Friday, May 30, 2014

Scandalous Affairs Veterans Don't Deserve

And, so it begins.

Washington's way of biting the bullet.

Today, Eric Shinseki stepped up and stepped down as secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the first big name to be sacrificed by President Barak Obama's cabinet in the wake of an alarming scandal within the agency's healthcare division.

But nobody expects Shinseki to be the only fall guy in this story.  In fact, the extent to which Shinseki may have known that wait times at VA hospitals were being cooked is debatable.  But in the end, how much does it really matter?

That Shinseki's culpability probably doesn't matter stems from the reality that ultimately, he couldn't do anything about it anyway, even if he knew.  The reason wait times were being covered up almost certainly involved a lack of funds.  Not enough money to hire enough doctors, nurses, and medical technicians to adequately service the healthcare needs of our veterans.  That, despite the VA being the second-largest agency in our government, with 300,000 employees and a $140 billion budget.  The only agency larger than the VA is our Department of Defense, from which veterans, naturally, matriculate.

When President George W. Bush decided to fight two global wars simultaneously, a lot of money was spent on front line action in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Meanwhile, 2.3 million Americans have returned home after serving in those two theaters of operation, and nearly three-quarters of a million of them have enrolled in VA-provided healthcare programs.  And about 1,200 of them are amputees.

By way of comparison, over 16 million Americans fought in World War II, and 2.7 million in Vietnam.  Perhaps it could be argued that as the "Greatest Generation," as WWII vets have been called, continues to pass away at high rates as they age into the upper 80's, their permanent matriculation out of the VA system should free up budgetary dollars for new veterans returning from the Middle East.  That replacement effect is happening to a certain degree, but the wounds with which today's veterans are returning from today's war zones are more costly to fix than ever before.  Whereas WWII soldiers more easily died from their wounds, due to inferior lifesaving techniques and armament technology, today's soldiers more easily survive after an attack, but with all of the physical injuries that would have killed soldiers in former wars.

Amputation of limbs is one thing, but there's also the expense of re-attaching salvageable limbs, treating concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder, blindness, hearing loss, and fierce burns.  Besides, America currently has 22 million other veterans from former eras, since one doesn't need to have served in a war zone to have been employed to protect our country.

And the VA doesn't just run hospitals.  It tries to keep veterans from becoming homeless, it runs jobs programs for veterans, it helps pay for veterans to get college degrees, it provides mortgage assistance, and it buries our veterans and their spouses in sprawling national cemeteries across the country.  Considering all it's responsible for, the VA could be its own country, larger than Jamaica, Norway, Sweden, and Ireland combined.

Perhaps Shinseki wasn't the right person to administrate all of that responsibility, and now that the department is in crisis mode, it could have been just as unfair to force him to continue in his role.  After all, what's the likelihood that he is responsible for the deceit and delays of which VA hospital paper-pushers have been accused?  It's possible that cabinet-level decisions intentionally withheld resources from hospitals, and it's likely that the mid-level administrators who seem to be mostly to blame for this scandal were more eager to cook the books than stage their own protest over being unrealistically tasked with objectives they couldn't possibly fund on their budgets.

Which is where, if you boil this whole thing down, we need to be.  Has funding been adequate for the VA?  Not politically adequate, but adequate in terms of what the American public expects our retired servicemembers to receive in their healthcare?

After all, these veterans are the same people we hired to defend us, and risk their lives, their welfare, and their future health for our own comforts and safety.  Sure, soldiers get a paycheck, and yes, for many of them, it's the best job for which they could have ever hoped to qualify.  But does that negate our obligation to them?

Maybe it sounds to provincial and esoteric to speak of veterans in such patriotic language, but if I'd gone out to Afghanistan or Iraq, and gotten an arm blown off, or an ear burned off, I don't think it'd have been unreasonable of me to expect a continuity of healthcare once I left a field hospital and was discharged.  After all, soldiers are trained to fight, to kill, and to die.  It's not like they're being hired on at a stapler factor in Des Moines, and the worst injury their workers' compensation provider could expect would be tiny puncture wounds to the fingers.

Or are most of our veterans hypochondriacs, gaming the VA healthcare system with hoax symptoms and imaginary broken legs?  We've all heard the stories of con-artists in the military; are our politicians simply afraid of branding veterans who can't obtain private healthcare as sheisters?  And are Washington's bureaucrats simply tolerating the VA as the price we pay for the pretense of pacifying people trained in weaponry? 

Sometimes that seems to be their attitude.
Instead of starting with Shinseki, the President and Congress should have asked for a thorough review of the way the Department has been allocating and spending its financial resources.  Chances are, such a review wouldn't produce much vital information, since politicians don't really want the American people to know that their second-biggest governmental agency can't get the funding it needs.  But a review is what the American public should still expect, although it's doubtful many Americans are willing to pay more in taxes if doing so would propel the VA's funding to where it needs to be.

Like a lot of things in Washington, it's about money.  After all, if you look at all of the problems free-market hospitals in the civilian world are having with making ends meet, why should we be surprised that government-run hospitals are having financial problems? 

Unfortunately, in the VA's case, it's not even that budgets don't provide the necessary funds, but that people who should have known better, who should have been guided by better morality than they apparently were, and who should have been in positions of advocacy to bring whatever budgeting shortfalls they were experiencing to the appropriate leadership - even the president, if need be, were instead more content to run two sets of books so they could produce the numbers VA leaders wanted.  And win their promotions and bonuses.

Shinseki is not a career bureaucrat.  He's a military man, a veteran himself.  He held the job from which he resigned today for a paltry five years,  hardly long enough to ferret out the type of moral corruption that apparently is eroding the VA.  What is sad about his departure is that the people who should be leaving don't have the political clout to help President Obama portray himself as a resolver of this scandal.  And the people responsible for making sure the VA's budget includes the necessary funding to adequately care for our retired soldiers will be shifting as much blame as they possibly can onto President Obama.  So he'll be needing all the high-profile scapegoats he can find.

Such a vicious circle!

Meanwhile, why is it that America can never bring itself to treating our veterans with a greater measure of respect?  This isn't the first time our VA has been caught red-handed with the blood of former soldiers on its hands.  Remember the Walter Reed scandal?  Or the great benefit claims backlog?  We brag about our military, and we cheer the troops when they march by, but are they really as disposable as our collective treatment of them suggests?

What would happen if, before any president from here on out declares any type of war or military action, the Pentagon says, "whoa, there, Nellie.  What about hospital wait times for our troops who manage to come back home?"

How much longer does our military have to wait for some respect?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

How Should We Then Drink, if at All?

I don't drink alcohol.

But when I hear about other evangelicals who do, or don't, I'm curious as to why.

Often, the reasons why they don't seem a bit legalistic.  And the reasons why they do seem less about liberty and more about independence.  In other words, evangelicals who drink do so not simply because they're spiritually free in Christ, but also because they believe they're independent of other believers who might be led astray by their drinking.

In the case of D.L. Mayfield, a wife and mother who serves with her husband in an inner-city poverty relief ministry, the reason she doesn't drink stems from her relationships with people who drink way too much.  In the Midwest city where she and her family live, they know a lot of alcoholics, and have seen what abusive behavior towards alcohol can do to a person's body and soul.

Although, as a preacher's daughter, she grew up believing that drinking was a sin, she eventually found her parents' secret liquor stash.  Coincidentally, her discovery of her parents' duplicity on the subject of drinking took place as evangelicals in general "began to see that having an occasional drink was a grown-up way of enjoying yourself," as she puts it.  Along with Mayfield, her parents, and her sister, the broader world of Christianity has been adopting the practice of alcohol consumption as a way to transition from a fundamentalist view of religion, and towards a more socially-acceptable construct of faith.  Indeed, for many evangelicals, drinking has now become a way of refuting the legalism from which many of us want to disassociate ourselves.

Being drunk is still a sin, supposedly, but drinking in moderation isn't.  The appeal is in trying to find the difference between the two.

Yet for Mayfield, the question of whether it's appropriate for believers to drink hinges on how much we respect the genuine struggles alcoholics have.  After all, the Apostle Paul warns that we may have freedom in Christ to do something, but if that freedom causes somebody else to stumble in their faith, then we should refrain from exercising that freedom, at least in their presence, or with their knowledge.

And that, of course, is true.  Some evangelicals, particularly those who bristle at the idea of sacrificing what they want to do for the sake of somebody else - what we'd otherwise call petty selfishness - derisively call this notion the "tyranny of the weaker brother."  And isn't it hard to argue that viewing Paul's admonition in a negative light can still align with the Fruit of the Spirit?  Particularly in our day and time, when modern water purification systems have rendered alcohol consumption virtually unnecessary.

Not that Mayfield doesn't have a point.  "If you wear an 'I heart bacon' T-shirt," she reasons, "I will have to assume you don't have many Muslim or Jewish friends.  Likewise, if you are posting about how 'Mommy needs her wine,' I will assume you don't know anyone struggling with alcoholism.  At best, the progressive Christian social media world appears tone-deaf to many realities at the margins of society.  At its worst, it speaks to a relational divide that is much more problematic than the question of whether or not Christians should drink alcohol."

I agree that many believers insulate ourselves from people who either aren't like us, or who we don't want to admit are like us.  Besides, people who drink tend to be less inhibited in other ways as well, and they're usually more popular.  After all, who wants to spend their free time with somebody who doesn't want to be a little buzzed?

At least that's the reason I've figured I hear more about parties after the fact than in advance.

Mayfield, however, draws a correlation between the question of whether we should drink at all, and the worst manifestation of alcohol consumption, which is alcoholism.  She doesn't imply that everyone who drinks is an alcoholic, but by drawing a narrow perspective, she almost takes the personal responsibility of the alcoholic out of the equation.

"I didn't give up alcohol because I wanted to flee the evils of the world," Mayfield explains.  "I gave up alcohol as a way of engaging the evils of the world."

Say, what?  I can see how giving up alcohol can help somebody who's main ministry is outreach to alcoholics, but would we say that going to the movies is bad because a lot of people are too dependent on fantasy than reality in their lives?

Perhaps what Mayfield is trying to say is that publicly, we evangelicals should tone down our enthusiasm for liquor, so as to not create the appearance of insobriety, or an endorsement of it.  After all, one of the marks of an alcoholic is their glorification of alcohol and their frequent references to it in their lifestyles.  Personally, I tend to agree with an insinuation that Mayfield is making:  that many more evangelicals are closet alcoholics than we want to realize.

But is alcohol the problem, or our infatuation with it?  Our love of it?  Indeed, perhaps even our idolatry of it?  I frequently hear fellow Christians practically bragging about their use of alcohol, like it's some sort of badge of maturity or an emblem of righteous sophistication.  Meanwhile, I know of other evangelicals who quietly sip a glass of wine during their meals without any exaggeration of their freedom to do so.  This is where the difference between liberty and independence comes into play.  With most evangelicals seeming to err on the latter, rather than honoring the former.

For herself, Mayfield believes that abstention is the God-honoring course, and to the extent that she's weary of other evangelicals who feel compelled to assert their independence with alcohol, I tend to agree.  And if you don't, and you claim that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life, then why not quietly enjoy the fruit of the vine, just as Christ quietly created His new wine during the wedding at Cana?  The steward of that feast, remember, had no idea the best wine was what Christ had produced out of water.

After all, modeling the proper use of something can be one way of demonstrating how beneficial it can be.  Or at least, now non-sinful it can be.  And it's not like liquor causes anybody to be an alcoholic:  alcoholism is caused by physiological factors for which alcohol becomes a punitive balm, and an accessory to a sin.  In fact, Mayfield's point about Christians trying to hide their need for alcohol may also play into the reality that many of us try to hide our dependence on a lot of things instead of Christ alone.  We try to hide our fears, wants, insecurities, and illnesses that aren't socially acceptable.  And if we claim to be saved, the stigma of guilt for not being perfect can often seem to be assuaged by the comforting drink - or two, or several - of something that helps to dull what's bothering us.

I often wonder if evangelicals who drink would actually like to be freed from their need to drink, or their need to appear mature and sophisticated, or their need to be socially accepted.  Or their need to cover up some socially-unacceptable problem.

It may be unAmerican to think that independence isn't a desirable quality, but Christ never calls us to independence.  Can we ever use liberty as an excuse to sin?  And if we're not realistically evaluating how the things we do impact other believers or people who may not yet be saved, how might our behavior, whether it's with drinking, or eating, or going to the movies, or talking about other people, or acknowledging what other people have and do, be compromising our testimony?

We are not under the law, but under grace.  And grace is a two-way street, both as we receive it, and as we offer it to others.  So beware of drunken drivers, who are all about consuming grace, but not dispensing it.

And if it sounds like somebody's offering to call you a cab, take the hint.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Detroit's Real Real Estate Irony

This ain't no McMansion.

At over 16,000 square feet, with 15 bedrooms, this Tudor Revival home surrounded by mature trees commands a prime location in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in one of America's most well-known cities.  From stained-glass windows to intricate brasswork and iron ornamentation, the custom touches lavished on this grand residence testify to a craftsmanship that is almost extinct today.  It's been family-owned since being built in the Roaring Twenties, and features an indoor swimming pool, cathedral ceilings, and manicured gardens.  Its kitchen has been recently updated, replete with frosted glass cabinet doors, granite countertops, and one of those enormous fire-breathing commercial-grade furnaces foodies call a stove.

Its asking price?  Well, it's the highest price for a family residence its hometown has seen in at least ten years.

For how much could it sell in your community?  Here in Dallas, according to today's listings on, it could probably fetch between $10 to $12 million, with its age likely being its single drawback, since homebuyers in Texas tend to prefer newer construction over older.  On the coasts, its price would likely be even higher.

But, unfortunately for this house, it's located in Palmer Woods, one of Detroit's last residential neighborhoods that doesn't look like a war zone, or a Majority World country.  It's being auctioned off today, with its owners hoping to get $1.5 million for what was once the personal home of Alfred J. Fisher, the famed automotive industrialist.

Meanwhile, on the same day one of Detroit's legendary estates is scheduled to be auctioned off, city leaders are pouring over a just-released study on Motor City's even more famous blighted properties.  According to the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, tens of thousands of dilapidated and abandoned houses and industrial sites need to be cleared, at an estimated cost of nearly two billion dollars.  And while nobody's really surprised at the scope of Detroit's "ruin porn" problem, or the cost of removing it, the task force's report still packs a staggering wallop of reality for those grappling with the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

Over half of the city's population has left, and almost all of its manufacturing jobs.  Blame racism, unions, corrupt government bureaucrats, suburbanization, incompetent politicians, and scheister bankers all you want - and they all have various levels of responsibility for how Detroit has become what it is.  Nevertheless, the city has a dire situation on its hands when it comes not only to how it will survive bankruptcy, but how to manage all of its vacant property.  Property that not only weighs on the psyche of Detroit's remaining residents, but invites crimes like arson and narcotics trafficking, and consumes strained services like firefighting.

Some pundits have suggested that the city needs to physically consolidate itself, and re-organize its remaining residents and businesses within a much smaller footprint and street grid.  Of course, the problem with that is that people and businesses are still fleeing the city, with the exception of Detroit's downtown core, a nearby new urbanist experiment called Midtown, and a couple of surprisingly preserved silk-stocking subdivisions, like the one where the venerable Fisher mansion is located.  How much less room will a Detroit of the future need?  It's hard to tell - Motown hasn't stopped shrinking yet.

Not that other rust belt cities aren't struggling with similar woes of joblessness, high crime, suburbanization, population declines, and abandoned properties in the wake of industrialization's bust.  But Detroit's crisis is magnified beyond all others by data like the Blight Removal Task Force report.  If you haven't been to Detroit to see how bizarrely empty and appallingly decrepit the city is, the scope of the situation may elude you.  Even the folks who live there often seem blind to the devastation the rest of us can plainly see.

But is spending two billion dollars to remove blighted properties a good use of money?  And you can bet that it will almost all come from taxpayers in one way or another.  The chances that property owners who let their homesteads and factories decay can be forced into paying for their demolition are slim to none.  Environmentalists lament the hazardous materials in these properties being allowed to contaminate the soil and water, but how much fossil fuel will be needed to bulldoze down and truck away tens of thousands of structures?  And where will all of that debris be dumped?

According to the basic tenets of capitalism, new life should be able to revisit Detroit if innovation is allowed to flourish and new ideas are brought to the marketplace.  Businesses would establish themselves, people would move back, and these abandoned properties would be taken care of, one by one, as new owners took control of them.  Businesses would refurbish old office and retail sites, and probably ask for government funds to help do hazardous material remediation to the factories that are likely still laced with dangerous chemicals.  New homeowners would likely buy up vacant lots first, constructing new houses, and then as prices rose for empty lots, moving on to dilapidated, boarded-up houses to fix up.  In the process, a lot of these abandoned buildings still may have to be torn down, since they've been vacant for so long, but even then, private individuals and companies would be paying those costs, not taxpayers.

This is what's been going on in derelict parts of New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and even Dallas.  In Fort Worth, a neighborhood that was virtually empty a decade ago has since sprouted luxury apartments and hip urban villages in a re-make that has rendered the near west side unrecognizable for longtime residents.

It's not that people don't want to live in urban America anymore.  Quite the contrary.  The suburbanization and white flight that helped empty big cities has reversed itself in recent years, and indeed, some of Detroit's better-preserved 'hoods are finding their popularity being revived by young urbanists who view grunge, grime, and gritty city life as some bold new adventure.  But those pockets of reinvestment are very few and very far between in Detroit.  Which is why city leaders think clearing away blight could help with speeding up recovery efforts.  Fewer abandoned buildings makes the slate even cleaner for redevelopment.

But that's not how it works, is it?  Maybe on a case by case basis, with particular structures long infested with cancer-causing pollutants, some taxpayer incentives are necessary to make a larger rehabilitation project more economically viable.  Especially when the original owners of that pollution are no longer around, and cannot be held to account for the problems they created three decades ago.  Otherwise, however, on a massive scale such as Detroit's, where there has yet to be any discernible economic or residential need for Detroit's land, the two billion - Two Billion! - dollars it would take to significantly attack the city's blight seems ill-advised at best.

Supply and demand?  In Detroit, there's too much of the former, and hardly any of the latter.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans and one of the key players in whatever exists of downtown Detroit's real estate rebound, chaired the Blight Removal Task Force.  Of course he would be a champion for public funding of the city's clean-up campaign.

In a way, it's more business as usual for Motor City.

And it's also yet another warning from Detroit to the rest of America.

There is no such thing as a perfect city.  Put hundreds of thousands and millions of diverse people into the same jurisdiction, and charting the public's good - let alone paying for it - will be an exercise fraught more with discord than affection.  We all know that Detroit is the poster child for everything that can go wrong with a municipality.  But we also need to recognize that democracy, that institution we all say we cherish, can be complicit in a people group's downfall.  The more a majority of voters think the same unproductive things, and exercise their voting rights with a misfocused worldview, the deeper into holes people can vote themselves.  All the while, praising the virtues of democracy.

It's no secret that Detroit's voters, by and large, both black and white, over the span of generations, have tolerated levels of racism, corruption, and incompetence that other cities were somehow able to balance out through other means.  A healthy economy?  Nope - Detroit was all-in with manufacturing, and when that deteriorated, they didn't bother to diversify.  A vibrant cultural community?  Apparently not - since even the city's crown jewels over at the Detroit Institute of Arts are on the bankruptcy table.  Good schools?  The graduation rate for the city's public schools in 2008 was less than 25%.  It's almost tripled since then, but the number of students has sunk, distorting the data.

Meanwhile, there's no news yet as to whether the Fisher mansion sold at its $1.5 million asking price.  And it's supposed to be at the top end of the city's real estate valuations.

In the world of better homes and gardens, it may be quite a steal.

Two billion dollars to clear the city's blight, however, is still highway robbery.

Update:  I'm sorry, but it appears I mis-read the wording in the Detroit Free Press article describing both the sale of the Fisher mansion estate and the estate sale that was held yesterday at the mansion.  Apparently, the house wasn't up for auction yesterday; just its furnishings.  But the asking price is indeed $1.5 million.

Friday, May 23, 2014

What Christ Prayed for Us

Perhaps it was appropriate on this Friday, the unofficial start to a patriotic United States holiday, that my morning devotional took me to John 17, which has been called Christ's "high priestly prayer."  You'll recall that this chapter includes Christ's supplication not only for Himself, as He was facing imminent arrest, torture, and crucifixion, but also for His ragtag band of disciples.  And for you and me, as well.

Not long after this prayer, Christ is arrested and brought before Caiaphas who, ironically, was the Jews' official high priest that year.

In John 17, Christ asks God to glorify Him, because He had testified to God's reality, holiness, and truth before "the men you gave Me out of the world."  Christ vouches for the 11 disciples who had maintained faith in Him and God's Gospel, and testifies of their faithfulness, even though they are not perfect.  Then Christ expands His supplication to include everyone who at that time, and forever more, believes that He is the holy Son of God.

And do you remember what He asks God for us?  That we believers would be protected from Satan, sanctified in God's truth, and that we would be united.  In fact, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes unity in His prayer:

"As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.  For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.  My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one:  I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."  - John 17:18-23

Here He is, knowing what is about to unfold for Himself, and indeed, for the entire human race.  And what is His central theme in His high priestly prayer?  He prays for our unity.  Yours and mine.

Jesus doesn't mention His wishing that we would be able to argue forcefully for our viewpoint in the public square.  Nor that we would be able to vanquish all of the immorality that consumes our culture.  Nor that we would be economically prosperous, or politically free, or that our taxes would be low, or our government small, or that gay marriage would never be the law of any land, or that abortion wouldn't be tolerated by any civilization.

Instead, He asks for unity among the people who would follow His ways, and model their lives after what He taught about His Father, our Creator God.

On the one hand, doesn't it strike you as a bit bizarre?  When was the last time you or I asked God for unity among His chosen people?   But there it is.  Of all the things Christ could have prayed for us, He prayed for our unity, and He says our unified representation of the Gospel will be a testimony to the world that God sent Christ to us for our salvation.

In other words, our unity would, could, and will glorify God the Father and God the Son.

I don't know about you, but I'm somewhat ashamed for myself, that Christ prayed this prayer for me.  He knew full well when He prayed that for me - for me! And you! - that unity is not what I think about when I think about Christ's love for us.  Is it for you?  I think about myself, how my sanctification is working out - or isn't, as the case may seem.  I worry about whether I'm following Christ's teachings well, whether I'm modeling the Gospel appropriately, whether the Fruit of the Spirit is abundant in my life.  Then I worry about other self-professing Christ-followers, and how authentic and appropriate their testimonies are.

Don't you?  After all, it's human nature to be self-centered, isn't it?  To peg ourselves against what other people have and do, and who they are?  Our focus is lateral, instead of horizontal.  We don't bury hatchets, we keep them strapped to our waist, ready for use at a moment's notice.

Unity?  That's something for which new-age freaks and left-wing liberals advocate, so that everybody can do what is right in their own eyes.

That's not to say that Christ's followers should strive for unity at the expense of truth.  People who claim to believe that Christ is the Lord of their life damage the cause of Christ by pursuing teachings, viewpoints, and lifestyles that are not supported by God's Word.  Many people can find loopholes and gray areas in Scripture that either don't explicitly prohibit what they want to do or believe, or are open to some level of interpretation.  When we do so, however, are we honoring Christ, or are we satisfying personal desires for some form of self-aggrandizement?

Anything we do that doesn't put others before ourselves can jeopardize unity.

The history of the Church - not to mention the world in general - is littered with examples of Christian unity being marginalized in the interest of changing mores and morals, reinterpretations and misinterpretations of the Gospel, pride, arrogance, stubbornness, politics, and religiosity.  There have been times when things have gone so far off-course, that people like Martin Luther and William Wilberforce have had to step up to the plate and call the status-quo into account.  Indeed, it could be said that Luther was one of the most disruptive figures in the history of Christianity.  But was he at fault, or the people who had dragged the Gospel so far away from God's intended purposes?

When you and I look at our evangelical ghetto in modern-day America, we're encouraged to believe that advocating for people, policies, and perspectives that contribute to disunity within the Body of Christ is the price we pay for being standard-bearers of truth and righteousness.  Yet, according to John 17, how much might we be misleading ourselves, and shooting ourselves in our feet by so grossly misrepresenting Christ's desire for us and our testimony?

In terms of how American evangelicals wrap the Cross of Christ with the stars and stripes, it should be obvious that we're doing our testimony more harm than good when we bicker over politics that have no Biblical bearing on the lifestyle we should expect.  We incessantly confuse spiritual freedom with political freedom, which contributes to our love of money and individuality, and inevitably sows disunity when it comes to how we think our country should be run.  In such cases, the words of Christ in John 17 ring pretty clear, don't they?  Unity in Christ trumps our political and economic opinions.

So, when Christ prays for our unity, around what should we be unified?  Our ability to affect change, or preserve the things we want to preserve, as an influential voting block?  Our culture?  Our preferences, or the people we like, or what we're used to and comfortable with?

Um, no.

We're to be unified around God the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as Christ has made God known to us.

Of course, this itself can be a fairly open-ended objective, especially if you're as cynical as I am.  St. Augustine of Hippo is known for saying, "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."  But it's easy for us to argue about what is essential and non-essential, isn't it?

I propose that one way to clarify St. Augustine's perspective involves determining the person or entity who immediately benefits from deciding to do something one way or another.  If Christ is the Person who receives immediate benefit (and glory), then that is an "essential."  If you, I, a denomination, a political party, or a nationality receive immediate benefit, then we probably need to be careful about whether it's an essential or non-essential.

Interestingly, you'll notice that Christ didn't pray that we wouldn't have disagreements.  Might that be because disagreements don't necessarily create disunity?  Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ implored God that if it was possible, would His Father please - please! - remove the impending cup of wrath from Him.  That indicates at least a measure of difference between God the Father and God the Son, yet we know that the Trinity is in perfect union.  Besides, if God intended for all of His people to be autotrons, why would He create each of us individually unique?  Isn't it ironic that we're each created by God with our specific talents and identities, yet Christ wants us to be unified?

But think about it:  How could He be glorified if we walked in lockstep with each other?  Doesn't any ruler receive greater honor when their constituents, as varied as they are, work in unison despite their differences, overcoming personal opinions for a common goal?  So how does this happen?  It happens through our reliance upon - and faith in - Christ.  Not in, on, or through ourselves.

After all, what causes the hindrances, deceptions, and unloving motives that incite disunity amongst us?  What keeps us from reasoning amongst ourselves to determine specific actions that will please God, and within which we can be unified?  Why can this be a tricky subject to explore?  What's the reason a lot of us Christians conveniently ignore this part of Christ's Passion?  And how can we ignore the significance of Christ being so concerned about our unity on the very night He'd be turned over to be crucified?

Our own lack of humility, perhaps?

Meanwhile, Christ had suffered the ultimate humiliation a deity could possibly suffer - becoming like the people He was going to save.  He is the One for all.

And He wants us to be all for One.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was reading an article about how healthy baked bran is for us.  No, really - it was an article on a singles website, and I was trying to figure out what baked bran had to do with one's marital status.

What do I know?  Maybe dietary fiber and its benefits have more to do with finding the right spouse than I've otherwise given them credit.

At any rate, the author of this article advanced the unsubstantiated claim that sugar - and glucose in particular - causes cancer.  Just laid it out in a sentence like everybody knows that sugar consumption leads to cancer.  And this was on an evangelical Christian singles website.

So, being naturally suspicious, I Googled it, and learned that sure enough, sugar is not a determining factor for cancer, but obesity can be.  So in the sense that eating too much sugar can cause obesity, and obesity can contribute to one's chances of developing cancer, I can see the connection here.  But can we skip a step and say that because A is to B, and B is to C, that A is to C?

Besides, glucose is found in all of our healthy fruits, and is considered a vital nutrient.

This is why I take very little at face value.  Especially on evangelical websites.  Hey - I write for one!  So you can understand why I'm cautious.  Fortunately, at Crosswalk (which isn't the website containing the misleading article about bran) every writer has an editor who cross-checks statements like "sugar causes cancer," to avoid jeopardizing their journalistic and spiritual integrity.

So what?

Well, I've written before about caveat lector - "let the reader beware" - and this is further proof of its truth.  In that article, I criticized an evangelical writer's flippant description of the Gospel as "magic," but even I didn't estimate the damage comparing Scripture's truth to a C.S. Lewis allegory could create.  During a simple Google search to get the URL of that article for a hyperlink, I noticed that a website devoted to magic had found my article, and the article about which I was writing, and used both to point out that even some Christians say Christianity is magic.  I'm not going to give you the link that that website, because I don't want to endorse it.

Suffice it to say, "let the reader beware," because often, writer's aren't.
. . .

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it used to be that the crazy, weird news stories were coming out of places like New York City or Los Angeles.  Not any more.  A few days ago, a naked man dove head-first into the open sunroof of a passing Honda Accord coupe and assaulted its female driver, causing her to crash.  But this didn't happen in Brooklyn, or Santa Monica.  It happened in front of a Dallas Police squad car, in one of Big D's rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods.

Dallas has always wanted to be like the Big Apple.  Well, now, apparently, it's getting its chance.  Even if this isn't the way city leaders anticipated.
. . .

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a battle has been brewing between Gospel Coalition stalwarts and fans of Florida preacher Tullian Tchividjian, who used to have a popular blog on the Coalition's website.

If you're not a conservative Presbyterian, or a Reformed evangelical, you've probably never heard of either the Gospel Coalition (TGC) or Rev. Tchividjian, and frankly, that's probably OK.  Because it hasn't been pretty these past few weeks in the TGC website corral, with Tchividjian ultimately asked to mosey on outta there.  Much to the frustration of his ardent fans.

Tchividjian is a grandson of the famed Billy Graham, and a few years ago, he catapulted to fame within Reformed circles by winning the top job at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the prestigious congregation built by the late Dr. D. James Kennedy.  Tchividjian's hire, and some rapid-fire changes he made to the core of Coral Ridge's traditional ministry format, sparked a nasty church split, with a large number of disgruntled members forming their own church, and Tchividjian scrambling to justify his bull-in-a-China-shop method of church leadership.

But the recent spat that played out on TGC's website (and others) had nothing to do with the church split Tchividjian incited.  It had to do with differences Reformed adherents hold on grace, legalism, and the process of sanctification, with Tchividjian's blog, hosted by TGC, serving as the main battleground, and Coral Ridge's new pastor scrambling unsuccessfully to contain yet another public relations disaster.

Quite frankly, I tried reading his blog posts that were coming under fire by some TGC'ers, and at their face, I didn't think they merited the fierce criticisms they were receiving.  Then again, maybe I simply didn't grasp the gravity of the nuances Tchividjian and his opponents were debating.  I'm not crazy about Tchividjian's style of writing, which can teeter on patronizing, and I'm certainly not crazy about his own views of what went on at Coral Ridge, but I thought the spat unfolding on TGC's website was more tempest in a teapot than grounds for divorce.  Yet apparently, the imbroglio, fed in equal parts by pastors, TGC's lay readership, and Tchividjian himself, proved too much for TGC's leadership, and they severed their digital connection with him as a way of brokering some sort of truce.

Well, that truce hasn't materialized either, as Tchividjian's fans continue to pelt TGC's website with complaints about how this mess has been handled.  The whole thing is one unseemly, bitter spectacle.

If all of this is new to you, consider yourself fortunate.  And don't bother researching it, because you're not missing anything.  The only reason I bring it up is to prove, as I've written before, that celebrity worship and popularity contests do not represent appropriate ways to honor God, study His Word, apply His truth to our lives, and minister to our spheres of influence.  I believe there is way too much "I am of Paul, I am of Apollos" going on within our evangelical ghetto, and not enough "I am of Christ."

. . .

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I'm trying to be a little creative about the format in which I share with you my opinions.  I'm calling it "Meanwhile, back at the ranch" to convey a casual flavor, but also to (hopefully) frame my opinions with a bit of irony.  Irony in how the topics I write about may be somewhat important to you, and interesting to me, but probably not necessarily things our society on the whole will find particularly compelling.  Whether these topics really are compelling or not.

So, what do you think?  Can I go back to the ranch in the future, or should I go back to the drawing board?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

9-11 Continues to Bedevil America

Here we are, almost thirteen years after 9-11, and its raw legacy continues to unfold.

Last week, the highly-anticipated museum commemorating the people and events of that awful day opened in Lower Manhattan, and right off the bat, people started fuming.  Apparently, the museum itself is a spectacular capsule of artifacts, displays, aesthetics, and even emotions, reaching down deep into subterranean Manhattan, to the base of the original towers.  However, at the end of one's tour, visitors will find a gift shop stocked with common trinkets like NYPD charms, a search-and-rescue plush toy, and black "I-heart-N-Y" t-shirts.

And some family members of the victims are outraged.  They've been shocked to find such "crass commercialism" on what they consider to be a hallowed site, even though battlefields and other death-related national parks and memorials also sell tchotchkes in their on-site gift shops, with little outcry from the public.

Of course, ever since the towers fell, many Americans have tried to insist that the World Trade Center complex had become many things:  mass gravesite, hallowed ground, haunted, holy, sacred, and fit only for some sort of shrine of remembrance.

Well, officially, the headquarters complex for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is none of those things.  It is not a gravesite, since all of the debris from New York's day of infamy were scraped up, clean to the bedrock.  Not one human bone remains in that site.  It's not hallowed, either, since none of those victims gave up their lives for their country, or for capitalism.  They were not martyrs for a cause, they were working, traveling, shopping, banking - all the things ordinary people do all over the world.  If the Taliban had announced on September the tenth that they would be obliterating the Twin Towers the next day, and provided proof that they could and would, how many people do you think would have shown up for work that Tuesday morning?

We need to separate the political rhetoric and emotional blathering from the reality that Ground Zero is an office complex first and foremost.  Selling themed merchandise - however tacky they may be - at the museum's gift shop actually represents a very American, and extremely New York, way of remembering 9-11.  After all, the city is all about money and commerce.  The new tower for One World Trade that has been built should be more offensive to victims' families, since it represents such a dowdy amalgamation of political compromise and over-engineered architecture, it will ungraciously slouch as a blight on the city's skyline until kingdom come - unfortunately, since it's been built to be virtually indestructible.

But it's easier to pick on keychains.

And speaking of buildings, according to the Washington Post, the planned headquarters for the much-maligned Department of Homeland Security was supposed to be completed this year.  It was supposed to be built on the grounds of an historic mental hospital (oh, the irony!), and house 14,000 government workers.  Instead, the former insane asylum only has one agency out of 50 that are supposed to be on-site, and funding squabbles in Congress will likely prevent anything more substantive from being built.

And the price tag so far?  Well, out of the estimated $4.5 billion budget for the entire project, roughly $1 billion has already been spent.  And the Post couldn't find a lawmaker on Capitol Hill who thought much more money would be thrown at this boondoggle.

After all, it was a boondoggle from the start, wasn't it?  In the tumultuous days following 9-11, nationalistic hawks in Washington were circling the wagons, predicting further calamitous atrocities, and clamoring for more control over America's security apparatus.  Lawmakers gave the cabinet of George W. Bush carte blanche to re-write how the government protects us, and one of the wacky ideas involved centralizing government agencies.  Centralizing them not just on an organizational flowchart, but physically as well.

Like the targeting of an office complex where 50,000 people worked every day - the very impetus for all of this kneejerk reshuffling - meant nothing to Washington's elite thinkers and planners.

Perhaps it made perfect sense to consolidate the new and wildly unwieldy Department of Homeland Security in a defunct insane asylum, but even if outside-the-Beltway logic would dictate a more prudent scattering of Homeland Security personnel across the country, if a Washington headquarters really was necessary, why not start from scratch in an open field someplace?  Or, as one pundit offered at the time, a bomb-proof bunker below ground?  Nevertheless, a couple of impoverished neighborhoods on the wrong side of the District of Columbia were assured that having such a massive office complex down the street would be an economic shot in the arm for them.  Plus, if terrorists blew it up, the tony townhomes in DC's better 'hoods would likely be spared significant damage and inconvenience.

Meanwhile, where was all of the wise counsel about never making significant changes or decisions in haste, or during a time of acute emotional upheaval?  Where was that calm leadership and unruffled stoicism that helps guide a nation during times of crisis?  You know - that conservative pragmatism on which a certain political party prides itself?

Suffice it to say that as the due date for opening Homeland Security's new digs is fast approaching, it's obvious that it's all been an exercise is hubris, waste, and partisan rancor.  Kinda like all of the new Transportation Security Agency rules that bedevil most airline passengers today, yet leave gaping holes that allow kids to stow away in wheel wells.  Or the ruthless police officers and federal agents who stormed Boston's residential neighborhoods with impunity searching for alleged marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Their reckless disregard for Constitutional rights of being innocent until proven guilty were brushed aside as a perfunctory response to the new world 9-11 has created for us.

It's the same excuse Washington is trying to use in its attempts to brand NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a traitor.

We can worry about the appropriateness of 9-11 keychains and hoodies all we want.  But the perpetual question ever since that fateful morning remains suspiciously unanswered:  are we any safer today than we were on September 10, 2001?

Maybe from international terrorists, we're marginally safer.  But from Washington? 


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My Abram Street? Or New Urbanism's?

Today's post is mostly for my friends and fellow residents of Arlington, Texas.  It's in response to a proposal, called "My Abram Street," to narrow a major thoroughfare through our downtown district and use the reclaimed space for, among other things, wider sidewalks.  Apparently, the idea is to make the streetscape more attractive so more diners and shoppers will venture into the area - on foot.  In suburban Texas.  Needless to say, I think it's a waste of money.  I'm posting this on my blog so it can be searched by Google.

After looking at the marketing material for the redevelopment of Abram Street, I have decided that my attendance at tonight's planning meeting would be an exercise in futility.

However, I would like to take the opportunity of sharing with you both my frustrations and my perspective of the Abram Street corridor, and indeed, downtown Arlington in general.  I think there are better ways of spending redevelopment funds.

First, it baffles me why wider sidewalks are needed along Abram, since hardly anybody uses the sidewalks we've currently got.  There are UTA students who walk ACROSS Abram to get back and forth from the fast food restaurants, and city employees who walk ACROSS Center and Mesquite to get back and forth from City Tower.  But for the most part, the sidewalks are empty.  Besides, for much of the year, the concrete serves more as a skillet in our Texas sun, than an ideal place for a stroll.

If other planned developments along Abram Street will indeed bring the throngs of sidewalk pedestrians you think it will, why not merely block off the lanes closest to each sidewalk during the evenings - like Friday and Saturday evenings?  Purchase some decorative pylons and run a truck down the street to set them up after the evening rush has subsided.  Besides, it always looks better for business if pedestrians are spilling off sidewalks into the street, than having wide swaths of empty sidewalk.  Safety?  Curbs don't keep speeding drivers from crashing onto sidewalks.  If you can get the critical mass of people downtown that you think you can get, speeding won't be a factor anyway.

I used to work on Abram Street, and a lot of civic boosters deny it, but there is indeed an afternoon rush hour.  If the additional employers come downtown, traffic will not exactly thin out.  Employers (and I certainly hope the city is spending at least as much time courting potential employers for downtown as they're spending on these street beautification plans) will want easy routes for their workers to come in and leave their offices.  Besides, the bike trend new urbanists so dearly love these days won't last forever.  If I had $1,000 for every time I saw somebody riding a bike downtown, I could probably retire... in about 50 years.

Please pardon the sarcasm, but I'm getting tired of all the Richard Florida government-needs-to-jumpstart-development-with-pretty-streets stuff.  I can be fairly open-minded about some things, but when it comes to dollars and sense, economic development is all about commerce.  People spending money.  Not governments.  We've been bragging about downtown for so long, and all we've got to show for it is a few restaurants, and some large churches who've been here forever.  That's all well and good, but I participated in the downtown "charrette" a number of years ago, and we're still waiting for blockbuster stuff to take place.  Flying Fish is nice, but when I'm over at the Uptown/McKinney Ave. district in Dallas, or Knox/Henderson, or even Lemon & Oak Lawn, I'm not seeing any bike lanes or super-wide sidewalks, and those little urban villages are jammed!

The right mix of tenants, offices, and high-density residential will create the demand gussied-up streetscapes cannot.  Is all of this fancifying for Abram (and Division) merely a smokescreen in the absence of genuine economic redevelopment?  Wasn't College Park supposed to be flying high by now?  It's got the super-wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and all that jazz... and restaurants are closing.  Hmmm...

So... please keep Abram at 4 traffic lanes and a turn lane.  If you want bike lanes, why not work with Main and South streets?  Those are abandoned stepchildren that hold a LOT of potential, don't they?  Get First Baptist to release its death grip around the Levitt Pavilion, open up South and Pecan streets to vehicular traffic, and see how easily - and SAFELY - bikes will be able to move about!  Opening up Pecan at Abram could also pump some life blood into UTA's College Park restaurants.

I have mixed feelings about tearing down the Central Library, but I like the opportunities doing so affords Main Street.  Chop off that awkward box for the City Council Chamber, straighten Main to run in line with Abram, and we've got another alternative to "car-choked" Abram.  Besides, there are some beautiful shade trees on Main east of Mesquite.  Lana's daughter used to have a restaurant down in there, and it's just rustic and bohemian enough to mimic parts of Austin, if you squint just right.

So PLEASE - don't go pouring money into Abram Street that can be better spent opening up more of downtown to economic activity.  Thank you for letting me comment.

PS - does all this seem like déjà vu?  Well, that's because it is!  Remember all of the money and effort spent to "tame" and beautify Main Street?  Look how well that worked as an economic development tool... Main Street is more dead today than it's ever been. 

PPS - and about Richard Florida... a lot of his claims about rebuilding cities for the creative class have been debunked - even by him!

Monday, May 19, 2014

When, in Memory, a Little Rain Falls

Nostalgia can be a curious thing.

Reminiscing about times past usually doesn't take place when one is enjoying life in the present.  So when we get nostalgic, it can be an indication that our current circumstances merit particular enthusiasm.  We look back, and however accurately we may remember things, and however happy or sad those olden times may have been, we rarely cheer ourselves up with nostalgia.

Some people engage in it far more than others do, and I suspect that, the more successful people are in the present, the less they look back on their past.  The less, maybe, they feel they need to look back on their past.  Maybe we don't appreciate what we have in the present, or we haven't bothered to evaluate whatever progress we might have achieved between then and now, but the less successful, content, and confident we are, the more we ten to let memories be recycled as contemporary amusement.

I'm not sure how Biblical nostalgia is.  When the Israelites did it in the desert, God became frustrated with them.  Here He'd saved them from enslavement in Egypt, and His people were nevertheless grumbling about how good life seemed to be in captivity, compared with their temporary reality of homelessness and wandering.  They were not just nostalgic, but ungrateful as well.

The dynamic Apostle Paul encourages the church at Philippi to forget what is behind them, and to press on ahead for the cause of Christ.  Indeed, Paul was all about progress and focusing forward.

Yet the Psalmist almost constantly rhapsodizes over the faithfulness of God, proven time and time again, and remembered as proofs for why continuing to trust in our Lord is not a fruitless endeavor.

Undoubtedly, what we hope to get out of nostalgia likely determines whether it can be beneficial to us or not.  Wallowing in a nostalgia for days we can no way recreate in our present reality likely dishonors God, Who desires that we mature in our faith.  However, fond memories in and of themselves can be healthy, can't they?  They can serve as a form of encouragement, and even help to put our present reality in context.

Maybe it's my chronic clinical depression, or maybe it's my age as a late-forties guy about to embark on his midlife crisis, but I find that I'm exploring my past with a greater interest than I think I probably lived it.

When I was a child growing up in upstate New York, for example, I didn't think those days were all that special.  I realize that many kids don't appreciate their growing-up years, no matter how good or privileged they may have been.  My brother is a year younger than me, and he's never been a nostalgic person.  And a few years ago, I wouldn't have described myself as one, either.  But lately, I'm surprised at how often I'm on nostalgic trips down memory lane.

Well, actually, nostalgic trips down Beach Road, the rural country lane bisecting our old farm.  And that century-old farmhouse in which we lived for the first twelve years of my life.

Sometimes, I worry that reliving memories from the past is unhelpful for a person in my condition, and an unhealthy waste of time, recollection, and emotions.  However, I also wonder if the stories I relive, and the experiences I unearth from my mind's dusty archives - particularly memories of benign or positive events - aren't still on deposit in my memory for some beneficial purpose.  I've had psychotherapists over the years warn me not to blame my depression on my past, or my parents, or try to derive profound meanings out of them.  Our past can help explain how we've gotten to where we are today, but even if somebody is on trial in a court of law, blame based on memory is tricky to prove.

I've wondered if traveling back and spending mental time on the north shore of Oneida Lake, where I grew up, might help me make sense of why I am where I am today.  I can't afford to travel back there physically, even for a visit, and hardly anybody's left up there that would remember me, or my family; we've no relatives there.  Besides, that area's economy has pretty much evaporated over the decades we've been away.  Whereas here in Arlington, Texas, where I currently live, when we'd go away for a month or so to Maine, returning was always an adventure in discovery, as some new restaurant would have opened while we were away, or some new housing development begun.  But when my parents and I drove through central New York and visited our old house back in the early 2000's, it was like we'd stepped into a time warp, when the towns and villages of my childhood appeared to have seen no progressive economic activity of any kind since we left.

In fact, the narrow main street in our old little village, Cleveland, perched right on the lake, had been razed of virtually every commercial building.  They were ancient, rickety structures even when we left.  It was never a wildly prosperous town; what fortunes it had enjoyed came early, as a glass-making center after the Civil War.  By the time my parents moved there, transferred by my father's company from New York City, it was mostly a bedroom community for Syracuse, with a few hundred hardy souls, and some light industry, including lumber companies and a family-owned wire making firm.

Today, even the lumber companies are gone, despite all of the forests surrounding the village.  The glass works were long gone before we ever arrived.  What was once merely a dumpy community when we lived there has become a downright impoverished one.  So many people have moved away because of the area's miserable economy, the little elementary school I attended, from Kindergarten through the Sixth Grade, is closing permanently after this current school year ends.

It was the village's last major employer.

I have never liked school, and I hated my time at Cleveland Elementary.  When I talk about nostalgia, I have absolutely none regarding that brick prison on the hill with views of the lake.  I liked recess, when we got to run around the playground that had been situated under a couple of huge old trees - something most modern school administrations would probably prohibit for the liability factor.  I thought gym class was organized torture, and the one big shower room that all of us boys shared communally haunted me like some sort of twisted, perverted punishment.  I'm scrupulously adamant about my personal cleanliness, but I only showered after gym class once or twice - I could tolerate my sticky clothes and smelly skin better than the misery of that shower.

Can you remember all of your elementary teachers?  I can, from Mrs. Arnold in Kindergarten, to Miss Wells in First Grade, Mrs. Parker in second, Miss Marzinski in third, Mrs. Marsh in fourth, Mr. Archambeau in fifth, and Mrs. Wolfe in sixth.

Summers in Cleveland, New York, were frustratingly short, yet blissfully carefree.  Our vintage, overgrown farm featured a wonderfully broad yard, plus forests with old lumber trails offering plenty of ways for my brother and me to run around and use our imaginations.

Some friends gave us a pure-bred collie named Felice, and I don't think she ever wore a collar during her life with us.  She certainly never was on a leash.  She ran around with my brother and me, even out into the sparsely-trafficked road when we learned how to ride bicycles.  She'd spring alongside of us, playfully barking at us, or huffing and panting, with her long tongue flapping from her open mouth.

Dad built her a modern doghouse, complete with a little entry room, a wall, and then another back room for her to escape the howling winds of winter.  It was on our back porch, so it was protected from the rain and snow, and she never seemed to get too cold out there.

Summers, though, were a bit different, since upstate New York can get suffocatingly steamy and humid.  One summer, when Dad's sister and mother were visiting from Brooklyn, we were having a good old summer thunderstorm, replete with blinding lightening and crashing thunder, and buckets and buckets of rain.  Like many dogs, Felice was petrified by thunder, and she refused to stay in her doggie house while it sounded like the entire planet was crashing down around her.  Despite the pouring rain, she'd run in circles around our big old farmhouse, faster and faster at each clap of thunder.  It was sad and funny at the same time to see her so spooked, yet so swift and agile around the turns.

My aunt, Helena, took pity on poor Felice during that particular storm, and convinced Mom to let her inside to calm down.  My brother and I were already upstairs in bed, and I can't remember if Dad was away on business or not, but he wasn't home at that hour of the evening.  My grandmother, whom we called "Mummo," which is "grandmother" in Finnish, had gone to bed as well, in a guest bedroom on the first floor, that had a big bed.

As the storm raged louder and louder, although we rarely let Felice into the house, Mom caved and let her inside at Helena's insistence, into our laundry room.  It had tile floors where she could dry the dog, and doors to the rest of the house to keep her confined after everybody went to bed.

If the storm lasted that long.

But Felice wasn't going to wait and find out.

After she'd been closed up in the laundry room, at the next huge clap of thunder, Felice burst open a door to the rest of the house - she charged through the living room, and into the bedroom where Mummo had just settled in for the night!  Panicked, wet, smelly, and whimpering, Felice dove under the bed, initially frightening Mummo, who had no idea what had just happened, or what was now very much under her bed.

So Mummo began hollering for Helena, and Mom was trying to figure out where Felice had gone - it was pandemonium!  It woke up my brother and me, and we raced downstairs to find Mummo sitting up in her bed - having figured out herself by then what had happened - and she was laughing so hard, she was crying!  Here she was, a hardened city dweller from Brooklyn, having come to the country for some peace and quiet, and her son's wet, stinking, freaked-out dog was cowering under her bed!

Helena and Mom were on their hands and knees, on either side of the bed, trying to coax Felice out from underneath it.  I looked under the bed myself, and Felice was definitely NOT about to leave her little cave!

Poor dog.  I can still remember that evening like it was yesterday.  But it didn't happen yesterday.  It happened decades ago.

Why is it that some of our memories can remain so vivid, especially memories that don't seem to have a moral, or a life lesson, or even any particularly searing emotion attached to them?

In the oddest times, however, I find myself nostalgic for those days when an ordinary summer thunderstorm could invigorate an otherwise soggy, ordinary evening.  Those summer evenings in upstate New York when the sweet smells of pine trees, grass, flowers, tree bark, and rain coalesced.  And only during three precious months out of otherwise chilly and crisp northern years.

I don't want to go back and re-live my childhood.  But at least I think I'm appreciating its good times more.

And what is that worth?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sunday Nite Church Twice as Nice?

Have you ever been to a Sunday evening church service?

And if so, how long ago was the last time you went?

Here in Dallas, the Presbyterian Church in America has launched a new church that actually has its only corporate worship service of the week on Sunday nights.  That's because it's the best time they could get for the facility they're renting.  And because doing so creates a bit of a unique schedule, which might attract people who think church on Sunday mornings is boring.  And inconvenient, perhaps.

Tim Keller's Redeemer Church congregations in New York meet at various times across the city, including Sunday evenings, but again, that schedule is more a matter of facility availability - and Keller's personal availability - than anything else.  None of the Redeemer congregations have two corporate worship services on Sundays.

Indeed, apart from these two anomalies, and others that likely exist in a very small measure across North America, Sunday night church has pretty much disappeared from evangelicalism.  The last regularly-scheduled Sunday evening services I attended were at my beloved Calvary Baptist, in New York City, and from a quick check of their website, I see they still have them.  Only now, instead of "Sunday Evening Worship," they actually go by the name "Sanctuary," since, I guess, they're held in the church's sanctuary, and it sounds more urbane.

From what I can tell, Calvary is the extreme exception, having both morning and evening services.  But then, in my estimation, Calvary has always been exceptional!

Pantego Bible Church, where I used to work here in Texas, used to have one Sunday night worship service every month - lots of music, not much preaching - but that was almost twenty years ago.  The last bastion of Sunday night services that I know of among Arlington's larger churches was First Baptist, and they ended theirs a few years ago.

As a kid, always going to church with my family, Sunday evening services were just part of our weekends.  I didn't particularly like going, but I didn't hate going, either.  It was simply what my family did on Sundays.  It's what Christians seemed to do in churches all over the country.  Attendance was never as high as it was on Sunday mornings, but if you considered yourself religious, and you didn't have a really good excuse, you got yourself to church two different times every Sunday:  Morning, and evening.

But that was long ago and far away, wasn't it?

Christian blogger and pastor Tim Challies has mused online about the various factors contributing to the declining popularity - and eventually, the end - of Sunday night church services, and a couple of his observations seem particularly pertinent.  One is the rise of amateur and professional sports in the North American consciousness, and an abandonment of the concept of Sabbath rest, the now-provincial notion of setting Sundays aside to concentrate on one's spiritual development, not just personal fun.

Regular readers of mine know that I've never been interested in sports, but my brother has, and even though he was on a soccer team in his youth, he never had games or practices on Sundays.  Apparently, however, kids in sports today have no choice but to practice and compete on both Saturdays and Sundays.  I'm aware of many families that have simply given up trying to advocate for worship time on Sundays - they can barely get a Sunday morning service into their sports schedules, let alone a Sunday night service.  And professional sports?  Fugheddaboudit!  Once ESPN goes on after Sunday lunch, the day's new religion takes over until bedtime.

Regular readers of mine also probably know my views regarding Sundays and Sabbath rest, but to recap, suffice it to say that if mowing your lawn is your idea of rest and relaxation, and an ideal way to spend Sunday afternoons, you seriously need a real vacation.  Or you need to worry less about what your neighbors think about your lawn.

Challies also lists things like a decline in our respect for, and interest in, the preached Word, and how entertainment-driven our culture has become, which both comprise part of the same problem.  Sitting and listening to somebody drone on about the Gospel isn't an attractive activity for many people, not only because we like action and mirth, but because our society is less pretentious in everything it does these days, including church.  Time was, going to church was as much a social activity as a faith-building one.  Then too, back then, people wore suits to ballgames and while flying on airplanes.  Meanwhile, when was the last time you saw anybody wearing a suit on an airplane, let alone in your church worship services?

And speaking of airplanes, I suspect another key reason for the abandonment of Sunday night church stems from the workweek slowly bleeding into the weekend.  In my current church, attended by a lot of corporate professionals, Sunday evenings are travel times, when churchgoers head out to the airport to fly to wherever they need to be for an 8:00 meeting on Monday morning.  Then there are all the people who work on Sundays now, instead of having it as a day off.  Realtors, call center employees, healthcare staff, retailers, and even office workers with particularly demanding employers all consider Sundays a normal workday.  Have you noticed how many corporate announcements are now being made on both Saturdays and Sundays?  After Sunday evening church, the traditional Monday-through-Friday workweek has been the next to fall.

For his part, Challies laments the loss of Sunday night services, but how much of that is because he's a pastor?  Don't professional Christians have a different view of these topics than people like you and me?  While I attended Sunday evening church services as long as I had them in the churches I've attended, and while I admit to having missed them - at first, when they ended - I can't say I'd welcome them back with open arms.  As I've gotten older, and more cynical, I'm finding it harder and harder to defend the preached Word from preachers whose theology I've found I need to constantly monitor.  Sitting through some sermons can be tiring, and discouraging!  Just this week, a group of us from my church's choir was asked to sing at somebody's funeral at another church, pastored by somebody who used to be on staff at ours.  And during his funeral homily, this pastor, who I like and respect, said that Christ was curious about what being mortal is like, and that's one of the reasons He came to Earth.

It was like somebody had hit me in the gut.  "Where'd he come up with THAT?" I muttered to myself.  After the service, I politely asked him about it, and he admitted that he was wrong, and that Christ could not possibly have been curious, because curiosity involves a lack of knowledge.

But then, I'm not a normal person.  What do I know about how average churchgoers would react to being asked about attending Sunday night services again?  Actually, I have an idea that most would not favor such a return to the past, since most evangelicals have firmly deleted Sunday night church from their consciousness, their schedules, and their lists of pleasures and pursuits.  Besides, there are other ways of hearing Scripture preached, they'd say, like the Internet, which wasn't around when most churches met twice on Sundays.

Obviously, such a mindset points to an ambivalence about corporate worship itself, and the necessity of Christ followers meeting together in prayer, singing, instruction, and fellowship.  And on this point, I'm probably in agreement with those evangelicals who think they see about as much as they want to see of their fellow churchgoers on Sunday mornings.  Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe I'm not doing it right myself, but I don't get much of any "fellowship vibe" out of Sunday mornings at my church, so why would more time together make any difference?  Besides, I drive 40 minutes one-way to church; I don't really want to do that twice a day with any regularity.  My faith in Christ is the center of my life.  Church attendance?  Um, not so much.

As Challies may see it, I could be part of the problem about why churches don't seem eager to return to the two-service-a-Sunday tradition.

Meanwhile, for once in my life, I think I'm in the majority on something.  Wouldn't it be too ironic if all of us were wrong on this one?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Preaching Poverty, Work, and Wealth

Here we go again.

What is it about preachers, poverty, and work?  I hear there's another Christian book that's been published about poverty, and how the Bible tells us to fight it.  It's written, like most of them are, by a select group of pastors and other professional Christians - like professors and authors - who supposedly know what it's like to slave away in menial labor at menial pay for a lifetime.

I don't read these books.

Not because the conclusions they typically reach are inherently wrong.  Those conclusions usually run a tight gamut between rhetoric about finding pride in work, taking responsibility for one's expenses, and God's hidden rewards for doing a lowly job well.  And as somebody who's done some lowly labor in his time, and hates living in debt, I can testify that hard work often is its own reward.

And that hard work doesn't necessarily pay the bills!

Being Poor Can Be Hard Work

Inevitably, professional Christians who write about poverty and employment end up focusing on poverty as a crisis of laziness.  But isn't slothfulness only one part of the "least of these" kaleidoscope?  A lot of poor people have jobs.  A lot of poor people work very hard every day.  A lot of poor people are intelligent.  Therefore, might there be a lot of poor people whom writers of these types of books insult with their esoteric platitudes about manual labor, or their insinuations that government welfare programs are inherently unBiblical?

Sure, for the people who are simply too lazy to get out of bed and provide financially for the progeny they're creating with their baby mamas, a swift kick in their rear might be appropriate.  Along with a wholesale remodeling of corrupt welfare programs, which have created the phenomenon of generational (or "institutional") poverty that has perverted our inner cities, and is now spreading into suburbia.  Like many Americans, I become indignant when I drive through poor parts of town and see faded jalopies sporting gigantic, expensive chrome rims.  I fume after hearing anecdotes about SNAP exploitation, and I can't help but assume that liquor stores wouldn't proliferate in slums if the business wasn't there to make them profitable.  But here again, righting the wrongs of conventional welfare abuse simply comprises one of many parts of the "least of these" kaleidoscope.

Some people are raised in dysfunctional families, never learning how to learn for a variety of reasons that they can't control.  When they grow up, they are completely unprepared for socioeconomic reality.  Isn't it kinda hard to blame these folks when their parents abdicated their responsibility for raising self-sufficient citizens who can contribute to society?

Then there's the problem with immigrants who enter the United States illegally with their children; children who eventually discover they can't legally work when they come of age.  There are also people who've been incarcerated, or enrolled in alcohol or drug abuse programs, and then can't find anybody who will employ them afterwards.

It's easy to criticize people who are tired of digging ditches for minimum wage, especially when you aren't one of them.  Most manual labor is hard on the body; people who dig ditches, wash cars, mow lawns, stand behind cash registers all day, clean bathrooms, build fences, lay bricks, change motor oil, make beds, and collect garbage use muscles on a daily basis that you and I likely don't know we have.  Now multiply all of that exertion by their bodies by the number of years - or decades - they work in those jobs.  Then add to that their need to tolerate indignant - or even worse, dismissive - attitudes by passers-by and employers who presume themselves to be of a higher social station.  Then they get to go home, year after year, to someplace you'd probably decline to spent the night - let alone your life - and do it all again tomorrow.

Yes, to a certain extent, there are jobs in our economy that will never pay well, but still need to be done.  Some jobs simply aren't designed to provide the wages and benefits necessary for an employee to raise a family, like employment in fast-food restaurants.  Personally, I suspect that any minimum wage - whether it's $7 or $15, artificially suppresses all lower-end pay rates, because it prevents jobs from being individually valued by the skill set required.  In a way, minimum wage removes a lot of the incentive employers should have for delineating tasks and compensating workers accordingly.  But what's particularly noxious about this picture is that workers seem to be depending on these types of jobs more and more.  Why?  Because middle-income, move-up jobs are disappearing.

Paying the Cost of Living

Indeed, is poverty in America a problem of laziness, or a problem of low-wage, low-prestige jobs being more abundant than better-paying jobs?  America's middle classes appear to be failing to keep up with inflation and the cost of living, but how much of that is their fault?  Most new jobs being created today are part time, or "work-share," as employers now try to disguise the fact that they no longer want to pay for benefits like sick time and healthcare.

Stories abound in the media about families with multiple incomes not being able to afford food, rent, transportation, healthcare, and other costs.  Consider, too, the exorbitant rents people have to pay in the suddenly-hip, gentrifying slums of large metropolitan areas like New York City, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Miami - all cities with huge poverty problems.

Food prices?  Have you been to a supermarket lately, and not winced at the bill?  Childcare costs?  Either a parent stays home, out of the workforce, or goes to work, and pays a huge chunk of their take-home pay to whomever is raising their progeny.  And don't forget public transit fares, and personal vehicle maintenance.  And healthcare?  Many families living in poverty either ride out a high-deductible policy through their employer, or work multiple part-time jobs which lack employee-subsidized healthcare.

But you don't hear preachers and professors spending a lot of time addressing these issues that take poor people a lot of time - and money - to address themselves.  Not that most preachers, professors, and other professional Christians earn a lot of money, either, but they're usually on staff at a church, college, seminary, or in a denomination that offers the financial safety net evangelicals like to blame the government for providing those who aren't.

Can you see how all this schtick about taking pride in the work of one's hands can ring pretty hollow?

Where the Buck Stops, or Starts

For their part, liberals have brought up some questions about poverty that conservatives - such as professional Christians - don't like to seriously consider.  After all, it can get politically dicey addressing macro economic issues that appear to divert attention - and responsibility - off of poor people, and onto America's hallowed money machine.  Yet, if we're going to tackle the poverty problem, shouldn't we at least include the people in the best position of providing the jobs poor folks need?  And aren't we being a "respecter of persons" when we pretend that poor people deserve more blame than greedy Wall Streeters and one percenters?

If we're serious about addressing poverty Biblically, what's wrong about having a frank discussion about the direct casualties of capitalism run amok?  Profit over principle?  Cost savings versus labor expenses?

What's wrong with holding accountable the employers and power elite who create negative working conditions for poor people?  For example, one of the reasons we're having an illegal immigration crisis is because many employers simply don't want to pay workers what low-skill jobs are worth, or they don't want to provide decent working conditions.  Globalization has played a big factor in deflating wages, since American companies can offshore jobs and labor to places around the world where people don't expect safe working conditions and honest pay.  And most American consumers happily go along for the ride - even as their jobs evaporate - because they're too cheap and petty to realize that their low-price Walmart "bargains" are coming at somebody's expense.

Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest elephant in the room that a lot of professional Christians, evangelicals, and conservatives in general are trying hard to avoid involves greed and hoarding.  People like me can't talk about this sort of thing without being branded as a socialist or a redistributionalist, but hey - if we're going to talk about poverty, we've got to talk about where the money is.  And where is more and more money going in our society?  To our fabled one percenters.

Wealth inequity is no secret in the United States, even if plenty of us want to ignore what wealth inequity means.  Most of the people today receiving most of the wealth in our country aren't doing it by the sweat of their brow, or the work of their hands, or the ingenuity of their brains.  They're investing in companies that, in turn, are creating value by laying off thousands of employees, outsourcing jobs, and merging with peers to dilute competition.

How are poor people supposed to compete in this type of environment?  Not everybody is an inventor of new, marketable ideas and products, and can create their own wealth.  Besides, if everybody created jobs, who would staff the jobs being created?

When Is Much Too Much?

And what about people of faith who are sitting on huge sums of money?  What about self-professing evangelicals worth hundreds of millions of dollars - and more - who are "tearing down barns to build bigger ones"?  Do you hear professional Christians chiding these people for apparently hoarding the wealth God is giving them?

Preachers will harp on adultery, homosexuality, fear, honoring our parents, gossip, and poverty, of course, yet few sermons get preached on this disturbing passage from Luke 12:16-21.  As you hopefully can recall, it's when Christ gives His parable about the successful farmer who hoarded his blessings:

The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.  He thought to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops."  Then he said, "This is what I'll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I'll say to myself, '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 God.

Now, if you're cynical, like me, you'll find the escape clause in the last sentence, and rationalize that as long as we're rich towards God, and generous with our tithe and offerings, then we won't be modeling the greed of the successful farmer.

But let's look at the context of this parable, shall we?  Christ gave it in response to somebody in the crowd who wanted a relative to share an inheritance with him.  It would be like me walking up to the billionaire in my church - yes, my church has at least one billionaire in its membership - and demanding that he give me some of his money, because he has so much of it.

Hey, what's a couple of million to him, right?  I'd like to think that I have a greater need for it than he does.  But Christ chides the man who asks Him to force his relative to "share" his wealth.  "Who appointed me to be an arbiter between the two of you?" He asks.  And then Christ warns all of us to be on guard against every sort of greed.  "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions," He teaches.

Then Christ launches into His parable about the rich farmer.  And by doing so, He address both the greed of the person who wants more from somebody else who has a lot, and the greed of the person who has a lot, and still wants more.  Which, if you think about it, is all relative, isn't it?  After all, there are many people who have less than we do, no matter how much we've got.  And unless you're Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, there are many people who have a lot more than we've got.

The sin isn't in possessing stuff, but in our greed for more.  And in our hoarding of what we've got.  Because what we've got, even for the farmer, is merely stuff God has given to us.  So I'd be wrong for asking the billionaire in my church for a tiny, measly fraction of his billions, but it's possible that he's sinning, too, if he's hoarding his billions.

Hey - I have to admit that I don't understand why anybody needs a billion dollars to survive.  I mean, I know the cost of living is higher now than it was when this guy was born, but good grief!  Do you realize how much money is involved in one billion dollars?  And he's got multiple billions!  His assets are broken out in all the major financial magazines.

Not that I know how much money he's tithing, and giving in offerings to various churches, ministries, and outreach opportunities within our city, state, and denomination.  I've heard that he gets courted a lot by ministry leaders from around the world, for obvious reasons.  Yet still, after he's given them however much money he's given them, he's still worth billions of dollars.  Billions!  What's he keeping it for?

Responsibility Redistribution

Yes, it's simple, base, unvarnished ignorance on my part, but I don't know why anybody keeps billions of dollars in their portfolio.  Against what are they hedging themselves?  Sure, maybe that portfolio is invested in even grander schemes that are generating money and jobs, but he's still the one in control of it.  He's the one building bigger barns, and in my simplistic understanding of this passage from Luke, why he can do so with apparent impunity from professional Christians confuses me.  Especially since he's probably not the only evangelical one percenter out there who's doing it.  The poor get blasted all the time for being a drag on our society and our economy, but the way things are going these days, it doesn't look as though the hoarders within our one percent are being all that virtuous, either.

For all I know, this guy in my church is wrestling with his wealth management advisers, his lawyers, and the boards of the companies he controls regarding how he can glorify God with the wealth He's given him.  With that kind of money, few things are simple.  And I have no idea how much richer he'd be if he hadn't already given away however much he's given away to God's work.  I don't want to be the greedy sinner here, so I pray to our Lord that I would let Him be God in this man's life, just as I pray He's God in mine.

But in my weakness, I can't help but wonder...

Wonder at how - and if - all of this money that is in our great country, and mighty economy, could be better spent.  Not just for my own benefit, because I'm personally trying to trust in God for whatever I need.  But in addressing our national poverty on a broader scale.  Probably not in simply handing cash out to people, since "free" money can cause its own problems, but in changing the way Wall Street values companies, the way investors want to make money, the reasons people keep what they get, and the way ordinary labor is paid.

After all, no one percenter earns their wealth in a vacuum.  Neither does anybody else.  And that's the kaleidoscope effect in action, as different pieces slip into and out of place, around and around.

One of the few constants in this puzzle is that the poor will always be with us.  But the level of poverty can change.  So can the things that make people poor.

And the fact, the truth, the hope of our holy God looking at each of our hearts, and seeing how the Fruit of His Spirit is at work as we address these issues.