Monday, April 21, 2014

Graham, Putin, Gays, and Fruit


When I started this blog over four years ago, I didn't intend to spend a lot of time on any particular topic.  I certainly didn't intend to write very much about homosexuality.

I believed then, as I do now, that it is a sin, much like my struggles with gluttony and fear, and that it didn't really merit any greater discussion, in the context of my worldview, than anything else.

As you're well aware, however, gay marriage has exploded across our national consciousness during these last few years, and cannot be ignored.  It has become for the liberal left a defining cause célèbre, and for the religious right, an increasingly embarrassing public relations disaster.

Not that evangelical Christianity is supposed to concern itself with poll numbers, popularity, or acceptance.  But it seems that lately, the only things being said in support of Christ's teaching on sexuality are being said by the same collection of aging white men who all exhibit the compassion and tact of an umbrella.

Consider, for example, the firestorm brewing in liberal media circles over evangelist Franklin Graham's assertion that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has better "standards" for handling homosexual propaganda than America does.

"In my opinion," Graham has said, "Putin is right on these issues [regarding taking a strong legislative tone against gays]. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda."

For a man who is supposedly so savvy on international affairs, doesn't it strike you as bizarre that Graham would in any way endorse the autocrat who's in the process of invading Ukraine?

And even if Putin was a sterling example of a model politician, Graham's reference to Russia's gay propaganda laws appears to be ill-informed at best.  For one thing, it's widely suspected that these laws prohibiting the public display of homosexual attraction or "recruitment" represent the first step in a broader effort to crack down on political dissent in Russia, and reinforce Putin's power.

Secondly, although homosexuality technically is legal in Russia, it has never been broadly tolerated in their society.  Violent homophobia against gays is quietly condoned by authorities, reminiscent of the Fascist pogroms against Jews, gay men (but rarely lesbians), "Gypsies," and other "undesirable" people groups leading up to the Second World War.  Meanwhile, regardless of what we believe about sexual sins, assault and malevolence are also sins.

Thirdly, information on homosexuality is already widely available on the Internet, making the public demonstrations Putin's legislation outlaws almost quaint as far as their recruitment potential is concerned.  There has always been homosexuality in Russia, there will always be homosexuality in Russia, and whether you believe it's biological or a learned pattern of behavior, denying free speech hardly represents an effective way to limit one's exposure to it.

And guess what - with the Russian Orthodox Church pushing Putin to enact such laws supporting homophobia, who's to say that evangelical Christianity isn't also on their wish list for suppression?  Doesn't denying free speech to one group of people make it easier to go ahead and expand such a denial of rights to other groups?  And evangelical ministries have been saying for years that some Russian Orthodox leaders are increasingly jealous of the inroads evangelicals have been making in their country since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Yet there goes Graham, rambling off-message yet again, while also saying out of the corner of his mouth on a Sunday morning news show yesterday that gays can go to Heaven.  Okay, so if it's not homosexuals that offend God, but their sexual sins, what makes Putin such an exemplary role model for Graham?

Fortunately, on the same news show yesterday morning, the Southern Baptist Convention's Russell Moore blunted some of Graham's praise of Putin by pointing out that protecting Russia's children wasn't as altruistic a goal as Putin claims.  Russia's abysmal history with its orphans and orphanage system, for example, stands as stark proof that if Putin really wants to be a moral champion of his country's children, homosexual propaganda isn't his most pressing worry.

Nevertheless, the damage was done by the son of the man secularists used to begrudgingly admit was America's favorite preacher, Billy Graham.

If, as it appears, gay rights and gay marriage are going to be the new battle for America's heart and soul, shouldn't we evangelicals be far better in voicing a Biblical mandate for heterosexual marriage and sexual morality than the sound bites Franklin Graham keeps chewing out for the media?

Do not misconstrue my frustrations with Graham as a support of gay marriage, an endorsement of homosexuality, or a denial of homosexuality as a sin.  However, as followers of Christ, adherents of His Gospel, and beneficiaries of His holy sacrifice for sin, we need to speak the truth in love.  We need to model the Fruit of the Spirit when we conduct ourselves in the public square.  Yes, we need to be bold as well, but can't we advocate for righteousness without being unnecessarily contentious?

I suspect that the mainstream media secretly enjoys having people like Franklin Graham on their programs because he's become a reliable purveyor of lightening-rod quotes that elicit a lot of feedback and draw a lot of attention.  In our Internet age, ratings and favorability don't matter as much as pageviews, links, and search results.  It's even possible that Graham intentionally stirs the pot of public opinion knowing that when he does so, his legions of fans will contribute more money to his ministries.

Yet, if this battle is the Lord's, don't we need to let Him wage it His way?  The Gospel of Christ will be offensive enough to society without us evangelicals being offensive in the way we present it.  Besides, it's not like Graham is going to change anybody's mind regardless of what he says - or doesn't say.  It's the Holy Spirit that brings anybody to Christ.  Which means that we need to honor God - not excite our fan base - with how we share His message of truth.

I heard from a gay friend this past weekend whose "fundamentalist" brother hasn't returned a phone call or e-mail in four years.  To me, that says a lot about the egregious lack of love many evangelicals display for sinners whose sexuality we disavow.  If we viewed heterosexual adultery within our churches as vehemently as we viewed homosexuality, then perhaps our belief system would be better substantiated.  As it stands, however, how effective has homophobia been as a tool for participating with the Holy Spirit in the salvation of souls and the demonstration of His Fruit?

Remember?  Love.  Joy.  Peace.  Patience.  Kindness.  Goodness.  Faithfulness.  Gentleness.  Self-control.

Let's not compare any sort of morality to what Vladimir Putin does or doesn't do.  Let's compare it to Christ.  And let's advocate for it - both in our personal lives, and in our society - in the ways He teaches are best.

Otherwise, it's hard to tell whether we're more concerned about sin, or the people committing it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Happy Pills: Overmedicated or Overly Cynical?

Prozac people.

I thought I knew about them.  They were the timid folks who wanted to live in a chemical haze to insulate themselves from anxiety and pressure.  Either that, or they were so crazy that if they didn't take their medication, they'd have to be fitted for a straitjacket.

When my Greenwich Village psychotherapist, and then my Upper West Side psychologist, both told me I needed to go on Prozac, I resisted.  The stigma of having to take a happy pill seemed almost as unbearable to me as the mental darkness that was cascading over me like unending buckets of black paint.  But my therapist - at the time, the only practicing evangelical mental health professional on the entire island of Manhattan - had already told me that if I didn't agree to be medicated, her further work with me as her patient would be pretty futile.  She'd notify my parents that she was absolving herself of any liability for my safety.  I'd been on a suicide watch, but while I didn't take that very seriously, how was she to know that I didn't?  Or wouldn't?
So I jumped on the happy pill bandwagon, and I've been there ever since.  I wasn't on Prozac for very long, however, before my doctors found some better medications to which I've responded more successfully.  A couple of people have asked me what I'm currently taking, and for privacy reasons, I'm won't provide that information on the Internet.  But I'll allow that I'm on a fairly high dosage, partly because I'm overweight.

And yes, I'm overweight partly because antidepressants usually prevent people from losing weight.  I stay on them, however, because I'm living proof - literally - that they can work.

Nevertheless, when critics of antidepressants respond to testimonies like mine, I can't disagree with at least part of their argument.

The pervasiveness of clinical depression in our society has indeed become a cause for legitimate concern, and not just for people who question whether medically-related depression really exists.  Just today, a remarkably candid article came out in the New York Times by Dr. Doris Iarovicia, a Duke University psychiatrist who's troubled by the fact that nearly a quarter of all incoming college students are taking prescription antidepressants.  And she believes many of these young people are being overmedicated.

To their own detriment, and to our society's.

Should all these people being diagnosed with clinical depression really be getting that diagnosis, or are doctors and therapists creating a huge market for their services to justify their own professional existence?  Has our health insurance industry, as Dr. Iarovicia suggests, inadvertently created an artificial dependency on antidepressants because pharmaceuticals are cheaper to insure than psychotherapist visits?  Are we all simply being enablers, allowing validation for somebody else's weaknesses because of our own weaknesses?  Are we more eager to hand-hold, instead of butt-kick?  Or has our society become so complex and complicated that some of us have discovered the limits of our endurance, tenacity, and persistence, and are unprepared to cope with not being able to compete with people boasting a greater tolerance for problems?

Personally, I believe that a little bit of all of that is at play in this discussion.  However, I also suspect that all of the man-made chemicals we've been pumping into our environment over the past century or so have had a negative impact on our physical and mental health.  I also suspect that as North Americans have become so sophisticated, and the nuclear family has fragmented so much through divorce, cross-country relocations, and our unique opportunities for social mobility, that the community structures God designed to help people cope with stressors have disintegrated.  Social scientists have already tried to prove as much, on both counts of ecology and community, but their results have never met with much approval from skeptics - most of whom are conservative, and consider themselves religious.

The very people who say they believe in a Deity they can't see or measure.


Meanwhile, the physical sciences have yet to prove that clinical depression is as real as broken arms are.  And if they ever do, it will be after overcoming a big credibility gap that exists between what patients should be able to handle, what they actually can handle, and the reasons why they can't.  After all, some people really are just wimps.  Some people really are simply lazy.  Some people truly believe they're entitled to a fun-filled, stress-free existence.  Some people live in denial regarding the fact that nobody can "have it all."  Some people are enablers.  Some of us need to make ourselves feel and look better by helping people we perceive as being more helpless than we are.  Yes!  I'm sure all of this is part of North America's depression saga.  But how does it get measured and quantified?

Hey, I'm a cynic, and I was a big cynic about antidepressants.  It took my going on them myself for me to begrudgingly admit that they can actually work.  However, if personal experience is going to be the only way to justify the efficacy of antidepressants, then people who don't need them will likely never understand why other people may.

Instead, it's much easier to deride North America's recent, widespread, and indelible embrace of mental health advocacy as so much humanistic pablum.  Too much coddling, and not enough personal responsibility.  Too much faith in feelings, instead of faith in God.  Just another way for pharmacy companies to make money.  All this medicine to treat something invisible!  Aren't we creating a society full of people who simply don't want to face reality?  Life can be hard, sad, painful, confusing, and unfair.  So what?  Buck up, force a smile on your face, and carpe diem!  That's the rest of us have to do sometimes.

So:  we have all of this doubt and ambiguity.  And the best way to respond to this doubt and ambiguity is flatly assume that clinical depression isn't real?  Or, if it is, that it's inherently a sin issue?

Now who's being unrealistic?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Humble Start for Fried Chicken Fight

Who'd-a thunk it?

I'm at the forefront of culinary adventure.  An early-adopter of new food.  Right here in humble ol' Arlington, Texas.

And not just me.  But my retired parents as well.  Plus daily parking lots full of cars full of people trying out the brand-new Super Chix restaurant at the corner of Cooper Street and Park Row Drive. 

Right here in the heart of humble ol' Arlington, Texas.

According to the Dallas Observer, this is the very first Super Chix restaurant in the world, and while officially it's a test concept, its corporate publicists have made no bones about setting their sights on dethroning Chick-fil-A as America's chicken sandwich king.  In fact, everything they serve is boneless, from chicken tenders to their signature sandwiches, lightly fried to a golden tan.

They're about the fourth casual-fast restaurant to open up near our neighborhood recently.  The first was a Potbelly's gourmet sandwich place, then a Chicken Express, and then a Taco Casa.  They join a more pedestrian fried chicken restaurant, Golden Chick, plus a Taco Bell, Chipotle, Subway, Starbucks, and the locally popular Nizza Pizza, all clustered within a stone's throw of Cooper and Park Row.

Super Chix is owned by Yum! Brands, the company that also owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut.  So this is no small-fry, shot-in-the-dark, flash-in-the pan experiment in small business bravado.  There's big money behind this endeavor, and the Arlington location is its test kitchen, if you will.

The Observer presumes, and I concur, that the reason Yum! Brands chose this particular spot lies in its proximity to a big high school, which has "open campus" lunch for upperclassmen.  Plus, it's just a long block away from the 32,000-student University of Texas at Arlington.  And then there's its address.  Cooper Street is Arlington's busiest thoroughfare that isn't an Interstate - even though during rush hour, with its bumper-to-bumper traffic, it can feel like one.

Meanwhile, the strip shopping center hosting Super Chix is a more curious choice.  It's old, with a dowdy mixture of mom-and-pop storefront businesses, a plasma center, plus a large Medicare/Medicaid dental practice specializing in taxpayer-subsidized children's braces.  Behind the center are several dilapidated, low-rent apartment complexes.  A medical clinic catering to Middle-Eastern patients, a Shell gas station, an Indian restaurant frequented only by people who don't know what really good Indian food tastes like, a family-owned Mexican restaurant that is past its prime, and a long-time car inspection business round out Super Chix's eclectic collection of neighbors.

Not exactly the environment and demographics most internationally-successful corporations look for when scouting for sites.  Especially for prototype projects.

But when Dad and I tried it out for the first time, this past Monday evening, it was packed.  Cigarette-smoking Chinese students loitered outside, while inside, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and more Asians were crowded around small tables.  This place has only been open for a couple of weeks, and new restaurants almost always draw a big crowd, at least here in Arlington.  There was also a palpable atmosphere of confusion as customers figured out how to order, and where they could refill their soft drinks.  Behind the counter, a gaggle of fresh-faced teenagers of all ethnicities and skin colors were obviously learning the ropes, while two managers coaxed them along, firmly yet helpfully.

The bar usually isn't set very high when restaurants are brand-new, so nobody seemed to be getting upset, but as we waited to order, and then as we waited for our order, a lot of customers had complaints about the food they'd been given.  The young girl who took our order professed that it was her first day, but she proved to be quite efficient and accurate.  We waited over twenty minutes for our food, however!  At first, we loitered towards the back of the waiting area, but as we grew a bit more impatient, Dad and I made our way to the counter and camped out there, making sure we weren't forgotten.  The petite, quiet young lady manning the frozen custard machine offered us samples of their vanilla and coffee-and-donut flavors; the former being quite good, but the latter being distinctly unpleasant.

We got our order, it was correct, and we took it to Mom and Dad's house, where Mom was waiting for Chick-fil-A, which is what we'd set out to go and get.  But the closest Chick-fil-A is still quite a ways away, while this Super Chix is about two minutes away, and I was hoping that it would suffice.

At this point, we decided that it does not.

While the author of the Observer's review seems to have loved her food, comparing it favorably to Chick-fil-A's, the food we got was warm, and filling, but not really tasty.  The haystack onions were more hay than onion, and the fried chicken fillets of the sandwiches, while noticeably larger than Chick-fil-A's, were caked with batter, and flavorless.  Mom said the cole slaw was adequate, but not as creamy as Chick-fil-A's.  On the other hand, Super Chix's salt fries were firm to the touch, yet soft inside; delicious; and substantial in size.

Not that taste is everything, of course.

Apparently America's progressive, pro-gay-marriage hipsters like the Observer's reviewer are hopeful that Yum! Brands can concoct a successful alternative to the more traditional-family folks at Chick-fil-A.  If that's the gameplan, however, then Super Chix still has some work to do in honing their recipe, as well as their service.  Even on my visits to the busiest Chick-fil-A's, their service has been amazingly smooth and fast.  Of course, they've been in business far longer than Super Chix - but not as long as Yum! Brands' other chains, at least on a national scale.

When we visited earlier this week, I had no idea Super Chix was owned by as accomplished a restaurant business as Yum! Brands.  Our experience there Monday night didn't give any indication, either.  I figured it was some chicken place from Dallas that was expanding into our corner of the Fort Worth - Dallas area.  The restaurant's finish-out looked cheap and temporary, with paint already peeling from sheets of faux tiles, an exposed ceiling that was already dusty, and an overall color and materials scheme that was uninspired at best.

Not that dining in any Chick-fil-A is an aesthetic delight, either.

But as Yum! Brands hones their latest concept, and if Super Chix takes off, I suppose our original location here in central Arlington will have some claim to fame simply for being the first.  After all, if it can thrive in the fast-food mecca that has taken over the intersection of Cooper and Park Row, that will say a lot.

Whether that says people prefer to spend their chicken sandwich dollars specifically at a direct Chick-fil-A competitor, however, is less exciting.

After all, gay marriage is becoming for liberal progressives what pro-life advocacy is for right-wing conservatives.  Only in America could a fried chicken sandwich be considered propaganda!

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.