Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vacation Day from Summer

Here it is, the very last day of July, in the normally hot, arid southwestern cities of Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas.

And the temperature is about 75 degrees.

At 2:00pm.

Now, where you live, having a temperature of 75 degrees at 2:00pm may not be significant.  But here in north Texas, this is downright amazing.  It's wonderful!  It's refreshing and envigorating.

It's also rare.  It's like a vacation day from summer.

To put this in context, consider that the average low temperature for this date is 76 degrees.  And that low temperature would be at around two in the morning, not two in the afternoon!  Meanwhile, our average high today should be 97.  And the record high has gotten up to 106 on this date.

But not today!

Today, we have overcast skies, a bit of humidity, but some gloriously cool air!  This is more like a typical summer day in, say, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is situated at the mouth of New York Harbor.  Or maybe mid-coast Maine, where my Mom grew up, and where our family used to take summer vacations.

When I lived in Brooklyn after college, this is the type of day I'd choose to walk down to Bay Ridge, a neighborhood in the southwestern corner of the borough.  I liked to hike along streets lined by big homes and towering trees in that tidy, quiet, upper-middle-class enclave, and escape the congestion, noise, and dirtiness of the rest of the city.  The breeze would come up the hills of the ridge from the Atlantic Ocean, fresh and clean.  Today, I'm not sure how clean our air is here in north Texas, but it can't be as dirty as it otherwise would be if it was blazing hot, with hardly any more breeze than when somebody sneezes.

In Maine, the rugged natives who live in the Pine Tree State would be complaining about the 70-degree heat on a day like today, but down by the shore, or on a pier, if the wind was strong enough off of the water, I'd probably be wearing a light jacket.  Of course, when the sun shines in Maine, just like anyplace else, the temperature can get rather uncomfortable.   But at least things cool off at night up there, whereas here in Texas, temperatures can remain in the 90's well after sunset.

How nice to know we won't have that problem this evening!  Indeed, this morning, it was weird to walk around outside in shorts and feel a tinge of a chill in the breeze.  I pulled some weeds in the backyard, and didn't perspire at all!  This afternoon, I went out in my car to run some errands with my windows rolled down and my sunroof open - and after I finished my errands, I drove around for another half an hour, enjoying the sheer luxury of being a little chilly on a summer afternoon with all the windows rolled down!   The leaves in our trees are rustling in the breeze, and it's not the raspy rustling of dry, dying leaves that typically have begun to fade in Texas' brutal summer heat.  In fact, things have been so mild all season, in comparison to our normal summers, that the trees still have bright green leaves, and the grass is still bright green as well.  We've no leaves dulled by hanging in incessantly hot air, or sprawling yellow patches of parched lawns, where the grass has decided it can't compete with the sun.
At least, not yet.

Sure, here in north Texas, we still have the worst of our usual summertime heat to come.  August and September can drain the chlorophyll out of the hardiest Texas plants, just as it can drain the energy out of the hardiest Texan.

At the end of July, in both Maine and New York, the locals will be starting to lament the passage of summer, a season that goes all too quickly in their parts of our world.  Yet here in Texas, days like today are only a cause for lament because we know they won't last - the heat will return, and sooner than we'd like.  Up north, they feel deprived by cloudy days in their summers, but here in Texas, cloudy days are a gift - especially when they keep temperatures so far below normal.

Summer won't end for us until sometime during the first couple of weeks in October.  All the more reason to soak up days like today.

It's not that the daily weather forecast should hold so much sway over how we feel, or our outlook on the day, but it does, doesn't it?  Below-average summer temperatures are enthusiastically welcomed by many Texans, just as above-average winter temperatures are usually welcomed by people up north.  Considering how much of our days we spend inside, and how little time we actually spend outdoors, why should the weather, temperatures, and precipitation matter so much to us?  Lots of office workers don't even get to sit near an exterior window during their workdays.  Yet nice weather is quite important to most of us.  Even when we don't get to enjoy it.  Even when it's as accessible as being on the opposite side of a wall near you.

I haven't gotten to spend a lot of time outdoors today, but what time I have been able to spent outside, I've thoroughly enjoyed.  Maybe that's why good weather is important to us, even when we can't drop everything else and enjoy it to its fullest.

Just like today in north Texas, a little bit of enjoyable weather is better than none of it!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Truth Driscoll Didn't Intend to Teach

I could begin by crowing, "I told you so!"

But how we say something can be as important as what we say.  So I won't gloat.  Even though I was right.

More's the pity, however.

I've never been enamored by pugnacious Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll.  Driscoll is the founder of Mars Hill Church, which until recently, has been a fabulously successful ministry in a city reputed to be one of the most difficult to evangelize in all of North America.

Driscoll and his staff created a sprawling empire crossing various social media platforms and multiple worship sites, promoting a raw, masculine worldview that purported a relevance attractive to Washington state's rough-and-tumble, Pacific Northwest individualism.  His legions of congregants and fans, both in Seattle and across our evangelical ghetto, gushed about Driscoll's bluntness and no-holes-barred teaching.  He told it like it is.  He wasn't afraid of offending people.  He put the pants back on Christianity, as well as the swagger in Christianity's step.

All stuff that I believe distracted from the Gospel, fed a false understanding of Who God is, and helps to prove why Christian celebrity worship is rarely effectual.

But most people don't care what boring guys like me think.  They cared what what the entertaining Driscoll said; and even more, how he said it.

These days, however, Driscoll's ministry is crumbling all around him, as charges of plagiarism, secretly buying a top spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and the vocal defection of disillusioned assistants and congregants have made headlines in our evangelical media for months now.  Driscoll picked a petty scuffle with a far more revered leader in modern evangelicalism, John MacArthur, in the parking lot of MacArthur's California church.  Janet Mefferd, a popular Christian talk radio host, made waves by awkwardly cornering Driscoll on the air about the source material for his latest book.

Now comes word that a former follower of Driscoll's, named Rob Smith, is organizing a silent protest against his former pastor at the site of Driscoll's satellite church campus in Bellevue, Washington.  He's asking other disenchanted Driscollites to show up at the church this coming Sunday, each with a sign to hold that bears their name.  Smith's idea stems from a recent attempt by Driscoll to apologize to people who claim to have been hurt by his teachings, if only those people weren't "anonymous."  Indeed, a Facebook page has sprouted called "Dear Pastor Mark & Mars Hill: We Are Not Anonymous," and it's acquired 500 members since July 24.

I'm not going to get into all of the claims of abuse being alleged about Driscoll and his staffers.  But certainly, plenty of something has been going on that hasn't been good, edifying, and Godly.  Perhaps in Driscoll's drive to build his church, and his rationale for using unorthodox language and attitudes for doing so, he attracted a number of people within whom the Holy Spirit wasn't working His salvation after all.  Maybe Driscoll's charisma and willingness to be unconventional proved attractive to Seattle's unchurched simply because they didn't want a church or a faith that they considered to be frumpy, or that frowned on coarse language, or was careful about what we say, and how we say it.

In other words, to a certain extent, Driscoll may be guilty of simply providing Seattle the kind of church the edgy city thought it wanted.

Regardless of what it was that attracted all of these now disenchanted people to Driscoll, it can't be denied that the main flaw we're now hearing everybody talking about centers not on the explicit doctrine Driscoll tried to teach, but on how he taught it.

He apparently tried to teach about how the father is supposed to be the spiritual leader of the home, but in the process of saying those words, he ended up vilifying women, emasculating men who didn't fit his paradigm of masculinity, and reputedly destroying marriages in his church.

He apparently tried to teach about the immorality of sex outside of heterosexual wedlock, but he ended up projecting a seething hatred of gay people that the Bible never teaches.

He apparently tried to teach about how Christians are involved in spiritual warfare when we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in holiness while on this planet.  But he ended up constructing a model of church-performed discipline and exorcisms that demonized struggling congregants instead.

And these are just a few of the most frequent allegations leveled against him.  Not just by disgruntled church members.  But by some of his pastoral assistants who helped him perpetrate these misrepresentations of basic theology on their congregation.

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it:  how we say something can be as important as what we say.  Trying to present the Gospel using tools apart from the Fruit of the Spirit is fraught with peril.

That appears to be the consistent thing Driscoll taught, even though he didn't mean to.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dementia Doesn't Let Us Forget

My Dad is reading today's newspaper for the third time.  The third time - today.

Usually, he only reads the newspaper twice a day.

After six years of senile dementia, the number of times he reads each day's newspaper isn't strange to my Mom and me.

But it's still sad.

Not as sad as last night, however, when yet again, we figured out that he didn't know he has another son.  This happens regularly.  When we told him the name of his other son, Dad didn't know where he lived, or that he's been married for over 20 years.  Or that he and his wife have five children.

His jaw always drops when we tell him about his five grandchildren.  It dropped again last night.  Mom is usually the one who sits down with Dad and some photographs, and goes over our relatively small family tree.  And whenever she gets to the part about his five grandchildren, his reaction is always the same.

Dad's sister moved from Brooklyn to Florida a couple of years ago, but Dad still tries to call her apartment in New York.  Sometimes, he ends up reaching a telephone operator there, which makes him begin to worry that something bad has happened to his sister.

What else can't he remember?  Well, he doesn't know his right from his left.  He can't remember what month we're in, or which kitchen drawer holds our everyday silverware.  He can't remember where he and Mom, for over a decade, have attended church.

He used to have hobbies, like gardening, painting with watercolor, crossword puzzles, and jigsaw puzzles.  Now, he either has zero interest in them, or simply can't process how to do them.  His paintings hang throughout our house, but he thinks he only painted the biggest one.

His mobility has declined significantly after a fall last month, and when a friend from my parents' church brought over a walker to help him get around, Dad couldn't figure out how to use it.

But he can usually remember our street address and ZIP code.  Due to his fondness for ice cream, he has already learned to ask for Klondike ice cream bars, which Mom bought for the first time on a whim over this past Fourth of July weekend.  He also has a couple of Bible verses he can recite with remarkable accuracy, including his favorite, Isaiah 41:10.

He can still dress himself, brush his teeth, and accomplish most of the steps in preparing his lunchtime ham-and-cheese-on-a-bagel sandwich.  He usually remembers who Mom and I are, and even occasionally, the names of a couple of our long-time neighbors.

His physical therapist rates his dementia as "mild," in comparison with her other patients, but that's little comfort to Mom and me.  All things considered, we still know we have things easy, at least as far as not having to deal with all of the additional burdens Alzheimer's brings.  Dad's neurologist continues to insist that Dad does not have Alzheimer's, and for that, we are grateful.  But knowing we have it easy, compared with other families, still doesn't make it easy.

I chatted with a couple of fellow choir members at my church last week who are caring for their elderly parents with similar problems, and we all agreed that until this whole responsibility of elder care entered our lives, we had no idea what it involved.

"You know what drives me nuts?" one of the women laughed.  "When people tell you, 'Be sure to take care of yourself.  Be sure to take some time off.  Go on a vacation to get away from things!'"

"Yeah, right," another woman lamented.  "Take care of yourself?  When?  Take time off?  And spend that whole time worrying about your parents?  Besides, you notice how other people who say this stuff always offer to step in and take over your parents' care so you can take that vacation!"

Another friend recommended a book about caring for people with dementia, and the author of that book tried to make a convincing argument for adult day care, saying that it's good for people with dementia to get out of the house and into an environment with their peers.  But that makes little sense to me.  After all, the whole point of dementia is memory loss - particularly short-term memory.  Dad already doesn't like to leave the house for any reason.  His horrible memory gets him anxious and agitated easily enough already, thank you!  It's bad enough trying to get him to attend church, an activity upon which he used to insist.  Why bother tormenting him with an experience with a bunch of strangers at an adult day care he can't understand or whose benefits - whatever they may be - he can't appreciate?

Earlier this year, Dad's neurologist wanted to do a brain scan on him, and a nurse came to the house to attach electrodes to his scalp with surgical glue.  They were going to record his brain activity at home for three days and then analyze it.

To the electrodes, the nurse attached wires that coiled down his neck into a battery pack.  The whole process took over an hour.  Dad kept asking what she was doing, and the nurse would patiently explain to him about the brain scan each time. 

After she left, however, Dad couldn't remember she'd just been working on him, and he blamed Mom for trying to pull some sadistic joke on him.  He was almost crying, he was so frustrated, not being able to remember what all of these nodes were doing glued to his head, and the battery pack dangling from his back.  Before the next hour was out, he had ripped every one of those electrodes off of his scalp - along with some of his hair, and some skin.  And frankly, Mom and I couldn't blame him.

There are many things in life upon which I consider myself as qualified as anybody else to comment.  And then there are other areas of life where I realize my opinions hold very little weight, and I shouldn't expect them to.  Parenting is one of those areas, and how to be a good spouse is another.  Sports.  Molecular biology.  The movies.

Meanwhile, although I didn't ask for it, don't want it, and certainly don't enjoy it, I'm acquiring quite an insight into elder care and dementia care.  A couple of friends say I should write about this experience more than I do, but I find that doing so is difficult, because it's so personal for me - in a negative way.  Besides, I want to respect my father's privacy, and wonder what he'd think about me telling his story online, if only he understood about blogging and the Internet.

I also understand, however, that dementia is one of those topics where helping other people see what it's like may help expand our society's dialog in relation to it.

I'm no expert on dementia care, and I don't want to have to be.  Part of me also continues to resent God for putting my family in this situation to begin with, which means I'm still struggling with accepting what God has allowed, which means I'm no paragon of virtue or faith.   And even though Dad has had this condition for a number of years now, Mom and I still can be caught off-guard by some of the ways it manifests itself.  Oftentimes, I wonder if we're learning much of anything!

Yet we're thankful that things aren't worse.  We're thankful that so far, we've been able to care for Dad at home.  We're thankful for doctors and clinicians who seem to be quite competent, and who give us good direction for Dad's care.  And we're thankful he's still with us, even though large chunks of his memory aren't.

He spends a good portion of his days reading his Bible, and we can't think of a better way for him to be using his time.  Although God tells us that His Word is "profitable" to its readers, we're not sure how much of the Bible he's actually reading, comprehending, and retaining.  We suspect he's re-reading the same portions over and over again, since he might not remember having already read them recently.

After all, he can't remember having read the day's paper an hour later.

Nevertheless, Dad still remembers that he's a child of God's.  And that's something I need to remember through all of this, too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Religion as Ammo for Atheists

There are reasons atheists mock religious people.

Religion can serve as the ammunition that shoots holes in our theological pretensions.

Just last Friday, for example, over in Dallas County, one of their county commissioners was arrested and charged by the FBI on 11 counts of bribery and fraud.

Yesterday was Sunday, however, and Commissioner John Wiley Price was in church, being praised by his pastor as somebody to believe in.

"Jesus, justice, and John," proclaimed Rev. Frederick Haynes III of Friendship West Baptist Church, located in Dallas' mostly-black southern sector.  "That's a hot combination."

Oh?  And what is your scripture reference for that, reverend?  Isn't believing in John Wiley Price about as effective as believing in anybody in addition to Christ for redemption, or justice?  Even if he's white, like Billy Graham?  How about Ronald Reagan?

Either Christ is sufficient, or He's not.  That's authentic Christianity.  And justice?  Hadn't we better be careful for what we ask from our holy and righteous God?

For several years, the FBI had been conducting an investigation into alleged corruption by Price, the county's first black commissioner.  Long an eager firebrand, Price has been a popular figure among the county's poorer blacks because of his often-controversial politics.  In 2011, after a contentious hearing at Commissioners Court, in which somebody called him a "mullah" (an Islamic term for a paid community organizer), he infamously jeered towards a group of white conservatives, telling them that because of their skin color, they should all "go to hell."

Unfortunately, Dallas has a long and bitter history with racism, and the FBI's investigation had already raised the ire of many blacks in north Texas who see it as nothing more than a racist witch hunt to bring down an outspoken civil rights activist.

On Friday, plenty of conservative pundits were crudely crowing over the indictments against Price, but Sunday, his pastor stepped into the fray, assuming a familiar posture for a black church with a prominent member in the public's crosshairs:  unwavering support, buttressed with theological bravado that is technically not supportable by a holy text.

White pastors have probably done the same thing for their downfallen congregants, but when black pastors do it, it generally makes news.  Whether it's Al Sharpton with Tawana Brawley or Trayvon Martin, or Frederick Haynes and John Wiley Price, grace has a tendency to trump the law in a cultural pastiche of protectionism and religious doctrine that elicits howls from atheists.

Granted, Price should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but religion can be such a convenient crutch, can't it?  And a false one, at that.  What happens, for example, if Price is found guilty?  What if the evidence against him is overwhelming?  What if Price is eventually brought to the point of confessing?  What then for the people of Haynes' church?

You believe in Jesus, justice, and who?

This enthusiasm for false doctrine isn't a black church thing.  Or a white church thing.  Consider the fighting between Hamas and Israel, where politics and land ostensibly represent valid things over which human beings should kill each other.  Their's is the war that won't die, no matter how many people do.

Or what about Yoo Byung-eun, the late South Korean multi-millionaire?  Officials believe Yoo was behind the bizarre sinking of the ferry Sewol in the Yellow Sea earlier this year.  Religion was part of his schtick, too.

Yoo started a Baptist sect in South Korea and manipulated his thousands of followers, called "Salvationists," into giving him money to develop a multinational business enterprise which included ships like the Sewol.  Authorities claim Yoo personally directed practices within his companies that caused the Sewol to capsize, killing 304 passengers.  Yet even today, after Yoo was found dead near one of his many properties, his followers blame the South Korean government for pushing the public's vitriol over the tragedy onto his religious and economic empire, to hide systemic failures in South Korea's civil bureaucracy.

Religion strikes again.

Religious figures don't even have to do anything bad to be ridiculed.  Consider the case of Meriam Ibrahim, who was tortured and threatened with death in Sudan for marrying a Christian, and refusing to claim that she is Muslim.  Evangelicals in the United States complained loudly that President Barak Obama's administration wasn't doing enough to free their sister in Christ from such an evil government as Sudan's.  Last week, however, the Italians managed to win her political freedom, and flew her to Rome, where she met with Pope Francis.

Turns out, Ibrahim isn't Protestant, but Roman Catholic.  Conventional evangelicals should be wondering if she's as much of an unbeliever as her Sudanese captors are.  But a lot of evangelicals were both unaware of her true faith, or unaware of the profound theological difference between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.  American evangelicals hear the term "Christian" used in multi-cultural contexts around the globe, and assume everybody who's a Christian is just like them.

Except they're not.  In many parts of the world, especially where Islam is dominant, the term "Christian" is used to differentiate cultures, heredity, and people groups.  Many "ethnic" Christians may indeed believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who died on the cross for their sins, but certainly not all of them.  It's just like the term "Christian" in the United States today:  most evangelicals know that everybody who calls themselves a Christian here isn't really one.

Not that Ibrahim should have been left to become a martyr to Roman Catholicism.  Freedom of religion is a basic human right, and Americans of all political stripes and religious affiliations should be concerned for Ibrahim and the countless people like her who are being denied the chance to worship their deity without fear of persecution.  Even atheists should be glad that the Italians were able to win Ibrahim's freedom, and they should remain concerned for the many ethnic Christians in places like Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria who still face death for refusing to bow to Allah.

You've probably seen the bumper sticker with the word "coexist" spelled out in the symbols of our planet's major religions.  On the one hand, cynics are correct in pointing out that for all religions to truly co-exist, many of them will have to deny a significant part of their doctrine, since the whole point of a faith-based belief system is choosing what you believe to be true.  And everything can't be true, since all religions eventually contradict each other in some form or fashion.

Yet, on the other hand, true Christianity of the Holy Bible's variety is one of the few world religions that actually teaches its New Testament adherents that while we believe ours to be literal truth, our faith can still exist with others.  At least in the sense of us not being commanded by our Deity to slaughter those who don't believe in Christ.  We're to obey our government leaders, regardless of whether they share our faith, as long as they don't force us to do things that directly oppose God's Word.  And even then, we're not commanded to kill or persecute.  But we are instructed to resist.  And perhaps even die for the sake of Christ.

If and when we're persecuted, we don't suffer for our own merit, or some works-based, rule-bound, performance-oriented religious construct.  Religion, theology, and doctrine exist to help explain the mechanics of our faith.  But true believers in Christ believe in Christ, not on traditions, formulas, or methods.  And we let His Holy Spirit create within us a worldview and lifestyle that please Him.

We're taught in the Bible that, whatever we do, God is looking at our heart, to see our motivation.  Are we acting in His truth, and is the Fruit of the Holy Spirit evidenced by our attitude?  Once His people receive His salvation, God wants us to honor Him, and while certain patterns will develop among us, those patterns and shared convictions won't save us.  But they will be different from the belief systems of  Roman Catholics, and Muslims, and Jews.  And atheists.

That's why it's easy to categorize a faith in Christ as a religion.  And name it "Christianity."  Yes, it's a sloppy way to define Christ-based faith, and misleading.  But part of the misleading sloppiness comes from the way self-professed Christ-followers live their faith.  They live it like it's a religion, and they put their faith in the religion.

Maybe it sounds like semantics to you, but if you're going to take your faith seriously - whether it's faith in yourself, or in Christ, or in Mohammad, or whomever and whatever - won't you want to know what you're putting that faith into?

Do you want your faith to rest in a religion?  Or a cultural system that looks like a religion?  If you do, you're simply giving atheists plenty of ammunition to prove their point.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Obama's Disconnect a Grand Illusion?

Maybe it's an illusion?

Maybe he's secretly networking with world leaders to try and confidentially resolve some of these issues.  To the public, however, maybe the White House is tricking us by conveying the appearance that he's disconnected and ineffectual.

If President Obama really is hard at work behind the scenes, trying to broker stability, humanity, and the rule of law where precious little currently resides, then he's a master at casually projecting a low profile.

And if Oval Office staffers are actually trying to hide the President's stressful schedule, they're doing a spectacular job.

After all, simply from the way people are acting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, you'd never know our world is in such turmoil.

Yesterday in Iraq, ISIS blew up the tomb reputed to have housed the remains of a famous religious figure for both Jews and Christians.  Do you remember the Biblical account of Jonah and the whale?  Well, the traditional site of Jonah's grave had been revered for thousands of years in Iraq's Nineveh province, until the ultra-radical Muslim extremists raided the area, and forced all Christians to leave during the past week.  Now that the Christians have fled - after having all of their belongings and property confiscated - ISIS is in the process of either destroying or converting churches and other Christian facilities into extremist mosques.

And the White House has been silent as these ancient antiquities have been seized, and minority groups stripped of their rights, and forced to relinquish everything they'd owned.  Yes, Christians have been a minority in Iraq for centuries, but does this White House regularly ignore the plight of the world's minority groups?  Earlier this week, the President signed an executive order that ostensibly will protect the civil rights of the three percent of our population who may work for government contractors.  He says we can't ignore even the smallest of minority groups.  But he figures Iraq can?

ISIS has also ordered that millions of women in Iraq undergo female circumcision, a barbaric form of torture that the United Nations technically forbids.  Yet again, the White House has been silent, even as Democrats in the Senate this week began another push for ratification of a UN treaty that could undermine parental authority and encourage the practice of abortion.

Apparently, we really can pick and choose which UN mandates we want to embrace.

Meanwhile, over in Gaza, Hamas continues to store its weapons near schools, hospitals, and safe houses, as well as in tunnels running under private property owned by people who have no idea they're sitting ducks for Israel's air defenses.  For his part, Obama's secretary of state has been plotting with Egypt on terms for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, but with so much of this current administration's foreign policy in disarray, nobody's expecting much of anything good from Cairo.  Like the Egyptians are an authority on peace, stability, and human rights anyway.

In Ukraine, reporters are still marveling that the nine-mile-long debris field from flight MH17 remains virtually unguarded, even as aviation experts are marveling that the Malaysian plane's black boxes have been secured without any apparent sabotage.  But while the President has wagged his finger at Russia's Vladimir Putin for possibly having provided anti-aircraft weaponry to an under-trained insurgency in Ukraine, America's expertise in protecting the world's commercial air space is going without a voice in the Executive Branch.

Maybe it doesn't matter that President Obama hasn't come out as the lead critic of Putin's puppeteering in Ukraine, since the conflicts between Russia and its former republics have festered for centuries, meaning that one politician today won't win peace in that region.  But didn't the rest of us get dragged a little closer to Russia's machinations for power when a civilian plane got shot out of the sky in an area rife with Russian military hardware?  Maybe the black boxes are for the Dutch to decode, but is somebody like Putin going to respect such minority governments on the world's stage as the Netherlands and Malaysia?

Funny how Obama was so keen to aid the rebels in Syria and Egypt, and is now so quiet.  Has he suddenly become an isolationist?

Maybe he's just scaling back his sphere of influence.  Over in the West Wing today, President Obama appears to be concentrating on our newly-arrived juvenile guests from Central America.  He's playing host to the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador; three countries whose youths are swamping America's border with Mexico.  According to the White House public schedule for today, their meeting is scheduled to last for approximately 45 minutes, followed by a press conference.

Here again, however, the President's enthusiasm seems strained.  Does 45 minutes sound like a lot of time to hash out some workable solutions for staunching the flow of illegal juvenile migrants to our country, addressing the humanitarian crises that ostensibly are forcing these kids from their homes and families, and arranging to get these kids back to their home countries, all while making sure they have good opportunities for growing up safe and healthy in Central America?

There are only two items on the White House agenda for today, so doesn't it seem as though the President should have been able to find more time to tackle these tough issues, especially since politicians from both the Democratic and Republican sides of the political aisle says this is all about protecting these poor children?

Maybe the President figures he already knows what these Central American leaders are going to say.  The Washington Post interviewed Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez yesterday, and he was dismissive of the illegality of crossing national borders without permission, focusing on the human toll of treating children like they are criminals.  He also complained about the United States forcing the migrant children to turn around and return to countries like Honduras.

"From Mexico, they come in buses, in big numbers," Hernandez bemoaned, talking about the children being repatriated into his country.  "We’ve had to triple the size of our centers in order to receive these people.  They’re coming en masse, but we’ve said that we need to be careful in order to respect their human rights."

Oh, isn't that magnanimous of the Honduran president?  Trying to teach us about human rights when he presides over a country apparently awash in corruption, human trafficking, and violent crime, that these kids say they need to flee to stay alive.

Of course, President Obama has refused to visit our border with Mexico to witness this humanitarian crisis first-hand, even though he's been invited to do so by both Republicans and Democrats in Texas.  So even though his visit today with Central American leaders may be more photo op than anything else, perhaps he figured it would be a waste of time to listen to these guys pontificate on their own hollow rhetoric so they could all avoid dealing with the core issues creating this crisis.

On the home page of today, there's a huge banner with a dominant graphic containing the definition of "inversion," which, according to the White House, is "a type of corporate tax loophole."

Under the "Popular Topics" section of their home page, the White House has promos for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, and something called "My Front Porch," where the President invites people to share "how their days look."  Whatever that means.

There's also a blurb about "President Obama is committed to making this the most open and participatory administration in history."

Hmm.  Really?

Open and participatory?

In all fairness, plenty of conservatives have complained for years that they wished President Obama would simply do nothing, because they feared anything he'd do would be bad, or immoral, or wrong for our country.  So to a certain extent, as our world continues to experience some pretty unsettling crises, conservatives should be glad that Obama isn't trying to claim the spotlight and foist his opinions and objectives on our country and our planet.  Perhaps Obama figures that no matter what he does, his critics will never be satisfied.

Yet, if he's committed to an open and participatory presidency, his distance from the world stage must be an illusion, right?  We're simply not seeing all that he's doing.

That's some trick.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Does Happiness Have a Cajun Drawl?

Are you happy?

Chances are, your happiness depends on where you live.

At least, that's what a Harvard professor and his colleagues claim.  They've analyzed some data from the Centers for Disease Control to chart, by city, the places where Americans are the happiest.

Generally speaking, according to this study, people who live in and around the San Francisco Bay area tend to be the least happy, along with people living around Seattle, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and from Boston all the way down to Washington, DC.  Alternatively, residents of Montana, Arizona, Texas, and the deep South tend to be the most happy.  Along with a pretty good chunk of Delaware.

Of course, happiness is a profoundly relative concept, isn't it?  "Happiness" is a mixture of contentment, satisfaction, ease, peace, and harmony, at least in proportion to what we know, expect, and experience.  Our happiness is also affected by our personality and our health.  And to a significant degree, we evaluate whether we should be happy by pegging ourselves against the people we consider to be our peers, or with whom we want to be associated.

Throughout all of this, our faith plays a core role in how we view our life, our circumstances, our relationships, our aspirations, and the things in which we place our trust and upon which we peg our chances for inner peace.  And we all have faith in something, whether it's in Jesus Christ, or Mohammad, or ourselves.

Not that this particular happiness study is trying to prove that geography is more important than anything else in how happy we are - or aren't - but it is an interesting snapshot of where we Americans tend to be the most content, and where life apparently is best lived.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the New York metropolitan region ranked dead last in terms of its happiness quotient.  It's the most densely populated region of the country, with some of America's highest taxes, housing costs, and insurance rates.  Normal daily work commutes can stretch into two hours one way, competition for employment is fierce, and political corruption is a way of life.  Sure, it's a spectacular place to visit, but even though they may live cosmopolitan lives there, few New Yorkers truly derive deep satisfaction in doing so.

On the other hand, it's surprising to learn that one state holds the top five metropolitan areas with the greatest proportions of happy people.  It's Louisiana, a state more often associated - especially by New Yorkers - with rural, backwater rednecks and a simplistic way of life.  Then again, consider the cable TV show Duck Dynasty, proudly filmed on location in Louisiana's infamous swamps.  The show's mantra is "happy, happy, happy," so maybe there's something to it.

And of these top five cities from Louisiana, not one of them is New Orleans.  The number one metro area is Lafayette, covering two parishes (or counties), with less than half a million people in the city and its suburbs.  The city's main attraction appears to be an exceptionally low unemployment rate of 3.3% in Lafayette proper, which by itself likely accounts for a significant amount of its residents' happiness.  It's a generally conservative place politically, and its economy is based mostly on blue-collar and service industries.

Lafayette does have a symphony orchestra, a regional airport, several colleges, and a couple of museums, but nothing prestigious enough for any of us to have ever heard of - unless we'd lived there before.

The other four cities from Louisiana that top this happiness list are all similarly unremarkable.  Unless, however, you consider how remarkable it is that such unglamorous, unexciting, unsophisticated, and relatively unknown cities can claim the top five spots for being full of so many happy people.

Of the top ten on this list, nine are Southern cities, with Nashville being the largest of the lot, and the most famous.  The one northern city is Rochester, Minnesota, which is home to the highly-regarded Mayo Clinic, as well as a major facility for IBM.  Minnesota is known for its brutal winters, so balmy weather obviously isn't a major priority for Rochesterites, most of whom must be pretty well-educated to work for employers like the Mayo Clinic and IBM.

And as far as big cities are concerned, Nashville has grown so much over the years, its traffic congestion can rival anybody's, and its Tennessee summers can be downright sweltering.  It is, of course, a dominant player in the music industry, but it's also got bragging rights as a prestigious college town, and it's home to Hospital Corporation of America, the largest operator of healthcare facilities in the world.

So what does all of this mean in terms of how legitimate "happiness" is?  We've got the "happy, happy, happy" bubbas down in Louisiana, and it would be easy for coastal sophisticates to write them off as a bunch of simpletons too swaddled by southern breezes and Cajun jambalaya to know how much better life can be beyond their mossy bayous.  But in stark contrast to Louisiana, Rochester and Nashville boast world-class corporate and cultural features with which the stereotypical bayou city can't compete.

Of course, the stereotypical Louisiana bubba likely wouldn't want to compete for jobs in Rochester and concert tickets in Nashville anyway.  Which probably helps explain why they're so happy.  If Duck Dynasty is any guide, they don't even mind being called "bubbas," either, since to many of them, being one is a point of pride, not derision.

Hey - they're not the ones commuting to jobs that stress them out and pay just enough to cover atrocious rents and income taxes.  Louisianans don't go to sleep every night to the lullaby of ambulance sirens and utility company jackhammers.  Not outside of New Orleans, anyway.  Nobody in Lafayette has to stuff themself into an aluminum tin can and rocket through underground subway tunnels with the smell of somebody else's urine turning their stomach.  If anybody in Louisiana wants to subject themself to an assault on their senses, they can visit New York City as a tourist, soak up the bedlam, and then return home, happy that they don't have to put up with that chaos on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, people from all over the world continue to stream onto Manhattan Island, and spill over into the boroughs, thinking that Gotham is where they can find true happiness.  Sexual happiness, economic happiness, artistic happiness, cultural happiness, political happiness... when all the while, where they probably should be going is likely more mundane than the hometowns they've left.

So, is true happiness found in the ordinary?  In the unexceptional, uncrowded, and inexpensive?  Do skyscrapers, an aging mass transit system, historic bridges, ultra-liberal politics, and 24/7 congestion result in happiness?  Or do the people who willingly subject themselves to such things their own worst enemy for figuring that's the price they pay for some sort of urbane significance?  Are they a lot of realists, and cynics, who compete with each other to be the best at whatever jobs they're doing, but who also know that onerous rents will only continue to rise until dangerous crime also rises - one of the city's more perverse balancing acts between boom and bust?

No, New Yorkers aren't very happy people.  It appears that most urbanites across the United States are not.  But they'd probably be even more miserable if they had to live in Louisiana.

Which likely makes Louisiana's bubbas even happier, knowing they won't have to share their idyll with all 'em obnoxious city slickers!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Second Time Still No Charm for UN's CRPD

Play it again, Uncle Sam.

Well-meaning senators appear ready to make another attempt at passing a controversial United Nations treaty.  It's the same treaty that failed to win enough votes two years ago, even though it would ostensibly help improve the legal rights of handicapped people around the world.

Who would be against such a thing, right?

Actually, nobody is against improving the legal rights of the world's handicapped population.  But plenty of American conservatives have a problem with the language contained in the UN's treaty.  It's called the Convention On the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD), and at face value, it reads like an unobjectionable declaration of support for the disabled.  What could be sinister about that? After all, it's based largely on the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and you'd have to be pretty selfish and mean-spirited to oppose such humanitarian legislation.

Unfortunately for everybody, however, there are several obscure problems with how the UN's CRPD is worded, and, as they say, the devil is in the details.  Besides, it's a valid question to ask why the United States needs to ratify a UN treaty regarding human rights.  Think about it:  If other governments around the world need a treaty from the UN before they'll protect their disabled populations, then how will a diplomatic document change their mindset when it comes to the logistics and expenses of treating the handicapped with respect?

American conservatives have also questioned the long-term efficacy of signing any UN treaty, regardless of how altruistic it may seem.  Remember, UN treaties generally supersede the laws of any sovereign nation, and why does our ADA need to be superseded?  We're already the world's punching bag.  Nevertheless, to try and overcome this objection, some senators say new language they've attached to their second ratification attempt should neutralize the convention's authority in the US.  But again, if that's the case, then what's the point of the UN treaty to begin with?

Remember the Kyoto Protocol, that massive 1997 UN treaty that was supposed to save our planet from harmful greenhouse gases?  Guess what?  Canada pulled out in 2011.  Russia and Japan have pulled out, too.  What does that say about the political import of UN treaties?  So why do so many Americans still think it's so important that we keep feigning our diplomatic support for such fickle documents?

If we want a disability treaty with bite to it, why not let our ADA speak for itself as the international guide for respecting the rights of the disabled?

Seriously!  When it comes to the rights of people with disabilities, our ADA, passed in 1990, is already the most comprehensive document of its kind.  If anything, the ADA should be the world's prevailing standard when it comes to protecting handicapped people.  Or maybe America's Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) should be the standard?  Or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990?  Or the 1988 amendment to the Fair Housing Act?

We know why none of these would be embraced by most UN member countries.  And it's because America's legislative efforts encode specific standards for basic mobility and accommodation that, in most countries where human rights are decidedly marginalized, would be virtually unattainable.  Non-handicapped citizens of such countries can only dream of the rights and privileges Americans want for the differently-abled among us.  It goes back to the motivation other countries have when it comes to respecting their citizens who are differently-abled.  A motivation that, frankly, won't materialize simply because of a UN treaty.  Not only that, but this UN document is just vague enough to let countries off the hook if they can't - or won't - provide the social and physical infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of their disabled citizenry.

And it's the CRPD's vague language that poses significant concerns among even advocates for the handicapped in the United States.  No less than the international and influential Christian ministry Joni and Friends, run by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, has come out against the CRPD.  Not because the basic intention of the UN's convention is wrong or bad, but because of the way its nuanced language creates ambiguous challenges to life in the womb, parental authority, and our country's current ability to protect all of its people.

In particular, language like "empowerment" and "autonomy" in Articles 6, 16, and 23 could be manipulated to the advantage of pro-abortionists, along with the phrase "sexual and reproductive health" in Article 25.  The lack of language acknowledging parental responsibilities in Articles 7 and 14, combined with granting children "equal rights" in Article 23, could be manipulated to the advantage of social welfare agents of the state seeking to undermine the wishes of parents.  Also in Article 23, an amusingly-worded paragraph authorizing "competent authorities" to override the wishes of a handicapped child's parents could result in extraordinarily troubling government interference in interpreting what's best for that family.

After all, does the phrase "competent authorities" describe any government bureaucracy you know?

If all of this sounds like the reasons for opposing the CRPD are based on moral grounds - which in and of itself isn't a bad thing, of course - consider that in the Preamble of its convention, in Section E, the UN asserts "disability is an evolving concept."  What government body worth its salt would ratify a document with such unstable language?

Okay, maybe that's a bad question, considering all of the bad legislation that comes out of Washington.

Nevertheless, if, as the UN claims, "disability is an evolving concept," doesn't that mean the CRPD is holding in advance certain interpretations to its document that nobody knows yet?  How unsettling does that sound to you?  Doesn't it sound like a legal foothold, or placeholder, into sovereignty rights?

"We know we want to tell you what to do," the UN is saying, "but we don't know how many ways the future will provide us for intruding into your nation's sovereignty, so we're going ahead and claiming that power now."

The only real argument that advocates for the disabled have been able to push in favor of our Senate's ratification of this convention is that it appears to provide handicapped Americans traveling abroad new safeguards in countries where today, accommodations for the disabled are poor or non-existent.  But if you read further down into the CRPD, you will learn that no concrete timetables for providing even the basic ADA-style expectations exist in this convention.  Physical aids like braille plates on elevators and wheelchair ramps require money and initiative that many countries simply lack, whereas philosophical rules can easily be subverted by attorneys working to introduce expanded practices like abortion within a society.

Can't America still model its compassion towards and inclusion of disabled people without ratifying the United Nations' Convention On the Rights of Persons With Disabilities?  The CRPD may be well-intentioned, but it doesn't achieve anything for the people it's supposed to benefit.  Besides, it's unnecessary for us, potentially intrusive and immoral, and certainly counter-intuitive for a nation of laws like ours.

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee once again approved this treaty, making it eligible to once again be brought before the full Senate for a vote.  Political pundits guess that vote may take place either before Capitol Hill's August recess, or after the November elections.

Two years ago, ratification failed by only five votes.  Today, its supporters again doubt it will pass, but with eager grass-roots advocacy once again gaining steam from disabilities groups across the country, the tide may be shifting.  Over 800 of these social service organizations have officially endorsed the treaty, along with conservative business interests like WalMart and the US Chamber of Commerce.  Meanwhile, opposition to CRPD has been widely derided as the obstinate, uneducated troublemaking of extremists who want to make mountains out of molehills.  It's the "Party of No" once again being its redneck, belligerent self.

But unlike some of the other issues Republicans block, the concerns being raised over CRPD are not insignificant, are they?  And since when should an organization that can't control Hamas, or protect civilian aircraft over Ukraine, or help Sudan, or thwart Boko Haram, or pick the right side to champion in Syria - or Iraq, or Iran, or Afghanistan - be allowed to bully America into ratifying anything, let alone a sloppy piece of nice-sounding yet trap-infested rhetoric like CRPD?

Please contact your senators and ask them to vote against CRPD.  Not because you're hard-hearted towards the disabled.  But because you're not.

Click here for information on how to reach the senators from your state.