Because life is a series of edits

Archive for the ‘Humanity’ Category

On the Yard Sale

In Family, Humanity, Places, Places & Spaces, Thought, Young Ones on June 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm

IMG_5523So we had a yard sale this past Saturday. Apart from the 95-degree temperature and the 100% humidity, it was good: we got rid of some stuff, made some money, and had a very good reason at the end of the day to collectively hit the sack at 9:30 p.m.

Personally, yard sales are too intimate an experience for me to really enjoy; there’s just something awkward about strangers publicly evaluating what you once thought you wanted. Maybe I just felt self-conscious about all the old Stephen King novels I was getting rid of (would you want to know that YOUR neighbor has read a majority of the man’s books?), but the whole process seems a huge invasion of privacy.

As I was enduring the invasion, I took some mental notes on the variety of yard-salers we encountered during the day. I don’t pretend that this list is exhaustive (and feel free to add your own set of usual suspects in the comments below), but generally speaking, here’s who I did business with during our particular sale on Saturday:

The Early Bird: This person pays no attention to any printed given times as to when the yard sale officially begins; if the sign says 8 a.m., then 7:30 it is. Thankfully, she doesn’t talk much and rarely gets offended if and when you have to ask her to move so you can set up another table of items you’re trying to sell, so it’s usually best to just let this one be.

The Snob: This person parks right in front of and as close as possible to your yard, gets out of her still-running car with her nose stuck up in the air to pick up your sale’s “scent,” and surveys what she already knows you have – nothing she would ever want. Having convinced herself of this truth, she gets back in the car and drives off, grateful once again that she did not waste her time on your junk (and, honestly, good riddance).

The Critic: This person is a distant cousin to The Snob, the difference being that he actually gets out of the car to look through your stuff. Unfortunately, while The Snob communicates her disdain for your offerings from a driving-off distance, The Critic chooses to verbalize his disgust on-site instead, particularly if he feels you have overpriced anything (and especially if he secretly wants to buy it).

The Cheapskate: This person looks through everything – and I mean everything – you have in your yard, taking his time to muse over what its value must have been to you at some point and wondering what must have happened that you would put it up for sale now. Having so cheaply entertained himself with various and sundry scenarios and plots, he finally picks one item priced at fifty cents and asks if you would take forty for it (after all, one’s man’s memories are another man’s bargains).

The Haggler: While often confused with The Cheapskate, The Haggler is actually willing to spend money for what she wants…so long as the sale price is below the amount that’s currently listed. Hers is not a campaign motivated by finances but by victory, as every piece she has ever purchased at a yard sale comes with a complete oral tradition of how much it was, how much she ended up talking the owner down, and why the difference between the two prices makes her superior to the rest of humanity.

The Scanner: This person is usually drinking Starbucks and shows up with his own hand-held bar code scanner, which he uses to check resell value on anything with a bar code. Never mind what the item actually is or what the book in his hand might be about, all this guy cares about is what it’s currently going for on Ebay or Amazon, as this will determine his purchase decision. This was a new one for me.

The Road Trip: This person is not really a person but multiple persons all crammed into one vehicle out hitting yard sales en masse. The goal (I assume) is to have fun going to yard sales together (which seems incredibly flawed thinking in itself); the reality is that with so many people in the car, there’s no room for what one might want to buy, especially if it’s a bigger item. Tip: Be sure to get their money before you promise to hold something for them while they go and get another vehicle (no sense losing a possible sale if they happen to get in an accident joy-riding).

The Buzzard: This person shows up toward the end of the sale and, since she missed all your good stuff, somehow feels entitled to a much lower price than the one listed before she will even think about buying your pathetic leftovers. Sadly, though you’d like to ask her as a matter of principle where she gets off imposing her discount assumption on you, you know she has you, as you really don’t want to haul your stuff back in the house; thus, you end up (grudgingly) caving to her demands.

I’m sure there were plenty of others I could list if I really wanted to get mean, but I’ll stop for now (I do wonder if different geographic areas of the country sport different
yard-saler species or if they’re just variations of the ones above). Of course, there were plenty of really nice people – friends, neighbors, people we’d never met before – who stopped by as well, bought some lemonade or stuff, and just talked a while, which was nice.

All in all, it was a good day and I’m glad we did it, though as with every yard sale, I’m always glad when it’s over and am in no hurry to do one again anytime soon.

Lawn Mower Civics

In Family, Holidays, Humanity, Places, Places & Spaces, Politics on May 31, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Mowing the yard is one of my favorite ways to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend. I suppose caring for the tiny piece of land I own is my noble attempt at recognizing the American traditions of honoring soldiers’ sacrifices and observing summer’s arrival.

Perhaps like many, I don’t always think about the freedoms we Americans enjoy, which is why Memorial Day (and what we do on Memorial Day) is important. As we’ve done in the past, we went to Jefferson Barracks today (here are some pics):

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

Mowing on Saturday and attending the Memorial Day service today got me thinking about ability – specifically, all I am able to do in the U.S. because I happen to live legally within her borders and laws. Here are just a few abilities I have as a U.S. citizen not necessarily guaranteed elsewhere in the world:

I’m able to have four children (all girls). In China, I could only have one child (and the government would want that one to be a boy, so any girls might get aborted).

I’m able to keep a blog or a write a new book without having to submit either to a censor for approval. In North Korea, neither is really an option (Internet and independent ideas don’t jive too well with totalitarian government regimes).

I’m able to freely live and believe according to the Christian Scriptures. While ours is not (nor ever has been) a “Christian” nation, I rejoice at being able to live freely as a Christian within our nation (try testing day-to-day religious diversity in, oh, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia and see where and what that gets you).

Now, lest you think this is just a nice patriotic post on freedom (I’ve tried those a few times before – 1, 2, 3, 4 – but they never seem to end up too warm and fuzzy), let me talk honestly about some personal inabilities that I wrestle with in our fair democracy (for those of you with USA bumper stickers and T-shirts, you might want to stop reading now):

I’m unable to trust elected political leaders. It doesn’t matter the level – national, state, local – nor the branch – executive, legislative, judicial – nor the political affiliation – Democrat, Republican, or Independent – politicians do not have the luxury of asking for my trust and assuming they have it. I am sick of the lack of integrity, of the abuse of power, of the CYA spin, and of the arrogance to think I do not understand enough to know what’s really going on. As far as I’m concerned, politicians can save the rhetoric for their consciences (if they still have any left); their words no longer affect me.

I’m unable to trust government workers. Call it guilt by association, but I’m tired of hearing about those who work for a government agency who seem all too content to siphon off their part of my taxes with little to no thought as to for whom they’re really working (example). I’m not saying there isn’t a place for public service (and I’m not saying every government worker is like this), but there is a philosophical difference between earning a living and spending an apportionment, and most long-term government leaders and workers don’t understand it.

I’m unable to trust the media as a true Fourth Estate. It’s not as if I did before, but the more I read or watch supposed “trusted” news sources, the more the agendas (liberal, conservative, etc.) spill over. One can blame the Internet, I suppose, for severely crippling the budgets of most newspapers and magazines, but someone needs to explain to our media outlets that their job is not to sell stories but to tell them. I’m done with opinion columnists masquerading as reporters (are you listening, Newsweek?) and find myself incredibly skeptical of the phrase “Here’s what’s making news” when it should really be “Here’s what WE’RE making news.”

I’m unable to trust the American Dream. This has never been much of a motivator nor temptation for me, but if it were, it’s become even less so in recent recession years. While cries of socialism/communism have found their way into the public conversation of late, pure laissez-faire capitalism is not the answer either. If the past ten years have taught us anything, I would hope it would be that life and meaning are bigger than an economic system, regardless of which system it is.

Jane Jacobs, in her 2005 book, Dark Age Ahead, argued that “we’re stumbling into the same cultural decline that befell the Roman Empire.” One of her overarching premises was that mass amnesia – not only forgetting something but forgetting that you have forgotten it – is the main cause of a Dark Age. “When the abyss of lost memory by a people becomes too deep and too old,” she wrote, “attempts to plumb it are futile.”

Jacobs went on to identify five pillars of society we need and have come to depend on:

  • community and family
  • higher education
  • the effective practice of science and science-based technology
  • taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  • accountability by the learned professions

She concluded that we in America “are dangerously close to the brink of lost memory and cultural uselessness” concerning these. I concur: We are suffering from mass amnesia these days about most things having to do with taxes, governmental powers, and accountability in the economic, scientific, technological, and (sadly) even religious sectors of our society. We have forgotten that we have forgotten. Memorial Day calls us to remember; interestingly, Deuteronomy does, too (fourteen times, as a matter of fact).

We in America are and always have been a country of ability, but are there others who sense a growing tide of inability washing away the sands of strength from our U.S. shores (at least the ones not covered in oil – thank you, BP)? Care to add to either list (ability or inability), or offer something you think we’ve forgotten that we’ve forgotten? I’d welcome your thoughts.

Until then, I may go mow some more…

Summer 2010 Preview, Etc.

In Books, Calling, Education, Family, Humanity, Internet, Musicians, Places, Places & Spaces, Theologians, Thought, Travel, TV, Vacation, Web/Tech, Westminster, Writers on May 23, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Sitting here on a Sunday night listening to some Lucinda Williams and doing a little writing. It's been a while since I've done a summary post of sorts, so since Megan and the girls are out of town and we're collectively an entire season behind to really make the LOST finale worth watching, here are a few things I've been thinking about and/or looking forward to:

School: This week is finals week, so I'll be spending most of my time grading. The good news is, unlike the past three years when I was evaluating projects and papers, I'm going into finals week with nothing other than finals to grade, so that should make for a little less consuming week in general.

In other school news, I've signed on for another year at Westminster, but my role is changing a bit as I'll be leaving the world of freshmen New Testament behind for fourth section of sophomore Ethics and one section of senior Worldviews next year. I'm glad for the transition all around.

One last note on the school front (this time the homeschool front), we're going to be entering a new stage of education here at home. This fall, our two oldest girls will be full-time students at Central Christian School in Clayton, while Megan continues leading the Classical Conversations group and homeschools our younger two (here are details from Megan's perspective).

Summer: In addition to writing (more on that below), my primary goal in June is to hang out with the little ladies, read some books, and get a few projects done around here. In addition, I'll help coach our Westminster summer baseball team for a week in June, as well as get trained on some new school information software, as I've been asked to be a mentor teacher to the rest of the staff this fall.

July ups the ante considerably in terms of travel, as we're planning a family trip to Colorado Springs, as the girls are now old enough (somehow) to attend The Navigators' camping programs (Eagle Lake and Eagle's Nest) we helped lead back in the day. I'll try to see as many folks as I can in a few days' time before I jump on a plane from Denver to Portland for my third year as part of Westminster's Summer Seminar. This time, I'll be investing ten days with 25 soon-to-be seniors in Washington state instead of South Dakota, after which I'll fly back to Colorado and then we'll all drive back to Missouri.

August sees staff reporting as earlier as the week of August 9th, but I'll have a few publishing projects to edit and design from the Washington trip, as well as a fair amount of prep work to finalize for my new
Worldviews class. Orientation starts the 12th and the first day of class is the 16th.

Studying: Despite baseball high-jacking my time and energy, I've been reading in a couple areas of interest this spring, not the least of which has been the study of the end times, or eschatology. N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, has been helpful, as has revisiting my notes from seminary (particularly Dr. Dan Doriani's notes from his Epistles and Revelation class). Of the three years I've taught Revelation to my freshmen New Testament classes, I feel like I've done the best job this year.

I'm also finishing up a couple books on education, namely John Dewey and the Decline of American Education by Henry T. Edmondson III, Curriculum 21 edited by Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, and The Secret of TSL by William Ouchi. It seems I've been reading these for a while (and I have), but there's been some good content that's come as a result.

Looking ahead, I have some Worldviews reading to do this summer, including (Re)Thinking Worldview by J. Mark Bertrand; The Compact Guide to World Religions edited by Dean C. Halverson (ed.); The Journey by Peter Kreeft; Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey; and The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire. Should be fun.

Writing: Now that my second book, Learning Education: Essays & Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching, is finished, I'm turning back to finishing the ThirtySomewhere manuscript this summer. I'm still looking for a formal publisher to get behind it, but now that I've experimented with the self-publishing gig a bit (and am still experimenting), I may go with what I've got at some point this fall and see what happens. We'll see.

I plan to continue blogging here, though I really wonder how much people are interested in anything longer than 140 Twitter characters these days. Speaking of which, I've enjoyed Twitter enough to keep using it, but there again I just have no way of really knowing how far the medium's actual reach is so as to invest more time in it. Oh well.

Guess that's it for now. There's more, but this is long enough. I'll try to post a few more thoughts later on this week (nothing brings out literary creativity like the desire to avoid grading). Have a good one.

Happy Post-Easter Thought

In Books, Church, Holidays, Humanity, Theologians, Writers on April 5, 2010 at 10:25 am

From Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright:

"As the reformers insisted, bodily death itself is the destruction of the sinful person. Someone once accused me of suggesting that God was a magician if he could wonderfully make a still-sinful person into a no-longer-sinful person just like that. But that's not the point. Death itself gets rid of all that is still sinful; this isn't magic but good theology. There is nothing then left to purge. Some older teachers suggested that purgatory would still be necessary because one would still need to bear some punishment for one's sins, but any such suggestion is of course abhorrent to anyone with even a faint understanding of Paul, who teaches that 'there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.'" (p. 170)

And continuing on in Romans 8:10-11:

"But if Christ is in you, although the body is
dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him
who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ
Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through
his Spirit who dwells in you."

The point: death deals with sin and it is done; life comes by resurrection…and then after it, according to Wright, as resurrection is really "life after life after death." (p. 169)

Grateful to God for his mercy and grace to even be able to think, dwell, and hope on any of this today…

Why Johnny Can’t Write (Part 2)

In Church, Education, Humanity, Internet, Technology, Thought, Web/Tech, Westminster, Young Ones on March 14, 2010 at 8:29 am

(Continued from my previous post on the topic; sorry for the delay/random smatterings. Can't believe it's taken two weeks, but I'm guessing you found other things to read).

With regard to the problem of teaching and learning the Bible, David Nienhuis sums up the problem nicely: "Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers."

Most Scripture memory programs focus on the imperative verses (what to do), almost completely ignoring the indicative verses (what is true). In other words, we in the church spend more time telling kids (and ourselves) what to do for God rather than what God has done for them (and us). In the evangelical church, we're all about the what and how, and hardly about the when, where, and why.

But let's not pretend that decontextualization is just a biblical literacy problem specifically; in today's postmodern world (or post-postmodern world some would say), it is a literacy problem in general. Here's where we come back to basic reading and writing
skills, and these skills' corruption by the very thing so many proclaim will help – technology.

There is, after all, a difference between learning something and learning how to search for something. Is one better than the other? That's a debated question: does a kid really need to learn when or where or why an historical event took place, or does he just need to learn how to search for it effectively with Google? How you answer this question has everything to do with your pedagogy, and while I don't think the two answers are mutually exclusive, I do think the former gets short shrift compared to the latter.

Think about this: nobody memorizes phone numbers anymore because we can just input them into our phone, press the name of the person we want to call, and dial the right number. This works great…as long as we have the phone. But what happens when we lose the phone or the phone stops working? How do we get a hold of the person we're trying to call? What do we really know? We know that we want our phone back and working again, and we realize how lost we feel without it. (Note: For the other two of you in the world who, like me, don't own a cell phone, apply the idea to losing your Web browser bookmarks…it can seem like the most helpless feeling in the world.)

The point is that we live such a wi-fi-enabled, out-sourced, off-site, backed-up life that we use our brains for little more than remembering where we store our passwords than what it is (stories, ideas, responses, reflections) they protect. Ours has evolved into such a non-oral tradition "tradition," that the thought of memorizing sonnets from a poem or narrative stories from the Bible for meaning and not information seems archaic and unnecessary. If we think we need it, we can find it; we don't need to learn it. And if we don't think we need to learn it, well, who cares?

The result of all this (or at least the result I see in the classroom) is a student who struggles to write or process ideas that take more than a paragraph to explain (see this Onion article for a humorous version of the problem) growing up in a culture that validates his multi-tasking dysfunction despite studies like this one and articles like this one that question it as a good means to deal with life. As an educator, I suppose I risk becoming suspect to students and parents (and perhaps colleagues and administrators) in calling for moderation and (at times) sobriety when it comes to drinking the technological Kool-Aid, but when I watch a program like Frontline's Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, it confirms my concerns. Again, I'm not down on technology, but idolatry is a different matter.

Maybe it's because of the subjects I teach (New Testament and Ethics) or the experience (or lack thereof) I've had in the classroom, but depending on technology instead of using technology to teach seems ridiculous for many reasons, not the least of which is this: what if the power or the Internet goes out? If I can't teach apart from my laptop with its Keynote presentations and Web-access and wikis and online forums and Skype conversations and YouTube clips and ITunes access and podcasts and Scripture software – all of which I use in the classroom – then I'm not sure I'm really much of a teacher.

I need one more post to respond to some of your questions about how we try to apply any of this here at home with our own kids. I promise I won't take another two weeks to get to it, so hang in there. In the meantime, here's a link to the blog of one of my students who has the increasingly rare gift of being a sophomore in high school and able to utilize technology while still thinking and writing meaningfully. Enjoy.

Play a Man’s Game, But Will Men Will Show Up to Play?

In Humanity, Sports, Television on February 10, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Over the past few days, I've read several interpretations of this year's Super Bowl commercials, many in which men seemed chastised for not being "male enough." (I noticed the trend myself in real-time on Sunday, but hadn't had time to put down my thoughts until now.)

Personally, my reaction to the ads was positive, if for no other reason than that advertisers seemed to be targeting a demographic other than just the metro-sexual and hyper-sexual male types. Instead, this year's crop of commercials seemed aimed at the wimpy male type – the guy who, either outwardly or inwardly, has basically surrendered his masculinity to his more "feminine side" (if there is such a thing) and needs to buck up and be the man in the relationship (whatever relationship that happens to be).

The first ad toward this end was for Dockers and their call for a Pantsformation. What I took from it was the call to men (mostly slobbish, out-of-shape guys who take pride in their slobbish out-of-shapeness) to dress up a bit and, well, "wear the pants" of initiative in life:

Another one in this same vein was for Flo.tv. This commercial applied the "buck up" theme to a particular male/female/sports relationship triangle in which a guy lets his girlfriend walk all over him when he would rather be watching the game. CBS sports anchor Jim Nantz's comment at the end: "Change outta that skirt, Jason." (Ironically, Nantz divorced his wife of 26 years last October, so I'm not sure his words and example are the best to follow concerning the aforementioned male/female/sports relationship triangle.)

Apparently, a lot of women had trouble with this next ad from Dodge, as it came off "ridiculously misogynist and hyper-masculine" in its portrayal of men's brooding anger at having to deal with women's demands before making "Man's Last Stand" and choosing to drive a Dodge Charger. While I'm no expert on the matter of misogyny, there does seem to be a fair amount of emasculation the men in the commercial are trying to withstand (albeit with a pretty shallow course of action in simply owning the car of their choice):

Perhaps the one spot I liked most was Dove Men+Care's "Journey to Comfort" ad. Though I have no plans to buy their product (sorry, Dove, but I feel comfortable enough in my own skin not to care that much about it), I could relate to the frenetic life documented in the commercial, as well as the sense of accomplishment that comes with having (so far) survived it.

Whereas the typical Super Bowl fare might (and did) include the typical
"cars, cash, and cuties" commercials, this year's collection seemed
more geared to appeal to a man's needs as much or more as his wants.
Though wrapped in humor, subtle acknowledgments of a man's desire for
purpose, respect, adventure, and success seemed to upstage the
normal bounty of commercials boasting of beer and babes.

The thing I take from all this is – newsflash! – there's some real confusion out there as to what true manhood entails, so much so that it's become a national joke during the biggest television event in the world. Have we really come to a point where men are so comfortable laughing at and thinking of themselves as mere "male wannabes" that advertisers have recognized a whole new market to target?

All Dressed Up with Somewhere to Go

In Calling, Holidays, Humanity, Places on December 30, 2009 at 10:02 pm

IMG_3965

Believe it or not, this picture perfectly illustrates how I think about a new year: dress for the occasion, show up early and hope for the best, but sit in the back to take it all in and be near the exits just in case something goes horribly wrong.

What can I say? A few things come to mind: "Blessed are the paranoid, for they shall inherit the earth (or what's left of it)." Or how about: "Not only is the glass half-empty, it's also trying to kill me." Or my personal (and original) favorite: "Nothing can be simple."

Like it or not, folks, I'm a pessimistic-idealist trying to lose the hyphen so as to simply become a realist who lives by faith. But, by golly, it's hard, so if I've offended you, driven you off, or just driven you crazy with my rants, raves, and otherwise unmerciful mumblings, forgive me…and pray for my wife.

Thanks for sticking it out here at Second Drafts. Hang with me for another year and we'll see where 2010 goes; after all, we're here and I'm wearing a bow tie, so we might as well make the most of it (just don't ask me to dance).

Have a happy New Year.

Kids (and Parents) These Days

In Calling, Church, Family, Holidays, Humanity, Places & Spaces, Thought, Westminster, Young Ones on December 19, 2009 at 9:38 am

Megan and I had a memorable evening Friday night that got us talking about some things that, well, we're not sure we're excited to be talking about. Maybe we're showing our age or our upbringing, but last night was an introspective evening for us in a lot of ways.

The cause of this introspection was Westminster's Christmas Banquet – a formal, end-of-semester dinner for which we were asked last-minute to serve as chaperones. Being the cheapskates we are, we were happy to get gussied up for four hours with 500 of our closest high school-age friends – the food at the Airport Hilton was decent, the service was good, and it was a nice way to officially kick off Christmas Break (even though I've STILL got grading to do this weekend to meet the Monday morning deadline).

Our first moment of introspection came as we dropped our four girls off at our pastor's house for the evening. Our daughters and their daughters (four also) are all roughly the same ages and absolutely love each other, so that wasn't the issue; what was different was Andrew and Lisa also had a Christmas party Friday evening, so the eight little ladies were going to be on their own for the night. As their oldest is 12 and our oldest is ten days from being 11, we were okay with this, but it was a bit surreal leaving the girls without adult supervision for four hours. It seemed we'd crossed a threshold of sorts, so we talked about it for the 15-minute drive to the hotel and decided that, indeed, we had.

When we showed up (early) for the banquet, we found our seats (in back), so we sat and talked about what we might expect this evening. Megan doesn't know many of my students as their paths don't really cross, so the evening was going to be a parade of nameless high schoolers for her; I, on the other hand, knew probably half of the students by name from class or the hallways, and was excited to see them in a different light, one which might give a hint into who they are and are becoming outside of my classroom.

Unfortunately, what I got was an eyeful of how little parents seem to care about their kids (especially their daughters).

With guys in tuxedos and girls in dresses, we expected to see a fair amount of awkwardness as the students adjusted to their fancy duds; what we didn't expect was the ridiculous amounts of make-up, skin, and cleavage we were bombarded with, nor the (short) leather skirts and (tall) stiletto heels that came with them. I couldn't count the number of times I saw girls having to pull up the tight tops of their low strapless dresses in an honest effort to keep themselves from walking right out of them.

The guys were awkward in their own way (one freshman actually wore his cumberbund up around his ribs all night and looked like a mover in one of those support belts to aid his bad back), but you can't tell me they didn't enjoy just sitting back and taking in everything that was about to fall out right before their eyes. I've never seen these guys smile as much as they did last night.

At the risk of sounding like a puritanical prude, the question that kept coming to my mind was "Where are the parents?" Oh, I forgot: they were busy planning the "after-party," the non-WCA-sponsored dance at another hotel where, from reports I always get from the kids the week after such events, is where the real party happens.

Apparently, in addition to providing the DJ and dance floor, these parents "supervise" the opportunity for high school students to "grind" on one another to their hearts' (among other bodily organs') content. I can't count the number of students who've asked me over the past three years if grinding is wrong – they bring it up every time we study (get this) the seventh commandment prohibiting adultery. When I tell them that, yes, grinding is wrong because it's basically "sex with clothes on," you wouldn't believe the pushback I get. You'd think I had accused Bill Clinton of having sex with Monica Lewinsky or something.

This – all this – made up the discussion Megan and I had on the drive back to pick up the girls. If we enroll the girls at WCA (or any school), do they accept a boy's invitation to be his date at a banquet. If they want to, sure, so long as she's dressed appropriately (that is, wearing clothes) and simply going to enjoy the evening with a friend who happens to be male. Do we let them go to "after parties"? A trickier question, but one we will hopefully attempt to answer with them by talking about all the realities in play. Decisions like these come down to clued-in parent involvement – both now and (for us, at least, before) – and I'd sure like to see more of this informed kind at WCA.

Granted, not every WCA student nor every WCA parent is suspect in this, and I could name plenty of students who were appropriately dressed at the banquet who probably didn't attend the after-party due to parental intervention. But as a current high school teacher and future high school parent, let me encourage anyone with kids to re-consider the fact that no one's going to parent your kids for you; frankly, God didn't give us the option when he gave them to us. Hear the words of Deuteronomy 6:5-7:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You
shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them
when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you
lie down, and when you rise."

In other words, we are to parent according to our love for God and the words of his Scripture, and we are to parent as we (and they) go. There are no breaks; it's 24-7, baby, and we will be held accountable for every decision we make (or don't make) in training up our children in the way they should go. Might I humbly suggest that public cleavage and grinding have no place in this biblical equation? God help us all.

Life on Other Planets: Some Thoughts

In Church, Humanity, Movies, Nature, Places, Science, Theologians, Travel on August 7, 2009 at 8:43 am

A friend of mine and I sat through the movie Knowing the other night. While one of the worst movies I've watched in a while (incoherent plot, numerology silliness, Nicolas Cage once again playing Nicolas Cage), the film did serve one purpose: it got us talking about the idea of life on other planets.

Despite my X-Files affections, I tend to doubt that we have neighbors in the universe: other populated worlds aren't mentioned in the Bible, and most scientists say the odds against are just too huge otherwise. Maybe I'm your typical egocentric human, but when astronomer Carl Sagan said that if life didn't exist elsewhere in the universe it would be "an awful waste of space," I guess I feel kind of special.

At the same time, I recognize that just because the Bible doesn't record the existence of life on other planets doesn't mean there isn't. Remember: the Bible is a historical-redemptive narrative, not an all-encompassing science book. And speaking of science, there are plenty of scientists who do not share my doubts, running huge scientific initiatives and spending a boatload of money in hopes of making some kind of contact with other beings.

Despite my doubts, and certainly different from the typical evangelical Christian line, the argument for other life in the universe does seem plausible, if for no other reason than the very nature of God as Creator. But here's the question I think it all comes down to: The Scriptures attest to our fallen nature as created beings, but is that to mean all that is on the Earth or all that is in the entire universe?

The question is important because, while we have the account of God redeeming Earth through Christ, if there are indeed other beings in the universe and the universe is indeed fallen, then was there a plan of salvation for other planets as well? C.S. Lewis believed so, namely that when the Bible talks of "creation," it is in reference to the Earth and not necessarily the universe. From this perspective, the idea of other created beings without need of redemption is possible; we just don't have a record of it.

Thinking about all this is particularly interesting in light of mankind's desire to explore space. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking says that the only way humanity can survive is to figure out how to leave the planet; hence, the importance of the U.S. space program. This, of course, begs the question: If the Earth is the only fallen part of God's creation, what does our going out into a non-fallen universe mean? Does it matter? And what would it be like to meet other creation who are intact in their creation perfection?

This is what I understand Lewis' Space Trilogy
to be about: man
leaves Earth
(called the Silent Planet, as it was cut off from the rest of the
universe because of its evil), to colonize elsewhere in the universe
(Perelandra) among beings not in need of redemption. These innocents, though not fallen
themselves, are nevertheless affected by humans and Earth's evil
before it is all finally resolved in the Siege of Deep Heaven against
the Bent One of Earth. In other words, sinful Earthlings contaminated another part of space which, until their arrival, had not been so. Thankfully, however, good overcame evil.

I've always thought of and understood the Fall applying to all of God's universal creation; thus, I differ with Lewis' premise that creation perfection is alive and well outside the surly bonds of Earth. Having said that, however, if God so chose to redeem other inhabitants of his universal creation, I'm assuming he has both prerogative and means to accomplish his will. In my finite, self-centered self, it's just easier to think about me and Earth, especially since God gave us a record of all he has done for redemption here (not to mention that I have no plans or desire for leaving).

Still thinking on this, but I'll stop for now. Anyone have a more formed/informed thought?

All Must Be Well

In Calling, Church, Family, Friends, Humanity, Marriage, Places & Spaces, Thought on March 22, 2009 at 5:43 pm

My mom and I had lunch Saturday, as she was in town for a Mary Kay conference at the St. Louis Convention Center. I took her to Tigin, an Irish pub Megan and I had discovered as part of a mystery shop date a few months ago – cool place. I can't remember the last time I had a meal with my mom that didn't include Dad, Megan, or any combination of children, so we had a novel time catching up.

The conversation went a variety of directions, but one topic that came up was all the debt America is accruing and the impact of that on multiple generations. I've never known Mom to get upset by too many things political, but she had obviously spent some time thinking about the consequences for her children and grandchildren. She was concerned, she said, and spoke of how, the older she gets, the more realistic she's trying to be in adding to – rather than spending – our inheritance.

Thanking her for her thoughtfulness and honesty, I shared a little of my perspective (semi-transcribed versions here and here if you're interested) on the mess the government is making of the financial sector, as well as a little about the moral dilemmas (here, here, here, here, and here just to link a few) that will impact our nation's future in ways as significant as any financial crisis. The conversation could have turned into a real bummer had not we ended up agreeing there's really little hope for things apart from the grace of God. Simply put, it was a good and meaningful time.

Finishing lunch and dropping Mom off at the Convention Center for the rest of her conference, I made my way to Clayton for a wedding. My friend and teaching colleague, Abby Doriani, was due to get married at 2:00, but I underestimated the hassle the I-64 repair shutdown from Kingshighway to Hanley would be and realized I was going to be late. I finally made it to Clayton, found a parking place, and ran up to the church, figuring I missed Abby's procession, but would at least make it for the remainder of the ceremony and reception.

As I opened the front door to sneak in, I almost ran over Abby's dad, Dr. Dan Doriani, who was leading Abby and the bridesmaids up the stairs into the foyer before proceeding into the sanctuary. As I had Dr. Doriani for several classes at Covenant, I smiled and shook his hand, trying to be mindful of the fact that he probably had a lot on his mind and now might not be the best time for small talk. I waved to Abby, who looked beautiful in her wedding gown, and then I headed up the stairs to the sanctuary to find a seat.

At the top of the stairs, I saw Abby's mother, Debbie, and gave her a hug. Far from being a dreaded mother-of-the-bride, Debbie was all smiles, asked how I was, thanked me for coming to the wedding, and reassured me there were plenty of seats left, but I would have to go in after Abby and her dad did as the seating of grandparents had already started. She gave me a quick wave, then took her place at the door to the sanctuary and was escorted in by one of the ushers, followed by Abby's first two bridesmaids.

This left Abby, her dad, her two younger sisters (each of whom was a matron/maid of honor), and me standing in the foyer. Abby noticed me trying to blend into the wall so as not to intrude on the family moment, but as it obviously wasn't working, she humorously asked how I was enjoying my behind-the-scenes experience of her wedding. I laughed and said I was just taking notes. Her sisters each gave her a kiss and went in, and then it was Abby's turn to walk arm-in-arm with her dad through the doors to get married.

More than most, the wedding ceremony was a very warm reminder of how the God-given institution of marriage is (and is to be) a reflection of Christ's relationship with his bride, the Church. In his charge to the couple, Dr. Doriani spoke of the differences between romantic and divine love, but stressed the need for both in marriage. Vows were taken, the community affirmed them, and everyone rejoiced in the fact that two were becoming one before their very eyes. It was a beautiful thing, and afterward, we all went downstairs for cake and punch (another beautiful thing).

For me, the afternoon was an insightful one: in light of the good but sobering discussion with Mom at lunch, I needed the reassurance of Christ's relationship with his Church that a marriage ceremony can provide; despite the pressures of the day, I saw parents who didn't make their daughter's marriage all about them (or even about her), but about Christ's relationship with his Church; and, strangely for the first time, I imagined my own daughters getting married – each with her three sisters as bridesmaids – and prayed that their weddings would reflect Christ's relationship with his Church as well…even if there's little money to pay for them…or even less morality left in our culture to care.

This morning at church, we sang the following verse:

"We expect a bright tomorrow, all will be well
Faith can sing through days of sorrow, all is well
On our Father's love relying, Jesus every need supplying
Yes, in living or in dying, all must be well"

Because of Christ's relationship with his Church, all must be well…both in the now and the not yet. I needed that reminder, and I'm grateful to God for it this Lord's Day.

The Contentment Equation

In Friends, Health, Humanity, Science, Westminster on March 18, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I had a tough discussion with a student this week – tough not because of the student, but because of the student's family situation. Details aren't important for my purposes here, so I'll refrain from sharing any; suffice it to say, I wanted to help a lot more than I could. Leaving school, I prayed for the student, asking God to grant strength and maturity in handling parents who are both behaving badly.

As I was praying, I wondered when the last time the student had ever felt real and extended contentment in life. Was it within the past year? Doubtful – we've been processing the situation together since at least November. Any time during the teenage years? Possibly, but most of what the student is dealing with has been years in the making, and teenagers pick up on that stuff. When my student was in elementary school? I hope not (that would be a while ago). Even before then? Man.

I think about stuff like this a lot – not just with kids, but adults as well. My theory (and I'm just throwing it out here) is that the further a person has to go back to find real and extended contentment, the older they feel and seem to others. Granted, this idea may not be rocket science (and I'll grant that my definitions of "real" and "extended" are more than a bit fuzzy), but I wonder if a math-type could put together an equation to qualitatively test my hypothesis; all I've got is a gut feeling it's true.

As any good teacher asks a student for an answer to his own question, I tried to answer mine. When was the last period of real and extended contentment for me? When was the first? How many have there been in between? Most importantly (I think), how young (or old) does the accumulation or absence of these make me seem to others? I'll be honest: I feel (and have felt) pretty content for much of the past year, but has that been contentment or just happiness? What really marks a difference between the two?

A favorite passage on this topic is Paul's statement in Philippians 4:11-13:

"I have learned in whatever situation I am to be a content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

God's promise in verse 13 is every Christian's favorite – that is, until they discover that being content is what God promises to strengthen us for (instead of just winning sport events or passing tests). For hermeneutical reasons, I stopped applying this verse to non-contentment kinds of things a long time ago, but I'm not sure how recent it's been since I picked it up again to apply it in the right way. I'm not sure I'm that brave.

With regard to my schizophrenic inquiries above, I'm still thinking through my answers; however, I'm as interested in whether the questions are even the right ones as well. What do you think of my equation (try this for starters: PA (perceived age) = AA (actual age) – C (contentment) / T (time))? How accurate does it seem in measuring your own experience? And what does it take for you to feel as well as talk about being content in your own life?

Who’s the Daddy?

In Church, Family, Humanity, Places, Places & Spaces on March 6, 2009 at 11:08 am

Well, the recession (when are we going to call it what it is: a depression?) has come to Westminster, but the news could be much worse. Our leadership has called for a salary freeze and put plans on hold regarding the new campus, but that's about it; no salary cuts, no lay-offs, and our enrollment numbers are still (somewhat surprisingly) strong.

I tend not to fret too much over things absolutely out of my control, so I didn't. However, I was glad to receive a teaching contract yesterday for next year (which I promptly signed and returned within five minutes of receiving). My joy is not so much in still having a job (though that's relieving), but more that the administration wants to keep me around another year (yes, I'm an affirmation junkie). Whew.

Megan, the girls, and I celebrated my newly-renewed employability with a rare trip to Hacienda (our favorite Mexican restaurant) last night. For reasons other than just the margarita, I was again reminded how good God is and has been to our family, and thanked him accordingly over chips and salsa. I want my girls to know that I am not the provider for our family; God the Father is.

I also prayed for those who have lost jobs or are trying to find them. It can't be easy right now, and my prayer is that even in the midst of uncertainty, God will meet needs through his sovereignty and his Church. I'm not sure if/when/how things are going to turn around (again, another thing completely out of my control), but God is neither surprised nor absent in the midst of our economic struggles. Pray with me for others, that they may see God's faithfulness in our world today as Old Testament Israel did then, as recorded in the Psalms:

"I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread."
Psalm 37:25
God is good…all the time.

38 Today

In Health, Humanity, Thought on February 5, 2009 at 8:18 am
"Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Mark Twain

I turn 38 today. While my mother may have a story or two from my childhood to the contrary, for as long as I can remember I've never really cared that much about my birthday. For some (and you know who you are), a birthday is (or should be) a national holiday, but even if mine were, I don't think I'd care (they usually don't officially set aside those days until after you're dead anyway). To me, it simply is what it is.

Thankfully, God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, graciously granted me a daughter who shares my date of birth, which makes it easier to endure the fuss about the fact that we were born, as it's usually (blessedly) pointed in her direction instead of mine. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to be alive and believe that every year – yea, every day – is a gift from God. But a birthday is like any other day for me. I just don't get the preoccupation.

I also don't get the fear of birthdays and what the accumulation of those birthdays represents. Our culture is so paranoid about growing older and puts so much into fighting (both physically and psychologically) the effects of aging that it's amazing we haven't collapsed into one giant heap of adolescence.

Children aren't taught to grow up to be adults in society; they're taught to grow up to be teenagers. Adults aren't embracing their position of elders in the world; they're fighting tooth and nail to get back to their glory days and not be viewed as old. (For more on this, read my post on Diana West's book, The Death of the Grown-Up.)

In case anyone's wondering, I have no plans to color the spreading amount of gray in my hair or trade out the beige Delta 88 Land Yacht I drive for a fiery red sports car. My goals do not include proving to myself or anyone else that I can still woo the ladies or that I can keep us up with the Joneses.

No, I'm content trying to act my age, even to the point of occasionally going beyond it in wisdom if/when God so enables. I'm more than happy trying to make better decisions about health, as opposed to merely ones made in pursuit of a more attractive body. I'm simply humbled trying to walk with God in a way that models love to my wife, children, and neighbors, rather than appearing religious and (self-)righteous.

So, I'm 38 today, and I'm glad to be so. I look forward to 40…to 50…to 60…all of it's gravy when you consider I don't deserve to live even a day, for "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). From this perspective, I can say with honesty and awe that it's good just to be alive, no matter how old I may be.

Relearning Diligence

In Education, Humanity, Thought, Westminster on January 7, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Normally a prep period (and a really nice way to end the day), seventh hour in my classroom today played host to one of eleven experiments by our Bible department in which our seniors in Worldviews "taught" our eighth grade Bible students lessons stemming from the Proverbs.

The seniors (about 6 per group) were to create a 7-10 minute documentary-format video illustrating the principles of their assigned proverbial topic. Following the video, each of the seniors was to speak a few minutes from his or her own experience on the topic, and this was to be followed by a 15-minute Q&A time facilitated by the seniors and involving the eighth graders. (Over the course of the next few days, the teachers will process with the seniors while the eighth graders interact in a protected digital environment about what they learned, which will be monitored and "graded" by their teachers.)

As I have neither seniors nor eighth graders, I had little more to do with the initiative than serving as room facilitator and grader. My group had been assigned the topic of diligence to focus and teach on, and despite their tendency toward mouthfuls of imperative legalisms and telling rather than showing their point, they did a decent job with their presentation. Rarely have I seen seniors respect both the task and their younger audience as these students did, and the eighth graders were equally respectful and appreciative of the seniors' attempts to present and interact. It was a nice dynamic.

If there was anything concerning about the experience, it would be my group's seeming replacement of faithfulness with success as diligence's final result. This switcheroo is not unique to our seniors and I'm not meaning to blame them for it here; it is a pathology that plagues so many kids I teach at the freshman, sophomore, and junior levels, probably because it plagues their parents as well. It goes something like this:

diligence = good grades = college of choice = good job = happiness = success

Nearly every senior story followed this flow. The progression wasn't formally charted, but it was certainly assumed and accepted to be true. If I had to sum up what was taught in my classroom seventh hour, it would be that diligence always equals success, and that success will be what you want it to be, so get to work.

In other words, it's what you and I, in our "best" works-based faith, tell ourselves every day of our works-based lives. Who says kids today can't learn?

Granted, the proverbs can certainly be read with a very "name it-claim it" hermeneutic (an unfortunate Christian manifestation of our nation's American Dream religion), but we have to read it within the genre of wisdom literature which tends toward trajectories rather than guarantees. For instance, when we read a verse like Proverbs 10:4 which says, "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich," we have to understand that just because we avoid sloth does not automatically ensure wealth. Sure, one has a better chance at financial success by working rather than vegging, but that trail is a trajectory, not a guarantee.

After all, life happens; so does God, and God's idea of "success" often (though not always) has more to do with faithfulness than finances (see Psalm 73 for more on this). How do we explain when one works hard but doesn't make it into the college of his choice? How does our theology make sense when one is diligent and doesn't succeed at the level he or she expected to?

Generally speaking, diligence in the Scriptures tends to look and feel a lot more like perseverance than success. Indeed, God in his gracious goodness as a Father tends to bless diligence (Proverbs says so), but that doesn't give us the right to demand such blessing or to remind God of His part in our equation. God owes us nothing and is debtor to no man; we would do well to remember and live by this if we are to walk with Him on His terms. We'd be more humble and grateful people in doing so.

So, we as teachers have some work to do – not only in our students but also in our parents, certainly within the Church and, if we're honest, probably within ourselves. Indeed, we should be diligent because the Scriptures tell us to be so, but let's not be surprised by how God might respond, rather than demand He do what we think He should to keep up His end of the deal. Who becomes God then?

(Note: For more on how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids, read The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine. Accurate and thought-provoking.)

Wendell Berry for Secretary of Agriculture

In Humanity, Politics on January 6, 2009 at 11:17 pm

I don't know if anyone caught it in the midst of all the tomfoolery going on across our political system of late, but Wendell Berry penned an Op-Ed piece in Sunday's New York Times that's more worthy of reading than what Barack Obama thinks about our economy or what Roland Burris thinks about himself.

Along with a guy named Wes Jackson (plant geneticist and president of The Land Institute in Salina, KS), Berry (former professor at the University of Kentucky, farmer, and writer in Port Royal, KY), attempts to draw attention away from the headlines of the day to some realities that have been in place at least as far as the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s: that is, the loss of land at the hands of man. They write:

"Soil that is used and abused…is as nonrenewable as (and far more valuable than) oil. Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government."

My father owns and farms 600 acres of land and was Illinois' Soil and Water Conservation Farmer of the Year in 1995. Dad has often said a similar thing for as long as I can remember; his version, however, cuts to the chase with regard to God's green earth:

"They're not making any more of it."

Indeed, "they're" not, nor does it seem "they" have considered what will happen if/when we run out of good soil. According to Jackson and Berry, history gives us a clue:

"Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice."

So who's to blame? Is it city folk who have no clue from where or how food shows up on their grocery store shelves? Perhaps, but it's unfair to lay all the blame on those who live in urban areas, especially when a majority of them don't know what they don't know about agriculture as a result of the urban migration of multiple generations during the past 60 years. Granted, I might recommend a field trip to a local family farm, but that suggestion becomes problematic in that there are so few family farms around to visit anymore.

Unfortunately, either out of financial desperation or personal preference, rural folk have bought into globalization's philosophy that bigger is better by consolidating small family farms into giant corporate ones, exploding the scale of agribusiness and exploiting land and livestock to do it; they've chanted industrialization's mantra that faster is cheaper, developing technology and pushing practices that almost seem to farm for them rather than require one to actually be a farmer.

So what? Aren't we growing food in a petri dish already? Perhaps, but who owns the petri dishes (and who gets to decide what grows in them – and how)? Say Jackson and Berry:

"Industrial agricultural…by substituting technological 'solutions' for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods. Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities."

We're in the middle (though some would say we haven't hit bottom yet) of a financial recession and crisis here in America, and indeed, the negative effects of incredibly unethical business practices continue to ripple out and affect millions on a daily basis. But it's one thing to be stuck in a stagnant economy with food on the shelves; it would be quite another to be in the same (or even a better) situation without something to eat.

"For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations."

I'm not one to advocate throwing money at problems, and the past few months have been incredibly difficult to stomach with everyone and their dog asking for a handout. But if our government continues doling out dinero and spending money like we've got it, then I'd encourage us to heed what Jackson and Berry call for, namely "a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities." If nothing else, taking a longer-term approach on this issue at least seems biblical (numerically speaking, that is).

Until then, be sure to save those newspapers and magazines full of financial and constitutional crises, and hold on to those expired grocery coupons and circulars. The way things are going, we may need to eat them later.

Not Even Jack Bauer Can Get Us Out of This One

In Calling, Humanity, Places, Thought, TV, Westminster on November 24, 2008 at 6:57 am

Powerful episode of 24 Sunday night. “Redemption” caught us up with illegal expatriate Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland) coming to the aid of African children kidnapped to be made into child soldiers under a would-be dictator.

As always, the show’s story was straight out of news headlines, even including a presidential transfer of power in Washington, with the only major detail missed being the casting of the new President as a woman instead of a black man (apologies to both Senators Clinton and Obama). In a word, the episode was heartbreaking, as the use of thousands of child soldiers is going on in at least 17 different countries today.

For the past two years, Westminster has been involved with an organization called Invisible Children, whose Schools for Schools initiative exists “to creatively raise money for the schools of northern Uganda, improving the quality of education for war-affected students.” So far this fall, the WCA student body has raised over $15,000 (mostly in spare change) to help the same secondary school in Gulu that we helped last year, ranking us first in the country of all participating U.S. schools with less than a month to go of the 100-day window.

While I’m not a big fan of the competitive giving strategy utilized by the organization (and enabled by Westminster), I was glad that one WCA student, as well as my friend and teaching colleague, Ann Heyse, “won” the opportunity to represent our school in Gulu this past summer. Ann spent six weeks with Invisible Children, training teachers and teaching students with her expertise in English, and based on both her personal testimony and her excellently-written blog documenting her experience, it seems the organization does good work in a place that needs much good work done.

Last night, as I watched the two-hour teaser that creatively gets Jack Bauer back to the United States for the show’s seventh full season beginning in January, I found myself overwhelmed by the realism of it all…that is until one particular commercial break when there was a quick screen shot for the Human Rights Watch website, followed immediately by a national Pizza Hut commercial, and then a local ad for St. Louis’ very own Casino Queen (“home of the loosest slots”). Whew. Assuagement by advertising.

What an incredibly confusing postmodern culture we have created, one in which almost every aspect of life is separated from any true and meaningful meta-narrative. How strange to go from African children dying to ordering two-for-one pizzas to having a great time gambling, all in the course of 60 seconds. And yet for those of us who have been breathing this postmodern air our entire lives, the progression doesn’t seem strange at all; it is exactly what we have come to expect (at least, that is, before God’s revelatory red pill of the gospel allows us to see power, gluttony, and greed for what they really are).

We live in a broken world, friends. Whether in Africa or America, ours is both a needy place and time to be alive, and not even Jack Bauer can get us out of this one.

Walking the Line Between Loss and Hope

In Church, Family, Friends, Health, Humanity, Young Ones on October 15, 2008 at 11:39 am

You may not know it (I didn’t), but on July 27th of 2005, Congress proclaimed October 15th Stillbirth Remembrance Day, also sometimes called Stillbirth and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Though you might not know it, today is a hard day for many.

It may sound like a gigantic exaggeration, but almost every couple Megan and I know has experienced the pain of losing a child through miscarriage or stillbirth. Almost every one. Several have lost multiple babies interspersed between having multiple healthy ones; others are still trying to have their first after losing those once conceived.

For whatever reason, we have never experienced this kind of loss. We’ve had some scary moments – our first-born had serious surgery when she was four after a lung collapsed because of pneumonia; our third-born came out blue from having the cord wrapped around her neck during the end of her delivery – but we’ve never lost a child through miscarriage, stillborn birth, or SIDS. This, of course, has nothing to do with us, just as losing a child has nothing to do with those parents who have.

Though I use the language because it’s familiar in our vernacular, I’m no fan of the phrase “losing a child” or of the word “miscarriage,” as both imply blame that is wrongly placed on expectant parents. The idea that a pregnant woman has “lost” or “miscarried” a baby implies she once had total and complete power to keep and carry it to term. Which of our female friends misused that power during her pregnancy? None. Which of our male friends was party to such misuse? Not one.

For those who want to cast blame, our biology – or more accurately, our fallen biology – is the culprit, not God. God does not cause loss; God restores. God is not evil; God is good. For those who have recently lost a child or are still struggling with pain from years ago, Romans 8:28 (despite the cheeseball greeting cards misapplying the verse to any and every audience) offers hope to soothe heartache:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

The Scriptures tell us that even in the loss of a child, God somehow brings good out of the worst of pain; even when he is often blamed for it, he is at work redeeming these most heart-breaking experiences brought on by the sin of our representative parents, Adam and Eve. We lose our children because we lost our true humanity; each of us is fallen from the glory of perfection in which our parents were first made.

My friend and ethics co-teacher, Larry Hughes, and his wife lost their second child to stillbirth. They named him Sean and had a memorial service in his honor. This morning, I asked Larry what his thoughts were on that day and how he processed the grief he and Nancy felt years ago. He said this:

“To my mind, a key Scripture passage is David’s response when Bathsheba loses their child in 2 Samuel 12. Because of David’s many psalms reflecting his belief of being with God always, I think the response ‘…he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped…I will go to him, but he will not return to me‘ is encouraging not only theologically but personally. I think and believe that this, when coupled with the character of God, reassures those who lose their children in childbirth, SIDS, abortions, or in whatever way, that God does indeed take those on to Glory.”

David speaks of going to his son in heaven, but recognizes his son will not return to him on earth. He resigns himself to this reality (as evidenced later in chapter 12), but not before having resigned himself to the hope of reunion with his child. The Scripture is a bittersweet but beautiful passage of promise, one that records both David’s loss as well as his hope.

Many couples we know have gone through this same double-resignation. Our role as those who support believing parents in their grief should not be to rush them through the pursuit of the second (resigning themselves to the fact), nor to question the legitimacy of the first (resigning themselves to hope of a reunion). It’s a fine line to walk, but maybe there’s a couple who needs you to try with them today.

Bailing on the Bailout

In Humanity, Politics, Thought on September 30, 2008 at 7:30 pm

I haven’t written too much about the current financial crisis/bailout/circus of late, partly because I’m still trying to figure it all out, and partly because I’ve written before about the problem of big government handling anything. While I love being right, I hate being redundant.

I was not in favor of a bailout, yet assumed it was going to pass, only to be somewhat surprised it didn’t (at least as of Monday). My mentality and situation mirror those of my friend, Clay, with whom I’ve exchanged an email or two about all this. He writes:

“I don’t have a lot of capital in this game, so I can be pretty free and easy with my opinions. I could be labeled a constrained visionist (a la Sowell) and have a core belief, a faith, that the free market system (process belief) is better able to sort this out than Hank and Ben (unconstrained, result-oriented action).  If I have to bet my (lack of) wealth on anything, I’ll take the market over Bush any time.”

I’ve always thought of myself as a free-market guy, too, though Robert T. Miller’s A Conservative Case for the Paulson Plan gave me pause to think on it a few days back:

“Are you an economic conservative who thinks that the government should intervene in the market only when markets fail and it is efficient for the government to act? Then you should support the bailout plan because what we are seeing in the credit markets is probably the most serious market failure that will occur in our lifetimes. Are you an economic conservative who thinks the government spends too much and the national debt is too high? Then you should support the bailout plan because the government will likely make money in the long run and so reduce the deficit. The intelligent conservative position here is to support the bailout.”

Then this morning, I confess I almost drank the bailout Kool-Aid when my usual voice-of-reason hero, New York Times columnist David Brooks, criticized the Congress as being leaderless in their “no” decision regarding the proposed bailout:

“This generation of political leaders…have failed utterly and catastrophically to project any sense of authority, to give the world any reason to believe that this country is being governed. Instead, by rejecting the rescue package on Monday, they have made the psychological climate much worse….The only thing now is to try again – to rescue the rescue. There’s no time to find a brand-new package, so the Congressional plan should go up for another vote on Thursday, this time with additions that would change its political prospects.”

Hmmm.

Later this afternoon, however, I came across Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer in economics at Harvard and one of 166 academic economists who signed a letter to congressional leaders last week opposing the bailout plan. In a special to CNN, he wrote a commentary titled “Bankruptcy, not bailout, is the right answer,” saying:

“The obvious alternative to a bailout is letting troubled financial institutions declare bankruptcy. Bankruptcy means that shareholders typically get wiped out and the creditors own the company. Bankruptcy does not mean the company disappears; it is just owned by someone new (as has occurred with several airlines). Bankruptcy punishes those who took excessive risks while preserving those aspects of a businesses that remain profitable.”

At the end of the piece, Miron gets practical as to where we go from here:

“So what should the government do? Eliminate those policies that generated the current mess. This means, at a general level, abandoning the goal of home ownership independent of ability to pay. This means, in particular, getting rid of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with policies like the Community Reinvestment Act that pressure banks into subprime lending…The right view of the financial mess is that an enormous fraction of subprime lending should never have occurred in the first place. Someone has to pay for that. That someone should not be, and does not need to be, the U.S. taxpayer.”

That resonated with my gut sense. Why bail out a bad system? This again from Clay:

“All I know with respect to handing this Administration vast discretionary power over something of immense national importance is, ‘Once bitten, twice shy…’ The market abuses that went on came from a lack of information and transparency and a lack of timely-targeted regulation to mitigate the worst of unregenerate human nature.”

In other words, we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us – now that’s a concept I get (and a biblical one, too). True, the system was bad, but who created the system? Government leaders pandering to a constituency demanding cheap loans with little to no accountability.

I remember reading an intriguing book a few years ago by Jane Jacobs called Dark Age Ahead. Jacobs, an urbanist, argued that North American civilization showed signs of spiral decline comparable to the collapse of the Roman empire. Her thesis focused on “five pillars of our culture that we depend on to stand firm” (see the last one especially):

  • the nuclear family
  • education
  • science
  • representational government and taxes
  • corporate and professional accountability

What do you think? Have we officially arrived at Jacobs’ “dark age” in America? Are you for or against a government bailout? From my perspective, It’s time to own our mistakes and, while it might will be hard, reap what we’ve sown in the way we’ve handled our economy; God, after all, will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7-8).

What say you and why?

How We Know What We Know

In Arts, Books, Humanity, Theologians on September 18, 2008 at 2:00 am

I've been reading some really good stuff of late on epistemology (that is, "how we know what we know"). With regard to truth, most people feel the pull of the Enlightenment's demand for proof, as well as postmodernism's questioning that truth can even exist. Many people (kids especially) feel caught in the middle between what they assume are their only too options – objectivity or subjectivity; that is, truth must either meet the requirements of science or it's time to check one's brain at the door in the name of faith.

What most folks fail to understand is that the supposed objective knowledge of science that they take for granted is really little different from the presumed subjective testimony of religion that they hold as suspect. Most helpful in thinking through this are some thoughts from the second chapter of A Biblical History of Israel by Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman, entitled "Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past." They write:

"A general tendency in modern times…has been to downplay the importance of testimony about the past which has come down to us via a chain of human carriers of tradition, and in contrast, to emphasize the importance of empirical research in leading us into knowledge." (p. 36)

But:

"That the universe as a whole is rational and intelligible is a presupposition, not a scientific finding. Clearly, too, science of itself cannot properly tell us what to do with its findings. The ends to which science provides the means must be (and always are) chosen according to what is believed and valued by the people doing the choosing, which is a matter of religion, ethics, and politics, not a matter of science as such." (p. 39)

In other words, what we have received and pass on as science today is made up over time of just as much subjective interpretation as any religious oral tradition passed down. They continue, this time focusing more on historical studies:

"We are, in short, intellectually reliant upon what others tell us when it comes to what we call knowledge…As R.G. Collingwood once put it (albeit only to take issue with the statement), 'history is…the believing of someone else when he says that he remembers something. The believer is the historian; the person believed is called his authority." (p. 45-46)

Here's a good illustration of the idea involving the science (and art) of archaeology:

"Archaeological remains (when this phrase is taken to exclude written testimony from the past) are of themselves mute. They do not speak for themselves, they have no story to tell and no truth to communicate. It is archaeologists who speak about them, testifying to what they have found and placing the finds within an interpretive framework that bestows upon them meaning and significance." (p. 46)

"All knowledge of the past is in fact more accurately described as faith in the interpretion of the past offered by others, through which we make these interpretations (in part of as a whole) our own)…Modern historians, like their precursors, in fact depend on testimony, interpret the past, and possess just as much faith as their precursors, whether religious or not." (p. 49-50)

In sum, the idea that anything is "objective" – as if we could somehow sit in grandstands orbitting Earth and merely take notes – is a delusion. We cannot observe and pass on meaning (scientific, religious) without using subjective testimony to describe it. We are in the petri dish; we are not absent from it. The question then becomes, what testimony (again, scientific, religious – it doesn't matter) best explains reality, and what seems reasonable as truth?

Review: The Dark Knight

In Humanity, Movies, Thought on July 24, 2008 at 9:08 am

As it’s rare for me to see a movie in the theater within a week of its opening, I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by posting some actual thoughts here on The Dark Knight. For the sake of not spoiling things, I’ll try to refrain from plot details and instead focus on some of the mental gymnastics it takes to follow the movie.

This is a very complex film – the most of any superhero movie to date. A lot of folks raved about the emotional depth of the Spider-Man movies, but The Dark Knight asks questions that go far beyond Peter Parker’s personal struggle in figuring out his responsibility to his power; as other reviewers have noted, The Dark Knight is a morality play that poses huge questions about the nature of humanity and asks the audience to share responsibility in answering them.

The dominant perspective is the Joker’s. While Heath Ledger’s performance is indeed intoxicating, what I think audiences are really responding to is Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker’s horrifying authenticity in living so consistently by his belief that anarchy is the only logical response to a world that does not make sense:

“Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one. I just do things. I’m a wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are…Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.”*

The exception to the chaos, of course, is Batman (Christian Bale), who, though flawed, manages to make choices that go against his human nature. Still, Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) wants out of the Batman business, as it seems the cause of – rather than the solution to – the problem of freaks like the Joker coming out of the woodwork. Eventually, Wayne comes to understand (with the help of Alfred and others) that a flawed Batman is better than no Batman at all, but it takes some time (and a little melodrama at the end) to reach that conclusion:

“Bruce: People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do? 
Alfred: Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. He’ll hate you for it. But that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the righteous. 
Bruce: Well today I found out what Batman can’t do. He can’t endure this. Today you finally get to say ‘I told you so.’ 
Alfred: Today, sir, I don’t want to.”*

Serving as a composite of sorts of the Joker and Batman is Aaron Eckhart‘s Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s new District Attorney. Not much has been made of Eckhart’s role in the film, but his seems the key to understanding the movie, particularly at the end after he becomes the coin-flipping, fate-tempting Two-Face. Up to that point, Dent represents an unblemished hope of law and order for Gotham City citizens (“a white knight” of justice as opposed to Batman’s “dark knight” of vigilantism); however, between tragedy and timely coaching – both at the hands of the Joker – Dent resorts to playing the blame game with fate:

“You (Commissioner Gordon) thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.”*

In many ways (and without trying to overanalyze things too much), The Dark Knight looks at the world through three lenses: the anarchy of the Joker (frightening in its degradation); the fatalism of Two-Face (depressing in its meaninglessness); and the brokenness of Batman (frustrating in its reality). One of these is how most of us tend to live life, and The Dark Knight provides an intriguing look at where and how these paths diverge and – when played out to their logical extremes – eventually end up. The question left for the audience to answer is, of course, which to choose?

(*Quotes from Internet Movie Database)

Other observations:

  • Christopher Nolan‘s direction is seamless, well-paced, and engaging; you forget you’re watching a movie.
  • Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Michael Caine as Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox are always easy to watch; they bring acting credibility and great presence to the big screen.
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes; the role itself, however, comes off more inspiring to the motivation of the romantically-involved characters (Wayne, Dent) than it really should be, which doesn’t ring as true as the rest of the film.
  • I don’t think it’s just because I’ve spent time there, but using Chicago as Gotham City was really distracting; Gotham City needs a darker, more New York kind of feel.
  • The lack of dependence on CGI for many of the action scenes and stunts was refreshing and made the movie more realistic; there was really only one scene (the extraction in Hong Kong) that I felt required too much suspension of belief.
  • Though I always liked (a lot) the arrangements of the original Batman movie soundtrack by Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer builds good suspense at just the right times; plus, I love the rich, bold sound of the trombones in his theme swells.
  • Overall the movie (2-1/2 hours) feels just a little long, but I’m not sure what I’d cut; it takes that kind of time to tell this kind of story.

For those who’ve seen it, what would you add/delete/change?