Monday, August 14, 2017

No Just Cause for C-Ville Bigotry

Free speech requires considerable personal responsibility.

And as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend, just because you have the right to advocate for a particular viewpoint doesn't mean you actually are right.

For the freedom of speech to be respected, the topic of that speech needs to be carefully vetted based upon parameters that honor some overall benefit for society.  Abortion opponents, for example, argue in public that abortion denies free speech to the unborn.  Advocates of exclusively heterosexual marriage believe that biology (not just social protocols) overwhelmingly supports the existence of both a man and a woman in a family joined through marriage.

Meanwhile, what happened in Charlottesville centered around a myopic view of history that holds no benefit for society today.  History's general consensus of the Civil War is that even if America's Southern heritage held some virtue for the people of its day, that virtue was tainted by slavery, which is based on racism.  Even if one argues that the South went to war to protest the North's violation of states' rights, those rights most Southerners coveted involved the ownership of other human beings.

Otherwise, what's so special about Southern Gentility?  It may be quaint, but is quaintness a quality worth commemorating at the expense of human dignity for people who aren't white-skinned? 

Mind you, it's not that most Yankees weren't racists.  The movement of blacks from the South to the North in the generations following the Civil War sparked plenty of contention, particularly when blacks began living next-door to whites in the close quarters of Northern cities.  After all, "red-lining" was especially deployed in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.  White flight after World War II wasn't just caused by suburbanization; in fact, it could be argued that white flight exacerbated suburbanization.  Even Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," didn't believe blacks were equals with whites; he simply didn't believe in slavery.

When the city leadership in Charlottesville decided to remove statues and monuments originally dedicated to Southern heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, they did so in an effort to ameliorate the old city's stubborn homage to what has become a stilted exercise in Old South romanticism.  Sure, it's politically incorrect to publicly admit to being a racist, but at least for white folk, it's a lot easier to perpetuate nostalgia than support ways to help today's heirs of slavery believe that anti-black racism really isn't as pervasive as it may seem.

When the Soviet Union fell, many monuments to it and its progenitors were summarily removed.  When Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, most all of his statues were toppled.  The eradication of former symbols of power is generally what happens when one way of thinking or acting is supplanted by another, and the former holds no significant virtue to continue celebrating.

Nevertheless, while the removal of statues and memorials to Civil War's Southern apologists seems like an easy way to correct the public narrative in terms of slavery, Charlottesville may have missed an important opportunity.  You see, while in this case, the eradication of a statue likely will do little to eradicate the homage people want to pay to that statue's honoree, Charlottesville could have left the monuments standing, yet with a less biased interpretation of why these figureheads from the Old South's past remain important.

Because yes, as we saw in Charlottesville, to some people, Lee and Jackson obviously remain important figureheads of a bygone era.  Precisely because that bygone era isn't as bygone as it should be.  Obviously, as those boorish bigots demonstrated this weekend, hard-line racism is alive and well, and not just in the South, as witnessed by the Ohio residence of the guy who plowed a vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one of them.

Instead of perpetuating Lee and Jackson as figures to be celebrated and revered, as the Charlottesville of yesteryear intended when those memorials were dedicated, today's Charlottesville could have left them as reminders of the deeper complexities behind our War Between the States.  Lee, Jackson, and others represent the often-conflicting values we humans juggle, between morality and economics, and politics and justice - just to name a few.  After all, the Civil War didn't just happen, nor was it over when it was over.  Hard emotions led to it, sustained it during five bloody years, and have continued to be stoked by it, even all these decades later.

So, obviously, the legacy of the Old South - and the Old North, for that matter - still matters.  But why that legacy matters could be the more accurate narrative Charlottesville should ascribe it.

Of course, the folks who side with the bigots would call that "revisionist history."  Even if, in actuality, it was the trite, watered-down version of the Civil War that has been taught in public school classrooms ever since that was the revisionist history.

However, if the statues indeed need to come down, what is the opposing moral stance in aid of the public good?  Is the veneration of whatever passes for Southern Gentility so pure and virtuous a notion that the vile celebration of bigotry is warranted?  Why exactly do white supremacists believe so ardently that historical figures like Lee and Jackson deserve attention in the public square?  Even an academic veneration of Old South figures should not conjure such vehemence.  It's not really that whole Southern Gentility thing after all, is it?  It's mostly the representation of Lee and Jackson as champions of a white-centric society, isn't it?

That is a notion with no public moral beneficence.  So it is wrong.  Period.

If anything, this past weekend in Charlottesville proves that just because you have the freedom to say something doesn't mean you're right.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travel, and the Detroit We've Been Through

Most people love to travel.

Me?  Not so much.

For many Americans, a vacation isn't a vacation if you don't travel anywhere.  Going someplace else - practically anyplace else but home - is considered at worst an adventure, and at best, an opportunity for fun and pleasure.

Even folks who have to travel for their job likely don't consider it as onerous a task as I consider travel to be. 

I'm not adventurous, curious, or thrill-seeking.  I'm actually, genuinely content to see the photos other folks take on their travels without getting any urge within my own soul to go and experience those places for myself.

Perhaps it's my fear of the unknown, or my chronic clinical depression, that makes me a homebody.  I certainly can't afford to travel far, but I don't even like driving into Dallas or Fort Worth, which are mere minutes from where I live.  But I will travel when I have to, whether it's to Dallas for church, or Fort Worth to have dinner with friends.

I say all of this to help you understand what an undertaking it is for me - both physically and emotionally - to travel, even for personal family events such as my brother's recent milestone birthday in Michigan.  Shucks, the last time I traveled outside of Texas was to my eldest nephew's wedding last summer in Ohio.  Pretty glamorous destinations, don't you think?  But hey, isn't family more important, wherever they live?

So last week, Mom and I flew to suburban Detroit.  And I have to admit, the flight was as uneventful as possible - which is a very good thing in my way of thinking.  My brother and his family live on a sizable bit of acreage about 45 minutes outside of the rapidly-shrinking, bankrupt city, between Novi and Brighton, for those of you who are familiar with the area.  Their lot is heavily treed, with most of it lying in a protected woodland with marshes and a pond that freezes solid in the winter.  You can see their neighbors on either side through the trees, since technically, they're located in an otherwise ordinary subdivision, but it's solid forest directly behind their property.  Quite private, very quiet, and decidedly non-urban.  Even though the nearest town is literally two minutes away.

They've lived there for four years already, but this was my first visit.  And I completely understand why my sister-in-law, a country girl at heart, fell in love with the place the moment she saw it.

The thing about Michigan, of course, is that it's the world's headquarters for the mass-production of automobiles.  And where my brother lives, in suburban Detroit, my Honda Accord would seem a bit out of place.  Everybody in his family - everyone in his family are now drivers (yikes!) - drives an American nameplate.  I didn't see any vehicles in their entire neighborhood that wasn't American, except for one Subaru, which considering their fierce winters, is entirely understandable.

Here in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Lexus is by far the most popular luxury nameplate, followed closely by Mercedes-Benz.  In Michigan, it seems that the stodgy old Lincoln brand still has a loyal following.  In fact, I was surprised to see hardly any Cadillacs, just like here in Texas.  I guess that former symbol of American "excellence" has lost its luster even in the land of its namesake, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer who founded the city of Detroit.

Driving around suburban Detroit, it was striking to see so few people texting behind the wheel.  Here in Texas, it seems I'm the only driver who doesn't text.  Yet in Michigan, most drivers actually watch the traffic ahead of them as they traverse the state's brittle roadways.  Where my brother lives, many of the side roads are still hard dirt - an aesthetic that the state of Michigan propagandizes as country chic - while other roads bear the unmistakable pitfalls (pun intended) of too much salt in the winters and too much rain in the other three seasons.  Newer, freshly-paved roads are few and far between, unless you're driving in one of the many recent subdivisions that have been constructed for the masses of Michiganders continuously fleeing the older, more urbanized Detroit core. 

Indeed, as Detroit continues to hemorrhage population - despite having weathered its stunning bankruptcy - the metropolitan region continues to travel north and west.  Its close-in ring of suburbs having matured long ago, Detroit's more bucolic outer ring of exurban towns and villages is swelling with transient suburbanites who have the economic wherewithal to put even more distance between themselves and Motown's continued dysfunction.

We toured downtown Detroit during our visit, and while the area around General Motors' world headquarters, on the riverside, appears quite vibrant, the rest of the city continues to shrivel up and wither away.  There's a stretch of promising new urban revitalization blossoming between the southern flanks of downtown and Belle Isle, the city's answer to New York's Central Park, but drive just one block west of Belle Isle's entrance, and deep blight is all there is to see.

By now, everybody knows the "ruin porn" that is Detroit:  Block after block of vacant lots, with perhaps a rickety old house or an abandoned structure of some sort still standing to break up the monotony.  On other blocks, the monotony is row after row of boarded-up houses and businesses, huddling together like heaps of bricks and wood that are struggling to retain some semblance of once being livable structures.  Even the graffiti is faded, their decay has become so old.

Churches - Detroit used to be full of churches - are literally falling in on themselves.  One massive church sanctuary we saw from a freeway had a prominent, circular rose window facing the setting sun, but all its missing shards of glass looked like black thorns, not a glorious flower.

Along one avenue lined with majestic trees, some large, old homes that were probably fashionable mansions in their day have been connected by rickety facades and re-branded as nursing homes, probably to scam Medicaid by claiming that they're providing suitable care to the city's stock of elderly blacks who can't afford to leave.  One of my nephews is an EMT who works in and around the city.  He recognized several of these so-called nursing homes, having made multiple trips to them, and he testified to the horrible conditions inside, hinted at by the derelict upkeep of their exteriors.  We winced upon viewing some of the homes, imagining all too easily what life inside must be like.

Oddly enough, there doesn't seem to be an over-supply of liquor stores like in other urban American slums.  Detroit is so desolate, it apparently doesn't have the population to sustain even those ubiquitous bad neighbors!

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Detroit Riot, a five-day-long race-fueled tipping point in Detroit's fortunes as a thriving urban center.  Historically, like many old American cities, Detroit has always been a tinder-box of bias and bigotry, whether over race, or ethnicity, or religion, or country of origin.  But in 1967, long-simmering tensions between whites and blacks exploded into a conflagration of violence, arson, looting, and mayhem that opened the floodgates of white flight.  Combined with the city's cresting dominance in industrial manufacturing, the unabating popularity of new suburbs, frustration over municipal corruption, and the rise of the sunbelt, Detroit began its head-long free-fall into the abyss of urban decay. 

In 1950, Detroit's population peaked at over 1.8 million people.  But that was the decade in which suburbanization took off across the United States, and many of our large cities began to lose their middle class in significant numbers.  By 1967, Detroit was slowly losing residents at a steady pace.  Yet today, Detroit's head count has plummeted, standing at 670,000, and still dropping...

670,000 is still a lot of people, but it represents a stunning 62% decline from the city's peak.  Population-wise, Detroit is back where it was in 1910, before the automobile age.  No other large American city has experienced such a dramatic decline without any signs of stabilization - let alone reversal - in sight.

Sure, Mercedes-Benz runs a foreboding-looking research and engineering campus along the city's western flanks - literally on the city line.  Some huge hospital complexes continue pumping life blood into the city's renowned bio-tech sector.  A major subsidiary of Johnson Controls has announced that it's relocating downtown from the suburbs, purchasing a long-dormant 10-story office building for its new home, and hundreds of employees.  Other companies have made measured gestures of corporate support for Michigan's largest city, and the owner of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert, boasts that he now employs over three thousand city residents.

Yet while such glimmers of hope are certainly better than nothing, the magnitude of the losses Detroit has suffered remain staggering by comparison.  And the many factors that have taken Detroit on this miserable journey have yet to be thwarted.  Municipal corruption, for example, remains intransigent.  Detroit's schools remain atrociously inferior to anything any decent parent would want for their children.  Much of the city's abandoned landscape is polluted.  Many experts say that in theory, the city's remaining residents should be consolidated into a far smaller street grid, so they can at least be better protected and serviced by the city's woefully under-funded first responders and utilities.  However, the logistics - both legal and practical - of forcing such an upheaval makes the idea virtually impossible in reality.

Detroit's journey down this sad road, at least as it's been measured since its epic riot of 1967, has lasted almost as long as I have been alive.  Which means that even if Detroit's many problems were somehow fixed today, it likely would take decades for the city to backfill itself with revitalized new homes, businesses, and infrastructure to replace what it's lost.

Meanwhile, the travel many Detroiters are taking as they leave the city remains much easier.  In 2010, the Wall Street Journal recognized the phenomenon of "black flight" in the city.  Black flight is a term that describes how dynamics not of race, but economics, have become the last resort for the city's proud black population.  In other words, the reasons people are now leaving Detroit have little to do with racism, but everything to do with quality of life issues like employment, safety, housing values, public schools, and reliable municipal infrastructure.

So, Detroit's blacks who can afford to leave, do.  Just like anybody, black or white, who has stuck it out as long as they can.  Yes, there has been an uptick in the number of whites moving into Detroit, but few of them are families intent on homesteading in Motown for the duration.  Few seem eager to bet that their idealism will provide sufficient fortification in the city's raw, impoverished slums, eerily removed from within walking distance of downtown, where luxury condominiums and shimmering marinas dot the well-preserved riverfront.  Instead, they seem to be opportunistic Millennials or empty-nesters angling to enjoy some trendy loft living on a budget, since Detroit is hardly a high-rent district.

Besides, who says Detroit's revitalization depends on the skin color of the people moving back in?  Isn't it the industriousness of the newcomers, and their willingness to build something bigger than themselves?  As it is, Detroit needs more than corporate tokenism and frugal white folk to rebuild.  It needs entrepreneurs willing and able to take a long, arduous journey in a deeply blighted city.

Funny how travel can work, isn't it?  Only for Detroit, the joke makes nobody laugh.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Changing Times for Corporate Worship

Maybe America's churches could do with a change.

After all, we're not so much guiding America any more as we are desperately trying to play catch-up.  We're not leading the crusade for civic morality as much as we are shrugging off our own moral lapses.  We don't really worship God any more; we worship style and preference.  We're not at the vanguard of racial reconciliation, and some congregants don't want us to be.  We tussle over doctrine and theology, but then rely on attendance numbers to gauge the health of churches.  We fret that young people don't seem very interested in religion anymore, so we blame old people who aren't eager for change.

Yet the way America is doing church is changing anyway, along with everything else, apparently.  First worship styles, then church music, then the megachurch movement, then celebrity Christianity, along with parachurch ministries, right-wing politics, and multi-campus congregations.

Now Sunday morning worship times are becoming passe.  Consider the news that churches have begun to cancel the flagship corporate worship service at 11:00am on Sunday mornings.  Of course, the traditional 11:00am start time has been falling by the wayside for years, as churches tinker with ways to make corporate worship seem more populist.  10:50, 11:10, or even more contrived start times like 11:01 for the hipsters has become fairly common. 

Yet increasingly, churches are thinking that 11:00am on a Sunday morning is too late to attract people who are more eager to fill the last day of their weekend with quality pursuits.

As if attending church isn't a good way to spend quality time...

At the church I attend, the 9:30am service is the best-attended of our three Sunday morning offerings.  Other churches have services on Saturdays, and now on Wednesdays.  Hey - a generation ago, churches regularly held a Wednesday - or "midweek" - service, so this is kinda retro, right?  That should be super-appealing to Millennials and hipsters.

And frankly, it doesn't really matter when a congregation meets for corporate worship.  In Bible times, corporate worship was held in private homes or in the temple on the Sabbath, which is our Saturday.  The switch was made to Sundays as a way to honor Christ's resurrection, which happened on a Sunday, the first day of the week.  It used to be symbolic to take time on the first day of the week to focus on the reason for why we'll be working out the next six days - and that reason is the glory of God.

But Sunday corporate worship isn't a commandment or anything.  We're told to "not forsake the assembly of ourselves together," but our assembly doesn't necessarily have to be on a weekly basis.  It could be daily, like some Roman Catholic churches still observe, or bi-weekly, or monthly... God never tells us what His definition of "not forsaking our assembly" should look like.

Over time, in Western Christianity, our assembly has been shaped by our work schedules and preferences, as well as capitalism, politics, and a general desire to model the culture around us.  Not exactly Biblical reasons at all for designing a corporate worship schedule, but it's what we've had as a long as anybody can remember.  Mid-morning on a Sunday was a time that worked for anybody who worked in agriculture - which used to be almost everybody - since many early morning tasks are required of a productive farmer. 

And choosing who preaches to us (or for us)?  We elect church leaders by popular vote because that's how all good leaders are made, apparently.  In the book of Acts, they drew lots for a replacement disciple, but popularity is a lot more democratic, right?  Besides, drawing lots sounds an awful lot like gambling, and gambling is a sin (although with casting lots, it's not that a God-given resource is being frittered away; a choice from a selection of relative equals is being made).

In countries like China, where evangelical Christianity is illegal for the most part, Christ-followers worship together wherever and whenever they can, with whatever leadership is currently not being detained by the police, if their "church" isn't one of the government-sanctioned "three-self" facilities.

How much we take for granted!

Not that congregations in the United States should be faulted for being creative with their corporate worship times.  But it's easy to see that for many churches, making corporate worship more convenient is the motivating factor.  Yet how convenient is the Gospel supposed to be for us?  Don't you think it's probably unBiblical to feel like we have to make corporate worship less like a scheduling conflict?  Is church the conflict, or what we want to do in place of it?  Should the created be trying to find a spare hour in the week to corporately worship their Creator?

How about, instead of trying to find an easier time to schedule corporate worship, churches simply take another step into history, and schedule corporate worship for every day of the week?  How bizarre does that sound to you?  Unless you're Roman Catholic, or familiar with the Anglican tradition of daily "vespers" or "evensong", it probably seems like overkill on the church's part, trying to stage a worship service for every day of the week.

Yet think about it:  How much of the staged worship your church organizes every week is really necessary?  Few churches have the financial and staffing resources to put on a big production every day of the week anyway.  So if you want to think creatively, whatever happened to the simple things, like the plain, public reading of Scripture, the congregational singing of songs (instead of being entertained by miked singers), the undecorated preaching of the Gospel, without special effects, videos, and props?  How much more focused could corporate worship be?  How much more immediate?  How much less cluttered and distorted by culture? 

And what about the senior pastor?  Having so much preaching, wouldn't that be too much for him?  Well, the Bible never says anything about senior pastors, either.  That's a Western invention.  According to the Bible, elders should be able to teach, right?  Why can't a church have several teaching pastors, none of whom is the "big kahuna" or top dog, pulpit-wise?  Is such a concept too foreign to us, since we're used to identifying with one preacher for our church's spiritual cred?

Imagine how suddenly oversized your church facilities would likely be.  Having a corporate worship service every day of the week likely means that most of our sanctuaries are too big.  Maybe instead of "planting" new churches all over the place, existing congregations could consolidate and thereby expand their ministry outreach through their shared resources.  Culture-wise, it would accommodate the growing reality that America's employment picture has spread out from the conventional Monday-to-Friday routine.  Parents with kids in sports would have to come up with another excuse to keep their kids out of church.  If you're having a particularly rough week spiritually, maybe attending several services that week would be a big help.  It would also negate the argument that select worship times need to be more convenient:  If congregants can't find one day of the week to worship corporately, it definitely won't be the church's fault.

The biggest objection most folks might have is that there is such a thing as too much church.  And with that, I would agree.  Whether our churches meet on Sundays or other days for corporate worship, we seem to leave a lot of that church stuff in the sanctuary when we leave.  All the reconfiguring churches make to their schedules isn't going to change that.

If church is just something we do as a religious activity, it won't really matter when we do it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

I Visited America Today

I visited America this afternoon.

Have you ever been there?

It's really a special kind of place.

I was there with about two hundred* other Americans to honor 13 fellow citizens who had served in our military.  Yet those veterans had died either homeless, or alone, or without any family members to claim their body.

This America today was populated by all sorts of people from various walks of life who didn't seem to care how wealthy, or powerful, or conservative, or liberal any of us are.  We were assembled at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, nestled among rolling hills in a far western corner of Big D.  A couple of local media outlets had broadcast the news that today, at 1pm, the National Cemetery was burying its largest group to date of "homeless" veterans.

Officially, the term is "unclaimed," and of the twenty veterans in today's ceremony, 13 died without any known family or next of kin.

They were:

Army Specialist Joseph David Dobson, 84
Army Private Ned Carlston King, 56
Army Specialist Dennis Wayne Moore, 63
Marine Private Edward Charles Gipson, 60
Marine Private Grant Wells, Jr., 63
Navy Veteran Glenn Allen Gatton, 65
Navy Ensign Patrick Michael Kelly, 62
Navy Veteran Daniel Ray McKinley, 46
Navy Veteran Michael Snyder, 58
Navy Veteran Elbert Louis Wilson, 79
Air Force Staff Sergeant William Brugemann Beeson, 86
Air Force Master Sergeant Bobby Ray Gleason, 71
Air Force Veteran Jerry G. Marshall, 81

The seven others honored today had at least one family member who accept the traditional folded flag, "from a grateful nation."

I saw a story about this on the Internet this morning, and told Mom I was going to attend.  Without hesitation, she said she would as well.  So we showed up about 15 minutes early, with me figuring a small yet respectable crowd of other grateful Americans would also be there.  But when we turned the corner, driving past the gates into the cemetery, two snaking lines of backed-up traffic greeted us!

A burly groundskeeper on a golf cart glided by our car, and I rolled down the window.  "We're here for the homeless veterans' service?" I asked, trying to clarify whether the big turn-out was for that service, and not maybe for some other veteran who may have simply had a big family and lots of friends.

"Yup," he confirmed, saying that there indeed was another burial at 1 o'clock, and they were trying to separate the traffic for each event.  "I'm checking now to see what lane y'all need to be in."  And he was off.

Sure enough, there were about ten cars for the other service, but there were dozens - with more arriving every second - for the "homeless" veterans' service.  Another cemetery employee - obviously an office staffer who did not expect to be standing outside patrolling traffic today, at least considering her short skirt and short sleeves - gushed appreciatively at my opened car window that ours was the biggest crowd they'd ever had for a burial, and they were caught off-guard by all the attention their event had received. 

In a normal year, our local National Cemetery buries about 40 unclaimed veterans, but not in as large a group as they did today.

We waited for about 10 minutes - past the ceremony's official start time - before beginning to snake our way around a loop and then down into the cemetery itself.  There were easily fifty, sixty cars or more, and even more as we looked across a valley to where we could see a crowd already gathered with a color guard, flags and ribbons flapping in the stiff breeze.

We'd had rain this morning, and temperatures still hovered in the 60's, with a damp wind and no sunshine.  Appropriately dreary for a funeral, I figured.

I finally found a place to park, and Mom and I walked quite a bit further to an open-air stone gazebo where the ceremony was taking place.  We could hear the 21-gun salute and the playing of "Taps" as we walked, along with dozens of other people.  Perhaps protocol should have made us stop stock still, in observance of these two hallmarks of a military funeral, but we all kept trudging along in the cold breeze.

Even once we reached the stone gazebo, none of us could hear what was going on, the wind was so loud.  Crisp American flags lining the venue flapped, slapped, and crackled loudly in the wind.  But it didn't seem to matter to anybody, except for a couple of children who didn't understand why everybody was just standing around in the blustery air.  Yes, there were children in attendance.  Old people, too.  Whites, blacks, and several other shades of skin color.  Well-dressed people, men and women in business suits, some wealthy-looking folks, and some that looked almost as destitute as those unclaimed veterans must have been.

One lady with a smart hairdo and a sleek black business suit had an infant and a toddler in tow, as if she'd left the office, run by day-care, and gotten her kids to witness this. 

Plenty of people were brandishing smartphones, but nobody was talking or texting - they were taking photos and videos of the crowd, and the line of fully-suited military personnel in the gazebo, stiffly presenting those folded flags to the seven assembled family representatives. 

Perhaps it was no small coincidence that at the end of the flag presentations, the wind died down significantly, enough for all of us to plainly hear a white-suited chaplain read some Scripture and give a brief benediction.  If I was a journalist, I'd have made a note of the Scripture reference, since neither Mom nor I can now remember what it was!  But even if few others in attendance were believers in the God of the Bible, we all heard a passage of the Gospel.  And everybody stood reverently, whether they really appreciated it or not.

Indeed, the crowd's decorum was profound, maybe because decorum seems to be so missing in our modern life.  Then, too, by that point, I think we'd all realized the obvious:  What we were witnessing, and participating in, was a genuine slice of honest-to-goodness America.  Not the political America, or the pop-culture America, or the squabbling America.  Our individual political views didn't matter just then.  Neither did anybody's sexual orientation, or skin color, or background, or criminal history, or occupation, or level of education, or home address, or what we drove... although quite a few very expensive vehicles lined both sides of the winding roadway.

I particularly noticed a tattered Subaru with ecology-themed bumperstickers parked there, alongside humongous pickup trucks and a brand-new white Mercedes sedan.  One businessman in a serious suit, wearing a huge, expensive-looking wristwatch, claimed a silver Prius.  One short, thin young man with dirty hair patiently crept through the crowds in a beat-up old Mitsubishi.  An elderly woman looked on from her Ford minivan, apparently unable to walk the distance up to the gazebo.

Up at the gazebo, however, it was just us grateful citizens, and the moment, and the patriotism.  No Democrats or Republicans, just a lot of people who had recently learned that 13 "homeless" veterans were being buried.  Men who had at some point defended us and our country, and who may have made some bad choices in their lives, or maybe suffered the ill psychological affects of battle fatigue or PTSD.  Maybe these men had intentionally separated themselves from their loved ones.  Who knows?  Yet right now, none of that dissonance really seemed to matter.

We all shared a common goal, those of us out there on this chilly, sunless afternoon.  We were taking an unplanned detour in our day and pausing to commemorate something we could all value:  Sacrifice for a cause.  Maybe none of these guys died in combat, but apparently they were willing to at some point, otherwise they wouldn't have been in the military.  Maybe the wars in which they fought were not originally conceived by the most altruistic of world leaders, or maybe they didn't end in a way many Americans welcomed.  Maybe some of the folks in attendance today were mostly motivated by the "homeless" and "unclaimed" designations of these men, saddened by the apparent breakdown in familial bonds, and disturbed that people can die so alone.

Hey - It's not as if any of us left the cemetery and immediately went to sign-up as volunteers at a local homeless shelter, after all.  But that wasn't the main purpose of attending today's ceremony, was it?

Mom and I attended - as I suspect just about everybody did - to honor not death, but life.  Our lives as Americans; our corporate life as free - or mostly-free - residents of this planet, with all of its evils and ills.  Our life with its freedoms safeguarded by people who volunteer to serve, even if our vast military industrial complex doesn't do as good of a job as it should to help make sure veterans don't end up homeless.  Indeed, maybe even a little shame that the greatest country in the world doesn't do more to make sure our veterans don't die unknown and unrecognized.

This America that we visited this afternoon came into existence with our gathering, from all walks of life, at this one spot, for one purpose.  And it likely dissipated just as we dispersed back into those various walks of life, as we all got in our cars, and drove away.

Funny how it takes thirteen people to die as unknowns for us to realize how much we share in common.

As much in common as those 13 fledgling colonies so long ago.

* A dubiously-written report by the Dallas Morning News estimated the crowd total at 100.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Has Your "Long Good-by" Begun?

FYI:  If you or a loved one is dealing with a diagnosis of early-onset dementia, consider visiting this website, run by a guy who was diagnosed at (yikes!) 55 years old.

Have you or a loved one recently been diagnosed with dementia, or with short-term memory loss?

Or do you suspect that you might have that condition, or that a loved one might have it?  Are you afraid of what such a diagnosis will mean for you and your family?

I've written a lot about dementia and Alzheimer's in their later stages, but I haven't spent a lot of time exploring issues that come about during the earliest of stages, which is the diagnosis.

And by diagnosis, let's be clear right off the bat:  There is no official, sure-fire, absolute diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.  Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, with dementia being the most common result of short-term memory loss.  And short-term memory loss doesn't necessarily develop into Alzheimer's, although it usually is the first rung on the dementia ladder.  Yet dementia can take years to develop into its most tragic expressions.  So if you or your loved one is facing a diagnosis of short-term memory loss, it's not exactly the end of the world as you know it.  At least, not yet.

Yet, at the same time, yeah - it's pretty close to the end of the world as you know it.  Sorry for being so blunt, but frankly, you already knew that, didn't you?  Besides, this is not a time for pussyfooting around the truth.  For one thing, if you are indeed on the road to dementia, you and your loved ones need to arm yourself with facts and a realistic assessment of your options, since things may rapidly change regarding your ability to conduct basic activities such as driving, making changes to your legal documents, and preparing your personal finances for the exceptionally high monetary costs of your future care.

However, just as this is not a time for ambivalence and rose-colored glasses, it's not a time for panic, either.  For one thing, panic rarely accomplishes anything, regardless of the situation.  And with regards to your diagnosis, there's little you can do medically to change what this diagnosis means.  There are no surgeries to consider, no pills to reverse the damage being done to your memory, no chemotherapy options like there might be with cancer, nor new diets to adopt like there might be with diabetes.  No known cures exist for short-term memory loss, dementia, or any of dementia's forms, like Alzheimer's.  So don't waste your time - and your money - dabbling with home remedies, natural supplements, or any of the other gimmicks out there being peddled to people who are desperate.

And don't feel guilty.  As far as we know, there's nothing you could have done medically to prevent dementia, so there's no use blaming yourself for having it.  And there's nothing you can can do medically right now to even minimize your dementia.  Dementia happens for reasons we're not sure of.  But one thing we know is that the length of time you have remaining as a fully-functioning adult will now be growing shorter by the day.  Your memory's functionality has maxed out through no fault of your own.  Your capabilities for reasoning, comprehension, logic, and alertness will be no greater than they are today.  Which means your mental resources need to be deployed smartly right now.  Not because you've suddenly begun your journey down what we call "the long good-by."  But because there's little point being morose about it.  At least, not yet.

Believe me, perhaps the time won't come for you, but the time will come for your family when the journey you have now begun will become a tortuous burden.  But that's still a long way off, and by then, you likely won't be aware of how bad you've become.  I've heard of one dementia patient who had three years between her diagnosis until her death, but most dementia patients I know have a journey of six to ten years - or more.  In your case, it's probably early days yet, and dementia is something for which you and your loved ones are going to have to pace yourselves.

For example, you still have time to travel, and work through a "bucket list," if you have one of those.  However, from now on, regardless of whether you're traveling to Paris, France, or the nearest grocery store, you cannot go alone.

Don't fight me on this one.  We found out my Dad had dementia when what should have been a half-hour trip to the grocery store turned into a several-hour ordeal, trying to track him down, calling the police and fire departments for word of any senior citizen in a car crash, driving around to all the grocery stores we used to frequent, only to have a kind-hearted employee from a store miles from our home call and put Dad on the line.  The employee had noticed Dad looked a bit disoriented in their store, and when she approached him to ask if he was OK, Dad managed to remember his home phone number (but not that he had a cell phone with him that he could have used).  That was a horrible evening for us - well, except for Dad, who didn't remember any of it, and wondered why I showed up at the grocery store to help bring him home.

Dad continued to drive for the next six years or so - but never, ever by himself.  We let him walk his faithful collie dog around the neighborhood for a few more months, but I was always a block behind them, making sure Dad found his way home.  After a while, Dad lost interest in walking the dog (a typical mark of dementia), and then not long after that, the pure-bred collie's advanced age required us to put him to sleep.  We'd show Dad photos of his beloved dog, and he said he remembered him, but we weren't always so sure he really did.

We allowed Dad to drive his minivan to familiar locations within about a one-mile radius of his long-time home.  And, frankly, considering how poorly so many people drive these days, his driving was certainly no worse than anybody else's.  His reaction times seemed spot-on, and for a long while, he needed few reminders about where he was going or how to get there.  He'd often complain that we wouldn't let him drive alone, but we'd simply say we wanted to keep him company.

What kept Dad's driving instincts so sharp, even as his other memory issues were in obvious decline, likely involved the years he spent driving around as a sales manager for a concrete construction supply company.  He drove to visit customers all over Texas and the Northeastern United States by himself and only ever had one accident - when he was driving all of us, when my brother and I were kids, down to Houston - and even then, the damage to our car didn't prevent us from driving out the trip in full and returning home.

However, if you or your loved one hasn't logged the extensive time behind the wheel that my Dad did, your driving days might be coming to an end fairly quickly.  And if that's the case, it's for your own good, as well as for the good of all the rest of us out on the open road.  After all, driving isn't just about you, but everybody else, too.

And about those bucket lists:  How many of those unfinished events and fun times will you remember next year?  In two years?  I understand the whole sense of accomplishment behind the bucket list thing, but frankly, trying to do things and visit places before you'll forget you've done them or been seems more a waste of time and money than a fulfillment of your life's dreams.  Right now, is what's important something you haven't yet prioritized?  How important are those things on your bucket list, if you haven't already done them?  Do you really need that sense of accomplishment before you forget all that you've accomplished?  Is the existential satisfaction really worth it?

After all, time is working against you here.  Remember?  You've only got a limited amount of time remaining for you to build memories - not for yourself, but for your loved ones!  If dementia takes as ugly a course as it does for most of its victims, your loved ones are going to have many awful things about your eventual condition seared into their own short-term memories of you.  Wouldn't you like to spend the quality time you've got left helping them cultivate happier, more positive remembrances of you?  Simple stuff, like the foods you cook well, or of the stories you tell, or the crafts you enjoy?  Not new stuff, but the same stuff that you don't need to still learn, and risk the frustration of not learning or experiencing as fully as you might otherwise desire?

It's the time with your loved ones that they'll likely remember the fondest.  It's who you were in the ordinary, every-day life that they knew you to live.  How you act in the present, in the familiar, in the real; not the artificial of vacations to places that are more exotic than natural.

Yes, there is the argument that the pursuit of a bucket list at this point would be an act of defiance in the face of dementia's impending doom.  And if you're independently wealthy, perhaps it doesn't matter what you spend your money on now.  But frankly, considering the many unknowns about dementia and dementia care, the wiser person would conserve their financial resources now, instead of spending them on trips you won't remember for much longer.

I'm not trying to be cruel here; just honest.

Granted, if your life up until now has been all about the pursuit of bucket-list-type things, then maybe I'm raining on your final parade.  But I have yet to talk with any loved ones of a dementia patient who reminisce about things that have happened recently.  They reminisce about the loved ones as they knew them "back in the day."

It's an ironic twist on the "short-term memory" condition, a state of mind which can seem so confounding.  Indeed, short-term doesn't just mean that you can't remember things for very long.  It's also that you can't remember things that happened only a short while ago.  And as dementia continues to take its toll, that "term" creeps ever longer, with your ability to remember the past extending not by seconds, or hours, or days, or months, but years.  Decades.

In fact, as long as I'm being blunt, let's go ahead and face more reality:  For better or worse, your family will eventually be able to identify the memory period of your life in which your brain is functioning, and it won't be the present-day.  One of the hospice nurses caring for my father told us that actually, at that point, the patient is mostly unaware that they have any sort of dementia, and I like to think that she is correct, for the patient's sake.  You see, dementia patients give many clues about the period of their former life in which they're now living; the job they may have had then, the home or city in which they used to live, the people who were still alive then.  With my Dad, we could track his decline by the homes he longed to be in.  He seemed fairly comfortable in his Texas home, where he'd lived for 30 years, for quite a while into his dementia journey.  Then suddenly, his memory seemed to completely skip the 13 years we'd lived in upstate New York.  It went back to an old address in Brooklyn, then to the address before that, and then even to the address where his family lived before he entered school.

But let's not get that far ahead of ourselves - or that far behind.  After all, if you're still in shock from receiving your recent diagnosis, you're likely struggling with identifying the things you need to get done before, ...well, they can't get done anymore.

Speaking of finances, in case you're now thinking of shifting all of your assets into somebody else's name, your lawyer may sign off on those changes, since you're still relatively "of sound mind."  But don't drag your feet, because nobody knows the point at which your lawyer might actually say you're mentally incapable of things like wills, financial reallocations, and property settlements.  If you're thinking of trying to hide your assets by placing them in other peoples' names, in case you need to go on Medicaid in the future; forget it.  When someone applies for Medicaid, the government goes back about seven years, and even longer, tracking the movement of your assets, and significant changes to your estate or financial portfolio will be nothing but red flags for them.

With the money that you have, instead of splurging on a bucket list, perhaps you should consider remodeling your home to make it handicapped-accessible.  If you've only lived in your current home for a short time - say, five years or less - then it might not make much difference if you decide to move out of it.  But the thing about short-term memory care is that the longest memories will last the longest, and staying put in a familiar home will benefit you and your family in the long run.  Although you might not have any mobility problems right now - and maybe not ever, memory loss can impact physical mobility, and for many dementia patients, keeping one's balance becomes a problem at some point.  So if you can afford it, widen your doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, and retrofit at least one bathroom with fixtures suitable for adults who need somebody to help them with bathing and attending to the toilet.  If your bedroom is upstairs, try to create a sleeping space downstairs now, so maybe you can develop some familiarity with it.  If your backyard isn't fenced in, fence it in, since dementia patients tend to wander.

Hey, even if being placed in a memory-care facility is in your future, that future is still likely several years away at the earliest.  That means you'll still need to enjoy your current environment as much as possible - yet as prudently as possible, too.

If you're a pack-rat, begin to de-clutter now.  Clutter will only confuse you later on, and possibly become dangerous trip hazards.  Save photos and keepsakes you frequently look at and enjoy; chances are they'll be the things your loved ones use to try and entertain you years from now.  Throw away items that hold bad memories for you.  Keep your current technology, and don't worry about buying new televisions or computers from now on, because you'll risk unnecessarily confusing yourself.  The idea is to develop as light, bright, easy, safe, and encouraging a physical environment as possible.

I hope you weren't reading this to find some cheerful nugget of comfort after your otherwise horrific diagnosis.  I'm sorry if I've further discouraged you by laying bare the reality you'll likely be facing.  But I've been there with my Dad, and with his sister.  There is no helpful way to positively spin the specter of dementia.  There's also no legitimate pathway to determining what dementia will have in store for you specifically, since dementia varies by as many degrees as their are individual people.  Some patients end up having a relatively peaceful journey through memory loss, while others... well, let's just say that there's enough heartbreak to go around.

Many end-of-life illnesses have a way of clarifying the aspects of life we most cherish, and these next few months and years of your journey through memory loss will undoubtedly be a clarifying experience - although, unfortunately, probably not for you.  You will likely become less and less aware of what is going on to you and around you, which as the hospice nurse told me, may be the one blessing in all this.  Meanwhile, your loved ones will be forced to assume more and more of your care, and there won't be anything you can do about it.  Stronger families, obviously, fare better during crises like these than dysfunctional or scattered families.  Your close friends, your faith community, and even your neighbors will likely play intimate roles that you will never see.

Yet through it all, our response to human tragedy both affirms our commitment to life, and our resolve to honor those who, for whatever reason, lack the ability to participate in it as fully as we would otherwise desire.  We effortlessly enjoy our human experience when things are fun, or happy, or easy.  But when life turns arduous, melancholy, and painful, we tend to show what we're really made of.

Maybe that's a challenge you and your family would prefer not to pursue!  But it's happened to you, and there's nothing you or anybody else can do to change it.

It's bleak, and confounding, and it seems so unfair.  I know.  It happened to my family and me, too.  And we're here today, on the other side of the dementia journeys we took with my Dad and my aunt.  And we're certainly not weaker for those experiences.  I think we still have questions, and we're still emotionally tired, but we did what we could with the resources we had, and I think we honored our loved ones well.

Hopefully your family will be able to say the same.

Ready or not, your journey through your long good-by has begun.  Let it be as life-changing as it can be.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Driving a Texting Driver Ban Misses Point

Ought there to be a law against it?

Last month, the Texas state House of Representatives passed a bill outlawing texting-while-driving (TWD).  The Lone Star State is one of only four remaining that don't specifically criminalize TWD, although distracted driving, a broader description of the activity in question, is already against the law.  As it currently stands, House Bill 62 makes using a phone while driving a misdemeanor offense, but questions remain regarding how such a measure could be fairly enforced in the real world.  Questions also remain regarding how eager the Texas Senate is to ratify the bill, since the House has already given them a similar opportunity three other times in previous sessions, to no avail.

Will this year be different for Texas?

The idea enjoys bipartisan support among politicians, because it's hard to ignore the dangers of cell phone use by drivers of a moving vehicle - even though many drivers engage in the activity multiple times every day.  Probably every time they get behind the wheel.  Cell phones have practically become an appendage for some users, and serious studies have found that addiction to cell phones is a real problem for many people.  The luxury of instant communication is no longer a luxury for those folks, but a necessity.  Or, so they think.

Usually, politically conservative legislators - especially in a conservative state like Texas - abhor laws designed to control behavior, especially "nanny state" laws that seem to pick on common activities and appear to interfere with an individual's right to self-determination.  Yet when it comes to TWD, a number of key Republican Texans support the notion that a law is necessary to try and curb rampant - and dangerous - cell phone use by drivers.

"Boy howdy - thar aughta be a law, dadgum it!"

Why a law?  Because not enough people voluntarily refrain from the practice.  And since so many people do it, it's hard to convince drivers to use the honor system and not use their phones while driving, as an altruistic gesture acknowledging public safety.  The broader well-being of our society can seem so ambiguous and existential when faced with the opportunity to call a client from your car, or check to see if your kids are home from school, or what your spousal unit wants for dinner.  Perhaps with a law - a law everybody is supposed to respect, of course - drivers will be encouraged to forgo the personal convenience of TWD, since nobody else is doing it either.

Um, yeah... like that will ever be reality, right?  Hey, business is all about exploiting opportunities, right?  If you view your time behind the wheel as lost productivity, then you're going to call that client, or track down that lost shipment, while cruising around town.  It's what good employees do, right?  If you're a responsible parent, you're going to check up on your kids on your way home from work, and if you're responsible for dinner tonight, you're gonna need to know what your loved ones would like to eat (after all, you shouldn't send and receive personal e-mails at work, right?).

The reasons people use their cell phones while they drive aren't bad... usually, at least.  But it seems that many people who decide to TWD forget that their primary purpose as a driver is to actually drive, and drive in as safe a manner as possible.

It's easy to spot the drivers who are texting - and even the ones so engrossed in an old-fashioned telephone conversation.  The several-thousand-ton contraption they're piloting down the roadway begins to weave within its lane, and then a little bit outside of its lane.  Their speed becomes erratic, often slowing down drastically, at least in terms of the pace of other vehicles around it.  In fairly close traffic, a phoner can quickly create a mini traffic jam, as other vehicles get trapped behind it, waiting their chance to dart around the slower vehicle. 

Sit at any traffic light, and watch to see how long it takes between the light turning green and the first car in line to move from its stopped position.  How many times have you been at a stoplight, only to have to wait through most of the green light for the driver in front of you to look up from their phone and realize that they've got the green light?  Some of us honk if we have to wait at a green light while a phoner uses up our patience, and then we get shot their middle finger when they decide to take advantage of the green light, like it's our fault that we might miss it.

Actually, it's amazing that so many important people are out on the roads, isn't it?  So many important people driving (without a chauffeur, like important people used to employ) and having to use their phones, meaning they don't have a personal assistant to follow up on all these important issues. 

Now, for the record, I rarely use my cell phone while I'm driving.  And by rarely, I mean usually only to call 911 if there is debris in the roadway (it's amazing how much junk litters our freeways in Dallas, falling off all the pickup trucks people own here).  I never answer my phone while driving.  And I think I've sent about five total texts when behind the wheel of my car - but those were only when I was parked, usually with the engine off, before I embarked on whatever journey I was about to take.

Yet my point isn't that the texting itself is the problem.  You see, using one's cell phone while driving can be a fairly safe practice, if there's hardly any traffic, or if your conversation consists of a couple of short sentences, or if you're not speeding.   And as far as TWD is concerned, we don't really need a law specifically banning it, because as I said, we already have laws against inattentive driving.

So what is the problem? The problem is our society's propensity for selfishness.  We each tend to view ourselves as being more important than others.  We don't say that out loud (usually) but we demonstrate that mentality through our actions; through what we do, and what we don't do.

Selfishness is a pernicious form of individualism that is exacerbated by our exploitation of the private automobile.  If you think about it, automobiles have become our own autonomous, insular pods, haven't they?  Our cars are cocoons of transportation, but also of entertainment, privacy, and isolation.  We turn our elaborate speaker systems up so loud, we can't hear the emergency vehicle's siren screaming and squawking at us from our rear bumper.  Even if our cell phone is turned off, if we have passengers in our pod, we get so engrossed in conversation that we have no idea what's going on outside of our glass-and-aluminum transportation device.  A device that's hurtling through space at 60mph - or more.

Witness that kid who was caught on camera, his testosterone-fueled dually pickup truck wandering about a wide Texas roadway, even traveling well within the lane of opposing traffic.  If recognizing such a dangerous scenario wasn't enough to convince that young stud that he was completely disconnected from his driving task, it would take the slaughter of 13 innocent senior citizens to prove it.

By then, saying "I'm sorry" fixes nothing.

That tragedy last week in the hills of central Texas may provide the impetus for the state's Senate to pass anti-texting legislation this time around, since public opinion is so aghast at the stunning loss of life.  Politicians hate passing up opportunities to look like they're actually fixing something.  But even if this bill passes, how many Texas drivers actually plan on abiding by it?  After all, stuff like that happens to other people, not to us.  This phone call I need to make is really important, and the risk it poses to somebody else who I've never met is really insignificant - at least to me.

And sure, maybe it is a risk you're willing to live with.

But can the rest of us?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Let These Bowls You Over

What is this?

If I had the hubris of a post-Modern artist, I could claim it as a sculpture that weds two pieces of conventional artisanal functionality from two disparate cultures.

But I'm not an artist, and these are merely two bowls, with one set upside-down atop another.  On the top is an upside-down Paul Revere pewter bowl reproduction by the Stieff Company of Baltimore, Maryland.  And below it is a Hmong ceremonial pedestal bowl.

Both belong to my Mom, and have been about her house for years.  The Revere bowl was a wedding present from a wealthy family in Nyack, New York, who used to employ Mom as a nanny during her college years.  The Hmong bowl was a gift from the leaders of a Hmong refugee congregation, given to each elder at the church my family used to attend here in Arlington, Texas, back around 1980.

It is believed that the Hmong culture can be traced as far back as 2,000 BC in China, although it long ago was forced southward, into Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand.  A number of Hmong people were part of the Laotian resistance who assisted the United States military during the bitter war in Vietnam, and were subject to persecution after Hanoi fell to the Communists, after the United States pulled out of the conflict.  Thousands of Hmong (spelled the same whether singular or plural) and Laotians were granted emergency visas to flee Vietnam for America, and they resettled in Minnesota and Wisconsin (where the winters were a shock in every way), California, and even here in Arlington, which has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese immigrants in the country.

Hmong from Laos who had been converted to Christianity back in their native country wanted a place here in Arlington where they could worship in their language, and our small church was a member of the same denomination that had missionaries who had ministered to them back in Laos.  The elder board at our church welcomed the Hmong with open arms, not just as allies in war, but also brothers and sisters in faith, and to show their appreciation, the Hmong gave each of the elders one of these intricately-detailed ceremonial cups as a gesture of gratitude.

I'm not sure what material these Hmong cups are made of, but it's almost certainly tin, or perhaps aluminum.  They're decorated by hand with etchings and impressions hammered into the soft metal with special tools.  The overall design is of lotus leaves, which while usually a Buddhist symbol of divinity, are also widely understood in Thai and Laotian cultures to represent purity.

When it comes to the Revere bowl, on the other hand, there's a lot less divinity involved, although its purity may rest in the eye of the beholder.  Paul Revere, of course, was that celebrated American patriot who was a silversmith by trade.  Back in 1768, when those British tea taxes were roiling the Colonies, Revere was commissioned by a drinking society in Massachusetts to craft a rum punch bowl in honor of opponents to the British tea tax.  And for his commission, Revere used as inspiration for his design a style of Chinese commemorative bowls that were being made of porcelain for export to Britain and the Colonies at the time.

And we thought the "Made in China" stuff was a recent phenomenon!

At any rate, those Chinese bowls - remember, the Hmong are originally from China - were already apparently popular in the New World, meaning Colonists readily understood the significance of Revere's model.  And since Revere's bowl signified a special resistance to England's draconian taxes, his rum punch bowl quickly assumed a symbolic cultural status.  Indeed, by the time my parents got married, and received this replica as a gift, the Revere bowl had become well-established in traditional Americana, and remains so to this day.  Even if most modern brides probably don't receive them as wedding presents (although the famed Tiffany studio still makes a Revere reproduction in silver).

All this to say that, while I studied these two bowls in my parents' house, I came to realize how identical they were, even though the Revere bowl is relatively unadorned.  The sides of both bowls have the same slope, and the height of their cup shapes are almost the same.  On a whim, I decided to place the Revere bowl on top of the Hmong bowl, because it looked like their circumferences were the same.  And indeed, they are!

Maybe that's not cool to you, but it was to me.  How ironic that two bowls representing significance within two completely different cultures end up having almost the same exact shape, size, and proportions!

For the record, you'll note that the Hmong bowl is actually two bowls bolted together at their pedestals.  The smaller bowl is the same shape, just in a smaller size.  So technically, I could unbolt them and have two bowls.  Which, maybe, some Hmong families do.

And, although maybe it's hard to tell, the square base under the Hmong bowl is actually a square of granite from Deer Isle, Maine, and is intended to keep the bowl's metal from scratching the wood table.

Okay, so none of this is Earth-shattering news.  It's not controversial or kinky.  But doesn't it kinda make our world just a little bit smaller, realizing that no matter how different our various cultures may be, we share more than we may realize?

Not because ceremonial or commemorative bowls are the way to achieve world peace.  But they can be the same shape of things that used to be, from the opposite sides of our planet, and our history.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Man-Card Must Be Defective

And some people wonder why I'm still not married.

Today is supposed to be "International Women's Day," a time to recognize the significant contributions females make to every aspect of life as we know it on this planet.

Oddly enough, I haven't heard when "International Men's Day" is officially, but I've been told that we domineering chauvinists get to celebrate it every other day of the year.  After all, ostensibly, we control everything - especially women, according to feminists.

So if that was indeed the case, and that women still have to fight tooth and nail for a modicum of the recognition and respect they deserve for all of their innate merits, is dropping a token event into our calendar the best way to encourage us brutes to cut women some slack?  Are men who don't value women going to be swayed by being cajoled into a superficial acknowledgement of the value of women in society?  

To feminists, the lack of civil rights for women in many Muslim-majority countries represents ample justification for a day like today.  Yet we're here in North America.  Meanwhile, how tolerant are most people in Muslim-majority countries regarding the equality of women?  How many Muslim women advocate for their own rights?  Or how many Muslim women participate in the perpetuation of age-old standards of male domination because of their religious upbringing?

Indeed, on this "International Women's Day," consider the plight of foreign nannies in Arab countries who consider not just their male employers, but also the wives of their male employers, as capable of heinous offenses.  On that score, apparently, Muslim women might be considered equal to Muslim men.  When it comes to nannies, employed by many prosperous families across the Persian Gulf, some Muslim women "can be extremely jealous of young, innocent foreign women suddenly appearing in their house," explains a person who runs a safe house in the Arabian Peninsula for nannies fleeing abusive employers.

And speaking of women in the workplace, particularly in the West, the false narrative of unequal pay for equal work continues to find an audience.  Actually, it didn't used to be a false narrative; several decades ago, men were routinely paid higher wages than women for the same exact job.  Yet today, many studies skew their results to include comparable (not exact) jobs between men and women, which distorts what men and women actually earn.  While it remains true that women tend to hold fewer higher-paying jobs than men, it is hard to find a study that actually pinpoints instances when men are paid a higher wage for the same exact job a woman does, with all else (experience, education, etc.) being equal.

This past election cycle, America saw a women get the closest any woman ever has before to the presidency.  And some people considered it a huge blow to feminism when Hillary Clinton ultimately lost the electoral college to Donald Trump, just another WASP male.  Yet in all seriousness, if having a woman in the White House is the ultimate shattering of the proverbial glass ceiling, how many feminists would be happy with somebody the likes of Hillary being the woman to do it?  She's played off of her womanizing husband her entire political career, which is hardly the paradigm of legitimate feminist accomplishment advanced by so many liberals.

Not that Hillary isn't an accomplished woman, or that gender discrimination doesn't exist in the workplace, or that many men no longer hold chauvinistic attitudes towards women.  It's just that men usually don't rise to levels of prominence without the influence of women on their behalf.  And, as Hillary's life proves, many women benefit from the influence of at least one man in their ambitious lives.  So really, isn't it unhelpful to pit the sexes against each other with superficial platitudes?  Besides, it's not like all women are virtuous, just like all men aren't virtuous.  Not all men eagerly seek the suppression of women, and not all women live under patriarchal oppression.

Of course, I'm an evil man writing this, a ruthless demeaner of women and a privileged exerciser of so many powers over women I'm not even aware of them all.

Which, of course, might be somehow plausible if I was married, or an employer, or a father, or even a co-worker...

But as it is, if we men are supposed to be so superior, and considering my own status in life, I must be wielding my man-card all wrong.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Briarwood Vice: Mall Cops Dorky No More

Forget Miami, or Chicago, or Detroit.

There's a huge crime problem going on in Birmingham, Alabama.  And no, it's not the entire city of Birmingham that's going to hell-in-a-handbasket.  It's one of the city's largest churches.

Briarwood Presbyterian apparently has become so exasperated with their criminal element that they're petitioning the state for the right to create their own police department.

It's vindication time for much-maligned mall cops everywhere.

Briarwood is a large, wealthy, and mostly white congregation affiliated with a conservative Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.  In addition to its church activities, they sponsor a Christian school and a seminary, all of which, according to church officials, combine to host approximately 30,000 events annually on church properties in two counties.

Ostensibly, the church figures that running its own police department would improve safety, although it's unclear how much crime has taken place at the church that has overwhelmed the resources of Birmingham's conventional police department.  It's also unclear how Briarwood would save any money by sponsoring its own police department, since health insurance alone for peace officers likely is far more expensive than it is for pastors, or rent-a-cops. 

Even more unclear is how large their proposed police force is going to be.  One report says they're only talking about employing one full-time cop.

That ought to have the criminal element quaking in their boots.

Meanwhile, questions abound regarding a drug bust on the Briarwood campus back in 2015, and whether parents of kids involved in that incident are pushing for ways to cover up such juvenile indiscretions.  Church officials say they'll play judge and jury regarding the oversight of their proposed police department's activities, and will only need outside help if they ever determine somebody they catch needs to be locked up.

After all, it would look pretty bad for a church to have its own jail.

Of course, it would also look pretty bad if a church and its police department had a convenient arrangement to cover up any allegations of child abuse, or other sexual abuse on campus.  It's not like churches don't already have a problem with pedophilia, and who would report to whom if, say, a youth volunteer was accused of a felony?  And that youth volunteer was a heavy tither to the church?  Yes, in a civil police department, quid-pro-quo exists, but not as readily as it would in a clubby church setting.

The funny thing - or maybe it's not so funny - is that the Bible says nothing about churches running their own police departments.  Actually, the Bible indicates that churches are supposed to be where the criminal element can go to find healing from their brokenness.  And actually, even though all sins aren't crimes, at least according to our penal codes here in the United States, all sins make us criminals in God's eyes.  Which is why we need a Savior, Who is His Son.

So let's suppose a member at Briarwood has committed a sin and broken the penal code - will that member be able to go and repent of that sin to a Briarwood pastor and enjoy professional confidentiality of pastoral privilege?  Or will the pastor have to summon Briarwood's staff cop and bust the congregant then and there?  Technically, according to the Bible, anybody who breaks a law is subject to the ruling authorities regarding any punishment, so maybe having a church police department will help congregants tow the line when it comes to 'fessing up when they park in a handicapped spot at church.

Briarwood tries to argue that they're no different than a college or school district that runs its own police force.  But yeah, there is a difference.  For one thing, many colleges that have a police force also have some sort of criminal justice degree program, graduation from which their student cops are being trained.  And school districts generally try to keep their kids separate from bad influences in the surrounding community, which includes the often altruistic objective of creating some sort of buffer between hardened criminality and adolescent delinquency.

The church should be separate from the world in terms of the actions of its people, yet in terms of its witness, what good is a church if its members spend so much time there that they're not demonstrating their faith while interacting with the world around them?  Perhaps Briarwood's quest for its own police department isn't as much indicative of its importance in the broader Birmingham community as it is its detachment from it.

As far as anybody knows, if Alabama's governor agrees, Briarwood would be the first organized church in modern times to have its own police department.  Yet "the Sheriff of Briarwood" somehow has a strangely familiar ring to it, doesn't it?

Even if nobody is robbin' the hood.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Give the King Your Justice, O God

I've gotta be honest:  I don't know who my audience is anymore.

When I started this blog, I figured I'd get some readership from a variety of audiences.  Soft liberals, for example, who don't generally attend evangelical churches, but don't discount the existence of God, or at least a "god."  I figured I'd get more readership among conservatives who regularly attend church and have a fairly accurate understanding of Who God is.  And for a while, I used to have a small but loyal following of hard-core Christ-followers who appreciated the challenges I brought to our faith table, even if they didn't always agree with me.

These days, however, in the Era of Trump, my blog's only reliable Audience is the only One that's ever really mattered anyway; the One for Whom I've tried to most honor since I started:  the holy, sovereign God of the Bible.  The God Who has told us not to put our trust in war and weapons of war (Psalm 33:17-19).  The God Who is supposed to be our confidence, not a nation's might (Psalm 20:7).  The God Who does not keep us from harm, but protects us from anything that would be outside of His providential will for us (if you need a Scripture reference for that, perhaps you should start with the entire book of John).

My God is the One Who tells us to forsake houses, family, and property for His sake, even if the only thing we get in return - as if we're actually sacrificing anything of ours in the first place - is eternal life in Heaven with Him (Matthew 19:29).

I'm not being sanctimonious here, or pious.  I'm just trying to be faithful, and to be that, I have to be truthful, and the most truthful I can get is Scripture.

It's not that President Trump discourages me.  He does, but not nearly as much as the fact that, aside from God, the rest of my audience generally seems to get a lot of their theology (or their impression of Christian theology) from Breitbart, Drudge Report, and Rush Limbaugh.

So I feel like I'm left with an Audience of One.  Maybe I forgot that my audience should have consisted only of Him all this time.  It sure is easy to slip into a mindset and attitude of feeling like I need to convince mere mortals like myself.  But God cannot be convinced of anything.  He knows everything.  A pastor delivering the eulogy at a funeral recently claimed that Christ took a risk by coming to Earth.  But that's heresy, isn't it, since Christ can't risk anything.  Risk involves an element of the unknown, but what doesn't Christ know?

Of what does God need to be convinced?

You and I, on the other hand, think we know quite a bit.  We hate being wrong, we hate being corrected, we hate appearing weak, we hate being fearful.  But when we're afraid, in what or Whom should be our confidence?  In a politician?  In capitalism?  In our standard of living?  In our family, or our spouse, or our job, or our military?

If I am not willing to pursue the matters of life from a starting point of God's supremacy over everything, then I'm starting off on the wrong foot, and the journey will veer off course as long as my focus is off-center.

It's not that I'm not afraid.  I have many personal fears, both with my chronic clinical depression, and as a result of bad decisions I've made in my life.  I also fear the terrorism that may come as a result of radical Islam.  I fear losing my already lower-middle-class standard of living.  I fear getting old, and what maladies might rack my body and my brain, especially since dementia has ravaged my paternal lineage.

Some might say that, because of my lack of children, my own home, and a sizable financial portfolio, I have a lot less to lose than other Americans.  So maybe that explains why others see ambivalence in what I consider to be my altruism regarding religious freedom.  Still, if I'm afraid of anything of consequence, since I have so little, shouldn't I at least be genuinely fearful of a repeat of 9-11?

Yet 9-11 didn't deprive any American of their Constitutionally-protected freedoms.  It deprived us of a sense of security and safety, but not even the Founding Fathers elevated national security to a position of greater importance than free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures.  Check out the Bill of Rights to see that I'm correct.

Yes, radical Islam indeed represents a threat against our nation, but here in the United States, at least, individual human beings remain innocent until proven guilty.  Yes, it's a delicate dilemma in times like these that requires careful parsing of rights and responsibilities.  And yes, it's something our government has gotten wrong plenty of times in the past, but should it be something which professing Christ-followers so eagerly want to see repeated?  Yes, God has given us common sense, but that common sense needs to operate on a spectrum of Biblical integrity, including the Fruit of the Spirit.  Not so we Christ-followers become exploitable, but so we bring glory to God by respecting His authority, and trusting His providence, even if our government acquiesces to neither.

After all, even President Trump cannot escape the Apostle Paul's mandate in Romans 13:1-2:  "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God."

Notice that the word "authorities" is in the plural.  And as a grateful American, I acknowledge the clever tripartite system of government our Founding Fathers established for us, which includes the judicial branch, which acts as a check and balance against both the legislative and executive branches.

If a law is made that could be considered unConstitutional, then even the president needs to let the courts decide, as they are doing now with Trump's immigration action.

But even if a law is legal, that doesn't make it right.  Look at abortion, for example.

As it is, I'm grateful to live in a country where I have the right to praise God for His truth, even when that truth conflicts with the way I want to live, or when that truth conflicts with the fears that pervade my life.  For, you see, the freedom that Christ offers in the Bible isn't a political freedom, even though many Americans mistakenly believe it is.  Christ's freedom is greater than anything Trump or our military can secure for us.

May He judge us poor people with righteousness and justice (Psalm 72:2), whether that's the politically incorrect thing to do or not!

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand;
all other ground is sinking sand.
- Text: Edward Mote, 1797-1874

Friday, January 27, 2017

My Shortest Blog Essay Ever

You know the adage; "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything."

That's why I haven't written a blog entry since January 13.  Today is January 27.  May God give me grace to adjust to America's new reality - if indeed, we are to adjust.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Don't Let Washington Rule

Oh, the essay's I've written that you haven't read!

I've muddled through a couple of different posts for my blog this week that I never finished, and therefore never published.  They were dripping with sarcasm, and heavy with despondency.  They would have probably been well-received by some readers, yet summarily rejected by most.  And it's not like I mind controversy, or holding an unpopular opinion.

But I'm so, so very much over this election.  I'm so over Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, and especially Donald Trump.  This season of politics has been the most disappointing one of my entire career as a member of America's electorate.  Not just because of who won, or of who lost, but because both of them managed to get nominated by their respective parties in the first place.

The problem with America right now isn't the politicians we elect, or even nominate.  The problem with America right now is us - the electorate.  Most of us are so selfish, myopic, and fearful, we exploit whatever we can in the name of freedom to construct our own little fiefdoms.  Fiefdoms not just of geography, or even economy, but of religious viewpoint, sexuality, education, race, and even healthcare (or lack of it).

Some religious political conservatives gloat that Donald Trump has been chosen as God's man for this appointed time in America, but they fail to realize that, by the same measures they use to rationalize their claim, Barak Obama was God's man for the previous eight years in America's history.


Then we have liberals with potent voices - such as Hollywood stars and the mainstream media - lamenting the horror of a Trump presidency, even as they ignore the anger within the electorate that propelled a total political neophyte of Trump's caliber into the White House.  Donald Trump is many things, but one of the biggest things he is right now is a solid refutation of the past eight years, an epoch that liberals generally enjoyed, and obviously drew a false sense of purpose from.

Meanwhile, precious few people actually seem interested in balancing extreme viewpoints.  Compromise has become a four-letter word on either side of the political aisle.  It's a lot easier to create a snicker-inducing meme and post it on social media than it is to research - for one's self - various sides of the same issue, and evaluate facts independent of partisan bias.  It's more fun to make fun of people we don't like than even consider the possibility - however remote - that we ourselves might be wrong.

So I start writing something, and before long, I've broken so many of my own rules that I impose on myself about trying to remain objective, and refraining from personal insults.  Believe me, if I wanted to be a super-popular blogger, with hundreds of thousands of loyal readers, it wouldn't be hard for me to simply parrot the platform of whichever side I wanted to consistently promote, and ridicule anybody who's not standing on it.

I could be cute, or snarky, or bullying, because those things aren't hard to be.  And they create buzz.  They trigger emotional responses.  What's hard is trying not to insult somebody else, especially when I deeply disagree with the things for which they're advocating.

After this past election, I hoped the national mood would simmer down a bit.  But that hasn't really happened.  Instead, everybody seems to be either bracing for all you-know-what to break loose and sink our ship of state, or they're bursting with anticipation for all you-know-what to break loose and totally sink Washington DC's standard operating procedures.

And yes, while many things in our Washington bureaucracy need fixing, it's like just about anything else we mortals create:  200-plus years of government-building can't be efficiently undone by presidential fiat, or four years of swamp-draining.

Of course, for people of faith like me, the Sunday School answer would be prayer.  Praying for everyone in leadership, those leaving leadership, those opposing our new leadership, and those excited for our new leadership.  And yes, I've done some of that.

Yet I have this nagging doubt that just because Trump won, which Christ-followers would say indicates that God has anointed him to lead our country, that doesn't mean the good times will start rolling.  If, indeed, the past eight years weren't good for the folks who didn't support the man Trump is replacing.  Even a basic study of the Old Testament kings who ruled Israel proves that just because God allows something, it's not necessarily enjoyable for us.

Trump's ways are not Washington's ways.  But more importantly, God's ways are not our ways.

I'm trying to turn my gaze from Washington to God.

Are you?