Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Luther, Bike Lanes, and a Non-Renegade

Happy Reformation Day, y'all!

Reforming Evangelicals' Populist View of Halloween

Yes, it's October 31 once again, the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, ushering in the great Christian Reformation.  His protest against the theological and moral corruption of the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1517 led to Protestantism, which is the term encapsulating the flavors of evangelical faith to which most believers in Christ adhere today.

Yes, there are some evangelicals who insist on celebrating the pagan observance of Halloween on October 31, but that's just silly of them.  As if commemorating the faith of Druids and Wicca is any way to honor Christ.  They think wearing costumes, sending their kids begging for candy door-to-door, and carving ghoulish faces in pumpkins is all harmless fun, and that's just what the Devil loves for them to believe.  I realize they like to brand people like me as dour fundamentalists for trying to rain on their spooky parade, but I've come to chalk it up to simply another blind spot on their part, hardly dissimilar to the blind spots I have elsewhere in my own life.

Not that I'm trying to ruin your Halloween fun.  But it's the Devil who really doesn't want me to ruin it for you.

Luther famously encouraged believers in Christ to "jeer and flout" the Devil, and evangelicals who celebrate Halloween say they're just following Luther's orders.  Nevertheless, God never tells us to jeer at our enemy, and Luther himself, hardly a perfect man, said many things that prove him to have been no more immortal than you or I.

Indeed, let's commemorate his testimony with his 95 Theses, but only because they boldly correspond with Scripture, instead of contradicting it.

The Bane of Bike Lanes

And while we're on the subject of discrepancies between what we want and the reality of the situation, consider the traffic mayhem in Manhattan today, since both the city's Subway and commuter rail systems are off-line for the foreseeable future.  Today was the first day back to work for most New Yorkers, and gridlock caused by passenger vehicles is crippling the island.

That's not really news, however.  What's news is the hip new bike lanes the city, at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has painted on some of the city's main traffic arteries.  Bloomberg insists most New Yorkers have been waiting for these bike lanes so they can ditch their wasteful fossil fuel vehicles and get some exercise while commuting around town.

For several years now, our federal government has been offering municipalities incentives to encourage the proliferation of bike lanes on streets near you.  We can thank overly-ambitious environmentalists for this thievery of taxpayer-funded roadways.  Bicycle enthusiasts try to say it's a good thing to take away automobile lanes that have been paid for through gasoline taxes so bike riders - who pay no road taxes of any kind - can run red lights with their trendy wheels.

As you might be able to discern, I don't buy that argument at all.  The reason Americans gave up bikes for cars three generations ago - and why bike owners in developing nations around the world are now buying cars instead - is that automobiles provide the speed, comfort, and protection most people prefer when commuting to a variety of destinations.  Bike lanes not only are unfair to drivers of motorized vehicles, they're unsafe for bike riders and will likely prove to be just as much a fad as the current craze for high-performance bikes.  With the stunning implosion of the Lance Armstrong bicycle empire, you can almost bank on it.

The bike lane is that unused strip of pavement to the right of the photo.
Maybe the bike craze has already peaked.  Witness, for example, the many, many New Yorkers who are NOT taking advantage of these supposedly wonderful bike lanes along 8th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan this afternoon (see photo at right).  In this picture, posted on Facebook by a friend of mine who took it from her apartment, those new bike lanes (with the eco-trendy light green paint) are empty.  Empty!  While traffic chokes every other lane available for those dirty, nasty pollution-belching cars.

Granted, with this kind of congestion, it's unlikely having the bike lane restored for motorized vehicle use would prevent this extraordinary block-after-block gridlock.  Many of those people were forced to drive into the city from the suburbs because of the transit shut-down, and there are probably few contiguous bike lanes from out in New Jersey and Long Island to Midtown.  But still, where are all of New York's effusive bicyclists?  Wouldn't this be the ideal time for bike riders to prove that those bike lanes can really come in handy?

I suppose altruism only goes so far, even in such a liberal place as New York City. Go ahead and let New York's notoriously impatient drivers look longingly - and angrily - at all of that empty pavement going to waste.

Thing is, it's not just New York where bike lanes have raised the driving public's ire.  Here in Texas, Fort Worth has slapped bike lanes all over the city's streets, and in Dallas, some ardent bicyclists have taken to painting their own unofficial bike lanes on streets the city hasn't designated as bike routes. Add graffiti to the list of vices with which bicyclists - notorious for their red-light running - are gracing our cities.

Let's face it:  Bike lanes are a folly, just like Halloween.  Plenty of trick, but not much treat.  That's Reformation Day, 2012.

Actually, if you think about it, there's more that these subjects today share.  Martin Luther was a renegade who defied the Roman Church.  Bicyclists tend to embrace a type of renegade culture in lobbying for taking traffic lanes away from motorized vehicles.  I'm certainly not in the majority when I lobby for evangelicals to wisely respect Halloween's historic paganism.  But I'm not trying to say that makes me a renegade, too.

Naw, I don't want that appellation.  I just say what I think.  Sometimes people not only disagree with me; they think I'm rude.

But speaking of Halloween candy, I did buy a bar of Hershey's at my local CVS drug store while driving home in my fossil-fuel-burning Honda, before I head out to spend my Reformation Day evening at choir practice.

After all, as Luther is famous for saying, "God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."

And also, if I might add:  chocolate.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Wall Streeters Invite Underwater Risks

Is it still too early?

I just have one question.

Hundreds of Manhattanites lost their cars in Hurricane Sandy's unprecedented storm surge last night.  Those cars were parked in underground garages located in parts of the island known to be flood-prone.

What does that say about their owners?

Granted, New York City has never before experienced the type of subterranean flooding it suffered last night.  Storm surges have washed over the Battery Park Esplanade before, and clogged parts of FDR Drive, which rings the right side of the island.  But nothing of last night's magnitude.  So we have to allow for some factor of incredulity concerning the scope of this tragedy.

Nevertheless, global warming scientists have been hyperventilating for years now about New York City's low-lying fringes that have become vulnerable to newer, higher tides due to melting glaciers.  So the geography of risk for damaging tides has been well-documented, and maps are readily available online, showing, block by block, which streets are susceptible to flooding, even in an ordinary hurricane. 

For Sandy, we were warned days in advance that, in addition to the hurricane, the East Coast would be at high tide with a full moon, not to mention a nasty cold front barreling down from the northwest, setting up a head-on collision at landfall.

Instead, not only did most residents of Lower Manhattan not evacuate as they were told, but living in high-rises as they do, estimates are that more than half of them stayed put in their homes above the water.

These are not stupid people.  They have supposedly good-paying jobs earning big bucks, since the apartment buildings in which they live don't come cheap.  They can afford to own a car in New York City, itself an expensive proposition, between insurance, tolls, inflated gasoline prices, and the cost to park in garages.  Some drivers pay hundreds of dollars per month for their parking space.  It's not uncommon for New Yorkers to pay more in parking fees than their monthly car payment.

It's well-known that most of the people who've moved to the Financial District work in the finance industry.  Which means they're paid for their brains, not their brawn, and they're likely considered to be key players in their respective companies.  That's one reason they live near their work - they're always at the office!  Indeed, Goldman Sachs' COO boasted during a newscast today that they have a lot of key employees who live within walking distance of the financial giant's headquarters tower in Battery Park City, near the World Trade Center, a part of the city inundated with seawater last night during the height of the storm.  Apparently, Goldman's billion-dollar state-of-the-art tower, which they heavily sandbagged in advance, suffered negligible damage. 

So, when they all return to work tomorrow, how many of their employees will be grousing to their co-workers about their car getting flooded in their apartment building's basement?

How much extra effort would have been required for residents of Lower Manhattan to park elsewhere Monday?

Sure, those extra parking spaces would have been hard to find elsewhere in Manhattan, and even across all of the boroughs.  But it's not like those cars are doing their owners any good today, even though they're still conveniently located just downstairs in the basements of their luxury condo towers (bobbing about in the water).  Maybe these cars meant little to their owners in the first place, so having them marinate in salt water bothers me more than it does them.  But good grief: Why not invest in a little inconvenience to find a safer spot for your car?  Instead of risking it when a monster storm is predicted to hit a vulnerable seaport like New York's harbor area?

Who cares?  Well, think about it:  If this is the type of nonchalant chances these financial folks take with their own cars, what kind of risks are they taking with your money?

Maybe they figure their insurance will take care of their cars.  After all, in the grand scheme of life, there are worse problems than having a water-logged vehicle.

But would you want one of these car owners as your portfolio manager?

Funny how some of the same folks who helped perpetrate the mortgage-under-water housing mess still don't get it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Finding Sandy's Silver Lining

Have you heard it today?

Not just the chatter about Sandy, the hurricane about to make landfall over the most densely-populated swath of the United States, between Washington DC and New York City.  That's a legitimate news story, as opposed to the haranguing into which the media's political coverage has devolved.

No, have you heard the blissful silence about our upcoming election?  Void.  Dearth.  Lack of cacophony!  It's still there, of course, but only if you really want to get your partisanship fix.  Otherwise, about the only reference we've been afflicted with today has been how each candidate is scaling back their public appearances so voters along our Atlantic Coast can prepare for the storm.

And you know it's a monster storm if candidates are re-working their schedules, and the media is switching topics from politics - which is their advertising cash cow right now - to the weather.

Sandy, in its windy fury, has triumphantly obliterated the wall-to-wall campaign coverage and pompous political partisanship that has been eroding the fabric of our society.  Sandy sucked politics out to sea!  It may be blowing in an ill wind of physical devastation and humanitarian destruction, and that will indeed be awful, if even the most conservative forecasts about Sandy's wrath come to fruition in the next few hours.

Until then, however, can't we luxuriate in this unexpected lull before the election storm?

Sure, there's a huge crane dangling over the intersection of  New York's West 57th Street and Sixth Avenue, down the block from my beloved Calvary Baptist Church.  Yes, winds have pushed the city's historic harbor up to and over Manhattan's east side artery, the FDR Drive.  They've flooded low-lying parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and Delaware with sea water.  Schools and businesses are closed, Wall Street has shut down, air travel is being impacted across the country, and a friend of mine on FaceBook says strips of vinyl siding are flying through the air in her suburban New Jersey neighborhood.  She reports some nearby high-rise apartment buildings are being evacuated due to the danger of airborne projectiles.

On the one hand, I realize it's pretty insensitive of me to welcome the change in media content provided by this imminent danger being experienced by my friends and family along the Eastern Seaboard.  But can't we take a moment to enjoy the relative silence?  Finally, our news organizations, television networks, and social media sites have better things to do than ramble on breathlessly about Barak Obama, Mitt Romney, Republicans, Democrats, and swing voters!  It's just too, too bad this comes at the expense of real human life and property.  Indeed, we've only a brief window of opportunity for flippant attitudes which welcome a natural disaster instead of political blather ad nauseum.  Let's pray Sandy falls apart as quickly as some political campaigns, otherwise we might soon be longing for the relatively trivial banalities of ubiquitous election coverage instead of crisis aftermath coverage.

Until then, with Sandy bearing down on the media meccas of Washington and New York, people have suddenly lost their Democrat and Republican labels.  They've all become potential victims, people who very shortly could be living together without electricity, Internet access, hot food, or cell phone service.  For this moment, it doesn't matter who anybody is voting for next Tuesday.  Instead, they all need to be protected, informed, and returned to normalcy as soon as possible after Sandy has done her thing.

After all, lest we forget, there are bigger issues in life than politics, and more important names than Obama and Romney.

This week, that bigger issue and more important name is Sandy.

Enjoy her while you can, voters of America, and be thankful that our first responders have better track records than politicians.  Next week comes the election, and you know neither Obama nor Romney will cede the spotlight to anybody for any longer than they have to.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Who Wronged This Wright?

I didn't think it was possible.

Granted, I'm just an amateur student of architecture myself, but I'm still dismayed when somebody says they've never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fallingwater, the Kaufmann country house at Mill Run, PA
Wright was one of America's greatest architects, and popularizer of the prairie style of housing design that has become ubiquitous across North America's suburbs.  About 500 of his commissions actually got built during both sides of the turn of the 20th Century, but he designed twice that many projects, some of which are just as famous as what got built.

His most renowned commission was Fallingwater at Mill Run, Pennsylvania.  To this day, his exquisite multi-level stone and concrete country house for the Kaufmann family, perched over a real waterfall amongst elegant trees and grand slabs of rocks, is considered one of the best - if not the best - piece of American design in our country's history.

Unfortunately, his talent was only outmatched by his ego, yet considering both of those, and aside from some stunning projects in suburban Los Angeles, the bulk of his work was built in relatively uncelebrated places.  Places like Oak Park, Illinois, one of Chicago's first suburbs.  Wisconsin.  And Arizona.

The House Scholars Forgot and the Family Sold

Ahh, yes, Arizona!  After spending years on the frigid prairie around Spring Green, Wisconsin, Wright relocated his design studio, which he called Taliesin, to the much warmer climes of Scottsdale, in Arizona's desert.  In suburban Phoenix.  Which became his base of operations from the 1930's until his death in 1959.

Despite - or more likely, because of - his famous career, Wright had a miserable family life.  He cheated on his wives countless times, seemed to father children left and right, and made little effort to hide any of it.  Yet one of those poor children, David, received a special gift from his father:  a custom-designed house near Camelback Mountain, surrounded by an orange grove.  David and his wife, Gladys, lived there for decades, with her surviving him and eventually passing away in 2008, at the age of 104.  Their heirs, three granddaughters, sold the house - a unique spiral of concrete and steel - for $2.8 million.

Turns out, the property is no longer surrounded by orange groves, but sprawling mansions and luxury condominiums, all relishing their rarefied air in the shadows of Phoenix's rustic Camelback centerpiece.  The Frank Lloyd Wright original may have been sold for three million based on the pedigree of its designer, but somehow, the house ended up being flipped - for much less money - to a couple of carpetbagging developers from Idaho.

Two guys who'd never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright.  And had no idea a place like Phoenix, Arizona was home to such an architectural treasure.

They bought the place with plans to tear it down, subdivide the lot, and construct two brand-new miniature estates in its place.  Apparently without any research into the history of the property.

Not that a cursory inquiry into the home's provenance would have yielded anything significant.  According to the New York Times, which has been faithfully following this developing story for the world's architecture community, not much is known about this house, even though it was built in 1952.  David and Gladys did not want the elder Wright's notoriety to infect their family's home life, so they never welcomed the type of academic study that has chronicled other Wright designs.  Basically, it had fallen off the radar of many Wright scholars.

But not completely off of everybody's radar!  When word got out that a vintage Wright project had slipped into the hands of indifferent developers, suddenly preservationists were coming out of the woodwork to save the place.

Past Perfect Preservation

The David and Gladys Wright Home in Phoenix, AZ
It's a clever gem of a house, with a circular ramp from the ground up to a second level, under which is tucked a carport.  It's been described as shaped like a desert rattlesnake coiled to strike, but in actuality, its form is far less menacing.  Gracious and warm, with a delightful garden in its center, David and Gladys' home features many of the personal touches Frank Lloyd himself was famous for designing, such as chairs, windows, and other fixtures and furnishings specifically original to this home, and still in remarkably good condition.

For better or worse, however, those Idaho developers only saw money to be made.  A funky old house with a floorplan too odd for conventional buyers, and lots of prime real estate begging to welcome yet more McMansions.  And that red glazed plaque by the front door?  Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic "logo," as it were?  So what?

Blame the developers for only having dollar signs in their eyes if you like, or blame the public school system in Meridian from which they graduated (they were friends from high school), but isn't it also curious that it took some out-of-state developers to light a fire under Arizona's preservationists?  According to the landmark preservation document slapped together in the city's recent efforts to stave off its demolition, the property is described as "the most significant work within the city of Phoenix by the most significant architect in American history."

If that's true, and it probably is, why did it take its imminent demise, four years after the death of its last original owner, before scholars, designers, preservationists, and critics rallied around its cause?

According to the Times, Arizona law is strong on property rights and weak on historic preservation.  Perhaps that reality plays some role in why Arizona's Wright aficionados are having to scramble with a demolition moratorium that will only last three years anyway.  But who dropped the ball when the elderly Mrs. David Wright finally passed?  In 2008?  When plenty of Arizona scholars should have been aware that a prized Wright design could be in peril?

Maybe the family should be blamed, since it doesn't seem as though they cared much about the home's heritage.  If the granddaughters simply needed the money, couldn't a trust have been formed to purchase the property from them and preserve it?  Many heirs sell the family homestead for a variety of reasons, but this wasn't just any old family homestead.  To a certain degree, as the historic preservation landmark request states, this house is a remarkable amenity for Phoenix, which as a relatively new city, boasts precious little historic architecture.

Money Hounds Save White Elephants

Granted, money doesn't flow amongst Phoenix society like it does in Chicago and New York, where historic preservation is a way of life, and plenty of deep-pocketed donors with ready access to cash gladly fund a variety of preservation efforts.  And architects, in general, aren't the most wealthy of professionals.  That $2.8 million is chump change to a New York hedge fund manager, but for an Arizona designer, it's likely several years' salary.

Perhaps this is typical of what happens in "fly-over country," where other deserving architectural gems fail to attract the attention of angel investors willing to fund a piece of American history for posterity's sake.  It's unlikely any other buildings of this home's stature have simply been bulldozed for lack of interest, but should these developers from Idaho be left holding the bag when they try to do it on a previously forgotten Wright house?  If this property wins historic preservation designation for even three years, that's three years that the developers won't be able to recoup any of their investment.  Even if they got a good price for it back when nobody else was watching, and even though they had no clue about its provenance.

To their credit, now that the Idaho developers have been educated on the home's value, they admit tearing it down doesn't make the most sense.

"Does the house deserve landmark status? Yes. This place needs to be preserved,” one of them conceded to the Times. “But when three Wright granddaughters sell it for $2.8 million, for me to carry the cross for Frank Lloyd Wright, that’s not fair.”

And that's true, isn't it?  Why should two developers from Idaho, even though they'd never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright until all this mess blew up in their faces, be stuck with the cost of something the Wright family and Phoenix preservationists either couldn't - or didn't want to - assume themselves?

Frankly, altruism can only go so far.  Sometimes lessons are most strongly learned from loss.  If Wright's family and his present-day admirers can't scrape together the money necessary to purchase this home and preserve it, and since the property was acquired fairly and squarely, why not let the ball bounce where it may?

Even if it's a wrecking ball?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Enraptured by Christ's Second Coming?

During each of the last four Friday afternoons, I've been at the state fair.

The great Texas State Fair, that is.  Home to everything that anybody's ever thought of deep-frying, from fried tres leches cake to fried jambalaya.  The State Fair of Texas has also been home to a 50-foot tall metal-and-fabric cowboy, Big Tex, who himself burned up in a sizzling fire this past Friday morning.  His demise came just hours before my shift at an evangelical booth in a pavilion right next door to where the talking statue has anchored the midway's north entrance for six decades.

But not to worry:  Big Tex will be back next year, fair officials promise, after a complete overhaul including all-new electronics, the culprit behind last Friday's fire.  Pity the same can't be said for the arteries of fairgoers who insist on sampling all of those deep-fried specialties every year.

It's easy to guarantee the future when we think it's within our power to do so, isn't it?  We do it all the time.  Yes, all things considered, the State Fair will re-open next September like it always does, crowds will return to its Art Deco corner of impoverished south Dallas, and some bizarre new deep-fried delicacy will be added to the menu.  And the lining of fairgoers' internal organs.

A lot could happen between now and then, however.  Even Jesus Christ's return.  What some evangelicals call the "Rapture."  Others of us call it the "Second Coming."  Time as we know it may have ended by next September.

Dispensing with Sensational Dispensationalism

Whoa!  Did this Rapture thing come out of left field for you?  Or did your heart skip a beat out of joyous anticipation at the thought?  Maybe you recoiled in horror, aghast that I lumped "second coming," "Christ's return," and "Rapture" in the same interchangeable context.

Thanks to my diverse history in various churches, I'm fully aware that my ambivalence regarding the names of events comprising the Rapture amounts to some sort of heresy for some folks.  But I'm sorry:  all of the pre-millennial, post-tribulation theological arguments fall flat to me, not just because they're man-made terms, and despite the illusion that they're debatable within scripture itself.  It's not like any of us have a say in how God decides to wrap things up for this present world.  Suffice it to say that since He hasn't laid out "end times" doctrine in explicit detail for us, we people of faith probably should spend less time bickering over how we think future events may play out, and more time serving God by serving others here, today.

True religion that honors God is that which cares for widows and orphans, not that which stakes inflexible claims on eschatology.  And we're supposed to be wise about the topics we allow ourselves to debate.  End-times prophecies like those found in Daniel and Revelation are indeed profitable, since everything in the Bible is, but their value probably lies more in their descriptions of the sovereignty and holiness of God, not ambiguous theories over which we're to argue. 

Regardless of how what happens when, then, at some point, Christ will return and call His Church home to Eternity in Heaven.  We should all be able to agree on that, even those of us who believe part of Heaven involves a new Earth, or who bristle at lumping the Rapture in with Christ's Second Coming.  But again, let's not dawdle over hypothetical semantics.  At the mention of "Eternity in Heaven," even if your brain flickered with a brief awareness of how nice Heaven will be, did it just as quickly frown in disagreement?

Or worse still, fade into a "not yet, God" type of hesitancy?  Do you still have stuff you want to accomplish or experience here on Earth before Christ's second coming?

It's natural to desire a full, long life.  And it's unnatural - unhealthy, even - to want to end it early so we can go to Heaven sooner than God's prescribed duration for our physical bodies.  Our culture certainly places a premium on living long enough to cram as much fun into our days before it's all over.  As if Heaven, for the redeemed, is going to be one long bore.  So maybe it's a combination of pop culture and misguided theology that makes some believers equate the Rapture of Christ's saints with death - something that should be put off for as long as possible.

Granted, there's quite a bit of difference between how we mentally process the lead-up to our own death, and the Biblical promise of the Rapture.  For one thing, the Bible does talk about long life as being a sort of reward, and death is mostly presented in a negative light.  With the Rapture, however, all of us who are saved will be forever with our Lord together.  While death involves a certain measure of pain, Christ's Second Coming should be sheer glory, right?  Doesn't that mean we should look forward with great anticipation to the Rapture?

Then why do so many professing believers seem to want the Rapture to be deferred?

Shouldn't Heaven Be the One Thing For Which We Can Be Anxious?

Working at this evangelism booth at the Texas State Fair, one of the questions we ask people who stop by is whether they're ready to spend eternity with Christ.  Frankly, it's come to bother me that so many people who say that they're saved also say they aren't in any hurry to be raptured.  Nobody's in any real hurry for death, obviously - except those that eat all that fried food - but I can't understand why believers in Christ should want God to delay our eternity in paradise.

Might it be because although people may profess that they're ready for Heaven, they may really not be ready?

Might their faith be so woefully immature that they've never learned about what Heaven truly is, and Who lives there?  Might the Devil have deluded them into thinking life here on Earth is worth putting Heaven on hold?  Doesn't it often seem as though many believers seem quite deluded and satisfied with the lives they've made for themselves here on Earth?  "Heaven can wait," as they say.

They may know the end-times lingo, and whether they're Dispensationalist or Reformed, they know the words used to describe Christ's Second Coming, or Rapture, or whatever theological terminology their denomination uses to describe the event in which Christ claims His Bride, the Church.

But quite frankly, if the prospect of instantaneously being in Heaven with Christ and our God with all of the Church Triumphant from every corner of the globe doesn't at least put a smile on our face, shouldn't we be wondering why?

There is nothing here on Earth that will be better than what awaits us in Eternity Future.  Nothing.  Nothing!  Not the World Series, not a college football game, not getting married, not the birth of your next child, not a promotion at work, not moving into your town's most exclusive neighborhood, not seeing the "resurrected" Big Tex next fall.


Granted, none of us can really put Heaven into its rightful perspective, since it's far more glorious that we can comprehend.  Do you get dizzy when trying to imagine what eternity is?  I do.  I also blow a mental fuse trying to figure out how we'll spend all that time.

But that's me trying to contextualize eternity in Heaven based on my mortal experience.  And I have to admit:  I don't get all giddy when thinking that Christ could return before I finish typing this sentence.  I'm not sure I fully trust Christ, not am I fully confident that what He thinks "paradise" is will match my expectations of it.  Sometimes I think we Americans, with our Puritanical work ethic, have a screwed-up notion of what work, grace, and glory really are.  I suspect many of us get embarrassed if we admit that it would be nice to leave behind all of our problems and woes for eternity with Christ.  We joke about it all the time, but we don't want to be defined as the type of person who spends their life dreaming of easy ways out of hard things.  That sounds lazy, irresponsible, and unAmerican, doesn't it?

But if we really can identify something that we'd rather experience here on Earth before the Rapture, haven't we just identified an idol in our life?

And maybe even the fact that we're really not ready for Eternity after all.

Not yet, anyway!

Friday, October 19, 2012

D'Souza Dethroned in Divorce Debacle

Then again, maybe not.

Over a month ago, I wrote about Dinesh D'Souza, a rising star within right-wing evangelicalism whose recent movie, "2016: Obama's America," was taking Hollywood by storm.  Not because Hollywood loved D'Souza's embarrassingly non-scholarly attack on our president and his father, but because Hollywood was shocked to find so many Americans did.  It was on track to be one of this fall's most popular movies of its genre.

Earlier this week, however, World Magazine's website broke the news that the married D'Souza had brazenly flaunted his girlfriend at an evangelical conference in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  According to World's well-placed sources, D'Souza introduced the woman as his fiance to numerous people, and even checked into the same hotel together, and came down together early the next morning to catch their flight outta town.

When confronted with the apparent incongruity between his marital status and having a girlfriend, D'Souza claimed that his divorce was not yet final.  But when World Magazine's reporter checked with California's courts, where the current Mrs. D'Souza lives full-time, those divorce papers had been filed... the day World's reporter had asked him about it.

No wonder their divorce wasn't finalized yet.

For the record, when D'Souza became head of the fledgling re-birth of Kings College in New York City, his wife did not relocate to the East Coast, so her husband has been splitting his time between both sides of our continent.  Two-timing it, as it were, but in more ways than one, apparently.

Yesterday, the board at Kings College met to accept the resignation D'Souza had begrudgingly tendered in the wake of World's website article.  So he's been de-throned by his own doing.  Suffice it to say that, even though he insists nothing sexual happened in that hotel, D'Souza is demonstrating no conviction about the sanctity of marriage.  He claims to Fox News that he'd been working with a California law firm on his divorce for two weeks prior to his trip to South Carolina, but does it really take that long to file divorce papers in that state?  He throws his current wife under the bus for wanting to be separated in the first place, and he sees no problem with checking into and out of the same hotel together with another woman without carefully explaining the situation to the conference host, which means he basically threw his girlfriend under the immorality bus, too.

In his angry outburst to Fox, D'Souza whines, "I had no idea that it is considered wrong in Christian circles to be engaged prior to being divorced, even though in a state of separation and in divorce proceedings."

Such cluelessness professed by D'Souza betrays a woeful indifference to what most Christians commonly understand about Christian marriage.  Men are supposed to find satisfaction in the wife of their youth, divorce is only a last resort and hardly frivolous, and we are to maintain a witness of moral integrity to observers of our lifestyle.  How does any of this sordid episode demonstrate even a cursory understanding of such basic components of Christian holiness?

D'Souza then goes on to blame World's editor and the writer of their online article, claiming they have a vendetta against him, as if D'Souza himself is the victim here.  It's all classic Type-A behavior: the defiant obfuscation of personal responsibility and displacement of blame onto others despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.  Kick up enough dust to obscure the facts, and hopefully, damage to your personal credibility can be minimized.

So sad.  Especially if none of it is true.  But if none of it is true, D'Souza certainly seems to be spending a lot of energy spinning things his way in a vacuum devoid of Biblical justifications.  His contempt for accountability only compounds the misery of this tawdry episode.

Which brings to mind something the writer of another Christian article expressed recently:  that it's good for us believers to have mortal heroes of the faith upon whom we can look for encouragement and instruction.  I won't name the writer, because he's another celebrated evangelical, and besides, he's not alone in his search for human heroes of Christian virtue.

I, on the other hand, consider such a pursuit to be the work of the Devil himself.  Our model is Christ and Christ alone, not Billy Graham, or William Wilberforce, or Corrie Ten Boom, or Nate Saint, or Elizabeth Elliott.  To the extent that these famous Christians have added their voices to the evangelical narrative, those voices have simply rephrased the teachings of Christ.  They're people who, through a variety of reasons and circumstances, have become known to us throughout history thanks to what we consider to be uncommon valor.  But all of those reasons and circumstances were ordained by our holy God, and He is the reason for any success or influence they - or any of us - can claim.  Go ahead, read their stories and ponder their testimonies for educational purposes, but don't canonize them.  None of them would likely want your adulation anyway, as long as they recognized that what they did, they did through Christ and the working of His Holy Spirit.

D'Souza was on that hero worship track, and who knows, but he may be able to spin his way out of this momentary setback, either through ingratiating himself with evangelicalism's contemporary kingmakers, or through a supernatural working of repentance and dependence on God's grace.

In the meantime, the story of Dinesh D'Souza isn't that powerful men have an uncanny knack for self-destruction, but that we all do.  Only men like D'Souza fall longer and harder because the pedestals we've helped them build are taller than our own.

He's just a moral, just like you, and just like me.  Pray for him, as I do, that, just like anybody else, he'll find that God's grace is more than sufficient.

Especially since ours isn't.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

When Waiting Wearies


Waiting, waiting... waiting.

It's what a lot of us seem to be doing a lot these days, isn't it?  Waiting.

I'm waiting for a writing job that will pay my bills.  Perhaps you're waiting for a job, too.  Employment is something for which many folks are waiting.  I just finished reading an article online about a run-down rust-belt town waiting for the "next big thing" to come along and revive their local economy and drive down their high unemployment rate.  Some experts say corporate America is waiting for this November's presidential election to be over before making long-term plans regarding investing in new products or new employees.

Waiting can be excruciatingly frustrating.  Thousands of New Yorkers were waiting on idle subway trains earlier this week, waiting for glitches to be exorcised from the MTA's byzantine switching systems.  If you've ever been at the mercy of public transit when things aren't working, you know how maddening it can be.  Maybe you wait in long lines of bumper-to-bumper traffic during your morning and evening commutes, day after day, mocking the word "rush" in rush hour.

We wait, and wait, and wait some more.  About the only thing for which we never have to wait is, well... waiting.

The difference between people who simply sit and wait, and people who keep busy while they're waiting, may actually provide the spark that ignites the "next big thing" our society seems to be waiting for economically, politically, and even emotionally.

I've been writing this blog, trying to ignite the interest of somebody who believes, as an editor of mine once told me, that I "deserve to be read."  The rust belt town languishing from the offshoring of its manufacturing economy is investing in higher education and new business incubators, hoping to somehow differentiate themselves from the plethora of small towns across America doing the same exact thing in the hopes of jump-starting their economies.

Maybe what you're waiting for has nothing to do with jobs, or getting to your job.  Maybe you're waiting for a report back from your doctor.  Maybe you're waiting to learn if you're going to be a parent, or a grandparent.   Maybe you're just waiting for your child's soccer practice to be over so you can have dinner.

Waiting By the Side of the Road

Then too, sometimes what we're waiting for, and what we get, are two different things.  We wait, thinking we know what we're waiting for, but do we?

About two thousand years ago, a blind beggar was confined to the roadside outside the gates of Jericho, an ancient city in what is now the political state of Israel.  This blind beggar's name was Bartimaeus, and although we don't know how old he was, or whether he'd been blind from birth or from some disease, we can easily assume most of Jericho's population probably knew him, or knew who he was.  They'd likely seen him there for years, begging and waiting.

Regardless of how long he hadn't been able to see, you can imagine that being blind for any length of time in that culture would have been sheer misery.  It's bad enough today in North America, where our culture is quite progressive in curing, treating, or providing assistance for people with vision problems.  Two thousand years ago, blindness was a virtual prison.

About all a blind person could do back then was take up a spot alongside a road and beg all day long, every day, and hope that enough sympathetic passers-by will toss enough money their way to buy a simple supper.

Waiting, all day.  Sometimes calling out when you hear people approaching, then slumping back against a wall or rock, and waiting some more.

Waiting, calling, begging.  But most likely, mostly waiting.  Waiting in utter darkness, even as you can feel the sun beating down on you.

Suddenly, Bartimaeus heard more than just the shuffling of passers-by.  There was a commotion, and he learned that Jesus of Nazareth was going to be passing right by his spot by the road!  Maybe Jesus would heal him!

He had to get Christ's attention.

So he hollered out, calling on Jesus to have mercy on him.  He made such a ruckus and racket, calling out so desperately, that people in the crowd, who had relegated him to the sidelines of life, sitting out of the way of normal people, told him to be quiet.

Yet undoubtedly, this was just such an opportunity for which Bartimaeus would likely have never before dreamed.  Maybe he'd spent his time waiting by the side of the road not only for enough money to make it through the day, but waiting for death itself.  The commotion he himself causes in this passage creates the impression that he'd immediately realized this might be his one chance in his entire life to be healed from blindness - and he was frantically hoping to seize the moment.

Christ is the Creator of Perfect Timing

Christ, of course, knew Bartimaeus was nearby on the roadside.  And he stopped.

The Son of God stopped, just like He does when each of His children call out to Him.  And Christ called Bartimaeus to Himself.

Quickly, the crowd changed its tune, turned to Bartimaeus, and said, "well, what do you know!  You've gotten His attention, and He wants to talk to you."

As you can imagine, Bartimaeus didn't need any more urging.  He jumped to his feet, likely needing to be steadied by people in the crowd who only moments before were telling him to shut up.  He threw off his cloak, perhaps so fully assured that Christ would heal him, he'd be able to retrieve it after his miracle, and he could see where it had fallen.

And sure enough, Christ performed his miracle, based on his blunt, honest, earnest faith.

I don't know about you, but I'm waiting for many things, not just a job.  You're probably waiting for many things, too.  Most of them aren't as dire as waiting for the remotest of chances to be healed from something as grave as blindness.  But yet the emotional, spiritual, and mental blindnesses with which we suffer may still be things we have to wait through until God's appointed time, when our waiting will finally be over.

Waiting can only be true agony when you don't trust the Person for Whom you're waiting.

May the Lord grant us the grace to wait as long as He would have us wait, and to wait with patience, hope, and even joy.

As the psalmist has so poignantly phrased it, wait on the Lord.  Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart.  Wait, I say, on the Lord!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Big Bird Isn't the Public's Enemy

He's big, he's yellow, and despite his age, he's still quite popular.

He's Big Bird, and if Mitt Romney gets his way, his neighborhood on Sesame Street is about to be gentrified.  Instead of subsidized housing, it's going to be free market rates.  Conservatives think that's a good thing.

But is it?

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

America's venerable Public Broadcasting Corporation has been in the crosshairs before by right-wingers looking to make a public spectacle out of slashing our government's budget.  Stop funding PBS, the mantra has gone, and look at how much of our debt will disappear!  If the liberal-leaning PBS can't survive on its own, it isn't as good as its boosters claim it is anyway.

Such bluster plays well to the portion of America's populace that likes to politicize things at the expense of their own morality.  Think about it:  PBS doesn't feature cuss words or sexually suggestive programming during prime time, but plenty of public television's conservative naysayers enjoy their Desperate Housewives, Office, Modern Family, Glee, and Married With Children episodes in all of their raunchy glory on the commercial networks.

Fox, NBC, ABC, and CBS claim that they need to air such morally vapid shows because they couldn't survive financially if they didn't.  But what makes conservatives think PBS couldn't survive on its own?  And if it could, would they be happier if PBS began featuring as much skin and perversion as the regular networks?  Sure, it's great PR for talk radio's blowhards and right wing political wonks to spin a story of waste when it comes to public broadcasting, but when you compare the level of programming on PBS to the lowest common denominator of perversity elsewhere on the TV dial, aren't we taxpayers getting a pretty good return on our investment?

Do you realize we're subsidizing PBS at $222.5 million per year?  The horror!  75% of that money goes to PBS on TV, and 25% to PBS on the radio (think NPR).  Granted, that's a lot of money, except when compared to our federal budget, which is $3.8 trillion.  PBS costs each of us Americans about $1.35 per year in taxes - a heavy burden that Romney claims isn't worth all of the education, art, science, and community programming that PBS broadcasts 24/7.

Brought To You Today By the Letters P, O, L, I, T, I, C, S

One of the consistent reasons conservatives like to hold PBS as a prime example of what's wrong with our federal budget stems from the common complaint that public broadcasting has a liberal bias.  And yes, when it does show a bias, it's hardly towards the right of anything.  For example, it's hard to deny that their science shows pretend the theory of Evolution is irrefutable fact.  Many conservatives also bristle at the urban legends about Bert and Ernie being gay lovers, which they're not, or the network's other childhood shows pushing a socialist agenda on our impressionable children - a claim conservative parents make with a straight face, while letting their kids consume all sorts of hedonistic carnality on other channels.  And while it's true that PBS's venerable talk show hosts Charlie Rose, who always tries to outdo his sophisticated guests in pomposity, and Bill Moyers, with his pious religious fuzziness, tend to advance blatantly liberal biases in their shows, theirs still doesn't sink to the vitriolic rhetoric of right-wing radio's partisan stars that conservatives consume for free.

If conservatives really want to see unabashed liberal propaganda on PBS, however, just go ahead and pull its taxpayer subsidies, and watch what happens.  With its undisputed reputation as a bastion of creative programming, PBS will undoubtedly have no problem wooing left-wing sponsors and limousine liberals to swoop in as angel investors and replace that public funding.  And then who'll be in complete control of one of the most ubiquitous childrens learning channels on the planet?

Right now, with PBS receiving public subsidies, the American people can complain to their elected officials whenever they perceive it to be crossing some ideological line.  The political curse conservatives consider PBS to be is actually an effective way they can hold public broadcasting's feet to the fire of bipartisan equity.  $222 million per year is just enough money to make PBS executives take conservatives seriously when it comes to questionable programming content.  If the George Soros'es, Bill Gates'es, Al Gore's and Oprah Winfrey's of America get to replace taxpayers and underwrite PBS unilaterally, what voice will conservatives have when it comes to what PBS puts on the air?

Isn't having that voice worth $1.35 per year to you?

Not that PBS is just itching to dive into the deep end of liberal bias.  If their directors really wanted to abdicate any semblance of moderate neutrality, instead of running panicked pledge drives, they'd be lobbying Congress for going solo.  Right-wingers may feel threatened by folks at PBS who share different viewpoints, but compared with what could happen if it went completely private, the money we spend to help keep it "public" isn't the real threat here.

The real threat is the unknown:  who takes over the money wagon at PBS if Romney pulls the plug on taxpayer subsidies?  Right now, Romney and everybody else who thinks "firing Big Bird" is a good idea need to be grateful that PBS is content to fight for its relatively paltry quarter-billion dollars every year.

Yes, yes, yes, that's a lot of money!  But to put it in context, this past winter, NBC grossed $245 million just in advertisements during the Super Bowl.  And you still don't think we're getting our money's worth out of PBS?

There is value in us helping to pay Big Bird's rent.  Especially since we might not be able to afford the alternative.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is Suburbia Ready to be Memorialized?

Ahh, suburban Kansas City.

Subdivisions, shopping malls, freeways, and low-rise office complexes.  Even if you've never been there, you can probably picture it.  And while the image in your mind likely includes a healthy dose of sprawling ubiquitousness, it almost certainly isn't one of cosmopolitan exuberance, is it?

The main reason for that likely is because Kansas City itself isn't cosmopolitan.  Busy and respectable, yes, but entirely representative of the Middle America in which it stands.  Not a bad thing, of course, since as large cities go, the Kansas City area boasts a far more affordable cost of living and conventional standard of living than most American urban centers with a far more cosmopolitan vibe, which usually translates into pricey hovels, higher crime rates, and greater concentrations of stress and conflict.

Straddling the state line between Missouri and Kansas, the "City of Fountains" is home to less than half a million people, although two million people live in its broader metropolitan region.  It's the corporate home to a surprising mix of iconic American companies, from tax preparer HR Block and telecommunications giant Sprint to the legendary Hallmark Cards company and AMC movie theaters.  The Applebee's chain of overpriced greasy spoons is also headquartered in Kansas City, but in terms of cuisine, let's recognize the town more for its barbecue and steak, themselves staples of down-home, backyard Americana.

The city boasts a modestly impressive skyline and a modestly impressive symphony, although the symphony is famous more for its conductor, Michael Stern, son of the late violinist Isaac Stern, the man who saved New York's Carnegie Hall from demolition.  On a less lofty level, Ed Asner, Walter Cronkite, and Dr. Phil are some of Kansas City's famous sons.

Indeed, it all smacks of Middle America Americana, being decent but not decadent.  Indeed, this mélange of vanilla goodness helps explain why some people think suburban Kansas City is a good place to create a museum dedicated to the most American icon of middle America:  the suburb.

A museum in ode to suburbia.  In an abandoned bowling alley, no less.  In the prototypical suburban city of Overland Park, Kansas, just south of Kansas City.  Deep in the heart of flyover country.

More Than Toasters, Chevys, and Bowling Alleys

At this point, according to an obviously bemused Wall Street Journal, it's mostly the pet project of officials at another local museum, and some county commissioners.  With an anticipated pricetag of $34 million, it won't be the most stunning spectacle tourists could expect to visit in suburban Kansas City.  And, like the Journal points out, it won't be America's only suburban-themed attraction already out there, or even the best-curated one.  Instead of a true, academic exploration into the good and bad of suburbanization's phenomenon, quaint artifacts like old toasters and the obligatory 1950's-era Chevrolet sedan will share space with a wooden fence featuring peepholes through which visitors can witness some live tableaux of suburban life by real actors.

Assuming, of course, you can feign amnesia over the fact that plenty of city folk had toasters back in the 1950's, as one of the Journal's readers pointed out.  Or incredulity that any of the tableaux live actors will reenact behind that goofy wooden fence will be more compelling than what goes on in the museum visitors' own backyards when they get home from visiting the place.

Basically, it sounds like the project's boosters in Overland Park want to create a 1950's museum, but there are a lot of those around already, even if they're not housed in an old suburban bowling alley that's already been tagged with graffiti.

And while it's not inappropriate to recognize the fact that America's suburbs have now begun to show their age, and that exurban development beyond our conventional suburbs has become the new frontier for city-weary home buyers, is the suburb facing the sort of extinction that would merit any sort of museum?

Suburbs are evolving, of course, and in ways not all of us appreciate.  The graffiti on parts of the old bowling alley in Overland Park represents an infiltration of urban reality on some of the aging parts of suburbia, and not just in suburban Kansas City.  Virtually every suburb around the country now boasts a far more diverse demographic than that sought by the whites fleeing urban integration in the 1950's.  Indeed, even the push for exurban development has come not just by affluent whites, but affluent people of all races who can afford to insert some geographic cushion between where they want to raise their upwardly-mobile families and the problems which plague not just inner cities, but aging suburbs as well.

Instead of the white flight which helped create suburbanization, I've dubbed it "ecru flight," since middle-class blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are all participating in perpetuating continued sprawl beyond our established suburbs.  Skin color isn't the motivation today for this resegregation as much as lifestyle and economic class.  And to a certain extent, that may be a healthier factor for future residential development than what drove our early suburban pioneers.  It's still a refutation of the broader benefits of social diversity, but at least people are making separating themselves based on less pejorative interpretations of economic status, rather than raw bigotry.

Should We Memorialize or Reinvigorate Our Suburbs?

Interestingly, our maturing suburbs are being emptied of young families and empty nesters who either head back into our urban cores for whatever grungy vibe they need to feel hip and trendy, or out to the exurbs, where school districts are still considered more family-friendly, and the countryside more conducive to the active lifestyles all those SUV ads keep telling us we want.

Meanwhile, those maturing suburbs have retained many of the older, more conventional folks who don't want to move from the suburban tract houses they've spent the past few decades turning into their homes.  They've been joined by minorities who had been stuck in inner cities until the zero-interest mortgage craze hit.  Indeed, in many cities, the meltdown from the ill-conceived mortgage rush that crashed down in 2008 can be most plainly seen in neighborhoods where newly-arrived minorities purchased aging suburban homes whose original owners were moving on into the exurbs.  It remains to be seen how many of these newly-desperate suburban communities will be able to maintain the level of services earlier suburban stakeholders took for granted, now that property values have tanked.  It's a scenario eerily reminiscent of what old urban centers experienced as suburbanization originally took hold after World War II.

Hopefully, as we recover from this sub-prime mortgage mess and its ensuing Great Recession, Americans will have learned our lesson when it comes to where we decide to live, and how we want to live in our communities.  To the extent that suburbanization has evolved into something less homogeneous and fresh, will Americans who generally despise old infrastructure be willing to tolerate the aging suburbs' cracked streets, fading tract homes, and sprawling parking lots around empty shopping malls?  How innovative will we be in repurposing the structures like those shopping malls and bowling alleys that have become obsolete as technology and other trends have given society new ways of doing old things?

For better or worse, the book isn't closed on suburbia.  Not by a long shot.  And who plants flowers at the grave of somebody who isn't dead?  Therefore, taxpayers in Overland Park might want to consider spending the money some of them want to spend for a museum in ways that would aid in a sustainable repurposing of that which they want to memorialize: their own suburban hometown.  Maybe even through tax refunds, instead of more spending!  It might not be very glamorous or tourist-friendly to spend those millions of dollars on street repair, paying down debts, or buying new technology for public libraries, but suburban Overland Park, like suburbia itself, is going to be around for quite a while.  Maybe not in the same form or fashion its original developers depicted on their glossy brochures.  However, like the urban cores we're learning to appreciate, our suburban neighborhoods have now been constructed, they're part of our built environment, and we're going to have to learn how to make the best use of them for generations to come.

Like so much in life, looking to the future will hold Overland Park in better stead than spending money to commemorate a past that itself isn't over yet.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

DC Is a Mega-Village

It's tops politically.

And according to the Wall Street Journal, it's tops when it comes to making a living, too.

Turns out, working in or around our nation's capital likely means you've got a good job and you're earning a good salary.  DC workers, on average, make the most money.  Not working stiffs in New York City, America's financial capital, or Chicago, or Houston, or San Francisco - all generally considered more obvious bastions of free-market capitalism.

So much for the right-wing pundits who scoff at "it takes a village."

After all, it's not like the defense contractors, lawyers, and lobbyists who populate the District are there for its climate, which can be suffocatingly humid in the summer, and downright blustery in the winter.  The scenery along the Virginia - Maryland border is nice enough, if you like the way suburban sprawl eats into the forests and farmland for which people supposedly move away from the inner city.  And it's not like the elegance of Washington DC itself has anything but its iconic status in world affairs to camouflage its crime-ridden, poorly-run, and politically disenfranchised personality.

No, for years, Washington has been creeping up the salary scale because of what it provides the purportedly free markets:  access.  Access to the men and women who craft the legislation that funnels tax dollars to businesses of all types, from finance and computer science to law, education, healthcare, law enforcement, and hotels and restaurants.  And what is a hallmark of village life?  Interpersonal access, right?

It's popularly assumed that DC is a company town, with our federal government being the company.  However, only 1 in 6 workers in the greater metropolitan area are employed by you and me, although out of a total workforce numbering over 2.3 million souls, that still represents a stunningly large taxpayer-funded amount.  The rest work for all of those companies who feed at the trough of government subsidies, contracts, and grants.  Yes, joke if you like about President Obama's ill-delivered line about "you didn't build that," but many companies in America today do turn a profit at least in part due to good old Uncle Sam.

Salaries in Washington, DC are living proof.

You and I, after all, own part of the world's largest procurement operation, otherwise known as the United States government.  Our tax dollars collectively purchase more stuff than any other single entity on the planet.  Think about it:  we purchase guns, cars, computers, trees, hydroelectric dams, paper, soft drinks, airports, pretzels, nuclear power stations, lawn mowers, coffee cups, scissors, and the occasional Majority World election.

Who wouldn't want to be located in close proximity to such a cash cow?  It's like all of the corporations who grovel at the feet of Wal-Mart in po-dunk, Arkansas.  Wal-Mart's buyers are like federal bureaucrats - they don't come to us when they're doing the buying.

And it's not just for-profit businesses that have their hands out in Washington.  Hundreds of non-profits have their headquarters in DC, hoping to siphon off some of our political influence (or lack of it) and tax dollars for their budgets and programs.  All of these companies, charities, think tanks, and even diplomatic organizations want legislators to notice them and think their objectives are legitimate ways to spend other peoples' money.

Granted, many of these non-profits get their funding not from the US Treasury, but from their earnest supporters who pay them to advocate on their behalf.  But still, who on Capitol Hill would listen to a poorly-dressed schmuck who drives a ratty old car and can only afford a dilapidated walk-up in one of DC's notorious 'hoods?  And if you were the schmuck who had to hob-nob with politicians and woo them to your point of view for a living, would you stoop that low for a pittance of a salary?  Maybe if you wholeheartedly believed that your cause was imminently just - but how many of those causes are out there, and how many people who view their own salary so altruistically?

So the gravy train that is Washington's personal employment economics keeps chugging along, helped every few years by people like Republican George W. Bush, who willfully bloated the size of our federal government's payroll with "jobs for the boys," as they call political patronage in Great Britain.  Only Bush shrouded his patronage with two wars in which preventing another 9/11 provided blanket amnesty for much of his unfunded spending.

Still, perhaps it's a bit disingenuous for us to draw too many correlations between Washington, DC being tops in American salaries and the fact that our federal government is headquartered there.  During periods of recession, while the phenomenon of offshoring is ravaging corporate workforces across the country, doesn't it make sense to go for the only goose laying golden eggs that, because of its geopolitical raison d'être, can't go anywhere else?  Hopefully, this village - that's apparently sustaining our economy through these bad times - won't remain atop the Wall Street Journal's salary statistics when times improve.

No matter what happens, however, the stark survival-of-the-fittest mentality of capitalism can't hide the dark reality that our economy is in love with our tax dollars.

Talk about "too big to fail."

Monday, October 8, 2012

Pity the Abortionists and Their Boats

Rebecca Gomperts is a medical doctor on a mission.

And thanks to such successful PR stunts as her "Trojan horse" boat in Morocco this past Thursday, her mission is becoming ever more successful.

Yet Gomperts is no saint.

Trojan Boat

Gomperts is a Dutch abortionist, and founder of the abortion group Women on Waves, which bills itself as a provider of abortions on ships floating in international waters.  She's one of the masterminds behind last week's carefully-staged media blitz in the port city of Smir, Morocco, advertising the abortion pill Artotec.

As in many Islamic countries, abortion is virtually illegal for Moroccans, except if the life of the mother is in danger.  Women on Waves estimates that every day, 600 to 800 women have an illegal abortion in Morocco, and that every year, 90 women die from botched, clandestine abortions there.

Naturally, those sobering mortality statistics fail to include the unborn fetuses.

In a deft stroke of irony, Gomperts and her group decided to use the Moroccan government's intolerance of abortion in favor of Women on Waves.  They sent advance warning of their ship's entry into Smir's port to guarantee some pro-life protesters, government troops, and the local media would be on hand to witness their "arrival."  Except when Moroccan authorities tried to prevent one of the Women on Waves boats from entering their harbor, Gomperts' people unfurled banners advertising their website and a Moroccan phone number on another boat instead - one that was already in the harbor.

The boat trying to enter the harbor was a red herring - the real advertisement was already before the TV cameras!  Gomperts' people simply let nature take its course from there, with the protesters howling, the government officials glowering, and Women on Waves' surprising little craft bobbing in the water, covered with their contact information.  Sure enough, before long, women across the country - not to mention much of the Middle East - had free, unrestricted access to information telling them where to find Artotec and how to use it.

If it wasn't in the cause of such a dastardly objective, its cleverness could be admirable.

Instead, the abortion industry, of which Gomperts is a proud sponsor, received tons of publicity at the very hands of people who could be counted on to foment that publicity, albeit with other reasons entirely. 

Desperate to Destruct

Most pro-life evangelicals - and I hope I'm being redundant there - would consider Gomperts the archetype villainess, perverting her humanitarian vows as a medical doctor by murdering unborn children so heartlessly.  After all, her claiming to be interested in preventing 90 deaths a year - by ostensibly giving women access to safe abortions - might be the public facade of this Moroccan stunt, yet Gomperts' broader objective, like it is for all ardent abortionists, is a denial of the sanctity of life and the moral gift of that life.  Humanity is what we decide it is, abortionists say, not what God - or even Islam's god - says it is.

Looking at Gomperts' photo on her website, it's easy to despise her, and marvel in a macabre sort of way how such evil could lurk behind such an unassuming visage.  Yet as I did so, lamenting how, without Christ, she faces a ghastly eternity in Hell for her wicked deeds, it struck me that, aside from Christ, my deeds are just as wicked as hers.

And so are yours, dear reader.

The only thing saving believers in Christ from utter damnation is Christ Himself.  Not the fact that you and I abhor abortion, or that we would never study medicine in order to perform one.  All sin is equally heinous in God's eyes, whether it's advertising abortion pills to women in Morocco, or harboring hate against Gomperts, or speeding on the way home this evening, or letting unwholesome speech leave our lips, or... the list goes on and on.

The Other Side of Legalism

We like to think we're better than other people, and legally, ethically, we may be.  But that same legalism against which we bristle when it comes to dancing, drinking, or other relatively ambiguous behavior is what helps convince us that we can be better than other sinners on the hard-core stuff.  We compare ourselves to each other, not to God's standard.  Sure, we don't murder, we don't condone abortion, we don't flaunt international laws we don't like.  But apart from Christ, we're all sinners doomed to Hell.  Sin is sin; with God, there is no hierarchy within our categories of sin.  The only sin He cannot pardon is the sin of denying the truth of Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit.  All the other sins, for which Christ forgives us, equally called for His death.

The deaths for which Gomperts and her allies are responsible seem to make them sinners of a different plain, or level, than the rest of us.  But we delude ourselves by thinking that.  Hell is Hell, and grace is more than just the freedom to look down our ethical noses at people we think are less worthy of it than we are.

Instead of vilifying Gomperts, then, I now find myself lamenting her lostness and pitying her.  We still need to work to protect the unborn, but doesn't the Devil prefer we consider people like Gomperts our enemy, instead of himself, since doing so can muddy our perspective?  Instead, won't you join me in praying that our gracious Father would redeem her into our family of forgiven sinners?

We have the law to show us what's wrong and what's right.  We know she's not doing what's right.  She desperately needs the same grace that's saved us to save her from the same evil to which we were once desperate slaves.

God's mercy is so great, it saved you, and it saved me, and it can save Gomperts.  Indeed, the battle against abortion is a salvific narrative in more ways than one.

Plus, our Savior is so marvelous, He doesn't even need a boat to traverse water.

Friday, October 5, 2012

At My Church, the First Shall Be Next!

Notice 8/17/14:  I am aware from following the Google Analytics data for this blog that there are people online searching for information regarding the self-confessed relapse of Dr. Skip Ryan.  Since Dr. Ryan himself has published a personal letter to Redeemer Seminary, from which he has resigned, I'm providing a link to that letter here so you can hear this from him.


This coming Sunday, my church is installing its newest pastor.

Who was also my church's first pastor.

Since its founding in 1991, Dr. Joseph "Skip" Ryan served Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas as its very first senior minister before resigning in disgrace in 2006.  He was hooked on prescription narcotics, and spent several months at an out-of-state drug rehabilitation center.  His road to recovery has been challenging on a number of fronts, not the least of which being questions swirling around his opportunities for future ministry in the body of Christ, the church.

Needless to say, God has performed a work of transformation in not only Dr. Ryan, but his wife, both of whom have remained at Park Cities Presbyterian throughout this multi-year ordeal, and have emerged with a testimony of God's grace that is shaping a profound new emphasis on how they're serving God and His people.

Earlier this year, I wrote on this blog about the announcement at church regarding Dr. Ryan's reinstatement as a part-time associate pastor over our flock, and this Sunday, his official installation in that post will signal a new era of ministry in his life, our church, and even the broader evangelical community, as more and more people become exposed to God's work in his faith, his health, his marriage, and his career.

Instead of writing an essay about them, I'm providing a link to a video my church has made.  In it, both Dr. Ryan and his wife, Barbara, a force of spiritual ministry in her own right, discuss their journey and their "story of rescue," as we like to frame the Gospel of Salvation at Park Cities Presbyterian.

I had the privilege of sharing dinner with them at a mutual friend's birthday party last month, but I realize many of my dear readers will never meet Skip and Barbara this side of Heaven.  Nevertheless, the new life they now live in Christ may just help you see what Christ can do in yours!

PS - On that link to the video you'll find a couple of other links to audio from a seminar the Ryan's led at our church in which they more deeply explored things that God has been teaching them during this transformative time.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Truth, Not Truce in Worship Wars

Rock is on a roll.

In most churches, anyway, rock music seems here to stay.

People who think such music befits a corporate worship service are many, and they like to think our worship wars have gone away.  And for the most part, it appears they have.

But does that mean the winning side is right to rock their victory?  Rock's conquest of corporate worship has come about more because of its popularity than because of superior arguments for its suitability.  After all, living in a republic, we Americans assume popularity is the best arbiter of truth.  But all you have to do is look at what you think is wrong with our country, and how those wrongs have come about, to realize that majority rule doesn't always work.

Most of the platitudes about resolving worship wars center on compromise.  Having both traditionalists and contemporary fans drawing a truce and "blending" music styles has become a popular approach in an attempt to keep the peace in church.  Yet prolific is the anecdotal evidence that blended corporate worship pleases few worshippers.  And it's easy to see why.  Rock and classical can hardly blend on a concert stage, so what makes anybody assume they'll blend in a sanctuary?  You may not like the opposite form of music, but you have to admit that lovers of that style think it should be done a certain way.  Whether it's rock or classical.

Who's Your Audience?

All of this angst and fuss obscures the main point, however.  Corporate worship isn't about us, or what we prefer, or whether we should defer to somebody else's musical tastes.  It's not about compromise, blending, or even the winning-out of one music style over another.  It's not even about drum sets, pipe organs, choirs, amplifiers, electric keyboards, guitars, hymnbooks, or PowerPoint slides.

Corporate worship is about the adoration of our creator God.  He is the object and audience of corporate worship, not us.

So what does He want from us when we gather to honor Him through corporate worship?

Please allow me to point out a couple of passages from scripture that the pastor of the church I attend included in his sermon this past Sunday:

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."  - 1 Peter 1:9 ESV

We are to proclaim the "excellencies" of God, since we are His possession.  We have been bought with a price, and that price is Christ.  He is excellent.  He has excellencies.  What does that mean to you?  It means we don't dawdle with trivialities and the ordinary.

How do we extrapolate these truths to our personal lives, and to our corporate worship opportunities?  One way is to consider how God is excellent in all things, and how we can model that excellence back to Him.  Not to prove that we're worthy of His love, or to somehow try and repay Him with some big show, whether it's the most stupendous rock concert imaginable, or the most spectacular oratorios by choirs, orchestra, and pipe organ.  Instead, we're to authentically honor God for Who He is and what He has done for us.

"Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe."  - Hebrews 12:28 ESV

When considering the genre of rock and roll music, two words that definitely don't fit are "reverence" and "awe."  If you disagree, then please forgive me, but you don't understand rock music, or Psalm 29:2, or Psalm 96:8-9.  Society tells us that simply because we like something, it can have validity to us.  But that's not necessarily a correct assumption in and of itself.  Plenty of things we like are not good for us.

Certain songs within the rock/contemporary genre may have a limited, frivolous place in our everyday lives, since not every song with a strong beat or musician with a fondness for drums is beyond redemption (the same goes for choir members and organists, by the way!).  Like any genre, rock and roll has some songs that are artistically better than others.  Yet generally, if we're talking about "excellencies," "reverence," and "awe," I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying rock and roll is an inferior music style for the purpose of corporate worship.

Relevant to Whom?

So does that mean all contemporary music should be banned from church?  Of course not.  It depends on how we define "contemporary."  You might be surprised to learn that a number of gifted musicians live among us today, creating good music ideal for worshipping our holy God.  They're contemporary because they're part of our generation, but the music they're crafting incorporates time-tested, artistically venerable, and - dare it be said? - traditional tunes and texts which focus on our Audience.  Thus, it is entirely possible to "blend" ancient hymns of the faith with these new songs in a seamless offering of praise during a well-structured corporate worship service.

After all, it would be unBiblical of anybody to tell today's songwriters and lyricists that they have nothing more to contribute to the world's portfolio of legitimate church music.  God gifts His people in every generation with the ability to sing, write, and play His praises.  But just like with preaching, which must never deviate from the truth of the Gospel, music must adhere to that which God tells us He wants.

Inevitably, the fact that God's people live in many different and distinct sociopolitical and geographic areas will be raised as proof that western classical music is patently inappropriate as the de-facto, universal corporate worship style.  And it's true:  in terms of historical worship, the classical genre as we commonly think of it has only existed for several centuries.

However, consider the fact that everything from ancient chants to spirituals to modern hymnody comprise the "classical" lexicon, while what we call "contemporary" worship is pretty much stuck with rock music.  Consider, too, the fact that classical music is appreciated and studied the world over, while rock music is pretty much a white, suburban, American concoction.  How relevant is rock music compared with classical music on the world stage?  Sure, tribal believers in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea don't have pipe organs, grand pianos, or chamber music, but what legitimacy does rock music have in those cultures?  How valid is it to enshrine cultural relevance as a determining factor for how people groups should worship, anyway?  All cultures are corrupt to some degree.  No culture - not even ours in North America - has any special dispensation that lets it worship God in any old way it wants.  These scripture passages talking about excellencies, reverence, awe, and holiness are for all of God's people.  Not just us American evangelicals.  And not excluding people groups who don't even have electricity.

To the extent that corporate worship will look and sound a bit different depending on the language, local customs, political liberty, educational attainment, and wealth of God's people as they live for Him around the world, speaking exclusively of the conventional classical aesthetic will not always be the most appropriate.  But how can that reality excuse worship that is raucous, dissonant, and self-serving, like rock music is?

How you answer that question will say a lot about how much you really know about rock music.  And whether you believe God is the audience of your worship.

Why do you worship Him?  Why do you want to worship Him the way you do?

How open are you to moving closer to what He expects from all of us in corporate worship?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Now Chelsea Wants Meaning In Life

We knew she was a liberal.

We knew she was privileged, poised, and smart.

But we didn't know she could be such an airhead.

Of all the things Bill and Hillary Clinton have done wrong in their public lives, I've always considered their only child, Chelsea, to be one of their genuine accomplishments.  Demure yet competent, the Clinton Daughter hasn't seemed to have let her high-profile upbringing turn her into a spoiled brat.

She went to college and got a job on Wall Street - thanks in no small part to her family's golden connections in academia and finance, of course - but even when she left her immensely lucrative job at a $12.5 billion hedge fund to pursue higher education in the fuzzy realms of public health and international relations, it was easy to assume she still had her head screwed on straight.

At least, for a liberal.

Turns out, Chelsea may truly have no clue about real life.  Sure, thanks to being a president's daughter, she's seen suffering on a global scale, but the more we learn about why she walked away from Wall Street, the more disingenuous her ambitions become.  It's not even like she's truly walked away from Wall Street.  Her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, is still a hedge fund power broker, virtually guaranteeing his wife a lifestyle that will spare her the indignities of the poverty and lack of opportunity she laments for others.

"Intellectually, I loved my job," quotes Chelsea as reminiscing about her few short years on The Street, "but I didn’t get any meaning from it."  Ostensibly, she's starting to find some meaning while sitting on the boards of the School of the American Ballet and Weill Cornell Medical College, and IAC/Interactive Corp, a website development company.

Oh, and she's also a special correspondent for the NBC television network, in addition to playing an integral role in her family's international policy think tank, the Clinton Global Initiative.

She must be getting blinded by all of the silver platters being handed to her.  Sure, there's a lot more to life than money, but it's a lot easier to say that when you've already got piles of the stuff.

Not that I'm particularly jealous of her, however.  True, I wouldn't mind that NBC gig, but I'm no fan of ballet, and whatever her qualifications for sitting on a prestigious medical school's board of directors, mine are even less.  A friend of mine used to work for, one of IAC's brands, and he raved about their corporate culture.  But he also told me about the time he saw some graphic designers augmenting the digitized chest of one of's female subscribers, and I don't think I could work for a company like that.

What strikes me about Mrs. Mezvinsky's purported altruism isn't what she's supposedly giving up to pursue global humanitarian work.  She's already got the power, influence, celebrity, and wealth necessary to pretty much chart whatever course she chooses in her life.  Instead, it's her apparent blindness to the contrivance of her new course.

For example, Chelsea defends her relatively short tenure in the finance world by claiming she "wanted to understand how people thought about money who were in the business of making money."  Apparently, she didn't realize she was answering her own question in that sentence.

Money indeed opens a lot of doors on our planet.  She should have already learned that from her parents, who perpetuate a facade of humble civic-mindedness but lead lifestyles of extravagance behind the photo-ops in Haiti.  Neither of them have really "earned" their wealth by producing tangible commodities like many other wealthy Americans have; they've parlayed their connections and personalities all the way into the lofty income tax brackets from which they now rule their charitable subjects.

It's one thing for people like the Clintons - and Chelsea, now, in particular - to claim that making money is a lot less fulfilling than getting other people to donate their own money to the Clinton family's pet projects.

It's another thing entirely to find oneself not on the theoretical sideline of humanity's struggles, but down in the trenches without the type of financial safety nets Chelsea and her parents enjoy.

When wealthy liberals wonder why conservatives distrust them, people like Chelsea provide an answer.  Sanctimony doesn't necessarily pay our bills.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fair Share for the Unemployed Rich?

Congress has known about it for a while.

But it's just now hitting the presses.

Apparently, in 2009, about 2,400 people in households worth more than $1 million collected unemployment, at a cost of approximately $21 million dollars.  Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, has sponsored legislation to make these people ineligible for unemployment, but it's stalled in Congress.

Some websites are spinning the news as "2,400 millionaires," although it can't be proven that each one of those people are individually worth at least $1 million.  For example, they may be married to somebody worth that amount of money.  Suffice it to say that there are many people who collect unemployment who likely are already in a far more favorable economic position than the majority of unemployed Americans of lesser means.

You Know Times are Bad When Folks Get Greedy Over Unemployment

Indeed, dwelling on the 2,400 "millionaires" obscures the greater economic potency of still-comfortable claimants of unemployment benefits who live in households earning $100,000 to $500,000.  These "almost-millionaires" are costing unemployment programs nearly $8 billion a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.  If unemployment is supposed to help tide a family over until gainful employment can be re-established, does a family with someone still earning $100,000 a year need those relatively paltry unemployment funds as much as a family with somebody earning $50,000, or even less?

Remember that unemployment insurance is something that is paid for by a person's employer, through taxes on their payroll from the state in which the employee is working, and payroll taxes from the federal government.  Generally speaking, the United States Department of Labor administers the rules for unemployment programs, while individual states administer the payments.  This means that unemployment insurance isn't something for which the employee personally pays out of their salary.  Instead, it's another real cost, along with salary and any other benefits, that each employee represents for their employer.

Unemployment is intended to help maintain a certain semblance of stability in the event workers need to be terminated through no fault of their own.  It gives employers additional flexibility when it comes to their need to adjust staffing levels downward, yet the financial benefits to the unemployed aren't good enough to encourage long-term joblessness.  Unemployment checks are a fraction of a person's former take-home pay, they're taxable as income, and there are rules by which recipients must abide while they receive the benefit.

So for the right-wingers whose knee-jerk reaction to anything unemployment-related is to eliminate such a wasteful and apparently easily-abused entitlement program: don't get your knickers in a twist.  Nobody's getting rich off of their unemployment benefits.  Not even the people living in million-dollar-earning households.

After all, they're just getting what they're entitled.  At least, that's what some people say.  Their employers paid into the system for them, the same way they pay in for lowly clerks, so what's the fuss?  They're entitled.  It's not like any family, regardless of income, should be automatically expected to suffer through a loss of income after having established a certain lifestyle based on that income.  Rich people have bills to pay, same as poor people.  Only rich peoples' bills are generally considerably higher.

Is Altruism Too Expensive for the Unemployed Rich?

It would be nice if people who really didn't need unemployment benefits simply refused to claim them, even if they had every legal right to them.  With unemployment being what it is, there's not a lot of slush in the fund into which employers continue to pay, since the number of employees for which they're paying continues to dwindle.  Uncle Sam can step in and make up the difference if it has to, but it will just turn around and bill the states, which in turn will hike the rates they expect employers to pay.  Which may force even more employers to think extra hard about how many employees they can afford.  Which could lead to more layoffs, or at least forcing companies to freeze their hiring of new employees.

Like many things in government and business, unemployment taxes can be a vicious cycle.

The best solution to this problem - and yes, having people who should be able to afford to forgo unemployment benefits selfishly taking them anyway is a problem - is to plug the holes in our economic and political systems that are causing employers to hemorrhage jobs in the first place.

Until that happens, however, perhaps it would help to see some of the reality being exposed by the comparatively wealthy among us who still want more.

Some right-wingers prefer to assume that high-income people - and yes, salaries greater than $100,000 is legitimate high-income territory - naturally seek society's best interests by using money in ways that, while benefiting them personally, eventually raise all boats.  Unemployment, however, doesn't represent enough money to be a significant boost to the economy.  At least, not in comparison with the job or two that might be eliminated or deferred when an employer has to pay more in unemployment premiums and holds off on hiring.

Selfishness such as people in families earning more than $100,000 filing for unemployment insurance just because they can won't contribute much to our collective society.  If you're expecting people at the lower end of the economic ladder to make sacrifices for the good of our country, what makes you think the example you're setting serves as any enticement for altruism?  If you're out for all you can get, why do you blame people poorer than you for trying to get all they can?

"To whom much is given, much is required."

In the long run, couldn't the rich benefit from taking the high road when it comes to how they treat their own entitlements?