it to me instead.  The same reason you'd balk at sending me a dollar for no reason is pretty much the same reason you shouldn't be buying a lotto ticket, either.

Technically, the Texas Lottery Commission is already on the chopping block.  The state's Sunset Advisory Commission has a list of agencies whose fate will be decided in 2013, and it can decide whether to recommend that the lottery be allowed to continue, or whether its charter should be terminated.  That decision then gets forwarded to the Texas legislature, which will rule on accepting or rejecting the ruling of the Sunset commission.

Considering the dire straits Texas public education funding is in, nobody's thinking getting rid of the lottery is going to be a slam-dunk.  Currently, partly because the lottery gives such a low percentage of earnings to the state's school districts, that amount is roughly $1 billion per year.  The state spends about $54 billion on public education each year, and could spend more if enough taxpayers wanted it to.  Finding additional ways to make up 1/54th of its funding - less than 2% - if the lottery was eliminated wouldn't be difficult.  But it probably wouldn't be politically-expedient for many elected officials, both liberal blacks who don't agree with people like Juanita Wallace, and even conservatives who've quietly been welcoming campaign funds from the gaming industry.

Still, the fact that voters as diverse as Texas's Republican caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are on the same page when it comes to the lottery isn't insignificant.  Having these two organizations agree that the amount of money the lottery contributes to public education isn't worth its social costs should be a game-changer in the lotto debate.

Does that mean that Texas' Sunset Advisory Commission and the state's legislature will do the right thing and terminate the lottery?  Not by a long shot.  Texas politics isn't known for its logic and bipartisanship.

But again, these are two significant players in the state that could provide a decisive block of influence were they to join forces and work together on this shared objective.  Granted, so far, it's just the Dallas chapter of the NAACP that has taken a bold stance against the lottery, but Dallas is no political backwater in Texas.

I'm not known for my optimism.  But maybe I'm bipolar enough to think that the NAACP and Texas Republicans can together take down Texas' poor man's tax.  After all, people not taking advantage of these types of opportunities is one reason I'm not known for my optimism!  Still, I can hope.

Getting rid of the lottery might be a risky joint venture for two groups that generally don't work together well.  But it's a gamble in which, if it worked out, we'd all be winners.  Remember, you can't win if you don't play.

And sometimes, having everybody win is a good thing!

Read more here:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Helping Parents of Orphans

Thinking about adopting an orphan from a Majority World country?

You'll need to keep your altruism in check.

Especially if you don't know what a "Majority World" country is.  Regular readers of my blog will understand that I've adopted this increasingly popular term to corroborate what social scientists now consider to be a more accurate description of what used to be called "Third World" countries.

Yes, in a way, the change is a matter of linguistic semantics.  But really, it's also an acknowledgement of something we Westerners often forget:  the majority of people on our planet do not live like us.  Sure, we go on short-term missions trips to countries where electricity is a luxury and clean water only comes out of a plastic bottle.  Back at home, we soon forget, and assume our lifestyle we take for granted here is within reach of most anybody with the tenacity and determination to improve themselves.

Intellectually, of course, we know better.  One of the reasons the United States is waging a battle over illegal immigration, for example, consists of the reality that our standard of living is not yet sustainable on a global level.  We're struggling with how to allow some people who weren't born here the privileges of living here, while billions of other people cannot.

Adoption in Context

Indeed, immigration is one way people can come to the United States.  Another is international adoption.  Extending the benefits of American citizenship has become one of the most compelling reasons people from the States have adopted children from places like Ethiopia, Cambodia, and even Russia.  Conventional wisdom says that plucking orphans from Majority World nations and other struggling countries, like those of the former Soviet Union, will give at least a few children the opportunity to thrive in a much more privileged society.

Yet with the go-live today of my latest non-fiction review for, I've been thinking again about the paradox that can exist with international adoption.  In his book, No Greater Love, an entrepreneur-turned-untrained-social-worker named Levi Benkert uproots his wife and family from affluent suburban Sacramento, California, to live in remote and impoverished Jinka, Ethiopia.  Their mission?  To save what are called "mingi" babies from certain death at the hands of their own desperate parents.  You'll have to read my review - and indeed, the entire book - to understand more of the details of this compelling story, but suffice it to say that one of the first options Benkert and his team consider for these "orphans" is international adoption.

Only these babies weren't orphans in the traditional sense.  In this particular case, with this particular tribe, the babies still had both parents.  Due to some primitive satanic superstitions, however, even if the lives of these little children were spared, they couldn't live with the tribe.  They could live elsewhere and spare the tribe of the wrath from evil spirits, but who would care for them?

Who else but adoptive parents from the West?  At least, that's what the Benkerts first figured.  But when parents of mingi babies found out that the Benkerts were arranging for their children saved from slaughter to go and live with Western parents thousands of miles away and never return, they figured:  what's the point?  Either way, through death or adoption, they'd never see their child again.  Because of the twisted logic from generations of witchcraft, coupled with very real cultural deficits from living in tribal Ethiopia, these parents considered international adoption no different from murder.

I hate to keep saying, "read the book," but really - to understand the plight faced by the Benkerts and the infants they were trying to save, you have to read the book.  Or at least my review of it.

Rich or Poor, Parents Can Still Love Their Kids

Suffice it to say that the Benkerts realized that international adoption isn't the fix we Westerners have become accustomed to thinking it is.  In their particular situation, they realized that forging a system where Ethiopian widows from the country's many illnesses and wars helped raise the mingi babies would work better than adoption.  So that's the path they're now following, raising funds and organizing a ministry to keep mingi babies in-country and, at the same time, giving widows a new opportunity for family and purpose in a severely patriarchal society.  You can follow their journey on their blog.

But do you catch the key element in the Benkert's approach to helping resolve the crisis with mingi babies?  Once they were in-country, and after their heads began to stop reeling from blatant culture shock, the Benkerts began to learn that parental love isn't an exclusively Western commodity.  The reason these kids were being killed wasn't because their parents didn't love them.  They were enslaved to a satanic ritual that would take time for missionaries and aid workers to unravel and dispel.  But time wasn't something that was on the side of these mingi babies.  So the Benkerts had to work with what they had.  And what they had was a tribe desperate for a way out.

It's at this point that many of us evangelicals would sit back in our plush armchairs and scoff, "Christ is their only way out!"  And we'd be right, at least in terms of the hold Satan has on this tribe.

Apparently, however, the Holy Spirit wasn't working to immediately bring salvation to the people of this tribe.  He had other plans.  And it appears that His plan includes an opportunity to remind we haughty Westerners that parental love trumps materialism.

Bizarre, huh?

Who says our kids here in the States need all of their technological trinkets, designer clothing, and select sports clubs to know they're valued and loved?  For millennia, parents have been able to universally demonstrate love to their children with far fewer commodities.  Sure, clean water, reliable electricity, sanitary sewers, and nutritious food make child-rearing much more efficient and humane, but how often do we Westerners, in our endorsement of international adoption, justify the availability of these good things as a ruse so we can - however subconsciously - validate the excessive materialism in which we wallow?

We need to save those kids from poverty!  We need to give them opportunities for having fun childhoods and rewarding careers!

As if America is the only place kids can be free from poverty and have opportunities for fun and personal development.

The average cost for an American couple to adopt an orphan from a Majority World country runs from $15,000 to $20,000.  And that's just to get the kid over here.  Imagine if that money was spent on the orphan in his native country, where he could grow up with his parents, family, and tribe?  What if he could get a good education in his hometown, and drink water from a fresh well in his hometown, and avoid germs with the help of a sanitary sewer in his hometown?

What if he could learn a trade, get a job, provide for his family, participate in a democracy, and raise a new generation to do the same?  Isn't this basically what most Americans want for their kids?  Into which segment of this scenario do smartphones and leather-wrapped steering wheels play pivotal roles?

They Say 'Orphan,' We Hear 'Parentless'

It's not even like all of these kids who are called "orphans" are really parentless.  The term "orphan" may be one of the most mis-used terms in the international relief lexicon.  Of course, there are parentless children, particularly from the AIDS epidemic and the countless wars and famines that have ravaged the African continent for generations.  But how many children classified as "orphans" by systems looking for efficiencies actually have at least one living parent, and maybe grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, and even a tribal community which has historically been the de-facto safety net for its people?

When we hear the term "orphan," many Westerners assume it means a child without either parent.  In many Majority World countries, the term "orphan" means somebody whose parents cannot provide for their needs.  But how many children are adopted by Western parents who don't understand that a family unit may still exist in the child's hometown?  The Benkerts discovered that a whole adoption industry is running amok in Ethiopia, with children being bought and sold to feed the demand for cute black babies as trophies of Western concern.

Sometimes people in a position to render aid do so with the expectation that the aid they render should be dispensed by their rules.  If I'm spending the money, I get to say how it's spent.

It didn't take long for the Benkerts to realize that lording it over people in need isn't necessarily the best way to accomplish one's objective.

I'm not saying that all international adoptions are wrong, that all Westerners who adopt aren't being entirely realistic, and that all international adoption agencies can't be trusted.

It's becoming clearer and clearer, however, that people contemplating participating in international adoptions need to do so with their eyes wide open.  And their hearts willing to accept a solution that may not result in bringing a precious bundle of joy back across the ocean.

But if we're talking true love here, doesn't true love seek what's best for the other person?

Even if what's best doesn't look like what we're used to?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Age, Faith, and Action

"Where are all the old people?"

That's the question popular Christian preacher Francis Chan asks in a video exhorting elderly Christians to not let age keep them from participating in ministry.

He says he's not seeing the vibrancy of service and sacrifice among older Christians that he'd expect to see in people who've lived for Christ for decades and decades.  Chan asserts that Christian senior citizens aren't "risking" their lives enough for the Gospel.  They're spending too much time in front of the television, and not enough time on short-term missions trips.

And yes, maybe some Christian retirees do spend too much time on the golf course, or taking plush Caribbean cruises, or buying too many vowels from Pat and Vanna.  But where are the vast majority of elderly believers really spending the time Chan thinks they should be spending on Christian stuff?

Old Age Isn't Just a State of Mind

More than likely, these elderly believers are visiting their doctors, right?  They're cruising the specialist circuit, where hip doctors are trendy but not in the way young people use the term.  They're getting cataracts removed, going for prostate screenings, having their arthritis medicines strengthened, and visiting neurologists to check on their dementia.  Or they're sitting in doctors offices while their better halves test the limits of modern medicine.

And then there's Chan, fit and buff at 44, melodramatically pointing out that he's not getting any younger.

I don't know much about being old, either, but I'm seeing what old age does to people in my own family.  And I fully understand why my parents and their elderly friends aren't physically bustin' out for Christ like a converted Richard Simmons.

Chan is looking for action, for people getting out there and and changing and charging.  But with all due respect, can Christian service ignore the aging process?  How many people can physically do at 74 the same things they were doing at 44?

It's not like my parents and their friends, at their advanced ages, aren't doing stuff for Christ.  My father is more than three years into dementia's increasingly vice-like grip, but he spends hours - literally - every day reading the Bible and praying.  My mother prays during several extended intervals of time throughout each day, as do a couple of her elderly friends, in their respective homes.  My aunt, now in a retirement home, has taken it upon herself to personally comfort and advocate for some other residents who are sicker than she is.  Forty years ago, all of these people were deeply involved in church-based activities, but is there anything wrong with the more subdued ministries with which they continue pursuing today?  Just recently, a missionary friend of mine in Asia was effusive in her thanks to me for prayers on her behalf from my family, and my mother in particular.

Name a Biblical Character Who Was Retired

Actually, I know what Chan is saying:  there is no such thing as retirement from Christian ministry.  Many evangelical Americans figure that retirement from employment extends to their service - or lack of it - to God.  Chan doesn't explicitly say it in this video, but "retirement" is not a Biblical concept, which is a good thing, because his generation - which includes me - probably won't get to ever retire.  Frankly, however, until they've walked a mile in orthotic shoes, who can tell our elders they're not holding up their end of the Christian community's ministry spectrum?

Simeon and Anna spent all of their old age in the temple, waiting for the promised Christ.  And they were rewarded for their faithfulness - not the degree of their physical exertion.

How many Christian senior citizens are frittering away their retirements anyway?  I know of several elderly Christians who volunteer regularly at various charities here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Arlington's homeless shelter and food pantry survive on donated labor from senior citizens, and the crisis pregnancy shelter receives all sorts of clothing from older church ladies who spend their days knitting booties, mittens, hats, and blankets in pastel rainbows of color.

Other elderly parents today are having to baby-sit grandkids so their children can remain employed in our rough economy.  Some elderly Christians have had to go back to work themselves, since their retirement accounts have been wiped out by the Great Recession.  Other elderly Christians, unlike white-collar pastors, have done manual labor all their work lives, and now that they've retired, their physical bodies are literally worn out.

Chan is indisputably, 100% correct that none of us knows how long our lives here on Earth will last.  We need to make sure each day counts for Christ.

But how our days count for Christ might not look like what Chan seems to think they should look like.  Early on in my Dad's senility, I fretted about all the time he spent in his office (my brother's former bedroom), reading his Bible.  Shouldn't he be doing something more active?  But then I realized - how many better ways are there for any of us to spend our time?

Hasn't the Church Spent Years Marginalizing Old People?

Yes, somebody's gotta get out and do the heavy-lifting for the Kingdom, so to speak.  Somebody's gotta teach Sunday School classes, go on short-term missions trips, and mow lawns for widows.  And thankfully, a lot of Christian senior citizens already do these things, even if Chan doesn't see it in his community.  But then again, after years of rock-and-roll seeker services perpetrated against the parents of our Boomer generation, how many senior citizens are left in our churches these days?

For the past forty years or so, the evangelical church in North America has not done an exceptional job in respecting our elders.  When then-middle-aged congregants protested the incessant focus on attracting young people to church with unconventional music styles and a refutation of liturgical elements, baby boomers blithely dismissed such intransigence as an unloving response to change, and shrugged their shoulders when older people began leaving the church.  Might the reason Chan doesn't see many elderly Christians participating in ministry stem from the fact that because so many churches have become so youth-centric, places for senior citizens to serve are now few and far between?  Even for the remnant of senior citizens who still attend our post-modern churches?

Churches which, by the way, are beginning to discover that all of those old fogies weren't so wrong after all - those hymns and liturgies aren't as bad as the boomers said they were.

Maybe, then, we should stop and figure out what the senior citizens in our congregation need - and how they can help with other needs - before we criticize how they're doing the things people half their age may not even be doing well.

After all, since the evangelical church has spent decades telling older folks they're irrelevant, might it be a tad disingenuous to now tell them they're not doing enough?

Not that Christian senior citizens deserve a free pass from active involvement in church.  None of us deserve anything, no matter how old we are.  It's just that as we get closer to the end of our journey towards sanctification, the ways God physically allows us to serve Him might involve a different posture.

Kneeling, for example, can happen in our hearts, even if not in our knees.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Parents Give Greek Tragedy to Bus Monitor

I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing.

After about three minutes into the 10-minute-long viral video of students in Upstate New York bullying their bus monitor, I had to close it.  Karen Klein, the 68-year-old object of some atrocious verbal and mental abuse, was already crying.

And the kids were laughing.

From kindergarten through the sixth grade, I rode a school bus in Upstate New York, too.  And while I was bullied a bit on the bus, I never experienced anything like what Klein did this past Monday on her bus in suburban Rochester.

Lord of the Flies?

By now, you've probably watched - or tried to watch - the infamous video, so I won't regurgitate the despicable behavior of those young punks who attend Greece Athena Middle School.  Suffice it to say that their words, actions, and intentions were utterly primitive and reprehensible.

Theirs typified a sort of behavior you'd expect out of kids who've been left to their own devices and entertainments for far too long.  Basically, the type of behavior you'd expect from kids who've raised themselves.  Or, more accurately, the type of kids you'd expect from parents who don't understand what the parenting role is all about.

Greece, New York, is an upper-middle-class suburb of Rochester, west of Syracuse.  Rochester has always been the corporate, affluent cousin to the grittier, manufacturing city of Syracuse.  Home for generations to such iconic brands as Xerox, Kodak, and Bausch and Lomb, it has developed a flexible economy capable of absorbing into many smaller yet innovative firms the job losses from years of corporate downsizing.  For New York State, that makes Rochester and its suburbs a surprisingly resilient and relatively robust region.  Rochester also remains Upstate New York's center for the arts, with its Eastman School of Music consistently ranked among the world's best, and its annual jazz festival one of America's largest.

Not that money and culture play directly into the brutish depravity displayed by the suburban kids on this school bus.  But it's not illogical to ponder the extent of a connection between absentee parenting - both parents working long hours at corporate jobs to afford their socioeconomically-successful lifestyles - and the basic training in humanity these kids have obviously not received.

Or is it the heavy exposure to technology with which these kids may have grown up that has calloused them to human emotions, and stunted their ability to respectfully interact with older adults?  Maybe this wouldn't have happened to Klein if her tormentors had been better skilled in socializing with other human beings of various ages, instead of growing up disproportionately skilled in keyboards, screens, and joysticks.

Maybe too much television?  Too many violent movies and music videos?  This isn't the first instance of juveniles behaving badly when their parents weren't watching.  It's not even the first time kids have bragged about their bad behavior online.  And it's not the first time society has wondered if we expect too much from parents, blaming them for the behavior of their offspring.

Some online commenters, posting feedback to the many Internet accounts of Klein's abuse at the hands of these schoolchildren, have had the temerity to actually blame her for not taking matters into her own hands and enforcing better behavior from the kids.  After all, some feedback writers have tried to reason, she was the monitor, and aren't monitors hired to maintain order on the bus?

Even if that argument made sense, what is the likelihood that if Klein did take the initiative to assert authority over those kids, the same kids who were taunting her would report her attempts at correcting their behavior to their parents, and those parents would flood the school district with accusations of child abuse?  That wouldn't have been the first instance of capricious parents trying to protect their own reputations by rising to the vociferous defense of their guilty children.

"Oh, not our little angels!  They would never treat an old fat lady like that!"

Parenting's Hard Work, but Somebody's Gotta Do It

No matter how you look at this ugly situation, however, can any of the parents be excused?  Sure, there may be contributing factors, like socially-stunting technology, that share some of the reason for why these kids behaved the way they did.  And social science can provide us with several behavioral models for why people will do things in groups that they might not otherwise be willing to do individually.  Peer pressure can undoubtedly be a destructive phenomenon.

But at the end of the day, doesn't it all come down to parenting?  Parenting that sets standards for how one behaves regardless of whether a parent is present?  After all, these weren't grown adults - or even teenagers - who had been exposed to radical stimuli and experiences beyond the bounds of parental controls.  These weren't kids who've been raised by wolves.  Even orphans, although we might excuse such anti-social behavior due to being deprived of biological parents, might likely be more sympathetic to others because of their own deprivations.

Although they may not appreciate the bulk of public opinion coming down hard on them, the parents of these kids indisputably share in the responsibility for how their kids treated Klein.  Not the school district, not even the bus driver, whom some have criticized for not stopping to help their monitor.  Who knows but the driver themself may have been in fear of these punks on their bus.

For their part, school district officials say they're investigating the matter, and will deal with whomever is responsible in a way that respects Klein, the law, and the families involved - as well as their own district's finances.  And speaking of money, a private online fund has already been set up, with Internet contributors, horrified by the treatment Klein received at the hands of these kids, having raised over $160,000 as of noontime today, ostensibly to send Klein on a "dream vacation."

Shortly, vacation will start this summer for these kids in Greece, New York.  For their parents, however, the vacation from parenting they appear to have had should now be over.

Indeed, some lessons are learned the hard way.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reckless Abandon?

The word is "reckless."

On Facebook recently, a friend recited the well-known quote from Ed McCully, one of the five missionaries killed in 1956 by Ecuador's fierce Auca Indians, "I have one desire now - to live a life of reckless abandon for the Lord, putting all my energy and strength into it."

While contemplating dropping law school for cross-cultural missions, McCully wrote this to Elizabeth Elliot's husband, Jim, in a letter dated September 22, 1950.

He continues:  "Jim, I'm taking the Lord at His Word, and I'm trusting Him to prove His Word.  It's kind of like putting all your eggs in one basket, but we've already put our trust in Him for salvation, so why not do it as far as our life is concerned?" - Through Gates of Splendor by Elizabeth Elliot, page 51

A few years later, both Jim and Ed would be dead, their lifeless bodies splayed across a tropical riverbank, their respective wives and children waiting back at camp for word on their fate.

Hubris or Selflessness?

Certainly, McCully's is a compelling challenge for believers in Christ, but frankly, as I read the post on Facebook, McCully's use of the word "reckless" didn't sit well with me.  Aren't believers supposed to be wise, prudent, discerning, patient, and self-controlled?  In my mind, being reckless is something brash people do without thinking, without properly evaluating risks versus rewards, without care for how something might negatively impact others, without displaying wisdom and trust in the Lord.  After all, when we're reckless, aren't we often taking circumstances into our own hands, instead of waiting for something else?

Of course, these were the same things critics were clucking back in the 1950's, as news of the slaughter of five young American missionaries in the jungles of Ecuador made its way back to the United States, a country booming with post-war optimism, commercialism, consumerism, and grand new technologies.  After so much violence and bloodshed in the two World Wars, which were still fresh in everybody's memories, these well-educated, ambitious young people wanted to evangelize a tribe that had been notorious for their homicidal culture since the 1600's?

I've read some nice things about the five missionary couples who went to Ecuador, and some less-flattering things about them.  From their writings, they appeared to possess what would be - at least compared with our deceptively narcissistic Christian culture today - almost a bizarre devotion to Christ.  It has been suggested that these young, idealistic missionaries failed to comprehend the gravity of the mission they were undertaking.  And yes, maybe they did make mistakes.  Nevertheless, the wives of the five martyred men returned as widows and ministered to the Aucas, and today, Christianity flourishes in that tribe.  Still, the "recklessness" of those families is what makes their sacrifice and service so provocative.

How should we view the enthusiastic willingness of 1950's missionaries to extend the Gospel of Christ to the Aucas with the way we do church today?  How should we view that "recklessness" with the way we each live our own protected, insured, right-side-of-the-tracks lives?  After all, we read the word "reckless" in letters like McCully's, and we get a spine-tingling jolt of adrenaline, but it's only as powerful as the urge we sometimes get to buy an SUV so we look like rugged outdoorsy folks while driving through suburbia to Wal-Mart.  Sure, we may indulge an occasional, idealized image of a Christian recklessly pursuing God's plan for their life, but we're not truly reckless, are we?

When I saw the post by my friend on Facebook, I replied that substituting the word "selfless" for "reckless" makes a more accurate fit in McCully's sentence.  After all, having one's desire be living a life of selfless abandon for the Lord is a Biblical goal, identifies the Source of one's strength, and acknowledges that what the Lord is able to accomplish through us is all about Him, not us.  My Facebook friend agreed with me, along with another friend of hers.

Not that democracy determines truth, but it all seemed to make much better sense.

Walking (and Writing?) on Water

Then today, my mother brought to my attention a devotional in Oswald Chambers' classic My Utmost for His Highest for June 18th.  Chambers' Biblical text for the day is taken from Matthew 14:29-30, which reads:

29"Come," he [Christ] said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!"

Chambers points out that as long as Peter focused on Christ, he was able to leave the relative safety of the boat and ignore the storm about him - and even the very fact that he was walking on water - as he approached our Lord.  But when his rational consciousness reverted from beholding Christ to beholding his physical circumstances, and the fact that the storm held peril for anybody in - or on! - the water, Peter began to sink.

OK, so Peter was being both reckless and selfless by shrugging off the storm and obediently taking Christ at His invitation to walk on the water.  And then it hit me:  maybe I'm doing that even now in my own life.  I've never thought of myself as being reckless before, but now?

It's been over two years since my last "real" job, and I've been spending my days writing and blogging, trying to jump-start some sort of journalistic career.  I've discovered that writing is the one thing I can do well that I actually enjoy doing.  Yet financially, I'm desperate.

After reading Chambers' devotional, I realized that many people who know me and my predicament probably consider me to be reckless - and not in a good way.  I haven't been particularly realistic with this writing thing.  I've woefully miscalculated the risks and rewards of manufacturing a writing career.  I never expected to earn a fortune as a writer, but perhaps I was too foolish to hope that I could earn a living at it.  Multiple times, I've laid out "fleeces" before the Lord, begging Him to affirm this path, and He always seems to do so.  Just not with an income I can live on.

I have been kinda reckless, haven't I?  I've been doing the same things that I dislike about the word "reckless."  And to make matters worse, I haven't been acting recklessly because I thought I was honoring God.  I wasn't acting selflessly in a righteous way - whatever selfless abandonment I've exhibited has been for my own fulfillment as a writer and wordsmith, with the hopes of finally snagging the attention of somebody important enough who can give me a good job.  "Reckless abandon?"  "Reckless selfishness" may be more like it.

Or is it?  I pray daily that if I'm making some colossal mistake with this writing stuff, the Lord would shake me loose from this ambition and show me the correct path to follow.  He's the One Who's given me this ability to write:  quite honestly, most of my essays take shape without me even realizing it.  Words and paragraphs come to me and I write them down.  Sometimes I feel more like a scribe for Someone than the author of my own creative engine.

So is this the type of Godly recklessness McCully is talking about?

Abandon Selfishness

For his part, Chambers writes,

"If you debate for a second when God has spoken, it is all up.  Never begin to say - 'Well, I wonder if He did speak.'  Be reckless immediately, fling it all out on Him.  You do not know when His voice will come, but whenever the realization of God comes in the faintest way imaginable, recklessly abandon.  It is only by abandon that you recognize Him.  You will only realize His voice more clearly by recklessness."

Interestingly enough, Chambers' devotional was originally published in 1935, which means that McCully likely borrowed his phrase "reckless abandon" from Chambers in 1950.  And here it is again, in my face, in 2012.

Am I being reckless by pursuing a writing career?  It's certainly not as dangerous or life-threatening an "abandonment" as going off to the jungles of Ecuador to evangelize a savage tribe... unless you count the editors and publishers who ignore me and my writings as a savage tribe!

But maybe if I focus on the "selfless" part of this etymology of "reckless," keeping my eyes on Christ can keep me from sinking into the storm of doubt all around me.  Doubt that's trying to convince me that walking by faith isn't very safe.

How about you?  Is there a storm raging about you, and is it distracting you from your focus on Christ?  I guess some might say that ignoring the storm is a reckless thing to do.

Maybe, however, what we think is recklessness is actually selflessness.

More importantly, of course, is that to Christ, recklessness is His people not focusing on Him.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Integrity and Race in Martin Case

"Let's wait for all of the facts to come out."

Isn't that what I've been preaching regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin?

For the most part, our media industry notwithstanding, it seems that America is willing to let Florida's criminal justice system do its thing.  Protest marches in Martin's memory have drawn underwhelming turnouts, and an online fund hurriedly established to raise money for his shooter's defense quickly collected $130,000 in an affirmation - however biased - of the rule of law.

After all, why send money to pay for lawyers when you don't think justice could be served?

Some folks, mostly in the black community, have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of civil rights, if not outright racism, assuming from the beginning that George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, deployed a vindictive form of racial profiling on the teenager.

Other folks, like me, have insisted that too much armchair quarterbacking outside of Zimmerman's courtroom could distort the facts to the point that justice is either not served in this case, or fails to absolve the acrimony fomented by too much sensationalistic hyperbole.  Hyperbole both from liberal activists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and conservative pundits like Fox News and Geraldo Rivera.

What apparently none of us saw coming was Zimmerman shooting his own self in the foot.  Metaphorically, anyway.  It's as clear a problem as it could be:  the unraveling tale of Zimmerman and his wife, Shellie, lying under oath during his bond hearing.  They indicated to the court that they were financially broke, but they neglected to inform the court of that $130,000 sitting in an online account to defray his defense expenses.  Granted, they didn't have direct control over that money, but they knew it was was available to them as a source of a type of income.  But they withheld that information from the court.

Deliberately, as it turns out.

Let's Roll the Audiotape

Several weeks ago, George Zimmerman's bail was revoked due to his perjury during his bond hearing, and he returned to jail.  Last week, Shellie Zimmerman was also arrested for her role in the deceit.  And now we're learning about the proof used by the court to determine that the couple in fact knew about the fund, and were even actively trying to hide it from authorities.

The proof rests plain as day in the transcript of a jailhouse telephone call George made to his wife before his bond hearing in which the couple reviews the procedures they were going to use to, in effect, launder the money from the online fund into their personal bank accounts.  It seems George either didn't realize every telephone call made from jail is taped - and not just for customer service training purposes - or that he and his wife needed to have better code words.  It's obvious they were trying to disguise part of their conversation.

They didn't just talk about money, either.  Some of Zimmerman's critics have accused him of being an action-happy vigilante, on the prowl not just for potential trouble, but on the prowl for some exciting trouble.  Unfortunately for Zimmerman, he hands his critics some important evidence of his thirst for violence when he switches the telephone conversation with his wife from money to bullet-proof vests.  He wants her to purchase three of them; for her, himself, and his lawyer.

Now, I don't watch many cop shows, but I've watched enough news shows to understand that a dead defendant doesn't necessarily help either the prosecution or the defense in such a high-profile case as this.  I'm not saying Zimmerman's concern over bullet-proof vests wasn't warranted, but don't law enforcement agencies usually take care of protecting defendants?  And if they don't, why didn't he ask his wife to ask his lawyer to arrange for special safety measures?  Maybe while in jail, he heard rumors that his life was already in danger; but it certainly plays into the hands of an already-skeptical black community for him to be anticipating the type of violence involved with wearing bullet-proof vests.

Black and White, Reading Between the Lines

And speaking of that already-skeptical black community, you might recall my blog essays regarding the response two prominent evangelical black pastors had to Richard Land's remarks on the Martin case.  Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, offended many black Baptists with some recklessly-worded opinions he'd voiced on his radio show.  That episode, along with some other persistent questions I've had about how evangelical blacks can vote for a pro-choice politician like President Obama, led me to e-mail some of my personal friends who happen to be black for their perspectives.

I was troubled to learn that skepticism still seems to run quite high among America's educated, middle-class black community.  For the most part, at least in their interactions with us white folk, it's a dormant skepticism that usually only surfaces during episodes of particular poignancy like the Martin case.  Whereas they might discuss common race-based concerns amongst fellow blacks, they've learned that life goes much more smoothly when they simply talk about business, school, hobbies, and such with us whites.  We generally can't share the basic stigma they face because, well, we're usually the ones applying the stigma.

It doesn't help matters that for evangelical blacks, most of the churched people they know who aren't black are whites - evangelical whites who faithfully listen to blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, cackle derisively along with Glenn Beck's anti-poverty jokes, and vote lock-step with a Republican party that vilifies welfare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs.

"Entitlement programs:" the term that has come to re-define the social safety nets churches used to provide our neighbors - and ourselves - before we ceded those mandates to the government.

Contrary to popular (white) opinion, evangelical blacks may not be crazy about every plank in the Democratic Party platform, but they may also have disproportionately grown up around people - even relatives - who used to be on welfare.  Their aging parents - like those of many of us whites - couldn't survive without Social Security.  Some of them may have had to resort to food stamps or Section 8 housing for a season, or know of friends or family who have.  For many evangelical blacks, theirs is probably the first generation that has truly emerged from the shackles of poverty, and the upward mobility they're experiencing now remains fresh enough so they can still smell the odor of the bad old days.  Days when their family was not only poor, but politically and socially disenfranchised.

Closing the Credibility Gap

No matter what color skin you have, good memories don't linger for long, but bad memories have deep roots.  For evangelical blacks, Christ has saved them from sins, but not from knowledge of the way we whites used to treat them.  I don't believe this is personal on their part, but simply a matter of pragmatism and protection.  My black friends were not eager to dialog with me on this subject, but they all wanted me to know that the proof of true friendship is in the quality of relationships.  It's just that when they see the relationships many of us whites have with the more bigoted elements in our society, it's disconcerting to them.

And that's disconcerting to me.  Disconcerting, because I believe one of the keys to America's ability to reform welfare and other entitlements is the establishment of credibility between our black and white communities.  As a country, I think we set a pretty amazing precedent by electing Obama to the White House, but the way we criticize his policies isn't helping us much these days.  For example, we should be able to share divergent perspectives and convictions without the vitriol and disrespect we see from people like Neil Munro of The Daily Caller. Munro may have won some publicity for his right-wing employer by interrupting the President, but he did not establish any credibility as a legitimate journalist.

Credibility, of course, is what Zimmerman compromised by lying to the court during his bail hearing.  Believability is crucial to making one's case, particularly in a court of law.  And being caught lying on something as obvious as a $130,000 defense fund doesn't bode well for a court's opinion on everything else he has to say.

Indeed, integrity plays a critical role in how we pursue life, and how those pursuing life around us interact with us.

The facts are beginning to come out in the Martin case.  And we may learn more than we expected to.

About him, and ourselves.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Gnashing of Elite Teeth over Tower

Sometimes, neighbors can be annoying.

But what do you do when you believe your new neighbor is destroying your own property?

Well, in this case, perhaps "destroying" is a bit harsh.  But the world-famous architect whose small museum is being marginalized by the luxury apartment tower rising next to it would probably agree with the term.

He's already gone on record as describing his museum as a "victim" of the "aggressor" skyscraper.  And it's all because of something we get plenty of here in north Texas:  bright, hot sunlight.

What Could Go Wrong?

When celebrated architect Renzo Piano was commissioned by the late Ray Nasher to design a jewel box of a museum to hold the shopping center mogul's modern sculpture collection, a prime site in downtown Dallas, in the middle of the city's fledgling arts district, was chosen.

At the time, this location seemed to make sense, since the Dallas Museum of Art would be a neighbor for the new Nasher Sculpture Center, and I.M. Pei's wonderful Meyerson Symphony Center already anchored an expanding performing arts community just down the street.  To the Nasher's immediate south, a high-rise office building owned by one of Dallas' most prominent families flanked the edge of downtown's commercial skyscrapers, and to the Nasher's immediate north, an existing freeway was about to be covered over so a new, elevated park could be constructed.

Apparently, however, nobody gave much thought about what was planned for the property just to the east of the Nasher; property that for years had been a lowly parking lot.

So the Nasher was designed and constructed to considerable local acclaim, featuring glass ceilings that filtered natural sunlight to bathe sculptures on display with as little artificial lighting as possible.  Piano's design featured an expansive walled garden, where larger sculptures could be displayed amongst lush lawns and trees, like its own secluded park.  One outdoor piece consisted of a concrete shell large enough for a few people to walk inside, look up through an open-air oculus, and see nothing but the changing sky framed by a dark rim.  Maybe it sounds boring - and a bit silly - to construct something that frames the same sky we can gaze into on our own, but the actual effect when you're inside the artwork, stripped of distractions, can be kinda cool.

Except that now, a 42-story glass tower partially obstructs your view!

Not only that, but the still-to-be-completed Museum Tower apartment building is clad in a reflective glass that incessantly refracts piercing sunlight into every nook and crevice of the Nasher from noontime until the sun goes down.  Those skylights Piano designed to capture and diffuse sunlight tilt to - guess! - the east, so glare from the far stronger western sun isn't as prominent.  But now, to the east of the Nasher is where the objectionable skyscraper rises.


Shine Some Light On It

At least for Dallas, this poses an unprecedented dilemma.  Sure, other conflicts between notable neighbors have existed before, but most of those have had to do with aesthetics, design philosophies, or even sagging foundations if excavation next-door undermines an existing structure.  But aesthetics and design philosophies don't literally render a structure worthless, and repairing damage to a neighbor's property during construction is party of the reason developers have to take out insurance.  In this case, the developers of the high-rise apartment building have violated no zoning laws, construction principles, or even aesthetic considerations.  Granted, Museum Tower looks like any other glassy skyscraper, and hardly worth the prices developers are charging for its apartments  But as far as glitzy skylines go, Dallas' is already fairly eclectic, so a building's designer would have to go pretty far off the deep end to make a new tower a complete eyesore.

And Museum Tower is no eyesore.

Art purists in Dallas insist that it's still an inferior building to Piano's Nasher, however.  To which it's easy to respectfully disagree.  Yes, the Nasher is elegant and pleasant enough, but an irreplaceable treasure for the city?  No.  A timeless piece of art all its own?  No.  One of Renzo Piano's best works?  No.

And the artwork housed in Piano's Nasher?  Some of it is pure junk appreciated only by those who crave attention from hallowed art snobs.  Nasher developed Dallas' beloved NorthPark Center, one of the nation's first enclosed malls, and despite competition from newer, bigger, and more gaudy malls, NorthPark remains the top retail shrine in the shopping mecca that is Dallas.  Indeed, when Dallasites talk about "going to the mall," they mean NorthPark.  If they're going to any other mall, Dallasites will name that mall specifically, and usually defend their decision not to go to NorthPark by complaining about it's incessantly notorious traffic.

Nasher and his wife, both of whom are now deceased, fancied themselves as experts on modern art, and modern sculpture in particular.  For years, NorthPark has featured works from their extensive collection throughout their facilities, and it's hard to deny that they make the mall quite unique in terms of ambiance.

But most of these sculptures are made of stone and metal - elements hardly at risk of damage from sunbeams from the western sky.  Officials at the Nasher claim that refracted sunlight from Museum Tower is forcing curators to relocate some sculptures considered more fragile and susceptible to fading.  Which, yes, isn't a desirable problem to have, but is hardly calamitous.  Then there are claims that grass and trees in the Nasher's outdoor sculpture garden are getting scorched from the refracted sunlight, but wilting and browning vegetation is part of everyday life here in Texas, even despite an abnormally wet spring like the one we just finished.

Officials and Piano insist it's not their responsibility to try and accommodate the sunlight glaring from their new neighbor.  Suggestions of retrofitting the Nasher with screens and blinds of some sort have met with stiff resistance from both the museum and well-connected arts patrons who bristle at the notion of crass commercialism like that of some petty capitalist apartment developers forcing changes to something as sacred as a sculpture museum.

But the Nasher isn't sacred.  Neither, for that matter, is the capitalist trophy tower next door, which will soon be home to some of the city's most expensive - and loftiest - apartments.  City leaders have arranged for a mediator to help forge some sort of compromise on this issue, but so far, no agreement has been reached.  In fact, it was rather surprising for Piano to speak out so publicly this week, since supposedly some sort of gag order is in place.  Yes, a gag order - after all, Dallas takes both its art and its construction projects very seriously.

Much Ado About Sunlight

So, what's the big deal, you ask?  Egypt is on the brink of anarchy, Greece and Spain may soon short-circuit the whole of Europe's economy, Russia still thinks it should have the right to sell arms to the merciless Assad regime... and Dallas is bickering over two ephemeral buildings in its pretentious arts district?

This debate isn't about art.  It's not even about property rights.  It's about ego.  Piano and Nasher officials are sore because the Dallas citizenry, on behalf of their beloved museum, hasn't risen up in fury against the skyscraper's developers.  They're frustrated because nobody - not even themselves - thought to more closely evaluate the effect the glass walls of a nearby tower would have on the Nasher.  After all, had the tower featured a conventional brick facade, or even balconies to break up the mirror effect of the glass, it would just be a tall neighbor, not a blinding one.

As far as the developers of Museum Tower are concerned, downtown Dallas is primarily a neighborhood of tall buildings.  City planners and arts patrons who mapped out the redevelopment of downtown's near north side for museums and concert halls had even included skyscrapers in their proposals, so the Nasher and its fans knew full well what the future held for the properties around them.

Personally, I'm a bit surprised at the attitude of Nasher's rich patrons.  Where has the enigmatic imagination that used to so pervade the city of Dallas gone?  If y'all hadn't fawned so much over Piano's building to begin with, and admitted it wasn't all that remarkable, you could have viewed this latest challenge as an opportunity to finally make a signature architectural statement out of the place.

Besides, Piano is one of many current architects known for their white sail motif, which would make a perfect addition to the roof of the current Nasher structure.  Strategically-engineered sails rigged over the Nasher could deflect the intense light from the tower next door, leave the current structure relatively intact, and lend their warmly dramatic aesthetics to helping make it the landmark building it currently isn't.

How much would it cost?  Please!  Since when has the inferiority complex which motivates arts patrons here ever fussed about cost before?

Frankly, Dallas, this whole episode doesn't show you in a good light.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pastors Betray Ignorance of Illegals

Illegal immigration is a problem in the United States.

And the best way to deal with this problem is to say we need to deal with it.

At least, that's the thinking behind yet another group of American religious leaders who claim to be taking a firm stand on the subject of illegal immigration.  This time it's a group called the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), and this past Tuesday, they announced a coalition of ecumenical, bipartisan religious groups and leaders who have endorsed a new initiative that will "make our nation proud" when it comes to immigration reform.

In their document, entitled the "Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform," they've come up with six key issues they believe need to be addressed before the United States will have achieved what they consider to be acceptable immigration reform.  According to them, such reform should:
  • Respect the God-given dignity of every person
  • Protect the unity of the immediate family
  • Respect the rule of law
  • Guarantee secure national borders
  • Ensure fairness to taxpayers
  • Establish a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents
As Christianity Today points out in an article on this coalition's statement, despite their good intentions, the EIT's platform is about as helpful as anything else that has been offered as a solution for the illegal immigration dilemma.  In other words, it's really just more words.  After all, most Americans already generally agree with the first five points on this list, so where are this group's heroics?  The most contentious point on this list, number six, is where most of the political stalemate has taken place, but the coalition doesn't offer any insight or conviction on how to resolve that stalemate.

So, with all due respect:  what's their point?

Personally, I don't believe deportation constitutes an inhumane component of how we combat illegal immigration.  However, I also try to be realistic on these things, and I understand that mass deportations of millions of people is just not going to happen, even if it should.  The financial burden to taxpayers for such an effort, then, not to mention its logistics, makes wholesale deportations a red herring in this issue.

Then too, I find it rather incongruous that the EIT advocates for respecting the rule of law, when they're talking about providing asylum for law-breakers.  Illegal immigrants have earned the title because that's what they are.

And we've already been around and around the whole border security issue so many times, it smacks here more of political cow-towing than legitimate policy advocacy.  Why bother to even mention secure national borders in this statement, since government contractors have proven inept at deploying technology for a virtual fence, and a bricks-and-mortar fence is also financially and logistically unfeasible?  Either people cross our borders legally, and are entitled to the limited privileges of doing so, or they don't, and they're not.

So, what's the real motivation behind the EIT's fanciful public relations exercise?  Is it to present a positive image to Hispanics on behalf of denominations which see them as their next target demographic for proselytization?  Why wasn't any of this website translated into Spanish, which presumably is the most common language of the illegal immigrants targeted by this coalition?  Why the sudden popularity of Internet petitions, a' la the Manhattan Declaration, which has been greeted with underwhelming enthusiasm from the churched public?  Isn't it mostly a bunch of older white men, who enjoy salaries above those of their average congregants and have never had to compete for an ordinary job against illegal workers, simply trying to establish some political relevance?  Or maybe salving some latent unease over the difference between their lifestyles compared to those of illegals?

Might this all be too little to late anyway, considering the fact that illegal immigration has dropped off considerably now that the Great Recession has wreaked havoc on employment rates?

Let's face the real issue with illegal immigration:  it's all about money, isn't it?  For the most part, the reason people enter the United States illegally is because they can earn more money here than they can in their native country.  Trying to earn a better income to support one's family is hardly a bad thing in and of itself.  But should evangelical Christians be endorsing the pursuit of money as a legitimate reason for breaking sovereignty laws?

Sure, I'm grateful to God that I don't live in the dire poverty from which many illegals are fleeing.  And to the extent that believers in Christ are to help the poor and disenfranchised, we should.  But by facilitating an incentive for people to risk their own lives - not to mention getting into debt to human smugglers - so they can come up here and work below the civil rights radar?  That's a "Christian" response to this problem?

Don't buy the rhetoric that illegals are doing jobs lazy Americans won't.  Those jobs Americans "won't" do, that penny-pinching employers say only illegals will do, are the jobs for which employers aren't willing to pay a market wage.  Business owners love to talk about free markets, but a basic component of free markets is how much it costs to get people to do the work you want them to do.  And many employers simply don't want to pay Americans what they know is their due, along with proper work safety procedures, workers compensation insurance, and a legally-defined workweek.

In a way, illegals exist as pawns in a whole sub-culture of the American workplace where human rights more closely mirror the 1800's than the 2000's.  Employers know that if illegals complain about their working conditions, they can fire them and replace them with a more naive illegal.  Illegals know that, too, so they work extra hard because, well, it's all about the money.

Some message for a bunch of altruistic evangelicals to be endorsing.

The dilemma of illegal immigration won't be solved by a bunch of people from the ivory towers of American Christianity getting together to sign a statement on a website.  It's going to be far more complex a process than arguing about how to establish a process for citizenship for illegals.

Because guess what - the minute all of these illegals become United States citizens, they're suddenly going to lose value in the eyes of their employers.  Ronald Reagan granted an amnesty in the 1980's, and it did nothing to curb illegal immigration, because ruthless employers simply rotated out their current crop of illegals-turned-citizens and began looking for more cheap labor to exploit.

If all of these Christian leaders would advocate on behalf of indigenous people groups in Central and South America, and re-focus their denominational energies towards sustainable educational and development efforts in these desperately poor regions of the world, then they'd be helping people avoid the need to cross our border illegally in the first place.

Pressure our President and Congress to demand real economic and social change in governments south of our border.  Bring converts from Latin American on legal trips to the United States to train them here for necessary job skills, and then freely send them home equipped to change their own worlds.

Sure, it's more work than signing an online petition.

But at least it could work.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dallas as City, Soap, and Survivor

Do you pay much attention to what's on television these days?

I don't.  But living here in the Dallas area, even I can't avoid the hoopla over the return of one of television's most iconic shows.  After twenty years, the soap opera named after north Texas' largest city is bustin' out in prime time, replete with Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing and his ol' southern homestead, Southfork Ranch.

And no, I'm not going to watch it.

For one thing, it's on cable, and I don't have cable.  And the fact that cable produces shows like Dallas' remake are one of the reasons why I don't have cable.

Big D, Big Hair, Big Egos, Big Deals

Not that I'm knocking Dallas for being wildly popular, at least back in the day.  I suspect one of the reasons it was so popular for so many years - basically all of the 80's - involved its remarkable ability to capture the aspirations of that yuppified, designer logo, blow-dried decade not only here in north Texas, but across the United States.  Some TV shows become legendary despite not relating well to their time and era, but it was hard to tell how much Dallas reflected the 80's, and how much the 80's were reflecting Dallas.  Say what you will about the quality of the show, but to be so synonymous with a culture isn't something that happens much on TV these days.

Whether this new show will be able to capture our new era remains to be seen, of course.  The '80's were still a period of growth and enthusiasm in the United States generally, and Texas in particular.  Whereas, these days, our society has ossified into three dreary camps:  hard-core liberals, hard-core conservatives, and those of us in the middle who seem to be at the mercy of those two extremes.  Whereas President Ronald Reagan had us feasting on American hubris during Dallas' original run, Barak Obama has us starving for hope.  How do you model a popular TV show on today's socioeconomic angst?

Of course, even back during the original Dallas, I hardly ever watched the show.  For one thing, my parents didn't consider it proper viewing material for young, impressionable boys.  Fortunately for my brother and me, the Dukes of Hazzard was also on Friday nights, although the sight of Daisy Duke in her namesake denim shorts, coupled with the show's constant mockery of the police and other authority figures, likely didn't make it any more wholesome than what was being shown on Dallas

In high school, I started working nights at a mens' clothing store here near Dallas, so my Dukes of Hazzard days ended.  We had a TV in the employee break room, but Dallas ruled Friday nights outside of my house, and for some of the more anticipated episodes, even management would join us clerks for brief escapes from the selling floor to catch up on the action.  After all, customers would ask us if we had any updates from the show, right?  Remember, this was way before cell phones, Hulu, and ubiquitous flat screen TVs kept everybody wired to entertainment.

One of my co-workers was married to a woman who worked at a fancy department store across the hall, and I recall her saying that their management considered closing early on Friday nights when Dallas aired because business would evaporate and their stores would be deserted.

Several years later, when I was in college, I took a friend visiting from New York City to see Southfork Ranch, which proved to be a huge disappointment to both her and me.  It was much smaller in real life than it was on television, and far less representative of where Dallas' real millionaires lived.  If the show's Hollywood producers had wanted accuracy, they'd have placed the family in a genteel Highland Park mansion or sprawling Preston Hollow estate, and had them spend weekends on their ranch a couple hours outside of town.  Well, at least they got that last part partly right.  Southfork isn't even in Dallas County; it's miles from Dallas.  It's the most non-Dallas part of Dallas.

For Both Dallas and Dallas, the Image was the Message

So, OK:  we knew Dallas wasn't real, but it was real enough.  The show featured all of the usual soap opera dramatics:  nefarious business deals, backstabbing relatives, adultery, alcoholism; all the bad stuff.  Yet the show still revolved around family and some semblance of family honor.  And it celebrated a city that didn't know the meaning of the word "no."  Back in the 80's, Dallas grew so fast and so wealthy it was dizzying.  It seemed like a new luxury mall opened every year, and a dazzling new skyscraper every month.  Corporations were relocating here from other parts of the country like flocks of birds, and to hear our business leaders tell it, cities like New York and Chicago were going to be empty before long, since everybody was moving here.

Those were the best of times for Dallas, just like the popularity its namesake TV show was enjoying.  Soon after the 80's were over, and Dallas was off the air, corporations began moving again - out of their glassy towers in and around downtown, and into even newer office parks in the suburbs.  Developers kept churning out new subdivisions like farmers plowing dirt, and before long, the lure of new construction drew hundreds of thousands of middle-class Dallasites out of the big city into sprawling suburbs with ever more modern homes with even better luxuries - luxuries that definitely made Southfork look dowdy.

All of a sudden, the streets which Dallas laid out so hurriedly during the 80's had aged, with potholes and empty storefronts and blocks and blocks of rental homes whose owners had moved on to the more prosperous suburbs.  For a while, wide swaths of Dallas languished, until America's unprecedented interest in re-discovering central cities began to take hold, and more and more families committed to moving back into marginalized neighborhoods.  Trees that earlier residents had planted over twenty years ago were now full and lush, far bigger than those in the suburbs.  Homes that up-and-coming families once considered small and dated now appealed to new owners who appreciated their solid construction and retro aesthetics.  Then there came the McMansion phenomenon, where perfectly good homes are torn down on central city lots and replaced with towering new luxury homes.  The allure of Dallas' centralized neighborhoods makes sense when you consider how living closer-in to the city's core means that more jobs are more accessible.  By now, of course, nobody counted on working for the same employer in the same place for their entire career, and being stuck out in some exurb when the only job you can find is clear across the city can make your remote house surprisingly less attractive.

And the traffic!  Dallas' population may have leveled off, but the population all around it has continued to explode.  And those wide freeways they built around Dallas have now became obsolete.  Yes, Dallas has a fledgling mass transit system, but it's not even as reliable as sitting in gridlock, nor is it as safe.  Back in the 80's, Dallas leaders were planning massive construction projects to widen two of the city's most popular freeways - the LBJ and Central Expressway - and provide the driving public with years of easier driving.  Yet today, one small fender-bender can soon snarl any local freeway, and the state has begun another multi-year expansion project for the LBJ.  Now, however, nobody really expects such grand plans to solve much of anything.

Not that Dallas has become some awful place to live.  Like anywhere else, it is what you make of it, with its good neighborhoods and bad.  Some of the glossy pockets of stunning wealth that remain scattered across the city make the Ewing fortune look downright humble.  And hipsters flock to redeveloped neighborhoods carved out of urban blight around downtown.  We call them the thirty-thousand-dollar millionaires, because they work mostly in entry-level jobs but act like they're made of money, driving around in sleek foreign luxury cars and renting high-dollar apartments - all paid either with credit or indulgent parents.  Still, despite the sheen, it's hardly the metropolis of swashbuckling enthusiasm and 1980's glamor of both its own history and its portrayal by the original TV show.

Dallas has matured, and developed big-city problems common among much older municipalities; municipalities that have had their heyday at one time, and are now learning to get by in our brave new world of marginal public schools, a stagnant tax base, outdated infrastructure, incessant competition from suburbs which are also aging, and even competition from cities half a world away.

Hopes were running high when AT&T moved its international headquarters downtown from San Antonio, but the euphoria didn't last long when the corporation announced it was a temporary home while they built a new corporate campus in - where else? - one of the city's suburbs.  These days, the only new construction downtown has been a high-rise hotel for the struggling convention center and some luxury apartment towers which sit half-rented.

Yet streets and freeways in and around downtown are still almost always choked with traffic. 

TV critics may be anxious to see if the new Dallas will be even a fraction of a hit its predecessor was.

I care more about today's Dallas reinventing itself to be even better than it was back during the old Dallas.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Governments Can't Manage Marriage

The separation of church and state.

It's a controversial topic, and a complex process.  And it's getting even more controversial and complex as the concept of same-sex marriage enjoys growing popularity.

Today, the BBC reported that the Church of England has warned that Britain's seemingly inevitable embrace of same-sex marriage will "alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman."

Which, of course, is true - and only reiterates what both opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage have already been saying.  Evangelical Christians oppose same-sex marriage because it violates the Biblical purposes for marriage.  And gay marriage advocates think re-imagining the intrinsic nature of marriage from exclusively heterosexual to participants' choice will have no punitive impact on society.

Yes, gay marriage advocates want to "alter" the altar, so to speak.  So the Church of England isn't exactly breaking any new ground here.  Except that they are the church of England.  Which at least brings a new wrinkle into the debate.

The Church of England Gets Religion

Granted, it seems a bit odd for a country that has already become far more socially liberal than the United States to have this same controversy we're having here.  So perhaps it says something that, better late than never, Britain's historically prominent state church has finally gotten some religion on the subject.  The Church of England - or "C-of-E," in British parlance - has long promoted gays to senior positions in the church hierarchy, but marriage is apparently a different matter, even to them.

Although its authority across the realm regarding marriage protocols has been pretty much accepted by both its laity and its monarchy, that authority has suffered some significant setbacks.  Consider, for example, Prince Charles' recent marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, which created quite a stir among succession purists concerned about a divorced and remarried man being heir to the throne.  And figurehead of the C-of-E.

Meanwhile, Britain's increasingly pluralistic, diverse, and morally irreverent society means the C-of-E has to make its case against gay marriage before an audience of more than just the royal family and Parliament.  Being a champion of heterosexual marriage will not make the C-of-E popular, but at least they can identify a threat to the stability of the nation when they see one.  Which is more than can be said for governments.

You see, for centuries, orthodox Christianity has allowed governments to use matrimony as the easy method God knew it would be to manage populations.  Governments interested in self-preservation have realized that marriages create families and families perpetuate society - biologically, emotionally, financially, morally, and even politically.

It's worked well this way for thousands of generations of humanity across cultures and hemispheres.  Except now, governments think they own the prerogative when it comes to defining marriage.

And they don't.

Marriage is an institution designed by God.  He made the genders, He designed the human procreation system, and He ordained the rules.  Sure, we've messed them up along the way, but that actually helps prove that following God's rules and patters for marriage works surprisingly well.  It doesn't work effortlessly, and it doesn't ensure constant pleasure, but it works.

Think about it:  when did our world's environmental problems begin?  When we didn't follow God's designs for its cleanliness.  What about when interpersonal relationships start to crumble?  That usually happens when we don't follow God's designs for how we're supposed to treat each other.  We like to think marriage is a government institution, but in reality, all a government does is grant a license to get married, tax us based on our marital status, and take a census of us based on our families, which are based on marriage.

Marriage is still God's idea, whether we recognize that fact or not.

Marriage, Church, and State: Which of These is Not Like the Other?

Personally, I wonder if it isn't time for evangelical Christianity to take back marriage from governments.  I don't know how we could do it logistically, but there should be some way that the Originator of marriage gets to restore its original purpose.  Except... He already wanted to use His people as a model for the sanctity of marriage, and it's no secret that we've blown that opportunity.  After all, one of our chief arguments against gay marriage has been how holy heterosexual marriage is.  But with a divorce rate in our churches roughly equivalent to the divorce rate outside of churches, we can't use the sanctity of marriage argument when we haven't been true to it ourselves.

The C-of-E hasn't had that much better a record over in Britain, but supposedly, as the traditional validator of the Crown, and hence the British government, at least their advocacy for heterosexual marriage may make some people reconsider Parliament's role in this debate.

Can people of faith abdicate their own roles in modeling their faith to the world and still expect their government to champion what they were supposed to hold dear?

Here in the Colonies, the debate over gay marriage may turn the separation of church and state into more of a moral chasm than, say, an academic debate over prayer in public places.