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.  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.

EGRs don't fit neatly into day planners, to-do lists, or performance reviews.

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 ChristianPost.com 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.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Downhill All the Way for Texas Skiing

File this one under "truly ironic."

In a city duly named "Grand Prairie," here in north central Texas, a company has proposed building a 30-story indoor ski slope.

I'm not kidding.

Grand Prairie is called "Grand Prairie" because that's what it is:  a flat, plain, plane of scrubby land that sits between the bustling burgs of Fort Worth and Dallas.

Look at the top of the monitor or screen on which you're reading this.  That's what the topography of Grand Prairie looks like:  flat.

Is that a mountain of snow in Grand Prairie?
Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that.  But an indoor ski slope?  In the middle of Texas?  Open all year, no matter the weather outside?  Doesn't sandy Dubai already have one of those, and didn't we all think it was a goofy idea when they built it?

Developers who are proposing this new facility say technology has improved to the point where you don't need to be an oil sheik to fund such a project as an indoor ski resort in arid climates.  This is a sound business venture, they're saying with a straight face, complete with taxpayer subsidies to help make all the numbers add up.  And those numbers currently add up to a grand total cost of $215 million for the indoor ski slope and attached hotel.

The hotel is being designed to look like a cross between those sprawling timber-framed lodges in America's Rocky Mountains and Switzerland's elegant snow chalets.  It's even being called "The Grand Alps," as if anybody will confuse Grand Prairie's confection with the real thing.

Actually, the lodging part of the complex looks kinda like the Gaylord Texan resort in nearby Grapevine, and the Dallas Morning News has pointed out that the Grand Alps was originally proposed for Grapevine, before the mortgage meltdown, the Great Recession, and the evaporation of capital to finance such projects.

But good times are here again.  And to prove it, the hotel portion of the Grand Alps will be run by the cool-vibes Hard Rock Cafe company.  It will initially feature 300 rooms, and could be expanded in short order if the concept really takes off.  With conference rooms, restaurants, a wine bar, a rooftop swimming pool, and other amenities thrown into the mix, developers are hoping to create an ideal vacation destination for the legions of affluent vacationers from Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma who usually have to travel to Colorado and New Mexico for their skiing kicks.  In the wintertime.  With all of the other schleppers on winter vacation, all at once.

Of course, this being Texas, environmental considerations rank pretty far down the liability meter, just like they do in places like Dubai.  Air conditioning an indoor ski resort will be pretty energy-intensive in our north Texas winters, let alone our scorching summers, but apparently, the electricity grid in Grand Prairie is robust enough to handle it.

On the one hand, it's almost too easy to make fun of this idea.  But indoor ski slopes already exist in other parts of the world, such as India and Australia, which like the United Arab Emirates, are not exactly eco-friendly when it comes to mega-refrigeration projects.  Indoor ski slopes also seem popular in Germany and Japan, two relatively mountainous countries, so maybe much of the derisiveness about genuine skiers not being willing to trifle with such artificiality is inaccurate.

Perhaps the audacity of it all - a 300-foot-tall ski slope in a city that even honors the prairie by putting it in its name - will be enough to market the Grand Alps into a popular, albeit unexpected, destination.  Hey - down the street from the Grand Alps' location is a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, which itself simply adds to the irony of it all.

But as much planning as has already gone into this project, it appears the developers have forgotten to include one crucial component:  an on-site surgery center.

There is one, small public hospital in Grand Prairie, but it's several miles away from where the Grand Alps will be.  Maybe that's close enough, considering how far some tourists have to travel to reach medical care at real slopes in smaller towns in Colorado.  But if they're expecting 1.3 million visitors annually at the Grand Alps, and you want to keep your victims - er, visitors - on-site as long as possible, spending as much money as possible, isn't a surgery center more essential than amenity?

After all, after everybody's winter vacations, isn't it easy to figure out who's been skiing by the casts on their legs when they return?

Then again, on fake slopes like those that will be at the Grand Alps, I suppose there are far fewer trees to run into.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Candid A's to Bart Campolo's Tough Q's

They're some of life's toughest questions.

  • How could God allow a nine-year-old girl in Philadelphia to be gang-raped?
  • How can God create somebody with a predisposition for same-sex attraction, and then decree that homosexuality is a sin?
  • How can God save some people, but consign others to eternity in Hell?
  • What is eternity anyway?  What is Heaven and Hell, and how do we know physical death isn't the end of ourselves?

These are several key questions for which Bart Campolo spent years hunting answers.  He recently shared his journey with Jonathan Merritt for an article on the Religion News Service website.  Bart is the son of controversial Christian personality Tony Campolo, who is on the liberal end of the evangelical spectrum - that is, when other evangelicals will even allow Tony to be considered an evangelical at all.  So, perhaps it's not surprising to some that Tony's less orthodox personal theology would be eventually met by apostasy in his son.

For indeed, today, Bart considers himself a humanist, and describes himself as a "Christian who doesn't believe in God."

And his reasons for believing this way stem from the uncomfortable answers he reached by himself for some of life's toughest questions.

Unfortunately for Bart, he appears to have put more trust in his own answers than he was willing to put in the Bible's.  Bart readily admits he no longer believes in God's sovereignty, or the authority of His Word - two key components of orthodox Christianity that have more than served His people for millennia.

Sure, plenty of folks have unilaterally decided that the Bible is untrustworthy, or that organized religion in general is for weaklings.  But we all believe in something, even if it's ourselves.  Which begs the question:  Why would you want to place your belief and faith in somebody or something that isn't perfect, holy, and sovereign?  Unless... you wanted to maybe keep some leeway for yourself to keep on sinning or vacillating over some particular habit, temptation, or ambition.  Maybe you really like believing you're your own ultimate destiny?

So, if ego, pride, and a superiority complex are enough so Bart and his fellow humanists can survive their brief appearance on our planet, perhaps the respectful thing to do would be to let them wallow in their self-sufficiency.  After all, are the atheist and humanist superior to those who claim belief in a Higher Power apart from themselves - whether that "power" is Allah or Jesus Christ?  It's folks who decide that they are as capable as a conventional deity of answering life's toughest questions who inevitably become ones for whom emotions, mortality, culture, and even morality become self-serving ends.

Bart even claims that what originally attracted him to Christianity wasn't God's truth, or His power, or Christ's sacrifice, but our religion's "sense of community and the common commitment to love people, promote justice, and transform the world."

Um, yeah:  did I mention Bart's parents are liberals?  Unfortunately, most conservative evangelical churches dismiss things like community and justice as humanistic pablum.  Which, ironically, helps to support Bart's current position.

By way of clarification, for people who do seek to understand themselves and the world around them through organized religion, Bart's parents - as liberal as they may be - are correct in at least identifying Christianity as having the true framework with which to understand life.  Other organized religions do provide answers, but like on any true-false exam, there's only one correct answer.

And what are the correct answers for some of these questions that have haunted Bart?

God's People Shouldn't Let Sin Define Themselves

How could God allow a nine-year-old girl in Philadelphia to be gang-raped?

Without an appreciation of the concept of God's eternal, holy sovereignty, of course, any comprehensive answer will prove elusive.  This is because everything that happens - whether it's good or bad, evil or virtuous - happens because God allows it to happen.  He may not delight in it, but not one thing takes place without His control over it.  None of us can fully grasp how this works, but we need to be willing to give Him the control He already has over every aspect of our life, and the lives of everybody else on this planet.  If we are not willing to subject ourselves to His will, and trust in His ability to work everything out for His glory and our good, then even the beneficial things that happen to us can eventually torment our souls.

In this Philadelphia scenario, we have a sin that we perceive as particularly despicable, but in doing so, we are ascribing to sin a characteristic that helps us create hierarchies and administer our sense of justice.  For God, however, the gang-rape of a child is as repulsive as alcoholism, or driving recklessly, or gossiping.  Yes, different sins have different consequences, but victims of sin also have different avenues of coming to terms with both the sins they commit, and the sins inflicted upon them.  God wants us to honor Him regardless of what happens to us.  There is nothing that can happen to His people that will separate us from His love.  If this traumatized 9-year-old victim can one day testify to God's power in helping her forgive her tormentors, both God and this victim will prove victorious.  However, if this little girl lives in bitterness and hate the rest of her life, she will merely be doing what is natural for any ordinary victim.

Does that make sense to us?  No, probably not, unless you're convinced that the same God who can forgive sins like rape can also heal you from being the victim of such sins, and even bring you to the point of forgiving your attackers, too.

Abusing Anything Good is Sinful

What about homosexuality?  It's a huge topic in our society today, and Bart's parents each share opposite viewpoints on it.  The thing about homosexuality is that, throughout history, many have seized upon it as a particularly deviant form of unBiblical sexuality, and make more out of it than what's really there.

So, what's homosexuality, really, other than another form of adultery?  Some hard-line evangelicals insist that homosexuality is particularly deviant because it involves people of the same gender, but when the Bible talks about its sinfulness, homosexuality is usually categorized along with other sins, including the heterosexual forms of adultery that are far more commonplace among churched folks.

It's easy for homosexuals to get hung up on the vitriol they receive from many self-professing Christ-followers, which, again, compartmentalizes sins and makes hierarchies out of them.  Yes, different sins have different consequences, but only one sin can forever banish us from God's presence, and that's the sin of denying the Holy Spirit's testimony of Christ as God's Son.

Granted, that doesn't answer the question of whether homosexuality is nature or nurture.  Does God make some people sexually attracted to the same sex?  We all know that many theories exist to answer such questions, but no matter the theory, the fact remains that we all are tempted to abuse good things.  We abuse food, alcohol, money - and we can abuse relationships.  Some men find such a kindred spirit among other men who seem so particularly similar to themselves, they're tempted to abuse that close relationship by introducing a sexual element into it.

God did not create any of us to abuse anything.  But our sin nature makes abuse seem natural.  And when it comes to sex, adultery in any form seems so attractive, doesn't it?  How can God possibly be glorified by that?

God is glorified when we deny, on the authority of His Word and our love for His truth, the pleasures we assume await us in the abuse of good things.  It sounds pious, and indeed, it is a sin to be proud of whatever "success" we experience as we refute the temptation to abuse things like chocolate, the environment, and sex.  People can make a lifestyle out of food abuse, and they can make a lifestyle out of sex abuse.  It's just that some forms of sex abuse are more acceptable than others.

Nevertheless, doesn't letting homosexuality rage as a particularly heinous sin - or a particular behavior pattern that deserves special civil protections - ignore the broader context of what activities benefit society and honor God's holiness?  Adultery in any form doesn't benefit society, so what makes homosexuality an exception to that rule?

Maybe We Can't Grasp God's Love Because It's Perfect... And We're Not

When it comes to Heaven and Hell, and how God determines who goes where, we need to maintain a proper perspective of what life is all about.  Life isn't about you and me being happy, or content, or angry, or lustful, or pure, or anything.  The life you and I are experiencing on this planet, in the grand scheme of eternity, simply exists as yet another expression of God's creativity and sovereignty.  And not only that, but God created humans because He's a relational God.

Think about it:  God allows sin to exist so He can prove His love, because love is a key component of beneficial relationships.  God's love is best seen in Christ's sacrificial death, through which God's people are redeemed from eternal damnation.

Again, if you refuse to acknowledge God's sovereignty, this is going to sound like circular logic to you.  But if everybody gets saved from eternal damnation, where's the love?  Damnation would be a toothless threat, right?  How is that loving?  God created dogs, cats, and alligators, but He doesn't want relationships with them.  Dogs, cats, and alligators don't sin, either.  If God created every human to go through life on this earth, and die, and then spend eternity with Him in Heaven, aren't we then pawns in some celestial game?  Why go through all of what we have to go through here, if we all end up in the same place?  What would that prove?

God sent His Son as a sacrifice so that He could demonstrate His love.  Parents love all their children, and they should love all of their children equally, but they don't love every child on the planet, do they?

By the way, is it coincidence that homosexuality and other forms of adultery are expressions of unholy love?  What about the gang-rape of the nine-year-old child?  That's sexual perversion, and all sex is supposed to be reserved for the marriage covenant.

Come to think of it, in all of Bart's key questions, isn't he seeking a validation for love?

The thing that makes Christianity the best answer for all of these questions is that the God of the Bible is the only God Who ever loved His followers so much that He sacrificed His own, deeply loved Son for them.  Some theologians call this the "humiliation of Christ," since becoming a mortal and dying seems so antithetical to the concept of deity.  What other god actually reaches down to redeem its followers, and not demand anything more from them for salvation other than their love?

Not that God expects us to fry our brains trying to understand all of this.  He doesn't welcome us at the Pearly Gates with a Scantron and a standardized test to see if we get in.  We need to have faith that what He tells us in His Word is true.  We need to believe that we are not created for ourselves, but for Him.  We need to be convinced that the things happening to us, and the temptations we face, and the sins we commit, all point to two things:  our utter depravity apart from God, and His unfailing love regardless of our faults.

Yes, everyday life presents all of us with a lot of tough questions.  And many times, the answers aren't particularly easy, either.

But truth is still truth, even if you don't think you like it, or understand it.

Meanwhile, is using the way our world presents life an accurate standard by which life itself should be judged?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pulitzer Writer Prizes Illogic Over Journalism

You'd think he'd know better.

He's a Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial writer and a veteran international journalist who speaks Spanish and Arabic. He works for a legacy media outlet at one of America's largest cities - the city which just played host to America's first domestic case of Ebola.  It's been an event that some people in town have found very unsettling.

Yet today, Tod Robberson produced a breathlessly egregious op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, in which he assumed for himself a pedigree of medical divination that would make any real doctor blush with embarrassment.

"Thomas Duncan did not have to die," trumpets the headline of Robberson's piece, which ran in a prime corner of the DMN's website this morning.

Duncan, as you probably know by now, was the Ebola patient here in Dallas who died yesterday from the disease, a death Robberson, despite lacking a medical diploma of any kind, says was "avoidable."

"Ebola doesn’t have to be fatal," Robberson writes with all the hubris he can muster, "as long as doctors are able to respond quickly as soon as the patient starts to show symptoms."

Well, no; Ebola doesn't have to be fatal, nor does cancer, nor do car wrecks.  However, people die from them all the time, because their fatality factors depend on a lot more than how quickly doctors are able to respond.

Robberson assumes for himself an unwarranted command of Duncan's medical file by charging that Duncan's death is due to human error on the part of at least one person on the medical staff at Dallas' Presbyterian Hospital, where Duncan was treated and died.

He bases his charge on the unfortunate fact that when Duncan first went to Presbyterian, he was discharged despite the fact that he'd told at least one person tending him that he'd recently arrived in America from Liberia, a factor which should have set off alarm bells at any hospital in the world worth its Rod of Asclepius.

"It’s possible that Dallas and the country avoided catastrophe after recovering from the initial, egregious mistakes," Robberson concludes.  "But the tragedy of Duncan’s death was avoidable.  Thousands of people have survived Ebola, and Duncan should have been among them."

Wow.  In how many ways is Robberson wrong in that paragraph?

For one thing, although Robberson uses "mistakes" in the plural, he is being over-dramatic here, since in his article, he only outlines the one mistake of Presbyterian's ER initially releasing Duncan over a miscommunication error.  It's also quite obvious that Dallas and the country have avoided a "catastrophe," even considering Presbyterian's initial ER mistake.

Furthermore, the presumptions Robberson makes regarding Duncan's overall health despite his Ebola portray a stunning lack of journalistic credibility.  Determining whether one specific person should have been expected to die or live based on the survival rates of patients of the same illness in other countries is fraught with unquantifiable variables.

What other diseases might Duncan have been exposed to during his life, since he was from a Majority Word country with negligible healthcare and sanitation?  How robust was Duncan's basic health and immune system, in terms of whether or not he had high blood pressure or any other blood disorder, diabetes, any sexually-transmitted disease, or other complications?  These are all questions that, frankly, are none of our business at this point - and certainly would not be known by Robberson to the degree that he could reach a determination regarding their impact on whether he should have survived his case of Ebola.

Meanwhile, with his tirade of illogic, Robberson merely contributes to the ever-increasing swarm of Ebola hysteria being fomented - mostly by the media, such as Robberson's employer - across our ever-more-gullible society.

"The chain of danger to the public only grew worse because of the hospital’s failure to place him in isolation," Robberson exaggerates.  "Duncan stayed in an apartment with children who then went to four Dallas ISD schools, prompting alarmed parents to pull their children from classes.  Ambulance personnel were placed at risk.  The entire city went on high alert."

And if any of that was true to the extent Robberson's imagines it was, was Parkland solely at fault?  What responsibility should a sick person from Liberia have assumed upon himself to reduce his possible threat to others until he was sure he didn't have Ebola?

The only people who've been on high alert in North Central Texas have been the feeble-minded connoisseurs of sensationalism who feed on the breathless updates of pandemic disaster being peddled not just by the mainstream media, but even by conspiracy addicts like the right-wing Drudge Report.  Is that the type of audience to whom Robberson, the Pulitzer writer, and his employer want to align - and thereby sacrifice - their integrity?

"Tod draws upon his experience writing about the suffering behind wars, natural disasters and Third World poverty," croons his bio on the Pulitzer Prize's website, "to help Dallas Morning News readers understand the human drama unfolding in our own neighborhoods."

Yeah, right:  human drama.

It's unfolding, all right, along with the DMN's claim for responsible journalism.