Friday, October 24, 2014

Healthcare Selfishness Bigger Scare than Ebola

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

It's we ourselves who are scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To go bowling.

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

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

Is this all merely human error?

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

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

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

Have you gotten your flu shot yet?  I have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we're learning, selfishness often trumps compassion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I'm not scared about Ebola.

Yet our human penchant for selfishness is another matter.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Choosing to Jam an Abortion Band

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

I learned yesterday that three professing Christ-followers from my neck of the woods flew to Denver for last night's epic Pearl Jam concert in the Mile High City.  Within the rock-n-roll world, Pearl Jam is one of the most outspoken bands when it comes to endorsing the pro-choice movement.

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

See the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Praying Habakkuk 3 in a Mezzo Cammin Life

"Who am I?  Why am I here?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

   The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

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

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

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

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

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

Boy, have I been so wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead I've got none of it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Lord, please help us to!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

EGR Syndrome Tests Church Performance


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

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

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

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

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

I've Become What I Avoided

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

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

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

Technically, in terms of churches ostensibly being faith communities, it shouldn't be this way.  But it is, and probably always has been.  And I shouldn't be surprised at my own predicament.  I have chronic clinical depression, combined with what I suspect is a mild form of Asperger's.  That's two strikes against normalized socialization, right?  Plus, I've been told that I "think too much," which turns out to be a negative thing, especially in church!  For all practical purposes, I'm unemployed, although I help care for a parent with dementia, which itself is its own debilitating reality, especially for caregivers.  I've no money, no social status, and no spouse or children to shine brighter than me, and distract people from my lack of accomplishments.

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

Church Staffers Aren't Hired to Minister to Individuals

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

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

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

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

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

Sinking and Shrinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity's Relevance and the Expendability Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Faith Goes Begging in Jewish NJ

Beggars can't be choosers.

Unless they're Orthodox Jews, apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

So much for the wealthy Jewish stereotype.

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Just Say No to Contextualism

It seems like everywhere I turn these days in our evangelical ghetto, everybody's trying to contextualize the Gospel.

Mark Driscoll became famous for doing it.  And now that he's resigned in disgrace from the church he founded, church growth experts are trying to figure out what went wrong where.

Reporters for evangelical media outlets are fawning over rap and it's current star attraction, Lecrae, as if dropping some Christian lyrics into a genre of music birthed in urban violence and socioeconomic jealousy serves as an appropriate vessel for the Gospel's light and hope.

Reformed theology's current celebrity preacher, Tim Keller, was recently quoted in as saying unbelievers can't be evangelized "if you just preach about doing God's will."

"You have to demonstrate to a non-Christian that you understand what it is like not to believe," Keller told a group of church planters attending a conference, as if the Gospel's credibility depends on what it supposedly saves us from.

One of the main messages I've been trying to convey through this blog is my earnest belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as being singularly powerful, solely necessary, and imminently effective for anybody, anywhere, facing anything, regardless of that person's culture, gender, nationality, race, or prior religious persuasion.

It's become frustrating and depressing for me to watch the eagerness with which so many people within our evangelical ghetto seek to view the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the lens of our particular culture.  Contextualism, for example, helps to perpetuate the racial divide among our churches, and contextualism rationalized the Insider Movement among Muslim ministries.

Meanwhile, I thought we were supposed to view our respective cultures through the lens of the Gospel!  I believe we're to view everything through the Gospel's lens!

Am I wrong?

I don't think so.  If Christ is all, and in all, and is the Word, and existed before this world did, then He is the lens.  Period.

Can I get an amen?

OK, if not, is it because you don't believe me?  After all, I have no seminary degree, and I've never pastored a church.  Maybe you'd prefer to hear this stuff from somebody who has.

So, OK!  How about John MacArthur?  He's pretty famous here within our evangelical ghetto.  Here's what he has to say on the subject of whether or not we should contextualize the Gospel:

"The contextualization of the Gospel today has infected the church with the spirit of the age.  It has opened the church’s doors wide for worldliness, shallowness, and in some cases a crass, party atmosphere.  The world now sets the agenda for the church."
- from "Contextualization and the Corruption of the Church," September 22, 2011

"Where did Christians ever get the idea we could win the world by imitating it?  Is there a shred of biblical justification for that kind of thinking?  Many church marketing specialists affirm that there is, and they have convinced a myriad of pastors.  Ironically, they usually cite the apostle Paul as someone who advocated adapting the gospel to the tastes of the audience.  One has written, 'Paul provided what I feel is perhaps the single most insightful perspective on marketing communications, the principle we call contextualization (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).  Paul … was willing to shape his communications according to their needs in order to receive the response he sought.'

"This much is very clear: the apostle Paul was no people-pleaser.  He wrote, 'Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God?  Or am I striving to please men?  If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ' (Gal. 1:10).  Paul did not amend or abridge his message to make people happy.  He was utterly unwilling to try to remove the offense from the gospel (Gal. 5:11).  He did not use methodology that catered to the lusts of his listeners.  He certainly did not follow the pragmatic philosophy of modern market-driven ministers.

"What made Paul effective was not marketing savvy, but a stubborn devotion to the truth.  He was Christ’s ambassador, not His press secretary.  Truth was something to be declared, not negotiated.  Paul was not ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16).  He willingly suffered for the truth’s sake (2 Cor. 11:23–28).  He did not back down in the face of opposition or rejection.  He did not compromise with unbelievers or make friends with the enemies of God."

-  from "All Things to All Men," September 2, 2011

So, how did Paul live out the Gospel?

"In order to [win people to Christ], Paul was willing to give up all his rights and privileges, his position, his rank, his livelihood, his freedom—ultimately even his life.  If it would further the spread of the gospel, Paul would claim no rights, make no demands, insist on no privileges (in relation to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23)."

"Not that [Paul] would modify the message to suit the world, but that he would behave so that he personally would never be an obstacle to anyone’s hearing and understanding the message of Christ.  He was describing an attitude of personal sacrifice, not compromise.  He would never alter the clear and confrontive call to repentance and faith."
- from "Giving Up to Gain," September 4, 2011

Now, obviously - and I'm coming back to my own opinions here, not John MacArthur's teachings -  one's presentation of the Gospel is going to look and sound a bit different depending on the audience, and even one's own personality.  God doesn't make automatons, He creates individuals with our own characteristics, including language and, yes, culture.  I can't go to Burkina Faso, for example, in Africa, and share this blog there with much hope of people understanding it - or me.  For one thing, they speak French there, and I don't.  We also live in a far different environment here in the United States than Christ-followers do in virtually any part of Africa.  So to a certain extent, cultural context will inevitably play some role in the way Christ's Gospel is proclaimed and lived.

But always, always, always - no matter the country, or culture, or language, the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes first.

Think about it:  how many problems that we're facing just in the United States might have been avoided - or lessened - if Christ's followers were living in America's culture, but weren't a part of it?  We're to be in the world, but not of it.  What if we viewed our lives, and our participation in the world around us, through the lens of Christ's Gospel, and not our culture?

Some people say "context is everything."  But that's not true.

Christ's Gospel is everything.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Houston's No HERO for Religion Rights

While much of the United States frets about the increasingly disconcerting Ebola news emanating from Dallas, I'm becoming far more concerned about some disconcerting news emanating from another Texas city.

Down in Houston, city lawyers are reported to have subpoenaed the sermons of several pastors who are believed to have conspired in a politically-motivated fashion against a LGBT-related ballot dispute.

Earlier this year, Houston's city council voted to allow members of the opposite gender to use each other's bathrooms as a show of support for transgendered people.  Their law is called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or "HERO," and it actually addresses a wide swath of gay-rights-specific issues, of which the shared bathroom provision is but one part.  Churches are exempt from enforcing the city's new law, but businesses could be fined if they don't comply with it.

Houston's mayor, Annise Parker, is the first openly gay mayor of a major city in the United States, and she wants HERO to be a landmark of legacy legislation.  Still, this was not a unanimous vote by Houston's city council, although at 11-6, it passed by a wide margin.  Plenty of Houston voters still oppose it, and especially the prospect of having to share bathrooms with transgendered people.  So, ostensibly on their behalf, the Houston Area Pastors Council (HAPC) filed a petition with 50,000 signatures to revoke the municipal law.  The city attorney's office picked through the petition with a fine-tooth comb and determined that it had  "too many documents with irregularities and problems to overlook."

In response, the HAPC filed suit against the city to block - or at least delay - HERO's implementation.

Up until this part of our story, things had been proceeding - or unraveling, depending on your perspective - according to conventional legislative protocols.  A city council passes an ordinance, a group of people opposing that ordinance calls for its repeal, the petition for repeal is disallowed, and the opponents file a lawsuit to press their case.

Even the specific topic at hand - the right of transgendered people to share public bathrooms with people who aren't - has become fairly normal in some big American cities, as LGBT advocacy becomes more popular in America's increasingly progressive society.

But what Houston did in retaliation for the pastor's lawsuit has many conservatives in a dither.  And rightly so.  Actually, it should have anybody who believes in the freedom of religion at least wary of the precedent being set here.

So far as most anybody has been able to determine, this is the first time a legislative body has forced a court to so broadly subpoena the sermons - as well as other church-related material - of so broad a representation of churches.  While it's become fairly commonplace these days for some courts and lawyers to issue subpoenas like they're firing buckshot, one would hope that a city as supposedly sophisticated as Houston would be cognizant of the bad image doing so to a bunch of religious entities creates.

It's not that sermons are private documents, of course.  They're preached in a public-access building to whomever wants to hear them, right?  So, in a way, these pastors should gladly turn over their sermons in the hopes that whomever reads them down at City Hall - or the courtroom - benefits spiritually from their contents.

For their part, however, the pastors view these subpoenas as a form of harassment intended to scare them away from a protracted fight with the city and its mayor's pursuit of LGBT hero status.  And yes, regardless of whether blanket subpoenas are now commonplace in today's courts, it's clearly creating some negative PR for Houston, at least among traditionalists.

Houston says it has a method to its apparent madness, however.  The city is trying to determine if these pastors preached about the HERO law from the pulpit, or if, in their official pastoral capacity, they were e-mailing church members and advocating against the law.  You see, if the city can prove that the pastors were doing so, then the city could prove that the churches were themselves violating the law by taking sides in an election.

Remember that your pastor cannot tell you how to vote.  Your church - in fact, most non-political non-profits - cannot take sides in specific legislation.  For example, your pastor can preach from the pulpit that homosexuality is a sin, but pastors in the city of Houston could not have have instructed their parishioners specifically to advocate against HERO.

However, if those pastors did, and Houston can prove it through the sermons they've subpoenaed, it still remains unclear how much leverage such proof will provide the city.  Sure, it may make some pastors look bad, but it won't look too good on Houston, either.  Such a subpoena can be interpreted only one way:  malicious disdain for a religious person's right to challenge a law they've a Constitutional right to challenge.

Of course, it does not appear as though the city has subpoenaed the sermons of Houston's ultra-liberal churches, where pastors may have been encouraging their parishioners to advocate in favor of HERO.  This is where the city practically nose-dives into the murky waters of Constitutional heresy.  The city doesn't care if preachers were talking about HERO from the pulpit; the city only cares if certain preachers were talking against HERO from the pulpit.

If the city merely wanted to make sure that its churches were politically pure and non-partisan, and that no political topics such as HERO were being championed or vilified from any of the city's pulpits, that would have been one thing.  As it is, however, the city is only interested in one side of the coin.


Now that we all know the city's game, it's kinda hard for them to talk about honesty and fairness with a straight face - pun intended.

Update 10/16/14:  Apparently, Mayor Parker has had a change of heart.  She's decided to distance the city and herself from the sermon subpoena, even though on Tuesday, she had still been defending it.