Friday, January 29, 2016

Fame Shouldn't Enflame Abedini Strife

Iran recently released Christian pastor Saeed Abedini after jailing him for nearly three years.  During his imprisonment, he became a cause célèbre among evangelicals for daring to minister the Gospel of Christ in such a harshly Islamic country.  His release elicited widespread euphoria among Christians around the world who had been praying for him and his family.
Naghmeh Abedini
Saeed is married with two children, and their family home is in Idaho.  His wife, Naghmeh, became a public face for his plight, and the couple became celebrities in America's evangelical firmament for their unabashed faith in the midst of such tense international intrigue.

But all was not well in the Abedini household, either before Saeed's imprisonment, or during it.  Late last year, Naghmeh informed supporters that her marriage to Saeed had begun to encounter deep problems as early as 2004, merely two years after their wedding.  She claimed Saeed abused her physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and that he was addicted to pornography.  Hers was a bombshell of an allegation, and it didn't sit well with many evangelicals.

Why was she coming forward with these things now, while her husband languishes behind bars in a country that sponsors terrorism?  Doesn't working to free her husband trump these other complaints?  Is she trying to divert some of the attention being lavished on her husband to herself?

Then too, many other evangelicals seemed to simply ignore her claims.  They were the product of a frustrated wife, and the inevitable result of years of strain as her brave husband suffered incarceration at the unpredictable whim of brutal Islamists.

When Iran freed Saeed this past January 16, along with three other detainees, it was major news both inside and outside of evangelicalism.  It was presumed that he would return home, whatever strife that may have existed in his relationship with Naghmeh would somehow be patched up, and they'd live happily ever after as symbols of heroic virtue.

Um, not so fast.  This past Tuesday, Naghmeh filed for legal separation.  On Wednesday, she took to Facebook to elaborate on the reasons for her actions:

"I do deeply regret that I hid from the public the abuse that I have lived with for most of our marriage and I ask your forgiveness," Naghmeh posted.  "I sincerely had hoped that this horrible situation Saeed has had to go through would bring about the spiritual change needed in both of us to bring healing to our marriage.  Tragically, the opposite has occurred.  Three months ago Saeed told me things he demanded I must do to promote him in the eyes of the public that I simply could not do any longer.  He threatened that if I did not the results would be the end of our marriage and the resulting pain this would bring to our children."

The reaction across our vast evangelical industrial complex has been swift, and mixed.  Which isn't necessarily a good thing for either of the Abedinis, their family, and our community's overall representation of the Gospel to our watching world.

Some evangelicals want to give Naghmeh the benefit of the doubt.  Others appear unwilling to let their predetermined enthusiasm for Saeed be compromised by messy complications.  Some automatically appear to give Saeed the benefit of the doubt since, after all, he's a pastor, and he's just been horribly imprisoned by evil Muslims.  And then there are others who scornfully turn askance at the saga, writing it off as tawdry exhibitionism by emotionally excitable Persians.

Hey, check out the feedback sections on most any evangelical website to see what self-proclaiming Christ-followers are saying.

In other words, these reactions by us evangelicals tend to mirror what all of us - religious or not - do when we learn of a husband and wife having marital problems.  We tend to take sides without knowing all of the facts.  Some of us impose on the couple's private relationship our personal suppositions of gender roles and how we think women and men should behave.  Many of us rise to protect the most popular, or famous, or celebrated of the two spouses, because after all, we've been lead to believe we know them well, and they aren't that kind of person!

But what do we really know about either Saeed or Naghmeh?  For that matter, what do you really know about that couple in your church or Bible study who are facing a deep crisis in their marriage?

We evangelicals say we believe in the sanctity of marriage, but do we really support the people who make up marriages that aren't picture-perfect behind the scenes?

As for the Abedinis, considering the super-saint-status with which many evangelicals have knighted her husband, the pressure appears to be building against Naghmeh and anybody who detracts from his celebrity status.  But how helpful is that in terms of their family's successful resolution of whatever conflicts exist?

At this point, it's fair to say that we have a "she said - he said" situation, since we haven't gotten to hear Saeed's side of the story (whether we need to hear it or not)*.  Yet all of their notoriety aside, their's is the quagmire that domestic strife presents to the broader Church - whether it's a famous couple or not.  It's particularly unfortunate for them that their celebrity only compounds whatever problems exist.

And as for Naghmeh taking to social media and "airing her dirty laundry in public," which some accuse her of doing, consider this:  She is filing public legal actions in a court of law.  Her husband has become internationally famous, for better or worse, and as a professing Christian, represents a big target for big media.  Whether it was through social media or a conventional press conference, if she didn't take the initiative and own up to these legal actions she's filed, don't you suppose it wouldn't be long before our muckraking press forced her to anyway?

Why begrudge her the opportunity to at least try and spin the story as a plea for prayerful support for herself, her husband, and her family?  After all, none of them asked for this celebrity.  And it's a real stretch to claim that Naghmeh is being an opportunist and bashing her husband for her own selfish reasons:

"I want our reconciliation to be strictly based on God's Word," she told her supporters on Facebook.  "I want us to go through counseling, which must first deal with the abuse. Then we can deal with the changes my husband and I must both make moving forward in the process of healing our marriage.  In very difficult situations sometimes you have to establish boundaries while you work toward healing.  I have taken temporary legal action to make sure our children will stay in Idaho until this situation has been resolved.  I love my husband, but as some might understand, there are times when love must stop enabling something that has become a growing cancer.  We cannot go on the way it has been.  I hope and pray our marriage can be healed.  I believe in a God who freed Saeed from the worst prisons can hear our plea and bring spiritual freedom."

May our merciful Lord grant them healing and peace in their marriage, no matter who or what is at fault.  And may we pray for them both, and give them the space and grace to be a penitent husband and wife before God, instead of celebrities before us.

*Update:  Saeed recently provided an Idaho newspaper his response to his wife's public statements.  We've also recently learned that in 2007, Saeed had plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of domestic assault and served one year of probation.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Indictments Against Reckless Pro-Lifers

Of all the sins we mortals practice, the one that inevitably riles the most evangelicals is abortion.

Not only is abortion a vile perpetration against victims wholly unable to protect themselves, it almost always involves a sexual sin of some sort; either rape or adultery.  Very few happily-married couples pursue death for a life they have consented to create together.

So we have here an incredibly potent combination of protecting the helpless - which represents an eminently noble goal of Christ-followers - along with righteous indignation over sexual impurity.  We have the sanctity of life mixed with salaciousness of the taboo.

Unfortunately, for many evangelicals, this mix tends to become a bit toxic.  After all, what other sins foment such bitter resolve for its eradication than abortion?  Abortion can drive people who purportedly cherish Biblical morality to keep score on the pro-life front by a different rulebook.  It's as if God's desire for our purity has some sort of disclaimer clause or dispensation when it comes to our opposition of abortion.  Witness the folks who scream ugly threats to women entering abortion clinics.  Witness the vulgar language of picketing pro-lifers, or the glee with which they mock people like Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood.  Witness the radicals who bomb abortion clinics, or commit mass-murder inside of them.

When Jesus Christ references the legal principle of lex talionis about "an eye for an eye" in the New Testament, He's not talking about retribution, or stooping to the same debased level as other sinners, is He?

Then there was the ironic grand jury indictment this week in Houston, Texas, of David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, activists with the pro-life advocacy group Center for Medical Progress (CMP).  This group had produced a shocking series of undercover videos purportedly showing representatives of Planned Parenthood negotiating the sale of fetal tissue.  It was widely believed across our vast evangelical industrial complex that some sort of action would be taken against a south Texas chapter of Planned Parenthood for their part in such a dastardly enterprise, but to everyone's surprise, the grand jury found otherwise.

CMP's director, Daleiden, was indicted on a second-degree felony charge of tampering with a governmental record, plus a misdemeanor count involving his offer to purchase human organs.  The grand jury indicted Merritt on charges of tampering with a governmental record.  

Planned Parenthood was no-billed.

At first, pro-lifers were incredulous, and then indignant.  How can a grand jury indict the buyer of an illegal product, but not the seller?  What's the harm in falsifying some innocuous government documents like identification cards?  Our system of justice must be completely out of control!

As it turns out, however, our system of justice worked fairly well in this instance.  Once we remove the emotion and rhetoric, it's kinda hard to feel a lot of sympathy for CMP.  You see, we evangelicals usually believe that the ends don't justify the means.  We usually teach that two wrongs don't make a right.  And as the grand jury found, what we believe and teach are still correct.  It's just that the folks at CMP chose to ignore them.

First of all, considering all of the fuss many evangelicals have made about illegal immigrants having government-issued identification cards, isn't it a bit silly for us to now scoff at the importance of such documents?  It's bad for illegals to have falsified ID cards, but not for people working to overturn Roe v. Wade?

Oh, but falsifying documents is a legitimate journalistic practice, we were told.  Um, no it's not.  Not by legitimate journalists, anyway.

Then there's the charge of trying to purchase fetal tissue.  If CMP had a respect for the law, they should have researched Texas law, because they would have learned that in the Lone Star State, it's illegal to even offer to purchase fetal tissue.  There is an exception to the law that allows for normal medical practices at a normal cost to cover expenses.  However, CMP didn't even get that right, because they offered far more money than what the "normal cost" would have been.  Planned Parenthood never accepted the offer, so they committed no crime.

Don't believe me?  I've gotten all of this material from the Gospel Coalition's easy-to-understand explanation of the grand jury's indictment right here.  It's worth the read, and written by a rational evangelical.

Folks, when we see injustice, we cannot let emotion and rhetoric dictate our actions.  The grand jury did not rule on the morality (or immorality) of abortion.  The grand jury did not say that the sale of fetal tissue isn't gross or questionable, even in the most scientific and medical of circumstances.  The grand jury simply looked at the laws on the books, and rendered its decisions accordingly.

If abortion is the great evil most all of us evangelicals believe it to be, don't we need to be that much more prudent in how we fight it?  CMP's efforts in Texas were sloppy at best.  God doesn't forgive us our sins based on our good intentions, does He?  Does God ever give us a pass because our enemy is bigger than our sins?

How can lawlessness and violence represent appropriate methods for dealing with abortion?  How can we expect to change a law by breaking other ones?  What gives us the right to decide which sins are bigger than other ones, and therefore more or less necessary to prohibit (or exercise)?

When we oppose abortion, we evangelicals like to say we're advocating for the sanctity of life.  But how many pro-lifers get as agitated about human suffering on this side of the womb?  About euthanasia?  About patterns of our society's subjugation of women that contribute to sexual sins being perpetrated against them?

Meanwhile, when it comes to whatever legal action follows the indictment of Daleiden and Merritt, all is not lost.  A public trial in a court of law could offer greater opportunities for Planned Parenthood to be methodically and unequivocally exposed for their murderous ways.  It could be its own paradoxical venue of truth-telling that redeems CMP's blundering - on their legal team's terms, since they would be the defendants.

Nevertheless, regardless of whatever sinful scourge we may face, whether it's abortion or something else, we still need to remember that the battle is not ours.  Instead, it belongs to the Lord.  We need to fight with His tools and His rules, because His victory is what we seek, not our own validation or satisfaction.  We need to be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.

Many pro-lifers want to justify their impatience with legalized abortion by decrying all of the millions of helpless lives that it has claimed, and continues to claim, even as you read this.  Yet impatience is not a Fruit of the Spirit.  Neither is recklessness.

In terms of God's condemnation, there is no sin any abortionist has committed that is worse than any sin you've committed, unless either of you denies the truth of Christ's deity, which is the only unpardonable sin.  And as long as she's alive, not even Cecile Richards is beyond redemption, as far as any of us knows.

Waging our war against abortion in the light of these sobering facts will produce a God-honoring outcome.  We believe that, right?

Isn't everything else simply works, deeds, and self-righteousness?

Update July 27, 2016:  All charges against Daleiden and Merritt have been dismissed by a Houston judge on a legal technicality.  Apparently the grand jury which brought the indictment against the pro-lifers had done so after their term had been inappropriately extended.  Three other lawsuits by a human tissue procurement company and two abortion advocacy groups remain against Daleiden's organization.

Update January 12, 2017:  StemExpress, the human tissue procurement company, has dropped its lawsuit against Daleiden's organization, leaving two remaining suits in the courts.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Populist Pulpiteers' Trump Travesty

FYI:  I apparently lost 2 regular readers over this essay.

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision...  Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.  Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.  Blessed are all who take refuge in him.  Psalm 2:1,4,10-12

When do the ends justify the means?

When politics and religion cross, apparently.

Evangelical Christians are throwing caution - and the Gospel of our Savior - to the wind in their fervent devotion to right-wing politics.  They've been fomented into this vigorous fervor by conservative talk radio hosts who earnestly predict the imminent downfall of the United States.

It doesn't help matters that, regardless of political party, America's presidential elections have already devolved into excruciating embarrassments of pugnacious narcissism.  For a country as great as our leaders tell us it is, isn't it ironic that the only people who want to lead it tend to represent the worst aspects of our society?

I'm tired of the politics.  I'm tired of the religious posturing.  Aren't you?  And haven't things gone from the absurd to the farcical when it comes to self-professing evangelicals and their adulation of Donald Trump?

Christianity's charlatans are coming out of the woodwork for New York City's boorish billionaire, and they're making a mockery of prayer, Scripture, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the process.  Trump embodies no virtue that legitimate Christ-followers have historically required of their ideal presidential candidates.  He's contemptuous of God, holy communion, salvation, and sin.  He boasts of his serial adultery, he's publicly admitted to lusting after his own daughter, his business empire is built partly on casino revenue, and he's a flip-flopper on abortion.  He's proudly rude, joyfully racist, profanely conceited, and always scrapping for a brawl.

Is this what America's Founding Fathers envisioned as leadership for a country that "trusts" in God?

Can I get an "Amen!"?

Nevertheless, this past weekend, in Iowa, the controversial senior pastor of Dallas' influential First Baptist Church practically violated his ministry's charitable status by pseudo-endorsing Trump at a Dordt College rally.  Jeffress and a bevy of other bold-name Christian pastors - including Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, and David Jeremiah - had already prostituted their faith on Trump's behalf at an invitation-only forum and prayer meeting last September in New York.

Then Tuesday, the eponymous son of his father's generation of "moral majority" firebrands, Jerry Falwell, endorsed Trump.

Their reason for doing so?  Falwell's son justified his endorsement of Trump by describing him as "a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again."  As if America's greatness is a Biblical excuse for overlooking everything that is blatantly wrong about somebody like Trump - of any political persuasion - in the White House.

Jeffress' excuse was similarly devoid of theological integrity.  Trump "is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly," Jeffress effused, using the conservative fear factor of America's cataclysmic demise as his scapegoat.  So much for mankind looking at outward appearances, while God looks at the heart.  That's in Scripture somewhere, isn't it, pastors Jeffress and Falwell?

According to these Christian leaders, the "end" towards which their means are focused is selecting a president who can save America from itself.  Despite the reality that, after all, every president we've ever elected has been voted into office by a majority of Americans... which means it's not just a president's fault when things go badly for our country.

And these Christian leaders obviously believe that since the "end" for which Trump is suitable represents such an important prize, it's worth running roughshod over the Gospel and the qualities God expects of people in leadership.  The ends justify the means.

Hey, you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette.  I guess two wrongs do make a right.  Trump can even propose suspending our freedom of religion, and some of the biggest lights in America's evangelical firmament still view the megalomaniac as our savior.

It's been said that a democratic republic elects the representation it deserves.  Shouldn't that send chills up your spine?

If these Christian pulpiteers fear the imminent demise of America, they've anointed the right candidate to bring that about.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Whitey Oscars Darken Hollywood

Alan Rickman?

Nope.  Never heard of him.

Not until this morning, that is, as some talking heads on the radio were lamenting his death, and recounting what they considered to be his iconic Hollywood roles.

As today has marched on, I've seen tributes and memorials all over the Internet to this fellow.  Who knew he was such an important and admired actor?  Well, just about everybody else on planet Earth but me, apparently.

I've told you before that I rarely go to the movies.  Hollywood doesn't seem to make what I want to see.  I'm not into science-fiction.  I don't want to be frightened when I pay money for "entertainment."  I don't want Hollywood to preach to me - as if their morals are any better than mine.  When I want to be entertained, I simply want to laugh.  Which is why Airplane! (the PG version) remains my favorite movie of all time.  Slapstick?  It's not annoying to me; it's refreshing.

"By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"
"You can tell me.  I'm a doctor."
"And don't call me 'Shirley.'"
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue."

Oh - they get me every time!

Still, I know that most people regularly get their kicks from the movies - all sorts of movies - which is why they know who Alan Rickman is - or, was.

But our society's collective remorse over Rickman's death illustrates more than simply my disconnect with pop culture.  This morning, this year's crop of Oscar nominations was announced, and considerable murmurs have begun to stir across the social media firmament about what a white-out it is.

None of the twenty spots for actor nominees went to anybody other than a white person.  And this is the second year in a row that Hollywood has gone all-white.

Kinda odd for an industry that claims to pride itself on political correctness, don't you think?

Now, on the one hand, perhaps it doesn't mean anything that the Academy thinks this year's industry output doesn't have any stand-out "minority" actors in it.  Of all the art forms, it seems as though high-quality movie acting is one of the most subjective.  Since I haven't been to the movies in years, I'm not sure I'd know what modern Hollywood - and its audience - considers good acting anymore.  But even though I'm not a movie buff, it's hard for me to believe that all the best actors this year were white.  And if that is indeed the case, then Hollywood has a lot of explaining to do, and a lot of apologizing to do.

After all, we've heard about how insular Hollywood can be, even with these popular "indie" projects that are purported to be so avant-garde and non-mainstream.  We've heard about how studios like to go with proven formulas and proven actors, even though the suffocating star system supposedly is history.  We've heard about how hard it is for females and non-whites to make it big behind the screen, as producers and studio executives.

Remember that cringe-worthy video of white actor Matt Damon trying to explain diversity to a black female filmmaker last September?

Even if, in the purest, most objective sense, plenty of Hollywood insiders simply did not detect any nominee-worthy non-white actors for this year's coveted Oscars, and there wasn't a shred of racism at play in their selection of nominees, isn't that alone something worthy of discussion?  Were all of the "good" movies about white people?  Why might that have been?  Or, are we supposed to believe that there were simply no good non-white actors working in all of Hollywood in 2015?

Accusations of racism have dogged the film industry for years, and some insiders shrug their shoulders and blame their audience, saying that filmmakers are only creating a product they know will sell... which means moviegoers mostly want to see white people in their flicks.  But that's a silly claim to make, isn't it?  I'd suspect that moviegoers primarily go to the moves to enjoy a good story, or fast-paced action, or amazing special effects.  How many people pick the movie they want to see based on the skin color of the actors in it?

This is a big deal simply because of how so many people are reacting today to the death of Alan Rickman, a white British guy.  He was not a super-star, or the iconic leading man.  But if you've gone to enough movies over the years, you've been exposed to his body of work.  Which means that you've been exposed to the body of work of many actors.

Duhh, right?  But think about what this means:  For many people, movies exist as a forceful component of their life experience, emotions, memories, and frame of reference.  So the people who act in these movies, in some way, become a part of the lives of people who pay to see them act.

And if most of these actors are of a particular gender or skin color, can you see how, for their audience, the world can get skewed a particular way, however indirectly?

For all its pompous bluster about political correctness, Hollywood needs to get this racial thing right.  After all, people are watching.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Euthanasia is the Death of Life

At first, it's hard to dispute:

Dementia patients don't contribute anything to society.

Sure, there are for-profit companies in the United States that charge families big bucks to help care for dementia patients, but these memory-care facilities merely illustrate capitalism's ability to find a business opportunity in the worst of circumstances.

Nevertheless, it's not as though the memory-care industry is one of those "too-big-to-fail" sectors of our economy.  Consider how much more money dementia and dementia care costs, beyond the pricetag for housing its victims.  Consider the lost time from work as family members provide care to dementia patients.  And beyond money, consider the emotional stress, as an incurable disease erodes a loved one's memory during the course of years and years.

Suppose you've had that awful meeting with your doctor, and you've learned your diagnosis.  If you had the option of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia for yourself, would you take that route, instead of taking your own journey through dementia?

In the Netherlands, it's just become easier for you to opt out of dementia, by opting out of life altogether.  After all, what kind of quality-of-life can one have with dementia, anyway?  According to a report in World magazine, the Dutch believe there is an "unwritten moral duty" to help dementia patients avoid their agonizing death spiral.

For years, Holland has been at the forefront of legalizing suicide, cloaking the practice with euphemisms of medical expediency like "physician-assisted suicide."  Besides, it's not really euthanasia when people from a specific cohort of human beings can choose not to commit suicide, right?

Hey, it's not like Holland is methodically exterminating all of its dementia patients.

Yet there remains the fact that a specific cohort of people are being given the "right" to determine their own death.  So the stigma of euthanasia - a term we usually deploy when some despot tries to wipe out an entire race - remains in force, doesn't it?  After all, the Netherlands are crafting their death laws to accommodate a class of people:  people who medical professionals believe are nearing the end of their sojourn on our planet.  The age range of dementia patients can vary, but the concept of euthanasia for the aged and infirm can't be hidden.  If you can't contribute to society because of your health, your government will let you decide how you want to kill yourself.

And an itty-bitty little country in Europe is leading the way.

At least for now, Holland's liberalized euthanasia laws mandate that such end-of-life plans need to be set in place before the person receives their diagnosis of dementia.  Once a person is diagnosed, they will not be able to backtrack and file their suicide pact.  Good thing - we don't want people with memory problems deciding when they want to die.  But... "sane" people should be given that opportunity...

Does that make sense?

Towards the end of my father's journey through Alzheimer's, one of his hospice nurses told me, "you think the patient is the one who suffers most, but that's not really true."

I looked at her scornfully.  But she offered a pretty plausible explanation:

"Most dementia patients - especially as they get worse and worse - don't really understand that they have dementia.  They forget that they forget.  Sure, they get confused, and they get frustrated by their confusion, but then they forget that they were confused, and the frustration goes away."

And indeed, there is a cycle of confusion, frustration, and then forgetfulness that Dad and just everybody else with dementia goes through hourly.  One reason dementia patients sleep so much, it has been speculated, is that sleeping helps them avoid the confusion that sets the cycle in motion.

There's not a lot of physical pain in dementia.  In fact, one reason why dementia can last so long is because its victims usually have few other physical maladies that could otherwise kill them before Alzheimer's does.  For a while, towards the end, Dad was in considerable pain, but that pain was because we didn't realize his special wheelchair was creating a sore on his hip.  Once we got a cushion for his wheelchair, Dad's cries of agony stopped.  Dad also became quite weak, but that was from not eating.  And since nobody can survive for long without eating, it wasn't long before Dad passed away.

There would have been no point in killing him during this period of time.  It would have only shaved off several months of his life.  And whose suffering had been worse during this whole time?  His, or ours?

Ahh... that's the real dirty little secret behind euthanasia, isn't it?  We're not so much worried about the patient as we are our own selves.  We don't like watching our loved one's memory fade.  We don't like the impositions our loved one's care forces upon us.  We don't like paying for that care, monitoring that care, and not knowing how everything is going to work out.  How much easier it all would be if we knew the end process, and the end date!

I've heard many people say that they wouldn't want to put their loved ones through such a horrible experience as caring for a dementia patient.  Yet death - and the process of death - is a part of life, isn't it?  For what else are our loved ones here, anyway?  Just for the fun times, the good times?  Is that all life is about?

Is life about having lots of money left over after you die?  Is life about not having to watch a loved one suffer?  Is life only about productivity, vitality, and having a good memory?

Even if you don't believe in the sanctity of life, and the authority God has over deciding when life begins and ends, consider the practical application of euthanasia:  If not God, or "fate," or Father Time; who else gets to decide when you die?  Who decides when your vitality is over?  Who decides when you are a drain on society?  Who decides when the pain is too much?

There's no avoiding the raw reality that euthanasia is a slippery slope, and once you've set one foot upon it, there's no going back.  It's death-creep.

That's why Holland is getting it massively wrong.  Life is not for us to abort, either before a human being is born, or before their natural end comes.  We can't simply impose our wishes on any human life's most basic milestones through political whim, legislative posturing, or platitudes about suffering. Or cost accounting.

If the definition of a progressive society is one that wants to cannibalize itself, then we've gone through thousands of years of civilization for nothing.

By the Way:  After posting this essay, I learned that a distant relative of mine, who I never knew, died from assisted suicide last fall in Finland.  In addition, according to a Finnish cousin of mine who works as an elder care professional, Finland's out-of-pocket costs for elder care, despite its socialized medicine, are climbing rapidly for individual patients.  My cousin bluntly wonders if, eventually, "natural death" may be a luxury only the rich can afford.  I hadn't thought of it that way.  Looks like we'll need to take better care of our old people, and put our money where our moralistic mouths are, so euthanasia won't become more cost-effective than natural death.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Transgenderism: Mark or Mary?

I sent yesterday's essay on transgenderism to my close friend whose former boyfriend is now pursuing a sex-change.  My friend called my essay "a very fair and true-to-faith perspective, even if I'm not a believer (in Christ)."

Then he asked me a pretty difficult question.  Which I've attempted to answer.

His Question:  When speaking with a transgendered person, say our mutual friend, for instance, do you respect her by calling her "Mary" and using the feminine pronoun?  Or do you respect Christ by insisting on calling him "Mark?"  (FYI - neither of these are the names he uses now, or used to use)

My Answer:  I'm going to speak in generalities first, and then apply them to our friend.  And I'll admit up front:  Being untrained in all of the biological factors that may be relevant for a person experiencing transgenderism, I would have to use more intuitive criteria to construct a determination on what to call this person.

And this "intuitive criteria" would need to be based on the answers to questions such as these:

For example, with what genitalia was this person born?  With what gender identity was this person raised, and did this identity correlate with their genitalia?  Was there an issue with this person's chromosomes at birth?

What fear, suspicion, realization, or other impetus has prompted this concern about transgenderism for this person?  When did the personal conflict regarding their sexuality appear within this individual?

Did anybody assist in the development of this conflict, either in an effort to help or exploit the patient?  Was the possibility of transgenderism induced through the patient's personal introspection?  Perhaps an over-active imagination?  An extraordinary desire for attention?  The machinations of a misleading parent?  Any molestation or rape by a same-sex person?

As the transgender conflict grew in this person, what kind of help did they pursue?  Was it assistance from people who wanted them to remain aligned with the gender of their upbringing, or people who encouraged them to pursue the possibility of a gender better suited to a newfound sexual identity?

How much medical testing has been done?  Are there legitimate biological abnormalities at play?  Of course, I wouldn't be able to understand a lot of the medical factors.  Nevertheless, if this person has not been properly tested, even if that testing proves inconclusive, the lack of a scientifically-vetted evaluation of their case leaves a lot open to skepticism, don't you think?  I'm not talking about meeting with surgeons to schedule surgeries; I'm talking about impartial and clinical methods of identifying anything and everything that might be taking place for a variety of reasons.

Let's remember that transgenderism is still relatively rare, and don't we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy if we presume that everyone who is sexually frustrated may have issues with transgenderism?

Okay, so after having prefaced my main answer with all of these caveats; in this particular situation, would I call our friend "Mark," or "Mary?"

Based on what I know about him, I would call him Mark.  Not because I want to disrespect him or ridicule his current situation, but because he has not yet been fully, surgically changed into a woman.  And I don't know that he can be.

I could call him "Mary," I suppose, to make him feel better.  But if he wanted to be called "Dogbert," would you call him that instead?  I realize this is not a silly discussion, and I'll acknowledge that he wants people to call him "Mary" because he believes a female name affirms his desire to be a woman.  Still, as silly as calling him Dogbert would be, it's with all seriousness that I say I don't think he's met the criteria for legitimate womanhood. 

Sexuality itself is not as arbitrary as many in our culture presume it to be.  Nor is sexuality an emotion, or a desire, or a compulsion, or a way one dresses, as much as it is a biological state of being.  In Mark's case, since I don't think he actually has mixed-up chromosomes or some other extremely rare abnormality in his genetic makeup, I don't think he'll ever be Mary, no matter how many body parts he pays a doctor to change.

After all, being a woman involves more than having a few surgeries, isn't it?  Doesn't being a man involve more than having a few surgeries?  Being a woman involves more than being effeminate, or attracted to men, just as being a man involves more than being masculine and being attracted to women.

In the extremely few cases in which a doctor is tasked with medically assigning a gender when somebody is born, perhaps a re-think of that early procedure would be appropriate after the person matures into adulthood, and realizes how they've actually developed as a human being.  But again, these cases are incredibly rare.  I would even suggest that it risks mocking these genuinely conflicted cases for somebody to base their pursuit of gender re-orientation primarily on emotion.

The more I've thought about Mark's case, I believe he's a desperately confused man.  But he's not confused because of his genitalia, and I seriously doubt he's one of these rare genetically-abnormal cases.  From what I know about his upbringing, frankly, he's been raised by a fawning mother and a totalitarian father, both of whom are divorced from each other.  I'm no parent, or expert on parenting, but that is not a beneficial environment for anybody in which to grow up, is it?  I imagine conflict was a regular and inescapable part of his childhood.  Is the fact that conflict has remained his constant companion into adulthood surprising?

Let's also consider the relationship he's currently in.  It's an abusive one, haven't you said?  This man he's living with is hardly virtuous in his respect for Mark as a human being, let alone as a lover.  But Mark seems to be looking for affirmation at any cost, and so far, this guy has provided enough affirmation at an acceptable price.  Mark dropped me on Facebook because I told him that while I couldn't support his quest to become a woman, I would still pray for him and respect him as a human being.  But if Mark is dating this guy mostly because he supports his quest to become a woman, how self-serving might that be for both of them?

Then there's this:  It's a politically-incorrect consideration for me to throw in, but sin plays a destructive role in all of our lives.  It's the point at which each of us seeks our own rewards, apart from God's sovereignty, that sin begins its corrupting influence.

In the complex analysis of transgenderism, the question isn't so much whether you're a man or a woman, but how one honors God with the life He's given us.  God has laid out patterns for each gender to follow, yet I believe that the issue of transgenderism, however legitimate it may be, does not neutralize those patterns.  Nothing does, since I believe God is sovereign and holy.  But what transgenderism does is call us to account for the body and emotions He's given to us, as well as any biological and/or emotional defects which sin has corrupted in us.

And as for where we go from here, for a few of us, at least - as hard as it would be - accounting for all of this may mean that our God-honoring pattern is celibacy.

Remember, God does not give us the right to have sex.  God doesn't give anybody the right to be sexually fulfilled.  Shucks, from what I hear from just about everybody, sexual fulfillment is a fantasy in even the best relationships, right?

At the end of the day, at the end of life, at the end of this discussion, it's all about God.  Which may sound like an easy-out, but it's not, is it?  It's hard for us, because sin makes each of us self-centered.  It makes each of us crave an affection we can feel, and touch, and cuddle.  Yet faith is convincing not in how it makes us feel, but in what remains true despite all of the complexities that clog our reality.

Part of me wants to take the easy-out and accommodate Mark as the new Mary.  After all, it's his life, right?  Even if I don't understand what he's going through, it's a free country, and I do want him to be content.

But will being Mary make him content?  What makes any of us truly content, except knowing the truth?  The truth may not make us happy, or it may not be fun, but those are mere emotions.  One can face a firing squad being content in the truth, and the truth is that only God is sovereign, holy, righteous, and - yes - loving.

All of this isn't intended to make Mark and people like him miserable.  But love isn't always soft, fluffy, and affirming of what we think we want to do.

Isn't genuine love based on truth?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Responding With Care to Transgenderism

Mention the term "transgenderism" to virtually any evangelical, and watch their eyes roll.

Our eyes roll either with contempt, confusion, or conflict.  We're contemptuous of people who have different problems than we do.  Or we're confused about how somebody could claim to be so sexually mixed-up.  Or we're conflicted about the proper way to respond, especially if we find out a co-worker, close friend, or a loved one is struggling with transgenderism.

Few evangelicals react in a sanguine fashion, or with compassion, or confidence that the Bible can address an issue virtually all of us find at least bizarre, if not impossible.

After all, doesn't the Bible teach that God created man and woman?  And just man and woman?  Doesn't biology assign body parts based on whether you're a man or a woman?  Sure, sometimes our emotions and desires can get a bit confused, can't they?  But transgenderism doesn't really exist, does it?

According to a growing body of respectable science, the phenomenon of transgenderism does indeed possess at least a baseline of credibility.  Noted evangelical scholar Dr. Anthony Bradley recently wrote an article for World magazine encouraging evangelicals not to dismiss the topic out of hand.  While much remains unproven about transgenderism (which the scientist in Bradley prefers to call "gender dysphoria"), enough studies have been conducted and evaluated to lend credence to the notion that we Christ-followers need to treat people struggling with this condition with dignity.

Not that we promote transgenderism as a viable, legitimate lifestyle that, in and of itself, honors Christ.  Transgenderism represents a manifestation of "the fall of man," otherwise known as the moment when sin entered God's creation. Numerous other sexual and psychological conditions besides transgenderism exist in stark contrast to God's prescribed intentions for how we exercise our sexuality and emotions Biblically.

In his article, Bradley argues that believers in Christ need to remember that we're all sinners, and each of us struggles with a variety of issues that do not honor God.  Yet even as we struggle with sin, we generally confer a certain amount of dignity to each other in terms of not denigrating ourselves based on our sin nature.  We look to the grace and mercy that God provides His people as validation of our inherent worth to Him - or at least, we like to say we do.

However, when it comes to sexual and psychological aberrations, we tend to become cynical.  We tend to mock, and be derisive.  There's something about these types of unBiblical propensities that we think qualifies them as being fair game for scorn or prejudice.  After all, why don't we treat heterosexual adultery the same way we treat homosexuality?

Instead, Bradley advocates for Christ-followers "to be a community offering hope instead of shame."  Not hope that things like transgenderism can become mainstream, but hope that Christ can provide freedom from the relentless confusion and urges that a follower of His who struggles with transgenderism inherently faces.  After all, if you don't believe that Christ is Who He claims to be, your struggles with transgenderism stem from it not being mainstream, or widely accepted as a viable lifestyle.  Bradley doesn't believe transgenderism is a viable lifestyle.  But he does believe that people who want to honor God with their lives should be able to rely on their community of faith for support in prioritizing Christ and His truth, no matter the challenges to doing so.

And I agree with him.  

I have a distant acquaintance who has embarked on a journey of gender reorientation. He's the former boyfriend of one of my best male friends.  Like me, Bradley approaches this issue not through theoretical distance, but as the friend of an actual person struggling with transgenderism.  But I haven't really known how to react properly until after reading Bradley's article.

As Bradley exhorts, this is a topic from which the evangelical church should not shy away.  Nor should we paint the people struggling with it in broad, discriminatory brushes.  Unfortunately, when a topic seems extreme and difficult to understand, it becomes a lot easier to treat with derision.  But we're talking about real people living real lives here.  And these are people who are just as valuable as you are, and I am.  Which means we can't be so dismissive of them, right?

Okay, so yes; it's a fairly complex subject, and Bradley lists no less than 15 reputable studies for us to consult as reference material if we want to learn more about its many nuances.  But can't we address this without earning a doctorate in psychiatry?

No matter the causes or manifestations of transgenderism, doesn't the Bible still have the answer?  After all, if every time we ran into a complex question, we'd have to run to a highly-educated expert, why does God expect each of His followers to have an answer for the hope that supposedly resides within us?

So let's think about this for a moment.  What is the answer for transgenderism as a viable lifestyle?  It's that God created man and woman, right?  And since God created man and woman, our own personal experience with the life He's given each of us individually involves a responsibility to honor God with that life.

How do we know whether we're a man or a woman?  In this context, I'm not convinced that's the question we should ask.  Instead, how about asking whether God is honored by what we feel, or how God has designed our most intimate features?  After all, God doesn't make mistakes, but on occasion, He does challenge us in extraordinary ways to put His glory - and the things that give Him glory - above our own preferences.

Personally, I think our society gives too much credence to sexuality when it comes to defining who we are.  We are trained to forget that sexual intimacy isn't a God-given right.  Some of us will never be married.  Some of us will have to relinquish our sexual impulses and be content with celibacy.  Perhaps that celibacy will be necessary because God does not reveal a suitable opposite-gender spouse to us.  Or perhaps that celibacy will be necessary because there is something inside of us that is sending confusing messages - for whatever reason (biological, social, sin-based, etc.) - to our psyche.

No, it's not easy.  No, it's not fun.  But lots of things in life are neither easy nor fun.

One of my many problems in my own life is that I try to figure out why I can't be or do what I think I want to be or do.  Sometimes I have to simply allow myself to receive the peace of God that is beyond my understanding (Philippians 4:7), and the only way to do that is to relinquish my drive to understand things that maybe God doesn't want me to understand.

That's a very counter-cultural perspective to hold these days.  Especially when we still need to be loving, patient, kind, and gentle with others - even with people who may be experiencing something as conflicting and confusing as transgenderism.  Oh yeah - and we're also supposed to be self-controlled!  But not contemptuous.  It's the Fruit of the Spirit at work, even when we don't understand what our brother or sister in Christ may be going through.

Sin manifests itself in many ways, whether they're conventional or not.  As human beings with a propensity for evil, we've become used to many different types of sins, yet other sins can still strike us as being so unnatural, it seems natural to belittle the people who suffer from them.

In the case of transgenderism, perhaps the sin isn't so much in having the condition, but how a person suffering with it responds to it...

...And how we followers of Christ respond to them.

Here's the list of resources recommended by Dr. Bradley:
  • Balen, Adam H., et al. “Polycystic ovaries are a common finding in untreated female to male transsexuals.” Clinical Endocrinology 38.3 (1993): 325-329; 
  • Bao, Ai-Min and Swaab, Dick F. “Sexual differentiation of the human brain: Relation to gender identity, sexual orientation and neuropsychiatric disorders” Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 32 (2011): 214–226; 
  • Coolidge, Frederick L., Linda L. Thede, and Susan E. Young. “The heritability of gender identity disorder in a child and adolescent twin sample.” Behavior Genetics 32.4 (2002): 251-257.; 
  • Dessens, Arianne B., et al. “Prenatal exposure to anticonvulsants and psychosexual development.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 28.1 (1999): 31-44; 
  • Dorner, Gunter, et al. “Genetic and Epigenetic Effects on Sexual Brain Organization Mediated by Sex Hormones.” Neuroendocrinology Letters 22.6 (2001): 403-409; 
  • Gooren, Louis “The biology of human psychosexual differentiation” Hormones and Behavior 50 (2006): 589–601; 
  • Green, Richard. “Family cooccurrence of “gender dysphoria”: Ten sibling or parent–child pairs.”Archives of Sexual Behavior 29.5 (2000): 499-507; 
  • Hare, Lauren et al. “Androgen Receptor Repeat Length Polymorphism Associated with Male-to-Female Transsexualism” Biol Psychiatry 65.1 (January 1, 2009): 93–96; 
  • Hines, Melissa, Charles Brook, and Gerard S. Conway. “Androgen and psychosexual development: Core gender identity, sexual orientation, and recalled childhood gender role behavior in women and men with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH).” Journal of Sex Research 41.1 (2004): 75-81. 
  • Lentini, E. et al. “Sex Differences in the Human Brain and the Impact of Sex Chromosomes and Sex Hormones” Cerebral Cortex 23 (October, 2013): 2322-2336; 
  • Meyer-Bahlburg, Heino FL. “Transsexualism (“Gender Identity Disorder”)–A CNS-Limited Form of Intersexuality?.” Hormonal and Genetic Basis of Sexual Differentiation Disorders and Hot Topics in Endocrinology: Proceedings of the 2nd World Conference. Springer New York, 2011; 
  • Rametti, Giuseppina et al. “Effects of androgenization on the white matter microstructure of female-to-male transsexuals. A diffusion tensor imaging study” Psychoneuroendocrinology 37 (2012): 1261—1269; 
  • Savic, Ivanka and Arver, Stefan. “Sex Dimorphism of the Brain in Male-to-Female Transsexuals”Cerebral Cortex 21 (November, 2011): 2525—2533; 
  • Swaab, D.F. “Sexual differentiation of the human brain: relevance for gender identity, transsexualism and sexual orientation” Gynecol Endocrinol 19 (2004): 301–312; 
  • Zucker, Kenneth J., et al. “Psychosexual development of women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.” Hormones and Behavior 30.4 (1996): 300-318

Friday, January 8, 2016

One Shell of a Sculpture

Show and Tell

Good grief.  With all of the stupid politics our partisan brethren and sisteren keep making me write about, it's too easy to forget that life isn't about elections or public opinion.

Which is a good thing, actually, since public opinion probably wouldn't consider today's installment of "Show and Tell" any kind of genuine art.

But I kinda like to think it's some sorta sculptural thingy.  Can you tell what it is?

Okay, I'll give you a clue. The white plinth is actually an upside-down plastic birdbath, with the birdbath part facing the ground, and its base sticking up in the air, topped by a circular concrete stepping stone.

And atop the concrete disc is an old sea shell.

Still wondering what it is?  Well, it's not supposed to be a brain teaser.  It's just a little something I created for our backyard to symbolize two memories that we have of my dearly-departed Dad.

The birdbath he purchased years ago, after a couple of concrete birdbaths kept getting broken by raccoons who insisted on climbing up in it to bathe.

Unfortunately for Dad, what the concrete birdbath lacked in flexibility, this plastic birdbath lacked in sturdiness.  I don't know how many mornings I'd wake up - usually the first one up - go out into the kitchen to make my coffee, look out the window, and see the plastic birdbath tumbled on its side, with muddy paw prints all over it.  Yes, the hollow base of the plastic birdbath was full of sand, but that was insufficient to withstand three or four raccoons trying to wash their dirty little paws.

Even now, upside down, the underside of the plastic birdbath has fresh, raccoonish pawprints on it! 

Nevertheless, whenever Mom and I look at this new creation, although technically we see an upside down birdbath, we also see an object that Dad used to fuss over almost daily; either by going out and setting it back upright and re-filling it, or by sweeping leaves out of the water if the birdbath had managed to remain upright and full for an extended period of time.

Of course, during our brutal Texas summers, sometimes the water evaporated so quickly, Dad would have to refill it daily.

As for the shell - what some might call a "conch" - it was something the previous owners of our house left when Mom and Dad purchased it.  We don't know where it came from, but like all shells of this size, it reminds us of the ocean.  This particular shell is fairly old; newer shells have a pink hue inside; this one has just a faint suggestion of pink.  It's mostly white, while within its tiny cracks and crevices, black decay has set in.  There's also a sizable hole in its underside.

Even though it and us are a long way from any ocean, we've kept it all these years, and it helps us recall those wonderful summers in Maine after Dad retired, when he and Mom spent a lot of time up there in idyllic coastal Sedgwick.

Still... it is art?

Well, I'll admit:  It's not anything I'd pay money to see, or that I'd buy.  Yet it has value to Mom and me because every time we look at it, we know the things - and the person - that it represents.  Anybody wandering into our backyard would likely consider it a bit weird, or at least unimpressive.  But then again, Dad wasn't into show at all, or impressing other people.  Besides, he himself liked to repurpose objects after their original use was no longer necessary.

Dad graduated from Brooklyn's prestigious Pratt Institute, which has a world-famous design school.  Some of the stuff I've seen their graduates produce looks a bit weirder than my modest assemblage, and I'm sure that stuff costs a whole lot more.

But even the most snotty-nosed critic from the elite cultural salons and clubs of avant-garde New York can appreciate at least one quality of this piece:  it's green!  Environmentally-friendly art.  Keeping stuff that otherwise might be considered garbage out of our precious landfills.

Reduce, reuse, recycle; right?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Europe's Mass Assaults Tilt Gun Debate

Okay; so, I'm not a boisterous advocate for the Second Amendment.

Quite frankly, I can see where gun control advocates get their ammunition about the amendment's "militia" language, and about it not directly correlating to individual gun rights when martial law has not been declared.

However, I can also see where gun rights advocates get their ammunition:  You don't have to stretch logic very far to find the amendment inferring that gun ownership precedes any formation of militias.  Otherwise, how would defensive weaponry be distributed during a crisis of lawlessness that generated the need for armed civilians in the first place?

See what I mean?

So, speaking of ammunition, let's talk about the growing furor over in Germany these days.  It's a furor sparked by news of hundreds of men, purportedly from the Middle East, assaulting unsuspecting women during public New Years Eve events in Germany and Finland.

Haven't heard about it?  Well, join the crowd, as it took a few days before the media began disseminating this story to the general public.  Some in Germany are now accusing their media of trying to cover up the blockbuster news, since on the surface, it looks pretty damning for Middle Easterners, especially refugees from Syria.

In a nutshell, here's the scoop:  during fireworks festivities before large crowds on New Years Eve, it has been reported that a throng of up to 1,000 men who looked and talked like Middle Easterners physically and verbally accosted approximately 100 women in front of the main cathedral in Cologne, with at least two rapes having been reported as well.  Similar incidents took place on much smaller scales in two other German cities, and in Helsinki, the capital of Finland.

Sounds like a fairly coordinated occurrence, doesn't it?  Hundreds of men who look and speak pretty differently from your standard European guy, meeting in central places in major European cities to grope women?  Nobody has yet been arrested, and it's yet to be proven that any of the alleged perpetrators are actually Middle Eastern, or recently-arrived Muslim refugees, but one police report quoted a Middle-Eastern-looking man taunting the crowd by jeering, "I'm a Syrian!  You have to treat me kindly!  Mrs. Merkel invited me."

If all of the suspicions are correct, and these accusations of "wilding" were really committed by Middle Eastern men, newly-arrived to countries with far more liberalized views towards women than where these guys came from... can you see where I'm going with this?

Unfortunately, after so much refugee migration during such a relatively short span of time, a cross-cultural clash of some sort was probably inevitable, considering the Middle East's patriarchal environment, and the pluralistic environment of modern Europe.  Now, consider the scenario of something like that happening here in the United States.  You know some right-wingers are already putting it together:  how would Americans react?  With our gun laws the way they currently are, aren't we Americans in a better position to defend ourselves if we were accosted in such a fashion, or if a loved one was?  Many news reports out of Germany claim that some women were molested while groups of Middle Eastern men allegedly held their victims' male companions at bay.

Would the situation have been different if the perpetrators of such behavior worried that enough people in the crowd might be packing heat?

Well, you might reply:  Where were the cops?

German police are now admitting that they were woefully under-staffed and overwhelmed by the extent of the mayhem taking place in Cologne that raucous night.  And no, the police can't be everywhere all the time.  What then?  Your boyfriend might be able to punch out one assailant, or maybe two - but dozens?  Hundreds?  One thousand?

Our world is rapidly changing, and isn't it being foolhardy to presume that the police force of your city can protect you if dozens, hundreds, a thousand men all purpose to molest as many women as they can in one night?

Framers of our Constitution likely had nothing like this scenario in mind when they worded the Second Amendment as they did:  A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

It's not that America's citizenry needs to protect itself only from a military force running amok.  As our world changes, it may become more and more likely that America's citizenry will need to protect itself from organized bands of thugs and violators like the ones in Europe during New Years Eve.  Our "brave new world" may be one of limited-sophistication crimes of mass-perpetration organized via social media in real time, which no government could always track.

No, we cannot prevent immigration based on religion, as some say we should.  We cannot paint entire nationalities and religions with the same broad brush.  After all, Germany has welcomed hundreds of thousands of war refugees just this past year alone, but only a relative handful of them are accused of this heinous behavior.

Partisan politicians like to talk about "gun violence."  But here's an example of where violence could actually be thwarted by guns.

Let's not allow rhetoric from any side of this debate distract us from what's actually happening in our world:  the proliferation not just of guns, but of people who don't care about any of your rights.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Memory Loss Beyond Dementia's Victim

Dementia has claimed yet another life that I have known.

A long-time family friend passed into Eternity this morning at a local hospital after suffering a fall on Saturday.  She was the mother of six, a grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, and the sister of another lady who's struggling with dementia.  Their mother died from it years ago.

Technically, our friend who died this morning likely did so from complications of her fall.  Yet it's also likely that having dementia did nothing but destabilize her sense of balance.  Indeed, as dementia continues to corrupt its victims' brain, motor skills and balance can become casualties of one's deteriorating mental capacity.

This particular family friend didn't have dementia for as long as my Dad did.  I'm not sure she was on any of the medicines that can help minimize some of dementia's worst symptoms.  Compared with my Dad, this family friend was fairly docile during her illness, and was able to remain in her home.  She and her husband were blessed with the loving resources of a large family, although the strain on her husband's face whenever I saw him was distinct.

She and her husband attended my Dad's memorial service back in October, and while she looked gaunt, with the telltale dark and stony face of dementia, she seemed relatively functional.  Although she could no longer remember my name, she acted as though her brain was telling her she knew who I was, so she'd grin broadly and giggle nervously around me - and around anybody else she'd known for years but were now nameless to her.  At Dad's memorial service, there were a number of those friends.

Last summer was the last time she and her husband visited Mom and me at our home.  While her husband and Mom chatted about all sorts of things, she nodded her head, smiled, laughed, and heartily echoed her agreement whenever there was a lull in the conversation.  Nevertheless, it was uncomfortably obvious that she really didn't know what her husband and my Mom were talking about, even though their topics of discussion - church, families, nostalgia, and even (oddly enough) funeral homes - should have otherwise been within her realm of comprehension and contribution.

Finally, she jumped up and began to touch everything - EVERYTHING! - in the living room where we were.

Not that she necessarily wanted to look at anything, however.  She didn't inspect what she touched and picked up, like she was interested in what it was, or curious about how it was made; she seemed to simply have a compulsion to touch it.  So she moved quietly around the room, picking up curios, picture frames, candles, glass vases, pillows, and photo albums.  She didn't look at the pictures, or browse the albums; she simply moved them about just a bit.

At first, her embarrassed husband began to apologize for his wife's odd behavior, but Mom and I cut him off.  Although having to touch everything in sight wasn't one of the ways Dad's dementia exhibited itself, he'd been in a memory-care facility long enough for Mom and me to understand that some dementia patients are extraordinarily tactile.

And dementia patients can also possess surprising strength and agility, despite their frail appearances.  When our friend picked up some of our heavy glass vases, I tried to suppress little gasps of apprehension over whether her dubious grip could hold the deceptively weighty object, but our friend displayed a deceptive nimbleless of her own as she'd lift one object while setting down another.

Indeed, like many hallmarks of dementia, it can seem contradictory how a dementia patient's brain can focus on and process one function, yet otherwise completely fail at another function.

Along one wall of our living room, a grouping of over a dozen framed photos is displayed.  And wouldn't you know it, but our friend shuffled over there and picked up each one!  She didn't look at any of the photos, although Mom tried to tell her who was in each photo, since our friend would have otherwise known most of our family members.  No; she'd pick up each frame, and then set it down again - but not exactly where it had been.  Before she was finished, every frame had been raised, briefly held aloft, and then replaced askew.  It was actually somewhat comical to watch.

I remember that when they got ready to leave, her husband had to help her into their car, even though she was fully ambulatory.  She simply didn't seem to understand the mechanics of sitting in an automobile so a seatbelt can stretch across your chest, even though she'd spent her life driving.  She used to pilot a huge Ford station wagon - white, with that fake woody applique on its sides! - all over Texas.  But now...

After they left, I spent 15 minutes straightening everything she'd rearranged.  But I didn't care.  Considering all of the far more destructive ways dementia can make its victims act, our friend's tactile obsession was far preferable.  Nevertheless, we did hear from the family - and I'm sure you can imagine as well - that living with such a compulsive behavior pattern on a daily basis was extremely exhausting for them.

It's not that dementia patients with such an obsession go once around a room and touch everything.  They keep going around the same room, and throughout the house, touching and touching and re-touching and re-touching, often moving things from one place to another - and then back again.  You can understand how things might get lost; Dad re-arranged his desk drawers constantly, and was constantly misplacing things.  Few items may get broken in the process, surprisingly, but that's little comfort when your loved one starts accusing you of stealing what they've misplaced.

Dad developed an obsessive pattern of trying to "fix" our expensive grandfather clock, and now it neither keeps proper time nor chimes in sequence with the quarter-hour.  A family member of a fellow resident at Dad's memory-care place told me their family had come up with the idea of getting some junked appliances for their father to "fix" every afternoon in their garage, so he'd stop trying to "fix" the real, functional appliances in their home.

As for our family friend who passed away this morning, I wonder if her lifetime spent straightening and tidying-up after six kids and classrooms full of students contributed to her dementia-fueled compulsion for touching everything in sight.

Maybe, but...

My purpose in telling you these things about our family friend is to describe for you one of the many odd ways dementia can express itself within its victims.  The risk in doing so, however, is that you'll finish this essay with a lopsided impression of our family friend as a compulsive, fidgety, overly-tactile weirdo.  Oddly enough, none of these characteristics stand out in my memory of her as she was back before her dementia set in.

Yet that's one of the problems of dementia:  by the time a dementia patient passes away, it's become hard to remember the way they were, all those years ago, when they were in their right mind.  Recent, emotionally-laden memories of our loved ones as they've suffered through years of raw dementia are what's seared into our mournful minds.

Perhaps it's in this way that dementia victimizes more than just the patient; all of us who knew the patient can be deprived of the reality of the person who used to exist, before dementia took its toll.

"Gone, but not forgotten," as they say.  But in the case of dementia's victims, we really have to work at it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Presidential Tears Over Guns Mask Real Issue

Today's top headlines aren't about President Obama's executive orders for more gun control measures.  Today's headlines are about those tears he shed as he trotted out liberalism's same old rhetoric about violence involving guns.

Now, to remind you, I'm no Second Amendment warrior.  But neither am I convinced that guns are the problem with violence involving guns.  The problem is violence itself, and our society's lust for it.  There are other developed countries in the world with similar ratios of guns to citizens where gun-involved violence isn't nearly so prevalent.  Yet we focus on guns, because... they don't automatically aim themselves at human beings and pull their own trigger?

But I digress... back to the emotional episode today in the East Room of the White House.

Yes, tears usually make for compelling news, but what's compelling here is the political gamesmanship such drops of salty water risk corrupting.

After all, should presidential tears on the subject of violence be noteworthy?  Don't let crocodile tears on the part of a partisan politician fool you:  Most all Americans - Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal - are "mad" (the President's word) that young schoolchildren were shot to death in Sandy Hook.

It doesn't matter whether you want more gun control legislation, or less gun control legislation:  having innocent people being slaughtered by angry people with guns makes most of us mad.  Precious few of us want to be murdered - at that hands of a gunman, or anybody.  That's a major reason why these mass shootings make the big headlines.  This kind of stuff should not be happening anywhere, let alone in the United States of America.  Right?

It's not that any president doesn't have the right to cry when a particularly emotional topic is discussed at a press conference.  Crying isn't itself unpresidential.  But for any president to use their tears as an insinuation that people who don't agree with their proposed solution to the problem at hand are somehow less humane, or less concerned about the problem, is disingenuous.

Is this type of emotional grandstanding genuine leadership?  Leadership may allow one's self to be vulnerable at a time of crisis - and the wave of mass killings we're witnessing in our country is a valid crisis - but tears are not a valid tool when partisanship is what's really in play.

Granted, a few of the President's orders - such as increasing the FBI's staffing for a more robust background checking process - are fairly benign, even if they smack of more big-government bloat.  And he's correct in wondering out loud why we can put security passwords on smartphones but not on guns.

But the pivotal fact remains that no president can convince angry people not to use violence to try and address their problems.  It's already illegal to murder somebody, but people commit murder every day.  This is one of those bigger issues that politicians like to think they can fix, but that none of them really can.

Actually, if the reason why President Obama was crying today in the East Room stemmed from his realization that he actually can't control violence in our society, then I take all this back that I've written about his crocodile tears.

Which, of course, still means that the onus is on every single one of us to take personal responsibility for whether - and how - we promote violence in our entertainment, our language, and our attitudes.  Especially when it comes to the role violence should play in how we resolve interpersonal conflict.

An executive order may create an aura of action for the duration of the current presidency.  Just as tears can create an aura of urgent grief during a press conference.

Would that the transitory nature of such public displays actually erases the permanent effects of our society's propensity for violence.

After all, whether it's by gunshot, knife blade, or shrapnel from an explosion, the ways people use to deploy their violent urges tends to leave some sort of scar that no amount of salty water can dilute.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Second-Guessing Singlehood

I used to write monthly columns about singlehood for a popular Christian webzine.

My perspective came from the Apostle Paul's endorsement of singlehood as a viable - and even advantageous - lifestyle.  Some scholars speculate the Apostle Paul had either never been married, or was a widower.  Hey, even Jesus Christ is single, after all.  Sure, being single may not be for everybody, and it's certainly no way to propagate the human species, but it's not the anathema many within evangelicalism consider it to be.

For me, that was then.  However, this is now.  And now, I believe I have experienced a change in how I personally view singleness.

Sure, in terms of pure practicality, the Apostle Paul remains correct in his assertion that unmarried folks have fewer encumbrances than married folks when it comes to devoting one's self utterly to Christian service.  Singlehood is generally cheaper, decisions can be made more unilaterally, and risk becomes far more tolerable.  Indeed, dragging a spouse and some kids off to Outer Mongolia - or Chicago's South Side - requires strategies of deeper and broader complexity than if one goes there alone.

Yet for the rest of God's people, who are tasked with lifestyles dominated by things other than professional Christendom, is singlehood the viable option many of us Christ-followers have come to believe it is?

Or has my disillusionment with singlehood evolved from my own frustrations with it, particularly as the big 5-0 looms large in my not-too-distant future?

Statistically, singlehood is looking more and more like an established trend.  The numbers of young people getting married are dropping, while the numbers of kids being raised by only one parent are rising.  Rates of divorce by people claiming some church affiliation nearly mirror the rates of divorce among what we call the "unchurched."

Some people wonder if online porn is distracting today's young men from seriously pursuing marriage.  Others suspect that it's a mix of online porn's unrealistic presentation of sex combined with new depths of immaturity fostered by teen-centric digital games.

Of course, it's not just today's men who could be at fault when it comes to marriage's unpopularity.  Having been bombarded with nearly a half-century of conflicting messages of liberation and licentiousness, modern young women have become more of a quandary than ever before to males considering marriage.  Women now outnumber men as students on many college campuses, indicating a societal dissatisfaction with traditional maternal roles, even as the cost of quality daycare for the children of couples who both work outside the home can be prohibitive.  Throw in easy access to methods that prevent or abort pregnancies, and the need for a marriage certificate becomes less and less obvious.

Not that there haven't been other impediments to happily-ever-after marriages in times past.  It's just that historically, social mores and job opportunities for both women and men rested more on whether one was married.  And of course, those variables generally were punitive for women when it came to jobs outside of the home, and beneficial when it came to men trying to promote their personal integrity as a solid, responsible "family man."

Ironically, these days, being a "family man" can have an oddly quaint tinge to it, and women who aren't looking for a job outside of their home can be viewed as unsophisticated.

From all of these dynamics re-shaping the Western family, it's still difficult to assess whether modern singlehood is really what people want, or if the new statistics away from traditional families have less to do with the popularity of the concept, and more broadly to do with our society's changing ideals.

Consider, for example, the way nuclear families have replaced the ancient notion of extended families.  Particularly in the United States, parents and children have long been the conventional family unit, whereas extended families remain the family unit in far less developed countries.  Economics, and the drive for more wealth, has a way of fracturing the extended family, and we've come to expect that nuclear families should be as autonomous as extended families.

That's why our children go to colleges across the state - and across the country.  That's why people move multiple times to places with better job opportunities - or, at least, job opportunities that pay more money.  Extrapolate all of this mobility across scores of families across the country, and it doesn't take long before the extended family becomes virtually extinct - and singlehood becomes a more functional life stage as people wait for and wander to something better than what is available back home.

Hey - it's not that waiting for a desirable spouse is a bad thing.  Nor is trying to find a good job a bad thing, either.  And extended families are notorious for forcing their young people into marriages those young people probably wouldn't have chosen for themselves.  But isn't it interesting that what nuclear families we see in the Bible are usually at more of a financial disadvantage than the extended families?  Those widows "adopted" by the Old Testament prophets, for example?  There was nobody left to care for them.

Meanwhile, even Christ was born into a large, extended family, and one of His brothers eventually became an apostle of His.  Only the prosperity Gospel folks say Christ's family was financially wealthy, but Christ's request of an apostle to care for his widowed mother indicates that most of Christ's extended family abandoned Him during His extraordinary ministry.  How painful must that have been for Him and his mom?

Christ remained single not because He couldn't find anybody to marry, but because marriage wasn't God's destiny for Him.  Besides, Jesus was probably 33 years old when His earthly ministry concluded, and how would that have looked; for a young guy, Who knew His time on our planet would be limited, to marry anyway?  Marriage just wasn't part of His eternal purpose.

And maybe it's not part of my purpose.  Or yours, if you're single.  But guess what?  If you are married right now, marriage is part of your purpose, whether you want it to be or not!  Divorce may be acceptable in the church you attend, but it shouldn't be convenient.  Commitment should still mean something, even if everybody else around us considers commitment dispensable.

Perhaps one reason why divorce is as widespread as it is these days has more to do with the popularity of nuclear families than extended ones.  In nuclear families, which are little pods of people, it may appear easier to get out of one challenging pod and hopefully find a more enjoyable pod; whereas in extended families, there are far more people to consider when it comes to ending a marriage covenant.  Extended families aren't nuclear pods of people, but broader communities and networks of various personalities, ages, needs, abilities, and resources.  Maybe I'm wrong, but from the few extended families I know who tend to generally live in or near the same municipality, there seems to be more intra-family accountability, affection, and even patience through individual problems than there are in more cloistered nuclear families.

After all, when grandparents live close by, don't parents seem to have an easier time with child-rearing?  Don't children seem to grow up better-able to relate with people outside of their age group?  Don't their grandparents seem to be more content with their own purpose in their later years?

When disaster strikes, from a death in the family to a natural disaster like a fire or flood, don't extended families seem to bounce back better than nuclear families?

I heard a pastor once preach from the pulpit about the virtues of nuclear families compared with the presumably stifling nature of extended ones.  He encouraged teens in our church to consider living far away from their parents and grandparents when they graduated college.  I was dumbfounded - as if the experiences that help cultivate independence and tenacity can best be found through neglecting an extended family!

Part of this celebration of independence and self-sufficiency stems from our country's founding and development as a frontier.  North America was the frontier for all of its settlers - from the Native Americans who crossed over the Bering Strait from Asia, to the whites who sailed west from Europe, and even the Africans who were shipped here against their will.  Most newcomers to our shores came as singles, or as nuclear families.  And the New World zeal to explore and expand pushed singles and nuclear families ever westward, from the first colonies in New England and the southern coast, into the midwest, and on to California.  Being able to survive and thrive was easier the fewer dependents a person had.  And that mindset seems to remain alive and thriving today.

But is it a good mindset to have?  At least for people not intending to be professional cross-cultural missionaries?

Singlehood has become the smallest representation of the family unit - from extended families, to the nuclear family, to the single-parent family, to the single adult.  Like everything else in Western society, it's the lowest-common-denominator at work, isn't it?

Not that anybody should get married just for the sake of being married.  But singlehood isn't all some of us crack it up to be, is it?  After all, there's a reason the website for which I wrote has a singles channel - not just to market its content to a growing segment of society, but to provide useful reference material for making the journey just a little less difficult.  Just as marriage isn't easy, or always fun, or stress-free.  Indeed, I'd rather be a melancholy single person than a miserable married one.

Just let's not work too hard at finding the good things to being single these days.  I guess that's what I'm trying to say.  As a marital status, it may fit what God wants to do in us unmarried folks for this season of our lives, but the longer I remain single, the less willing I am to consider singlehood a viable alternative to marriage.

A lot of it comes down to contentment, doesn't it?  Being content to wait, being content with what God has provided, being content with His sovereignty over every aspect of my life.

Maybe America wouldn't have been developed as extensively as it's been if everybody had been content with God's sovereignty.  I'm sure plenty of extended families are woefully discontent with how God has provided for their family members.  I know married folks who are quite discontent with where they are in life, and especially with who they married!

My dear Dad, at his Alzheimer facility,
four months before his death.
Nevertheless, enough with the macro-perspective.  After watching my Dad suffer through eight years of dementia, I have been struck by the importance an extended family represents when disease and heartache strikes a loved one.  This importance extends beyond the availability of financial resources, or logistical considerations such as caring for a loved one with a terminal illness at home.  Since we have a very small family, I can only imagine how helpful and comforting it would be having a broad coalition of family members both emotionally AND physically close.  For when I need them, and when they need me.

Sharing burdens is something we independent-minded Americans don't like talking about.  Moving away from family for our job is normal for us.  Single-parent families living in isolation from their extended family is normal for us.  Single adults climbing the corporate ladder solo, from city to city, is normal for us.  But should it be?

We give lip service to the notion that churches should now be our extended family.  Some companies like to say their employees are one big family.  Every now and then, we'll hear about a local bar someplace raising money for a sick patron in a sign of familial compassion.  But aren't all of these merely substitutes for the extended family?

God's Word never expressly advocates for extended families as the only, or best, or even preferred format for family life.  By contrast, however, the Bible does teach that community - particularly in a family setting - is more helpful to us than independence.

Sure, singleness may be a trend that's gaining steam, but that doesn't mean it's a good trend.  If you'll pardon the puns, singles may not nuke the family unit, but singles won't extend it, either.