Monday, October 31, 2016

Hard Differences for Most Churchgoers

If you attend a church, you're probably aware that America's deepest segregation occurs every Sunday morning.

Whites generally go to their white-majority churches, and blacks generally go to their black-majority churches.

It's not an official rule, since ostensibly, whites are welcome to attend predominantly black churches, and vice-versa.  But while we'll dine, shop, work, get educated, and recreate together, blacks and whites generally prefer homogeneity when it comes to corporate worship.

It's been than way for generations, of course, since our country's earliest days.  It used to be forced through laws and social decree.  Yet although our nation has witnessed some major milestones in terms of racial reconciliation, things remain decidedly divided when it comes to church attendance between whites and blacks.

White, Washed Church

The church I attend now, Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, Texas, is 25 years old, and virtually all-white.  Not by design, or desire, but mostly by default.

I was there when it celebrated its 10th anniversary, back in 2001.  And instead of throwing itself a party, the church's leadership decided to create a brand-new inner-city ministry for one of the poorest - and blackest - parts of Dallas, its west side.  That neighborhood has languished for generations literally on the other side of the Trinity River - what irony, considering that name! - across from most of the city's whitest and richest neighborhoods.

Soon after the church leadership announced its plans, our senior pastor announced one Sunday that a prominent member of the congregation had complained about spending so much money - it would cost millions to create and sustain the ministry - on black people.  His attitude had been swiftly condemned by other leaders, but apparently, this particular person refused to repent of his blatant racism, so he was asked to leave the church.  When our pastor announced this, I remember how sobering it was for the congregation, and indeed, our pastor seemed deeply embarrassed - and a bit angry - that he had to make such an announcement in this day and age.

A couple of years ago, I learned that a different white member of our church saw a little black girl running and shouting down a hall in the children's ministry area.  This little girl had been adopted by a white family in the church; at the time, and even today, I think the only black kids we have in the church (there are precious few) are adopted.

At any rate, the white "lady" church member stopped the little black girl in the hallway and scolded her.  "If you're going to live on this side of the tracks," she admonished the child, "you'll have to learn some manners."

Does that story shock you?  It angered me when I heard it, and even as I relay it to you now, I'm embarrassed and saddened by it.  I know I have racist tendencies myself - we all do, don't we? - but I don't think I've ever said anything as cruel as that, especially to a child.

Still, do you know what was conveyed in that calloused reprimand of the little girl?  Not only the ethnocentric insinuation that white people have higher standards of behavior than black people, but the whole "other side of the tracks" notion that wealthier folks are better than poorer folks.

Stratification More than Skin Deep

Indeed, we have racial segregation within America's religious communities, but don't we also have economic segregation?

Skin color is pretty easy to detect, but pegging where people are within America's socioeconomic spectrum isn't difficult.  Indeed, although I'm white, which makes my skin color blend in at Park Cities Presbyterian, I suspect I'm one of the poorest people who attend.  And I suspect I'm not the only person at my church who's aware of that!

The newness of one's clothing matters at my church.  The style, and how it fits into what's expected of a wealthy person's wardrobe; indeed, how garments fit matters.  How well-groomed one's hair is, whether you're a man or woman.  Shoes are very important, as are jewelry and eyeglasses.  Where you went to college, what your parents did for a living, where you vacation - and how often you take vacations! - all deeply matter, whether people at my church want to admit it or not.

After all, if this stuff didn't matter, would the folks around me at church be talking about them so much, and so enthusiastically?

I once applied for a job at my church, and was told point-blank that since my father had been a sales manager for a construction supply company, I probably wouldn't be a good fit.  I also graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington - a decidedly non-prestigious institution - so that was another strike against me socially.  The person telling me this - the church's human resource director at the time - wasn't being mean; in fact, he was trying to be helpful, perhaps out of his own frustration with the snobbish hierarchies at the place where he both worked and worshipped.  Nevertheless, I understood that I'm a social inferior in the eyes of many folks at this church.  And from talking with several other congregants of similarly humble backgrounds as mine, I've come to see that I'm not the only one.

I try not to let it gnaw at me.  I try to remind myself that life isn't about money and status.  Indeed, I've learned that wealth is relative, and I've seen how it can control folks who think they control it.  And I can't blame anybody else for not being rich myself.  I imagine I'd enjoy having money, but I haven't yearned for it hard enough to be as driven as most people need to be to acquire it - and sustain its perks. 

I haven't worked outside the home for years, partly to help Mom care for my dementia-stricken father, and partly because of my chronic clinical depression.  But helping to care for my Dad has been my deepest satisfaction in life; being able to repay a fraction of what he devoted to me.  And my chronic clinical depression?  At least that's not my fault, and I'm grateful my parents have been supportive of me through it.  Other people with my condition aren't so fortunate.

My Honda?  It's no luxury car, but although it's eight years old, there's really nothing wrong with it.  Even if I had the money to replace it with a flashy European nameplate, what would be my justification, beyond vanity?

Virtually my entire wardrobe is even older than my car.  I use liberal amounts of super glue to keep my shoes from literally falling apart.  I don't own my home, or any Apple product, or sky miles, or stocks.  Sometimes I laugh to myself at how much nothing I have!

Ironically, however, I attend the wealthiest congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America denomination.  Our church budget this year is $13.2 million.  Our church parking lots resemble a Lexus dealership's.  There's a billionaire who's a member of this church.  Untold numbers of attenders are multi-millionaires.  It's been said that the best place to have a heart attack in Dallas is our sanctuary, since so many doctors are members of our church.  Lawyers, investment bankers, financial planners, corporate CEO's - the place is crawling with moneyed elite.

And you know what - it's intimidating!  I used to say "hello" to people in the hallways and foyers of our church campus, but I stopped doing that long ago, since most people look right past me.  I joined the chancel choir and discovered that this church's most humble people must all be singers, since just about everybody in the choir is very friendly with me, no matter their wealth or social status.

Part of the stigma (or aura, depending on your perspective) at Park Cities Presbyterian is that it's a church started by and for residents of two exceptionally affluent towns, Highland Park and University Park.  Together, the lifestyle enjoyed by homeowners in these two concentrated enclaves is called the "Park Cities Bubble", since they have their own schools, shops, and police forces to support a standard of living that is so much more elevated and well-heeled than virtually any other part of the Dallas area.

But you know what - rich people need the Lord as much as anybody else, right?  God is not a respecter of persons, even if many Park Cities folks are.  Still, as a poor white person who attends an overwhelmingly affluent white church, I see a lot of the differentiation dynamics that black people say they see when they try to attend white churches.  Only for me, instead of skin color, it's socioeconomic status that creates stratification.

More Project than Peer

Of course, my financial situation might change at some point in the future.  But skin color doesn't change.

Isaac Adams, a black pastor in Washington, DC, recently wrote an article entitled, "Why White Churches are Hard for Black People".  In it, he describes common black feelings of being ostracized by such things as the hair styles black women wear to the feeling many blacks have of being more "project than peer" when they attend a white church. 

There's the issue of whites not really understanding America's genuine black experience, but that extends beyond the way black people look, to how whites tend to either go overboard when trying to welcome blacks, or pretend that different skin colors don't exist.

"Whites have the privilege to ignore issues that haunt and hurt black people, issues which black people cannot ignore", Adams explains.  "On any given Sunday, blacks attend churches where the majority of the members and the leadership are woefully undiscipled on issues that shape black experiences, black fears, and black families".

Even the way many of us whites try to empathize with black churchgoers can seem stilted.

"When white people ask us about our experience," Adams writes, "they sometimes sound more interested in their own enlightenment - not the lightening of our burdens.  Their well-meaning questions only begin with them:  'I would like to know... Tell me more about...'  They seem more interested in anthropology than applying their theology, like when a white sister asked to touch my mother’s hair".

Some of what Adams wants to change strikes me as a bit unrealistic on his part.  If blacks want whites to appreciate the things they face specifically because of their race, how else does he think we'll learn about those experiences if we don't ask?  Another of Adams' observations is that whites - and Reformed whites in particular - like to fixate on doctrine, as if doing so is a bad thing.  What Adams doesn't seem to realize is that within the Reformed movement that's been popularized recently, whites tend to be preoccupied by its doctrine precisely because it's relatively novel to many of us who are coming out of other theological disciplines.  And Reformed churchgoers are going to critique everything about it, whether it's being preached in a black, or white, or purple-polka-dotted church.

Indeed, much of what Adams describes isn't peculiar to the black experience in white-majority churches.  It's likely very true for Hispanics and Asians in white-majority churches as well, and for whites who visit churches that aren't white-majority.

Let's face it:  Who of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity, particularly enjoys accommodating differences?  No matter who we are, we generally prefer homogeneity.  Diversity can be hard work.  It can also be treacherous, if not pursued for the right reasons.  And if other people seem to go overboard trying to accommodate the differences we present, we tend to feel patronized.  Right?

Meanwhile, don't we tend to view church as a safe space for socialization, instead of a sacred space in which anyone can worship our holy Creator?  Maybe your church welcomes people to "come as you are", but you don't really mean that, do you?  Conformity is at least an unwritten rule for virtually any social organization, and these days, church is more social organization than anything else, particularly in the United States.  Singles go to church hoping to find a spouse.  Parents go to church hoping to find a children's program and youth ministry that entertains their kids.  Senior adults go for the nostalgia.  We don't really attend church to be challenged, or be uncomfortable.

Are You Pro-Choice?

I also think we have too many church choices.  Sometimes I suspect seminaries are churning out more graduates than our society needs.  Most of them aren't going overseas to disciple "foreigners"; many stay in the United States, opening their own churches like franchisees of a ministry project, only with their own particular slants, preferences, interpretations, and strategies that church-growth experts like to exploit.

People find it far easier to start their own church when they run into walls of doctrinal conflict within established congregations.  Praying for necessary change - and modeling patient tenacity - seem a lot less efficient, when having your own pulpit is so much quicker.

When I lived in New York City, there weren't the many options for doing evangelical church like there are today.  Crime was high, the city's future seemed bleak, and the deeply-coveted Millennial demographic was just being born.  Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian had gotten started, but it was attracting mostly newcomers from suburbia. 

Back then, in the 1990's, Calvary Baptist Church was the prominent haven for Gotham's native panoply of races and ethnicities; we had homeless people attending, as well as at least one white woman who'd arrive by chauffeur-driven limousine.  It wasn't seamless or perfect, but it worked because, if we wanted to worship God Biblically, we didn't have a lot of other options.  Besides, our purpose for church attendance was more Christ-focused than recreational, since in post-Christian New York, church attendance is hardly a social calling card.

Around the country, however, we relish diversity - as long as that diversity means we have options!  We like choices.  Choosing anything gives us a sense of power and control.  And we know how to maneuver through our maze of choices.  We tend to gravitate towards churches that - whether we realize it or not - present the closest approximation to our ideals, both theologically and culturally.  And if one of our ideals isn't racial diversity, then we're not going to prioritize that when we church-shop.

However, if we had fewer church choices, how much more willing might we be to explore congregations full of people who don't look like us?  How much less important might protecting our own cultural perspective be if we're more eager to find a group of sincere Christ-worshippers than we are eager to find a group of churchgoers who affirm our cultural perspective?

After all, don't the experts say things like racial reconciliation take time?  It's not a process that percolates to fruition over the course of days, weeks, or months.  Isn't it a process that requires relationship-building?  And how long does it take for people who historically haven't shared a lot of common experiences to find common ground and develop deep bonds of trust and affection?

Sure, it would be nice if we could develop such reconciled relationships through sheer convenience and mutual benefit, but perhaps having so many church choices actually works against us in that regard.  Convenience can lead to complacency, and mutual benefit can be relative to the perspectives we hold in our segregated fiefdoms.

And again, all of this is relevant not only to the black - white stratification of American Sundays, but dynamics between rich and poor churchgoers, black and Hispanic churchgoers, Asian and black churchgoers, urban and suburban churchgoers, and every combination in between.

Perhaps, if anything, regardless of our race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, we Christ-followers can at least agree that the era of easy religiosity in the United States has passed.  These days, it's not just the brittle regions of New England, the West Coast, and our biggest cities that have become post-Christian, but much of America's "fly-over country" as well.  Sure, people may attend church, but standards of morality that most church-goers of any skin color or income level used to embrace are becoming less and less tolerated across the board, from Alabama to Wyoming.

Indeed, as times get more desperate for all of us in the United States, things could actually change for the better when it comes to accommodating racial and economic differences in our churches.  Race won't be what divides us, or money, or education, or social status.

After all, when you need the prayer support of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, for whatever hardship you face, does it really matter what they look like, or where they took their last vacation?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Noisy Republican Partiers

I'm noisy.

As in; I create distractions.

At least, that's what a friend of mine told me yesterday, as we discussed America's upcoming election.  This friend mentioned my blog, and then pointed out that my essays about our presidential race are part of the "noise" surrounding the choices facing America's evangelicals.

And he's right.  I am part of the noise.  There's an entire three-ring circus band banging away here, and across the United States.  Every conceivable noise is trying to make itself heard in the cacophony that is Election Year 2016.

It's part of what's both good and bad about our democratic republic:  People have the right to speak their mind about politics.  And while it's good that we have that right, it tends to get bad when so many of us exploit that right!  It's easy for us to presume that because we have the ability to form an opinion, our opinion is not only correct, but that we need to inform others of it.  And the thing with politics is that it's often hard to pick through opinions and discover what's actually true and factual, and what's merely rhetoric or spin.  Or outright falsehood.

After all, the reason there's a lot of noise at election time is that somewhere, in all of the racket, some things are true, while a lot of other things aren't.

My friend wasn't denying that reality.  He was simply pointing out that our political noise pulsates at the detriment of the Gospel when we talk more about the personalities than about Christ.  My friend never said my opinions are wrong (or correct, for that matter), and in fact, after our conversation, I still genuinely have no idea the candidate for whom he's going to vote.  But to the extent that we fall into an easy trap of overshadowing the Gospel by wallowing too enthusiastically in national politics, my friend has a valid point.

Don't you agree?

The Gospel remains true no matter who wins.

God is still sovereign, even as presidential contenders pretend like they are.

The Gospel is for all people in all times and epochs - and nations.

We are witnesses not of the rise or fall of the United States, but we are witnesses of Christ's mercy, grace, and holiness. 

The Gospel does not depend on America.  But America depends on the Gospel.  Every country does.

Nevertheless, despite me being part of America's political noise, there's still the question of who would advocate for the things of God if Christ's followers simply shut up during each election.  Sure, it would be nice if our votes were sufficient testimony of the Gospel, but shucks, we can't even agree on how to vote!

Witness the public calls by two evangelicals to support the platform ostensibly represented by the Republican presidential ticket in theoretical terms, instead of the literal Republican nominee many conservative Christians cannot abide.

First came an op-ed in the Christian Post by Dr. Jimmy Draper, a Southern Baptist minister who sternly warns evangelicals to look past Trump and vote for the Republican Party.  Draper's stance is a continuation of compromises many conservatives have been frantically calculating in their quest to continue the GOP's supposedly moralistic platform, a platform Draper guesses Trump will protect as the GOP's standard-bearer.

For Draper, abortion represents the key litmus test between our main political parties.  The Republican party platform currently opposes abortion, while the Democratic party platform supports it, and Draper expects Trump to promote a pro-life agenda.  So he says that God is honored when we vote for somebody like Trump because we're really voting for the Republican Party anyway.

Which, of course, is the stale old argument about the GOP being "God's Own Party", and that you're a heathen unbeliever if you don't get in line with God's politics.  It's a vestige of the failed Moral Majority's "I'll turn a blind eye to most everything except abortion" schtick that was as Biblically unsupportable in the 1980's as it is today.  Yet it remains a compelling argument because, well, abortion remains a crisis in our country.

Hey; I understand Draper's position, and it's one shared by many pro-life evangelicals.  Yet can one sin issue - even one as devastating as abortion - be the tipping point when temperaments as audacious as Trump's and Hillary Clinton's are concerned?  Abortion is not the unpardonable sin.  And even if it was, is politicizing certain sins an effective way to honor God?  Besides, especially in this election, with two notoriously duplicitous major-party candidates, isn't there more to electing leaders than the lip service they give to special interest groups such as evangelicals?  With all that Draper admits is unsavory about Trump, Draper still trusts the party that nominated him to act Biblically on abortion?

On the heels of Draper's widely-circulated plea has come another strongly-worded letter by an evangelical Washington Beltway insider of thirty years who is also calling on conservative Christians to vote Republican, if not Trump.  Mariam Bell started her DC career in the Reagan administration, so she's seen quite a bit through the rise and fall of the bombastic Moral Majority movement.  For Bell, evangelicalism probably seems like an integral part of the Republican party, and she sounds genuinely shocked that major evangelical personalities and publications like World Magazine don't support this year's Republican nominee.

Today, Bell wrote an op-ed for the Christian Post in which she supports Donald Trump's candidacy by, like Draper, supporting the broader Republican party.  Bell says evangelicals are wrong for calling on Trump to withdraw from the presidential race because we don't understand how much power a president wields behind the scenes in DC.  Think of all the political appointments, she writes, and all of the government departments each president controls.  These operational units of our vast national bureaucracy influence the daily lives of each American, and can set policies that reach far beyond the White House and Capitol Hill.  With Trump in office, instead of Hillary, Bell encourages us to imagine all the good, moral people and policies he can set in place, at least for as long as he's president.  And maybe even for long after he's left Washington.

Taken at face value, Bell's perspective sounds quite persuasive, at least in the big-picture view.  Yes, it's easy for us to forget that there's an entire administration that serves at the behest of the president, and that the daily workings of government rely on bureaucrats who have a lot more authority over us than we often care to acknowledge.

Nevertheless, the reason we evangelicals who disavow Trump believe we are acting in a manner pleasing to God involves the candidate's personal temperament, which is wholly unsuitable to the very sustenance of Biblical morality not only in the White House, but across our American government, and indeed, our role in world affairs.  How does what we know about Trump lend itself to the optimistic expectation that he will actively champion Biblical morality not only in his personal deportment as President, but in the choices he makes for cabinet positions, department policies, and - the big one for many evangelicals - Supreme Court nominees?

He says he'll support evangelical causes, but does he mean it, or is he simply currying favor with a favored constituency within the party whose nomination he managed to secure?  Can we trust his evaluation of other people?  In an interesting expose by Bloomberg News yesterday, Trump's hand-picked neighbors in Trump Tower hardly represent the most ethical and upstanding of our planet's moneyed elite.  Trump has boasted that there is no vetting process for ownership in his Fifth Avenue skyscraper other than his own savvy, yet his tenant roster glows not with moral radiance, but like the neon of a tawdry Atlantic City casino.

Trump denied 1980's insider trader Ivan Boesky because of his "lack of character", but he personally recruited a cocaine trafficker, two soccer officials indicted for racketeering, a loan shark, two Russian mobsters, a Mexican liquor king, a phony Italian count, and a debt-collection mogul who went to prison for running a Ponzi scheme.  Granted, Bloomberg's reporters didn't specify how much Trump knew about his neighbors' criminal histories before he sold apartments to them, but there have been enough crooks wooed by Trump into his signature tower to indicate that the presidential candidate is hardly a poster-child of Christian virtue.

Unless we're talking about mercy and forgiveness, right?  Unfortunately for evangelicals, however, Trump is on record as boasting he needs neither from God.

So is all this merely noise?  What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about it?  Is our government so powerful that the ends justify the means?  Do two wrongs make a right when it comes to electing our political leadership?

Both Draper and Bell say we should vote for the party, not the politician.  So why vote Republican, then?  For many evangelicals, the Constitution Party and a group calling itself America's Party have platforms that actually may be more appealing than the GOP's.  But then Hillary would win?  And abortion would continue unabated?

Things have gotten so noisy, perhaps you haven't heard that you aren't responsible for whomever wins.  You are responsible to exercise your ability to vote, and you are responsible for making a wise decision.  And you are responsible for making a wise decision based on God's principles for leadership.

But whether Hillary wins, or Trump wins, it will be by God's sovereign authority.  Not your vote.  Meanwhile, however, God is looking at each of our hearts, seeing the reasons why we're voting for whomever we vote.

So, turn off all the noise.  Even my noise.

Take a deep breath.

Bask in the silence.

Now allow this idea to wash over you:  Voting for Trump is not the unpardonable sin.  Voting for Hillary is not the unpardonable sin. Voting for anybody else is not the unpardonable sin.

It's not, really!  Look it up:  Mark 3:28-29

But the more discerning you are, the more confident you will be about the choice you prayerfully make.  Especially since we all know which candidate in particular will give us lots of noise if he wins... and if he loses.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Election Write-Ins or Wrong-Outs?

Well, shucks.


What do I do now?

After writing-off both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as being presidential candidates for whom I can't vote - at least, not with a good conscience - I figured I could vote for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.

Then I watched as his candidacy sputtered and flickered out on national television when he drew a complete blank about our planet's current crisis in Syria.

Then I heard that a number of prominent evangelicals are planning on writing-in Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, for president.  And I thought that would be a good idea.

Then I started doing more research on what it takes to be a write-in candidate.  I knew that write-in candidates had to file with each state to be on each state's ballot, since presidential elections are run by the states, not the federal government.  But I guess I figured the big-name types like Pence - and Clinton's veep choice, Tim Kaine - kinda automatically appeared like magic on the approved lists of folks whose names we voters can write-in at the last minute.

But of course, it doesn't work that way in real life.  Silly me.

For one thing, seven states do not allow write-in votes for any race, presidential or otherwise.  Those states are Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.  And in the rest of the states allowing write-in votes, their rules vary by state.  In other words, it's hard to break the two-party hold on America's national politics, making the write-in vote a consolation prize at best.

Still, it's better than nothing.  At least, for those of us not living in those seven states preventing it.

Basically, if you want voters to be able to write-in your name, you need to go to each state that allows write-in votes, make sure you have whatever number of supporters that state says you need to meet their definition of being a credible candidate, pay each state's registration fee (several thousand dollars, usually), and make sure you do it before their cut-off deadline.  Some states allow Mickey Mouse to be written-in, while others, like Texas, require a write-in candidate to be a living human being (alive, at least, when they pay their registration fee).

So, since I live in Texas, what are my write-in choices?

I can't vote for Mickey Mouse, but I can write-in one of 13 real people, and here they are:

  • Darrel Castle -  Castle is representing the Constitution Party, and seems more right-wing than I'm comfortable with.
  • Scott Cubbler - He mentions his church, but I don't know which church that is.  His daughter used to have cancer, so he knows what its like dealing with our healthcare industry.  He's served in the military and has lived in New York City, Washington DC, and Houston for his current employer, the Department of Homeland Security.  He says his main goal in running for president is to foil the electoral college so neither Trump nor Hillary get all the votes they need.
  • Cherunda Fox - This fifty-something white-haired black woman from Detroit has no experience a serious voter would consider worthy of presidential contention, and her website has some puzzling content.  In one place, she says "there should be no racist in the White House…" but then she says "there should be no white person in the White House for now."  Okay...
  • Tom Hoefling - Hoefling is representing a group calling itself "America’s Party," and sounds like the type of conservative that Republicans used to adore... but not anymore, apparently.
  • Laurence Kotlikoff - I think he’s a college professor, but I couldn’t learn much more about him, except that he likes to write.  His website is burdened with heavy copy.  Shucks, I like to write as well, but I don't think I'm presidential material.
  • Jonathan Lee - I can’t find anything about him online.  Not exactly a way to win votes, Jonathan!
  • Michael Maturen - Maturen is representing the American Solidarity Party, which is strongly pro-life, yet fairly liberal on other issues.  For example, they take their "pro-life" stance so literally, they oppose capital punishment and war.
  • Evan McMullin - He's become a suddenly-popular choice for conservative Republicans, but evangelicals like me aren't convinced.  He's a Mormon, which is worse than electing an atheist, since Mormonism is a cult.  He's also an ex-spy, so he can't tell us how he spent the first half of his work life.  To further complicate his haphazard status, McMullin started his presidential bid without a VP choice.  One political pundit I researched is wondering if McMullin's presidential flash-in-the-pan bid is merely a public relations stunt for some upcoming career move.
  • Monica Moorehead - Moorehead runs every four years, representing the Workers World Party... ‘nuff said, right?
  • Robert Morrow - It's unclear the reason Morrow is in this race.  He used to be the Republican Party Chairman of Travis County, Texas, the county that includes the state's politically-liberal capitol city, Austin.  He enjoys hashing over controversial conspiracy theories, and is known for his disgusting sense of humor that kinda puts Trump in a more favorable light by comparison.
  • Emidio Soltysik - Soltysik is representing the Socialist Party... so, again, enough said. 
  • Dale Steffes - This guy ran for mayor of Houston in 2016 but lost.  That's all I could learn about him.
  • Tony Valdivia  - Valdivia sounds like a nice guy and an ideal neighbor.  Which, of course, immediately disqualifies him for the presidency, right?  He says his mission is "to improve the lives of those in my community and the nation."  Which, with $5, will get you a small coffee at your local Starbucks.  He lives in San Antonio and my guess is that he works for USAA, the big financial services company for military personnel and their dependents.

So, with such an underwhelming slate of choices for the write-in voter, who do you think I should pick?  Overall, they're not the bag of mixed nuts I feared I'd open as I began to research each of them.  And in a sense, most of them represent a fairly decent cross-section of relatively normal, outside-the-Beltway America - the type of politicians we Americans said we wanted, before nominating the likes of Hillary and Trump.

Remember, however, that if you live someplace other than Texas, these folks may or may not be available to you.  The onus is on you to do your own research, a task most of us have traditionally left to the media.

Which makes the point of this entire exercise about as rewarding as any write-in vote in any state can possibly be. Which just makes this election season even more frustrating, right?

Update 10/26/16:  For whatever it's worth, after praying and thinking about this, I've decided to write-in Scott Cubbler.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Being Special Without Ever Trying

Iva Roxburgh would not approve of this essay.

She died last week at the age of 101.  If you've never lived in Arlington, Texas, you've probably never heard of her.  Yet she was one of those selfless people who is being remembered by literally thousands of people right now, as we mourn her loss.

Ironically, we all know her despite her lack of self-promotion.  She simply lived the life God gave her.  It sounds like such a cliche, but Iva is special mostly because she never tried to be.

For several decades, generations of Arlington children have attended Camp Thurman, a weekday summer camp nestled along a dry gulch in a little town called Pantego, which Arlington has grown to envelop.  Older kids who've outgrown Camp Thurman as campers have returned year after year as counselors, and the facility has grown to the point where it's about to burst through the maze of subdivisions that sprang up around it.

When I was a kid, I didn't attend Camp Thurman, and even though I don't now have any kids, I know full well the legendary status of the Roxburgh gift to our little corner of the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex.  Thurman was Iva's husband of 50 years, and although they never had children of their own, the Roxburghs - early homesteaders in what was then barren prairie - donated 14 acres of their land to their church for use as a children's ministry.  That was "way back in the day," as we say 'round these parts, when the Roxburgh's roomy yet understated brick ranch home was on a rural dirt road.

Indeed, although she didn't have children of her own, as long as Camp Thurman is around, Iva will never be childless.  These days, Camp Thurman is a bona-fide youth services organization serving 7,000 kids every summer with a reputation for down-home, wholesome outdoor fun despite our modern generation's fixation on personal electronics.  Their program also now includes evening activities and teambuilding events for adults.

Iva long ago gave up her personal oversight of the camp, but not her love of children.  For decades, she volunteered in the Sunday School at Pantego Bible Church, of which she was a founding member.  In fact, it wasn't until last year that she finally gave up her Sunday morning duties - after she turned 100.

Iva loved her husband, always wearing his wedding band on her right ring finger after his passing.  And most of all, she loved her Savior, Whom she worshiped with just about everything she did and said.  Pantego Bible Church was the congregation to which Iva and Thurman donated their land for the camp all those years ago, and despite many changes in the church, Iva never left... even though a lot of what changed didn't please her.  Her funeral there tomorrow will likely be standing-room-only, and I plan on being one of the folks unable to find a seat.

Iva worked secretarial jobs in a variety of offices throughout her career, until she retired - in 1980.  I got to know her when I worked in the financial office at Pantego Bible Church, where she'd already been a long-time volunteer on Monday mornings, overseeing the counting and posting of the previous day's contributions.

My boss, Linda, was officially in charge of counting the weekly contributions, but Iva was in control of the process.  She faithfully managed the team of volunteers who counted the money, cross-checked amounts, bundled the cash for depositing at the bank, tabulated the checks, and then created a grand total after adding everything up.  After lunch, Iva would then set to work at a computer, posting every recordable contribution into our finance software for IRS compliance.  I don't know how many software programs Iva learned during her 80's and 90's, but it was two or three at least.  Not bad for an old lady, huh?

Me greeting Iva at my father's memorial service last year.
Not that Iva was ever actually old.  As long as I knew her, she sported a luxurious dollop of pure-white hair, neatly arranged and always stylish.  Still, even into her 90's, Iva never really looked old.  She certainly never looked her age, even at 100.  And she didn't act it, either.  I never knew her use a cane, or be ill.  Her mind stayed sharp up until this year.  She attended my father's memorial service a year ago, not just because she was my friend, but because she remembered Dad from the Bible studies at Pantego Bible Church that he used to attend with me back in the 1990's.

Yes, Iva was my friend, but that wasn't because we were especially close; it was because I doubt Iva ever had a single enemy.  She never had a negative comment about anybody, which is something nobody, unfortunately, can say about me.

Nevertheless, she could be ornery.  Years ago, some young men from the singles group at Pantego Bible Church tried to start an outreach to widows in the congregation.  Since the church had undergone so many changes many of its older people hadn't embraced, there weren't a lot of widows left.  But Iva was one of them, and she didn't live with family, like some of the other widows did, or a retirement home.  So these guys decided that they needed to start doing Iva's lawn.

Even though most of her property had long been deeded to Camp Thurman, Iva still had a sizable lawn.  And flower beds, and shrubs.  Nothing extravagant, of course, which would have been extremely un-Iva-like.  But there was a lot of it, and Iva kept it all very neat and tidy.

Another friend who already had befriended several of the older people at the church warned the guys that of all the people who needed help, Iva wasn't one of them.  "But she's in her 80's," they protested.  "She's got so much to maintain.  The Bible says we need to help her."

So they tried.  They contacted Iva and asked if she needed help with her yard.  No, she did not.

They tried again.  Are you sure there's nothing we can do?  Yes, she was sure; no, there wasn't.

Finally, Iva realized that these young men were genuinely trying to show her some respect and Christian affection, so she relented and agreed for them to come over one Saturday morning.

And on the appointed day, several single guys from church arrived with all the tools they thought they'd need.  Iva met them in the front yard with instructions, and some apprehension on her part.  As the young men began to labor over the grass, Iva didn't go back inside, but stayed outside with them, supervising.  She wasn't crazy about how they were mowing her grass, but she didn't begin to show her concern until they started on her hedges.  By the time somebody began pulling weeds in one of her flower gardens, however, Iva was reaching the limits of her patience and diplomacy.

"I really appreciate y'all trying to help me like this," Iva told the men, "but I think I'd better take care of the rest."

That true story was relayed to be by a couple of the fellows who'd been there.  I hadn't bothered to show up, since I was one of the guys who knew that Iva was mighty self-reliant.  But Iva was a good sport, as were the guys who, sheepishly, agreed that Iva really didn't need their help after all.  Even in our brutal Texas summers, for example, Iva had honed her lawnmowing ritual to avoid the worst of the heat, and she'd soak herself with the garden hose every little while.  Who cared what passers-by thought if she looked a little silly all drenched with water?  It wasn't that Iva needed to be a fashion plate, or keep the yard up for appearances sake.  It was work to be done, and Iva could do it, so you did what you needed to do to get it done.

I don't know a lot of people who have the pluck and fortitude that Iva had.  She was one of those people who simply kept on going, no matter what happened.  She never seemed to get rattled, or especially tired.  She kept her house tidy and clean, but she never updated it.  Her cars were purely utilitarian - plain models that she drove until they wore out.  It wasn't for lack of money, or even indifference.  She simply never saw the need to fuss about much of anything.

Except, perhaps, how somebody else manicured her yard.

"Miss Iva," as generations of kids who've grown up at both Camp Thurman and Pantego Bible Church call her, was one of the most widely-known yet uniquely genuine people we'll probably ever meet.  With her passing, the history of Pantego - both the town, and the church - becomes not only a memory of what used to be, but a celebration of what one person, unburdened by conceit while being quietly faithful to her God, can achieve.

Not because she was out to achieve anything.  But because she was content to let Christ live through her.

"Well done, good and faithful servant: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” - Matthew 25:23

Monday, October 17, 2016

Disciplining Church Discipline

Last week, here in Dallas, a fellow named Jason Thomas posted on Facebook that his membership at a local church had been suspended because he is gay.

And, to fully exploit the politically-charged nature of this private situation, our largest newspaper here re-posted his story on its website, entitled "Watermark Church Dismissed Me for Being Gay", provoking just the type of furious feedback editors at the Dallas Morning News expected.

After all, Thomas' post was not news; Watermark had ended his church membership a year ago.  Nevertheless, it sounds so salacious!

Yesterday, Todd Wagner, senior pastor at Watermark Community Church, was given space on the News' website to post his official response to Thomas' claims, which has further provided the News with lots more visitor click-throughs, as readers on both sides of the issue debate it online.

Meaning, predictably, that the only winner here so far has been... the Dallas Morning News.

Watermark is a multi-thousand-member non-denominational megachurch occupying a bold campus located on a prominent stretch of one of the busiest freeways in all of Texas.  It's what's called a contemporary church, after the casual nature of its corporate worship services.  It's also called a seeker-sensitive church, after its strategy of making its "optics" extraordinarily palpable to people looking for a non-churchy religious experience.  Very hip, very trendy, very post-modern.

Except when it comes to theology and doctrine.  I'm told Watermark's theology and doctrine are about as conservative as you'll find in north Dallas, the city's wealthiest and most politically conservative area.

According to both Thomas' admission, and the letter from Watermark he posted to Facebook, his struggle with same-sex attraction had been ongoing throughout his church membership.  Apparently, a sort of impasse had been finalized when Watermark's leadership felt they could no longer detect a genuine desire from Thomas to diligently abandon his same-sex attraction, which the Bible calls sinful.  So church officials felt justified in de-membershipping Thomas from their rolls.

It's part of a dicey process called "church discipline", and like Pastor Wagner admitted, it's a frequently misunderstood part of church membership, partly because it's so rarely deployed.  At least, publicly.

Through my many years of church attendance, I've heard of several cases where church discipline was quietly, privately enacted upon church members for a variety of sins, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or adultery.  Most of those cases were resolved amicably, with the church member in question being able to move through the process of repentance and restoration, and back into the church community.

However, a couple of times, church discipline has exploded into full public view, such as the time a prominent doctor, who was also a church leader, began a sexual relationship with our church organist (yeah, back when it wasn't odd for churches to have organists).  When the illicit couple refused counseling and returning to their respective distraught spouses, our church's leadership announced to the congregation one Sunday morning that both members - the doctor and the organist - had been "dis-fellowshipped" from our church.

Another time, at a different church, our senior pastor announced from the pulpit one Sunday morning that a prominent church leader had been removed from his position and told to stay away from the church until he repented for his unabashed racism.

Now, of course, to our watching world, in which political correctness carries considerable clout, a lot of non-believers would heartily agree with banishing a bigot from a church's membership roll.  But homosexuality?

A big part of this problem, at least in terms of the public's perception of cases like Watermark's, is our evangelical community's reliance on words like "repentance".  "Discipline" is itself a hard word for many modern Americans to swallow, since being held accountable for one's actions seems like a hopelessly archaic notion, even without the religious connotations.  But repenting of one's behavior?  Doesn't it sound so dehumanizing?

According to Merriam-Webster, repentance is "regret for sin or wrongdoing" with "the implication of a resolve to change".  In other words, we don't just feel sorry for getting caught, or for offending somebody.  Repentance involves our acknowledgement that what we did was wrong.  And it involves our willingness and, indeed, our desire to correct that wrong with a God-honoring pattern of behavior.

Repentance used to be a fairly common concept, at least when social values were more widely shared, and authority was more respected (and respectable) than today.  Now, there's a notion that shame, upon which repentance heavily relies, is harmful to the psyche, so we try to avoid it.  Unless, of course, the action or mentality to be shamed fits within the sphere of liberal political correctness.  Such as PETA, for example, trying to shame women for wearing fur coats.

And, ironically, shame is the tactic Thomas is deploying in his "outing" of Watermark as, ostensibly, an unloving church.

Yet while Watermark may be displaying a puzzling lack of sophistication when it comes to their public relations response to Thomas - at least considering how sophisticated they are in marketing their church - it's highly likely that people supporting Thomas in this issue still understand what Watermark is saying, even if there's something of a theology language barrier.  They just don't want to believe it, and accept it as truth.

Lots of people don't like being told they're wrong.  The doctor and the organist were furious at church leaders back then, and even in the organist's obituary, when she passed away at a relatively young age a couple of years ago, the family portrayed her eventual marriage to the doctor as right and good.

It's all about love, don't you know.  And happiness.  Right?

And it's a fair question to ask what sins a church considers worthy of excommunication, if the perpetrator of those sins doesn't repent.  Would a habitual speeder, for example, have their membership withdrawn?  What about somebody who refuses to stop lying on their taxes?  Does it have to be a public sin before a church takes such an action?  According to Watermark, Thomas is pursuing a romantic relationship with another man, and at some point, most romantic relationships become public.

Was Watermark's action a surprise to Thomas, or merely unpleasant?  When people join a church, have they been given a list of sins that the church considers membership-ending, if they're not repented of?  The Bible doesn't provide any such official list, instead lumping every sin as equally heinous in God's eyes with the exception of one:  The unpardonable sin, which is denying the testimony of the Holy Spirit regarding Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

Was Thomas aware of Watermark's convictions regarding sexual purity?  Is sexual purity advocated from Watermark's pulpit on a regular basis?  And if Watermark believes homosexual relationships are sinful, why would he want to continue associating with that church as a member?  After all, church membership isn't forced in the United States.  One willfully joins a church, and can willfully leave if one's personal beliefs diverge from the church's doctrines.  And if a church provides resources, such as classes, counseling, and mentorship to help a member subscribe to the tenets of that church's faith, why accuse the church of hostility when a member refuses to participate in such efforts?

Why insist on being a member of any organization if you don't believe what the organization believes, and you don't want to live in accordance with that organization's worldview?  Does a person join a book club because they prefer movies to reading?

What is it about Watermark with which Thomas desires to remain associated?  Its hip prestige within Dallas' religious social circles?  Big churches in ultra-vain Dallas do tend to function as glorified country clubs.

Not that Watermark isn't doing the right thing by refusing membership to anybody willfully and deliberately participating in any sexual sin, not just homosexuality.  Yet the more our society comes to view adultery as permissible, the easier it's going to be for jilted church members to react like Thomas when they run into old standards of ethics, morality, and holiness.

So, should the passage of time be blamed for our society's ambivalence to basic religious standards?  Is the concept of repentance so dated that people who don't want to practice it should be immune from the consequences?  Might our society eventually force churches to stop registering members, to prevent the unrepentant from suffering the indignities of having that membership revoked?  Will churches need to begin employing a more rigorous set of standards by which members will be evaluated?  Legalism trips up many people of faith, and most evangelical churches try not to create lists of do's-and-don't's for their members, because genuine Christian faith is a relationship with Christ, not a set pattern of behavior.

There are numerous churches in Dallas that would gladly welcome Thomas onto their membership rolls.  The city recently received a perfect score on a gay lifestyle index, so there's plenty of accommodation for Thomas to find.  What is it about Watermark's affirmation that he so clearly desires?

Is it having somebody else deny what they believe about the Bible so you don't have to deny what you believe about the Bible?  I'm right, and you're wrong?  Is that it?

Well, if the Bible is wrong about homosexuality, how can you know if it's right about anything else?  And if the Bible is as open to interpretation as Thomas wants it to be, why be a member of a church that says it isn't?

Update Tuesday, October 18, 2016:  The Dallas Morning News has posted another op-ed by Jason Thomas that details his experience at Watermark.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Let's Live Beyond Politics

What do you let shine?

Often, I let my fear shine.  Or my jealousy, or my cynicism.  But God wants His followers to let His holy light shine in us, and radiate from us.

What shines from Donald Trump?  It's stuff that makes evangelicals like me dismayed by his candidacy.  Even more than Hillary Clinton, Trump lives his sins through his temperament, in full view of anybody and everybody.  Trump's particular temperament is well-documented as a pattern of unBiblical behavior from which he's made no concerted demonstration of repentance.  Indeed, he delights in it and considers it part of his identity.

Yes, we all sin, but most of us don't delight in it.  Hillary has made many crude comments both publicly and privately, but at least she tries to backtrack and apologize.  And up until Trump hit the magic metric and became a Republican nominee, most Christ-followers didn't find any urgency in defending his temperament. 

So what's different now, but politics?  Yet doesn't God wants us to live beyond politics?

Most of us closet our sins.  We hide them from others, we're embarrassed by them, or we're afraid of the repercussions if other people knew what we secretly think, or those after whom we privately lust.

Trump, meanwhile, doesn't really care.  He says what he thinks and pursues whatever he lusts after.  And a lot of folks find that refreshing, as if public decorum and deportment have suddenly become old-fashioned.  At least when politics is concerned.

And yes, frankly, considering how deceitful many politicians are, an open-mouthed, cavalierly vulgar candidate like Trump can seem like a breath of fresh air.  He says what the "common man" is thinking, no matter how politically incorrect it is.  But just because something may be politically correct, should we automatically scorn it?  Sometimes, political correctness is genuine, deserved propriety and respect in disguise.

Sometimes, loving our neighbor as ourselves means loving others - despite their warts - as much as we love ourselves with all our warts.  Sometimes, acting properly means forcing ourselves to act in ways, and say things, that minimize the fury in our heart so we don't needlessly offend others, or come across as uncaring.  Sometimes, it's not that we create a public facade of the Fruit of the Spirit that is lacking in our soul, as much as it is keeping quiet and being still until we've allowed the Holy Spirit to grow His Fruit within us.

And I say that not as somebody who has mastered it, but is simply trying to practice it, however imperfectly.

For Christ-followers, this is part of our "sanctification", which is a process that culminates when we die.  Since it is a process, there are progress markers along the way for us to acknowledge and recognize, both in ourselves and others.  We need to have a repentant nature, and a willingness to concede our own errors.  We need to be striving not for personal success, but for God's glory, even at our own personal expense.  We need to appreciate the Biblical reality that if we say we belong to God, we actually do belong to God - and that means being willing to let Him control our lives, even if that control runs contrary to the template of our culture.

It's not easy, or popular, or fun.  It may not make us wealthy, or healthy.  But it will help make us wise.  Indeed, most of us can acquire intelligence simply by reading something, but wisdom is a process that cannot be acquired.  It is built, cultivated, nurtured, and often painful.  Pick any despot the world has ever known, and how many of them were wise?  Most have been smart, and exceptionally cunning.  But that's not wisdom.

On the one hand, perhaps it would be nice - or easy - to simply let our sins all hang out, so we can roll through life flippantly and casually, saying whatever we wanted to say, however we wanted to say it.  Doing whatever we wanted to do, however we wanted to do it.  But is that "authenticity"?  Is that "being real"?  Is that "refreshing"?  Maybe to yourself, but is it to others?  How much respect does it show others?  How good of a testimony is it of God's holiness?

Actually, isn't such a lifestyle a distortion of Godly living?  You see, it's not that God wants us to pridefully hide our sins, and bear the agony of deception.  Instead, God wants us to flee from sin in the first place.  He wants to free us from bondage to the attitudes and actions that cause us to feel like hiding them, and not being "authentic".

Displaying our sins isn't freedom if we're not trying to flee from them.

Indeed, our lack of comfort with our sins should be a good thing, right?  It should indicate that the Holy Spirit is convicting us, and that's part of the Holy Spirit's job.  But our goal shouldn't be to simply ignore the conviction, or only apologetic of our sinful behaviors.  Our goal should be God's honor and glory through our mortification of our sinful dispositions.

Not that we're hiding our sins to make ourselves appear better than we really are.  Instead, we control our display of personal sins in the process of confession, repentance, and regeneration towards the Christ-follower we should desire to be.  Remember, God is the One Who looks at our heart.  And in the meantime, as others look at us outwardly, they should recognize us as a person after God's own heart.

Perhaps if we stopped concentrating on our horizontal perspective between presidential candidates, and began to give greater attention to our lateral perspective between ourselves and God, the choices we have before us could become clearer, and far less acrimonious.  Yet of all the arenas in our lives, politics has become a main stage for relativism and accommodation, even for Christ-followers.

We let government become more powerful than God.  Ironic, huh; since many Christ-followers claim to be politically conservative, and believers in limited government?

So why don't we let loose of politics, and live beyond it?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Trump's Churchy Fans Doth Parse Too Much

The parsing of Donald Trump by self-professing evangelicals is getting desperate.

He's a proud womanizer, a serial divorcee, a luster of his daughter, an owner of casinos, and possessing a severely narcissistic temperament.  He doesn't pay his bills, he cheats his business partners, he mocks the handicapped, he makes crude comments about women he finds unattractive, he's unapologetically xenophobic, and he's a compulsive self-aggrandizer.

Yet somehow, Clinton is still worse, at least to America's evangelicals, a sanctimonious group of folks who believe they have the inside scoop on what's moral.  And right now, abortion is the unpardonable sin.

Many of America's evangelicals have also become a brittle mob of patriots who consider the Constitution about as sacrosanct as the Bible, if not more so.

When the editors of the evangelical World magazine drafted their call for Trump to withdraw from this year's presidential race, they knew their stance would run smack into the political wall many evangelicals have constructed around their amalgamation of freedom, tolerable ethics, money, and power.  And World's editors were right.  While thousands of World's readers appear to approve of the magazine's stance, hundreds of others are writhing in fury over it.

After all, nobody likes being challenged, especially when it comes to one's faith.  But the fact of the matter is that many of America's evangelicals have listened more to Rush Limbaugh than Jesus Christ when it comes to how our country should be run.  And the rise of Trump has been due in large part to these faithful church-goers who refute the notion that a Republican presidential candidate should be called on the carpet for their temperament.

Especially when somebody as evil as Hillary Clinton stands to benefit from Trump's splintering support among evangelicals.

Yet does God call us to prevent a pro-choice candidate from occupying the Oval Office?  Or does He call us to honor Him in all that we do?  Since He is the One who installs and deposes rulers, He is the One Who will allow Hillary to be president if that is indeed the way this election goes.

Yes, the moral distinctions between Hillary and Trump are practically invisible on a personal level, but God does tell us the kinds of temperament that best suit those in leadership positions.  No, God doesn't expect us to elect the perfect candidate, but He does expect His people to vote according to His principles:  The Ten Commandments.  The Fruit of the Spirit.

Not politics.

The editors at World are saying that Trump's temperament makes him unsuited to lead.  We may not like the policies Hillary plans to enact, but her personal temperament is not nearly as insulting and degrading of others as Trump's is.  If we evangelicals in general - and Republicans in particular - expect to continue to wage war against Roe v. Wade on moral grounds, how can we do that with somebody like Trump?

But many evangelicals don't care.  They're angry at World and have told the editors as much.

What follows is a listing of key rebuttals self-professing evangelicals have posted on World's website in response to the magazine's editorial.  If you find yourself agreeing with these rebuttals, then please consider my rebuttal to each rebuttal, and see if you can better understand what we never-Trumpers are trying to say.

If you still don't want to believe that, frankly, you are wrong, and we are right, then that's your prerogative.  Just remember, though:  It's truth that sets us free, not politics.

"Clinton is far more wicked, criminal and unfit to serve as president than Trump is."
Does God judge on the sliding scales we use for sin?

"Hillary wants to force me to spend my money on abortions."
Are abortions the only heinous things for which our government spends our tax dollars?

"Choose your poison."
Fortunately, we don't have to.  Write-in Mike Pence!

"Only God knows Trump's heart."
Yes, but our fruits show the world what is in our heart.

"Which of the only two viable candidates could make our country great again?"
"Great again"?  According to whom?  The slaves?

"King David had his future mistress' husband killed, yet he was a man after God's own heart."
Yes, but King David didn't deny what he'd done; he repented of it, and he respectfully accepted the harsh punishment God inflicted upon him.

"God is allowing two deeply flawed candidates to run.  We have a responsibility to do the best with the choices we have."
That is true, but when one of them consistently displays an egregious and defiant indifference to basic sexual morality, aren't the victims of sexual abuse worth at least a token amount of support?  Is sexual abuse somehow less evil, the greater the "good" the person who commits it could do elsewhere?

"Donald Trump is a good man with a big mouth.  We´ve all had friends like him.  They´re a pain in the butt, but when it´s money time, they come through... and they´re very loyal."
Oh.  Wow.  Where to begin on this one?  Trump is a "good man"?  By God's standard?  What difference does it make if we've all had friends like him?  And is loyalty when money counts a genuine Biblical quality?  I suspect the mentality of the person who wrote this comment is more popular among evangelicals than we'd care to admit.

"The one thing we must not do is turn on each other for our decisions in these difficult times."
So, why are pro-Trump Christians bashing the Trump-is-unfit Christians?  There's truth, and there's falsehood, and God expects us to champion one at the expense of the other.

"We aren't trying to create heaven on earth, rather we're trying to limit the power of our would-be oppressors.  We are voting for freedom."
Biblical freedom is not political freedom.

"Um, well, perhaps the only person who could wake up America is Donald Trump!  God knows what He's doing, no?"
Um, no, Trump is in no way the only person who could "wake up America".  Although God may be using Trump to wake up His own people who are wandering astray.  Besides, why can't God use Hillary to "wake up America"?

"Maybe praying for him, praying for revival, praying for Christians to display to the world we are forgiving all way to the cross;  we are believers who have the faith that even this man can do some good and even God's work.   He is the one for now.   Show the strength of your faith... do not cower!"
So... again, we're wasting our prayers if we pray for Hillary?  And forgiveness exists in a vacuum apart from consequences?

"Don't give up on the obvious candidate that desires to turn our country around from the direction and people that have been uprooting this country's values from the Constitution."
So the Constitution carries more weight than the Bible?

"If virtually any presidential candidate during our lifetime had to undergo the scrutiny of the world of 2016, I´d suspect that every one of those past candidates would suffer 'revelations' similar to what has been revealed about Donald Trump."
Oh really?  Both Bush presidents?  Jimmy Carter?

"Trump is a fighter who is not under the spell of political correctness, and thus is one in a million who has the guts to make the changes needed."
And... that makes up for his sordid temperament?

"Trump is a man who seems to have been triggered by this campaign into growing spiritually and intellectually, a growth that could continue into a Trump presidency."
We should all be growing spiritually and intellectually.  An increasing spirituality and intellect aren't necessarily exceptional qualifications for anything, especially when you want them to override the temperament Trump displays.  We elect a person based on their past behavior and how we hope it will translate into future actions.  Otherwise, if such hope springs eternal, what would be wrong with Hillary?

"Trump´s going up against the whole world.  He has been treated more unfairly than any political candidate in history."
Warning:  This is what happens when you consume too much Rush Limbaugh.

"Donald Trump was caught speaking like a male speaks, or at least speaking like most men have spoken at one time in their lives."
This one makes me especially sad.  It's a very, very dangerous excuse for a professing Christ-follower to utter.  Attitudes like this perpetuate all types of sexual abuse, and is wholly unBiblical.

"What is a sexual predator?  A man seeking to have sexual intercourse with a beautiful woman. The country is full of them.  Do you honestly believe the hearts of all the other Republican nominees in the past several decades were so much purer?  We are not electing Miss Christianity.  We are electing a chief executive officer for the country. I continue to see Donald as much more genuine, and reverent toward the values that made America great, than our other choice, a known traitor."
Again, an extremely sad perspective to hold.  Dismissive of sexual abuse, scornful of attempts at resuscitating morality in our country, and appreciative of an offensive temperament simply because it's "more genuine".  If Trump is "reverent towards the values that made America great," why should his history of inherited wealth, exploitation of subcontractors, objectification of women, xenophobia, etc. be worthy of repetition?  And if you know of Hillary's traitorous ways, shouldn't you report them to the FBI?

I could go on, but can you see how depressing these reader responses are?  What lack of faith they embody?  What clutching to political rhetoric they betray?

The ends do justify the means, at least to these people.  Two wrongs do make a right.  Morality really is relative.

You know that gasping sound you hear?  That's 2,016 years of Christianity being suffocated by partisan American politics.

Yes, I want Trump to withdraw from this presidential race.  And, as I wrote the other day, I want Hillary to as well.  Yet even in the unlikely event that they do, we're still going to be stuck with a lot of evangelicals with a lot of bad ideas about the type of people who are competent to lead.

No, we're not electing a pastor here.  And apparently, judging by how American evangelicals say they interpret the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that's a very good thing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Funeral or Farewell Party?

Have you already planned your funeral?

Not that I know some big secret about how much time you still have left here on Earth.  I'm not suggesting there's any urgency for your funeral planning.  So, as my aunt Helena used to say, "not to worry."

She passed away this past summer, by the way, and was remembered with two memorial services.

Nevertheless, since we're on the subject... how much have you thought about your funeral?  Have you already lined up the person (or people) you want to give your eulogy?  Do you have the music picked out for your final fifteen minutes of fame?  Favorite scripture passages you’d like to have read at your memorial?  Maybe the style of your coffin - if you’ve already decided you don’t want to be cremated?  And if you’re getting cremated, have you chosen the urn in which you wish your ashes to be placed?  Some of them can get pretty pricey.

Or maybe you’re doing one of those flashy signature funerals, like being buried in your car, or having your funeral on your favorite hole at your treasured country club?  Maybe you want to have a theme funeral, where all the guests have to wear green, or 1920’s costumes?  You can plan it all online these days, right down to the menu for your guests and gift bags for them to take home.

Have you created a list of charities to which your mourners can donate, in lieu of flowers?  Or do you want fresh flowers splashed about the funeral home, and you’ve already listed out the types of bouquets, sprays and plants you like?

Time was, a funeral was obligatory when somebody died.  And practically since the beginning of time, humans have used graves - whether in the ground, in caves, or in mounds of dirt above the ground - to bury their dead.  Different cultures have different ceremonial elements to mark a person's death, but generally speaking, despite differences in how corpses are treated and the loss of loved ones is mourned, death has been a special time of moral dignity across the human experience.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Lately, however, with the rise of funeral costs and the efficiency of cremation, particularly among Western societies, some folks have begun asking if the conventional funeral might be heading towards relic status?  We Americans, in particular, have gotten commonly casual in our religious observances, what with church attendance being in decline, as well as marriage rates.  Even how we dress at weddings and funerals - not to mention weekly church services - has become far less stuffy than in the past.

From some corners of evangelicalism, cremation has come under fire, if you'll pardon the pun.  Some evangelicals have preached sermons or written articles for Christian magazines fretting about whether burial is more holy than cremation.  Apparently there's something more dignified about burying a corpse than burning it, especially since the Bible uses the imagery of fire when referencing Hell.

Then there's the recent trend of forgoing a funeral altogether.  At least, a funeral in the traditional sense of the term.  Although there are no hard numbers, end-of-life professionals have recognized that a small percentage of people are now requesting no funeral at all.  This may be for economic reasons, or for a lack of family, or simply as part of a fad, since celebrities like David Bowie sought privacy by not even allowing his cremation to be publicized.  This funeral-less concept alarms some professional Christians, who fret that since funerals are for the living, not the dead, denying loved ones a chance to grieve is not helpful to the grief process, and could be considered a form of selfishness.

Of course, if too many people opt out of having a funeral, such a decline in the number of funerals professional Christians perform - and for which they are generally remunerated by the deceased's family - could begin to affects them in their pocketbooks.  My aunt's two services were informal affairs in Texas and Florida, with no ordained clergy or funeral home directors in charge.  Years ago, my father conducted two funerals himself for neighbors who believed in Jesus Christ but didn't attend church.

I've come to learn that a will is not as powerful a legal document as it probably used to be, but for whatever weight it still conveys, mine stipulates that I want no funeral.  I understand that funerals are for those left behind, not for the deceased.  And I myself attend many funerals, at least compared with the number of weddings to which I'm invited.

It's not that I have anything against funerals, although they're hardly enjoyable events.  I can appreciate our society's general use of the funeral ceremony to convey respect and acknowledgement of life's mysterious importance.

And believe me:  My love of classical corporate worship would lend itself quite effectively towards crafting quite the magnificent funeral service, if I were so inclined.  Think "O Love of God, How Strong and True," which is an epic hymn; or "For All the Saints," a glorious funeral anthem; plus "Be Still, My Soul," the tear-jerker sung to Finlandia, a must for any Finnish believer's funeral.

But, as the kids today say... "Meh..."

Iva Roxburgh and me
at my father's memorial service,
just about a year ago.
Iva passed away yesterday
at age 101.
Part of my indifference about having a funeral for myself likely stems from my being unmarried, and having no children.  If I live long enough and eventually managed to encounter a woman grounded enough to tolerate me full-time, I suppose one's spousal unit generally gets the last word when it comes to things like funerals.  But in the meantime, I'm not holding my breath.  Or planning my funeral.

Today is the one-year anniversary of my father's death from Alzheimer's.  Yesterday, a 101-year-old friend of mine passed away.  A close friend of our family's is battling stage four cancer.  Indeed, as they say, death is a part of life.

And it's not that I'm afraid of dying.  I'm not looking forward to the process of dying, especially if takes an arduous course like my Dad's did.  But I believe that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8).  So, at least as I discuss it theoretically like this, and not while I know I'm staring it in the face, death "holds no sting" for me.  And I say that honestly and truthfully.

Of course, if any of y'all still want to have a party after I'm gone, I won't be around to stop you.  But if you do, just try not to celebrate too heartily over my passing and absence.

A little decorum, please!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Trump Unfit for Power - World Editorial

There is a big difference between being unfit to govern, and governing with policies we don't like.

Donald Trump is unfit to govern.  Hillary Clinton is fit to govern, even if we don't like how she's going to govern.  Meanwhile, Trump's persona, temperament, judiciousness, and willingness to respect other people are not suited to the presidency of the United States.

But don't take my word for it.  Here's a carefully-worded editorial from the evangelical World magazine, which is calling for Trump to withdraw from this year's presidential race.  An uncommon time calls for an uncommon - and probably unpopular - stance.

Unfit for Power - World Magazine Editorial


Update Monday, October 17, 2016

In light of the recent flurry of accusations against Donald Trump by women who say he assaulted them, consider this: 
It's obvious that all of the women currently claiming Trump sexually assaulted them is political theater. This demeans the legitimate crime of sexual assault and parodies assault victims as opportunists.

However, Trump's response has hardly been gallant, claiming himself to be a victim and mocking the physical appearance of at least one claimant, joking that she wasn't attractive enough for him to molest. Trump may not be able to control the political timing of these accusations, but he can control his response, and he's merely pouring fuel on the fire.

For the credibility of these women to be substantiated, they should have filed something with the police jurisdiction where the alleged offenses took place when they took place. Otherwise, anecdotal claims can be treated just that way.

Monday, October 10, 2016

With Trump, Evangelicals Say Abortion is Top Sin

Isn't it obvious?

For the good of our country, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump need to drop out of this presidential race.  They both admit that our country is being torn apart by it, but neither one appears to recognize how they can help stoke unity.

And one big way would be for both of them to admit they are key parts of our American Problem.  They should both apologize to the American electorate - and indeed, the world that has been watching this fiasco from the sidelines - and let their respective vice presidential picks ride their respective tickets.

Not only have liberals and conservatives been pitted against each other, but this year, incessant conflict has been writhing within these partisan camps.  And perhaps more than even the left-wing angst between Bernie Sanders supporters and Democratic mainstreamers, the most glaring infighting is taking place within the evangelical branch of the Republican Party.

It's as if this election has become a big "sifting of the wheat from the tares," to reference Matthew 13, at least for our evangelical industrial complex.  And indeed, the theological ignorance of many self-professing Christians has been glaring.

For example, one of the biggest retorts by Trump's evangelical supporters against the rest of us has been the woefully misapplied admonition against "judging others," even as people who trot out such verses are doing just that of the people they're, well... judging.  It's pop theology to conveniently ignore the fact that Christ expects His people to use critical discernment so as to prevent bad teaching and spiritual "wolves" from maligning God's glory.  But it's a lot easier to simply dismiss people with whom one doesn't agree with "don't judge me" protestations.

Then there's the whole "Trump may be bad, but he's better than Hillary" philosophy, which betrays its believer's fear of mankind more than their fear of God.  After all, is God bigger than abortion, or left-wing SCOTUS judges, or gay marriage, or any of the other things evangelicals fear?  Or are God's teachings against most of the things for which Trump is most famous - adultery, xenophobia, tax-dodging, "locker-room" talk, gambling, not paying his bills, being lawsuit-happy, lusting, loving money, vanity, bullying - merely relative, depending on the situation?  Evangelicals like to say "we're not electing a preacher," but since when does God say we should expect less from people who aren't preachers?

It's as if we can go ahead and judge Hillary's morality because she's a liberal Democrat.  But Republicans are automatically sacrosanct and immune from judgment because they're, well... Republicans!

Indeed, this election has exposed once and for all the evangelical right's obsession with the Republican Party as somehow blessed of God.  This blessing stems primarily from the fact that abortion is not embraced in the party's official platform - at least, not yet.  Over the years, many religious people have made abortion their singular voting issue, rationalizing that, as a form of murder, nobody in good conscience can support a candidate who supports pro-choice legislation.  Yet is abortion the unpardonable sin?   Is it Biblical to hand-pick certain sins as being more heinous than others?  Simply check out the passages of the Bible where taboo sins are listed - murder, homosexuality, adultery - and then read on to see how lying, gossip, slander, and other more acceptable sins are included in those lists.

God doesn't grade on a sliding scale, so why should we?  And if we're supposed to give politicians like Trump a lot of grace, why can't we give politicians like Hillary a lot of grace?  Because she's pro-choice, which is a sin just like Donald's xenophobia...?

True, abortion kills a lot more pre-born humans than does playing religious discrimination or building border walls, but how many pro-lifers are willing to adopt the children born from "unwanted" pregnancies?  Would it be anything close to the same number of religious right-wingers supporting Trump?

When it comes to our faith, at some point, don't we either have to fish or cut bait?  Aren't we going to have to ultimately decide if God's expectations of us extend beyond a political season to the personal morality we're to cultivate within ourselves, and desire to have modeled in our public narrative?  Many evangelicals fret that we only have two choices; what else is there except even a bitter vote for Trump?  But fortunately, since God is the One Who ordains rulers and deposes kings, it's not our call who ends up being president.

And in this election, we still have options.  I, for one, have decided to write-in* Mike Pence for president.  That probably won't work in terms of getting Pence elected as president, but I'm not voting for president, or preacher, or anything else.  I'm voting my conscience. 

(Depending on where you live, your state might not give you that option, if Pence is not on an already-approved* list of write-in candidates.  Several procedural rules may also prohibit the GOP from unilaterally removing Trump from their ticket - an unprecedented action that Trump would almost certainly fight anyway.  Besides, early voting has already begun in several states, which makes it too late to change ballots now.  Nevertheless, if you haven't yet voted, all of this last-minute flurry should give you pause, at least to wait and see how things shake out.)

What could still happen, however, is for both Hillary and Trump to take the only high road left for either of them.  Their work is already done, in terms of creating division within their own parties, let alone the country.  They have managed to pit evangelicals against each other in a showdown of faith v. fear.  They've made veteran journalists in the mainstream media aghast at the conduct of their usually-favored Democratic candidate.  They have our global  neighbors shaking their heads in disgust, wondering how our planet's lone superpower could front two such candidates and still consider ourselves a superpower.

Look at it this way:  Hillary will probably end up being indicted before long anyway, even if she does win.  Trump, for his part, likely will quickly tire of the presidency, since he obviously has little idea of what his powers would be, or how little political capital he'll have in DC.  Either way, the chances of either one of these folks lasting all four years in the Oval Office are arguably less than they've been for any candidate who wasn't gravely ill.  And for such shallow prospects we Americans are so eager to bicker, and sell our integrity?

Both of them say they want to serve their country.  Wouldn't they be able to do that and more by simply quitting?  Now?

The reality that they almost certainly won't is further proof that neither of them cares about you, or me, or the institutions they seek to represent.  They're in this for themselves alone, and to get where they want to go, they're playing the American electorate for their own personal ends.

Meanwhile, America's evangelicals are pegging everything, it seems, on abortion.  Every other sin on planet Earth is expendable as long as Trump wins and appoints Supreme Court justices who will de-fang Roe v. Wade at every turn.

Some people say evangelicals are idolizing Trump.  But actually, Trump's evangelical minions are idolizing abortion.  Hillary's morals are worse than Trump's, we're told, and abortion makes Trump's morals pale in comparison.  So, according to this mish-mash of religiosity, God says Trump's the lesser of two evils.  As if that concept of "the lesser of two evils" even exists in the Bible.

And this type of faith is supposed to please the Author of the Ten Commandments and the Fruit of the Spirit?

* Update:  Check out this essay I've written about write-in voting.