Thursday, February 28, 2013

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities & Home - Part 3

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities, and Home
Part Three

For Part One, please click here
For Part Two, please click here

Big cities can be fun.

But we've established that, if fun were all that was required to jump-start a sustainable evangelism ministry to America's inner cities, we evangelicals would already be there.

Let's face it:  just parts of big cities are fun.  And those are the parts where clusters of restaurants, bars, and lofts have been carved out of urban decay and rebranded as hip, fashionable outposts in a sea of abandoned buildings, empty lots, Section 8 housing, cheap liquor stores, and tiny mini-marts with "Lotto!" posters covering their windows.

It's one thing for empty-nester and single believers to drive through these decrepit neighborhoods on their way to work, or some other gentrified outpost nearby, or when taking a quick break to catch a breath of sanity back in the suburbs or the country.  The neglected, forgotten, and marginalized are simply there.  We don't have to interact with them, unless we lock eyes with one of them panhandling during red lights.

For evangelical parents with kids, however, it's a much different ballgame.

"What are they doing over there, mommy?"

"Why can't we stop and buy some of whatever they're selling?"

"Was that a gunshot?  Why is everybody just sitting on those stoops?  Don't these people have jobs?  Why is there trash everywhere?  How come you tell us not to wave at those people?"

Actually, some of these are questions we adults ask ourselves subconsciously, but just as we struggle with the answers privately, it's even more difficult explaining to children the way things are for many urban Americans.

It's a valid concern:  Our own children; the little people we're supposed to protect and nurture.  At what age should they be told that some people are simply lazy, or hooked on narcotics, or illiterate, or criminals, or from gravely dysfunctional families, or pawns in a broader political scheme to defraud their humanity because of their skin color and the vote they can be expected to cast?

Back in suburbia, parents have a bit more control over how and when they can have these types of conversations with their kids, although even then, the results of those conversations might simply perpetuate the same bad stereotypes that have helped drive such deep wedges between the haves and have-nots in our country.  But to see the conditions that precipitate these difficult questions on a daily basis - and even at the end of your block?  We Americans have been trained to think that this is not a healthy environment for raising well-balanced kids.

Except... how else are kids going to get a well-balanced view of their America unless we have this dialog?  Unless kids see "how the other half lives?"  Unless kids see how their parents are reaching out in love for God and trusting in His sovereignty, and His protection for their family?

Of course, one reason why I don't hold as much fear about exposing white, middle-class kids to urban poverty is because - duh! - I don't have any kids!  But another reason likely involves the fact that when my parents would drive our family from placid, tranquil Upstate New York down into raucous, gritty, graffiti-covered Brooklyn, and my brother and I asked these types of questions about the conditions we were seeing outside our car's windows, my parents answered us back.

Carefully, and maybe not as compassionately as a social worker, but purposefully, and in a manner so we could understand that life is more complex than it seems from within our white, middle class family, living up in the country.  I've said before that it's to my parents' credit that I didn't harbor any racism against black people until we moved here to Texas, when I was entering junior high school, and I kept hearing other kids saying derogatory things about blacks.  Back in our little village on the north shore of Oneida Lake, there was only one black family in town, and they lived in one of the nicer, bigger homes.  When I heard racist language down here in my Texas school, I thought kids were jealous of how wealthy black people must be.  Wealth was literally my preconceived notion about black people!

Naivete can be so ironic.

Speaking of racism, it's not even like all old cities are created equal.  When we talk about urban America, some urban cores are far worse than others.  Take Detroit's, for example.  The city has lost almost half its population in the past few decades, and is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.  It is such a corrupt and inefficient municipality led by such an incompetent city hall, most of America has written it off for dead.  Scrap.

Sadly, America has plenty of really bad cities.  And while crime rates are high in Detroit, they're higher elsewhere.  But considering how just about every aspect of survival is in such imminent peril in the Motor City, Detroit is probably America's biggest and most graphic urban failure.

And despite some well-meaning efforts at projects like urban gardening, historic preservation, and cultural incubators, it really probably is dead in its roots.  Moreso than probably any northern city, racism and bigotry have corrupted the city's history almost since its inception.  Corruption has likely been just as rampant throughout its history.  In a way, some of Detroit's current problems were inevitable, considering how viciously its residents have despised each other over the generations.

Meanwhile, the automotive industry's own slow, steady slide into decrepitude cost the city tens of thousands of jobs, left behind gaping factories impossibly suited for being retrofitted for modern industrial uses, and created vast stretches of brownfields - environmentally-hazardous sites - that would be too costly to redevelop unless the land could suddenly command ridiculously steep Manhattan prices.  

That's not to say that Detroit is an entirely lost cause - there are still over 700,000 people living in that shell of a city, which is still a sizable number of souls.  But it illustrates the severe end of the scale at which urban challenges require almost impossible strategies.  Perhaps it's small comfort for the rest of urban America that not all cities are as confounding as Detroit, or even that social revitalization and economic reclamation are imperative planks to the urban mission field's platform.  After all, the Gospel of Christ doesn't need economic triggers, does it?  Even if it may take a lot of money to plant the seeds.

The point is that between New York City at the top, and, yes, Detroit at the bottom, America has many other urban centers in various stages of social, political, economic, and moral decay and abandonment.  Places like Buffalo, Utica, and Syracuse, New York.  Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown, Ohio.  Oakland, California.  Memphis, Tennessee.  Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Even some of America's older, aging suburbs, like where I live.  Wherever you can spot suburban sprawl on a map, you'll find a city core somewhere in the middle.  And chances are, that city core is a place where people like you and me would rather not live.  A place with too many disenfranchised people who don't look like us, act like us, or vote like us.

Or worship like us.

Actually, if that's not an accurate description of a mission field, what is?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities & Home - Part 2

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities, and Home
Part Two  - For Part One, please click here

Big cities can be fun.

Not just as places to visit, but to live.  Indeed, a lot of young singles and older empty nesters are discovering just how fun city life can be as they re-populate the downtowns of America's great urban centers.  Places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and even Dallas that were written off - not too long ago - as being irrelevant wastelands of socioeconomic decay, but have been revived into trendy residential and entertainment districts.  Places that have improved so much, people no longer look at you like you're crazy if you tell them you're thinking of moving there yourself.

Yet, how much gets accomplished if, when suburbanites move back to the cities, they resettle into the same types of cloistered lifestyles similar to how they lived back in the 'burbs?  It's one thing to move back downtown with altruistic visions of urban pioneering, and quite another to simply red-line your life once you get there, like banks did to racially-integrated neighborhoods in the 1960's and 70's.  America's creative class has led the charge in rediscovering our cities, and evangelicals who enjoy an edge to their worldview may dig the decrepit warehouse districts that have been repurposed for postmodern existentialism, but how much does the need to satiate our "fun principle" actually re-segregate new urbanists from the urbanists who've been there all this time, only aren't rich enough for the fancy new appellations?

So far, all our new urban pioneers have done is colonize some of our more liberal cities into hip grunge playrooms for bacchanalia and assorted, sordid types of disestablishmentarian lifestyles that mimic our now-vintage sexual revolution.  Without getting vulgar, let's just say that the types of sexual experimentation taking place among many new urban colonists represent behaviors we evangelicals have spent more than a century sending missionaries overseas to convert.  Disenfranchised urban Americans may be the most obvious mission field in this endeavor, but frankly, it's probably a toss-up between them and the creative classes who've beaten us to the urban frontier.  

It's not even like the secular re-urbanization that has started taking place is really changing the world for the better.  Knocking back a few hand-crafted beers in eclectic brewhouses, scarfing down overpriced hamburgers in a retro diner, dancing the night away in former factories with acoustics similar to a steel drum, and paying dearly for coffee so murky and bitter its flavor is nonexistent certainly help a city's tax base.  But how does developing a whole new urban culture around rock music sung by any untrained waifs who can put together an "indie" band for an audience - who've just arrived from a tattoo parlor down the block - create a wholesome, family-friendly, community-enriching environment?

Especially the type of environment towards which people who truly want to minister God's grace and Lordship salvation could be drawn?

Again, remember:  if it were easy and fun to develop an evangelical reawakening in urban America, evangelicals would already be flocking downtown.

Right now, the type of fun most evangelicals expect to have in the inner city is really more of a voyeuristic dabbling into the bar-hopping, dance-party, overpriced-dining-excursion peccadilloes that keep us socializing with unsaved people, yes, but do nothing in terms of reaching out to the marginalized of the inner city.

Those folks are still living in squalid apartments beyond the valet-only parking lots, the neon outlines of remodeled vintage brick walk-ups, and the lofts carved out of burly former industrial buildings.  They're the people for whom conventional gentrification is little more than a bunch of rich blacks, over-educated Asians, and snooty whites driving up housing prices so they can play urban homesteader.

There's more to re-evangelizing urban America than letting one's hair down and checking out the party vibe in a few reclaimed blocks of a city's forgotten core.  There's even more than swooping into soup kitchens to help out for an evening, and then returning to our enclaves of social desirability.  In-and-out ministry doesn't work with anybody in suburbia, and it won't work with anybody in urban America, either.

It takes an investment of the brain, and of the heart.  And it also takes that "R" word that we evangelicals like to toss around, but only embrace when there really isn't any:  "risk."

For Part 3, please click here

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Twenty Years Later, I Can Still Hear It

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

I can still remember it.

Suddenly, a shudder, and a muffled explosion jolted our office on the 25th floor.

Twenty years ago this morning.

My desk faced north, and it was as if a sonic boom had rolled our building backwards, and then forwards. Just for the briefest of moments.  I can still hear it.  In a city full of noise and distraction, this was utterly unique.

Our office's lights went out.  Down the hall, cables clanged in the elevator shafts, like somebody was trying to ring old church bells in a steeple.  Computers went dead.

It all happened so fast, we didn’t have time to be scared. Our desktops clicked and beeped back to life, florescent ceiling lights flickered back on, fax machines that had been in mid-transmission began squawking error messages, and alarm bells from the elevators started ringing.

And of course, a chorus of muttered expletives erupted from co-workers who, like me, did not welcome this disconcerting setback. It was lunchtime. It was also Friday, invoice day, and billables needed to go out the door. Crashed computers and jammed fax machines were even less tolerated than on a normal day.

As we rebooted our computers and somebody reset the fax machines, we wondered aloud at what had happened. Did something blow up in our building, a 30-story pre-war tower perched along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan? Maybe there was a massive wreck at the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which snaked by the entrance to our building? Nah, it was probably stupid Con-Ed’s fault, New York’s problem-prone power provider; one of their steam pipes probably blew.

And being New York City, where one worries little about what you can’t see, and even less about why it might be important, we went back to work. As I’ve said before, New York life is lived in inches. Your power's coming back on? Then get a move on!

So we were only marginally curious when the office manager in the next-door law firm came over, and invited us to come take a look out their north-facing windows.

“All this black smoke is coming out of the Trade Center garage,” she informed us.

Located four blocks south of the World Trade Center (WTC), our office building's north face gazed up West Street, straight towards the Twin Towers.

Sure enough, from the law firm's office, looking due north as the street below us curved slightly, we saw thick, sooty smoke billowing out of the entrance to the Trade Center's parking garage. Not just puffs of gray, but heavy, charcoal-colored plumes.

And true to the New Yorkness of the moment, cars continued to plow through the smoke as it blew across West Street. Pedestrians still plied the sidewalks and crosswalks, more concerned about dodging traffic than the smoke which must have been making their eyes water. We could hear sirens, though, and within moments, a couple of police cars rolled up the street.

They were the first of what we'd later learn would be a massive turnout of first responders to the first terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Lunch Brake

With a brownout imposed by Con-Ed across the Financial District taking away our computers, my co-workers and I decided to take an early lunch.  Maybe full power would be back in an hour or so.  Since it was a bitter, snowy day, they ordered lunch from a greasy diner down the block and had it delivered, but I wanted to see what was going on at the WTC.  I strolled up to the two-story Burger King on Liberty Street, across from the WTC, which is still in business.  Eerily enough, this same Burger King where I had lunch twenty years ago today would narrowly miss being destroyed on 9/11.  The police turned its ashen dining rooms into their temporary command post on that fateful day.

Liberty Street's Burger King after 9/11
Although the streets outside were choked with emergency vehicles by the time I arrived for lunch, everything seemed normal inside the Burger King, until after I started to eat.  I looked around the dining room, and at the next table, I noticed several young women huddled over hot teas and coffees. They had no coats on this frigid day, and their blouses were dingy gray. Their hair had fine soot on it, and their faces looked like they had been hastily washed, maybe in the Burger King's bathroom?

Turns out, they had been evacuated from one of the towers, with not even enough time to go and get their coats from a nearby closet. They had broken into a sweat while trudging down what seemed like miles of emergency stairs, they had frozen when hustling across the open plaza at the base of the towers, and they were coughing from all of the soot they’d inhaled both inside and outside the buildings.

Something really bad was taking place right across the street!

After lunch, and wishing the Damsels in Distress success in finding a way back to their homes in New Jersey, I still had some time before trying back at the office to see if our computers were working again.  I walked down to the Bankers Trust tower, a black steel skyscraper that, having been rechristened the Deutsche Bank building by 9/11, was irreparably damaged during the second attack on the WTC.

On this February afternoon, throngs of people had gathered on an outdoor mezzanine along that charmless bank headquarters, looking quietly to the Trade Center, their chilled faces marked by bewilderment and pensiveness.

I turned to follow their gaze.

Snow, Smoke, and Soot

And there I saw them. 

Long, shuffling lines of gray and black, some people wearing coats, others coatless, but all covered to varying degrees in soot. Coughing, but otherwise silent, without expression or vigor.

These were the evacuees from the Twin Towers, thousands of them. About 50,000 people worked in or visited the WTC daily. Take the entire population of Biloxi, or Ames, or Sheboygan, and funnel them out of two 110-story towers, four shorter buildings, and a shopping mall, one by one. And you have the miserable, sooty lines of evacuees that February Friday.

I was taken aback. Talking to the Damsels in Distress at Burger King, it hadn’t occurred to me that a massive evacuation was taking place at the WTC.  I still didn't realize that both towers had become two giant smokestacks.  Later, we would learn that police helicopters plucked over 100 people from the tower roofs that day, including a pregnant woman who gave birth soon after being rescued.

Evacuation can be a great equalizer. At least from skyscrapers. When you’re emptying such enormous buildings, executives, managers, secretaries, clerks, and custodians suddenly become one human mass facing the same predicament. There isn’t one emergency stairwell for million-dollar CEOs, and another one for hourly employees. It’s sheer physical fitness, not your job title, that spells the difference between getting out with enough energy to make it home, or just getting out.

Indeed, all ages, body types, and physical conditions were represented in the grim, sooty lines of WTC tenants shuffling out of the towers. Some were walking arm-in-arm for mutual support, some were almost being carried by others.

None were talking; many were coughing.

I vividly remember one tall woman with what we Texans call "big hair" that was dusted with soot. She was wearing a plush, knee-length mink coat – obviously having taken the time to retrieve her valuable fur before vacating her office – and still had on her high heels. After all, even in an emergency, some New Yorkers wouldn’t dare forgo their fashion sense. She walked towards me, patting the sleeves of her thick mink, and each time she did, soot puffed out of her coat.

Undaunted, or perhaps simply resigned to reality, she strode past me and into the throngs of people milling about emergency vehicles, on into the bizarre afternoon.

Try Again?

Part of the bomb crater in the WTC parking garage in 1993
By the end of that weekend, we would learn it wasn’t Con-Ed’s fault at all. Instead, Muslim terrorists had rented a yellow Ryder truck in New Jersey, loaded it with explosives, and detonated it in the WTC’s underground parking garage.

Apparently, their plan was to topple Tower One with their bomb, and that as it fell, Tower One would destroy Tower Two.

I remember our office staff laughing out loud when we heard on the radio days later that the FBI had closed the case. A couple of the terrorists, upon learning that their plan hadn't worked, reported the Ryder truck stolen, and went back to Ryder to claim their deposit, where the FBI was waiting for them. With idiots like that trying to blow up New York landmarks, we quickly assumed that while the city might be plagued with other crises in the future, we had little else to fear for the Twin Towers.

In fact, after the WTC was cleaned, repaired, remodeled, and reopened, I was standing in line in the lobby of Tower Two, waiting to get a photo identification badge that would give me open access to the complex, since I often ran errands for the company there. I remember chatting with a couple of other guys in line, also waiting for their badges, and we got to joking about the foiled destruction of the very building we were in.

Like typical civilians who mock government bureaucracy, we saw the I.D. procurement process as useless red tape meant to pacify building tenants who might be leery about moving back into the towers. Just another hoop to jump through; just a veneer of security to try and show that the Port Authority is serious about protecting their trophy property.

After all, nobody would be insane enough to attempt the destruction of the Twin Towers ever again!

I so wish we were right.

(Condensed from four essays I'd previously written in memory of the six people who were killed on that tragic day.)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities & Home - Part 1

Suckers or Succor? Saints, Cities, and Home
Part One

Big cities can be fun.

And fun is what the Great American Evangelical Experience is supposed to be about, right?  Sunday worship is supposed to be fun.  Our interpersonal relationships are supposed to be fun.  Kids are supposed to have fun as they learn.  Eating out, going to the movies, watching and playing sports, and life in general are all supposed to be fun.

Fun, fun, fun.

Even the stuff in life that isn't fun we're supposed to have fun complaining about.  Rush hour traffic?  Post fun jokes and photos on the Internet (while you're supposed to be driving).  Taxes?  Sensationalize how high they are, even as, ironically, you should be at least partially thankful you have a job and a salary in that tax bracket.

Actually, spending enough time trying to have fun in modern America can be stressful.  So, many evangelical families try to capture fun with fun-filled vacations to places like amusement parks, beaches, or big American cities like Chicago, or Dallas, or New York.

Sometimes, even on a weeknight or a weekend, suburban evangelicals will slip into the closest big city to catch just enough of the urban vibe, but only in fun doses, so it doesn't turn into the drudgery of a midnight traffic jam or the terror of a side-street mugging.

After all, cities are supposed to be fun.  That's why we don't want to live in them!

Indeed, urban living can be costly, frustrating, nerve-racking, loud, annoying, dirty, bureaucratic, smelly, and generally, not fun at all.  Plus, true urban life is rife with poor people and unpleasant encounters with gritty street personalities.  The trick, or so we've been told, is to expose ourselves to just the right mixture of "fun" and "city," and not get stuck doing anything in town that we can't get a good laugh over later.

Taking Seriously Taking Ministry Back to the Cities

In the latest print issue of World Magazine, their headline, "The New Urban Frontier," invites us to adopt a spirit of adventure as we consider how God may be able to use us people of faith in some of the most neglected parts of our country:  America's gaping inner cities.  And describing these rough and disenfranchised neighborhoods as "frontiers" likely represents some intentionally savvy marketing on World's part.  Evoking a quintessential American aptitude helps sell our need to tackle the challenges awaiting communities from which our parents fled a generation or two ago.

Hey, let's face it:  if leaving the comforts and security of suburbia and exurbia for urban core living was really fun, we evangelicals would already be doing it.  Faith is supposed to be fun, right?  And for some, moving to big-city Manhattan, Brooklyn, or San Francisco may genuinely be fun - at least, for a while.  More than likely, however, even for the hardiest new urbanist, inner city living is an adventure in both the positive and negative aspects of the term.

Back in the heady days of our country's westward expansion, when people of all sorts were fleeing congested, squalid cities for the prospect of land and clean-slate opportunity, being a pioneer on the frontier held a lot more promise than returning to the "old country" from which America's newest residents had recently sailed.  In a way, encouraging evangelical Americans to move back to the old cities is like, 150 years ago, asking America's frontiersmen to return to their native Ireland, Italy, or Greece.

"You've got to be kidding me!  You want me to go back?"

After the First World War, a popular song asked, "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paris?"  In other words, how did America's farming communities, the backbone of a robust and family-centric industry at the time, hope to retain their farm boys when they returned home from fighting in Europe, with its grand and sophisticated cities?  These days, if anybody were to write a song about our predicament, it would probably go something like, "how ya gonna get 'em out of their cul-de-sacs, after they've seen the inner city?"

Downtowns may make for a fun evening or holiday, but they're too burdened with corruption, broken infrastructure, poverty, crime, unsafe schools, and minorities - and liberals! - to serve as legitimate places to raise a respectable family.

Moving Away From Problems Doesn't Solve Them

Most evangelicals are white and middle-to-upper-class, and to our way of thinking, the best way to solve community problems is to simply move to a new subdivision.  Further outside of town.  Urban living may be OK for singles and empty nesters, since they don't have to worry about the school system.  But for us, when the houses around us start looking a bit shabby, or when too many non-white people start moving in, that's the time when we start looking to leave.  Sure, yeah; we move so the bigger house can accommodate our growing family, but also to put us in a better neighborhood where we can hope to be surrounded by people like us.  Where the schools are immaculate, the English language predominates, and the local grocery stores are new and offer an in-house Starbucks.

Actually, this is the same mentality that helped destroy the inner city by giving rise to suburbs in the first place - and now, the exurbs.  Except that, these days, we're more politically correct about it.  While most suburbanization was created by white flight, which was little more than racism in disguise, and today's demographic shift from urban centers still involves people leaving established and rapidly-aging suburbs for exurbs, it's not just white people on the move these days.  Now, there are upwardly-mobile blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in the mix, marching outwards towards the exurbs in what I call "ecru flight."

If there's anything good about this newest twist, it's that the impetus for exurbanization isn't about the color of one's skin as much as it is a desire to congregate with one's socioeconomic soulmates.  In other words, as long as you can afford the McMansion perched on a newly de-forested sliver of land, we can work out the racial differences after we see how well your kids are doing in school and whether you can keep current on your mortgage.

Meanwhile, the people who either didn't have the political or financial means to "escape" the problems inherent in aging and increasingly irrelevant urban cores stayed behind.  Now, we have a highly-stratified country, proof of which emerged profoundly in November.

And you thought this past election was all about abortion and gay marriage?

Suckers For America's Subdivision Contractors or Succors of Christ?

In a way, we suburban evangelicals have been suckers.  We've bought-in to the illusion of the good life outside of the city's walls, where the grass is green, our kids can play safely in the streets, and the air is clean.  We've been told we owe it to our families - and ourselves - to buy the biggest homes we can possibly afford so that we can provide an appropriately spacious environment in which we can flourish.  We've come to look upon the people languishing in the inner city as hapless victims of their own politically liberal foolishness.  And we insist that giving up all that we enjoy in our more prosperous suburbs to go slog it out in the urban core is unfair to ourselves and anathema to our country's credo of self-sufficiency and personal attainment.

But might we be wrong?  Might we be the suckers; the ones who have bought into the lie about greed and hoarding being not only personally rewarding, but beneficial for our country?

Rediscovering Christ's love for urban America's disenfranchised is not a new objective for evangelical ministries.  For more than a decade, churches across the country have been encouraged by Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City to become more intentional in their inner-city outreach.  And World Magazine is not the first evangelical periodical to feature city-centric reporting.  It's become obvious to more and more Christian strategists that America's current model of suburban and exurban expansion is not sustainable economically, socially, environmentally, politically, and morally.  Suburban sprawl is one thing, but social sprawl is quite another.  And to the extent that suburbanization and exurbanization represent America's attempts at running away from problems, we evangelicals - who alone have the One Answer to all problems - need to shift our own thinking on these issues.

This is not a rant against wealth and money, since it will take considerable amounts of both to re-evangelize America's inner cities.  However, we may need to re-think why God gives us the wealth He does, and what He expects us to use it for.  Here's a hint:  we're probably "entitled" to far less than we assume.  And, alas, speaking of entitlements, a lot of our re-thinking will involve the amount of leisure and fun to which we consider ourselves entitled in this life.  Or, at least, those things we think are "fun."

Indeed, there are real reasons why evangelicals are not already flocking with their families to America's urban cores, eager to undertake a discipleship lifestyle on our country's newest frontier.  These aging, socially complex, dilapidated, and often politically-corrupt communities hold some attraction when they're located in "fun" places like New York and Los Angeles, but America's newest frontier - the urban core - can be found almost precisely in the dead center of every swath of suburban sprawl dotting the nation from coast to coast.  Redeemer Presbyterian has been able to generate some discipleship excitement in the Big Apple, but as tough a sell as that has been, it's even tougher in places like Utica, New York, East St. Louis, Illinois, and Oakland, California.

Maybe you want to ignore the question, but it's being answered right now, whether you want to realize it or not:  are we suckers, or succors?  Are we going to continue running from our urban problems, or is there enough pioneer spirit left in us American evangelicals to minister Christ's love to our "old country" - the inner city?

For Part 2, please click here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tebow and Jeffress Have Dropped the Ball

Some trust in chariots and horses.

Some also trust in preachers and sports celebrities.

I don't trust in any of them.  After all, even though we know preachers and sports celebrities can't save us from our sins, we still trust them to save us from less fulfilled lives.  I've come to the conclusion that if hero worship isn't wrong, it's at least woefully unproductive.

As you might imagine, some evangelicals jeer when I bluntly say I have no heroes.

"Oh, sure you do!" they retort.  "What about Elizabeth Elliott or Nate Saint?  What about Amy Carmichael or Billy Graham or William Wilberforce?"


The idea that we all need mortal heroes to model our lives after seems such an intrinsic part of our human nature, it confounds people when I flatly denounce the idea.

"What about the 'Heroes of the Faith' extolled by the writer of the book of Hebrews?" friends of mine will persist.  But we forget that this chapter is about faith, not heroes.  It's been scholars, preachers, and Sunday School teachers who've lumped all of those famous Biblical characters into the category of "hero."  Meanwhile, the author of Hebrews was pointing out how they trusted in God, and how God used them despite their deficiencies, hence all of the "by faith" clarifications.  Read Hebrews 11 carefully, and you'll see that while their actions may have been what we'd consider to be heroic, their examples are to point us to God.

Can you see Moses, or David, or even Rahab going on the lecture circuit today, giving seminars on faith and raising funds for their personal ministries and charities?  These were flawed, sinful, and even sometimes extraordinarily corrupt people whom God plucked out of the times and places in which they were living for His use.  Not their glory.

And can't the same be said for people like Jim and Elizabeth Elliott, and even William Wilberforce?  They're famous today because of what they allowed God to do through them, and while Mrs. Elliott may have made a career out of lectures, speeches, and books, it's entirely possible that she viewed the adulation that followed her around the world more as a casualty of her ministry than a benefit of it.

I think most solid, Christ-centered believers who happen to be famous view whatever celebrity status they have in our Christian culture in the same light.  Maybe it's just my cynicism at work, but it seems to me that the people who most actively court attention are the ones who probably are the ones who shouldn't be.

Apparently, "Risk" Isn't Really Part of Tebow's Vocabulary

So to hear this morning that Jets football sensation Tim Tebow has cancelled an upcoming appearance at First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas neither surprises me, or even disappoints me.  According to First Baptist's pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, Tebow called him and explained that since his role at the New York Jets is up in the air right now, "for personal and professional reasons," he can't afford to add any more bad media exposure to his resume than what he's already been dealing with.

And yes, the media had been loudly criticizing the NFL star for even being willing to make a personal appearance at what some consider - in the ironic twist that is left-wing "hate" speech - a hate-mongering church.

Tebow's already been excoriated in New York's media cauldron for all sorts of deficiencies on the field.  His Jets coaches barely hide their disdain of him, and his years of sometimes silly Christian grandstanding plays crudely in the nation's largest and most caustic sports town.  Our national press loves Tebow because of his studly good looks and his gushing fan base, both of which virtually guarantee lots of attention to any coverage of him, but that fan base is located mostly in middle America - an area of the country just as pejoratively maligned by both armchair quarterbacks and the press as Tebow himself.

First Baptist Has Its Own Motives Issue

And what of First Baptist Dallas?  This venerable megachurch has served as the Southern Baptist's flagship congregation for generations, and just as its most famous pastor, Dr. W.A. Criswell, could set local tongues wagging with his gaudy self-aggrandizement, its current pastor, although appearing far more stoic in his dark business suits and bland executive-style haircuts, has made a name for himself by boldly speaking out on a variety of hot social topics.

Only these days, it's not just north Texas watching the goings-on from First Baptist's towering downtown campus with a mixture of agreement, bemusement, and incredulity; it's the entire world, thanks to modern communication technology.  Only the rest of the world isn't as socially and politically conservative as our little corner of it.  And there's precious little agreement even here in Big D with the things Dr. Jeffress has been saying.

Granted, lots of what Jeffress has been quoted as saying has actually been misquoted, or taken out of context, by a hostile media.  I've heard him live on our local TV news stations here, talking about homosexuality and Islam, and I've found him to be kind, patient, and eager to explain things from a Biblical perspective.

Most of the problems people seem to have with Jeffress isn't what he says, per say, but their own inability to translate what he says into a secular mindset that embraces few moral absolutes and honors God's sovereignty.  There truly is a point at which the Gospel of Christ is foolishness to those who don't believe it, and more often than not, Jeffress breaches that point, even as he's being earnest in his desire for clarity.  Of course, that's not Jeffress' fault, but the media and his unsaved audience prefer to blame him, instead of themselves.

So it's not just that First Baptist Dallas is what many in America's coastal media markets consider to be controversial, it's that, as Jeffress himself explains, society has changed, and God's Word hasn't.

However, what adds to First Baptist's PR woes is that it's just constructed a mammoth new $115-million-dollar facility - itself a point of consternation for critics of wasted resources by religious groups.  With the congregation's neighborhood downtown turning into a glitzy arts district, and more people moving downtown to live in urbane apartments, not to mention the city's wealthy mayor at the time being one of their most prominent members, First Baptist realized it could afford to fantasize about the physical image it wanted to project.  So they tore down some of their older - yet still functional - buildings to make way for a sweeping new worship complex, a glassy bauble juxtaposed alongside its traditional brick sanctuary (which they're preserving to ameliorate the ire of historic preservationists.)  And, just as the church wants to wow Dallasites with flashy architecture, they'd hoped Tebow's celebrity would spice up their grand opening celebrations. 

The fact that the church was able to raise $115 million in just seven months has been lauded by Baptists across Texas as a "tremendous" act of God, but others have wondered if all that money has brought more prestige to Jeffress and his flock than unadulterated honor to God Himself.  Having somebody like Tim Tebow come and help inaugurate their new digs could have only made it more spectacle than sanctification.  After all, while Tebow has honed his Christian image with chunky cross necklaces, "Tebowing" after significant plays on the gridiron, and pro-life television commercials, he has yet to convincingly articulate a personal faith in Jesus Christ that goes beyond thanking God for the cushy life he's been able to live.  It's an easy-faith message that has played more to the shallow Joel Osteen side of Christendom than the dogmatic John MacArthur side.  And while the teens and single women at First Baptist would have been thrilled at an appearance by Tebow, how disconnected a vignette would that have been to the homeless panhandlers and throngs of gay hipsters for whom a gentrifying downtown has become home?

Idol Worship Gets Us Every Time

Okay, so the NFL is trying to get its players to tone down the anti-gay bigotry, and it's a given that the pro-gay-marriage lobby would have complained bitterly about Tebow's appearance on the same stage as Jeffress, whom they erroneously consider to be an arch-enemy of theirs.  But how out of touch with normal evangelical culture has Tebow been to not have known the accusations swirling around Jeffress?  Tebow tweeted that "new information" had been brought to his attention, as if Jeffress hasn't spent years rocking the politically correct boat.  And if Tebow's public relations folks had no idea who Jeffress is, couldn't they have Googled him way before inking the personal appearance contract with First Baptist?  Instead, they cover up their blunder with a sloppy, vapid tweet about continuing "to use the platform God has blessed me with to bring Faith, Hope and Love to all those needing a brighter day."

Sounds like Tebow needs those three things more that the hapless folks he thinks need a "brighter day."  If he had true faith in Christ, he'd know that even if his PR agency got him a gig they decided would be bad for him, he could trust that Christ could use his appearance at First Baptist for God's glory.  Not his own.

That's a major fail for a guy many evangelicals have been idolizing as a Christian hero.

Hebrews 11 reminds us that Moses "chose to be mistreated along with the people of God."  Other faithful servants of God "faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated - the world was not worthy of them."

And Tebow is apparently worried about his NFL career?

First Baptist has already tried to diffuse the situation by saying they'd be glad to welcome Tebow back at some other time.  Jeffress told a reporter today that he'd "never condemn" Tebow for doing "what he thinks is right."

Oh, really?  Not only has Tebow given First Baptist a good reason why they should not reschedule his celebrity appearance at their glitzy new church home, but Jeffress has weakened his own platform when it comes to calling sin a sin.  He's comfortable branding Mormonism a cult - which it is - and homosexual marriage a travesty - which it is, but he can't bring himself to point out the fallacy in Tebow's excruciatingly public misstep.

If you're going to fashion yourself as a hero of the faith, don't you gotta have the faith?

Still, I'm very sorry for Tebow, especially since, if evangelicals spent less time fussing over Christian celebrities and more time focusing their hero worship onto Christ, Tebow likely wouldn't have fumbled so publicly in the first place.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Land of Plenty Receiving Foreign Aid?

We Americans are a proud people, aren't we?

Even when it comes to such things as foreign aid, we believe we can make our planet a better place for all of us to live.

Except when money gets tight here at home.  Then it's every man for himself.

As the United States lurches through yet another economic malaise, right-wing Republicans have been trotting out a tired old schtick, railing against the amount of money our government spends in humanitarian relief work across the globe.

Invariably, when it comes to cutting our federal budget, foreign aid is the first expenditure conservatives want to ax.  Instead of our token contribution to humanity's global needs, foreign aid becomes a waste of hard-earned American dollars.  Why should we send all that money over to people in far-away countries who are either too lazy to work themselves into a better economic condition, or too ungrateful for our altruistic assistance?

Altruistic, indeed.

The Flip Side of One Percenters

Of course, the fact that only one percent of our entire federal budget goes to foreign aid has little impact on the popular idea that if we stopped helping fer'ners, we'd have all that extra money with which we could help ourselves.

Only, how many of us really want to spend more money on helping our fellow Americans?  We just want to get to keep more money for ourselves in the form of lower taxes, don't we?

Granted, many Americans already live paycheck-to-paycheck, and really could use lower taxes to make their own bottom lines go farther.  Nevertheless, our country enjoys a sizable and robust cohort of comfortably-wealthy taxpayers for whom saving tax dollars means they'll have more to hoard.

Hoard?  Now there's a nasty word.

Some pro-business conservatives claim that when rich people save money on their taxes, that's more money they'll plow into their companies so they can hire more people and develop more products.  Which, of course, ignores the role banks play in American business.  Not that saving money on our taxes is a bad thing, but saving money by cutting foreign aid will save each of us about 1% on our tax bill.  So maybe calling it "hoarding" is a bit harsh.

Still, 1% of our national budget is hardly chump change, is it?

Building Bigger Barns

Luke, the doctor who wrote a book of the Bible, tells us a parable Christ used to illustrate the problem of affluence.  There once was this rich man who was successful at farming.  He was so successful, he ran out of space to store his harvest.  So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.

And he said to himself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."

But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?  This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward Me."

Isn't it interesting how hoarding costs us money?  It costs us money to purchase larger and larger homes in which to store our ever-increasing inventories of expensive furniture, nicknacks, electronics, and clothing.  Many people call ever-increasing real estate portfolios investments, just like the rich farmer in Christ's parable surely did.  And you know what?  There's nothing intrinsically wrong in that!

Surprised?  This is not a rant against wealth, or even accumulating things.  But what does it say when we Americans, here in our supposedly "Christian" nation, have become so focused on our own money, that other countries are now coming to our financial aid?

Yup!  America's penny-pinching ways towards others may be catching up with us. 

Foreign Aid in Reverse

Perhaps you caught wind of the news that the United Arab Emirates donated $1 million to the beleaguered school district of Joplin, Missouri, after the city's devastating tornado.  The district had to scramble to replace facilities and textbooks for their high school students, whose campus was destroyed by the twister.  Providing laptop computers for each high school student was the most expeditious - and expensive - way to secure curriculum.  Money wasn't available from the city, the county, or the state of Missouri, but it was offered, no strings attached, from a little oil-rich oligarchy half a world away that wanted to plant seeds of goodwill in America's heartland.

The UAE is also completely funding a $5 million neonatal intensive-care unit at Joplin's iconic Mercy Hospital, which is being completely rebuilt, and never had such a facility before because of a lack of funds.


Turns out, for years, the UAE has quietly been helping to fund small charities such as a Baltimore food bank, a police benevolence association in New York, and four inner-city soccer fields from Miami to Los Angeles.  And it's not just the UAE - there's a whole Muslim fundraising arm called Islamic Relief USA that does charity work in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia, and... the United States.  It's an eerie feeling to look at the list of countries where they support relief efforts and see our country as the only First World nation, among so many other dismal, needy countries.  Food pantries, healthcare initiatives, and emergency response programs are among Islamic Relief USA's projects in our own backyard.

And speaking of emergency response, were you aware that nearly 100 foreign countries offered direct aid and even cash to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?  Far too proud to accept much of it, the administration of George W. Bush turned down offers from Finland, Sweden, and France, and delayed accepting help from Russia, although offers from Cuba and Venezuela were, understandably, turned down on political principle.  Japanese citizens donated $14 million in private money, and even the tiny and impoverished country of Nepal donated $25,000.

Now, many Americans would scoff at what appears to be a paltry $25,000 from a country like Nepal, which probably receives far more than that in American aid each year.  And that, my fellow Americans, is where our problem lies.

Sure, $25,000 won't even buy a moderately-priced Honda these days, and even the $6 million spent by the UAE on Joplin, Missouri is a drop in their oil buckets of wealth.  But these countries are gladly looking for ways to help.  Help people in need, yes, and even help polish their diplomatic credentials.  The UAE makes no effort to hide their overall objective:  provide ordinary Americans with a reason to look favorably upon a religion and a region of the world most of us hold in derisive suspicion.  It's only fair, since they've learned that tactic from us.

Greedy Hoarders or Happy Helpers?

So, is currying favor with middle America by buying our appreciation during times of crisis simply a means to an end?  Maybe, and maybe not.  If you look at how the UAE is spending its charity dollars, they're being very specific and targeted, almost like the surgical strikes we've been inflicting on Afghanistan for years.  They're doing their research, finding opportunities where money isn't just unleashed on somebody's pet project, but actually put to sustainable and exponential benefit.  Not exactly the bad kind of irresponsible charity we conservatives are fond of claiming our own government supports.

But what's our real motivation as American taxpayers?  When we advocate for our own government to spend welfare dollars wisely, is it only because we want the genuinely needy to get the assistance they need?  Or is it because we're tired of paying for helping them?  Do we want the needy to get help so we don't have to give them any more money, or so they can benefit from a better lifestyle and all of the advantages economic self-sufficiency can bring?  And by extension, do we complain about the foreign aid our country doles out because we'd rather have that money spent on ourselves?

Sure, foreign aid dollars can significantly grease the wheels of international diplomacy.  But if that's all we're expecting from that money, maybe we shouldn't be complaining about what we think we're getting - or not getting - in return.

Have we Americans lost the right to boast about our global magnanimity?  True, we're still the most "generous" country by far, but if God looks at our hearts, does he see dollar amounts, or true large-heartedness?

Might we need to open our eyes and see that the fields are not only "ripe unto harvest," but that harvest is plentiful not only abroad, but right here in the good ol' US-of-A?

What good is building bigger barns for ourselves when other countries see lack and need outside the walls of those barns?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Beware Sound Bite Testimonials

"I'm clinging to Christ and trust in my doctors and nurses," the famous cancer patient professed.

In England, a teenaged girl spoke to the media about a series of operations that saved her life.  "It's just because of the prayers of people. Because all people – men, women, children – all of them have prayed for me," she rejoiced.  "And because of these prayers God has given me this new life … and this is a second life."

These sound like good testimonies of God's goodness and answer to prayer, right?  Except the first quote came from cancer patient Hugo Chavez, communist dictator of Venezuela, who's been undergoing treatment in Cuba.  And the second quote was from Pakistani terrorism victim Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl shot in the face last fall in an assassination attempt by the Taliban.  She's been released from her British hospital and can now return to her home country, where she's become something of a heroine.

Religious lingo and catch-phrases just trip off the tongue these days, and not just by us evangelicals.  People all over the world who claim some affinity with some sovereign deity can rejoice in that deity's name for the strength they receive through suffering and the healing they experience.  It's all part of the doctrine with which they've been educated, or to which they've haphazardly ascribed.

Actually, this is nothing new, as even in Biblical times, God was incessantly warning the Old Testament Israelites and the New Testament church about how tricky patterns in other religions can mimic our true faith.  And yes, our Biblical Gospel is our world's only true faith.

Now, let's get this straight:  as a proud American, I'm not intolerant of other faiths, nor do I hate people of other faiths.  I believe in freedom of religion.  Nevertheless, while I agree that everyone should be able to peaceably follow their religion of choice, I have been convinced by the Holy Spirit that Christ is the Son of God, and that it's only through Him that I have forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Heaven.  My faith is in a Person, not a system of theology.

I'm not sure when believing any thing is the best - or the only - truth became tantamount to vile bigotry, but I suspect it started to gain credence when lots of people who didn't want to embrace the best The Truth became vile and bigoted against those of us who do.

Be that as it may, isn't it still interesting to hear how the things we evangelicals say about our faith - particularly in the context of prayer and our health - can be the same things people of other faiths can say about theirs?  And while what looks like duplicity on the part of adherents of other faiths can't deny the efficacy of our own faith, or the reality of God's power to answer prayers in ways over which we marvel, might this be a good challenge for us to, oh, up the ante a bit?

After all, isn't it almost too easy to say "I'm clinging to Christ" or "God has given me a second chance thanks to the prayers of others?"  Hey - these are things a communist dictator and a teenaged Muslim girl felt completely comfortable saying!  And in terms of freedom of religion, who should deny them the right to such confidence, however erroneous it may be?  However, just as these phrases may mean nothing in terms of God's beneficence over their souls, might the same sound somewhat true when we utter them?  Not that Christ isn't the Person to Whom we should cling when we're battling cancer, or that we shouldn't be thankful for prayers other believers say on our behalf.  But we can go further, can't we?

We are to give testimony to the hope that we have inside of us.  In our soundbite world, it's tempting to elicit platitudes based on our faith and assume our audience understands the fuller implications of what we're saying.  But just as we really shouldn't tolerate sermons chock full of soundbites, is God satisfied when we offer soundbite testimonials of what He's done for us?

Not that we need to spout doctrinal proofs from evangelical Protestantism and Five-Point Calvinism each time we want to praise God for something.  Maybe, however, we could acknowledge Christ's lordship in our lives, for example, or acknowledge how your trusting in the Lord's sovereignty over your health.  Make it more about the relationship you share with Christ, and not just religious terminology.

After all, it's not essential that we develop deeper and more accurate ways of vocalizing our faith in public, since God looks at our heart, and He sees how genuinely we love, trust in, and serve Him.  Yet what we say about our faith is still important.  In Romans 10:9-10, the apostle Paul reminds us that "if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved."

Don't get hung up on "with your mouth... you... are saved" part of that passage.  Take it in context with what Paul is saying.  There is a Biblical theme of God putting a "new song" inside of us, which is part of a pattern in which we sing praises to God and speak of His righteousness to the unsaved.  Strong's Exhaustive Concordance says the Greek word for mouth being used in this passage could be translated "as emanating from the heart."  Therefore, the "salvation" part of this passage refers more to our affirmation of Christ's salvific work in our life, not that we have to verbally confess our faith; otherwise, how would that work for a physically mute convert?

But since we're referencing the apostle Paul here, think about it for a moment:  How would you guess he'd respond to hearing a communist dictator invoking the precious name of Christ?

My guess is that he wouldn't use any of the platitudes we might. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Nuclear Race Isn't Over in Hanford

Remember last fall, after the presidential elections, when Tea Partiers got all lathered up over reports that the Obama administration was churning out 68 new federal regulations per day?

I took the liberty of checking on a day's worth of those "regulations," and learned that yes, each day, dozens of events matriculate through our federal government's many bureaucratic calendars, but they're not all regulations.  In fact, some of them are pretty benign housekeeping details that we'd expect our government to perform on our behalf.

Well, most were benign.  One of them had to do with ventilating gas from storage tanks holding nuclear wastes such as plutonium, uranium, and radioactive iodine in Hanford, Washington.  Not exactly something I'd expect Tea Partiers to get all upset about our government needing to do, right?

Well, as it turns out, it's not just gas that's building up in the aging underground tanks on this "tank farm" in Washington state.  One of the facility's 177 tanks has begun to leak its liquid into the ground, and while radiation levels above ground haven't detected any problems - yet, administrators at the site don't think waiting around until radiation levels do rise is wise.

It's not even like this leak is the first leak in Hanford's history.  Apparently, depending on the account you read, Hanford is practically a sieve of radioactive materials just waiting to either sink into the earth, or blow the northwestern corner of the United States to Kingdom Come.  Leaks are nothing new, nor are windborne radioactive pollutants and groundwater contamination.  In fact,within 12 years, underground contamination may reach the nearby Columbia River, which could pose an unprecedented ecological crisis for the region. 

Our government is working on a $12.3 billion project to convert the waste being stored at Hanford into  safer, more stable consistencies that can be more easily controlled throughout chemical half-lives that will outlive many human generations to come.  In the meantime, however, both Washington state and federal budgets continue to tinker with the amount of taxdollars being committed to this project, since an imminent catastrophe is still over a decade away - an eternity in political time. 

So, what does this mean for you and me?

As we once again look down the long barrel of debt ceiling limits, sequestration, raising taxes, and spending caps, we need to remember that, for a variety of reasons - including winning wars and securing our dominance in the nuclear arms race - our country has racked up some mammoth obligations and liabilities that, like the Hanford tanks underground, we don't see every day, but are still demanding big chunks of our nation's treasury.

For we conservatives who like to talk about paying our bills and settling our debts, sites like Hanford and the responsibilities we still have for them remind us that our government is even bigger than we often disparage it as being.  And far more complex.  And the holder of dangerous secrets and, yes, liquids.

Let's let that seep into our gray matter and sober up our judgment.

As Hanford bears witness, we really haven't won the nuclear arms race yet, have we?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Relevance Isn't So Relevant After All

Subaru owners have a lot of stereotypes.

For example, it's well-known that they don't embrace fads.  They're practical.  Efficient.  And even loyal.

Of course, one of the oldest stereotypes is that they're all lesbians, but from my personal experience with two Subaru owners, that's not true at all.

A widowed cousin of mine in Maine, one of the most practical and frugal people I know, buys only Subarus.  I used to think Subarus were only sold up north, since they're all built with snow-savvy four-wheel-drive, and was surprised when, a number of years ago, Subaru dealerships started opening up down here in sunny Texas.

Yes, Texas, where I became friends with a guy who's not only another practical, frugal Subaru owner, but a conceal-and-carry enthusiast to boot.  He also used to own a big, old, smoke-belching Dodge Ram pickup truck.  Fairly extraordinary possessions in contrast to the conventional Subaru customer, don't you think?  The pickup truck's original owner had brought it down to Texas when he relocated from Buffalo, New York, and that beast was "purt-near" rusted-out from all the Yankee road salt.

At any rate, my friend with both the Subaru and the rusty old pickup himself relocated to a new job in Louisiana, but he never could find a Subaru dealership there that he trusted as well as our local shop here in Texas.  So last summer, when a list of things needed fixing on it, my friend drove his beloved Subaru back here on a car-maintenance vacation, and during his stay, we had lunch.

And I remember that just about the only thing we talked about during that whole long lunch involved the transition a church he was attending in Louisiana was going through regarding its youth ministry.

If you think I'm strict about my doctrine and how I live out my faith, you haven't met my friend!  If you think I see things with black and white lenses, you haven't seen our world through my friend's digitally-enhanced, black and white bionic eyes.  He is laser-focused on what's right and wrong, and makes no apologies for it.

That's one reason he's willing to drive back to Texas for maintenance he can trust on his Subaru.  And why, even though he has no kids either, that doesn't stop him from thinking through what church youth groups should - and shouldn't - look like.

We didn't agree on everything during that luncheon conversation, but we both lamented how invisible the long-term positive results from years of sophisticated church youth programming seemed.

Race for Relevance:  Idolizing Our Culture, Instead of Worshipping Christ

Then today, my friend reminded me of our discussion at lunch last summer with a post on Facebook by Father John Beck, an Orthodox priest who writes a blog called "The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow."  My friend had found a blog entry by Fr. Beck entitled "Youth Ministry - The 50 Year Failed Experiment," and immediately, I knew where this was going.

Basically, Fr. Beck takes a quick retrospective past the last half-century of youth programming in America's churches, and reaches the same conclusion other professional Christians and parents are reaching these days:  relevance really doesn't matter.

Relevance.  You know the term.  It's become church-speak for relating to the lost world around us.  It's become an excuse to "change the methods but not the message."  It's one big marketing ploy that takes evangelism out of the daily life of believers and puts it in the hands of professional Christians who say they know how to consecrate rock music, PowerPoint presentations, and glitzy children's play areas for sacred purposes.

Except even "consecrate" and "sacred" sound too religious.  Those words might offend people who have had a negative experience with church.  So the plan has been to, instead of offending the unchurched, offend the churched.

And it's pretty much worked - especially when it comes to offending churched kids.

Turns out, all the separate classrooms, high-tech gadgetry, Disney-esque play places, high-cost staffing, fun retreats, sports leagues, on-site video games, rock bands, and generation-centric "worship" have pretty much been one big, expensive bust.  Fiasco.  Debacle.  Farce.

Not that some kids haven't emerged from all of this furious programming as genuine, God-honoring disciples of Christ.  Make no mistake:  the Holy Spirit is still active and working in the hearts and minds of God's people, regardless of their age.  But the data - estimates ranging from a 60 to 80 percent failure rate in terms of youth programs grooming high school graduates for continuing participation in evangelical faith fellowships - is stark.  It's ominous.

And it leaves many people, like me, my parents, and my friend, along with many other more conventional believers, fighting back the urge to scream, "I TOLD YOU SO!"

Can't Blame That Old Time Religion Now

Oddly enough, Fr. Beck's blog article is the second one on this topic that I've seen friends post on Facebook this week.  Just a couple of days ago, another single male friend of mine posted an article from the blog Marc5Solas entitled "Top Ten Reasons Our Kids Leave Church."  Whoever authors this blog (it seems to be anonymous) reaches pretty much the same conclusions Fr. Beck does, and to simplify their articles even further, here they are:
  1. Kids crave authenticity, but America's churched culture has mastered the art of duplicity.  We say we love each other, but we don't. 
  2. Music is just background noise when authenticity is not apparent.  Lots of churches blame traditional church trappings for making the Gospel irrelevant and having to reinvent themselves as family-friendly rock concerts.  Yet while the style of worldly music may attract the curious, it can't make up for that uncanny duplicity we evangelicals have deluded ourselves into thinking only we can see.  And sometimes, even we can't see it.
  3. The only reason kids need to be separated from their parents during corporate worship is when those parents themselves don't know how to worship.
  4. Perpetually perpetrating an atmosphere of fun and amusement in children's and youth programming utterly fails to prepare them for the concrete walls of life they'll inevitably run into.  Church shouldn't be an escape from life's trials, but a place where we lovingly support each other through them, and educate ourselves on how the Holy Spirit can use them for His glory and our ultimate good.  Yet here again, our duplicitous contrivances lead us to hide what's wrong in our lives, so authenticity can never nurture genuine love.
  5. Well, that last part of #4 isn't exactly correct.  We do have genuine love, but it's for the world, not for God and His people.  We love our lifestyles, our celebrity preachers, our conservative politics, feeling jazzed after our church rock concerts, and doing those fun community service projects where we get to have pizza and ice cream when we're done slapping some paint on a Habitat for Humanity house.  Or those super-fun and super-expensive short-term missions trips where we get to visit some exotic foreign country and our sponsors get to write-off their donations on their taxes.  Oh - and we really love trying to fit in (as much as we think we can) with the heathen culture to which we're supposed to be modeling God's holiness.
Hmm... This all sounds so negative and depressing, doesn't it?  This isn't the fun, happy-faced Christianity we're supposed to be showing "seekers," is it?  So maybe I'm wrong about all of this.  Maybe my two single male friends on Facebook, neither of whom have kids, are wrong, too.  Maybe, since we're not parents, we're not qualified to render an opinion on why the vast majority of churched kids never come back after they turn 18.

But contemporary church youth ministry programs have had 50 years to prove guys like my friends, these bloggers, and me wrong.  And the data is mounting in our favor, not theirs.  Which is particularly problematic for churches who've spent a gazillion dollars following in knee-jerk lockstep with church growth experts and their professional recommendations for how to woo people into their pews.

Except most churches don't use pews anymore.  Too traditional an aesthetic, they claim.

Somehow, I don't think kids would care what they were sitting on, as long as they saw people in their faith communities actually modeling... um, faith and community.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Should Homeschooling Be a Civil Right?

It might strike the casual observer as odd that the same people who generally oppose Obamacare are hoping a German family can claim political asylum here so they can homeschool.

Because in both arguments, the issues boil down to civil rights.  And specifically, what are our civil rights?

As much as we'd like to hope healthcare access and costs are fair, most conservatives and evangelicals have come to admit that healthcare is not a civil right.  With this German homeschooling family's asylum petition, however, some conservative evangelicals say a parent's ability to keep their children out of public school is. 

Uwe and Hannelore Romeike are evangelical Christians from the German state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, where a Nazi-era law prohibits them from educating their six children at home.

The Romeike family
Currently, the Romeikes are living in Tennessee, while they seek refugee status from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  The family is being represented by the conservative Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), and supported in part by Tennessee's robust homeschooling community.  Meanwhile, both the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security and Board of Immigration Appeals say that homeschooling is not a civil right eligible for classification as asylum criteria.

So far, the Romeikes appear to be losing their fight.  Although they've been granted temporary asylum pending the outcome of their case, the 6th Circuit will likely issue their ruling before this coming May, and it sounds like the HSLDA is trying to drum up support in anticipation of a disappointing result.  World Magazine quotes an HSLDA lawyer as warning that, in the Romeike case, "something important is being said about our own liberties as American homeschoolers."

But is it?

And if so, what is it that's being said?

Teach Your Children Well

First of all, the Romeikes are German citizens, not Americans.  No American is being threatened with deportation or denial of residency in the United States because of their desire to homeschool their children.  Granted, a legal precedent could be set in this case even if the courts determine that homeschooling is not a civil right, if that homeschooling is done with a view towards concentrating on a religion-based curriculum.  Which, in and of itself, would be a worthy case to try, if those rights were being threatened here in the United States, which they're not.

Nobody can dispute that evangelical Christianity is unpopular in Germany, and even Germany's press has been ambivalent about the abuse and bullying the Romeike children likely experienced in German public schools.  It's also hardly debatable that Germany's curriculum standards weigh disproportionately towards a humanistic ideology, rather than a Christ-centered one.  For a family like the Romeikes to have theological problems with both the content and attitude of Germany's public education system shouldn't be surprising.

But are German officials saying parents can't abrogate at home the parts of public school doctrine with which they disagree?  Granted, it sounds a bit totalitarian to us Americans when a government tells parents their kids must attend school, or must get inoculations, or whatever.  But the German government isn't telling parents that they can't override what is taught in school with their own faith.

For example, teaching children that "2+2 = 4" is not a moral conundrum.  However, teaching children than "male+male = marriage" is.  Yet, don't plenty of American parents have to de-program their kids at home after similar lessons are taught here?  Mine did, but it wasn't some dramatic process.  Plus, it helps train you for later in life, when you're faced with all sorts of compromising situations and your parents aren't there to hand-hold you through them.

And speaking of drama, how many American kids are bullied for all sorts of reasons?  Wouldn't physical and emotional abuse of schoolchildren be something all parents have to deal with on issues ranging from national origin, ethnicity, hair color, stature, weight, and other religious affiliations other than Christianity?

Remember, it's not just we Christians who experience persecution around the world.

And speaking of persecution, how is pulling one's kids out of school over ideological differences the same as being held in a government prison for sharing one's faith?  Might this battle risk marginalizing the genuine persecution more conventional martyrs have suffered for their faith?  Faith in homeschooling isn't the same as faith in Christ, is it?  And if one holds more faith in homeschooling than in Christ's ability to override what one's kids are being taught in public school, then who's got the real problem here?

And doesn't our government have the obligation to balance the desires of a German homeschooling family against the imminent peril of people across the globe suffering directly for their faith?

Is the United States prepared for the flood of asylum seekers from across the globe who could point to hardships they encounter by homeschooling? After all, homeschooling isn't even a religious-rights issue.  Not everyone who homeschools is an evangelical, or even religious; some are anarchists, while others have legitimate beefs about the quality of public education that have nothing to do with religion.  With its atrocious World War II record, during which Adolph Hitler imposed mandatory public school attendance to force-feed youngsters with his systematic bigotry, perhaps Germany is today afraid that if they don't force kids to attend public schools, where the war is now taught correctly, that neo-Nazi parents could subversively indoctrinate them in Hitler-esque propaganda.

And what about single parents in the United States, who, since they have no other spouse to act as breadwinner if they'd want to homeschool, have no choice but to send their kids to public school?  If the HSLDA wants our government to enshrine homeschooling as a civil right, what kind of provisions are they prepared to make for single-parent families?

After all, making homeschooling a civil right is what the HSLDA wants to do, if not in practice, at least in theory.  Extending the freedom of religion to include homeschooling is their tactic, and why they think the Obama administration's denial of asylum for the Romeike family would be tantamount to persecution.

Salt and Light and Reading and Writing and 'Rithmatic

But let's face it:  while we Americans enjoy many rights that people in other countries don't, not all of the rights we enjoy are intrinsic to our humanity.  If the Romeikes can prove they would be persecuted directly because of their faith in Christ if they returned to Germany, then we'd have a genuine civil rights case, and cause for a legitimate asylum application.  However, just because they'll have a harder time de-programming from their children the humanistic rot they believe German public schools teach, does that mean Christ hasn't placed them at this time and place in Germany to be His salt and light?

No, I'm not a parent, so I don't personally know what it's like to send kids to public schools, where much of the curriculum teaches things that run contrary to my faith.  But that's a struggle many evangelical parents already fight today, so are they stupid or lazy for not pressing our government to codify homeschooling as a civil right?  Because that's the impression this misguided advocacy by the HSLDA is giving.

Worse than any of this, however, are the ominous implications for all of us evangelicals represented by an HSLDA win.  If the Romeike's get to stay in America, it will be due in part to the court's affirmation that arbitrary educational standards for children can be intrinsically destructive, which is the corollary to what the HSLDA wants in the Romeike's amnesty case.  In other words, if the HSLDA can prove that one group can determine that the things another group teaches violates their civil rights, what's to say that left-wing liberals couldn't rise up here in America against, say, church-sponsored schools?  After all, we evangelicals have already been branded as purveyors of hate speech against many elements of our country's modern curriculum.  If we ourselves sponsor a certain type of education as a civil right, what type of legal Pandora's Box might that open for abuse against ourselves?

Indeed, as the HSLDA claims, "something important is being said about our own liberties."  Only homeschoolers don't seem to see the bigger picture.

If morality is what we're really talking about here, we need to remember that we can't always legislate it.  Morality and ethics come from what God places in our hearts.  To that extent, the Romeikes are already honoring God by wanting to instill His standards in the hearts of their kids.  And they'd like to enjoy the ability their American counterparts have in making that process easier by pulling their kids out of secular learning environments.

But should that be their absolute right?

Many things are right and good, including the option of homeschooling.  But that doesn't make them civil rights.


Update:  Oral arguments in this case have been scheduled for this coming April.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TV's Crass Kimmelization of our Kids

Do you want to know what's wrong with America?

You likely already have your suspicions, of course, but just in case you really are clueless as to what's wrong with our country, I present to you as Exhibit A this video from the Jimmy Kimmel Live show.

Jimmy Kimmel Live is hosted by - surprise! - Jimmy Kimmel, a droll, narcissistic comedian whose late-night television show on ABC is apparently popular with America's young parents.  On Halloween in 2011, he half-heartedly challenged his viewers to lie to their kids about the candy they'd begged off their neighbors that night.

Tell your kids you ate their Halloween candy, and videotape their responses, Kimmel instructed his fans, knowing how valuable that sugary loot is to kids.

And apparently, many of them did.  Here's the proof:

I hadn't heard anything about this stunt back in 2011, but for some reason, it seems to be making the rounds on social media these days.  Apparently, it was a big hit when he did it the first time, and then again, when he repeated his "challenge" last fall, and parents once again obliged and obediently sent in videos of their traumatized kids.  Lying about eating their candy is but one of several pranks Kimmel has asked his viewers to perform on their progeny, ranging from fake lie detector tests to terrible Christmas presents.

Obviously, it all makes for raucous television theater for Kimmel, his advertisers, and their audience.  Otherwise, they wouldn't keep doing it.  But can't you see the many problems here?

Regular readers of my blog will already know that since I've never been married, nor been a parent, I usually refrain from commenting too much on parental concerns.  Regular readers will also already know what I think about Halloween, but even if you disagree with me about celebrating a Wiccan religious festival like that, surely you can't agree that the mentality captured in this video - and others like it - is good for any of us.

Right off the bat, what should be readily appalling is the willingness of these parents to tell a bald-faced lie to their kids.  And not just a lie, but a lie about something they knew would likely elicit some sort of strong reaction from their kids.  Are those parents that jealous of the lifestyle they've conjured for their kids that they want to upset it with unnecessary strife?  In Ephesians 6:4, parents are warned not to intentionally exasperate their children.  Shouldn't that be common sense?  I may not be a parent, but in my career of uncle-hood, I've seen plenty of crying fits that are brought about entirely without any unnecessary stimuli.  Shouldn't this unBiblical mentality Kimmel is manipulating disturb us?

And even if you condone what we erroneously call "white lies," should parents tell empty falsehoods of such a potent nature to their kids?  How does that help build the trust that is essential in training one's children?  Should parents tell empty falsehoods to their children with the sole objective of deriving some sort of sadistic pleasure in the responses they expect to see from their kids?  Isn't that the sort of blatant manipulation of a human being over which parents could take somebody else to court, if they did it to their child?  Doesn't it all smack of some bizarre, self-centered schadenfreude on the part of parents, Kimmel, and his audience?  How is watching children throw tantrums, throw paper at their parents, and commit other forms of general repugnance entertainment?

What kind of loving parent does that to their kids, whether it's with Halloween candy, or anything?

Then again, maybe it's just as well I'm not a parent, since I can't find any redeeming qualities in such behavior.  Maybe the fact that Kimmel has exposed a whole underworld of stunningly destructive antics parents will enthusiastically perpetrate on their own children doesn't really mean that they're contributing to even deeper depths of depravity being etched into the psyche of our next generation.  Maybe I just don't know how to have fun at other peoples' expense.

Even if those people are exceptionally vulnerable and impressionable children whom God has entrusted into our loving, vigilant, and tenacious care.

It's not even like I can find any glimmer of hope in the likelihood that such stunts may instill an anti-Halloween culture in a generation of our kids.  I want people to have a realistic respect for the dangers of Wicca's autumn festival, not a traumatized trepidation of it based on false pretenses.  Besides, it's the blunt reality that a child's trust in their parent has been corrupted that is making these same parents laugh, while instead, it should be sending pangs of remorse and regret through them.  Candy and Halloween are merely pawns in this horrible charade.

With the central pawn, of course, being the child.

And still, people laugh.  So maybe it's not the worst problem America has.  But might laughing at kids as they react to a dirty prank pulled on them by their parent be shameful behavior for a country shedding what apparently are nothing more than crocodile tears over tragedies like Newtown?