Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Whither Holy Week's Withered Fig Tree?

In 1978, my family moved from an overgrown old farm in upstate New York to suburban Texas.

Mom and Dad purchased a 1950's-vintage home between Dallas and Fort Worth featuring an oversized backyard full of vegetable beds and flower boxes.  Constructed out of wood and brick, they'd been developed by the previous homeowner, an amateur yet prolific gardener.  Since Dad had kept a modest garden on our property in rural New York State, it seemed as though our new home in urbanized Texas provided an ideal continuity for growing some of our own food.

Unfortunately for us, however, growing food in Texas proved to be much more difficult and time-consuming than it had been back in the Northeast.  Whereas sunlight was a more precious commodity up there, down here, its incessant abundance can be a liability.  Rainwater is also scarcer here, which means one has to work harder at manually watering one's plants, and paying for the privilege, too.  Rainwater, after all, is free.

At any rate, along with the vegetable beds and flower boxes in our Texas backyard, the former owner left us some medium-sized fig trees.  Unfortunately for those figs, however, none of us really cared for their taste or texture, and the trees eventually died through a combination of our apathy towards figs in general, and our lack of enthusiasm when it came to learning how to keep them alive.

During Holy Week, I've generally been as ambivalent about the account of Christ cursing the fig tree as our family was towards those fig trees we'd inherited.  And it seems I'm not the only one.  Americans don't eat lots of figs, they're not a prominent part of our culture, and we North American evangelicals tend to skip over Holy Week's fig event as we concentrate on Christ evicting the moneychangers from the temple, the woman with the expensive perfume, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ's trial, and His execution.

Fig event?  Do I need to jog your memory, as I needed to mine?

We're told in Matthew 21 and Mark 11 that, as He's walking towards Jerusalem from where He and His disciples are staying in Bethany, Christ sees a fig tree in full leaf.  He's hungry, so He goes over to get some of its fruit, but once He gets to the tree, he sees that it doesn't have fruit after all.  Christ proclaims that no one will ever eat fruit from that tree again, and the next day, when the disciples walk with Him past the same tree, they notice it is dead.

Peter exclaims to Christ about how uncanny it is that the same green, leafy tree Christ had cursed the previous day is now withered to its roots.  And Christ says, "have faith in God."

Huh?  What makes this anything more than an odd vignette from God's holy pre-crucifixion narrative?

Getting Figgy

It doesn't help us in our post-Modern, post-Christian culture that figs are a misunderstood fruit.  Shucks; technically, figs aren't even a fruit - they're a "false fruit," or a flower, since they comprise the sexual organ of the fig plant.  There is a little hole in the underside of the fig fruit/flower through which special insects crawl to pollinate the hidden flower inside.

Kinky, huh?

Not only that, but in various cultures across other parts of the world, where figs are popular - particularly in that iconic "10-40 window" encompassing most Middle Eastern and East Asian people groups - figs can represent sexuality.  And do you think it's mere happenstance that Adam and Eve stitched together fig leaves to cover their strategic anatomy after they'd sinned in the Garden of Eden?

As food, figs provide excellent nutrition, and some people truly enjoy how figs taste.  Some cultures have experimented with figs and the fruit's unique milky sap to exploit their medicinal properties, which include soothing toothaches, curing sore throats, and treating warts and sores in the mouth.  Figs also make great natural laxatives, in case you're interested.

So, what do we have so far?  Figs are nutritious, healthy, and sexual.  Not exactly the mix we're used to considering during Holy Week, is it?

Where's the theology in all of this?

Let's start with the fact that Christ expected edible fruit from a fig tree in full leaf.  Theoretically, at least, we accept that He was justified in cursing it when He discovered it had no fruit, but that doesn't automatically make sense to me.  I don't necessarily associate a plant being in full leaf with also having ripe fruit.  How does that correlate with the fact that Christ had a legitimate expectation that wasn't met, and that He had a right to do what He did?  Otherwise, it could look as though He was having a bit of a temper tantrum.  Yet we know that Christ is pure, sinless, and, while He had a righteous anger - as displayed with the moneychangers' tables in the temple - He didn't have a temper.

In Biblical times, most species of figs were not in season until late summer or early fall.  So Passover, the time during which Holy Week takes place, was not necessarily a season for figs.  However, certain species of figs can produce two yields per year:  a first of lesser bounty, that could have ripened around Passover (depending on when Passover occurred the year of Christ's resurrection); and a second of greater bounty in the early fall.  So it could have been an early season for early figs, and some scholars guesstimate that what little fruit it might have produced may have already been plucked.

Still, it's not that simple.  For Christ to have been so angry as to curse the tree, it is also speculated that the tree itself was barren, even though it had leaves.  Apparently, it is not uncommon to have fig trees start out with great promise, and somehow manage to go through several years of leafy growth without producing fruit.  Remember, however, that with a fig tree, the fruit is also the flower.  That fleshy part Christ was hoping to eat is the sexual and reproductive system of the fig plant.  And, as you might imagine, a tree can go only so long with malfunctioning reproductive organs (not bearing fruit) before it dies.

The variables continue.  In some species of fig trees, their fruit appears before the leaves, creating an odd spectacle of plump, colorful figs attached to bare sticks.  On these fig trees, being in full leaf promises a bountiful harvest, with the green leaves advertising fruit that has already become ripe and ready for eating.  This would most likely have been the fig species Christ saw, and from which He was expecting to satisfy His appetite.  It still doesn't exactly fit with the season for when most figs produce their best fruit, but since this story is included in God's holy Word, it's there for a purpose.

Confused yet?  Bored?  Wondering what the big point of all this is?  What is the purpose for having a barren fig tree get cursed by Christ mere days before His crucifixion?

Fig-uring it Out

Well, how you interpret the fig tree story depends on how closely you choose to associate it with eschatology, and Christ's warning regarding the destruction of the temple.  His warning comes just a few hours after Peter notices the fig tree had withered, as Christ is leaving the temple with His disciples, and they're commenting on how impressive its buildings are.

Now, eschatology, as you may know, is the study of end-times prophecy.  Are you suddenly really uncomfortable?  So am I.  Theologians who love to delve into the possibilities see lots to discuss in this link between the withered fig tree and the nation of Israel.  Meanwhile, I'm neither a theologian, nor am I particularly curious about end-times theology, since about all we really need to know is that Christ will come "like a thief in the night."  Plus, I tend to believe God provided all people groups in all nations with His Word because it is relevant to all of us.  Whether we're an expert in eschatology or not.

So, call me a chicken if you will - after all, it is almost Passover - but I don't want to get mired down in eschatology.  I don't believe it's wrong to derive a personal application from the story of the withered fig tree.  And that personal application probably seems obvious by now.

The species of fig Christ hopes to enjoy on His walk between Bethany and Jerusalem offers a hypocritical, false, and misleading promise of fruit.  And what does the Bible repeatedly describe as the product of Christlikeness in our lives?  Fruit.  In other words, Christ curses the fig tree because it appeared to offer fruit, but it didn't.  Practically speaking, it was a fig tree in looks only.  It didn't have anything to offer the Son of God.

Ouch.  Are you suddenly uncomfortable again?  I know that hypocrisy is something I'm guilty of.  At least, from time to time.  In fact, the only times I can be confident that I'm modeling an honest faith in Christ is when I'm learning to cultivate the Fruit of the Spirit in my life.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

When Christ sees me, I want Him to see not just leaves, and appearances, and me doing churchy things, and saying all the right things, and protecting widows and orphans, and driving the speed limit.  I want Him to be able to pluck ripe, delicious, healthy, sustaining, and even healing fruit from me.  Whenever He wants.  Whether I'm supposed to be in season or not.

After all, only a few days later in the week, He would die so that I could have life, and have it abundantly.  Abundantly?  Okay, so I recently "came out of the closet" regarding my clinical depression, and I wouldn't exactly describe my life as abundant.  But maybe it's not supposed to be abundant with fun, and luxury, and physical comforts.  Instead, I believe it's supposed to be abundant with fruit.

So I won't wither up and die.

This is my faith in God.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Triumphal Palms

Skinny dry blades from palm fronds.

Try saying that five times fast!

When I was a kid, skinny, dry palm tree blades stripped from palm fronds were what Palm Sunday was about.  They're almost all I remember from Holy Week as a child.  The churches we attended would buy boxes of thin, surprisingly sharp segments of real palm fronds, with each segment being about three feet long, and tapered from about an inch wide at their base to a narrow point.  We children would finish Sunday School early to line up in the church foyer, receive one of these skinny, dry blades, and then parade down the center aisle of the sanctuary, waving our one little blade as high in the air as we could reach.

And we were probably coached to yell "Hosanna!" while doing so.

It was the triumphal entry on a small-church, low-budget scale.  And while adults kept telling us we were waving palm branches, those skinny blades didn't look anything like the palm branches I saw in books, or even on television.  But then again, I remember figuring, even as a child:  we were living in upstate New York.  What would I know about palm branches?  It wasn't until years later that I figured out that on some tropical island somewhere, there were people stripping apart all of their beautiful, native palm fronds so they were easier and cheaper to box and ship back to the mainland.

Imagine my surprise when, several years ago, at the large and wealthy church I attend in Dallas, children from the Sunday School department came down our beautiful sanctuary's aisles with those same skinny, dry blades from palm fronds!  Oh my goodness, I thought:  they couldn't get the real thing?  How many people in this affluent congregation have lush tropical palms gracing their grand homes, potted in imported Italian urns, or planted poolside in their sunny backyards?  These kids must be wondering, like I did, what in the world they were waving around!

For folks who are not too serious about church stuff, Palm Sunday is the stepdaughter to Easter, and only worth the bother of going to church if your kids have been recruited by their Sunday School teacher to carry something resembling a palm branch around the sanctuary.  Palm Sunday is the beginning of the end for Christ.  Hardly a fun thing to commemorate, even if you don't take religion seriously.

Yet for those of us who take faith in Christ a bit more honestly, Palm Sunday isn't a stepdaughter to Easter.  In fact, it's not the beginning of the end, either.  It's the end of the beginning.

All up until this point in His Earthly ministry, Christ has been demonstrating the holiness of His father, establishing His authority as God's Son, and proving to mankind that we need a Savior.  Now came the time for Christ to fulfill His penultimate purpose.  His death, burial, and resurrection would forever seal the bond between the Father and His children.  Christ would be the perfect, only, and eternal sacrifice for our sins, launching a new reality for the world in which ritualistic sacrifices of the Old Testament law would be fulfilled, and thereafter replaced by holy grace.

Isaiah prophesies as much when God says, "Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"

The Apostle Paul explains that new beginnings occur even to this day - our day, today - whenever Christ becomes the Lord of somebody's life.  "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."

And it's not as though Christ saves His people and then leaves us to figure things out from there.  The Apostle Paul writes that God will be faithful to complete the good work He starts in those of us who believe on His Son.  In a way, Palm Sunday's triumphal entry was Christ's way of saying, "enough with the preliminaries; let's get this show on the road."

Indeed, from a palm-strewn roadway, to nails in His palms.

For us.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jesus DOES Care How We Serve Him

"Jesus didn't care about being nice or tolerant, and neither should you."

That's the title of a recent blog entry by the popular Christian blogger Matt Walsh.

He opens his article by commenting about there being lots of heresies in our modern world.  Yet he seems blind to the fact that he's almost committing one in his own title!  Jesus didn't care about being nice or tolerant?  You better believe He did!

Walsh's provocative title is an introduction to his discussion of Christ's righteous anger displayed when He overturned the moneychangers' tables in the temple.  Walsh allows that this is the only act of violence and "intolerance" committed by Christ that appears in the Bible, but he suggests there may have been others that God merely omitted.

Now, to be fair, part of Walsh's essay is spent trying to explain why believers in Christ need to stand for truth and righteousness, and not capitulate to worldly dogma and unBiblical lifestyles.  And he's right:  We do not honor God by bending with every breeze and welcoming clever lies.  God doesn't expect us to "go along to get along."  To the extent that Walsh is saying that Christians should not be vacuous, timid, hands-off, or duplicitous, he's right.

There is a "theology of nice" out there that is not Biblical.  There is a brand of tolerance beyond the Golden Rule out there that, as Walsh puts it, says "be nice to me, I’ll be nice to you, and we’ll all be happy."  And that's not Biblical, either.

Yet Walsh wants to go further and justify belligerence, arrogance, and in-your-face rudeness by the fact that Christ once displayed righteous anger.  However, there's a difference between righteous anger, and not being nice or tolerant.

Yes, Christ chastised the religious leaders of His day.  Yes, He made them nervous, uncomfortable, unsettled, and angry.  However, was it Christ's demeanor, attitude, tone, and physical gestures that intimidated them?  Or what He said?

You'll also notice that almost everybody who was angry at Christ, who was offended by what He said, and who eventually were so hateful of Him that they killed Him, were Jewish religious leaders, and the people they were able to foment against Him.  When He interacted with those crowds, Christ usually had pity for them, not "intolerance."  Christ preached the Kingdom of God, and His message threatened them.  And it wasn't a message of socioeconomics, or politics, or even morality, as much as it was a message of God's holiness, mankind's lostness, and our need for redemption.

Indeed, doesn't the Bible speak volumes by providing only the one account of Christ really being "intolerant?"  It's that big, violent scene in the temple during what we now call Holy Week.  But what about the rich young hedonistic rulers?  Slavery?  Woefully unfair taxes?  Child labor?  No voting rights for Jews?  Political corruption?  Prostitution?  Surely homosexuality existed during that time, and may have even been part of the indulgence racket in the temple.  Yet He "tolerated" it all during His earthly ministry, never once speaking out directly against them to advocate for social change.  It was only when people made a mockery of His holy Father's sanctuary that He overturned tables.  The crass exploitation of money for religious purposes is what made Him indignant.

It's not even that being "nice" is as bad as Walsh wants to think it is.  We're supposed to "make every effort to live in peace with everyone" (Hebrews 12:14).  Again in Romans, we're to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification."  We're to "seek peace, and pursue it" (Psalm 34:14)

Nevertheless, Walsh reaches a disturbing conclusion.

"I think it’s time that Christianity regain its fighting spirit; the spirit of Christ," he writes, almost salivating at the opportunities such a viewpoint would afford him to be reckless in his speech and attitude.  "I think it’s time we ask that question: ‘What would Jesus do?’"

Walsh then postulates that "Jesus would flip tables and yell."

Um, no; not exactly.  Instead, Christ would expect us to model the Fruit of the Spirit, right?  Just as He did, in the temple:
  • Love:  For His holy Father
  • Joy:  He was about His Father's business
  • Peace:  To restore order to the temple's function as a house of true worship
  • Patience:  He'd already waited 33 years to do this, and His death on the cross was imminent, so time was running short
  • Kindness:  He focused his righteous fury on both the buyers and sellers, not making allowances for either group, since they were both sinning (punishment can be considered a form of kindness, as a correction for an improper pattern of behavior)
  • Goodness:  He was interested in preserving His Father's holy virtue
  • Faithfulness:  He was remaining true to God's holiness
  • Gentleness:   His anger at the moneychangers stemmed in part from His concern about the temple being open and available to all who would come and worship, not just those who could afford to participate in this financial abomination ("My house will be called a house of prayer for people from all nations")
  • Self-Control:  In His anger, He did not sin, even as "zeal for His Father's house consumed Him" (Psalm 69:9)

Let's not let people like Matt Walsh badger us into presuming a false narrative of combative, antagonistic, and pugnacious bravado when it comes to interacting with other sinners in our society.  We're not here to change hearts and minds; only the Holy Spirit can do that.  We're here to live out the Gospel of Christ, so that people may see our testimony, and give praise to God.

Yes, there is a lot of immorality all around us, and lots of blasphemies and heresies.  But how much worse are times now than when Christ walked this same Earth?  Besides, He told us that we'd have troubles, but that He'd already overcome them.  So let's not put words in His mouth, and panic about the plight we see for our society.

We can stand for truth and model the Gospel of Christ at the same time.  Or, we can stand for truth, and mock the Gospel by assuming things it doesn't teach.  And frankly, no matter which strategy we choose to follow, lots of people may become hostile towards us.

But if they're really hostile towards Christ, and not us, we know we're serving Him well.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Open Carry Close-Minded on Street Rule

Driving by City Hall on the way home from dinner last night, I noticed a lot of cars and TV vans in the parking lot.

Tuesday nights are city council meeting nights here in Arlington, Texas, but usually, there's hardly a crowd.  And rarely are there TV crews from the local news stations.

I tried to jog my memory regarding what hot-button topic our illustrious leaders might be considering, and drew a blank.  Not that I'm a chronic council watcher, or one of those local government gadflies.  But I do like to know what's going on.  One of my friends calls me "the mayor," because when he lived here, all he had to do was ask me about something in our local news, and chances were, I'd already talked to my "sources" and could fill him in.

Yes, my city councilmember knows me by name.  What's wrong with that?  She still smiles when she sees me!  In fact, my previous councilmember got a new park named after her in our district, and on a work day last year to spruce it up, when she saw that I had signed in as a volunteer, she went looking for me to greet me in person.  And I've never donated a dollar to either of their campaigns.

So yes, I know people.  They're just not people you likely know, or who have any influence outside of our fair city.

At any rate, I had other things to do last night, and it wasn't until I heard the 10:00 news on a television in another room that I realized what had drawn so much interest at City Hall.

 Guns n' Yellow Roses

Here in Texas, a lot of people are extremely proud of their firearms.  Rifles, pistols, shotguns, machine guns, you name it - if it's got a trigger and a barrel, it's considered sacred in the Lone Star State, even if it doesn't work.  We love our guns so much, we've got laws that allow for the "open carry" of legally-registered guns, which means you can display your permitted bullet-launcher on your person in broad daylight, out in the open.

Sure, it looks a little menacing, but that's mostly the point.  It's a bravado factor, an attention-getter, and a big ego trip to be swaggering around with a lethal weapon dangling from your arm or hip.  Of course, if everybody did it, then it wouldn't look so cool.  And if everybody did it out of necessity, it wouldn't be cool at all.  But since most ordinary Texans think walking around with guns looks a bit goofy, at least when you're not out on somebody's ranch during hunting season, not many people here take full advantage of the state's liberal open-carry laws.

But there is a very small number of folks who do.  And they've set their sights on Arlington, where apparently, according to our local media, we have one of the strictest ordinances about walking around in traffic.  Regardless of whether you're open-carrying or not.

Now, maybe you're thinking to yourself:  What fool would want to intentionally walk around in traffic?  Well, our local firemen do it for an annual fundraiser, standing at intersections with their tall fire boots, collecting money when people stop for red lights.  And a group called Open Carry Texas (OCT) wants to be able to do the same thing, only instead of collecting money, they want to hand out pamphlets containing the United States Constitution.  They've worked a couple of Arlington intersections recently, and some of their members have been ticketed for violating the city's ordinance about walking into traffic, even when it's stopped.

At red lights, OTC members will yell at the assembled motorists, with their guns at their sides, yet prominently glistening in the sunlight.  They'll hold up little booklets, and indicate that if anybody wants one, they'll bring one to them in their vehicle.  And sure enough, the inquisitive side of lots of drivers will encourage them to go ahead and wave an OCT guy over, to see what all the fuss is about.  Hey, a bunch of people at a street corner with their rifles and pistols isn't something one sees every day.  For what are they advocating?  What excitement might I be missing out on?

See?  I'm not the only person who likes knowing what's happening!

But I Didn't Shoot No Deputy

Well, at a couple of these events, the police have been summoned, since some motorists call 911 after witnessing OTC'ers, concerned about so many people standing around with firearms out in the open.  And while the cops are checking out the intersection, they've witnessed some of the OCT folks walking out into stopped traffic, handing out their literature.  And that's what the ordinance restricts:  walking out into stopped traffic.  As long as the OTC'ers have the proper gun permits, the guns they're carrying are not the issue.

This is the Lone Star State, remember.

Nevertheless, at this point, it's still unclear the extent to which the police have warned OCT about the ordinance prohibiting them from entering traffic lanes.  Did cops write tickets the first time they saw the violations, or did they verbally inform OCT about the city's statue, and let the first couple of offenses slide?

Speaking as a motorist who's never been let off with simply a warning after being pulled over for speeding, I can attest to the validity of being ticketed immediately upon one's first offense.  Besides, these OCT activists seem well-informed about the laws pertaining to gun ownership, so the law should be something they respect.  Right?

Wrong.  OCT is upset with Arlington because they say the city's ordinance regarding pedestrians entering traffic lanes is unConstitutional.  It violates their right of free speech.

Which, of course, isn't true.  What the ordinance does is warn both motorists and pedestrians of the dangers of mixing together on city streets.  And if pedestrians don't have the good, old-fashioned common sense to stay on the sidewalk and not enter the roadway when three-ton motorized vehicles are present, then it penalizes those pedestrians so they hopefully will learn the lesson their common sense failed to teach them.

It's the worst kind of "Nanny State" when the state actually has to have laws like this.  We can't legislate against morality, and increasingly, we've having to try to legislate against stupidity.  The fact that OCT'ers lack common sense proves the law's purpose.

Yet they still don't understand.  OCT figures that as long as the traffic is stopped at a red light, they should be perfectly safe handing out their literature in the roadway.  And that may be true in theory, but anybody who's ever driven in Texas knows that "Drive Friendly, the Texas Way" isn't a motto, it's a joke.  I've seen motorists try to cross three lanes of traffic while at a stoplight.  People open their doors to dump stuff out of their cars, motorcycles glide between lines of waiting cars, and distracted drivers ram into the back of cars already stopped.  Plus, with right-on-red-after-stop, at least one traffic lane in each direction is constantly moving - the one closest to the sidewalk!

Besides, is standing alongside a major intersection, yelling at drivers in their vehicles, the best way for anybody to disseminate information about their cause?  Granted, this group may not have the funds to run a conventional advertising campaign, but they seem to have done a pretty good job about notifying the local media of their presence at Arlington's City Hall.  Maybe stirring the pot is all they really ever hoped to accomplish, and they banked on the likelihood that video of their gun-slinging boisterousness would make for some lively television news fodder.

As it happened, the ordinance OCT doesn't like wasn't on the council's agenda last night, but the mayor let the group air their grievances for half an hour anyway.  He gave speakers a 2-minute time limit, while the normal time limit for agenda items is three.  Right off the bat, however, some OCT activists were infuriated that their rights were being violated, since they were losing a minute off the normal timeframe.  But the mayor didn't have to give them any time at all, since it wasn't on the agenda.  That's not a violation of free speech; it's taxpayer dollars in action.  Efficient government can't exist at the whim of petulant loudmouths, and believe me, I've heard plenty of them at City Hall over the years.

Not that the city doesn't value the free exchange of opinions.  My understanding is that there's the equivalent to an "open mike" at the end of each council meeting, but I've never stayed long enough to find out.  By then, any reporters that have come to witness any debates over agenda items have usually left, along with virtually all of whatever audience may have shown up for the official proceedings.  Since OCT seems intent on their public grandstanding, what kind of opportunity would that open mike venue afford them?

And speaking of grandstanding, I wonder how many OTC'ers would welcome the scenario in which anybody was allowed to wander into traffic at any stoplight, handing out informational literature?  They say their freedom of speech is being curtailed, but it's funny how they didn't get agitated when they first discovered that nobody else can do it, either.  Except the firemen, of course, which is a little different.  For one thing, firemen are first responders who are trained to interact with traffic.  Second, just about everybody knows what those "fill the boot" campaigns are, and there's less confusion about why they're standing about in the roadway.  And third, they're not likely to sue the city if they ever did get hit by a motorist.  As selfish, obstinate, and illogical as these OTC'ers are being, meanwhile, who's willing to bet the city won't be caught up in some sort of lawsuit if one of them were to get hurt?

Aim to Please

Personally, I wish the firemen wouldn't stand in the streets with their boots and solicit money, either. It does appear to set a double-standard, even if there's a big difference between firemen and OTC'ers standing in traffic.  No matter who does it, and whether or not they're well-trained first responders, pavement is a risky place for pedestrians to be.  Shucks, look how dangerous it is for automobiles!  If the city decides the easiest way to neutralize this flap is to end the "fill the boot" campaign, finding a different way for the fire department to run its fundraiser will be the worst result.

According to OTC's website, one of their goals is to "foster a cooperative relationship with local law enforcement... with an eye towards preventing negative encounters."  And I suppose their current little stunt is fostering cooperative relationships and preventing negative encounters?  Please!  They simply want to do what they want to do, wherever they want to do it.

As far as having a bunch of tough-looking guys wandering around with guns strapped to their shoulders in plain sight, I'm not crazy about it, but then again, having that type of presence near a retail area might make petty criminals think twice.  I already know of several friends who have conceal-and-carry permits, which means they've got a pistol under their shirt in public, and that doesn't bother me in the slightest.  I'm not anti-gun, but I'm not used to them being used as decoration, either.

Nevertheless, as far as Arlington's pedestrian ordinance goes, if OTC wants to set a good example of responsibility, respect, dignity, and prudence, they need to stop making mountains out of molehills.  Over-reaction and radicalism are two things law-abiding gun owners don't need as distractions to their hobby... or their rights.  Currently, OTC isn't just hurting their own cause with their belligerence.  They're handing ammunition to gun control advocates.

Sticking to your guns doesn't mean shooting your mouth off because the city won't let you go play in traffic.

Update:  And speaking of nanny state laws, over-regulation, using common sense, and simply taking responsibility for one's own actions, how about this story as reported by our local ABC affiliate:  A softball hit from the sports fields of a Dallas high school sailed over the fence and hit a passing car.  Now the car's owner wants the Dallas school district to pay for his broken windshield, and install netting to prevent other fly balls near the busy urban roadway.  What do you think?  On the one hand, it was purely an accident.  If there was a softball player at the school aiming for this driver's car, then Major League scouts should be on-campus this afternoon getting this kid on some professional roster!  Otherwise, it's a simple accident, and while it would be a good idea for the school district to install some netting above its existing fence, why make the district pay for the replacement windshield?  As commenters to this story pointed out online, this is what insurance is for:  accidents.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dallas Sees Gold in 2 Dead Malls

Maybe it's because my first real job was in a mall.

But I can't help being a tad curious when I learn new things about America's dated malls, how they're dying, and the various schemes cities come up with to try and resuscitate them.

For many people, especially city council members, mayors, and Luddites who loathe shopping on the Internet, it's easy to forget that shopping malls were a fad.  They were merely one step in the evolution of retailing, from the country store, to the downtown retail district, to strip centers.  And then came enclosed, climate-controlled centers; one fad after another.

It's not complex economics:  shopping malls were destined to fade from popularity whenever the next big thing came along.

And the next big thing, so far, appears to be an amalgamation of online retailing and "lifestyle" centers - kind of a flash-back to the 1960's strip mall, but with a 1920's downtown aesthetic, replete with brick walkways, old-fashioned lampposts, and decorated seating areas that air-conditioned malls popularized.

After each trend has had its day, there's the unsettled fallout as survivors try to hang on to what made them successful.  For example, it took a while for the big-city department store trend to die, yet a few manage to hang on in places like New York, with Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Saks Fifth Avenue; and Dallas, with the flagship Neiman-Marcus.  From other walkable downtowns in cities like Philadelphia to Boston and Chicago, various famous stores have been bought-out by the firm that controls Macy's, and grand old names from the heyday of regional department stores are now all called "Macy's."  Nevertheless, those grand old store buildings still stand, even if more for nostalgia's sake - and with the benefit of hefty tax incentives - than anything else.

If it wasn't for America's Interstate highway system, and small neighborhood locales, strip shopping centers would likely have become extinct when malls came along.  However, the convenience of driving up close to the front door of the store at which you wanted to shop never really became unpopular, even if the neighborhoods where these strip centers were initially built experienced a decline in their social status over the years.

Here in the Fort Worth - Dallas area, decades of booming growth from the fifties on to the present day has meant that not only do we have lots of aging strip shopping centers everyplace, but we also have a lot of those huge malls.  What folks in the industry call "super-regional shopping centers."  With the heat that we have most of the year, air-conditioned malls made a lot of sense, even if you could bake yourself alive simply traversing acres of concrete parking lots on your walk between your car and the closest entrance.

Just off the top of my head, I can count up to about 18 of those super-regional malls that were built around here, including one of the first ever in the country:  North Park Center in Dallas.

Surprisingly, venerable North Park has been fashionable and popular from day one, and today, is practically a tourist destination in its own right.  And part of its ironic staying power is that it defies convention.  It is everything current pop culture says is uncool for a mall:  it's enormous, most of it is still from the 1960's, it has a bland design, it doesn't have enough parking, it doesn't have any glitzy center court, it takes forever to get anywhere inside, it's full of inconsequential Modern art, it's got every traditional department store brand you can imagine, and it gets over-run with teenagers on the weekends.  Yet it's still packed.  All the time.  With stores that sell some of the most expensive stuff in the entire state.  Lines of both imported luxury cars and domestic SUVs alike, their drivers waiting for valet parking, can wrap around the parking lots on Friday and Saturday nights.  Leave a movie at its huge multi-plex after midnight, and its parking lots are still half-full.

Christmas?  You've gotta be kidding.

North Park dazzles politicos and planners down at Dallas' city hall, because it isn't supposed to work, but it does, and wildly so.

But we're only talking one mall here.  For a while, newer and fancier malls like the Galleria, which used to bill itself as the most exclusive mall in Dallas, gave North Park a run for its money.  But these days, nothing local compares to North Park in terms of tried-and-true retailing revenue and foot traffic.  There are some big malls in Dallas' wealthy suburbs, but they're not in the same league as North Park.

Meanwhile, of those 18 super-regional malls that are scattered about north Texas, one has been converted to a discount emporium catering to Hispanics, several have simply died - a couple have been completely torn-down and their property redeveloped; one here in Arlington is defunct and slogging through yet another bankruptcy court battle, with plenty of others only steps away from meeting the same fate, judging by how empty their parking lots are.

Two of those near-death malls are back in Dallas; one in the city's wealthier, whiter, northern part, and the other in the city's poorer, blacker, southern part.  Valley View, in the northern part of Dallas, is already closed, for all practical purposes.  Red Bird, which developers tried to re-name "Southwest Center" after most of its stores fled two decades ago, is on life support.  Literally.  People have gotten shot to death inside of it.
Dated, drab, and sterile... is this Valley View?  Red Bird?
No, it's Dallas' wildly popular North Park Center.  Go figure.
(This photo must have been taken right after it opened for the day;
I've never seen it this empty when I've been there.)
The reasons for both malls' problems are at the same time identical, yet different.  Valley View declined as shoppers were poached by newer malls around it, including the Galleria, and as traffic congestion on the freeway bordering it, the notorious LBJ, practically suffocated it.  Red Bird declined as the neighborhood surrounding it transitioned from a mixture of middle-class blacks and whites to nearly all-black of meager economic means, with the commensurate rise in crime and blight that unfortunately accompanies most such transitions.  It's not just Red Bird Mall that's empty today; most of the strip centers, motels, and restaurants around it are either empty as well, or renting out to mom-and-pop shops of dubious distinction.  The entire Red Bird neighborhood has become a byword for urban decay around here, even as middle-class blacks move out for nicer, safer, cleaner suburbs further south from Dallas.

Nevertheless, with their gaze on North Park, city leaders see promise in both Valley View and Red Bird.  And are trying to commit $432 million in taxpayer funds to pump new life into them.

Already anticipating the push-back they'll receive from Dallas voters who are very much aware of the eyesores that both Valley View and Red Bird have become, one city councilmember, Tennell Atkins, has issued a warning for critics of the $432 million outlay.

“People [who say] we should not put this money in Valley View and [Red Bird], you’re wrong," Atkins defiantly said, trying to call the property by it's contrived alias, Southwest Center Mall.  "This is the City of Dallas.  We’re going to put the money there.  We’ll grow the city, we’ll grow development… in the south and north and take development back from the suburbs.”

Except that no new mall has been built in Dallas, Fort Worth, or their suburbs in years.  Now, granted, Atkins and his fellow councilmembers are talking about mixing in some apartments and offices into their aspirations for rejuvenating these two dormant malls.  But it's no secret outside of Dallas' council chambers that shopping malls themselves are dead weight these days.
Valley View Mall (foreground) with the Galleria in the distance,
between the two towers with arched roofs.
Although it's ironic that both an affluent sector and a poverty-stricken sector of the same city have defunct malls, the Valley View property poses far more potential than the Red Bird property does.  Its neighborhood consists of some run-down apartment complexes and dated office buildings, but the whole district may be on the cusp of some major changes.  That awful Interstate running alongside Valley View, the LBJ Freeway, has endured years of an above-ground and below-ground expansion that will be completed before too long.  When construction comes to a close, Valley View's property will be far more alluring as a redevelopment site than Red Bird's.  You see, although Red Bird sits along not just one but two well-traveled freeways, its surrounding neighborhood shows no signs of reversing its serious decline.  Valley View's property, meanwhile, will still be relatively accessible to not only some of Dallas' most desirable residential neighborhoods, but also several nearby suburbs, all of which are densely populated by an increasingly diverse pool of well-educated, high-income people.  The type of people who, no matter their skin color and ethnicity, simply don't want to live around Red Bird.

Owners of Valley View are asking for a handout from City Hall because that's what developers do these days.  Time was, a developer funded a project with private money based on its merits.  These days, developers cloak their ideas with language evoking "economic revitalization," and ask for taxpayer money to help pad the profit margin of projects that may or may not actually make sense.  For the Valley View property, it would take a pretty incompetent developer not to make a profit on re-using that prime swath of real estate.  In a city where golden Wild-West-style bragging rights used to ride on glitzy shopping centers and daring skyscrapers, one would hope that some good ol' Big-D hubris still exists to fuel some dirt-movin', steel-raisin' passion.

Red Bird, sorry to say, will languish no matter what takes place.  It's almost too obvious that advocates for Red Bird's redevelopment are throwing Valley View into the mix so they can ride the coattails of the northern mall's presumed success.  But Valley View will never again be just a mall.  In fact, it likely will never again have a shopping center as its major tenant.  For Dallas, as with all of North America, those days are almost certainly over, as retailing continues to churn through its bottom-line trends.

So, how about where you live?  Any dead malls nearby?

If your local politicians think throwing $432 million to gussie them up is a stupid idea, be thankful.  Here in Dallas, it's called the cost of gilding nostalgia.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Intolerance by Gays Claims Mozilla's Eich

I've used Firefox for years.

Apparently, a guy named Brendan Eich helped invent it.

This week, he was forced to resign from the company that runs Firefox - a company he helped create - because he once donated money to a heterosexual marriage effort in California.

And the gay lobby considers his ouster a victory for their cause.

Eich helped develop Firefox, an Internet browser that has been around for about 15 years, and is managed by a company called Mozilla, which is actually a non-profit.  Ironic, actually, since this means Eich is all about information, information flow, and education.  Regardless of one's ability to pay for it.

And what does one do with the information they receive?  They base opinions upon it.  We all do it.  Liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, bi, evangelical, agnostic, New Yorker, Texan, and on and on.  Even people who aren't very educated can base their opinions on whatever level of education they've had.  And those folks can be just as dangerous as the folks who've had too much education for their own good, and struggle to derive opinions from it all.

Suffice it to say that Eich has spent his career helping people become less uneducated.

Other than that, I know very little about the guy.  I don't know anything about his personal faith.  In fact, after all of this exploded in our media, I've purposely refrained from researching Eich (via Firefox, of course) because for this essay, it doesn't matter if he's anti-gay-marriage, or anti-heterosexual-marriage, or vegan, or a Marxist, or a fan of Lucille Ball.  He's a citizen of the United States, and as such, he has the right to think what he wants to think about a social issue that a lot of people are debating right now.

And he felt forced to give up his job because something for which he indicated support isn't politically correct.  How enlightened of his foes.  The irony is baffling.

Is this the kind of America pro-gay-marriage people want?

I do not believe gay marriage is moral, or entirely practical.  I don't believe governments should endorse it, because the only reason governments endorse heterosexual marriage is because it's the only way a society can perpetuate itself.  Biology, remember?  Adoption is a great thing, but it's not the normal way human beings build their communities.

Now yes, according to the Bible, being gay is itself a sin, but it's not something that should be outlawed.  Nor should gays who want to live together be legally prohibited from doing so.  But a government has no obligation to legally recognize relationships between people of the same sex who profess love for each other, because there's no literal benefit from its doing so.

Some gays are apparently so insecure in their sexual preference that it scares them when somebody doesn't hold their opinion.  Kinda like the right-wing religious bigots who apparently are so insecure in their faith that they get scared by atheists.  After all, there's a difference between upholding our holy God's authority over sexuality, which He created, and degrading sinners who may not be performing the types of sins we ourselves let slide.  Since like gluttony, gossip, speeding, lying, lusting... see what I mean?

If I were as smart as Eich, and helped to run a company like Mozilla, I'd certainly be vilified for my views.  Especially since they seem to be far stronger than his.  He donated $1,000 - which in Silicon Valley terms, is pocket change - to an effort to keep heterosexual marriage exclusive in his state.  Not exactly the hallmark of an ardent anti-gay bigot, is it?  But still, isn't it his right to donate his money to political causes that may not be politically correct?  It's not a crime to do that, is it?  Granted, he's likely not surprised that his is is not the fashionable view in an industry that grovels at the feet of youth, fads, and pop culture, incessantly pushing for the next big thing.  All things considered, however, Eich is hardly an anti-gay-marriage fundamentalist thug who's been heartily thwarting gay rights at every opportunity.

Yes, there are plenty of anti-gay-marriage fundamentalist thugs out there who indeed have been heartily thwarting gay rights at every opportunity.  And I believe the attitudes displayed by those folks are just as wrong as they are of the folks who pushed Eich out of his job.  And the fact that both of these polarizing, extremist segments of our society exist helps bolster my personal advocacy for not only moderate politics, but the Fruit of the Spirit.  After all, it's not moderation that causes destructive, vindictive polarization.

Right-wing evangelicals scoff at people like me, because they say we're not as forceful in the stands we take for what's true.  Which, of course, is the same argument left-wingers use for Democrats who are willing admit that compromise isn't a dirty word.  Irony again, huh?  When it comes to politics and social policy, American evangelicals have for too long simplistically assumed that right equals might.  Meanwhile, I continue to be fascinated by the distinctly non-adversarial tone Christ exhibited with the leaders of His day when it came to politics.  Granted, the heady option of gay marriage wasn't up for discussion back then, but if it was, what is it from the Fruit of the Spirit that Christ would not have embodied?

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It's what people of faith should have been exhibiting to our adversaries for years, isn't it?  Not the righteous vitriol recklessly patterned after Christ's emptying of the moneychangers from the temple.  Not the crude jokes, or the blatant discrimination in the workplace, or even the anti-sodomy laws, which were about as effective as anti-adultery laws would have been.

What scripture denies that the Fruit of the Spirit is what Christ would like to see from me, and you, if you also advocate for heterosexual marriage?

Some gay writers have come out in support of Eich.  Not for his views on the subject of gay marriage, but his right to hold those views, and support them in a legal fashion.  These gays are appalled by the fanatical contempt being demonstrated by radicals who are pushing for total intolerance of compromise or differing opinions.  Sounds like the same intolerance of which right-wing fundamentalists used to be accused, doesn't it?

When those of us who claim to follow Christ deploy tactics and attitudes that differ little from those who are wrong, isn't that more disparaging of us, than them?  Instead, in the face of surly opposition, might the counter-cultural Fruit of the Spirit be more distinctive of those who trust in the holy God of the universe?

Tides turn, but truth doesn't.  We're increasingly seeing what the shoe looks like when it's on the other foot.  Unfortunately for people like Eich, his adversaries don't have access to the Fruit that God wants displayed in the lives of His people.

We do, however.  And yes, He does.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Recording History with Religious Buildings

Religious buildings can be an unexpected record of history.

From Europe's great cathedrals to the anonymous megachurch warehouses of today, religious structures tell stories of not just theological trends, but architectural, social, economic, and even political trends.  These stories don't have to span several centuries, however.  In some cities, all it takes is a few decades to see how time and change have been documented by consecrated wood, bricks, mortar, and glass.

For example, there's the grand, quintessential New England church in my Mom's hometown.  Once a proud sentinel of Christianity on a hilltop in coastal Sedgwick, Maine, First Baptist used to be a hub of village life.  Today, after the congregation's membership dwindled to two - the pastor, and his wife - it's owned by the local historical society, which doesn't have the funds to keep it repaired.  So there it sits, rotting in plain sight, with a treasure trove of stained glass windows reputed to be worth upwards of $6 million held hostage behind warped Plexiglas; too fragile to remove, with the salty sea air corroding its century-old solder.

Christianity in Maine, and throughout New England, has become an anachronism.  It's a relic of another time.  Some Christ-centered congregations still exist across the region, but they are usually too small and poor to fund the expensive upkeep of picturesque antique church buildings, whose wood has become brittle or rotten in the climate's extreme seasons.  These buildings are woefully uninsulated, and fraught with design features that cannot be cheaply retrofitted to accommodate handicapped people and modern fire codes.

Some of these wonderful old churches have become restaurants, or libraries, or civic auditoriums, or even private homes.  Others have been torn down, while yet others, like First Baptist Church of Sedgwick, quietly disintegrate; still too iconic to tear down, yet too big for any faith-based use in a village where organized religion has become marginalized.

As has, indeed, what used to be its robust sense of community.

The white steepled churches so characteristic of rural New England were built in towns and villages that enjoyed a strong sense of interpersonal connectivity and civic purpose.  Employment centered around local agriculture, perhaps some small industry, and providing consumer goods to local customers.  That was a time in which religion, if not faith itself, played a significant role in the culture of American society, which meant churches were usually centered in, or near, the village square.

These days, however, hardly anybody farms New England's increasingly pricey real estate.  Small industry is practically extinct across much of America's North, meaning village residents have to drive miles for the closest jobs, and those far-away places are now where they shop, bank, receive healthcare, and go to school.  Meanwhile, not only has the village community withered away into a handful of stubborn old-timers and newish families where both spouses have long commutes, coastal locales in idealized states like Maine are burdened with high-priced housing catering to Boomers who are retiring and seeking second homes.  Generation after generation, more local kids move away for better jobs, and affordable housing.  About the only time an entire village gets together to do much of anything anymore is during their annual meetings, a ritual across much of New England, where property owners gather to try and hold the line against ever-rising local taxes.

Of course, it's not just in Maine where old churches tell a story of transition, religious apathy, and shifting priorities.  Here in Arlington, Texas, where I live, several churches that were built during this city's early boom years of the 1950's have been repurposed as well.  One of them, a dated structure reeking of Modernist bravado - it's circular in shape, on a sloping hill - sat vacant after its congregation dissolved until a community theater group purchased it.  Soon, unfortunately, they ran into steep maintenance and remodeling costs to keep it functional and safe.  It now sits vacant on a major thoroughfare, having been set afire twice after homeless vagrants are believed to have sought shelter within it, and the theater group teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.

Another repurposed church building sits just a mile or so away, a former Baptist church that struggled with declining membership as its neighborhood underwent a transition from small, wood-frame, single-family homes to high-density, low-rent apartments.  After the property, whose sanctuary features a dramatically pitched roof in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, languished for a couple of years, a school for deaf children bought it.  But again, the new non-profit owners have struggled with the high costs associated with maintaining a 1950's-era structure, especially with all of the regulations now in place for educational facilities.

Then there's the saga of what's going on in Syracuse, New York, one of America's northern cities where the Roman Catholic Church has been on a closing spree.  They've been padlocking glorious worship spaces because their parishioners have either died or moved away - or lost interest in religion, like they have in New England.  In New York City, stories are told of warehouses full of icons, old stained-glass windows, ornate pulpit furniture, pews, candelabras, brassware, and other accoutrements of Roman Catholic worship and education that have been salvaged from closed churches across America's largest diocese.  As Catholics move to southern states, some new churches are being built for them, and clerics are trekking up to Gotham to browse the collection of church furniture and art that's been mothballed.  Yet supply far exceeds demand.

At any rate, in 2010, the Catholic Church closed Syracuse's century-old Holy Trinity sanctuary, a splendid brick edifice whose tall spires command a clear view of the city's downtown district.  Built by immigrants of a former German neighborhood on the north side of town, the streets today around Holy Trinity are lined by neat yet old and, frankly, unremarkable houses on tiny lots.  Like most rust-belt cities, Syracuse has been hemorrhaging jobs and middle-class taxpayers for decades, and there's little left in most of its original neighborhoods to attract the type of newcomers who are willing and able to support a traditional parish like Holy Trinity.

As much dismay the local diocese caused when they first closed Holy Trinity Church, even more dismay has arisen over recent plans by a non-profit educational organization to purchase the property and use it for their school.

And, um, a mosque.

Yes, the new owners of Holy Trinity are Muslim.  And not only that, but they have won the right to cut off the stone crosses that were originally installed atop several spires along the sanctuary's steeples and roofline.  After all, say the former church's new Muslim owners, they are not supposed to worship symbols.

Because of its age and architectural significance, Holy Trinity's sanctuary is on the city's historic preservation list, and a previous attempt to remove stained glass windows from the church was thwarted by Syracuse's landmark commission.  Some former members of the church assumed that a similar ruling would be made for the crosses, which they argued were integral elements of the building's design.  But this time, the landmark commission ruled in favor of the crosses' removal.

How the Muslims can live with stained glass windows that undoubtedly boast any number of Christian symbols in them - but not the rooftop crosses - hasn't been explained.

Part of the contentiousness surrounding the stone crosses, obviously, is based on the fact that an Islamic group made the request.  In a blue-collar city like Syracuse, where ethnic ties run strong among the Irish, Italians, Germans, Polish, and Jewish descendants of its original settlers, it's hard enough to overcome the reality that, according to the Islamic group, 5,000 Muslims will be using this space, while the Roman Catholics had to close it for lack of worshippers.  Economic transitions like the ones Syracuse has been undergoing for at least two generations now are hard enough.  Cultural and religious transitions can be even harder.

Yet you might be surprised to learn that having Muslims remove crosses from an unused Christian facility doesn't really bother me.  And not just because I don't live in Central New York.  If the practice of Christianity is disappearing in a city, at what point to Christian buildings become obsolete, and eligible for repurposing?

If Syracuse's Roman Catholics who live in this neighborhood were serious about their faith, would they have stopped participating in this parish?  If the city's constantly-shrinking population is solely to blame, as Syracuse Catholics moved not just to suburbia, but to other parts of the country, who's left to really mourn the loss of Holy Trinity as a Catholic parish?  Sure, it's a nice building, with a rich history, and it's a powerful symbol of the vibrancy of the community that once thrived in the shadows of its steeples.  Nevertheless, like the Muslims said in their petition to remove the crosses, symbols aren't to be worshipped.  By Muslims, or Christians.

Granted, in a place like Syracuse, there must be plenty of empty shopping centers, office buildings, and other non-church structures that are on the market, vacant and ready to be repurposed.  Why did they pick a beloved Catholic church whose crosses they'd want to take down?  Is there some subtle message they may be trying to send, like the folks who wanted to construct an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center?

At least they're not asking for permission to tear down the building and build something from scratch.  At least Holy Trinity isn't going to sit and decay like my Mom's childhood church is doing in Maine.

But do you see what is happening with Holy Trinity?  It's building is telling a story.  It's the history of its neighborhood, and of immigrants who raised families who moved onwards and outwards.  Taking their faith with them?  Perhaps.  Or leaving it behind?  Now the newcomers are Muslim, and while there's a lot of political baggage in that, why should it be their fault if they've found Christian buildings that are no longer being used by Christians?

I'm not politically correct enough to deny that there are a lot of things to blame Muslims for in our world.  But repurposing a church that is no longer relevant isn't one of them.

That's simply religious buildings chronicling the history of the United States.  Not just in Syracuse, but Maine, New England, and even here in Arlington, Texas.

If anything, it's the history being chronicled that should disturb us.

  If you'd like to see the faded splendor of Holy Trinity's interior, click here.