Friday, February 26, 2010

The Summit

Three quick thoughts on the Health Care Summit:
  1. It won't change anything. Dems still may choose to go down the electorally self-destructive path of ramming through this dog of bill. But it won't be passed riding on a wave of temporary popular support.
  2. Republicans, when they got to talk, did themselves the service of demonstrating that in addition to saying "NO!" that they are also saying "Try this instead." That is of value to both them and to the American people.
  3. The President's advisers seem obsessed with the idea of giving us a bigger and shinier cowbell in a different setting. When will they realize that the more he talks, the more the rest of us conclude that pretty sounding talk is all he's got to offer? The presentation might be fresh (though it's getting staler by the minute), but the ideas are the same Dem boilerplate that predate Obama's birth by a good 40 years at least.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Missing Men

One of the abiding challenges of ministry in the US here at the beginning of the 21st century is the relative absence of real men. Within the church there are lots of "guys," males who are successful in their jobs, faithful to their wives, and do a decent job of trying to be involved in their childrens' lives. They go to church regularly, and often give time and even money to church and other spiritual activities. But they just aren't that deeply committed to or excited by following Jesus.

I'm far from the first person to notice, of course. The legions of frustrated wives who wish their husbands would lead their families in a spiritual way give loud testimony to it. Likewise, virtually the whole genre of "men's books" on offer at the local Christian bookstore are an epiphenomenon of this reality. So men are encouraged to be Wild at Heart, or Tender Warriors, or to be the Point Man or to take a look at the Man in the Mirror. We have been told Why Men Hate Going to Church. All of these books and the multitude of others like them have at least some nuggets of truth to them (some considerably larger than others). All try in various ways to both diagnose the problem and to offer some solutions. Generally speaking, the problem is understood to be both a confusion about appropriate sex roles in our post-everything society and the lack of godly masculinity within the Church itself. Solutions include doing more Bible study and prayer to such things as modifying the language of church ("We're glad you're here and we want to have intimate fellowship with you" and "My boyfriend Jesus" type songs just creeps out most men), as well as practicing the "manly arts" of rock-climbing, fishing, wilderness camping, etc. There is merit to all of the suggestions, I'm sure. Bible study and prayer are, after all, central to Christian living and what man wants to be in a quasi-romantic relationship with God or other people at church? And I'm an outdoorsman who relishes the masculine aspects of outdoor sports, as many men do.

Yet it seems to me that the bigger problem is not societal, or even ecclesiastical, but a matter of the heart. Men have not been gripped by the true knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is not just the compassionate Father of Luke 15, but also the conquering King of Revelation, who commands obedience and submission from all. They have not encountered the true Christ, who offers to men (and women as well!) a life worth living and a faith worth dying for. And until Christ is encountered in all his glory, a man senses little to gain from the spiritual life apart from gratefulness for forgiven sin and appreciation for eternal salvation, and little to sacrifice for apart from the goal of being a generally nice guy. Thus, we in the church produce legions of nice guys who are thankful for their salvation, but make little impact on the world for having occupied time and space in it.

Slavery and abortion

Once upon a time, most of the world's people, even in the West, looked upon slavery as a normal, if not fully desirable, feature of society. After all, it had been part of every society in every place in history. Yet there did come a time when it was recognized for what it is, a monstrous evil which was worth the cost in blood and treasure required to (mostly) eliminate it from not just the West but the world. Now, of course, we read the accounts of slavery from the American south, or of the trade in southern Europeans in North Africa with a mixture of horror and wonder. We are horrified by the machinery and even the facts of slavery itself-the shackles, the whips, the cargo ships, the whole commodification of humanity. We are simultaneously awed by the idea that such a thing could even happen. We wonder, "What kind of people, what kind of society, allowed and even at times encouraged such an obvious evil?"

Yet real opposition was slow to develop. It took decades for Wilberforce to gain the votes in Parliament to outlaw the British slave trade, decades longer to outlaw it in all the British colonies. In the U.S., it took the Civil War's 600,000 dead and over a million wounded, plus federal control of the South and the passage of the 13th Amendment to eradicate it completely, and a century longer for blacks to achieve full civil rights. Surely the road was long, but no one now desires whatever "social goods" were achieved by slave labor. The moral cost far outweighed any economic benefits.

When, I wonder, will we come to the same conclusion about abortion? Far more millions have died here in the U.S. in the last 36 years under its legalized regime than perished in centuries of the notorious Middle Passage. Moreover, the machinery of human commodification is equally terrible, if more sanitary. Why then, are we still so slow to awaken? Here in the 21st century, much of our society is as morally obtuse about this as the nastiest slavemaster of the antebellum plantations. "None of your business what I do with my body," we are told, and many of us accept that with resignation if not equanimity. Yet who will stand on the right side of history this time if not us?

Abortion: A "hard choice"?

Recently, Karen and I have been discussing the fact that so many of the people who differ from us in their opinion about the morality of abortion refer to it as a "hard choice" or some such. To give just one example, Hilary Clinton famously said she wanted abortion to be "safe, legal, and rare." As we've talked, this seems to us evidence of highly muddled thinking. The argument from the Clinton side of things is that abortion is the moral equivalent of having a mole frozen off or a corn removed. So why the concern about the procedure's rarity? If it's not a child we're talking about, a fully human person, then there is no moral import whatsoever to the decision. But if it is, then why should society provide a safe and legalized method of murder, no matter the rarity thereof? Something tells me that such statements are really nothing more than slick evasions, "Bubba bait" (to paraphrase the late Sen. Moynihan), designed to conceal the more controversial opinion that fetal murder is justified in the name of maternal sexual freedom. Simply put, those who make such statements know that there is a human life at stake, but believe that the value of that life is less than the value of being able to sleep with whomever you want without fear of the "consequences" of such behavior. They fear the return of the patriarchal society we left behind so much that they are willing to sacrifice millions of (mostly poor and minority) babies on Aphrodite's altar.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Faithful are the wounds of a friend..."

One of the generally sweetest members of our congregation sent me the following this past week. It pretty much says it all:

Now generally, I'd have to respond with "Well, at least they made to the Super Bowl, etc., etc." But instead, since I have a congregation full of dedicated Bears fans, I'm going with "Well, now I know what it's like to be a Chicago sports fan. I now know what it is to repeatedly say 'Next year!'"

Friday, February 12, 2010

"You ravish my heart with one glance of your eyes..."

Valentine's Day is fast approaching and it seems that people I know are of two minds about it. On the one hand are those whose general attitude is "A pox on Valentine's Day and all romantics!" while the rest are earnestly searching for a creative way to celebrate love and romance with their beloved. I place myself in the second group. After 14 blessed years of marriage, I am always hoping to find some way to show Karen just how much she means to me.

And it occurs to me that for Christians at least, marital romance is not supposed to be an ideal merely, but is actually depicted as normal, holy, and even commanded. So here's a few pastoral ideas for building up the romance quotient at your long past the newlywed stage house:
  1. Study the Song of Solomon together, perhaps along with a good book which clarifies the poetic language, such as Intimacy Ignited.
  2. Hold your marriage up to the light of God's Word and make changes as necessary. For help in this regard as a man, read Kevin DeYoung here. For help as woman, see Jean the Australian here and here.
  3. Pick up a copy of Simply Romantic Nights and make a commitment to actually do the 12 months worth of dates together as a couple.
  4. Register for a FamilyLife Weekend to Remember and go the whole route-the hotel room, the conference, dinner out, away from the kids. Maybe pick to go to one of their "destination locations" and make the conference part of a longer vacation at the beach or in the mountains.

Happy Birthday Sara!

Today is my eldest's birthday. Sara was born around 6 p.m. nine years ago today. Along with the celebration we're planning (pizza, birthday cake, family games, and the opening ceremonies--all at her request), the arrival of this day has been accompanied by some more sobering thoughts. My first thought has been, "Has it really been 9 years? Where did the time go?" This has been quickly followed by my second thought, which is, "That means the time I will have with her at home is now 1/2 over." I hope that I have modeled Christ for her in the years past and that she will look to me and to Karen for a model in the years to come. Surely the years that are coming will be full of fresh challenges-hormones, boyfriends, and independence loom. I hope they will also be full of joy and of Sara's embrace of her parents' faith as truly her own-well-considered, challenged, tested, tried, found faithful, and fully received.

How to write a hit TV Show

Since Karen and I got our DVR a few years ago, we've spent a lot of evenings watching TV after the kids go to bed (shameful for a pastor to admit, I know). Still, if you're willing to look, there are some good and interesting shows on TV if you are willing to wade through the rest of it. Anyway, as I was out shoveling snow the other day, it occurred to me that all of the shows that Karen and I enjoy can be reduced to the same basic formula.

So, at risk of spoiling something which, for all I know, might be more closely guarded than the Colonel's secret blend of 11 herbs and spices, here's the recipe for writing a hit show:
  1. The centerpiece of the show should be solving crimes (ideally murders committed in unusual ways) or involve global espionage.
  2. The cast should be composed of scary bright people who are nevertheless much better looking than the average bear. This should be especially true of the female characters, since everyone knows that all of the world's most beautiful women are scientists and/or engaged in law enforcement.
  3. The cast must include at least one off-kilter, unnaturally intelligent and unconventional character who definitely does not fit into the rest of the group, but whose divergent perspective is nevertheless vital to the team's freakish level of success.
  4. At least two of the team's members must be engaged in, about to engage in, or have formerly engaged in a passionate love affair which is, naturally, forbidden by the authority structure of the unit.
There you have it: the plot recipe for 24, Chuck, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Castle, CSI (in all of its incarnations), Bones, The Mentalist and Numbers. I know that all of these are formulaic, fluffy variations on a theme, but I'm instantly seduced by every new incarnation. I like to comfort myself in this with the idea that I like seeing the triumph of good over evil depicted, but mostly I think it's because I like tension, suspense, mystery, romance and guns along with all that more high minded stuff.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The heart of the matter

I had a small scare yesterday. I was having chest pain on the left side of my chest, just below my left pectoral muscle. I also had some slight tingling in my left hand. The chest pain was initially coming and going, but when it just stayed there as a dull ache in my chest, I decided that it was time I got myself to the ER to be checked out. I had an EKG, and two blood enzyme tests four hours apart. My blood pressure was fine. My heart rate varied between 48 and 52 beats/minute resting. All seemed okay, but I still was having the pain. Ominous symptoms of a problem, but nothing apparent.

The ER doc told me he is convinced that I have not been having any cardiac events, so he started asking me about the cold I've been fighting for the past month. Apparently, my month-long hack and cough festival, which continues today, has the lining of my chest so irritated that I'm now having chest pain. That, and I may have pulled a muscle or two between my ribs. So yesterday, they put me on a prescription anti-inflammatory medicine with enough to last for 10 days. Today I had a cardiac stress test just to make sure that I'm not having problems. All signs point to my being in generally good health.

For that, I'm relieved. Now, if only I could get my regular doctor to believe me when I tell him that I need something for this cough...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The de-Westernization of the Middle East

Like many people here in the US, post-911 I have been compelled to take more interest in the rise of the more fundamentalist currents within Islam. After all, from a national security perspective, it seems that people from formerly remote corners of the map are determined to make war upon us. Further, from a Christian perspective, fundamentalist Islam is rising in precisely those places (sometimes called the 10/40 Window) where the Gospel has spread least. Along the way, as I have continued to study and read, one of the things which has consistently struck me is the rate at which the Middle East (and the larger Islamic world generally) are de-Westernizing. It seems that freedom from colonial rule and self-determination has not produced the pro-Western, liberalizing, more secular modern states of Western government's hopes, but the reverse. The power vacuum left by the departure of colonial governments was quickly filled by corrupt autocrats that left their people suffering and in search of something greater to which to devote their lives. They are increasingly finding it in their faith, albeit in a form which is hostile to the West and the westernizing currents which used to flow through these countries.

I cannot do better in illustrating this trend than the folks at Pajamas Media, with their photos of the graduating classes from the University of Cairo.

This is the class of 1959. Notice that there are darn few women, but those who are present are wearing Western style dresses and none are covered or veiled in any way:

Here's the class of 1978. Notice that here there's an abundance of women, only now not just in dresses or skirts, but pants(!). Again, none of the women are covered or veiled.

By 1995, the situation has changed dramatically. Women seem to be present in virtually equal numbers with men, yet veils and coverings are now present in good numbers. About 1/3 of the women are covered, with others not.
By 2004, it's as if a curtain has been dropped on the female students. The composition of the student body (male/female) is roughly the same as in 1995, but now there are no uncovered women. Note too that in contrast to the women of '78 and even the women of '95, the women of 2004 has lost their right to bare arms (yes, I know, bad pun, but it illustrates a serious point).

It seems to me that if the West (and most especially the United States) is to have any hope of being at peace with the Islamic world, then we are going to have to come up with a better strategy than whatever we're doing at present. The tide of radicalization is clearly running against us. Moreover, while military force must be an option at all times (and especially where specific fundamentalist groups threaten), it cannot be the only one. Our long-term national survival may well depend on replacing the theology which gives Islamic fundamentalism its rise. If that is true, then what, I wonder, are Washington, Brussels, and London prepared to do to bring that about?