Friday, August 29, 2014

Taupe Suit Wears Thin for Policy Gaffe

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Washington is all abuzz about the President's press conference yesterday, in which he admitted that he doesn't have a plan to fix the ISIS mess.
But that's not what most people on social media are squawking about today.  It's that tan suit he was wearing.  Or taupe, depending on which website's photo of the summery ensemble you've seen.

It's been humorous to read what a bunch of White House press corps newsies think of Obama's wardrobe choice, as if they're all paragons of chic style and dapper fashion.  So what if they work for the BBC, the Washington Post, CNN, and other major news outlets that tend to pride themselves on putting fashionistas behind their anchor desks?  I've complained before about what some of them wear, too.

Personally, however, I don't see a lot to complain about regarding the President's attire yesterday.  I couldn't tell about the pants, but the jacket fit well, even if I don't like my jacket sleeves as long as Obama apparently does.  From one close-up of the lapels and collar, I can see that his tailor is an expert, because the stitching was flawless.

That striped tie also matched very well, especially considering that the difference in colors between it and the suit was only shades apart.  Usually, with a suit like that, men wear brightly-colored ties, so they don't have to try to create such a superbly subtle ensemble as the President's.  So perhaps, since First Lady Michelle is an accomplished fashion plate, she pushed for the President's clothiers to put some extra effort into the match.  I know that when I worked for a gentlemens' clothing store back in college, some husbands and wives spent much longer searching for ties than they did the suit.

A lot of critics of Obama's suit may be surprised to see a world leader of the male gender not wearing a basic navy or charcoal suit.  And that was my first reaction, too, when I began seeing photos from the President's press conference yesterday.  But my second reaction was, "boy, what a great tie to match that suit!"

My third reaction was an appreciation for how well the suit appeared to fit him.  Of course, slim men can wear a lot of stuff men like me can't, and still look good.

So, back off, all you media hounds.  At least as far as the President's wardrobe choice yesterday was concerned.  Unless, of course, you suspect that the President intentionally wore what he guessed would be a controversial suit so that the rest of us would have something else to talk about today - something other than his embarrassing bluntness about not having a clue about how to handle ISIS.  The White House may indeed be stumped over ISIS, and we all may be aware of that, but it's still bad policy to say publicly that we don't have a policy.  It pretty much confirms to our enemies that whatever they're doing is working.

Maybe we weren't supposed to listen to what Obama said as much as we were to look at what he wore?

Unfortunately for the President, and for us, his suit was the only good thing about that press conference.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Daily Dose of Bad Theology

Some days, I see stuff from self-proclaimed Christians that makes me understand why unchurched people mock us.

Bad Christian theology has been around as long as the serpent's little chat with Eve in the Garden of Eden.  But maybe it's because of social media and the Internet, however, that we seem to be bombarded with it incessantly these days.

The big fail today comes from a video making the rounds on Facebook, where Joel Osteen's wife, Victoria, welcomes people to her husband's church by encouraging them to "do good for your own self.  Do good because God wants you to be happy."

Now, I know that the Osteens have plenty of happy followers, but they've been preaching so much heresy for so long, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that they are seriously delusional, or they're really not born-again followers of Jesus Christ.  One the one hand, I don't want to even pretend to legitimize Osteenians with the term "Christian," but on the other hand, I know plenty of people do, and they take what the Osteens say as gospel, instead of Christ's holy Gospel.

Then, today, I was reading something written by a female intern at a large yet non-famous Christian church's youth ministry.  She was thanking a group of people for the generosity they'd shown her, and she gushed that she hoped those people would enjoy the rewards of good karma.

Huh?  Karma is Buddhist and Hindu, not Christian.  And this woman is helping to mentor teenagers in a Christian church?  Should somebody in that role be mashing religious concepts together like that, even if she was jesting?  Which, judging by her tone, she wasn't.

Not long after the karma thing, I found where the wife of another pastor at a supposedly Christian church was thanking God for her husband, and how she especially enjoyed the parts of her husband over which God didn't have first dibs.

I'm not sure if she was talking about the marriage bed specifically, or anything else besides her husband's soul, but either way, this pastor's wife is disseminating bad theology in her writing.  If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that you have been bought with a price, then you also understand that God "has dibs" on every part of all His people.  We've been bought with a price - our entire bodies.  Spouses don't get to enjoy certain parts of their mate that their mate shouldn't have already given over to God.  Unless, of course, both the husband and wife have only given part of themselves to God, which would be bad theology.  Right?

Yet these people - all of them - have careers of various impact within our Christian ghetto here in the United States.  Their households are receiving payment to help teach Christian theology to both children and adults.  Yet the theology for which their followers and supporters are willingly paying is bad theology.

I stumble across this kind of stuff almost every day as I research topics I'm going to write about for this blog.  But rarely do I find three such egregious examples of Christians teaching badly within half an hour of each other, as I did this afternoon.

But this is what's going on out there in our churches - both our famous ones, like the Osteen's palace in Houston, and these other smaller, non-famous congregations.

Part of the problem, of course, is that a lot of people who claim the name of Christ have merely done so as a form of "fire insurance," in the hopes that, when they die, they can flim-flam their way into Heaven based on their church attendance and their lip service to God.  After all, they weren't professional theologians, so what else could they do but go along with what their paid church staffers told them?

Another part of the problem, I suspect, is that since we Americans live in what we've been told is a Christian nation, many of us have deluded ourselves into believing the populist patchwork gospel of democracy, capitalism, and comforting passages from the Bible really is Christ's Gospel.  We earnestly desire for God to desire happiness for us.  We casually combine what we consider to be the best parts of secular thought processes into a pastiche of Biblical theology.  We sloppily commercialize aspects of God's perfect order - such as romanticizing and sexualizing true love - apparently because we can.

Not because we should.

People like me who point out the inaccuracies in other peoples' theology usually get blasted for being "judgmental."  I'm too rigid, too quick to condemn, and not gracious in allowing people to make mistakes.  Like all of these things I get accused of don't apply to the folks accusing me!

The basic fact here is that if you are a child of God, you do not need to fear His wrath if you really make an honest mistake in something you say, or you genuinely don't understand enough basic theology to differentiate between what is true, and what isn't.  God looks at our heart, and He knows what's motivating us.  And if what's motivating us is an earnest desire to honor Him first and foremost, what's the likelihood that we won't be seeking to educate ourselves on how to do that?

We're not talking here about controversies like infant baptism, or even predestination - topics within which God-honoring believers can embrace differing viewpoints in love and humility.  No, we're talking about our grasp of basic, baseline, orthodox truth concerning God and His Gospel.  And bad theology will thrive where discernment doesn't.

Out of our hearts, our mouths speak, right?  That's not my opinion, that's straight from Matthew 15:18.  And in our Internet age, can't we extend that to "out of our hearts, our fingers type?"

What are you telling other people about God?

If it's not accurate, what does that say about your faith?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Elijah: God's Purpose Through Our Despair

How are you doing?

I'm hoping you're having a good day today.  I'm hoping this season of your life is going along nicely for you.  Really, I do!

However, if you're anything like me, you probably have times when it seems like your life is fairly insignificant.  Am I right?  Are you ever frustrated with the way your life seems to be going?  Do more than "rainy days and Mondays" get you down?  While a lot of people appear to be accomplishing grand things for themselves, for their community, and even for the Kingdom of God, do you fret that you're not one of them?

Boy, I do.  Maybe it's my chronic clinical depression trying to steal my joy, or maybe it's hearing about all the achievements people younger than me are scoring.  Maybe part of my blurry sense of personal value has resulted from helping to care for my Dad, who has senile dementia.  Seeing a man like him living in the physical realm, without being able to appreciate it, can be downright scary, and make you think about your own mortality.

Then, too, I'm closer to the dreaded 5-0 than I ever have been in my life, so maybe it's all simply a mid life crisis.  I can't really tell, since I've always had a hankering for a Corvette.

At any rate, I found myself reading the plight of the prophet Elijah, who had things rougher that I do, as well as just about anybody reading this essay.  In 1 Kings 17, Elijah had to deliver a dramatic doomsday message from God to the despicable King Ahab, to the effect that there would be no rain until God said otherwise.

In other words, Elijah was predicting a massive drought, which would lead to massive starvation.  Not something any oligarch wants to hear, let alone somebody like Ahab and his even more evil wife, Jezebel.

And then what happens?  God tells Elijah to flee and go live next to a brook.

Now, a brook is a body of water, and what had Elijah just told Ahab?  Of all the places where God could order Elijah to live, doesn't a brook seem counter-intuitive?

Yet Elijah was obedient, and he went and camped out by the brook.  God promised that He'd send ravens to him with food for him to eat, and sure enough, they did just that, twice a day.

We don't know how long God had Elijah live in this state of exile, but even if it was only several days - or however long it takes for an average book to dry up during a drought - imagine what was going through Elijah's mind.  Usually, I don't think it's wise to add to God's Word, even if it's to extrapolate our own assumptions, or read between the lines.  On the one hand, God didn't think it important for you and me today to know specifically what Elijah thought about while he was next to this brook, but do you suppose Elijah was rejoicing all the time at his predicament?

Sure, I'd be glad the ravens were coming, like God promised, twice a day.  I would be glad to have water from the brook, too, but how long was that going to last?  As the drought dragged on, you know Elijah could see the water drying up.  And then it was gone.  What was he supposed to make of that?

And while he watched the brook dry up, how did he spend his spare time?  He wasn't writing great literature, or building houses, or digging ditches, or even watching ESPN like a couch potato.  What does one do out in the middle of noplace, with not even anything to eat except what ravens brought - supernaturally - from far away?  What else, but think?

Think, wonder, imagine, worry, fret, stew, feel sorry for one's self... get angry, become really fearful, doubt, feel sorry for one's self... worry... have I missed anything?  I don't know about you, but when I have time to think, that can be a dangerous invitation to anxiety.

Some people make good use of their spare time.  They're actively productive.  But Elijah?  Productivity?  Worth?  How much was he contributing to his retirement accounts?  He wasn't earning any diploma, or raising children, or inventing anything, or working on a scientific theorem, or making lots of friends.  He was literally in a holding pattern, suspended between the time God had him prophesy to Ahab, and whatever big command God would give him next.

Whenever that would be.

Yet Elijah waited.  We don't know how patiently he waited, but still, he waited.  He waited for God's next move.  And God doesn't appear to give him anything else to do in the meantime.  The cynic in me might rationalize part of that patience as flat-out fear; fear of Ahab, fear of what might happen if he showed his face to somebody who'd heard his prophecy from God about the drought.  However, even if Elijah, in his mere mortality, was partially confined by fear to his outpost by the brook, God helped him to overcome it with some sort of patience.  Otherwise, might Elijah have finally broken down and gone back to civilization to take his chances?

I'm afraid that's what I'd have done.

Finally, the brook dried up.  It hadn't rained, just like God had said.  What now?

Well, God speaks again to Elijah, but it wasn't exactly what somebody in Elijah's position probably would have wanted to hear.  God told him to go "at once" - immediately - to Zarephath, where some widow woman would feed him.

What?  Was God getting tired of sending the raven out twice a day to feed me?  He plopped me next to this miserable brook, and I had a feeling it would run dry before God sent more rain.  And now He's telling me that some widow woman will feed me?  Widows are the poorest people, because they've no husband to provide for them.  How can He expect a widow to feed me?  She's probably as destitute as I am.

I'm assuming here, of course, that Elijah is as self-centered and negative-thinking as I am.  For all we know, he willingly, eagerly, and enthusiastically got up and followed God's orders with humble obedience.  And sure enough, he found a widow so destitute, she was foraging for sticks to make a fire, over which she was planning on cooking her very last meal for herself and her son.

Good grief - what a jackpot, after an ambiguous season spent by that brook!  The whole region was desperate for water.  At least God could have sent Elijah to a wealthy household with the means to have stored up a bit of food, and maybe some wine, for such an emergency.  Rich people always manage better during a crisis, don't they?

Instead, to my shame, the impoverished Widow of Zarephath lets this guy, who's been out in no-man's-land for who-knows-how-long, tell her to go bake him a cake of bread.  And yeah - oh, by the way, he throws in something about her jug of oil and jar of flour not running out until it rains.

Yeah, right, buddy - and I'm Julia Child.  I can see her rolling her eyes.  Then again, for all we know, God had prepared her heart so she'd was willing to follow His commands, no matter how wacky they sounded.  And sure enough, their new little household had just enough to eat.

Elijah's amazing adventures go on and on, of course, through the death of the son of the Widow of Zarephath (that she first blamed on Elijah), and God bringing him back to life through Elijah, and the oil and flour not running out, and God finally bringing rain, and God's bizarre demonstration of His power through Elijah in front of Ahab, Jezebel, and their evil courtiers.  There's even God's fantastic communication to Elijah through the "still small voice," one of the most dramatic accounts of His sovereignty in the whole Bible, in 1 Kings 19:9-18.  The great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, put that event to music in his epic oratorio, Elijah, in a piece called "Behold, God the Lord."  If you ever wonder what a glimpse of God's authority might begin to sound like, I highly recommend you check this out.

Meanwhile, the lesson of Elijah's service to God is one of holy providence set to God's timetable, not ours.  God provided guidance to Elijah, as well as purpose, and even the words to say, but the linear progression of God's visible providence likely made no sense to Elijah.  There were no dots to connect; no discernible progression to justify following Him day by day.  Amazingly, Elijah was utterly devoted to God, even though he despaired of what it all might mean.  Eventually, when God appeared to Him as the "still, small voice," Elijah was profoundly drained.  And God (finally) gave him relief.

I wouldn't even begin to pretend that my trials, struggles, angst, and questions stem from as anointed a life and ministry as Elijah's.  God spoke through Elijah because he was His prophet, but I'm no prophet.  Elijah faced death for obeying God, while all you and I face is some mild mockery and disdain.  Yet God still wants to use me, and you, to accomplish His will and proclaim His glory to our world, and our generation.  And mostly, I feel like I'm simply bumbling along, discouraged, despairing, and as bereft of joy as that brook of Elijah's finally was of water.

I have to say, however, that it's a lot harder to throw myself a pity-party after reminding myself about Elijah:  A man of God for whom rainy days were likely never gloomy again!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Burger King's Whopper Inversion

I hadn't eaten Burger King's food in years.

A few weeks ago, however, I got stuck in traffic near a Chick-fil-A while on a mission to procure a quick dinner for myself and my parents.  A space opened up in the roadway, and I was able to navigate a tight U-turn, so I went to the next-closest fast food outlet, which happened to be a Burger King.

"Burger King?" I had to convince myself I was making a logical compromise.  It had been so long since I'd been to Burger King, maybe their food had improved by now.

But no, Burger King hasn't improved.

Of the three sandwiches I ordered, two of them were completely wrong.  Unfortunately, I didn't discover that until my parents opened the wrappings.  I'd ordered French fries, too, but when the clerk at the drive-through window was passing the open bags to me, I saw that they'd given me onion rings instead.

"Hey!"  I hollered back to him, since he'd quickly closed his window.  He slid it back open, annoyed.  "I ordered fries, not rings."

Without saying a word, he disappeared around a corner inside the restaurant.  After a moment or two, he returned with the fries.  I held out the three little cartons of rings, presuming he'd want to make an exchange.

"Nah, keep 'em," the young man snapped, as though he was being magnanimous with his generosity.

Ironically, those dry onion rings turned out to be the tastiest part of our meal.

Today, we're learning that Burger King is purchasing Tim Hortons, a Canadian-based coffee and doughnut restaurant that is more popular up there than McDonalds.  The fast-food merger is a deal being partially financed by Warren Buffett.

But that's not the big story.  The big story is that Burger King is relocating its official corporate home - now called a "domicile" in MBA jargon - from Florida to Ontario, Canada, where Tim Hortons is based.


At a current top rate of 26.3%, Canada has much lower corporate taxes than we do here in the United States, where the current top rate is 39.1%.  Talk about American exceptionalism - our corporate tax rate is the highest in the world!  America also taxes foreign profits, while Canada doesn't.  By fleeing north of the border, Burger King can realize an immediate benefit from its purchase of Tim Hortons without increasing any of its prices.  It's called tax inversion, and a number of lesser-known companies have already done it without most American taxpayers realizing it.

This time, considering Burger King's brand recognition, if not actual market share, things may be different.  Some American politicians have begun calling on consumers to boycott Burger King, in an attempt to shame the iconic brand into changing its mind and staying in the nation that bore it.   This shaming strategy worked a few weeks ago, as Illinois-based Walgreens considered relocating its headquarters to Europe with its purchase of a major pharmacy chain there.  In its hyper-competitive industry, however, Walgreens decided it couldn't afford to risk alienating its American customers with such a decidedly unpatriotic move like trying to avoid US tax rates.

Whether Burger King's customers will be as patriotic as Walgreens feared its customers might be remains to be seen.  At this point, considering how marginal Burger King's products have become, perhaps its corporate honchos figure there's not much more to lose.  Besides, experts are speculating that both Burger King and Tim Hortons see their future growth taking place outside of their native countries.  Three Brazilian men already own the bulk of Burger King's stock.  So perhaps we should be grateful that the Whopper is staying at least on the North American continent.

Not that Tim Hortons will help with the food quality problem plaguing Burger King.  Up where my brother and his family live in Michigan, they have Tim Hortons restaurants, and, as greasy breakfast foods go, their doughnuts are okay.  But if I'm going to put such a heavy concentration of sugar, preservatives, and grease into my belly, frankly, I prefer the taste of Dunkin Donuts to Tim Hortons.

As far as Burger King's power play over tax inversion, however, I say if they've got the stomach for it, go ahead and leave.  Washington's politicians may howl about it being a dirty tax trick, but hey - those politicians are the ones who've been deep-frying America's tax code for decades.  Our corporate tax code has become nothing more than a lump of artificially-flavored, partially hydrogenated soybean oil,  with gluten, ammonium sulfate, calcium dioxide, diammonium phosphate, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, ethoxylated diglycerides, and corn maltodextrin thrown in.

With a side of bacon.

Glazed or plain, this morass our elected officials have concocted for us has become so onerous, don't you think it's about time it went on a diet?  For years, conservatives have lamented America's declining competitiveness in the global economy, and liberals have lamented how loopholes designed to lessen the severity of our corporate tax code unfairly benefit some companies at the expense of others.

Doesn't all of this leave a bad taste in your mouth?

Well, now everyone in Washington has an incentive to finally put Michelle Obama's health improvement initiative to work over at the Internal Revenue Service.  "Let's move," right?  Some legislators think they can make new laws to prevent tax inversion, but how will holding American companies hostage like that be any incentive for our economy to grow?  Times are changing, and American business is no longer the only game in town.  Globalization means that international corporate mergers are going to become more frequent, and if we don't want our homegrown companies to leave the United States for good, Congress is going to have to make it appealing for them to stay.

After all, from a beltway bureaucrat's point of view, a reduction in taxes will mean less revenue coming in, but less is better than none, isn't it?

Okay, so maybe neither Burger King nor Tim Hortons fit into the prototypical politicians' diet of steak and lobster.  But sometimes it takes a whopper to upset the gravy train.

Monday, August 25, 2014

NYC's Old Piers Not What They Appear
A 1943 map of Lower Manhattan's piers

Much has been made about the offshoring of America's manufacturing work.  When people begin talking about America's stagnant middle class, or about how blue collar jobs don't pay what they used to, the conversation usually ends up with something about how everything you buy at Walmart these days is made in China.

Of course, I don't shop at Walmart, on principle.  But just about everything I buy at Target is made in China, too.  Is that uncanny, or what?

Recently, I read an article* in a Christian magazine about all of the dilapidated piers ringing the lower half of Manhattan Island, and how those piers from yesteryear symbolize the downfall of America's manufacturing might.  Look at how great a manufacturing empire New York City used to be, the writer of this article implied, since these piers used to see products being shipped from Gotham to every corner of the world.

Now, almost all of those piers are gone.  In their place, sticking a couple of feet out of the water, black with rot, are rows of wooden poles that used to support the wooden piers upon which Manhattan's fabled maritime industry flourished.  Seeing them from the shore, or from a sightseeing boat, it can appear to the naked eye as though the city has suffered a mortal blow in its demise as a global freight clearinghouse.  Sure, a handful of newer piers have been remodeled for recreational purposes, and a few continue to serve the luxury cruise ship industry, but a commercial freighter hasn't docked in Manhattan for decades.

Not that ocean shipping has abandoned New York Harbor, however.  Quite the opposite:  over in New Jersey, near Staten Island, and behind the Statue of Liberty, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey runs a thriving freight operation for some of the largest commercial steamships in the world.  But those modern steel and concrete piers are a world away from New York City's historic waterfront.

Brooklyn's Red Hook terminal is the city's last redoubt for ocean freight, but it's a shadow of its former self.  Besides, its days may be numbered, too.  As Brooklyn continues to explode in popularity for millennials and new urbanists priced out of Manhattan, its waterfront districts closest to Manhattan are experiencing a sea-change in land use patterns, with residential construction and parkland replacing shipping and industrial concerns.  It's quite likely that the business currently handled at Red Hook will be forced to relocate to another part of Brooklyn - if not New Jersey - if the borough continues with its aggressive gentrification.

Indeed, what's going on with Brooklyn's Red Hook terminal is representative of what has already happened with the piers that used to spike out from Manhattan's shoreline.  But drawing a correlation between New York City's changing waterfront and the offshoring of America's manufacturing jobs isn't as easy to make. 

First and foremost, we need to understand why Manhattan came to be the epicenter of America's commercial might.  And that has to do with its unique geography.  The only reason Europeans settled on Lower Manhattan Island was because it was easy to defend.  It is the pointy tip of an island, with a relatively narrow stretch of land they needed to patrol at the colony's northernmost border (along which a now-famous wall was built).  You could see who was entering the harbor to the south, and who was coming down both rivers on either side.  When warfare, disgruntled natives, greedy explorers, opposing national interests from the Old World, and swashbuckling adventurers are all running into each other in the New World's frontier, such tactical considerations as location, location, location are critically important.

And even today, real estate - "location, location, location" - remains the most powerful force on the relatively small island.

In its beginning, of course, Manhattan's immediate success as a European colony came not just from its defensible location, but its strategic trading partnerships, which created its maritime economy.  Explorers, politicians, military personnel, and ship after ship of settlers eager for a new start in the New World came through what became New York, while America's bounty of natural resources was shipped back to Europe.  Between all of the coming and going, the city never stopped growing.

However, Manhattan was never an ideal manufacturing locale, although plenty of entrepreneurs were able to build fantastic fortunes on the island.  Some manufacturing companies started off producing implements for the island's specific economy, and then grew as our country grew.  But the more space an enterprise required, better success was achieved in areas of the city that were less densely populated, such as Queens and Brooklyn.  Plus, across the Hudson River lay mainland America, and as our young country grew and flourished, New Jersey eventually proved its logistical and economic superiority to Manhattan when it came to making stuff - and shipping it.

Remember, Manhattan is as much about real estate as it is anything else.  It's a relatively narrow island between two rivers that empty out into the world's second-largest ocean.  And maritime travel was the only intercontinental travel known to our planet until the 20th Century.  This meant that most of Manhattan's waterfront was teeming with factories, warehouses, and other gritty industrial uses.  Nobody went down to the waterfront for a casual stroll, or to soak in the view, or smell the sea air.  Actually, considering that today, much of Manhattan's border is lined with parks, tree-lined streets, and luxury apartment buildings, some would argue that its waterfront now is the most productive it's ever been, at least in terms of its value not only for property owners, but as a quality-of-life amenity that all of the city's residents can enjoy.

Getting back to manufacturing, however, brings us to problems even bigger than Manhattan's scarcity of affordable raw land for factories.  Being an island, Manhattan posed significant logistical dilemmas for getting manufactured goods to the rest of the country.  You had to either hire a barge, negotiate a tight tunnel, or cross a congested bridge.  Meanwhile, over in New Jersey, all you needed were surface roads or rails to take your goods deeper into America, and you could skip the whole cross-the-river drama.

At the same time, ships from abroad began docking in New Jersey, unloading their goods directly at the mainland's railheads, and loading up freight from across America without the added expense and bother of getting it across the Hudson.  Eventually, as American manufacturing matured throughout the Lower 48, shipments avoided the congestion of New York and New Jersey entirely, shifting through more modern ports in Maryland, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and California.

Not that Manhattan's piers could have hoped to remain competitive as shipbuilding techniques continued to change.  They may have been state-of-the-art for their day, but those wooden sailing ships that first docked along Manhattan's shore, and then the steel-hulled freighters, pale in comparison to the behemoth steamships used by the global maritime industry today.   Those old vessels were shaped like Manhattan Island itself:  as skinny as it is long.  Today's new ones, however, are so huge, they could never hope to fit into Manhattan's existing commercial slips.  They're so tall, the Brooklyn Bridge would have had to be torn down for the East River piers to be usable.  It's easy to see how simply relocating New York Harbor's freight business to the relatively adaptable piers in New Jersey makes the most sense, particularly in capitalism's bottom-line universe.

And speaking of capitalism's bottom-line universe; those old, abandoned piers of Manhattan's yesteryear are merely an artifact of what we call progress.  New York City's economy is hardly the worse for wear now that virtually all of its maritime industry has moved away.  Anybody living there or visiting can plainly see that the city has transitioned remarkably well from a manufacturing one to a service-based one.  What there is to argue about is whether that's been good for America as a whole... or not.  After all, New York's prime industry, Wall Street and too-big-to-fail finance, plays a powerful role in forcing manufacturing jobs from America to lowest-common-denominator locales in the Majority World.

Years ago, one of the reasons why I left New York City involved the atrocious cost of living in the region.  And why is that?  Costs are high because plenty of other people still want to live there, and can make lots of money while doing so.  The city is thriving today.

Nevertheless, when I see photos of Manhattan's trendy, transformed riverfront along the Hudson, and look at those stubs of wood still sticking out into the river, where piers used to hunch over the water, I tend to react just like the author of the article I'm writing about.  I catch myself being more nostalgic for what I imagine they used to mean for the city, than what they actually mean for the city now.

Sure, manufacturing's ghost is all that smells of soot, grease, and the body odor of factory laborers and longshoremen in the industrial buildings that now serve as luxury lofts and chic nightclubs for New York's postindustrial elites.

But frankly, would you want that old New York back?  Those rotting stubs of wood let us contemplate with rose-colored glasses an era that was dirtier, noisier, more dangerous, and more corrupt than we care to realize.

About the only thing I'd like to have back from New York City's past are it's housing prices.  Go back far enough, like maybe a century or so, and they'd probably be affordable for us today!

* I'm getting kinda tired of identifying people by the errors I find in their articles, so I'm not gonna do it with this one.  Okay?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Protesting the Status Quo in Black and White

Yes, I'm gonna write about this.

It would be racist of me not to.

This is an old story, dating from earlier this year, in April.  But if you don't live in Los Angeles, you've probably never heard about it.

Yet, anyway.

On April 7, 2014, some guy in a posh West Hollywood apartment building went berserk, and threatened fellow residents with a knife inside one of the apartments.  The police were called, and when deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arrived, they knocked on the apartment door.  First, there was no reply, but then, two men opened the door and ran out, fleeing their knife-wielding neighbor who was still in the apartment.  Unfortunately, both of the fleeing men were shot by the cops, and one of them died.

John Winkler was a crime victim - killed by the cops.
Why no outrage?  Is it because he's white?
The guy who died was John Winkler, a 30-year-old television production assistant.  And he was white.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Winkler hadn't been stabbed by the man with the knife, but the other man fleeing the apartment had been, and was bleeding.  He exited the apartment first, followed by Winkler, and the deputies instantaneously presumed that Winkler was attacking the bloody guy.  And they fired.

Meanwhile, the guy with the knife, back in the apartment, never got shot, but he did get arrested.  He's being held on $4 million bail for attempted murder.

Winkler's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff's department for $25 million.

If all this is new news to you, why is that, do you think?  Is it because this is mostly a local issue?  Is it because we all know that cops can make awful mistakes?  Is it because so much crime happens everywhere these days, so not every death-by-cop can make national and international headlines?  Just within the past week, here in the north Texas area, there have been several cases of local police shooting - and killing - suspects.  And unless you live here, you probably didn't know that, either.  Until now.

So what makes Ferguson, Missouri, so special?  What makes the killing of Michael Brown so important to our national dialog?  Is it really about police brutality and over-zealousness in general, or is it mostly because of skin color?  Is Brown's death so much more news-worthy than Winkler's?  And is that because one of these shooting victims had black skin, and the other had white?

If that's the case, then the media, our president, and anybody who is grieving over a young, black shooting victim they didn't know, who was killed by a white cop, are playing the race card.  Right?

"Hands up - don't shoot."  That's the chant protesters have been popularizing in Ferguson during these past two weeks of marches, tear gas, arrests, arson, looting, political gamesmanship, vitriol against law enforcement, and incessant media headlines.  But it doesn't even sound like LASD's deputies had the chance to order Winkler to put his hands up, does it?  They shot first, and asked questions later.

Seems to me, Winkler's death at least opens the door - pardon the pun - to a legitimate debate over police aggression regardless of race.  Aggression, or over-reaction, or letting emotions and reflexes overtake one's professional law enforcement training, right?  Regardless of race!

Witnesses told LA's media that the deputies were shown a photo of the suspect when they arrived on the scene, so they should have been able to recognize that the men coming out of the apartment didn't really match the image they'd just seen.  Instead, isn't it kind of obvious that the deputies jumped to conclusions, over-reacted, and used excessive force before they knew what was unfolding in front of them?  Both of the guys who were shot were unarmed, just like Michael Brown was in Ferguson, so they shouldn't have been an imminent threat to the deputies.  It's just as hard to see why lethal force was necessary on Winkler, as Ferguson's police say it was for Brown.

On the one hand, Winkler's death may be due in part to the degree of volatility for which law enforcement professionals need to brace themselves in any given situation.  Cops need to anticipate a wide range of scenarios and variables when they arrive upon any scene, regardless of the neighborhood environment.  Maybe the demands of police work have simply passed the point of what normal people expect their police departments to endure.  There's been a lot of talk after the Ferguson shooting regarding the military-style response that various law enforcement agencies have deployed on West Florissant Avenue, the main staging area for most of the demonstrations.  If cops really face a war zone out there that most ordinary law-abiding citizens can't fathom, then we need to talk about that, don't we?

On the other hand, however, is the disappointing reality regarding the status of race relations in the United States.  For example, most white people don't fear their local police departments like many black people apparently do.  During the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I read article after article written by accomplished black parents who revealed that even in their affluent neighborhoods, and with their well-educated black sons, they worry about the safety of the young men in their families were they ever to be stopped by the cops.  I didn't realize beforehand that a lot of anecdotal evidence exists out there indicating that white police officers tend to presume the worst about every young black man they see, especially if they're young black men wearing nice clothes and driving expensive cars, two of the same things young white men from equally affluent families do.  But the white kids don't get stopped, or frisked, simply because of what they wear or drive.  Or the color of their skin.

That is a conversation we need to have, right?

What people don't want to talk about, however, is whether or not Michael Brown stole a $50 box of cigars from a convenience store.  Or whether he might have been on marijuana when cops saw him walking down the middle of a street.  Or whether he punched the officer in the face - the officer who reportedly suffered a fractured eye socket at some point during his confrontation with Brown.  Or whether the officer, having just been punched by a tall, burly black 18-year-old, who may have had marijuana in his system, couldn't see properly, and imagined Brown was coming back at him to punch him again.  Was the cop, already in distress from possibly having a broken eye socket, supposed to wait to be punched again before firing his weapon in self-defense?

These are questions that strike at the very heart - again, pardon the pun - of why Brown got shot to death two weeks ago.  They're questions that need to be answered, and the answers may need to wait for more facts to come to light.

But few people are that patient.  They're letting the media create a narrative in Ferguson that is stitched together with innuendo, supposition, hearsay, conjecture, notoriously unreliable eyewitness accounts, and flat-out racism.  Back in West Hollywood, there seem to have been a lot fewer variables, including the fact that we don't know the skin color of the sheriff's deputies, because the media hasn't reported it.  Apparently, it didn't matter, even though Winkler is white.  I guess police brutality is only a matter for national politics when it involves people of different skin colors.

Is that the fault of police departments, then, or our society?  Let the white folks file a $25 million lawsuit, but let the blacks riot in the streets, and burn down a Quick Trip?

Either way, nothing really gets fixed.  Maybe because... we're not focusing on what's really broken?

It's pretty obvious that we have a cohort of deeply angry young blacks who resent the fact that lots of people have lots of stuff that they don't have.  And not just tangible stuff, like $50 boxes of cigars.  During these past two weeks of rioting and demonstrations in Ferguson, our nation's first black president has been vacationing with his family on exclusive Martha's Vineyard, playing golf on exquisitely manicured courses, and partying with influential East Coast elites.

If you think about it, most white people cannot afford to vacation on Martha's Vineyard, and we have absolutely no access to those circles of wealthy power brokers, but we're not angry about that.  Frustrated, maybe, and jealous, perhaps, but not angry to the point of defying law and order.

I'm not going to pretend as though I have all of the answers for why whites aren't as eager to riot as some young blacks in Ferguson appear to be.  The pat answer for some is that whites have advantages blacks don't, but does that imply that Barak Obama won the presidency thanks to affirmative action?  Are those liberal socialites on Cape Cod partying with the most powerful black man on Earth because he's their puppet in Washington, or are they really as color-blind as they say the rest of us should be?

Hey!  Asking these questions and pointing out these differences isn't racism.  But might ignoring them be?  If we don't talk about why differences like these exist, then aren't we allowing the conditions that perpetuate these differences to continue poisoning our society?  And turning into conflicts?

Otherwise, we're saying that when it comes to suspected instances of police brutality, Winkler's death means less than Brown's does.

When in fact, they should be equally significant.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Even in Ferguson, Facts are Worth the Wait

Patience is not only a virtue.  It's a Fruit of the Spirit.

So why do so many evangelical leaders seem so anxious to jump to conclusions regarding the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri?

Men like Colin Hansen, Trevin Wax, Leon Brown, Russell Moore, Matt Chandler, and Thabiti Anyabwile have made impassioned pleas for racial reconciliation in the wake of a police officer's killing of Michael Brown in broad daylight in suburban St. Louis.  And with all due respect to my brothers in Christ, while the crux of their pleas cannot be denied - that bigotry dishonors God - their eagerness to draw conclusions before critical facts in this case are publicly known threatens to actually paralyze the movement these men are hoping their target audience - hardened bigots of any skin color - will make towards racial reconciliation.

Anyabwile has even written an article mocking the integrity of "having all the facts," in a sloppy yet acclaimed piece for the Gospel Coalition.  "Why We Never 'Wait for All the Facts' Before We Speak" presents an apalling endorsement of ends justifying means.  He says he wants to be "a fool for justice," as if that makes any sense.

"What wisdom is there in a silence that risks nothing for the oppressed and grants no opportunity for understanding?" Anyabwile asks, apparently ignoring a basic rule in effective debate strategy that involves speaking from a preponderance of the evidence.  In other words, Anyabwile is willing to jump on anything that whiffs of racial injustice and draw national implications from it, even if further facts may reveal something else entirely.  We don't have a preponderance of evidence yet, because we don't know crucial facts about what precipitated Brown's death.

You'd have thought these guys would have learned their lessons from the preemptive groveling many of them did during the Trayvon Martin travesty.  At the end of the day, after all the relevant facts were presented in a court of law, we learned that this was in fact a local tragedy in a specific gated community between two individuals who didn't trust each other.  The racist circus that erupted over the shooting of Trayvon ended up stripping much of the legitimacy from calls for racial harmony.  Too much rhetoric was being slopped around that wasn't based on facts, but emotion, bias, and perceptions of bits and pieces of reality.

For one, I was actually hoping that we could all learn something about mutual respect from the dialog, regardless of what the jury's verdict turned out to be, but now, looking back, it seems that nothing has changed.

And why is that?  One of the reasons may be because too many talking heads - even within evangelicalism - were more interested in rhapsodizing than letting the facts speak for themselves.

That's what Christ did:  let the facts speak for themselves.  "The truth will set you free," right?

We wait for facts because life's events are not necessarily linear.  At least, life's factual events exist regardless of the order in which we learn them.  For example, in the Ferguson case, we have a black youth shot to death by a white officer.  We have a town populated mostly by black people, and a police department staffed mostly by whites.  Those are facts.

We also have allegations, such as allegations that the police department is heavy-handed and discriminatory in how it interacts with people in the community.  We have allegations that Brown may have had marijuana in his system.  We have grainy video from a security camera purportedly showing Brown wrestling a $50 box of cigars from a much smaller bodega owner.

Then there are the conflicting statements about what happened to provoke a white officer into shooting an unarmed black person.  Some say there was some sort of altercation at the officer's squad car, some say Brown stuck his head inside the squad car, some say the officer was trying to get Brown to stop walking in the middle of the street, some say a gun discharged within the officer's squad car.  Some say Brown ran away, and then turned to face the officer.  Some say Brown had his hands raised.  One of the autopsies - how many have there already been? - says all six bullets fired by the officer entered Brown's body from its front.

Now we have stories circulating in the media that the officer had suffered some sort of physical harm to his face.  He was taken to the hospital, bleeding.  How did the officer get injured?  Did Brown punch him?  Was Brown under the fog of marijuana, and could that explain why his behavior before his death defies all of the glowing things his family has told the media about how kind, gentle, and soft-hearted Brown was?

This is why we need facts, Rev. Anyabwile.  This is why we need patience, all of you evangelical writers who are taking whites - mostly whites, at least, by the tone of their articles - to task for our hardened bigotry.  Social media and the omnipresence of cameras, cell phones, and reporters may lull us into a false entitlement to knowing everything we need to know - or at least, presuming as if we know all we need to know.

Meanwhile, there are still facts out there that haven't come in yet.  We all know the media is selective about what it reports, and how it reports it.  Plus, the investigators working on this case are only mortal human beings.  They need to sleep, eat, process information, interview people, go back and re-interview people, run rabbit trails, hold meetings, call their spouse to check in on their own family, and otherwise work the case.  Somebody has been killed by a police officer.  This is serious business.  Neither Brown nor the officer who killed him decided to create an incident that reporters, bloggers, preachers, and evangelical writers like me need to hash out.  That's not what they were talking about when Brown had his head, supposedly, inside the squad car.

This was a life and death event of tragic proportions.  How is it respectful of the law, justice, or the lives of ether Brown or his killer, to make preemptive assessments of who did what wrong, and society's culpability in the case?

Many people want Brown's death to be about race.  They want it to be about rogue cops - and indeed, entire police departments that have gone rogue.  They want the media to foment their adrenaline into something that may not be representative of the facts in this case.

This is one of the reasons why I'm a big anti-pop-culture person.  All too often, we're more willing to be sold something than work at being a wise consumer.  Especially a wise consumer of the news.

Throughout all of this, nobody is claiming that race relations in the United States are hunky-dory.  I haven't heard anybody yet say that we don't need to exercise extreme caution when it comes to how law enforcement protects the citizenry, no matter their race or creed.  Neither has anybody said that an investigation of this shooting isn't warranted, or that justice doesn't need to be served.

As it is, by taking a preemptive swipe at what they believe happened in Ferguson, many evangelical writers have neutered whatever they'd probably like to say when ALL of the facts are known.  Facts like whether or not Brown was high on marijuana.  Facts like whether Brown punched the police officer in the face so hard he broke his eye socket.  Facts like whether having a broken eye socket would make the officer unable to judge the distance Brown was from him, and hence, the rapid firing of his gun for fear of his life if he saw a distorted image of Brown coming towards him.  Facts like the crowds of demonstrators not even caring that the lead cop against whom they're demonstrating is a highly-respected law enforcement professional who happens to be black.  And then, all of the facts that we don't even yet know that we need to know.

For all of their self-righteous posturing over the issue of race, how many of these evangelical leaders have moved their families into racially-mixed inner-city neighborhoods to be salt and light?  Or older suburban subdivisions that are disproportionately non-white?  How many of them have their kids enrolled in big urban school districts, or school districts in older, mostly black suburbs?  How many of them have ever ridden with a police officer in a squad car to patrol a neighborhood populated more by non-whites than whites?

Racism is an easy evil to lambaste, because, frankly, it is evil.  And, frankly, we all engage in it, to a certain degree.  I know some pretty fair-minded people, but I doubt any of them would admit that they've wholly won the bigot thing in their private thoughts and when they make first impressions of other people.  This means that when we speak against something as insidious as racism, we need to do so with as much integrity, sincerity, and authority as we can.

Truth is all of those:  integrity, sincerity, and authority.  And truth comes from facts.  Which means facts are valuable, and worth waiting for.

Update 9/3/14:  When we talk about aggressive policing, what are we talking about?  Consider this perspective within the broader St. Louis County community.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson's Outsiders Protest Too Much

Listening to news reports is one thing.

Being an eyewitness is another.

So last night, at around 10:15, I was checking the news online, and saw a banner teaser with live video from Ferguson, Missouri.  And like a fly to a light bulb, I clicked on it, to see what was going on.

The clear, digitally-vivid feed was being provided by KSDK, the local NBC affiliate in St. Louis.  At the scene, brightly lit by street lamps, television camera lights, and police spotlights, from the comfort of my air-conditioned bedroom, I saw a full line of police officers stretching across five lanes of West Florissant Avenue, the street that has become Ground Zero for demonstrations against police brutality in suburban St. Louis following the death of Michael Brown.

As the news crew's camera panned around to show the crowd of protesters, I heard one of the reporters estimate their numbers at no more than a couple of dozen.  Several reporters commented that there appeared to be more media personnel at their location than demonstrators.

It all made for boring viewing, and I was thankful to find that things were so quiet in Ferguson.  I was wondering what kind of impact all of these demonstrations were having on the local businesses, and the residents who lived on the side streets.  Having police helicopters overhead night after night couldn't be helpful for getting a good night's rest.  Unpredictable patches of violence couldn't be conducive for encouraging shoppers and diners to patronize the many businesses lining West Florissant Avenue, either.

During the course of the evening, as if they were reading my mind, I heard the reporters for KSDK commenting on how an estimated two dozen businesses had been looted over the past week or so, while several other businesses had boarded up their intact windows to try and prevent being a victim of the same fate.  KSDK's reporters also commiserated about a growing chorus of complaints from neighborhood residents, who have reportedly become increasingly vocal about being either trapped in their neighborhoods, or prevented from getting home, because of the haphazard nature of the demonstrations.

Okay, so that answered that!

I was about to leave KSDK's live video feed when, suddenly, a group of police officers, who'd been standing pretty much at attention in their line across West Florissant Avenue, suddenly lunged towards the camera.  Theirs was like a precise surgical strike, snatching somebody - one of the demonstrators - and then quickly folding back into the line, returning to their straight, somber formation.

"What was that?" KSDK's anchors back in the news studio were asking their reporters on the scene.  "What happened?"

Nobody seemed to know.  But the demonstrators who were left didn't act particularly upset.  They must have agreed that the police action was justified.

A few minutes later, the same thing suddenly happened again, and this time a bystander told a reporter that somebody had thrown something at the line of police officers.  Unprovoked.  So that helped to explain why that group of officers surged forward from their line of formation, enveloping their suspect, and quickly retreating back into formation.

By this time, several black men who'd been pacing back and forth in front of the demonstrators appeared to realize that it was in their best interests to try and call it a night before things escalated any further.  One of the men, identified by reporters as a local minister, tried to encourage the demonstrators to follow him away from the police line, ostensibly on to their homes.  But nobody followed him.  It must have been pretty embarrassing for that courageous minister.  I wondered to myself what it must be like to announce in front of a gaggle of television cameras that we were leaving, but nobody followed.

Another black man, an older one, with thin ropes of chains around his neck, appeared, and was identified by a reporter as a longtime civil rights activist in the neighborhood.  He talked with a reporter, and assured him that he'd been negotiating with the cops, and there would be no violence tonight.

Isn't it doubtful that these folks would have been in front of the media's staging area, and would have presumed to wield influence over this crowd, if they knew they didn't?  They acted as though they represented the protesters, and presumed that the demonstrators knew who they are, and would respect their posture of significance.

Strictly judging from appearances, the crowd itself was an eclectic mix of blacks and whites; the blacks were of assorted ages and body styles, but the whites were almost all young and fit, sporting an affinity for grunge-looking apparel.  Almost all of the cops, meanwhile, were white - I saw one young black officer - and many of them appeared to be on the pudgy side.  But then again, their bland, grayscale-colored polyester uniforms weren't exactly projecting a crisp profile for any of them.

As a KSDK camera placidly panned the line of policemen stretched across West Florissant Avenue, it became obvious that most of the officers had begun to focus their gaze on something taking place off in the distance, down the avenue.  The camera operator noticed it too, and turned to see what was catching the attention of the police.  There was smoke rising in the distance.

Almost as if on cue, the camera panned back to the line of policemen, and there, front and center, was a tall, distinctive officer, Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol.  His face was fixed towards the smoke rising down Florissant Avenue, and he appeared to be giving some rapid-fire instructions to some other officers who, once he'd said something, would individually peel back, through the line of officers, ostensibly on their way to perform whatever task Johnson had just given them.

Before too long, the unbroken line of police officers parted, and SWAT trucks and about a half-dozen white Suburban police vehicles charged through the line, and raced down the avenue towards the smoke.

KSDK reporters could see at least one small fire burning on some pavement down the block, and a trickle of people who'd apparently been demonstrating in the region of the smoke began to make their way up the avenue.  They were running, stumbling, their eyes watery, a telltale sign of tear gas.  Soon, the cops at the line back at the media area began putting on their gas masks, and two reporters had to flee to their cars to escape the gas being blown up the avenue by the breeze.

Eventually, reporters deduced from a variety of their sources that shots had been fired further down the avenue, some private property had caught on fire, and that tear gas had been used to disperse a crowd of demonstrators down there.  One of KSDK's cameras caught the scene as a pickup truck full of young people - mostly white, but a few blacks - was pulled over by the police, and everybody on board - the pickup's bed was full of young people - was arrested.  Police could clearly be seen removing from the truck some sort of metallic canister of something.  Nobody from the pickup resisted their arrest.

Today, we've learned that 78 people were arrested late last night and early this morning in Ferguson, which is proof that somewhere, at some point, a lot more people joined the demonstrations than were at the original staging area being monitored by KSDK.  And of those 78 arrests, only four people were Ferguson residents.  Eighteen of those arrested were from out-of-state.  Most of the arrests were of people who lived someplace within the St. Louis metropolitan area, but not Ferguson.

That was another trend being discussed by KSDK reporters, even while events were unfolding last night.  Some neighborhood activists who live in Ferguson had begun to suspect that much of the protracted disturbances afflicting their hometown were being perpetrated not by locals, but by activists and agitators from beyond Ferguson who were just out for kicks.

For Ferguson residents who believe they have a legitimate complaint about police aggression, doesn't such infiltration by non-locals seem like a mockery of what Ferguson's blacks want to see changed?

Judging by the video of Ferguson's "finest" firing tear gas at the Al Jazeera news crew last week, it certainly seems like there's a legitimate dialog that needs to take place regarding how the city's police do their job and interact within their community.  But if you don't live in Ferguson - shucks, if you don't even live in Missouri - what claims do you have against Ferguson's police department?

You believe in civil rights?  Well, plenty of civil rights activists are pleading for calm in Ferguson.  It appears likely that a grand jury will hear the evidence against the police officer who killed the young Michael Brown.  The world is aware of what's been going on in Ferguson, a respected black law enforcement professional is in charge of keeping the peace in Ferguson, the President of the United States is appealing for calm, and apparently, protesters are being trucked in... to do what?  Exploit the opportunity to flirt with irresponsibility in front of a restless group of reporters and live-feed cameras?

From what I saw last night, this is no longer a black versus white situation.  Many of the demonstrators no longer want justice.  They seem to want anarchy.

Yeah, like that will help fix anything.

Hey, Ferguson's outsiders:  Thou dost protest too much.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Casting Stones... from Our Idol Worship?

It's so easy for us evangelicals to forget it.

We too easily forget the insidiousness of sin.

We forget how present it is in our lives.  How subversively it can haunt our thoughts, and discretely tarnish our actions.  We become complacent regarding how susceptible we are to it.  When a socially negative sin does crop up in our lives, we try to hide it, but sins that aren't socially negative we sometimes joke about under the guise of humility.

And when somebody else commits a socially unacceptable sin, we marvel at their audacity, or their feebleness at being unable to rise above committing such a thing.  Then we peg ourselves and our personal sins against that public, socially unacceptable sin.  And we measure our self-worth to the person who just did The Big No-No.


I've written before on this blog about how pleased I've been that a former pastor at the church I attend has been welcomed back onto our church's staff.  The Reverend Dr. Joseph F. "Skip" Ryan was the first pastor hired by Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, and he led the church through a remarkable period of growth through the 1990's.  Tragically, he fell into an abusive behavior pattern with prescription painkillers, and resigned from service in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.

The elder board at our church, however, did not turn away from Dr. Ryan or his family.  Indeed, our congregation reached out to the Ryans and made sure they stayed with our church, through his rehabilitation, the restoration of their family relationships, and even reinstatement into pastoral ministry within our denomination.  Eventually, Dr Ryan's replacement as senior minister at Park Cities, Rev. Mark Davis, asked him to come back on staff, which he did in 2012.

Earlier this summer, as I was reviewing the search parameters provided by Google Analytics regarding the visitors I've had to this blog, I noticed that somebody had been searching online for something regarding Dr. Ryan and "relapse."  But I didn't think too much about it.  I've had a number of people visiting my blog searching for a variety of topical information about Dr. Ryan, and I figured somebody must be muckraking.

Last week, however, it happened again.  "Pastor Skip Ryan relapse."

"Boy," I thought, "somewhere, the rumor mill is spinning out of control."

But yesterday in church, I learned it wasn't a rumor.  Dr. Ryan had admitted to a relapse, which had occurred in April of this year, and resigned from his staff positions at both Park Cities and Redeemer Seminary, an institution he'd helped found in Dallas.

So, while I'm disappointed - along with many of my fellow churchgoers - I wasn't surprised at the news.  But the reason I wasn't surprised has more to do with just the early warnings I'd received in my Google Analytics data.

By that I mean that, just as many evangelicals make heroes out of church leaders like Tim Keller, and John Piper, and Chuck Swindoll, and Billy Graham, and Mark Driscoll, many evangelicals - particularly in the PCA denomination - made a hero out of Dr. Ryan.

"Look at him - the handsome, wealthy, always-tanned Skip, with his boundless energy, his insightful oratory, his beautiful wife, his prestigious church, his worldwide ministry, his influence over so many seminarians, his friendship with everybody who's anybody in the PCA... look at Skip!"

Everyone may not have used all of those accolades, but this is how I've heard others rave about Dr. Ryan.  And yes, in many ways, he is indeed a remarkable man, the atypical evangelical:  born into an affluent family, raised in prestigious coastal Connecticut, graduate of Harvard, traveler of the globe, and possessing a cosmopolitan worldview that transcends politics and most of pop culture.

And he's preaching at a conservative church in Dallas, Texas?

Granted, that church has one of the wealthiest congregations in America.  He preaches to corporate CEOs, powerful lawyers, eminent physicians, several multi-millionaires, and at least one billionaire every week.  They come to church dressed to the nines, driving luxury cars worth more than a suburban starter home.  Hey - rich people need the Gospel as much as anybody, and as Park Cities Presbyterian's first pastor, Dr. Ryan was able to help design a unique fellowship that espoused an amazingly pointed, Christ-centric theology without making his wealthy congregation feel guilty for being wealthy.

It's a rare preacher indeed who can preach both "Christ crucified, risen, and coming again" and "death to self" and watch his 1,100-seat sanctuary overflow with socially-accomplished worshippers.  I particularly remember the Sunday after 9-11, when services were so packed, people were literally sitting on the floor.

He was granted an honorary doctorate from the PCA's revered seminary, Westminster, in Philadelphia.  He was invited to keynote a number of important religious events around the world.  When I started attending Park Cities, as a weary refugee from the church worship seeker-sensitive movement, even I was bedazzled by his grasp of Reformed theology and his uncanny ability to be both intellectual and plain in his teaching.

After his first "fall from grace," our entire church enthusiastically welcomed Dr. Ryan back to the ministry, and things quickly picked up to where he'd left off several years before.  He became chancellor of Redeemer Seminary, in-demand as a guest speaker, and whenever he preached at Park Cities, congregants made a specific point of attending.  No other pastor on staff commanded such interest and favor.  And I'm told, within our denomination, the adulation and fawning over Dr. Ryan was even more pronounced.

Where things go from here, and what happens to all of this acclamation, now that Dr. Ryan has unfortunately relapsed, is unknown.

I suspect that at our church, the Ryan family will continue to be loved and nurtured.  They hold a special place in the congregation, stemming not simply from his role as the church's first senior pastor, but from the genuine affection Dr. Ryan and his wife have showered upon many in the church by virtue of their authentic care for them.  Even if Dr. Ryan never again returns to the pulpit, which itself shouldn't be a foregone conclusion, I think his stature as a man of God will remain visible at least to us here in Dallas.  Both the first time, and again now, Dr. Ryan has expressed a humble willingness to submit himself to whatever measures our denomination's governing bodies impose upon him.

Besides, frankly, his sins may be socially punitive, but how much worse are they than the sins you and I commit - that nobody but God knows about?  Yes, there is a stigma about abusing prescription drugs, but there isn't as much of a stigma about gossip, or anger, or jealousy.

Or making idols out of our religious leaders.

PS:  At this point, to avoid the appearance of exploiting his situation, I'm not going to blog much more about Dr. Ryan directly.

Frankly, however, isn't it almost natural for a "recovering" addict/abuser to relapse, since addiction is such a tenacious thing, and so difficult to kick?  This is what it's like in the real world:  people don't necessarily "kick the habit" once and for all.  It's a continuous struggle, and we need to come alongside our Dr. Ryans for the long haul. This is a sobering reminder - for him, and for us.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Yes! We Can Help Ebola Patient Brantly

You've heard about the American physician who's been serving in Africa and contracted the Ebola virus.

But what you probably haven't heard - yet - is that his family's belongings in Liberia, Africa, are being destroyed, since they are considered to be infested with Ebola.  That means that should Dr. Kent Brantly and his family return to Liberia, they will have no clothing, furniture, or anything else of life's ordinary essentials - let alone luxuries - to return to.

If you'd like to help provide financially for this family, you can do so through a charity affiliated with our local non-profit hospital, John Peter Smith Hospital, here in Tarrant County, Texas.  It's where Brantly did his medical residency.  Through the JPS Foundation, you can make a secure online donation to the Brantly family.

Please click here to access the JPS Foundation's online donation portal.

Go to the "Give a Gift" button (blue, on the right side of the page).

Under "Designation," you'll see a drop-down menu, and the Brantly family will be listed.  Simply select their name.

I'm presuming this same need will emerge for Nancy Writebol, the other American missionary being treated for Ebola, but I don't have donation information for her yet.

And don't presume that since Brantly is a physician, he's financially able to cover the costs of setting up his household again in Africa.  He's a missionary doctor, which means he's almost certainly not pulling down anything close to what your primary care physician is here in the States.

If you were wondering what more could be done to help the Brantly's, besides praying, well:  here's your answer!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson Cops Give Protesters Free Ammo

Unwarranted police harassment.

It's what demonstrators in suburban St. Louis are claiming as they protest the shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager this past weekend in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the wake of that shooting, things got so violent, a Quick Trip convenience store was brazenly looted and torched.  Other shops along West Florissant Avenue, a commercial district, were also vandalized and looted.  Suddenly, what most of the media had been treating as an ordinary cop killing in a southern town became a national and international headline, buttressed by plenty of video feed and photos on social media of blacks acting like lawless thugs.

"Police brutality?" the media seemed to be mocking, probably to propel webpage hits.  "Naw, just look at the pictures from the scene!"

It's the stuff that foments racial anxiety, pitting one skin color against another, and projecting the police as being caught between a rock and a hard place.  Exacerbating matters has been the media's focus on the violence that followed the initial shooting, while reports showing black residents in the community voluntarily cleaning up the aftermath received scant attention.  And when news reporters did mention the clean-up, they treated it like a token gesture, as if only a minority of minorities believe that violence is no way to repay violence.

For every night following last Saturday's tragedy, protesters have held demonstrations in Ferguson, and the city's police* have displayed an impressive display of force and authority.  They've brought in massive SWAT trucks, fired tear gas into the crowds, and peppered some folks with rubber bullets, almost as if they want to keep everybody on edge.

Keeps the adrenaline rushing, don't you know.

Then comes some disturbing video from last night's protests that shows a news crew from the Al Jazeera network, no less, apparently being harassed by the cops.  In the video, shot by another news crew down the block, police fire tear gas towards three Al Jazeera staffers who are merely monitoring the goings-on from a quiet street, some distance away from the action, it would seem, since no noise from any demonstration can be heard.

As the tear gas envelops their equipment, the news crew is forced to remove their headsets and abandon their lights and cameras, running away in the opposite direction, and leaving their parked Chevrolet SUV to idle, with its lights on.

Then, in an eerie display of Big Brother control, some police officers in tactical gear, complete with breathing masks - and somebody lugging some sort of machine gun like a soldier in Afghanistan - trot over to the equipment left behind by the Al Jazeera crew, and begin to dismantle it.  At first, they try to take apart the light stands, but then they simply tip them down towards the ground, and tip down the camera, too.

That's when the cops apparently notice the other news crew filming their unwarranted power play.  An officer comes over and tells the second camera crew to leave the area, and when a member of the second crew asks why, they're told it's for their own safety.

"We don't want you here," a cop can be heard telling the news crew.

Elsewhere near last night's demonstrations, two other reporters complained of being roughed-up and detained by police.  Staffers with the Washington Post and Huffington Post were at a McDonald's close to the action, and did not vacate the premises when cops ordered them to.  They were released after the personal intervention of Ferguson's police chief.

On the one hand, of course, it's understandable for the police to be concerned about the peril that private citizens face when something as unpredictable as a racially-charged protest is taking place.  But aren't news reporters something of a different breed, apart from private citizens like ordinary McDonald's customers, or residents of the houses on the street where Al Jazeera's crew was harassed?  Sure, reporters have been known to get in the way, be arrogant of their ability to avoid harm, and simply take foolish risks.  And we don't know if, before the point at which the video recording of the Al Jazeera crew begins, cops had been asking the reporters to leave, and they simply refused to do so.  Eventually, according to photos from the New York Times last night, some demonstrators apparently did wander into a quiet residential neighborhood, and maybe the police were simply anticipating that, and hoping to minimize any conflict in such an environment.

Maybe the cops can only be faulted for improperly or ineffectively conveying their concerns to the news media.

But on the other hand, with these reports of heavy-handed police tactics continuing to trickle out of Ferguson, it's getting easier and easier to believe the protesters' side of things.  Might the police not want the press around to verify what the city's blacks are complaining about - namely, the unnecessarily aggressive tactics of local law enforcement?

According to the Fox News affiliate in St. Louis, the demonstration last night consisted of approximately 60 people.

Sixty people?  Out Ferguson's total population of 21,000?  And the cops were afraid? 

Witnesses to the original killing of the unarmed teenager Saturday night say he was shot while his hands were in the air.  They say unwarranted aggression on the part of the police department has become commonplace in their community, and that they feel as though their concerns are not treated as valid by the broader St. Louis region.

Meanwhile, if that video last night showing what clearly looks like police harassment of a news crew is any indication, Ferguson's civil rights advocates may just have won a major endorsement.

I am usually big on law enforcement and respecting authority.  Even when I'm getting a speeding ticket!  Yet none of us should ignore whatever injustices we may perceive being perpetrated by those vested with authority in our society.  I'm not naive enough to dismiss the heavy emphasis on violence that exists in much of America's black culture, and I can understand when police departments feel the need to protect themselves from what seems to be an increasingly hostile public.  But if the police want the public to believe that they're acting in our best interests, shouldn't the media be their friend?

If the cops weren't planning on doing anything that was even borderline illegal, or unnecessarily intimidating last night, why fire tear gas on a group of media personnel?  If you didn't want to be responsible for their safety, why not send an officer over to them with a waiver for them to sign?  Did cops fear that having news crews on the scene might foment that crowd of 60 people to act belligerently in front of the cameras?  Then, again, why not talk with the media and ask them to be more discrete about how they cover the demonstration?

As it is, the cops may have ended up giving themselves a black eye.  Sure, they may not have liked having journalists videotaping their every move, because journalists can be incredibly biased.

But they're paid to be.  Cops aren't.

Neither are cops supposed to be giving ammunition to the press.

* Update 8/16/14:  Missouri's governor replaced Ferguson's municipal police with the state's highway patrol, headed by an African-American man who grew up in the area.  Last night's demonstrations were violence-free.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Yet Another American Held in North Korea

Had you heard about this?

Apparently, yet another American is being detained in North Korea.  This time, it's Ohio resident Jeffrey Fowle, a 56-year-old husband and father of three.  He's being accused by the North Koreans of violating the terms of his tourist visa by trying to proselytize in the atheistic nation.

North Koreans say Fowle left a Bible in his hotel room,* which obviously, would be a big no-no in that oppressive country.  Nevertheless, it's unclear if he left it out in the open, or in a drawer, or in his suitcase, or whether he then checked out of his room, or had merely left the room at some point during his stay.  If he hadn't yet checked out, and had simply left his hotel room to go on a tour, like tourists do, and expected to return to the room, it's entirely possible that even if Fowle had left his Bible out in plain sight, and the housekeeping staff saw it, his could have been an honest mistake.

Granted, being an American in North Korea, it would be hard to understand how Fowle could have simply forgotten that his presence in such a closed country meant his every moves were being watched and double-checked.  It's unlikely even the most adventurous and free-spirited world explorer could have become complacent, and let his guard down while in a place like North Korea.

Ostensibly, according to a lawyer hired by Fowle's family back in Ohio, he really is simply an adventuresome tourist who was drawn to the reclusive dictatorship because he "loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places."

Sounds a little hokey, perhaps, considering that Fowle's wife apparently doesn't work outside the home, and is afraid his employment benefits are going to run out before he's released.  The family's lawyer is petitioning the North Korean government for clemency based on the financial hardships Fowle's family faces if he's held much longer.

On the one hand, North Korea's suspicions sound logical, since in their country, it must strike them as bizarre for a capitalist to be so cavalier about his family as to embark upon such a trip with a Bible, of all things.  Perhaps they're already trying to figure out how he got one into their country to begin with!

Yet, on the other hand, regardless of Fowle's intentions, and even if this was a sloppy attempt at getting God's Word into the hands of ordinary North Koreans, his detention represents yet another instance of North Koreans not only fighting a losing battle against illicit propaganda against their government - since they consider virtually anything that doesn't support their regime to be treasonous.  It's a blatant reminder that religious freedom does not exist in their country.

We Westerners get upset when a woman gets arrested and charged with capital punishment in Sudan, but we have a hard time sustaining our outrage when somebody like Kenneth Bae languishes in North Korean prisons as his health fades.  Remember Kenneth Bae?  The American businessman who's been held by North Korea for two years now?  Most Americans have never heard his name.  Why is that?

Hopefully, Fowle will be released soon, as well as Bae.  And yet another American, a young Californian named Matthew Todd Miller, who's been detained in North Korea since this past April, and is awaiting trial there on unknown charges.

Because of North Korea's notorious reputation, when Westerners hear about Americans being captured there, we tend to scoff and belittle their predicament.  Hey, it's no secret how ruthless the government is in secretive North Korea, so if you're going to risk a trip there, you've gotta be open to the nastiest of contingencies.  Right?

Yes, that's right.  But right now, we don't know the full stories regarding the reasons Fowle, Bae, and Miller are being held.  The problem with North Korea's stance is that they're so untrustworthy, nobody outside their borders believes their side of things, so their credibility is nil.  But even if the North Koreans are correct, and these three American guests have perpetrated vile acts against their host country, don't they deserve adequate representation and fair trials?

Of course they do.  Better yet, if the North Koreans have simply trumped up charges against these three men, all three of them should be simply released.

But what do you think the chances of that happening will be - especially if we Americans treat their plight with ambivalence?

Update 10/23/14:  Jeffrey Fowle has been released from North Korean custody and is back home in Miamisburg, Ohio.

Update 9/14/14:  Matthew Miller has been both charged and sentenced, according to CNN.

* UPDATE 9/1/14:  CNN was granted surprise access to visit the three Americans in North Korea; their report is here.

* UPDATE 8/14/14:  World magazine is reporting that the Bible in question was allegedly left behind at a nightclub in Chongjin, a coastal city in the northeastern part of North Korea.