Friday, January 31, 2014

Left Behind, or Not Finished?

Your pastor announces it from the pulpit.

“For those of you who haven’t already heard, Jane Doe passed away early this morning at the hospital.”

A wave of muffled exclamation ripples through your sanctuary as the congregation reacts to this somber news.  Jane had only been diagnosed with cancer two months ago.

“Of course, it’s hard for us to understand God’s purposes for claiming Jane’s life with such a fast-moving disease.”  Your pastor measures his words, balancing grief with a composure he hopes will seem reassuring to his audience.

“And she was only 40,” he continues, inadvertently biting his lip, since he’s not much older than she was. “But the God of all comfort can strengthen Jane’s family - and us, her church family - as the grieving process begins.  We mourn, yet not without hope.”

Later on, after the worship service, you’re chatting with a friend in church who, like yourself, is single, never-married, with no kids.  The two of you share your shock at the swift death that cancer dealt Jane.  Forty doesn’t necessarily seem all that young, does it, unless it’s the age of a cancer victim.  Can you imagine how hard things are going to be for her newly widowed husband, and her newly motherless children?  How they all adored her!

In times like this, it doesn’t matter how financially well-off a family is, or how well-loved they were in the community.  No matter how you slice it, death hurts.  And it seems to hurt all the more when it comes at what we consider to be an “early” time in one’s expected lifespan.  And then there’s the spouse, and their kids; all left behind, with years of school events, sports leagues, campouts, family vacations, and everything else now murky in the morose reality of loss.

As you’re commiserating with your single friend, whatever problems you might be facing in your own lives temporarily blur into the background.  For a while, it’s actually easy to concentrate on somebody else’s problems, and feel genuine sorrow for their loss.  With so much apparently going so well for them, what with being happily married and all, with young kids and a grand future for their family.  And then, just like that, it’s over.  At least, the part about everything going along so wonderfully.

As the impact of the loss this family is experiencing wells inside of you, your conversation drifts off for a moment.  And then one of you asks what you’re both now thinking: “Why does God take people like Jane, who have such obvious joys and responsibilities for a spouse and children, while singles like us He keeps healthy and alive?”

Have you ever asked yourself that question when faced with a similar scenario?  Not that we have poor self-esteem.  Or that we don't have responsibilities of our own.  Nor are we looking to die today, of course, nor do we mean to trivialize God’s holy sovereignty by questioning His decisions.  But from a practical, humanistic perspective, His taking people like Jane doesn’t really make much sense, does it?

Jane had a relatively young family relying on her.  She had a husband and kids who depended on her direct, wise, and Godly contributions to their family.  We believe God designed children to be raised in a loving family headed by a father and a mother.  We believe that “those whom God has joined together, man should not put asunder.”  So how does it fit into what we claim to know about God’s holy providence that He should simply remove such an important component of a family unit like this?  Doesn’t it seem cavalier, or counter-productive?

Besides, there are plenty of passages in the Bible that talk about long life being a gift from our Lord, and His reward to us for honoring Him.  Doesn’t death at half of an otherwise healthy person’s lifespan seem to add insult to injury?

Granted, we might be able to offer a patently “Sunday School” answer to such questions.   We know theologically, for example, that God does not make mistakes, and that to be absent from the body is to be present with Him.  We know that He doesn’t guarantee anybody a long life – or at least, our definition of a long life.  Isn’t God, the Creator of time, the only One Who gets to define how long a “long” lifespan is?

Nevertheless, in our cost-benefit-analysis world, where we value efficiencies and, by extension, award values to things based on how they contribute to our quality of life, doesn’t the loss of a spouse and a parent of young children still seem exceptionally punitive? We believe that every life is sacred, and has a purpose.  The knowledge that each individual person bears the image of God is likely what keeps us from going berserk when we see what otherwise would be confounding examples of injustice.  Because, let’s face it:  a 40-year-old wife and mother dying of cancer two months after her diagnosis strikes us as a form of injustice, doesn’t it?

Even if we won’t come out and say it.

So, why does God take people like Jane – who, by the way, was a real person, whose name is the only fact from her story changed for this essay – and leave us singles here, when Jane’s family desperately needs her?

Well, for one thing, God has created each of us for basically one purpose:  His glory.  Sure, He gives us various skills to use and roles to play in the life He gives us, but we’re not here for those skills and roles primarily.  First and foremost, we were created for Him.  Yes, while we may hone those skills and develop our roles throughout the course what may be quite a long life indeed, God’s idea for when we’ve maximized them may be different than ours.

Those skills and roles may involve being married and having kids, or they may not.  But here again, God’s love for us and His sovereignty over our lives is not contingent upon our family status.  Theologically, we may know that God takes us Home to be with Him in what we say is His “perfect timing.”  But how often do we let the reality sink in:  death represents the time at which God is saying that somehow, in some way, even if we can’t see it, our life has accomplished what He ordained it to accomplish.  He doesn’t make mistakes.  We don’t die before He ordains it.  And don’t forget – He ordained it before time even began!

When God called Jane home, He did so because – perhaps in ways we’ll never know here on Earth – she had fulfilled the purposes God intended for her to fulfill.  That’s the only reason why any of us are called home to Heaven.  It’s not a matter of convenience, or value, in which some of us are more important to God than others of us.

Why might it be easy for us singles to adopt some sort of cultural hierarchy regarding whether a spouse or parent is more important to God than those of us who haven’t been blessed by those roles?  Maybe because we have an enemy in the world who likes to tear people down any way he can?  All the more reason for us single people to reaffirm the truth of God’s sovereignty over our lives.  As well as the validation He gives us as His children.  All with equal value in His eyes.  And all with something to accomplish for His glory.

For however long it takes, with whomever He gives us.  Or not.

God is the One who ascribes value to our roles in His plan for His Kingdom.  Believers in Christ can find Jane's life - and death - as proof of that.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What Candidates Don't Say Counts

One of the benefits of democracy in America is that just about anybody can participate.

Of course, one of the perils of democracy in America is that, well, just about anybody can participate.

Consider, for example, the political scene down here in bright, sunny Texas this week.  On the one hand, we have Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth lawyer and the nation's newest pro-abortion activist, who's running as a liberal Democrat for governor.  And on the other hand, we have four male right-wing WASPs vying for the post of lieutenant governor, arguably the most powerful elected office in Texas, decrying a judge's verdict in the case of unborn baby Muñoz last week.

They believe the hospital should have been forced to keep a brain-dead mother on life support until her fetus reached the stage where it might have been viable outside of the womb.

I'm not an expert on politics - and, frankly, I wouldn't boast about it if I was - but I imagine the chances of another state having such contrasting partisan activity for the same election cycle are fairly remote.  But even if they're not, it's because of the same reason they exist here in Texas:  just about anybody can participate in the political process.

And when anybody can participate in the political process, it means that we need to listen not only to what politicians say, but what they don't say.

Unfortunately, many voters don't do that.

For example, consider the speech gubernatorial candidate Davis gave to an appreciatively liberal crowd last night down in our state capital, Austin.  She's been mostly silent in public after the Dallas Morning News published an expose of her inaccurate personal data that she's been shilling, portraying herself as a pull-herself-up-by-her-own-bootstraps divorcee livin' in a mobile home and somehow gettin' through law school.

Harvard Law School, that is.

The Morning News simply went to one of her ex-husbands to get his side of things, and we all learned that he paid at least half - if not more - of both her undergraduate and graduate studies.  And then he divorced her, claiming infidelity on her part, and she agreed to pay him child support so she could concentrate on growing her law practice.

Well, last night, Davis took to the podium to set the record straight.  But did she?  She took issue with conservatives who've apparently claimed that she "abandoned" her two daughters when she moved to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law (a term, BTW, that I intentionally never used when I wrote about it).  Nevertheless, while she points out that her whole family decided it would be easier for the girls to return to Fort Worth after her first semester up North, she not once mentions her divorce from Jeff Davis, her second husband and father of her second daughter, in which the allegation of her infidelity was changed to "insupportability"- whatever that means.  Or that she agreed to leave her second-born with Jeff, and pay him child support.

And, oh yeah:  Did she really tell him, "it’s not a good time for me right now" to be a mother?

We still don't know for sure, since she conveniently chose not to address that part of the story discovered by the Morning News.  I won't go so far as to say she "abandoned" that aspect of the criticisms being levied against her, but she's certainly picking and choosing the things she wants to defend.  And getting away with it.

Will voters in her liberal fan base notice?

It's almost a guarantee that conservative voters won't notice what the four guys running for lieutenant governor missed as they held their first debate Monday night.  In their eagerness to capture some political capital from the tragic ordeal of Marlise Muñoz and her unborn child, each candidate gushed about how wrong the judicial decision was that allowed the life support systems for Mrs. Muñoz to be turned off.

For the record, these four guys are the incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst; State Senator Dan Patrick of Houston; Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson; and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.  In turn, these men upheld the standard pro-life mantra about "life is so precious," without acknowledging what doctors had certified in documents presented to the court before its verdict.  Those doctors had certified that not only was Mrs. Muñoz brain-dead, but all the evidence they could glean from her womb indicated that her fetus was, too.

If pro-lifers are OK with admitting the mother is brain-dead, why the bitterness over declaring her fetus brain-dead as well?

"There is nothing more precious than the life of a baby in the womb," Senator Patrick rhapsodized, as if completely missing the agony being experienced by the Muñoz family.  "Whenever we have the opportunity to preserve life, we should."

Which, of course, is true.  I believe that.  But this was not the typical, garden-variety abortion some pro-life activists have, by omitting the facts, portrayed the Muñoz case as being.

So let's review those facts, shall we?  Mrs. Muñoz fell onto her kitchen floor.  We don't know how she fell, and the extent of any injuries her fall might have inflicted on her fetus.  We don't know how long both Mrs. Muñoz and her fetus were deprived of oxygen.  Doctors could detect severe physical deformities in the fetus, including findings that led doctors to believe the fetus was ultimately brain-dead.

What other decision could the judge have made in this case?  Especially since none of these candidates ever bothered to offer to write a check to pay for all of the artificial life support that would have been required to sustain Mrs. Muñoz's brain-dead corpse until the fetus might be viable outside of the womb?  Isn't that disgusting to even try and imagine?  All of this pomposity and pontificating just to win some votes from pro-lifers who haven't bothered to read the newspaper and learn these basic facts for themselves?

All four of these candidates vowed to re-write the Texas statute they claimed wasn't clear, and allowed the judge to, apparently, err on the side of death in the Muñoz case.  And, yes, maybe the law could be tweaked, so that another family in the Lone Star State doesn't have to endure what the Muñoz family did.  Another fact, however, is that such cases are so exceedingly rare, there is practically no way to set legal precedents for them.  Sometimes, doctors simply have to go with what they know, instead of what politicians would like them to do.  And when they don't have all of the information that onlookers would prefer them to have, so the rest of us can decide whether what they do is moral or not, we're simply going to expect that what we don't know can't hurt us?

Remember, folks, the Muñoz case was never about convenience, or safe sex, or fear of the unknown, or any of the conventional reasons why people seek to terminate the life they've created, which is why we pro-lifers advocate for the unborn child at risk.  We've even since learned that Mr. Muñoz had named his little baby, believed now to have possibly been a girl.  What kind of father does that if he's wanting the fetus to be arbitrarily terminated?

Unfortunately, the sound bites successfully regurgitated by the four candidates for lieutenant governor Monday night exclude all of that.  After all, conservatives can ignore facts just like liberals can.  It's all about whipping the party faithful into action.  It's about votes, pandering to least common denominators, and making the quickest, easiest sell possible.  Speak to the facts as you see them, and as you can spin them.  Ignore the rest.

It's going to be a long election year in Texas, y'all.

Yee.  Haw.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Oneida's Dim Reflection is NY's Reality

As if on cue, more bad news is coming out of Upstate New York.

Yesterday, I wrote about how the economy of the Empire State has been decimated by taxes and a bloated bureaucracy, yet Governor Andrew Cuomo still has the temerity to tell conservatives they're not welcome.

Then today, the final bell rang for Oneida Silversmiths, the iconic flatware company that became synonymous with well-laid dining tables across America.  Its manufacturing plant had been shut down years ago, putting hundreds of Central New Yorkers out of work, and whittling down most of its corporate staff to a bare-bones operation.  But now, whomever had been left is being laid off, and Oneida's exquisite corporate headquarters building shuttered.

The company's new owners, Everywhere Global, is consolidating functions into its own corporate headquarters, located near Columbus, Ohio.

Talk about the end of an era.  It certainly is that for Oneida, New York.  The small city named after a Native American tribe, home to a religious sect that named itself after the same Native American tribe, and a silverware company started by the religious sect, also named after the same Native American Tribe.

Ironically, thanks to its gambling operations and tax-free cigarettes, that Native American tribe is doing quite well, hundreds of years after the "white man" ventured into its territory along the eastern flanks of, well, Oneida Lake, not far from what would become the city of Syracuse.  In the Nineteenth Century, during a time of prolific religious sectarianism in Upstate New York, a group of experimenters in Utopian sexuality formed a sort of family called the Oneida Community, and an outgrowth of their venture became the manufacture of silverware.  Today, the Oneida Community Mansion House, which is technically located in a neighborhood called Kenwood Heights, in the town of Sherrill, just outside Oneida's city limits, is a stately tourist attraction.  And across a tree-lined street, looking more like an old cathedral, stands the long, elegant headquarters building for Oneida Silversmiths.

When I was a child, my family worshipped at a small church located in Kenwood Heights, where Mom was the director of its Sunday School program.  I remember late one sunny summer afternoon, Mom had a Sunday School meeting at church, and since we lived about half an hour away, we all drove out early for both Mom's meeting, and Sunday evening church, which would follow.  While Mom had her meeting, Dad took my brother and me for a short walk.  We meandered alongside a tranquil pond, around a corner from the church, and on towards a quiet street flanked by both the Mansion House and the silver company's headquarters.

It was like walking into a world of genteel opulence and grace.  On the one side there was the Victorian mansion, a rambling red brick structure with a mansard roof, white pillars, and meticulously-groomed lawns and flower beds.  On the other side sprawled a surprisingly ornate granite building, three stories of English Gothic splendor.  We didn't have this kind of stuff back in the little rural village where we lived on the north shore of Oneida Lake!  Maybe it wasn't just the architecture, but also the late-afternoon sun washing it all with glowing pastels, yet it seemed ethereal and other-worldly to me.

The intervening years haven't been as kind to Oneida Silversmiths as I remember that afternoon in what I thought was some parallel universe.  Oneida used to make all of its flatware in an aging factory a couple of miles from its headquarters.  But the factory was shut down in stages, laying off chunks of its workforce in a protracted death knell, until the place was shuttered several years ago.  A handful of former Oneida employees scraped together enough cash from sympathetic bankers to re-open part of the factory to make stainless steel flatware that they currently sell under the Liberty Tabletop brand.  The long-tenured factory store for Oneida Silversmiths remained open just down the block, even after all the company's other factory stores in outlet malls across America were closed.  When some leveraged buy-out kings took over what was left of Oneida a couple of year ago, hope ran high that some of the glory days might return to both the company and its namesake city.  But today, not only has the final nail been hammered into the coffin, but the coffin itself has been unceremoniously dumped into a grave dug long ago.

Indeed, Oneida's grave was dug long ago by a variety of circumstances.  Some former workers blame the company's executives for being out of touch with national trends in the trade, and then for reacting too slowly when the offshoring of manufacturing began decimating industries of all types in the United States.  All of a sudden, no matter their skills, workers in Upstate New York became too expensive for the company to remain competitive against all of the cheaply-made flatware being churned out by Chinese factories.

Sure, the quality from China wasn't all that great, but American consumers now cared more about low prices than high quality.  Then, too, when was the last time you were invited to a wedding in which the bride and groom had selected a wedding pattern for their silverware?  As American society becomes more casual, fine dining has disappeared from most American dining rooms.  And on those few days when a fancy meal is served at home, everyday flatware, or Grandmother's heirloom silver from generations ago, can suffice.

Besides, who wants to polish all of that silver?  It dents easily, and you can't make a habit of running it through the dishwasher.  In American kitchens, like everyplace else in our country, efficiency is everything.  And silver, while it may feel nice, and look nice, is simply an unnecessary relic from a former time.

And a former place:  Oneida, New York.

That seems to be the theme for most of New York State, outside of the Big Apple.  The whole of New York used to be thriving - in another time.  Its places used to be famous, with names like Oneida and its silver, or Utica and its insurance companies, or Rochester, where Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb have either gone bankrupt or moved their corporate headquarters out of state.  Left behind are untold numbers of vacant factories, unused office buildings, and lots of memories about how good times used to be in places that used to be good for families, employees, and taxpayers.

For its part, the Rochester area has managed to retain a lot of the talent that was jettisoned by its large corporate citizens as they downsized and relocated.  While the city's urban core is suffering, its suburban office parks are percolating with new companies started by the engineers and entrepreneurs who'd decided to stay and pool their industry's remaining resources to create new ventures.  But that formula for success hasn't worked well in other parts of the state.  For one thing, Rochester's digital imaging and optics industries remain in constant development mode, whereas personnel-intensive tasks for industries like insurance and manufacturing have been shunted to low-cost call centers and factories overseas.  And we've already determined that dining with Oneida silverware simply isn't as desirable as it used to be.

To a large degree, it's all part of the economic reality that cannot be denied as consumers push producers to assuage their thirst for stuff with lowest-cost products and services.  Meanwhile, New York State's politicians continue to operate in a similar type of time warp that I remember from that walk with my father and brother around the pond between Kenwood Heights and Sherrill.  It's yesteryear revisited every day down in Albany, the state capital, as people who could cut taxes and reduce state spending live in the nostalgia of New York as the true Empire State, the place to be for all that used to be creative and profitable about American business.

Woe be to anybody who forgets the adage:  all that's shiny is not gold!  Sometimes, it may be sterling silver, suitable for a knife, to cut fat and pork, for example.  Or simply to gaze dimly at one's reflection.

While yet another company leaves the state.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Cuomo Doesn't Want You, But God Might

I guess it's never really been what you'd call a "right-wing" state.

New York State has always been somewhat progressive.  And I use the word "progressive" in both its positive and negative connotations.

After all, the very first shipload of Europeans to drop anchor in what became New York Harbor had a prostitute on board.  Things kinda went downhill from there in the morality department.

Still, it shocked much of the country when, two Fridays ago, New York's current governor, Andrew Cuomo, basically told however many conservatives are still left in the Empire State to leave.

“Who are they?” asked the governor, during a radio program about Republicans in state politics.  “Are they these extreme conservatives, who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, antigay, is that who they are?  Because if that is who they are, and if they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York.  Because that is not who New Yorkers are.”


As you might imagine, Cuomo's hostility has not gone unnoticed by either the state's Republicans, or right-wingers across the United States.  Last week, Sean Hannity, a Tea Party talking head who lives on Long Island and broadcasts his radio show from New York City, announced that he's leaving, moving to either Florida or Texas, and taking his miniature media empire with him.  Devout Catholics who have been part of the state's Democratic machine for generations also balked, and Upstate conservatives, already angry that Cuomo's anti-gun stance is driving gun manufacturers out of New York, railed anew at how the governor seems bent on sabotaging whatever economic life the state has left.

Indeed, the Empire State's high taxes, corrupt politics, and bloated welfare bureaucracy have decimated its economic climate - a climate that easily beats the state's brutal winter climate as the reason companies, jobs, and taxpayers are fleeing the state.

Although his office later tried to backtrack, claiming his comments were taken out of context, there's no denying that Cuomo would prefer the state's remaining conservatives to just leave.  It would make his job so much easier, especially since his comments have not imperiled his governorship or chances of re-election one iota.  Conservatives there have long known that theirs is a back-breaking push against the tide of social and economic liberalism.  Meanwhile, Cuomo's constituency, including die-hard liberals from not just New York City, but its limousine liberal suburbs like Westchester County, and the state's many dying, union-soaked small towns, seems convinced that the only people standing between them and utopia are pro-life, pro-Second-Amendment, pro-heterosexual-marriage voters.

For decades now, New York's increasingly prohibitive cost of living index has pushed hundreds of thousands of middle-income earners to less expensive places in America to raise their families and retire.  Companies that provided jobs for New Yorkers joined the shift, since the same cost of living index that was punishing their workers was also making the state a less and less competitive place to do business.  As a share of population, the Empire State lost more residents than any other state between 2000 and 2010.  That amounts to an out-migration of over 1.6 million people in just ten years.  And the state's population drain had started long before then.  It's quietly been masked by New York City's consistent ability to attract immigrants from foreign lands.

Despite his popularity among his state's reliable core of liberals, however, it seems a bit foolhardy for any governor of New York State to disparage any group of residents.  Particularly a group of people who likely have more of the wherewithal to actually afford to move than many of the state's residents who rely on various forms of welfare.  Perhaps just as it's politically correct for Cuomo to say what he did, it's politically incorrect to also point out that welfare residents get most of their benefits - such as housing allowances - from the state, which practically locks them in as permanent residents.

Sure, New York has lots of rich liberals, but it also has many poor liberals.  Poor liberals who need not only public funds for housing, food, utilities, mass transit, and healthcare, but frankly, cause a lot of problems that Cuomo says conservatives are wrong to criticize.  Problems like abortion, for which New York City is the country's capital.  Currently, 41% of all viable pregnancies in the Big Apple end in abortion, which is the highest abortion rate in America.  And guess what?  More abortions are performed in the city's black and Hispanic neighborhoods than any other.  In the poorest districts of Harlem and the Bronx, for example, more babies are aborted than born every year.  Indeed, black women in New York City abort 60% of their fetuses every year.

In any other context, wouldn't that border on genocide?

Yet Cuomo thinks that's politically correct?

What about guns?  Where is gun violence most prevalent in New York State?  How about the ghettos not just in New York City, but every city in the state, where public housing has historically been clustered?

When it comes to gay "rights," have New York State's conservatives proposed any initiatives that deny people with same-sex attraction the right to earn a fair wage, live wherever they want, or pursue their lifestyle in public?  If you want to talk about gay marriage, which is where liberals like Cuomo are earning their bread and butter these days, consider the fact that one of the state's most prominent liberal Democrats, State Senator Ruben Diaz of the Bronx, is adamantly opposed to it.

Surprised?  Well, don't be, because one of the best things about New York State isn't its liberalism, of course, but the way contrasts of all types jostle with each other for attention.  Contrasts in wealth, scenery, population density, and political ideology.  The problems come when these contrasts fall too heavily on the wrong side of the spectrum.

Little Town Blues

For Cuomo to say what he said about conservatives may not just be a political stunt for him.  It may also betray his growing consternation that, despite the conventional assumption that liberals rule his state, conservative New Yorkers aren't going down without speaking their mind.  Perhaps his attempt at defining genuine New Yorkers as the antithesis of conservatism speaks as much about his own intolerance for diversity as it does his exasperation over the reality that, for his state to survive, he needs the tax dollars of voters who don't agree with him.

People outside of New York State may consider the brou-ha-ha over Cuomo's remarks simply so much left-wing bravado in a state that is rapidly losing clout in American politics.  As New York's population continues to stagnate, while most other states are experiencing more robust population growth, it loses seats in the House of Representatives in Washington, as well as billions of federal taxpayer dollars in subsidies for all sorts of local programs and projects.

So what, you ask?

Well, on the one hand, perhaps it wouldn't mean much in the grand scheme of things if conservatives did decide to abandon New York State.  In many ways, the state is already a shadow of its former self, and if America has managed to survive this long while New York has been sinking into moral and economic turpitude, maybe the rest of the country will be able to absorb further losses from the state's erosion.

For evangelicals, however, is that an acceptable scenario?  How often in the Bible does God allow His people to willingly abandon someplace?  Sure, He got Lot out of Sodom before destroying it and the equally evil city of Gomorrah - two cities to which the Big Apple frequently is compared.  But is God calling His people to flee New York City?  How about Albany, the state capital?  Or Rochester, or Syracuse, or Oneida?

During the past twenty years, the Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan has overseen a thriving ministry as evangelicals "reclaim" Gotham.  And all things considered, Keller's job has been fairly easy, if you consider the fact that New York City is one of the most sought-after places to live by hipsters, young professionals, and career strivers.  Evangelicals have also been targeting the city for ministry in the hopes of putting some sort of dent in its abominable abortion rates, and its stubborn poverty.

Yet for all of the glamor, excitement, and trendiness of the Big Apple, New York is a state much bigger and diverse than it's largest city.  Unfortunately, the rest of the state is contrastingly unglamorous, boring, and stodgy by anybody's standards.  Its countryside can be stunningly beautiful, but its smaller cities are dumpy and derelict, while suburbs ringing these hollow cores are monotonous and absurdly taxed.  Weather across the entire state can be challenging at best, with more precipitation than sun, and more of that precipitation of the frozen variety than is enjoyable.

Make a Brand New Start of It

When evangelicals think of the mission field, we usually envision the savannas of Africa, or the sweltering jungles of Central America, or the cacophonous megalopolises of East Asia.  Or maybe the rustic villages of Appalachia, or Brooklyn's gritty Brownsville ghetto.  But what about the smaller cities and towns of New York State?  Places that may not be as conservative as most evangelicals would consider comfortable, yet places where residents are fed a steady diet of liberal ideology by virtue of their political subjugation by Albany, and their social subjugation by New York City?  After all, it's not just New York City where politicians like Cuomo find kindred spirits.  For generations, the state has been split between residents of Gotham, and everybody else.  And Gotham's influence has always predominated.  Yet as the population across the rest of the state continues to shrivel, Gotham manages to keep attracting newcomers, meaning its influence is actually expanding in state politics.

Is that something evangelicals should simply allow to evolve?

Okay, so part of my interest in this quandary stems from the fact that I was born in New York City and raised through elementary school deep in the heart of Upstate New York.  I have some good memories of both the city and Upstate, but as a cynic, I'm more of a realist than a nostalgia buff.  I have to admit:  I have no desire to move back there and pay those taxes, putting on a happy face through all of those gloomy, sunless days, shoveling all of that snow, and searching desperately for a living-wage job.  All while my car rusts out from road salt.  And those "conservative" Republican politicians left in the state?  Many of them are still pro-choice.

Quite simply, it's all easier to ignore by not living there.

But lately, I've begun wondering how logical it might be for evangelicals like me to consider repopulating this state, where even its governor has admitted he doesn't want us.  After all, when he talks about "right-to-life conservatives," Cuomo is even denigrating Democrats who abhor abortion.  It's not just Republicans he can't stand.

Meanwhile, America's "Bible belt" continues to grow fat and happy with like-minded conservatives who prefer group-think to missional faith.  And then, after every election, they get together and bash northern liberals for advancing their left-wing agenda.


Let's not ignore the fact that, even in decline, New York State is home to 19.6 million people.  Georgia has 10 million.  North Carolina?  9.8 million.

Roughly speaking, it would take both Georgia and North Carolina to equal New York in population.  Get the picture?  New York State is still pretty big.

Tennessee has 6.5 million, Colorado has 5.2 million, and South Carolina has 4.7.  All three combined don't come close to New York's population.  Not that God places His priorities on numbers, but you have to admit:  New York State still has a measure of relevance when it comes to people who need exposure to some salt and light.

We might not like to look at it this way, but God has opened up a desperately needy mission field between Lake Erie and the south shore of Long Island.

Its governor might not want you, but since when has any self-respecting evangelical cow-towed to a left-winger?

Update 1/28/14:  And then there's this, from CNN/Time.  It's a survey conducted by the American Bible Society to determine, ostensibly, the "most Godless city" in the United States.  Only five New York State cities made the bottom 20, or the "most Godless" cities.  But then again, they were the only cities in the state large enough to make the list in the first place.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Divorcing Ivory Tower Theology

Is this ivory tower theology?

Ivory tower theology can result when brainy academics spent too much of their life studying and teaching in seminaries and forget that life is not an academic exercise.

Society likes to assume that if you study something long enough, you become an expert in that field of study.  And as a rule, that's true enough.  Nevertheless, while knowledge about a particular subject is one thing, can't expertise in its application to everyday existence be quite another?

For myself, I don't claim to be an expert about anything, which is why the name of this blog includes the words "opinionated" and "layman."  What I offer are perspectives on a variety of topics that readers may not have previously considered.  You may agree with me, or you may disagree with me, but at least - hopefully - you leave my essays with a greater appreciation for the complexity of a particular topic than you had beforehand.

My opinions may not be worth as much as a certifiable expert's, but then again, sometimes I think they're worth more.  Such as when, for example, it seems a bit of ivory tower theology has been unleashed.

Consider the case with a recent post by Dr. William VanDoodewaard on his blog, "The Christian Pundit."  Entitled "When Divorce is Good and Holy" - got your attention already? - the post takes marital infidelity and criticizes us evangelicals for assuming that, "as the unfaithful spouse comes to repent, it is unadvisable to divorce."

Huh?  What?  He's criticizing us evangelicals for advising against divorce when repentance is professed?  If a husband or wife is guilty of infidelity, shouldn't divorce be discouraged if the offending spouse repents and seeks reconciliation?  Who doesn't believe that?

Well, apparently VanDoodewaard, for one.  He's a professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, so he's no left-wing nut case, yet he's advocating that divorce can indeed "honor the God who gave this good and holy option."

Divorce as a good and holy option?  Sorry, I just don't see it.  And believe me, when I see genuine iconoclasm, with my predisposition towards cynicism, I'm usually all over it.  But not this time.

For VanDoodewaard, divorce can be distinguished between what he calls "treacherous divorce" and "godly divorce."  Apparently, godly divorce provides an "opportunity for a way out of a violated covenant for the innocent party," whereas treacherous divorce is divorce for any reason other than infidelity.

So, infidelity is an unpardonable sin?  Infidelity is worse than, say, whatever sin the aggrieved spouse may have committed to encourage the adulterous spouse in the first place?  Like, for example, withholding sex, something that in itself can be sinful, and can push the denied spouse into the embrace of another?

"Divorce can be a good and holy option - standing fully in harmony with Scriptural forgiveness," he claims.  "You can come to divorce a spouse who has violated covenant, by God’s grace, without bitterness or vengeance, in Christian wisdom and love - and at the same time, pursue divorce.  You can pursue the divorce of an adulterous spouse - and forgive them as a fellow believer, upon their confession and repentance of sin."

Does this seem bizarre to you?  It does to me.  Yet there's more.  VanDoodewaard actually tries to celebrate the option of divorce.

"Those of us who are pastors and elders ought to present this Christ-given option to the spouse whose covenant has been violated," he reasons.  "We should do so with gratitude and in faith, knowing that we are providing the innocent spouse with an option that Christ has graciously and lovingly provided for them."

Now, I'm not married.  Never have been.  Not even engaged.  So on the topic of marriage and divorce, there's no way I'm any sort of expert.  But am I out of line by being vehemently disturbed by VanDoodewaard's logic on this?

First of all, if we're going to talk about infidelity, where does the definition of infidelity begin?  According to Matthew 5:28, if we but think a lustful thought privately, we've already committed adultery in our heart.  Obviously, both husbands and wives can commit adultery multiple times a day without ever even being alone with somebody else.  Talk about an open-ended license to abdicate from one's marriage!

Besides, isn't Christ's point about divorce over adultery holding to more of the spirit of the law, instead of the letter of the law?  When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce in Matthew 19, Christ explained to them that Moses allowed divorce when "hearts were hard."  In other words, isn't Christ saying that if either spouse is unwilling to be gracious in accepting the repentance of an offending spouse, or if the offending spouse is unwilling to commit to repentance in the first place, then divorce is permitted?  And even then, although Christ allows for divorce, it hardly seems a concession worth glorifying.

Second of all, doesn't it seem as though VanDoodewaard is preoccupied with sex?  Sure, so I'm told, sex is a crucial element of any happy marriage, but it's not the only crucial element.  What about people who have sex before marriage, and their pastors tell them that with their marriage covenant, they can sort of start-over again?  Is that wrong now, too?  Sure, so I'm told, learning of a spouse's adultery hurts, and it undermines trust.  But here again, it's when the offending spouse refuses to repent and seek reconciliation that Christ provides a way of escape for the innocent party.  If indeed, there is a truly innocent party.  After all, a marriage involves two human beings, a man and a woman, and frankly, how many sexually-happy marriages fall apart from infidelity?

Third, what about marriage as a representation of our union with Christ, and the Church as His bride?  Does Christ look to escape from our waywardness and infidelity to Him?

Plus, what kind of testimony is the offending party displaying by playing the "get out of jail free" card, when we haven't talked about the Fruit of the Spirit here.  Love!  Joy, peace patience!  Kindness, goodness, faithfulness!  Gentleness, and self-control.  Wow, I see some pretty heavy fruit here that God may be wanting to magnify in some crippled marriages.  VanDoodewaard talks about God not contradicting Himself, and that is true.  So who's really doing the contradicting here?

Part of the reason why I'm so flabbergasted at VanDoodewaard's hubris is that he hardly needs to endorse what is already widely happening within evangelicalism.  I'm not sure I can think of more than one or two evangelical couples whom I know have stayed married after learning about adultery in their marriage.  Divorce in the Church is ravaging our witness to North America, and undermining our advocacy of heterosexual marriage.  To attempt to redefine divorce as a "good and holy option" in the aftermath of infidelity seems reckless and unnecessary at best, and unBiblical at worst.

Yes, divorce is an option, but it's an option in the face of belligerence and refusal to repent.  Hey, I know evangelicals who've divorced because of physical abuse, and I understand that, even though Scripture does not list physical abuse along with adultery as a divorcable reason.  During Bible times, women had virtually no legal status, sexual or otherwise, so having Christ speak specifically to spousal abuse and property rights for women may have struck His listeners as pure gibberish.

I understand why a spouse would want to legally divorce somebody who physically abuses them, even if a legal separation for an undetermined amount of time might be more Biblically appropriate.  Might it also be possible for a longsuffering spouse to be forced into divorcing their estranged partner to legally eliminate their liability for the partner's crimes?  There are situations of divorce that I believe God looks upon with His holy eyes towards the hearts of the people who feel as though such a step, even if it's not clearly sanctioned in the Bible, needs to be taken.  Part of the reason why I don't take a stronger line on some of these divorces is because, as a single male, I simply have no idea the emotional toll some experiences have on married people.  Nor do I understand all of the legal implications of staying married to people who are breaking the law.

Yet of all the stands I don't take when it comes to divorce, whether rightly or wrongly, I'm pretty sure the stand VanDoodewaard is taking towards it being a "good and holy option" is a product more of ivory tower theology than sound, Biblical advice.

For those of us who are the Bride of Christ, we should be eternally grateful that our loving Groom doesn't exercise the good professor's advice, either.

What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pro-Life Rubber Hits Road in Muñoz Crisis

At some point, if you want to get anyplace, the rubber's gotta hit the road.

It's called traction, right?

And for pro-life advocacy, traction isn't gained simply with legislation, but by individual acts of compassion, patience, diligence, and maybe even some inconvenience.  In real life, and real time.

Yesterday, we talked about the inconvenient truth a recent Dallas Morning News article revealed about pro-choice Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.  But even more inconvenient truth was revealed about another story yesterday in court documents by lawyers trying to remove a pregnant mother from life support.

In Davis' hometown of Fort Worth, the Muñoz family is currently staring a double-tragedy in the face.  A young father discovered his pregnant wife collapsed on their kitchen floor in the middle of the night, unresponsive, and, as hospital doctors soon determined, brain-dead.

At the time, back in November, she was 14 weeks into her pregnancy, and medical staff at the hospital initially believed that her fetus was healthy.  According to Texas law, even though the expectant mother was being sustained purely by machines, they couldn't "pull the plug" until her fetus was viable outside of her womb, which is generally around the 24th to 28th week.

So the family faced at least ten weeks of life support, after which the fetus would be surgically removed from its comatose mother, and likely sustained by more medical equipment for at least part of the rest of its term.

Good grief - what agony for the family, right?

Well, apparently, it's an agony the family decided to try and mitigate by hiring lawyers to force the hospital to go ahead and end it all now.  Both for the brain-dead mother, and her unborn child.  Their actions have elicited a wave of concern from pro-life advocates across the Fort Worth - Dallas area, who feel it's their duty to oppose the Muñoz family on principle.  A life is a life, even when it's in the womb.

Then yesterday, lawyers for the Muñoz family released discouraging details about the actual health of the fetus.  According to their statement, unborn baby Muñoz is "distinctly abnormal," with lower extremities "deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined."

But that's not all.  The fetus apparently has water on the brain, and may even have heart problems, although doctors can't yet be sure, since its mother is immobile.

It's possible that all of these alleged deformities occurred as a result of whatever precipitated Mrs. Muñoz's fall, or more likely, the fall itself.  Nobody knows the reason why this otherwise healthy pregnant woman collapsed and, for all practical purposes, died last November.  Presumably, she'd gotten up in the middle of the night to get her firstborn child, now a toddler, something to drink.  It was their toddler's incessant crying that motivated his father to check and see what was taking his wife so long in pacifying him.  That's when he found her on the kitchen floor.

We don't know how she fell, or how violent her fall was.  We don't know for how long unborn baby Muñoz may have been deprived of essential oxygen before its mother began to receive medical attention.  Doctors speculate that Mrs. Muñoz suffered a pulmonary embolism, which is a blockage of an artery in the lungs.  Confirmation of this speculative diagnosis can only be made by an autopsy.

The more you think about it, and the more questions arise, the more ugly, bizarre, and even repulsive this narrative becomes.

It's at this point that we pro-lifers, looking on from the sidelines, would coo plaintively, "but what's in the womb is still a life.  The fetus isn't ugly, bizarre, or repulsive to God.  And it shouldn't be to us.  We need to preserve this fetus by keeping its mother on life support for a few more weeks until it's viable outside of the womb."

Okay, but is unborn baby Muñoz viable outside of the womb?

At first, when this unhappy story broke into our consciousness, nobody really knew the health of the fetus.  It hadn't yet been determined the extent to which the fetus might have been harmed - or indeed, we must consider, "terminated" - by the fall its mother unwittingly suffered.  Apparently, all of its basic vital signs were registering positively.  At first.  But now, as this pregnancy has progressed, medical science can determine more and more things.  A fetus' health can be more accurately measured.  And more truth can be revealed, whether we think that truth is convenient or not.

If medical ethicists thought they already had their hands full with the Muñoz case, this new information seems to give us a whole new ballgame.  On the one hand, we can hope and pray for miracles to take place inside of Mrs. Muñoz.  After all, with life, there is hope.  On the other hand, however, we can't deny that things look profoundly grim for the viability of unborn baby Muñoz outside of the womb, particularly when one considers that it will still have a long row to hoe through the rest of its natural term.  Even getting to the point of viability outside of the womb is no guarantee of anything; it's mostly a legal dot on the timeline for when the hospital can be officially allowed to turn off the life support for its mother.

For pro-lifers, isn't this where the rubber hits the road?  We're not talking moral abstractions, or safe sex, or sex within marriage, or the convenience of parenthood.  We're not even talking "womens' rights" or choosing to abort.  We like to rely on the slogan, "it's not a choice, it's a life."  But is it, in this case?

Yes, with life, there is hope.  But... is there life?

Is unborn baby Muñoz dead?  Is its fetus growing and maturing, or simply exhibiting the compounding of cells and tissue that are a remnant of developments instigated when its mother was still alive?  What is the definition of life?  If we pro-lifers are going to define life - at least, life in the womb - as a progressive maturation towards viability outside of the womb, even regardless of what we'd conventionally consider to be normal functionality of all limbs and organs, can we go with just a heartbeat in a fetus?  What about the brain?  If there's water on it, what does that mean about its ability to sustain life throughout the rest of its body?  We've all pretty much agreed that its mother is brain-dead, and we're all pretty much waiting to pull the plug on her that powers the artificial beating of her otherwise dormant heart.  Is there a time when we should also pull the plug on her fetus?

Cases like this are so rare, and their contributing factors so diverse, medical experts say no reliable data exists that can provide comprehensive answers.  Medically, ethically, or otherwise.

Oh, my goodness, this is such a confounding dilemma.  Pro-lifers cannot simply recite the mantra now about "all life is precious," because we can't say whether any more life is left inside of Mrs. Muñoz. 

Perhaps, if the Muñoz family were independently wealthy, we could encourage them to stay the course and wait and see some more, but who knows how much all of this is costing them, and how much insurance is paying for?  On the one hand, it sounds bitterly calloused to drag money into the discussion at a time like this, but hey, can pro-lifers maintain the dignity of life without at least acknowledging life's practical, albeit inconvenient, aspects?  We can shake our heads at how awful all of this must be for the Muñoz family, but who's going to step up and write the checks to support them?  After all, it's not like they've asked for these tragedies.  In fact, it's hard not to see any other reason for this than God allowing it to happen so He is somehow glorified through it, and through us.

Even that would be merely a theological platitude if pro-lifers didn't respect the dignity of life in all its forms.  After all, this isn't just about unborn baby Muñoz, but about its mother, and its father, and even a world of pro-choice spectators who love accusing us pro-lifers of focusing exclusively on the fetus. And you know what?  The rubber is about to hit the road in this hospital in Fort Worth, whether we pro-lifers model the Fruit of the Spirit or not.

Rhetoric and cliches won't work now.  But the traction of the Gospel, as we apply it to this real, incredible situation, can.

There is a time for everything; 
a time to be born and a time to die, 
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to search and a time to give up, 
a time to keep and a time to throw away... 
I have seen the burden God has laid on men.  
He has made everything beautiful in its time.  
He has also set eternity in the hearts of men, 
yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
- from Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

Update:  On Friday afternoon, January 24, a state district judge in Fort Worth ruled that Mrs. Muñoz should be removed from all life support apparatus by 5pm on Monday.  Recent tests by the hospital indicate that the fetus will not be viable outside of the womb.

Second Update:  On Sunday morning, January 26, after her family was given time to make their final arrangements, Mrs. Muñoz and her fetus were officially removed from all life support systems.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Inconvenient Truth in Wendy Davis Story

On the one hand, it's hardly news.

A female politician fudged her age, exaggerated her misfortune in a mobile home, and insinuated that she make it all the way through Harvard Law School without help from anybody else.

Taken at face value, the truth about Texas State Senator Wendy Davis is far less compelling.  She has been exposed by a reality-check report in the Dallas Morning News as just another typical politician.  Distorting facts, misrepresenting life experiences, and claiming credit for things other people did.


However, we also learned that Davis, as a young waitress working at her father's dinner theater, selected an older customer of his to pursue.  She learned he was an affluent lawyer, so she asked her father to fix them up.  Turns out, it was this affluent older lawyer who helped pay for her college courses at Texas Christian University, here in Fort Worth, and then at Harvard Law.  Soon after the couple sent in their final payment to Harvard for her degree, she left the guy.  He would file for divorce based on her infidelity, but they settled for a more benign claim of "insupportability," ostensibly to protect both of their reputations.  And he got custody of their daughter.

So far, who's the hero in this story, if there is one?  Certainly not the woman who left her two daughters with the man who paid for most of her education.  Some might call her a vamp, were it not for the fact that as a lawyer, Davis could sue the pants off them for libel and slander.  Still, it's obvious she's attractive, manipulative, and extraordinarily ambitious, all in a combination that reeks of irresponsibility, misplaced affections, and greed.

Nevertheless, that's hardly news for a politician, is it?  If this had been a man's story, editors at the Morning News would have been asking their reporter, "so, what else ya got?"

Well, the thing is, Davis has built her campaign for Texas governor around the narrative of a poor, divorced 19-year-old mother living in a mobile home and fighting all of life's hard knocks by herself to achieve a flashy degree from Harvard Law.  All without men.  All as a woman with only her star to guide her.  When she captured national attention during a pro-life vote botched by flippant Texas Senate Republicans last summer, when she was merely just another senator from Fort Worth, this narrative of individualized, idealized womanhood elevated her status beyond simply that of a bleached blonde networker who knew how to get attention.

Except now, with the Morning News piece, when people use pejorative terms like "manipulative" and "bleached blonde" when describing her, it's hard for Davis to reclaim that bit about her own suffering.  We've got the older husband's "flattery" at first being asked for a date by somebody like Davis.  We've got the attorney husband who admits to being used so she could establish herself not only in the legal profession, but Fort Worth's political scene.  A political scene, by the way, in which she used to be a Republican.

She's as cool and calculating as any good-looking, get-ahead man.  Yet that's not really a compliment.  If the battle is equal rights for women, Davis's story seems to show that, at least for a fifty-year-old female legislator now running for governor of Texas, she still needed a man.

Or at least, she thought she did.  Hey, at least it's not illegal, like those lavish gifts the former governor of Virginia and his wife, Robert and Maureen McDonnell, are accused of accepting during his tenure.

So maybe that's why being pro-abortion is Davis' political schtick.  It sounds really good to say that you're working for giving to other women better choices than the ones you had when you were trying to make something of yourself.  It doesn't make for good politics - especially in a state as conservative as Texas - to admit that you gave your youngest daughter to the husband who filed for divorce from you over infidelity.  Or that he would tell the media something about motherhood not being convenient for you, what with your burgeoning law career and all.  The obvious connection to be made is that abortion would have been the easy out for Davis, especially since she needed to vamp a rich, older lawyer to progress more effectively in what she wanted to accomplish for herself.  And sure enough, in some of her campaign material released since the Morning News report, Davis has tried to shift the blame from herself to a media she claims is dragging her family drama into the light of day.

But in reality, Davis had the same chances any other woman has - at least, any other attractive woman.  Get a sugar daddy to bankroll most of your education, and dump him - and your girls - when the time is right.  Gold-digging is not generally considered a feminist virtue, since it usually can only be successfully waged if the woman digging for gold is as good-looking as Davis.  Better to cloak it all with something far more sensational and provocative.  Something like abortion.

For Davis, all the pieces seemed to fit.  Well, the ones she was able to doctor or ignore, anyway.

Today is the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade that marked the beginning of a fateful chapter in abortion's legality here in the United States.  Feminists have spent the past 41 years telling us that the pro-life movement lacks credibility because of all the narcissistic men who have no idea what it's like to be a woman faced with the inconvenience of children.

Then we learn things about people like Wendy Davis, and the question of credibility shifts to the type of narcissism her second ex-husband described to the Morning News, and that Davis herself has not denied.

He claimed that as they finalized their divorce, she opted to pay child support instead of assume custody of their daughter, then in the 9th grade.  "While I’ve been a good mother," he recalled her as rationalizing, "it’s not a good time for me right now.’”

How many male politicians have refused to let the inconveniences and complications of being a husband and father get in the way of their career ambitions?  For every one of these guys, perhaps the credibility claim by pro-choicers has some merit.  However, when the same refusal comes from somebody like Davis, doesn't it seem as though the double-standard feminists accuse pro-life men of having is still... a double-standard?

Or maybe even worse - since the mother that is supposed to know what's best for herself can still willingly hand off her post-birth daughter because "it's not a good time" to be a mom?

Davis defends her mothering skills, pointing out that both of her daughters appear in one of her campaign videos.  And we should all hope that whatever drama Davis has inflicted upon their lives, they've each been able to reconcile and move beyond it.

Of course, the one difference between Davis' story and the stories she wants to abort between hundreds of thousands of other children and their birth mothers is that her daughters are alive to forgive her in person.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fanfare for the Common Grampa

Today, my Grampa would be 100 years old.

He was my Mom's father; a tall, spindly man with lanky arms and legs, and practically no body fat.  A manual laborer all his life, he rarely kept more than an ounce of fat on his skin and bones.

That is one trait I definitely did not inherit from him!

He died in 1980, in Maine, the same state in which he was born, and where he lived most of his life, with the exception of stints in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  When I was growing up in Upstate New York, he and my grandmother would drive west from Maine to visit us, and I believe that was about the furthest he wanted to get from the Pine Tree State.

Like many native Mainers, he was born into poverty, worked most of his life just to keep his family fed, and never acquired much in the way of material possessions.  He and my grandmother, whom we called "Grammie," didn't get a television until long after we'd gotten ours - and we got ours after I came home from Kindergarten asking my parents who Mr. Rogers was!  My Grammie never learned how to drive - a lot of married women didn't back then in rural Maine - so it was just Grampa who drove their one car.  And those cars were always used; as in, several previous owners.  The first car of theirs that I remember was an old beige-colored Ford Falcon two-door, and then a newer taupe-colored Falcon, and then a four-door Dodge.  The Dodge was fairly big, bright blue with a black hardtop, and it was almost too fancy for Grammie, even though it didn't have power anything.

That's how many native Maine folks used to be.  Simple.  Reserved.  Quiet.  Hard-working.  Nothing flashy.  All the expensive cars on the roadways of Maine, especially along the coast, where my grandparents lived, belonged to vacationing summer people "from away."

The closest Mom's parents got to fancy was on Sundays.  He may have been a manual laborer, but Grampa would dress up for church every week.  He had an elegant gray suit, and socks with little diamond patterns on them.  He'd polish up his black Sunday-best shoes - long, narrow, heavy things those were.  Tie up his tie, slip on his tie clip, stick a crisply-folded white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit, and I'd never have pegged him as a guy who dug ditches or drove snowplows.

Almost all of my memories of him have him wearing a broad smile.  His cheeks would be a ruddy red, along with the tip of his nose, because most of my memories of him were made when we visited them in frozen Maine on Thanksgivings.  Even when Grampa and Grammie would come to Upstate New York, however, he'd work outside with Dad around our century-old farmhouse, fixing things or cutting firewood.  He always smelled of sawdust, or soot, or sand, or whatever that stuff was that he put on his hair to try and keep it neat.  Usually, however, his hair was the neatest at the breakfast table, right after he'd combed it.  After that, there was work to be done, and depending on the job at hand, the appropriate hat to be worn.

A few years before his death, somebody had sold him on the cheap an old, rusted-out International Harvester pickup truck with only wood boards where the pickup bed used to be.  It was a faded green color, with worn-out seats and battered chrome, but it was a work truck, so Grampa didn't care what it looked like.  Oddly enough, though, he never parked it in the driveway near the house, next to his blue Dodge sedan with the black vinyl hardtop.  Their property extended to a gravel drive on the other side of a brook that ran past their house, and he'd always park that truck over there, up under some overhanging limbs.  "To keep it out of the way," I think is how he explained to me.

All of his hard work eventually combined with some health problems that stemmed from his poor diet while he was growing up, um, poor.  His heart began to fail him, and he had bypass surgery that prolonged his life for only a few years, but back in the late 1970's, that was considered progress.  In his last winter alive, he was so weak, he couldn't chop wood for their stove, so the community up there in rural coastal Maine got together and cut several cords of wood to keep their stove going throughout the frigid season.  They cut so much wood, in fact, it made headlines in the local newspaper.  Over the years, my Grampa had done so much for so many other people on their sparsely-populated peninsula, cutting some wood for him was the least they could do in return.

A lot of people may take an hour out of their day to attend a funeral.  But how many will spend all Saturday chopping wood for you?

He died the next summer, on a splendid June day; the type of day I've come to say is one of those perfect summer days in Maine.  And a perfect summer day in Maine is truly a perfect day.  Not too hot, but with sunshine so buttery and abundant, it seems to be oozing out of the sun itself.  Clear air, more sparkling than glass.  Just the hint of a breeze, and the wind in the breeze is just the right temperature.  The grass on the lawns and the leaves in the trees become almost a translucent green, and the blue sky appears to go on forever through space.  My grandparents had a lovely patch of lawn to the eastern side of their little house, opposite the kitchen, and the view from that yard went across the road, under some magnificent tall trees, down a steep meadow, to a body of salt water called a "reach," which is a stretch of the ocean between the mainland and an island.

Unless you die in your sleep, a person can't ask for a better setting to be ushered from Earth into Eternity.  And my tired, thin, aging grandfather was lovingly blessed by our Heavenly Father with just such a transition.  It was after lunch, and Grampa was settling down in one of the two hand-made, wood Adirondack chairs that he'd painted a baby blue, perched over on the grassy lawn beyond the kitchen window.  Grammie was inside at the kitchen sink, washing up the lunch dishes, getting ready to join her husband and relax in the calm afternoon.  Briefly, she looked away while handling some plates.  When her gaze returned to the window, and to my Grampa, she saw that his head had slumped down.  His eyes closed.  Sitting in one of the baby blue Adirondack chairs, facing the water.  Under the deep sky, beyond which, angels were welcoming him into Glory.

Grammie didn't rush out to Grampa in a panic.  She knew instantly what had happened.

She dried her hands, went out to the Adirondack chairs, and softly bid him goodbye.

Does anybody have a pet name for you?  We don't know where he got it, but Grampa would call my brother and me "Sproggin."  As in, "how are my Sproggins today?"  Have you ever heard of that word?

He had some quirks, but he was also one of the millions of ordinary people who never were elected to public office, never held a high-paying job, never commanded troops in battle, never moved mountains... and never was upset that he hadn't.  Although, eventually, he did became a trustee in his village's historic little church.  I still have his well-worn Bible in a box in my closet; too fragile and delicate practically to look at, let alone use.  Sunday mornings, he'd be dressed in that gray suit, sitting at his little wood desk, reading that Bible to himself before the rest of us were done with breakfast.  I remember how he'd carefully turn its thin pages, his long, skinny fingers smoothing back the paper in a subconscious caress, up and down the crease in the binding, and clearing his throat repeatedly when he'd read aloud from it in that hardy Maine accent of his.

Grampa and Grammie are both buried in a humble little cemetery nestled up against a forest of pine trees, set apart from the road by blueberry fields and a white picket fence.  The church they used to attend is now closed, never used, like untold numbers of other formerly robust churches across New England.  The house where they last lived is currently owned by people from New York State and has been modernized beyond what my grandparents would probably neither recognize nor consider prudent.  Meanwhile, the two baby blue Adirondack chairs are here in Texas, in the garage, wrapped in plastic, on a shelf over my car.  A gold Honda Accord.

Too flashy, you think?

I'm not sure what Grampa would say about me owning a gold-colored Japanese car.  Or about his Adirondack chairs sitting on a shelf in a garage in Texas.  We don't know which is the one he died in, but it doesn't really matter.  Both of those chairs are a link to Grampa, just like his old Bible is.  A link not only to him, but to those perfect summer days in Maine.  And the even greater Perfection to which Grampa was called on one of those perfect days.

Some people get a lot of money from their grandparents when they die.  And that's all well and good.  Some grandparents leave both an abundance of money and wonderful memories, which probably is better still.  But some memories you just can't buy.  And you shouldn't want to.

Happy 100th birthday, Grampa - from one of your Sproggins.

Monday, January 20, 2014

King's Character Content Quotient

Putting words in his mouth.

Today is the day we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some people will mark the occasion by attending a civic parade, marching down a road that used to be called something else, but is now called "Martin Luther King Boulevard," because it runs through a predominantly black neighborhood.  Others will perhaps participate in some act of charity or public-spirited endeavor, like painting the outside of a house in a run-down part of town, that just happens to be owned by a widowed elderly black lady.

Some corporations will give their employees time to participate in these conventional racially-themed activities as a good-will gesture.  They'll make sure local television news cameras are on-hand to capture the scene as blacks and whites, who ordinarily labor harmoniously alongside each other in their rewarding white-collar jobs, are hard at work happily making life just a little bit better for somebody whom corporate America would otherwise ignore.

Like a lot of American holidays, Martin Luther King Day is a day for pretension, and lately, in addition to the parades and Habitat for Humanity PR stunts, people try to vocalize what Dr. King would say if he were alive today.  They imagine how he would view the civil rights struggle, fifty years after his assassination.  He would be 84 by now; about to turn 85 in April.  Granted, black men of his generation did not have a very robust life expectancy, even if they weren't the target of an assassin's bullet.

Whomever the assassin(s) was(were).

James Earl Ray was the man officials accused of pulling the trigger, and initially, Ray confessed.  But he quickly recanted, and spend the rest of his life claiming King's death was the result of a conspiracy.  In 1999, the King family officially lent credence to Ray's claims, although all the facts may never be known.

And speaking of life expectancy, the doctor who performed King's autopsy said the civil rights leader may have been 39 calendar years old when he died, but the ravages of his struggle had worn his heart down to a 60-year-old's.

Here in Dallas last week, one of the TV stations broadcast some video from an elementary school's assembly in honor of King, and one little girl trying to complete the sentence, "what would Dr. King say today?"  She perhaps gave the best answer that could be given when she stated simply, "I don't know."  No platitudes, no poetry; but she did add something else, to the effect that "whatever he'd say, he probably wouldn't be satisfied with where we are."

And that's true enough, don't you think?  Both the probability of his not being satisfied, but also our genuine lack of knowledge of how he himself might have been transformed personally, not just politically or socially.  If he'd never been killed, had never died from a prematurely-aged heart, and were alive today, perhaps he'd have run for office at some time during these intervening 50 years.  Or maybe one of his children would have run.  But it's hard to tell how much he could have accomplished as a legislator from Georgia, especially considering the Deep South's protracted acquiescence to civil rights - even in the wake of King's assassination.

Then too, it's hard to tell what life would have been like if society hadn't reacted so decisively to the death of such an iconic figure as King.  When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, some scholars have said that the shock of such an audacious attack on the leader of the free world - whether Democrat or Republican - actually galvanized both legislators and voters.  Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, was a bulldog of a politician, yet he may have had an even easier time hammering through the assassinated president's legacy legislation based as much on sympathy and political correctness in the face of patriotic fervor, as much as anything else.  Might King's legacy similarly be greater today because he was assassinated, instead of being left to live out his life?  After all, an early death has a way of granting history the chance to enshrine the memory of a life so publicly cut short.  Given the chance to live out that life naturally, there's always the chance a person could blow it.  For King, he had those widely rumored affairs with women not his wife, and the FBI was apparently convinced that he was a closet Communist.  With all due respect to King's memory, personal indiscretion and government-instigated slander have brought down mightier public personages.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what King would say today.  The fact is that while he was alive, King put his voice to a good many ideologies that, frankly, our Founding Fathers should have incorporated into our country's incorporation papers.  Don't forget that after the American Revolution, not only were slaves - and howevermany free blacks there were - not eligible to vote, women and men who didn't own land weren't, either.  Weird, huh?  If somebody today were to read some of King's greatest speeches without knowing who he was, much of what he encourages American society to be is, technically, little more than what we've idealized our Founding Fathers to have intended for our country.  For King to be calling for that idealized America still, over 175 years after the birth of our country, casts him in as positive a light as it casts the people who were supposed to be forming this "more perfect union" in a negative one.

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, 'Wait.'  But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim... when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.  There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair."  - from "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

And then there is King's dream that makes one wonder what what the Founding Fathers would have said, had they been alive to hear King proclaim it from the steps of the Lincoln memorial in 1963:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." - from "I Have a Dream" speech

Of course, being judged by the content of one's character is a two-way street, isn't it?  The very people whose personal characteristics include bigotry are the ones who could be judged as not being worthy of emulation or honor.  But they were the ones to whom King was appealing, and even today, to whom his legacy continues to call.  People not only with white skin, you understand, but blacks, Hispanics, Middle-Easterners, Jews, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, Asians, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers...

If King were alive today, what might he say about the status of race relations in the United States?

How about something like this:  "well, unfortunately, Americans have progressed on race about as far as they've progressed on judging anybody else by the content of their character."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Obama Says NSA's Privacy Matters Most

Paul Revere?

Seriously, Mr. President?  You're comparing eyeball observations of troop movements by Colonial upstarts to digitally spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

From the first paragraph of Barak Obama's speech today on surveillance being conducted by our National Security Agency (NSA), it's obvious Washington's spin doctors have no intention of conceding any privacy to the hapless American public.  Or the German public, or the German chancellor, or anybody else.

Apparently, according to our president, counting the number of enemy campfires is the same as collecting data on millions of cell phone conversations.  Seriously?  How can we listen with a straight face as the president who's given us Obamacare condones privacy piracy and waxes eloquently on "traditions of limited government" at the same time?

Few Americans remain unaware of the serious threats existing against not only our national security apparatus, but also our air space, our electric grids, our computer servers, our credit card accounts, our Social Security numbers, our smartphones, our municipal water supplies, and our large sporting events.  We get it.  We know there are bad guys out there.

We understand that one of the key duties of our federal government involves the protection of our citizens.  We have also resigned ourselves to the reality that in our wired world, very little is literally private anymore.  But we've reached this point of resignation with an important understanding:  we still have legal recourse if we discover that some data-collection entity has gleaned our personal information in an illegal manner, or has conveyed it - whether deliberately or through a security breach - to a third party with neither our knowledge or consent.

This morning, in one of my e-mail accounts, I received a notice from Target that my personal identification information was included in their massive criminal "intrusion" (as they put it) that has been widely publicized.  I hadn't shopped at Target during the dates listed as the timeframe during which their intrusion took place, so I wasn't expecting to receive any notification from the store.  But somehow, the bad guys got my information anyway, and Target is wanting to cover its legal bases before people like me decide to climb aboard some class-action lawsuit.  The retailer is offering me a free year of credit monitoring, ostensibly as a sweetener to diffuse any notion I might have to call a lawyer.  I've been checking my bank and credit card accounts, and nothing untoward has appeared on them.  I won't sue, and I probably won't even sign up for the free year of credit monitoring.  But the point is that I have a legal path available to me should I decide I need to take action against somebody who did not sufficiently protect the personal information I've entrusted with them.

See the difference?

With what America's national intelligence industry does with our private information, you and I have no legal recourse.  We don't have any reason to trust our government with the data it collects on us.  And one of the reasons we can't trust our government is because we don't really know what they do with the information they collect on us.  To hear the president tell it, the sacrifice we make by allowing ourselves to deny ourselves the right to protect our personal lives without due process is all for a good cause.

But is it?  Would that make sense to him if he was a private citizen?

Let's forget, for a moment, everything you know about President Obama.  Forget everything you know about former President Bush, or any other president.  Just imagine the leader of the "free" world, whomever that may be, giving this speech after we've all learned about how the NSA does business.  How much of this speech would you believe?

Here we have a person in the Oval Office who gets security briefings every day to which we're not privy.  This person has a far greater understanding of the breadth and scope of our national intelligence apparatus than we do.  This person knows about these secret courts that determine the secret legality of secret data collection, while we don't.  This person has allowed massive amounts of data to be collected on unsuspecting, everyday, average Americans and allied citizens, and is now facing a world full of scorn.  This person has his personal backside to protect, their political legitimacy to protect, and the fate of human spies on our government's payroll to protect.  Spies whose very lives have already been placed in certain regions of the world for reasons based on this ill-gotten data of ours.  To whom do you think presidents owe dearer allegiance when it comes to security issues?  You and me, or our national security apparatus?

Do you see?  It doesn't matter which president is the one giving a speech like today's.  Because you know what?  Any president will only know what the people who are really in charge of our national intelligence agencies want him or her to know.  And those people who are genuinely in control of how our data-gathering mechanisms work are as anonymous to us as any president we've never met.  Yet they're the ones controlling what any commander-in-chief will learn about our intelligence capabilities.  At this point, at least on this topic, presidents are mere puppets.

Now how much do you trust what the president said today?

Haven't we gone beyond laws, and common sense, and civil liberties, and all of these other protections that only exist in our visible, analog world?  Even if President Obama could shut down the NSA today, and forbid the collection of one byte of data, untold amounts of data that has been collected over the years would still be out there, wherever "there" is.  Some of it might be outdated by now, but when was the last time you moved, or changed your phone number, or your Social Security number?  In some respects, in terms of the basic invasion of our privacy, that horse bolted from the barn long ago.  Closing the gate now would only be a desperate attempt at thwarting future egregious security breaches.

That's not to say that we shouldn't try to close the barn door and bolt it.  But shouldn't we be realistic about what's at stake?

We are not being realistic when we say that we have nothing to fear about federal surveillance if we've nothing to hide.  Having nothing to hide is beside the point.  Besides, your idea of "nothing to hide" may be quite different from mine.

We are not being realistic when we say that only our telephone numbers are being recorded.  Who can prove our telephone calls are not being listened to and recorded?  Maybe not all of them, no, but that's not the point, either.

We are not being realistic when we wave off privacy concerns by rationalizing that we have to give up some freedoms to preserve freedom.  That may be the case in airports, when we choose to fly, but it should not be the case with basic human activities like interpersonal communication.

The President doesn't seem to understand that the "damage done to our operations" by the anecdotal testimony of Edward Snowden wasn't in the information he released about the NSA, but the very fact that the NSA is collecting all of this information on otherwise law-abiding people.  Neither does the President seem willing to admit that the anger millions of Americans have towards the NSA isn't directed at their capabilities, but how they deploy those capabilities.  If our government can identify suspects who can be proven in court to be persons of interest regarding crimes that may be about to occur, or have already occurred, then few Americans would deny the NSA the moral imperative to monitor the communications of those suspects.  Indeed, most of us would expect them to be capable of doing so.

It's the casting of nets in the sea of unidentified bystanders that we Americans are against!  Isn't having our government spy on us - just because it can - an unconstitutional violation of the principle of "innocent until proven guilty?"  In the incessantly generalized language of his speech, unfortunately, the President indicates an unwillingness to concede that under Washington's new world order, all of us are now suspects.

Besides, he once again rationalizes, the phone companies were saving all of this data, too.  But we can sue them, Mr. President.  And I doubt they pay to store all of that data for too long.  Who knows how long our government will keep what it collects?

Granted, the President is correct in acknowledging that a lot of the anxiety over the Snowden leaks stems from our national security's vital security laws.  Nobody can simply divulge all of the specifics and details of our government's spying activities without breaking some national security law themselves.  I myself believe that although he provided a valuable service to the American people, Snowden needs to have himself held accountable before a court of law for what he did.  However, that court of law should be a public court, so we could all hear what he and his prosecutors have to say.

As it is, nothing the President said or did today regarding the new changes in how our data is processed will console Americans who feel violated, angry, and helpless against our increasingly hostile government.  And do you know why?  Because Americans are also fearful.  And fear is a more powerful motivator than anger.  We fear another 9-11.  That's another thing the President got right in his speech.  And he knows that this fear overrules more Americans than the anger over losing our freedoms does others of us Americans.  Perhaps Obama himself is fearful.  Fearful not only of having another 9-11 happen on his watch, but fearful for what it would mean for our country on into the future.

So we know that nothing will really change.  We know that all of the illogical platitudes in Obama's speech will clang with dissonance in our ears as even the hardiest patriots among us admit that they really have nothing better to offer in terms of national security.  In other words, according to our elected (and unelected) officials, the NSA's privacy is more important than yours and mine.

It's been said that when we capitulate to fear from freedom, the terrorists will have won.

Was today's Obama's concession speech?