Friday, October 31, 2014

Why Yoga when God Offers More?

"Be still and know that I am God."

Is that an order from God, or a suggestion?

Or is it His invitation to us?  His invitation for us to cease working for the peace, joy, and affirmation we dearly desire for ourselves?

No matter who we are, or where we live, or what life experiences we undergo in our culture, there is only one way to God.  And it's through His invitation, right?

That invitation is to believe that God loved you so much, that He sent His holy Son, Jesus Christ, to be the only possible righteous sacrifice for your sin - sin that otherwise separates you from peace with God.

It's such basic Biblical doctrine, we believers tend to minimize its truth, and what such truth means for our daily walk with Christ.  We tend to adopt our culture's works-centric nature, and think there's something more that we need to do, or there's something more that we need to experience.

Sometimes, we can also read things like "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," and - however inadvertently - translate such existentialism as some sort of "all roads lead to Rome" justification for our individualized spin on the Gospel.

Or we read where the Fruit of the Spirit marks those people within whom God is actively working sanctification:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.  And we see how emotions are tied into many of these good pursuits.  We can then seduce ourselves into evaluating the Fruit of the Spirit, and its efficacy in our lives, based on our perceived emotional satisfaction with them.

For example, what about peace?  We search for ways to have peace when we're emotionally troubled inside.  But we forget that God is the One Who gives us His perfect peace, through the power of His Holy Spirit.  If we're trying to be peaceful by virtue of our circumstances, or mental outlook, or our personality, we may find a certain amount of contentment, but will it be God's peace?  Or simply sanguinity?

The same thing works with joy.  Do you regret how often you don't see joy in your life?  Might the reason you lack joy have something to do with our society's definition of joy, which tends to be an euphoria we try to conjure up out of our circumstances?  How many of us committed Christ-followers don't actually expect God to give us instead His non-emotional, non-circumstantial joy?  Have we forgotten that His joy is freely available to those of us who utterly, implicitly trust in His sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience?

Instead, how many of us who profess to be Christ-followers end up following paths to love, joy, peace, and the other components of God's spiritual fruit that rely more on what we can derive for ourselves, than what God tells us He wants to do for us, in us, and through us?

Take yoga, for example.  For what is yoga used?  Yoga, according to its ardent practitioners, is a Hindu discipline combining breath control, body postures, and meditation to calm one's soul.  In other words, it's a works-based philosophy for personal satisfaction predicated upon the practitioner's personal, unilateral proficiency in yoga's components.

Meanwhile, there is not one mention in the Bible about how physical agility, mental awareness, posture, physical balance, stretching one's muscles, and being "in tune" with one's inner self contribute to our faith.  Calisthenics are not a component of the Fruit of the Spirit.  Indeed, not one facet of the Fruit of the Spirit depends on any expression or interaction of mind/body harmony.  Obviously, what we know in our mind needs to eventually be enacted through our mortality, as we are able, but wasn't it often the sick, infirm, and even paralyzed people to whom Christ ministered?  God never tells us we can tap into our life force through things like "victorious breath."

Nevertheless, yoga has become wildly popular across evangelical Christianity in North America.  Many evangelical yogis say they stop short of all the life force stuff, preferring to extrapolate the physical stretching and balance exercises from yoga's Hindu-based philosophy.  They say their brand of yoga is more body-oriented than soul-oriented.  And to the extent that evangelical yogis merely want to sound hip by saying their daily calisthenic exercises are "yoga" instead of "muscle stretching," perhaps there's little more to it than that.

But shouldn't any self-professing Christ-follower be careful about going even that far with yoga?  Remember, physical health and keeping fit aren't bad things for any of us, but all good things can be abused.

Some people derive deep personal satisfaction from exercising their love of money.  And we say that's an inappropriate - even sinful - abuse of money.

Some people derive what they consider to be peace and joy from drinking too much alcohol, or abusing drugs like marijuana.  Or we overeat, abusing food.

Our exploitation of good things knows no bounds.  Some people push themselves physically because they enjoy the adrenaline rush they can get from doing so.  Eventually, however, runners can develop all sorts of physical problems by not understanding their body's limits.  There is also an almost enjoyable weariness that can come from a vigorous workout.  But does any of this bring us into the right relationship with God that we should have through His Son?

Is feeling energized from a good workout what God is talking about with the Fruit of the Spirit?  So why do some Christ-followers practice things like yoga so... religiously?

Is there anything we can do to win His favor?  As His children, is there anything we can do to physically obtain the Fruit of the Spirit?  Are the calmness and tranquility that may be achieved through things like yoga the same as God's peace?  Tranquility achieved through yoga will be corrupted the moment something unpleasant happens to you, but God's peace should surpass all of our understanding.  And there's no physical pose into which we can contort ourselves to find God's peace.

A right and honorable relationship with God is achieved today the same way it's always been achieved:  through faith, not physicality, or mental exercises.  Some evangelical yogis may think they can pick and choose the aspects of yoga that help them feel better, and that don't directly conflict with Christianity.  But if you need physical exercises to give you the sensations of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, how do you know if it's the Holy Spirit's work inside of you, or your own breathing and stretching techniques?

Remember, true yoga is not a Biblical concept.

Originally, yoga was created to provide its practitioners the very same qualities with which Christ's followers are blessed.  And to many goal-oriented Westerners today, the idea that certain emotional and physical levels of contentment can be achieved through one's personal efforts helps to explain yoga's popularity.  But, in a way - and my apologies if this is vulgar to you - isn't yoga kinda like masturbation?

It can only provide an acceptable substitute for the real thing as long as you, by yourself, are strenuously striving for it.

That's not to say that there isn't a certain amount of "striving" during the process of sanctification we Christ-followers endure.  But we are to "let the peace of God rule our hearts."

"Let" it "rule."  Allow God's peace to reign in your life.

Don't conjure it up yourself, or try to exert God's peace from the harmony of your muscles and brain.  The peace of God isn't a hormone, or a chemical, or a point of reality.

It is His presence in us - and our relinquishment of everything we think we need to do and be - that creates the vacuum in our lives into which His genuine peace can flood.  Peace not as a result of anything we do, but peace from realizing He's done it all for us.

Faith in God isn't a state of mind.  It is death to self.  It is the confidence that even if God's peace wasn't beneficial to us (which it always is), or emotionally rewarding in any way (which it doesn't necessarily need to be to be effective), the literal fact of it simply being something from God makes it enough for us.

All of God's gifts are good.  How can anything replace them?

So go ahead, do your aerobic workouts, and call it non-spiritualized yoga if you want.  But hey, why should it matter to you that you're doing something trendy?  And beware of the trap of expecting any workout, or meditation technique, to accomplish for you what God wants to be able to do in you through the power of His Spirit.

Stillness.  It's almost un-American to be still.  It's almost sacrilegious, too, even in our ambitious evangelicalism.

But stillness is God's invitation to us.  Do we exercise it?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Social Media Likes Technology and Stuff

Social media may have saved this guy's job.

We all joke about how goofy or improper social media is, or how it makes its users.  But last night, in what would otherwise have been a widely ignored commercial pitch for a new Chevy by a sales guy nobody knew, sports fans around the country are giving a lot of free publicity to a brand desperately trying to look cool again.

The heretofore unknown sales guy is Rikk Wilde, an anonymous manager for Chevrolet in Missouri, and his otherwise simple, non-memorable task was to present the keys of a brand-new, 2015 Chevrolet Colorado to the most valuable player of this year's World Series, which wrapped up in Kansas City after seven games.

The MVP was Madison Bumgarner, of the victorious San Francisco Giants.  Tall, handsome, and suddenly the most celebrated pitcher in baseball.  What did he need with a midsized pickup truck, as if he couldn't go out and purchase whatever he wanted?  It's a goofy schtick, every year, when MVPs of most games, leagues, and championships are "awarded" gimmicks as prizes.  Crass commercialization is what it is, and everybody knows it.  Even the baseball commissioner himself, Bud Selig, who was at the podium with Bumgarner, knew it was a presentation to be endured for the car maker's cash, not the prestige.

Still, Wilde was expected to make an otherwise perfunctory presentation seem somewhat auspicious.  Hopes were high in Kansas City that their hometown team would win the series, and Wilde was chosen by the bigwigs at Chevrolet to make their own marketing pitch because he's known in the division as a die-hard Royals fan.  He wasn't chosen for his charisma in front of the television cameras, or his suave spontaneity while speaking in front of a live national audience.  By all accounts, Wilde is a sports-crazy car guy, not a professional spokesman.

Still - what could go wrong?  Just give a blurb about the truck, congratulate the player, and make it all sound a little classy, befitting the occasion.  You're standing in front of the iconic World Series trophy with a rock-star athlete and the commissioner of baseball, so nobody's gonna even notice you.

Yeah... right...

Wilde started off looking distinctly uncomfortable, but since he's not a celebrity, most baseball fans paying any attention to the moment on television were probably giving him a lot of grace.  Hey, he's a car guy talking to brand-new baseball royalty.  Who wouldn't flub their lines a little?

Yet Wilde seemed to know he was in over his head.  Nervously, he flashed a notecard to check on what he was supposed to be saying, but none of it seemed to be coming out well.

Then came the one little line that, suddenly, lit up social media like Times Square at midnight.

Trying to rave about Chevy's Colorado truck, Wilde innocently stammered, "it combines class-winning - and leading - you know, technology and stuff..."

That was all it took.

"Technology and 'stuff'?"

At first, fans hooted on social media about Wilde's gaffe.  His wasn't exactly a definitive description of a vehicle's advanced features, was it?  You could almost hear Chevrolet executives watching from their luxurious homes in suburban Detroit rising in unison across southeastern Michigan, yelling at their TV sets, "NO, you IDIOT!"

The suits at corporate likely had scripted what they considered to be the most compelling features offered in their new product.  They'd e-mailed the list to Wilde, and told him to be sure and enunciate everything so the truck sounds really impressive.

Instead, the guy spits out "technology and stuff" on live television.

Turns out, the derision on social media didn't last long.  After a while, people began sobering up, and realizing that if they were still talking about it, Wilde's mistake wasn't so bad after all.  Hey - he'd marketed the truck, hadn't he?  He'd gone unscripted - which is usually when memorable things happen - and managed to make his cameo appearance after the World Series an event all of its own.

Chevrolet... truck... what was it?  By the time people began wondering what that truck was again, folks in Chevy's real, full-time, professional marketing department had caught the wave from social media, and were running with it themselves.  This wasn't just making lemonade out of lemons; this was selling trucks thanks to an accidental major league commercial.

And nobody came out losing in this.  It's amazing, actually.  The folks early-posting about how laughable Wilde's gaffe was set the stage for eventually realizing how the whole thing had become its own story.  While some people are making fun about Wilde's looks, it's an indignity that fades rapidly when you consider how beloved Chris Farley - the most common look-alike referenced - was within American pop culture.  And Chevrolet itself, instead of looking like a stodgy, heavy-handed corporate albatross by trying to obfuscate the whole thing, took the entirely different tack of exploiting social media - the same venue making light of "technology and stuff," to say, "well, yeah, it actually does have technology and stuff - cool stuff!"

After all, that's how most truck guys talk, right?

Then, to top it all off, thanks to the 24-7 nature of social media, by the time the rest of us had gotten up this morning, all we had to do was Google "technology and stuff" to learn all we wanted to know about the all-new Chevy Colorado.

It's a credit to Chevrolet - and a shot in the arm for everyone everywhere fearing they might innocently botch a really important opportunity for their company -  that the brand's executives are being such good sports about the whole thing.  They apparently were very quick to realize a good marketing angle when they saw one, even if they were building on a mistake.  Chevy has managed to come out of this not looking like they're trying to salvage something, or struggling to get back on-message, but as a hip and agile outfit that can laugh along with everybody else - except Chevy hopes to laugh all the way to the bank.

After all, it remains to be seen how many people will actually go out and purchase one of those trucks, since the market for mid-sized pickups isn't exactly robust right now.  That was one of the reasons all of the Big Three dropped out of the segment several years ago. 

But if Colorado sales fare poorly, it won't be Wilde's fault.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Kaci Hickox May be Smart, but Wise...?

Oh, Kaci, Kaci...

Last week, I predicted that if we're going to get our knickers in a twist about this Ebola situation, we shouldn't be fretting about the disease itself.  No, I predicted that we should be more concerned about the cavalier attitude of healthcare workers who are involved in treating Ebola's victims.

As Exhibit A, I presented the Dallas nurse who flew from Texas to Ohio and back after having cared for a Liberian man who died of Ebola.

As Exhibit B, I presented the New York doctor who, despite feeling particularly tired, took mass transit to go bowling after returning from treating Ebola patients in Africa.  Fatigue is one of the possible symptoms of Ebola.

Now, we've got a nurse up in Maine who is aggressively championing her rights to not abide by protocols for self-quarantine.  She claims to be symptom-free and therefore no risk to the general public.  And if the state of Maine doesn't back off and remove the state troopers from outside her boyfriend's home, where she's currently staying, then she's taking the state to court.

Oh, Kaci, Kaci, Kaci!

You are a determined, headstrong, red-headed woman who loves adventure.  You grew up in Texas, and went to nursing school at my alma mater, the University of Texas at Arlington.  You've served courageously with the ideological and progressive international aid agency Doctors Without Borders, and you say you want to do so again.  Currently, some media reports have said you're looking for permanent employment while living with your boyfriend, who is a nursing student.

And your temerity is helping... to do what, exactly?

You're correct in saying that medically and scientifically, if you don't have any symptoms of Ebola, then you're not a physical threat to the general public.  And personally, Kaci, if you invited me today into the home you share with your boyfriend, I would have no fear of contracting Ebola by doing so.

But Kaci, since you've been out of the country lately, maybe you don't realize how hostile both our national mainstream media and our right-wing media wonks have made the American public to Ebola.  The media has presented this Ebola story as if the Black Plague is darkening every doorstep in our country.  Right-wing extremists are using Ebola as an excuse to criticize President Obama and dramatize America's lax border security.  Every major media report about Ebola begins with sensationalized rumors and then, as an afterthought, ends with a quick, quiet reminder that we only contract Ebola from the bodily fluids of somebody already carrying it.

To some people, Kaci, you're a hero, because you're standing up for healthcare workers across the country.  You're a hero because you claim you're advocating for the legions of nurses and doctors who will be coming home after you from serving in Ebola-inflicted nations.  You're a hero because you're willing to defy government orders to stay in place, and become a prisoner in your own home.

Yeah... um, about this "being a prisoner in your own home" thing:  The quarantine period is 21 days, which for you, means you would have to end your quarantine on November 10.  Today is October 29.  That means you're pitching a royal fit about 12 days.

Twelve days of voluntary home confinement.  Confinement to a home that has no immediate neighbors, and appears to be on a fairly rural street, with a decent-sized yard.

So... this is all one big publicity ploy for yourself?  Do you seriously think that your personal freedoms merit a straight-faced fight over 12 days at home in Maine? 

It's not like you're going to miss any hours at work, if you're looking for a job.  Sure, your boyfriend has said he's going to stay with you during these next 12 days, but hey - how many girlfriends would love to have that much uninterrupted time with their man?

If you were a surgeon - and not a nurse - who'd just come back from treating Ebola patients, would you understand if your patients would prefer that you wait until November 10 before you began performing surgeries again?

Or how about if your surgeon came back from West Africa, and immediately wanted to perform surgery on you?  Granted, your blood wouldn't be as infectious as his might be, but still, how gutsy would you be then?

Sure, Americans shouldn't be as paranoid about Ebola as we are.  Well, as paranoid as many of them seem to be.  Like I said, you don't scare me - especially during this 12-day window in which you could be quietly looking for a job on the Internet.

Unless... maybe you are?  Are you trying to make yourself marketable as a maverick healthcare provider, Kaci?  Is this the ultimate resume - being belligerent over a 12-day self-quarantine timeframe?  Sure, those officials at Newark International Airport were pretty unreasonable, treating you like a prisoner of war when you stepped off your plane.  But did a little lightbulb go off in your head during all of that unpleasantness? 

"Hey!  I could really use this whole Ebola mess to my advantage!"

Okay, Kaci.  You've had your 15 minutes of fame.  We get it:  you value your civil rights.  But all you're doing is giving the media plenty of fodder with which to pseudo-educate the American public.  You're not coming across as an innocent nurse being maligned by big, bad government bullies.  You've become the bully to an American public that wants to hope this Ebola thing isn't as bad as your refusal to wait out 12 days makes it seem.

Besides, not only are you presenting yourself as a bully, Kaci, you're allowing yourself to be a pawn.  A pawn in the mainstream and right-wing media's mockery of the medically scientific approach we should be taking to Ebola.  This isn't just about Ebola anymore, but about intelligence, wisdom, and pure selfishness.

The intelligent person will assess whether or not you're "presenting" Ebola symptoms, and determine that right now, you're probably as Ebola-free as the rest of us.

The wise person will take the assessment of the intelligent person, and build upon that by factoring in the environment into which they are entering here in the United States.  It's an environment fed as much by sensationalism as facts, and by a general public that doesn't like to work very hard at parsing sensationalism from facts.  So the wise person will look at the 21-day quarantine period, and figure that they'll do more good than harm by pacifying the public and sitting it out.  That's the path of least resistance.  And in this case, it's the wise path.

The person motivated by pure selfishness, however, will skip the part about wisdom, and insist that since the intelligent person alone indemnifies them from any contagion, that's all the justification they need to ignore what the wise person factored into the equation.  Pure selfishness often refuses to acknowledge complicating circumstances that could otherwise get in the way of their personal agendas.  And it's the selfish people who make for the best headlines, because selfishness usually only directly benefits a small number of people, much to the ire of the majority.

Granted, Kaci, you came back to the States right during the midterm elections - a time when both Republican and Democratic governors have pragmatically decided to side with the majority, no matter how easily scared or illogical they may get.  What makes it worse is that the sitting governors in both New York and Maine are up for re-election right now.  If this was December, things would likely have been much different for your re-entry.  As it is, this is one of the goofiest seasons of American life - the months running up to November elections - and neither the American populace as a whole, nor the people trying to get their votes, are going to put a lot of faith in what you think is right.

Kaci, you may have the right to be treated like a person who does not have Ebola, but the selfishness you're displaying is also a trait of the folks who think you should have never been released from that isolation tent in New Jersey.  Right now, it's kind of a tie, at least in terms of public perception.

Why not consider your quarantine period simply part of the trip package of going to a disease-infested country?  Animals sit through quarantines all the time at airports and shipyards.  Of course, the type of people who globetrot to the world's contagion zones are usually the type of Type-A people who don't like anybody else telling them what to do.

Nevertheless, if I were you, Kaci, I'd take the limited freedoms I've been given in bucolic Maine.  After all, November 10 will be here before you know it, right before Maine's long, cold winter gets underway.  And a wise person knows that 12 days of self-imposed solitude is much better than a Maine winter's worth of small-town scorn.

Update 10/30/14:  By the way, Kaci, I don't consider your hour-long bike ride along rural roads and trails near your Maine home to be "breaking" your quarantine.  You didn't come into contact with anybody, and the chances of you doing so were quite small.  It's not like you went to a gourmet soup restaurant like a well-known doctor did in a heavily-populated suburban region of metropolitan New York City.  But your trip was a good photo-op for you and your boyfriend, with his massive off-road bike tires...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I Can't Tell if My Past is Over

Experts call it "age regression therapy."

I simply call it "exploring my early past."

It's an early past - my childhood - that wasn't exceptional in any particular way.  And I don't say that like it's a good or bad thing, one way or the other.  Exceptional can be beneficial, of course, but it can also be disastrous.  So I'm not complaining when I say that my childhood wasn't exceptional.

I'm serious!  I'm not complaining.  Now that I'm older, anyway.

I was born in Brooklyn, but raised until junior high in a little, withering village in upstate New York called Cleveland.  It was an environment where it didn't matter that I didn't have an extraordinary family, because I don't think anybody else in humble Cleveland had one, either.

I wasn't privileged by massive wealth, or cosseted by the effusive deference of others.  But neither did I ever go hungry, either, or without any of life's other basics.

Well, actually, "life's basics" is a relative term, isn't it?  We didn't have a television until I went to kindergarten and came home asking who Mr. Rogers was!  My Mom's parents in Maine didn't have a television, nor did my Dad's mother and sister back in Brooklyn.  So ours was the first set in our immediate family - and it was a tiny black and white!

OK, so maybe we were extraordinary.  But not exactly in a way I enjoyed, at least as a young kid.

My earliest memories are of living with my parents and brother in an old farmhouse with tons of antique furniture, six bedrooms, a large playroom, but only one bathroom.  Just down Beach Road from our farmhouse was - no, not a beach - but Cleveland proper, which was populated by about 1,000 people, amongst whom, as I've said, neither prestige nor abject poverty abounded.  Some pockets of town were more run-down than others, while a number of folks kept their properties in fine shape.  But nobody's home was  particularly ostentatious or extravagant.  Things seemed mostly ordinary, quiet, and average for our rural corner of this planet.  I remember when a girl in one of my classes in elementary school told us her parents had purchased a microwave oven - it was like the space age had finally arrived in backwater Cleveland!

That can seem like many worlds away from me today.

Over these more recent years, as I've struggled with chronic clinical depression, I've had therapists warn me against trying to find reasons for present problems in past experiences.  So I've never sat on anybody's couch and wandered down memory's dark, crooked lanes, delving into hidden crevices of obscure pain or misinterpreted events.

And maybe I shouldn't now.

Hey:  I'm exercising my memory.  Exercise is good, right?

Nevertheless, I'm finding myself being drawn mysteriously, inexorably, to my past, and particularly, my childhood before we moved here to Texas.  That was a time, when I was actually living it, I distinctly remember not appreciating.  I didn't think I liked the rural life, not having neighbors in close proximity, the darkness of the country nights, or not having stores or restaurants nearby.  But then again, how many kids appreciate their childhood in the moment, however grand or boring it was?

And, when considering lifespans, childhood really is but a moment of it, isn't it?

Our old farmstead was comprised of acres of fields that, by the time my parents purchased the place, were almost all overgrown by trees.  That one-bathroom, two-story, wood farmhouse wielded a commanding presence at the top of a small hillock, but in retrospect, I realize it was the two massive pine trees flanking its facade that gave the otherwise plain and unadorned house its gravitas.

Well, those grand trees, and the hand-built stone wall that ran along the country road down in front of the property.  That wall was old when we lived there, and it's still standing today, a testament to old-fashioned engineering and sweat equity.  All of those stones and rocks likely had been culled from the fields across the road, back when settlers were plowing up the land to create the Empire State's agricultural heyday.  When we lived there, the small garden Dad carved out of a field that had succumbed back to forestland was the first vegetable cultivation seen on that property in generations.

There were no other houses in sight of our house, and at nighttime, I remember feeling very much alone, isolated from whatever civilization was out there.  Not only were there no streetlights, but my parents would never waste electricity by leaving a porch light on throughout the night.  Maybe it was the spooky Hardy Boys mysteries I read, but I didn't like riding along those old, narrow country roads at night, with only our headlights - usually the headlights of our VW buses (which I loathed!) - as illumination.  How Mom and Dad could find their way along those black, back-country pathways I couldn't figure out.

Even today, I can remember how oppressive that dark air was.  And I don't like driving on unlit roads at night.

Our nearest neighbors, about a quarter-mile away, were an elderly chain-smoking couple in bad health who were raising two of their granddaughters, who were the ages of my brother and me.  The next-nearest neighbors were another elderly couple who lived in an attractive stone house, and drove one of those futuristic-looking Oldsmobile Toronado coupes.  The husband, a gregarious, short, and overweight war veteran, had only one eye, which often unnerved me, despite his consistently jovial nature.

Then we had a German psychiatrist and his tall, blond wife who owned a majestic stone barn nearby that they rechristened a "castle."  The stone barn's soaring roof had burned away years before, and the structure was in a constant state of salvage as the Germans tried to make it a tourist destination.

One of the best customers of my Dad's employer lived nearby, too - he was the reason Dad's company moved us there from Brooklyn in the first place.  Mr. Haynes owned a bungalow-type house surrounded by immaculately-landscaped lawns, and he'd built an office annex in the back where his chain-smoking secretaries worked.  Even though he was a widower, Mr. Haynes always bought two identical black cars, and he had a large collection of pristine antiques, including samples of the green glass for which our village used to be well-known.

Back in the 19th Century, Cleveland had been a bustling place, with glass factories and wire factories providing most of the area's non-farm employment.  Cleveland was a bona-fide town in those days, with what was then a state-of-the-art municipal water system, a volunteer fire department with an iconic firehouse along the main drag, several churches, and one of the earliest public schools in that part of the state.  That school would evolve into Cleveland Elementary School, where I learned about Mr. Rogers and microwave ovens, and from which I graduated back in the 1970's, just before we moved to Texas.

This past September, Cleveland Elementary didn't open for the first time in its history.  And it probably won't open ever again.  The school district has closed it, citing declining student population numbers and a bleak prospect of Cleveland being able to reverse the situation anytime soon.  Another elementary school in the next town over already closed a few years ago for the same reasons.

Cleveland and its adjacent communities - or, what's left of them - sit on the north shore of Oneida Lake, New York State's largest in-state lake.  It's a scenic place - even as a kid, I could appreciate the lake's aesthetics, at least in the summertime!  And it's such a shallow lake, it freezes solid most winters.

Oneida Lake's entire north shore, however, has been mostly industrial throughout its White Man history, and as you probably know, New York State has pretty much let its industrial might evaporate.  Today, there are no jobs left along the north shore.  One small wire factory remains, but the glassworks have been gone for over a century.  We have some family friends still living outside of town, but all of their kids have left the area in search of jobs.  The only work the husband could find was at the Oneida Nation's casino, a half-hour away.

That casino, just outside the city of Oneida, didn't exist when we lived in the area, but like so many communities where casinos exist today, it's the only economic game in town.  Even if gambling really is only a poor man's tax.

Oneida's Native American tribes - the only people with money these days in that region - have begun buying vacant property along the north shore, but that's mostly because nobody else wants to.  Along the shoreline, some waterfront homes can still command a respectable price, but their buyers are usually retirees, or folks from suburban Syracuse an hour away, looking for a vacation home.

My Dad's employer moved us to Texas after his big customer in Cleveland, Mr. Haynes, passed away.  In retrospect, our family has been grateful that God allowed us to leave that area before the bottom really fell out of its economy.  Driving through a few years ago, Cleveland looked absolutely pitiful, with vacant land where big, rickety wood buildings used to sit.  Sure, most of those old structures had been empty long before we'd lived there, but seeing them gone only reinforced how commerce had left town, and wasn't planning on coming back.

Much has been made about how the taxes and cost of living in New York State have killed its small towns.  But frankly, the same thing is happening to small towns all across the country, including right here in the Lone Star State.  Only in Texas and other places, it's not high taxes and ridiculous costs of living that are sabotaging small towns.  It's the consolidation of commerce in bigger towns, coupled with our changing social preferences, in which urbanized areas are now desirable places to live.  Back when rural America was prime family-raising country, that was because cities were filthy, dangerous, polluted, and noisy.  Cities may still be those things to some people today, but even Detroit is a lot cleaner than it used to be.

When we moved to Texas, a family from Queens purchased our house to use as their summer getaway.  My parents were dubious, however, as to how much they'd be able to get away from New York City, three hundred miles to the south.  Sure, lots of affluent New Yorkers have second homes, but they're usually within an easier commuting distance than Cleveland, New York is.  And it's not like vacationing New Yorkers are warmly embraced in places like Cleveland, where nothing is even remotely cosmopolitan or urbane.

Well, it wasn't then, anyway.  Eventually, the Germans retired and moved away, and famed actor Adrien Brody bought their stone barn for a Spanish girlfriend of his at the time.

I'm not sure who owns the stone barn today, since Brody is no longer dating that woman, but while they were together, they reputedly hired designers from Giorgio Armani's firm to help redecorate the place.

That's pretty cosmopolitan, right?

Maybe if Brody and his Spanish flame had gotten married, set up housekeeping at the stone barn, and, in the fullness of time, produced little Brody-ites to populate their country manor, Cleveland Elementary School could have stayed open.

As it is, however, Cleveland is still utterly ordinary, if not a bit derelict.  And empty.  With little prospect for a reversal of fortune.

And I'm trying hard to not draw correlations with my own life!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Tree Testimony on Windy Days

The sun's out today in north central Texas, and so is the wind.

Wind is one of those amazing things that we can't see... but at the same time, we can.

Technically, of course, we don't see the actual air or its currents, but we can see what wind does to water, and to tall grass, and to trees.

But we can't see the wind.  Well, hardly ever.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a freakishly strong storm of wind and rain blow through north Texas just before rush hour.  I had been in the backyard, and noticing the breeze turning up a few notches, saw a particularly ominous black sky gathering over our neighborhood.  Turning to go back inside, I found myself watching what looked like a large, oval-shaped bubble of grey and brown debris suddenly shoot over and down the roof of our house, across to where some plastic patio furniture had been set up.  I witnessed that oval-shaped debris cloud pick up two plastic Adirondack chairs, and fling them into a brick planter and another potted plant.

So while I didn't actually see the wind, I sure thought I had!

That storm would go on to decimate a neighbor's 80-foot-tall tree, sending limbs crashing onto two cars parked in a next-door driveway.  Another entire tree would be blown over into the front of a neighboring house, covering it from corner to corner with a mass of branches and leaves, and damaging its roof.

Meanwhile, I was inside with my parents.  My father, who is in the grips of senile dementia, couldn't really process the storm outside.  None of us had really ever seen wind like that - everything was blowing horizontally.  What was even more amazing, however, was the way most of the trees around us - we have 11 full-grown trees in our front yard - were literally dancing.

Well, actually, they were jerking, or twerking.  Seinfeld fans might have even called it the "Elaine dance."  Enormous limbs were heaving up and down, bending backwards and splaying apart with such viciousness that I thought we'd have piles of shredded trees all over the lawn before it was over.

Behind our house snakes a quiet creek, with tall trees lining its banks, and those trees looked like they could have been touching the creek's rapidly-rising water, they were swooping and bending so low.  Yet those trees would pop back up and take the next hit, with wind pummeling them for about twenty minutes straight.

These magnificent trees define our neighborhood, and help give it the beauty it's got.  Without our old, tall, full trees, I suspect our neighborhood, which is otherwise full of dated homes, would be far less appealing a place to live.  As I stood with my father in our living room, watching the trees whip around in the fierce wind, I figured we were about to find out how bad our neighborhood was going to look without them.

Thankfully, we only suffered minor damage to small limbs on our property.  About 95% of our neighborhood emerged relatively unscathed, for which all of us are extremely grateful.  But I keep thinking about all of the physical forces against which these old trees had to contend during that storm, and I grow ever more amazed not only at how gracious God was to us, but at how He designed and constructed these trees to begin with.

We normally don't put a lot of thought into how trees stand up, and we mostly assume that they're strong and hardy until they die.  Only then, if you've ever tried to cut one up, you know what an effort it can be, and how impressive their existance was.  Otherwise, it's easy to forget that each tree stands as an amazing testament to the ability of different types of wood within itself to stabilize itself, provide for its nutritional needs, protect itself, and strengthen itself.

Think of all the irony in trees.  Roots need to admit moisture, for example, but bark needs to repel it.  Trees absorb carbon dioxide, and emit oxygen.  They also grow faster the older they get. 

On moderately windy days like today, when our trees are merely swaying, and some limbs are ever-so-gently bobbing around, I try to imagine what's going on behind that bark, as the tree's biological systems are having to accommodate all of the fluctuations and gyrations the wind is forcing upon its entire structure.  After all, the roots need to absorb the rest of the tree's motion to stay grounded.  The trunk and each branch have to bend, yet remain solid.  When the wind is gone (if it wasn't catastrophic, of course), are you ever struck by the fact that the trees haven't changed shape?  Everything in each tree somehow gives and takes, opens and closes, expands and contracts, without the tree's structure becoming permanently re-bent.

And when they do fall, all of that nimbleness and flexibility suddenly becomes dead weight as the tree crashes into anything beneath it.

Most everybody who's bought into our neighborhood values these trees, and is loathe to cut any of them down.  Sure, in bad storms, they can fall on houses and cars, and inflict considerable damage, but when you consider how mighty these trees are, and majestic, few homeowners regret ever having had them to begin with.

Many metaphors to the human condition, of course, have been made about the remarkable strength and resiliency of trees.  And for good reason - I'd sure love my life to bounce back during and after a storm, without showing any signs of wear.  I'd love for all of my internal systems to be so accommodating and reflexive so that I don't need to fear the wind, or the rain, or the changing seasons.

Storms like the one we had a couple of weeks ago can damage even hardy trees forever.  Sometimes, the wind can be so severe, trees that are otherwise healthy simply can't withstand it.  Or, like the tree that fell against a neighbor's house two weeks ago, it's easy for us to see why they succombed to the wind, while other bigger, older trees didn't.  That particular tree snapped off at its stump, exposing a rotten, black core at the base of what was a robust-looking tree.  Nobody knew the rot was there, because the rest of the tree looked so good.

Now, there's a wide, circular hole in the remaining canopy of trees that towers over the house.

Dear Lord, please help me not to be rotting inside!  Help me to sway in the breeze like an elegant yet majestic tree.  Help me to remain faithful no matter the weather, and bounce back after encountering the headwinds of conflict and oppression.

And please, Lord; help my sap not to drip!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Healthcare Selfishness More Scary than Ebola

When we talk about Ebola, it's not the disease that should scare us.

It's we ourselves who are scary.

You see, Ebola is simply an infectious disease.  And we know how to contain it.  And it's a relatively easy disease to contain.  Although it's quietly been around since 1976, it's dominating our consciousness now because we humans are not doing a good job of containing it.  While science has yet to determine Ebola's precise cause, we know that if everybody eliminates their contact with the bodily fluids of primates who have Ebola, Ebola won't spread.

Humans aren't the only primates who can contract Ebola.  Monkeys, fruit bats, and chimpanzees have been known to carry it, which is why outbreaks of the disease usually begin in tropical climates.  Humans in these tropical climates get it from the bodily fluids of these animals.  But Ebola can be stopped in humans.

Technically, Ebola has been in the United States before now.  Back in 1989, an Ebola strain was found in some monkeys that had been imported from the Philippines, but fortunately, no American ever contracted the deadly fever.  For whatever reason, that particular strain was not harmful to humans.

Unfortunately, that was 1989, and this is 2014.  In March of this year, the World Health Organization recognized that an Ebola outbreak was under way in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.  It has become the largest Ebola outbreak in history, starting from the death of a two-year-old child, and claiming, up until the middle of this month, over 4,800 people in Africa.  As of today, four people have died of Ebola outside of Africa, including one African national who died in Dallas on October 8.

As epidemics go, this current wave of Ebola isn't the most catastrophic of human events, but even for people who survive the disease, it can be a harrowing physical and emotional experience.  Perhaps part of the sensationalism of it all, back when it was confined to Africa, was that it seemed to simple to stop, yet it kept spreading.  The problem?  African healthcare workers didn't have the proper training and equipment to protect themselves from all of the bodily fluids Ebola's victims were eliminating through, well, their pores, both of their major orifices, and even their corpses.  It seemed so tragic that people in these three impoverished countries were so helpless when basic, life-saving tools like plastic protective gear are so abundant in the rest of the world.

Or, so we were led to believe.  Flash forward to Dallas, where America's first in-country victim of Ebola went for treatment.  Reportedly, days went by before one of the wealthiest hospitals in Texas procured enough protective equipment for its staff.  And America's premiere center for disease control - called the "Centers for Disease Control" (CDC) - churned out so much conflicting instructional material on how Ebola should be treated, Dallas nurses were told to pick and choose the information they felt comfortable with using.

But the dog-and-pony show that has become America's grand entrance onto the world's Ebola stage didn't end there.

Instead, we've had a doctor - a highly-trained medical professional, no less - return to New York City from Guinea after treating Ebola patients, and what does he do?  He's feeling tired and fatigued, so he rides the subway.  Rides an Uber car (which, if you've been living in a cave recently, is basically a private taxi).  Goes bowling in Brooklyn.  And how he's testing positive for the Big E.

He's supposed to be an altruistic "do no harm" healer, yet, after piously working with Ebola patients half a world away, he integrates back into the largest city on our continent, and takes whatever germs he might have contracted all the way from his large, multi-tenant apartment building in Harlem, in northern Manhattan, to trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

To go bowling.

Granted, after treating medical patients of any kind in almost any country in Africa, it's not surprising for a doctor to feel tired and fatigued upon returning stateside.  Maybe - obviously - he underestimated his symptomology.  But what kind of special intelligence is required to suspect that one's fatigue could be symptomatic of something else... like Ebola, the disease you've just been treating in a Majority World (aka "Third World") country?

Then there was the nurse from Dallas who, after treating America's first Ebola patient, apparently didn't have enough common sense to convince herself that she shouldn't fly to Ohio from Texas - and back - on a commercial airplane.  She asked the CDC if she should, and they said, "sure, go ahead!  We've already botched the whole care scenario for Dallas, so what difference does it make now?"

Is this all merely human error?

Of course, the person who got the whole ball rolling was the guy who lived in an Ebola-terrorized country in Africa who still saw no reason why he shouldn't come to America after helping to care for his landlord's daughter, who had Ebola.  His family here in Dallas insists he didn't do all of the things his neighbors back in Liberia told reporters he did - like helping to carry his landlord's pregnant, Ebola-stricken daughter back and forth from a clinic before she died.  So, how did he get Ebola, then?  He came into contact with the bodily fluids of somebody there with the disease.  He didn't contract Ebola in the United States - nobody here had it before he arrived.

"Compassion," we're told.  Be compassionate, sympathetic, and supportive of these victims.

I'm not going to get Ebola from any of them - I haven't met them, and haven't been near any of them, so I haven't had any of their bodily fluids come into any sort of contact with me.  I'm not afraid of getting Ebola - at least, not while the number of people who have it in the United States remains comparatively infinitesimal.  Hundreds of millions of people live here, and only four have had it, so statistically, this should all be a non-story.  Experts tell us that if we really want to be scared about something, far more people will die of the flu this season.

Have you gotten your flu shot yet?  I have.

None of these diseases should scare us.  Instead, what should scare us is our own independence, personal defiance, selfishness, and the impunity with which we conduct ourselves in public.

Why?  Because if Ebola does spread, it will be because a certain number of human beings have acted irresponsibly.

A medical reporter, who herself is a medical doctor, went with a driver to a favorite gourmet bistro of hers in New Jersey after returning from covering the Ebola front in Africa.  But she was supposed to be under quarantine.  She intentionally and unapologetically broke that quarantine, assuming upon herself the likelihood that she wouldn't personally come in contact with anybody during the brief car ride from her home to the restaurant and back.

But what if she had a car accident?  Talk about greater chances - we Americans have a greater chance to be killed in a car wreck than dying of Ebola.  Besides, what if she was suddenly presented to the general population through some sort of unplanned event like a car accident, in which she may have required transportation to a hospital?

Or at least a concussion and bloody lip that a paramedic would try to bandage at the scene?

We don't like to impose such scenarios upon ourselves for a variety of reasons.  Thinking about the possibility of getting in a car accident is not pleasant.  Getting a paper cut, even, and bleeding on a countertop at our workplace isn't a pleasant thought, either.  Sneezing in an airport waiting area.  Gross.  But these kinds of things happen all the time, especially when we're not planning for them.  Even when we're taking deliberate steps to avoid them happening.

And it's not just us spoiled, self-centered Americans who live for ourselves first.  The Liberian who came and got the whole Ebola ball rolling in Dallas was a prime example of presuming that his personal actions either wouldn't impact anybody else, or would be somehow accommodated by everybody else.  And you know what- he got the first part wrong, but the second part exactly right, didn't he?  That whole hospital fell by his bedside when it was determined that he had Ebola, and his case has single-handedly marginalized the credibility of what used to be one of the most prestigious hospitals in the state.  Having the second nurse dash up to Ohio and back while she should have been under a self-imposed quarantine merely added insult to injury.

To be clear, it's true that the chances of other people catching Ebola from this jet-setting nurse and the bowling doctor are practically nil.  Just like the doctor who absolutely needed her gourmet soup.  As long as the circumstances remained ordinary, and they knew how to cover their face when they sneezed, the rest of us have been in no danger.

Here's the thing, though, and I repeat:  None of us can control all of the circumstances we encounter.  During a normal day, it's assumed that all of us need to take some rudimentary precautions, assess risks, and proceed with a certain level of prudence so we don't harm ourselves, and others, before the stroke of midnight.  But if we know we've been in the presence of something like Ebola, and if we know that the incubation period is 21 days, and that to quarantine one's self for that length of time might be inconvenient, but is also a mark of respect for the people around us, what should we do?

As we're learning, selfishness often trumps compassion.

What makes this worse is that so far, two of these Ebola patients have healthcare providers as employers; employers who should be the most sensitive to the need a skittish public has regarding quarantines for the people who've had immediate contact with other Ebola patients.  Sure, staffing becomes an issue at times like this, but can't salaries, overtimes, and even cross-employment matters be sorted out later?  21 days isn't the end of the world, is it?  Whatever happened to "better safe than sorry?"  Does that only apply to the bill-paying public?

America doesn't need to panic over Ebola.  However, in times like these, perception means a lot.  And, in case you haven't noticed, a full-blown panic is precisely what the media has been trying to foment out of these Ebola cases.  The networks can't sell air time and website ads based on four people getting sick.  Sure, a 25% death rate is pretty bad, but we're still not talking contagion.  Yet as long as the media can scare enough people into thinking we're on the brink, parents will be pulling their kids out of school, airlines will be backtracking their passenger lists, and Uber drivers will be dousing their backseats with Clorox (which, for any NYC taxi, public or private, probably isn't a bad idea anyway).

Since all of Ebola's American victims have been medical professionals, maybe there's some sort of special hubris among hospital staffers that makes them ambivalent regarding their chances of getting it.  Maybe they get cocky, figuring they know the symptomology and can self-diagnose better than anybody else.  Maybe the CDC, which so far has displayed a staggering amount of incompetence regarding our Ebola threat, has produced so much conflicting information about the disease that medical professionals are now jaded by it all.

But how many of us wash our hands when we use a public restroom?  How many of us cover our mouths when we cough?  How many of us cover our nose when we sneeze?  How many parents pull their kids out of school or church when they're sick?  How many of us refuse to take the flu shot for ideological reasons, or simply neglect to get the flu shot because we couldn't be bothered?  How many of us report to work even though we've got a cold or the flu, despite our employer's desire that we stay home and not get the rest of the office sick?

If you still believe anything the CDC says, consider these statistics:  between 3,000 to 49,000 people die of the flu every year in the United States.  Above 90% of these deaths occur in people 65 or older.  So maybe you figure that the flu only kills people who are past their prime anyway.  Meanwhile, you have a life to lead, fun to be had, and a job where few other people take sick days, so why bother?

After all, taking sick days can eat into your vacation time!

No, I'm not scared about Ebola.

Yet our human penchant for selfishness is another matter.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Choosing to Jam an Abortion Band

At some point, aren't we evangelicals going to have to decide who's side we're on?

A group of professing Christ-followers were recently raving about a Pearl Jam concert they'd attended in Denver, Colorado.  Within the rock-n-roll world, Pearl Jam is one of the most outspoken bands when it comes to endorsing the pro-choice movement.

Then, coincidentally, I read on today that Planned Parenthood will be spending upwards of $18 million to fight pro-life candidates across the South this fall in our midterm elections.

See the problem?

If you don't see the disconnect, then consider these sobering facts about Pearl Jam.  Forget for a moment that they're a grunge-rock band whose musical merits are easily debatable as worthy material for Christ-followers to consume.  Let's pretend that, like we pretend for so many carnal, hedonistic rock groups, Pearl Jam's ethos and worldview are unoffensive to the cause of Christ.

Let's merely consider these petty little factoids:
  • Pearl Jam performed in 1994 for Rock for Choice, a series of pro-abortion concerts in the 1990's.
  • Pearl Jam's frontman, Eddie Vedder, used to throw axes "to relax," and had a photo of one of his daughters at the center of his target - not exactly a pro-choice activity, perhaps, but not exactly pro-life, either.
  • Vedder wrote an article for Spin magazine entitled "Reclamation" in which he argues that abortion is a human right (although he ignores the distinction between which human abortion benefits; the mom, or her unborn baby).
  • Pearl Jam's cryptic song, "Porch," is widely believed to be an endorsement of abortion.  By the way, it was included in the program for their concert in the Mile High City.
Do I need to go on?

Now, granted; a lot of bands, celebrities, and pop culture icons here in North America advocate for the pro-choice movement.  Avoiding them simply because of their stance on abortion would leave a pretty limited pool to enjoy.

Nevertheless, does that mean that those of us who believe in the sanctity of life should simply throw in the towel and support whatever entertainers we want to support?  Just because everybody is doing something bad, is that enough justification to go ahead and attend their concerts, consume their products, and shrug off any personal responsibility regarding how the money we're spending on them actually works against our presumed morality?

Not that anybody has to boycott Pearl Jam, or any other pro-choice organization.  You don't have to sign a petition promising you'll never listen to another Pearl Jam song ever again.  Christ-followers don't necessarily need to make a huge display of piety in order to simply choose not to support something or somebody.

But can we simply ignore the reality of what we're supporting when we attend concerts, purchase music, and otherwise willingly, knowingly, and unnecessarily participate in commercially endorsing entities such as Pearl Jam and their pro-choice advocacy?

To answer that, simply consider where pro-abortion groups like Planned Parenthood are getting that $18 million they want to spend this campaign season.  Sure, a lot of that $18 million comes from their profits from performing abortions.  But they're also getting money from groups and individuals who are sympathetic to their cause.  Groups like Pearl Jam, and people like Eddie Vedder.

I'm not saying that being in attendance at a Pearl Jam conference is explicitly a sin, although I'm not sure how you could counter that it isn't.  But how does paying to attend such an event by such a group support the cause of Christ?

Is it out of ordinary ignorance that Christ-followers choose to support Pearl Jam?  If so, then now you know:  supporting Pearl Jam does not appear to be a wise thing for Christ-followers to do.

However, how wise is it of Christ-followers to willingly choose to patronize Pearl Jam, now that you know the score?  Isn't that more selfishness than personal accountability on your part?  Are you reading this and reacting with the presumption that I'm a curmudgeon, trumping up legalistic-sounding reasons for why you can't have a little fun?  If so, how is that being loving to your fellow Christ-followers who are advocating for life in the womb?  The folks against whom Planned Parenthood and Pearl Jam are fighting?

We all make decisions in life.  We make them every day.  We all make good decisions, and bad decisions.  And there's no shame in admitting when we've made a bad decision.

It's what we do after that bad decision that often counts more.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Praying Habakkuk 3 in a Mezzo Cammin Life

"Who am I?  Why am I here?"

Those of us who remember Ross Perot's presidential campaign back in 1992 likely also remember Perot's dubious choice for his running mate, retired admiral James Stockdale.  During the vice presidential debate that political season, Stockdale began his remarks by asking these two universal questions, ostensibly to point out how he was virtually unknown to the American public.

Stockdale's questions might have faded into political obscurity, if not for Phil Hartman, who soon mimicked them into immortality for a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Hartman's hilariously fuzzy caricature of Stockdale better captured the public's perception of Stockdale than the actual debate itself (apparently, Hulu owns the rights to this video, and has removed all copies of it from the Internet).  Stockdale, himself a decorated Vietnam War hero who eventually would become a respected academic, seemed confused and disoriented during that televised debate, and him asking "Who am I? Why am I here?" seemed to sum up, however erroneously, his general competence.

As far as the existential nature of these questions is concerned, however, has anybody ever gotten through their time on our planet without asking them?  Who are you?  Why are you here?  Do you know the answers; or, like almost everybody, are your answers a work in progress?

Lately, like a lot of men my age, I've found myself asking those questions, and chalking it up to that mid-life crisis thing that's supposed to be hitting us men about this time in our mortal existence.  I'm a couple of years away from the Big 5-0, which has historically been a time of reflection, contemplation, and outright angst over where guys my age have been, where we are, where we're going, and how much money it's gonna take to get us there.

Almost a year ago, I alluded to this existentialism in an article I wrote for, incorporating the haunting poem, Mezzo Cammin, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
   The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
   The aspiration of my youth, to build
   Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
   Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
   But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
   Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
   Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
   A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
   And hear above me on the autumnal blast

   The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Kinda eerie, isn't it?  Did you start off your adulthood with grand plans, only to see them languish?  Do you sense an air of encroaching doom as your time has begun to run out?  After all, you've been fortunate that God has given you as much time as He already has on this Earth.  But none of us have deserved this time, and we don't deserve any of the time that might be remaining for us - however long that may be.

If I am having a mid-life crisis, sadly, it's gonna have to be
without this 2015 Corvette Stingray convertible.
A friend who manages a local Chevrolet dealership
wouldn't waive the $70,000 sticker.
For me, let's take my pesky diagnosis of chronic clinical depression out of the picture for a moment.  I've learned that much of my "Mezzo Cammin disappointment" may stem from being a really, really bad planner.  In fact, it seems I'm not much of a planner at all.  When friends in high school were mapping out their lives, I was studying to pass the next exam.  When fellow classmates in college were scouting grad schools, I was putzing away working my dreary college job at the clothing store.  When I managed to find myself in grad school, I balked at the amount of effort other grad students were pouring into their studies so they could get the most prestigious internships and employment.

I figured all those folks either were insecure about their abilities, or they enjoyed schmoozing with our professors.  In retrospect, I now realize I was either over-confident in my own abilities, or underappreciative of the doors professors could open for their schmoozing students.

During my working life, I've simply shifted from one gig to another, working for whomever will hire me, and not really taking seriously my own individual responsibility for climbing career ladders, making myself look good for promotions, and indeed, making myself more employable at all.  Naively, I readily shared credit for stuff I did well, and viewed competition as something in which people who couldn't advance on plain merit engaged.  It took me forever to figure out that capitalism isn't all about merit.  It's about competition, and I never planned for what would happen if I ended up consistently being on the losing end of that competition.

After all, in the eyes of many people today, I'm a loser.  I've lost whatever chances I might have had when I was younger to get my hands dirty on the lower rungs of corporate ladders.  Maybe I figured that marriage and family duties would automatically fit the pieces of my job life into place as we went along; my spouse, kids, and me, cruising through suburbia.  Hey - people who seemed far less competent than I were making it!  I was relatively intelligent, people told me I was a good worker, and I guess I just assumed that rewards are earned, not won.

Boy, have I been so wrong!

I look back now, and wonder what I was thinking.  How could I have been so stupid?  How could I have been so blind, or was I simply lazy?  All these 30 years since graduating high school, I've been waiting, but not planning.  I've been presuming, but not acting.  I've been walking, but not jockeying.  And now, it seems that everybody else my age has kids in college.  What?  Where did all of this time go?  The years have indeed slipped from me, and the aspirations of my youth?  What were they?

Let me think:  the aspirations of my youth...

Hmm, you know what?  I'm drawing a blank here.  They had something to do with enjoying a comfortable lifestyle when I got older, and for a while, I tinkered with the idea of being a lawyer, and in college, I started out studying architecture, and in grad school, I studied urban planning...

If I was a striver and an achiever, I'd have pushed myself to get both the graduate degree in urban design and the law degree, right?  I'd be hiring myself out to municipalities all over the world as a consultant on their big urban renewal programs, and guiding them through complex legislative agendas.  Or maybe browbeating recalcitrant landlords with rezoning requests, and lobbying city halls for developers, or trying to find funding for massive new mass transit infrastructure projects.

But I'd probably be hating it!  Looking at that job description, I have no desire to do any of that.  In a way, I'm relieved that my life hasn't turned out looking like that at all.

Still, if I was doing anything even remotely associated with such work, I'd probably at least have money in the bank, a compounding retirement account, and a home to call my own.  And without the kids - and the spouse - all of that money would be mine, right?  Even if wasn't the big dollars I somehow assumed would be growing on trees in my backyard.

Instead I've got none of it.


Enter the testimony of God's unlikely prophet, Habakkuk.  In the third chapter of his Old Testament book, Habakkuk writes of a despair even more grim than mine:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Meanwhile, am I joyful?  Have I rejoiced in the Lord?

One of the questions that haunts me even more than "the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights" is my sober confusion over why, despite my profession of faith, I have a woeful lack of joy in my life.

Habakkuk himself seems to have had plenty of reasons to lack joy in his life.  He's the prophet, you'll recall, who asked God a lot of pointed questions about why He allows so much misery to infest His people.  And God's reply was basically to remind Habakkuk that he should be silent before his holy Lord.

How many of us today would be insulted if God told us something like that?  I know I have a stubborn prideful streak.  How about you?  Yet God told Habakkuk to tell us that He is in His holy temple, and that we are to be silent before Him.  Granted, that's more of a metaphor than anything else - from the fuller context of God's desire for a relationship with us, we know that He invites us to fellowship with Him, and that it's not a sin to ask Him questions.  Doubt isn't even always a sin, because our gracious God looks at our hearts, and doesn't just hear our crude mumblings.  Yet still, doesn't it seem as though Habakkuk would have been within his rights to demand more direction, more answers, more concrete proof of God's divine providence?  But he doesn't.

Instead, Habakkuk confirms, "the Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights."

In our North American culture, the "heights" generally refer to the best, or the pinnacle.  However, what if the "heights" for many of us are not here on Earth, but in Heaven itself?  Then again, Habakkuk says we go "on" the heights, not "to" the heights.  Might these heights not be as much of a destination as they are a state of being?  A state of being as a child of God that requires sure-footedness and accurate perception, so we don't stumble and fall (way, way down)?

Perhaps one of the reasons I don't rejoice in the Lord stems from my belief that I have more in common with Longfellow's Mezzo Cammin than I do Habakkuk's third chapter.

I think I need to concentrate less on what I've gotten wrong in my life, and more on the strength available to all of God's children through His sovereignty.

For however much of this life I've got left.

How about you?  Though your fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on your vines, though your olive crop fails and your fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in your pen and no cattle in your stalls, will you yet rejoice in the LORD?  Will you be joyful in God your Savior?

Dear Lord, please help us to!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

EGR Syndrome Tests Church Performance


For years, I'd known about "Extra Grace Required" people.

They were those unfortunate souls the rest of us avoided every Sunday in church.  They were the ones with the difficult personalities, or the awkward questions, or the unpolished personal behaviors.

Looking back, I've wondered if such people suffered from some form of autism.  In those days, of course, we assumed they were either mentally challenged (we used the term "retarded"), or oblivious to normative social protocols.  Maybe they were simply the innocent victims of parents who themselves were too far removed from the sociability spectrum to be desirable human beings.

They were people who seemed angry, or confused, or distant, or too intense to be thinking logically.  Sometimes they were actually brilliant people, like scientists or pioneers in the newly-developing world of computer technology.  EGRs with milder forms of socially stigmatizing behaviors were called nerds, but the rest of them were simply weird.  They required too much time to get to know, too much energy to follow their conversations, and too much care to tolerate their, um, uniqueness.

They were people who required extra grace.  As if others of us really wanted to be gracious to them in the first place.  Usually, the rest of us hoped somebody else - anybody else - would bother to invest that extra grace into their lives.

I've Become What I Avoided

Unfortunately for me, however, I realize I've become one of those "Extra Grace Required" people.  And all of the shunning I did back in the day, trying to avoid those socially awkward people, is coming back to haunt me, like some sort of dark karma, if I believed in the stuff.  At least I used to try and be friendly with EGRs, although I never went out of my way to display the level of kindness they needed.  After all, I was stigmatized myself growing up, bullied in school, and never popular.  I was trying to claw my own way out of the social basement, and it was survival of the fittest.  I couldn't afford to squander any of the social leverage I'd managed to acquire for myself - especially on EGRs who'd only drag me back down to their level.

Now, I know better.  Because I've become one of those EGRs other people fear will squander their own resources, and drag them down to my apparently pathetic level of existence.

Fortunately, I have a few friends who still will socialize with me, but ironically, none of them attend my church.  Or... is it really much of an irony?  After all, in every church I've ever attended, it's been this way with the social outcasts.  It's just that now, in the church I've attended for the past 15 years, I've realized I've been on the outside, looking in.

Technically, in terms of churches ostensibly being faith communities, it shouldn't be this way.  But it is, and probably always has been.  And I shouldn't be surprised at my personal predicament.  I have chronic clinical depression, combined with what I suspect is a mild form of Asperger's.  That's two strikes against normalized socialization, right?  Plus, I've been told that I "think too much," which turns out to be a negative thing, especially in church!

For all practical purposes, I'm unemployed, although I help care for a parent with dementia, which itself is its own debilitating reality, especially for caregivers.  I've no money, no social status, and no spouse or children to shine brighter than me, and distract people from my lack of accomplishments.

It would be easy to simply blame the specific church I've chosen to attend - a wealthy, large church full of strivers and achievers - for my perceived inadequacies.  Go to a poorer church with more ordinary people, and see how much less my inadequacies matter, some might say.  But hey - I've attended a variety of churches all my life, and even worked in one, and I can say with full authority that when it comes to EGRs like me, this is one area where virtually all churches are the same.

Church Staffers Aren't Hired to Minister to Individuals

If you think about it, the reason is pretty simple.  Church staffers, at least in North America, face a significant dilemma, no matter how much they might want to be inclusive of us EGR folks.  You see, contrary to popular belief, pastors and church staffers aren't hired to "minister" to individuals.  Church employees are hired to perform specific functions within the church organization for the congregation as a whole.  They answer phones, or conduct a choir, or prepare sermons.  But they do not get paid to heavily invest themselves into us EGRs.

Sure, a certain amount of leeway is granted most church staffers to personally interact with individuals, but there are limits to that interaction, especially when it comes to EGRs.  EGRs don't fit neatly into day planners, to-do lists, or performance reviews.  The intangible nature of the overall product being delivered to consumers by the church organization may provide some wiggle room in the schedules of church employees, but the reigning expectation is that they perform productively in tangible, macro-focused ways.

Part of this is due to the nature of church boards.  Elders and deacons are almost universally chosen based on their admirable business acumen and other measurable metrics.  It's part of the modern credo of running a church like a business.  On the one hand, we think we need to be accountable to God for every dime members tithe, and that such accountability can only be secured if it can be quantified.  On the other hand, however, if God is looking at our hearts, He'll still know when we're being His servants, or we're being the servants of our results-oriented pastoral staff and elder board - and congregation.

In my case, I don't expect the senior pastor at the 4,500-member church I attend to heavily invest himself into my problems.  How would the senior pastor of any church that size determine the amount of time he can devote to specific individuals?  However, I guess I've been taken aback by the unwillingness of others at this church to tolerate little more than my presence in their midst.  I'm aware that everybody has problems, and that in the smallest church, there can be enough personal crises to choke a horse.  Nevertheless, as I get older, I've come to see that the expectation of virtually all congregations and their leaders is that their staff produce as near-to-flawless a corporate worship service as they possibly can, no matter its style or substance.  And as long as everybody puts on a pretty front, the congregation will give money so the church can at least meet payroll.

Hey - I don't like having problems.  I didn't go looking for this dastardly depression!  And I'll be the first to admit that I'm mishandling parts of my condition.  Sure, some of my problems are of my own doing.  Sure, I have a bad habit of focusing on what can be improved, instead of what doesn't need improvement.  But neither do I like now being branded as an irredeemable sourpuss, or a powerless, moneyless malcontent who isn't worth trying to even pacify, let alone be taken seriously.

Sinking and Shrinking

In his comments regarding a recent survey on the church's response to clinical depression, pastor and seminary professor David Murray writes for Christianity Today that experiences like mine aren't as unique as we might think they are:

“22% of pastors agree that they are reluctant to get involved with those dealing with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.

"I admire the honesty of the 22% (the real figure is probably higher), and I sympathize with the desire for time-efficiency, but I do not agree with the response (or lack of it). These are the bruised reeds and the smoking wicks that God sends to us to strengthen and fan into flame; and we say, 'Sorry, not enough time'?!

Not that all people with mental illnesses are EGRs.  But many of us are, or are presumed to be, as fellow Christians become confused or frustrated as they encounter us in our struggles with depression.

Then again, maybe I'm simply feeling too sorry for myself.  I know that I'm terribly selfish - I've always been.  And I've come to realize that, as the years I've spent sinking into my current church have taken their toll, I'm less social and more reclusive than I've ever been in my life.  I care less about how what I say - and the way I say it - impacts other people.  I don't even like spending time around other people anymore.  I'm more cynical than I've ever been, and more cavalier about the importance of church and church attendance than I've ever been.

With his ever-deepening senile dementia, my father wants to attend church less and less.  Mom and I have argued with him, tried to cajole him, and have even taken turns staying home with him so the other could go to church.  Now, I'm coming of the view that if I stayed home with Dad every Sunday, we'd solve a lot of problems:  Mom would be able to get out of the house and attend her church, we wouldn't have to spend Sunday mornings in distress over what Dad's going to do, and I could finally have a legitimate reason for ditching church altogether.

Except... there's a nagging in my noggin that such a scenario isn't exactly glorifying to God.  Even if it sounds quite appealing to me.  Yes, I see this continuous sinking of my church life, but I also see my broader existence shrinking right before my eyes, like something dissolving in slow motion, and while I've been taught that, ostensibly, the deconstruction of one's life is a negative thing, in a way, it seems like the easy solution to an otherwise perpetual social misery.

Funny that my church experience is leading the charge... or the retreat.

Christianity's Relevance and the Expendability Factor

Of course, there's nothing new here in any of this.  There have always been Extra Grace Required people, and there always will be.  God makes us all individually, yet many of us have a hard time finding value in individuality.  Some church development experts say that what we need to do is create new mechanisms for understanding and appreciating what makes some people socially different from the "normal" majority.  But frankly, if we've gone this long without bothering to explore those mechanisms, and those differences, then it seems suspiciously likely that the "normal" majority really doesn't care.

It's about expendability, isn't it?  People who are expendable are determined to be so based upon parameters unilaterally established by those who consider themselves to be society's conventional ones.  In other words, we EGR's are at the mercy of people who generally don't see why it's in their best interest to spend the resources necessary to embrace us.

After all, is it in their best interest, really?  If you're not an EGR, why should you bother being little more than tolerant of my existence?  Why should you offer anything more than basic politeness when you see me in church?  After all, people like me can't elevate your social standing, or help you earn more money, or make you feel better about yourself - unless comparing yourself to people like me helps you realize that "there, but for the grace of God..."

Meanwhile, even though I'm not comparing myself to Him, I find some comfort in the sad fact that Christ was "despised and rejected."  There's no reason to believe that anybody in church despises me - at least to the level that my holy Savior was despised.  People don't like my candor, or many of my opinions, or even my willingness to consider unpopular ideas.  And I can't even remotely suggest that the way I interact with other people should be some sort of ideal pattern for socialization, like Christ's was - and is.  But God never promises us popularity.  In fact, He warns us about popularity, and the qualities we choose to celebrate in the people we popularize.

In James 2, we're taught not to show partiality to people with social traits we admire.  In 1 Samuel 16, we're instructed to not evaluate people by how they look.  And in Luke 14, we're reminded how tricky it is when we try to evaluate how important people are - and how such evaluations, whether high or low, can come back to shame us.

Further down in the survey about which Murray writes for Christianity Today, it was found that nearly 20% of people experiencing a disconnect between their mental illness and their church's interaction with them end up dropping out of that faith community.

That means that in church, there may be a faith in something, but not necessarily a community for everybody.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Faith Goes Begging in Jewish NJ

Beggars can't be choosers.

Unless they're Orthodox Jews, apparently.

Chart this one up to the price of being religiously devout.  According to a recent exposé in the New York Times, a modest city in the middle of New Jersey may be the capital of the world when it comes to professional begging.

And it's Orthodox Jews doing the begging from Orthodox Jews.

Ever hear of Lakewood, New Jersey?  Well, it's home to the largest yeshiva (a kind of college for students of Jewish religious texts) in the United States, Beth Medrash Govoha.  And, like what happens in a lot of college towns, a considerable number of graduates and other Orthodox Jews have established their homes near the yeshiva.  In the process, they've created their own unlikely cultural community in Lakewood, populated by a few wealthy entrepreneurs, but many more poor yeshiva students, their wives, and their many, many, many children.

Large families easily characterize Orthodox Judaism, and explain how this sect's numbers have grown exponentially in America's northeast during the past few decades.  Orthodox adherents believe they need to have large families to be religiously faithful.

However, just because they have large families doesn't mean they can afford them.  There's not a lot of demand for highly-educated graduates of schools specializing in theological interpretations of Judaism's holy texts.  Unfortunately, the job market for yeshiva graduates is probably about as robust as the job market for sociology undergraduates.  But devout adherents of Jewish Orthodoxy don't let the lack of a high-income job thwart their procreative efforts.  Indeed, as this Times article comments, the poorest town in America is the predominantly-Hasidic hamlet of Kiryas Joel, in New York State's Orange County.  Kiryas Joel also has the largest average family size - nearly six people per family - of any community in America.

So much for the wealthy Jewish stereotype.

When it comes to begging, however, it's not really the poor American Jews who go begging in Lakewood.  There are plenty of civic charities in town for them.  No, the beggars come from upstate New York, yes; and Wisconsin, and Israel.  All told, about 1,000 people beg in Lakewood every year - and the city's population is less than 100,000.

How does Lakewood know how many beggars it has?  Because the city forces its beggars to officially register themselves.  Otherwise, Lakewood would be over-run, and its residents wouldn't know if their magnanimity was going to valid causes.

To be a valid beggar in Lakewood, it's almost a prerequisite that you're Jewish, because you have to provide contact information for the rabbi of your synagogue.  The town will call your rabbi - even if he's in Israel - to verify your legitimacy before you're given a permit to go and solicit funds from Lakewoodians.

Some of the people begging are advocating on behalf of Jewish organizations, but many others are seeking to pay off personal debts, or are raising funds to help another Jewish family pay off their debts, or pay for medical care, or pay for a wedding.  And with all those kids, they have lots of weddings for which to pay!  One professional beggar interviewed by the Times - an Israeli citizen who flies stateside in the summers to make the rounds in New Jersey - earns roughly $16,000 each summer he's over here.  And even back in Israel, all he does is beg for a living, so he can support his twelve - yes, 12 - children.

Of course, beggars like this Israeli father of 12 don't usually make a huge haul off of one or two people.  Lakewood's yeshiva students are quite poor, and most only give one or two dollars each.  But multiply that by the thousands of students in town, and then by the hundreds of beggars they're likely to encounter each year in town, and you can see how generous they're being, even as they are living on a shoestring themselves.

Amazing, huh?

It's all part of an old Jewish tradition based on helping the poor and needy.  And Orthodox Judaism thrives on historicity, customs, and ritual.  Technically, none of the Old Testament books of the law - the "Pentateuch," or the first five books of the Old Testament, which are sometimes called the "Torah" - stipulate that begging is an honorable job, or that God's people are required to support beggars.  Poor people don't necessarily have to beg, and as this Times story shows, not all beggars are poor.  Historically, however, both the Talmud and the Torah have been interpreted as legitimizing begging as a way to demonstrate charity, deepen one's allegiance to God, and build community amongst fellow Jews.

In other words, beggars have become an integral part of helping Orthodox Jews live out their faith.  To be cynical about it, however; it also means that giving money to beggars has become a hoop to jump through, an expectation that cannot be ignored, and a practice that helps secure God's pleasure in you.

Jews may give grace to each other, but in a way, they have to buy it from God.

To evangelical Christians, it all sounds works-based and law-infused, which of course, it is.  Especially since it doesn't appear that beggars beg of other beggars, so beggars can't benefit from whatever giving to beggars supposedly brings the giver. 

Still, before we get too carried away with the temptation to mock Lakewood's Orthodox Jews for their gullibility, when it comes to the basic practice of asking other people for money, aren't there ways we Gentiles do the same thing?  For example, aren't non-investment-related crowdfunding initiatives a form of begging?  I've seen couples create online accounts for themselves when they want to adopt a foreign baby, which admittedly is a costly undertaking.  However, if prospective parents can't even afford the adoption costs on their current income, how does that translate into their ability to financially provide for that infant when they get it back home?

Meanwhile, in the rest of non-Jewish America, we tend to scowl when we see panhandlers and other beggars on the street, in mass transit, or along the side of the road.  Granted, Lakewood's beggars aren't the drug-addicted, decrepitly-dressed, dirty-skinned people we normally associate with begging, but they're still not really providing a service in exchange for the money they're receiving.  Unless you count Jewish begging like the IRS does your contributions to your church:  a donation in exchange for intangible religious benefits.

Nevertheless, no economy can thrive if begging is a major component of it.  At some point, there needs to be a financial exchange of goods to balance the socioeconomic order of things.  However, the extent to which begging exists usually also stands as a testament to the imbalance that exists in the economy in which it's being conducted.

Except in Lakewood's case, of course, since the city has become the go-to place for hundreds of professional beggars every year.  And it seems obvious that Lakewood's Jewish community rather relishes its notoriety, even if it's simply to prove how much holier they are than our Gentile communities where begging is far less honorable.  For Lakewood, begging is not a leading economic indicator, but a leading religious indicator.

Too bad that good intentions pave roads going in the opposite direction from where so many religious people think they're headed.