Monday, April 30, 2007

Proper Focus

We’ve all seen the images in the media from such appeals as from the Christian Children’s Fund of people living in squalor, of slums in foreign countries that we would not see as fit for livestock, of the elderly sitting in doorways doing nothing more than watching the world outside and waiting to die, of human beings so desperately emaciated that we can count virtually every bone through their flesh, of children waiting in line for not much more than a handful of gruel which may be the only meal they get for the day … or for several days, with their little bellies so bloated and distended but yet with every other part of their fragile bodies bone-thin.

The images are intended to shock us, to propel us into action. These images are designed to appeal to our sense of decency and justice, to the emotions within us that cannot stand to see needless suffering. The problem with media is that it is easy to turn away or turn it off. It is only when there is one certain image that hits home when we may finally come to appreciate the magnitude of the poverty which exists in this world. That image finally hit me right between my eyes.

Last week I was confronted with a photograph that had been taken in 1993 for which the photographer, Kevin Clark, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The photograph was taken in the Sudan during that country’s overwhelming drought and famine. It was of a child around 5 years old who was struggling to walk to a nearby feeding center to get some food. She was bone-thin except for her distended belly. On the way, however, she simply collapsed in the road and lay there face down. In the background of the photo standing nearby was a vulture that seemed to know – or hope – that his dinner would soon be forthcoming. Haunted by this and so many other images and perhaps unable to shake the magnitude of the abject poverty he witnessed first-hand, Mr. Clark took his own life in 1994 shortly after having been presented with his Pulitzer Prize.

About the time I began writing this, a report issued by the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration came across my e-mail that gave some numbers about church attendance, membership, professions of faith, and giving. Overall, I suppose, the numbers were pretty positive though I took exception to a few of the statements. The final statement made, however, is the one that got my attention and caused me to wonder about what we think we know about salvation and our proper focus on mission and ministry. The statement read, “41% of US churches (presumably UM) did not have a single new member by profession of faith or restoration.”

It was also reported in Saturday’s (4/28/07) Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s “Religion” section that the Southern Baptist Convention fell short of its stated goal of 1 million baptisms in 2006 and actually saw a slight drop in baptisms. Does any of this suggest that the Methodists and Baptists failed or that people are turning away from American Protestantism? Not necessarily though I do have my concerns about our focus and where we think we will go from here.

Not to take away from the overall mission and ministry of the Church as a whole to share the Gospel and “make disciples” which is important, but I cannot help but to wonder if part of the reason for an overall decline in church attendance might be due to the Church’s lack of focus on things that really matter to the “least among us”. I know many will blame the preacher, blame the politics, and blame the “hypocrites”, and anyone or anything else we may use to justify our absences. In America, persecution is virtually non-existent and no one needs fear for their lives when trying to attend church. We also cannot say that there are too many in this country who have not heard of the Lord or do not know where the nearest church is.

This is not to say that our ministries should not still reach out to the unchurched, but we must also finally acknowledge that these are largely unchurched due to their own choice; they just don’t want to be with us on Sunday. For whatever reason, the unchurched do not want to be a part of our gathering and in this country they are free to make that choice. So how much of an emphasis should we place on reaching out to those who have most likely made a free will choice to stay away? And is the focus of ministry based upon convincing someone of a need that they cannot or will not appreciate, or should our focus be on someone like the child in the photograph who lay dying in a dirt road?

She may have seen or heard of some Christian preacher or missionary or had heard of some “savior” named Jesus, but what would have been so compelling for her that she would care to hear more? What about Jesus would enable her to ignore the excruciating physical pain of quite literally starving to death; to find out that she can be “saved”? Saved from what? Hell? This child was in the big, fat middle of Hell on this earth and in this life.

If the Church is not bold enough or potent enough to make a difference in the lives of children such as these, what can they appreciate about the world that is to come? The relevance of the Gospel in these children’s lives – and so many others who are still alive and suffering just as profoundly – is where the “rubber” of Christianity “meets the road”. For her, Christianity and Christ and spiritual salvation were likely the furthest things from her mind as she lay dying on a dirt road. The salvation she so desperately needed was physical nourishment.

The Church needs the physical strength of numbers to do the work that needs to be done. It seems to me, however, that the Church has lost a great deal of its natural and spiritual appeal because we have become too engaged in mass marketing and have lost our sense of who we are and what we are about. The ministries we seem so focused on are causing us to be segmented and anything but unified in strength and purpose. This is not to say that children and youth do not need or deserve our attention, but do we know what we are trying to teach them?

The reality is that there are far too many who do not presently attend a church and likely never will. It is their choice, a choice that is guaranteed them by US law. So why do we spend so much of our time and precious resources trying to convince them otherwise when there is such an overwhelming need “out there”?

I think perhaps Christ and His holy Church will be better served when we stop the foolishness of trying to “modify” or “enhance” the worship experience in our vain attempts to be all things to all people. It may be that people will be more apt to join us when they see that we are serious about what being a church is all about.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

An Evening I'll Never Forget

“You just cannot say you’ve really heard a song until you’ve seen it signed.”

Unless someone else has already coined that phrase, I’m going to claim it as my own because I was awed from start to finish recently at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. The students really put themselves out to offer an evening of entertainment for the community, have some fun, and reach out to a world that still may not be quite ready to be reached. I offer this perspective because I actually identified within myself some preconceived notions that are difficult to escape but are also not insurmountable with a little help and a lot of exposure to a world that was at one time completely foreign to me.

I believe it was Tom Spradley who wrote in his book, Deaf like Me, of how embarrassing it could sometimes be when his deaf daughter, Lynn, tried to express herself in public and made a noise like that of “a wounded animal”. Tom was coming to realize that any deaf child with limited, or no, hearing capacity could only mimic sounds heard. For a deaf child who can hear nothing, they are not even always aware that they make any noise at all.

The ever-charming Amelia Hensley, the ASD junior class president, gave us her deaf culture speech and reminded us that even with limitations, deaf persons are just like everyone else and are quite capable of learning, loving, communicating, and having fun. Later while performing in a skit, Amelia let out a sound that immediately made me think of Tom’s description of Lynn, that of a wounded animal.

My initial reaction was one of pity that such a beautiful young woman could emit such an unnatural sound. It reminded me of an incident which occurred many years ago when some friends and I witnessed the very same thing in a restaurant and pitied the child who was, we were quite sure, mentally handicapped.

In both cases, it was not true. The child we saw in the crowded restaurant was trying to get his mother’s attention. Amelia was simply reacting to the excitement of the moment, and let out what would have been under other circumstances an excited squeal. I immediately came to the realization that it is I who should be pitied for my narrowness of mind and social ignorance, two “handicaps” Amelia and I obviously do not share. In fact it was I who came to the realization on this evening that if there were handicapped persons present, it was we who lack the skills to communicate within this community.

I deliberately separated myself from the rest of my ASL I class because I had been hanging on to my own comfort zone for far too long. I felt hopelessly lost while surrounded by moms and dads who were communicating with friends on the opposite ends of the rows without uttering a single word. There was a lovely lady seated right in front of me who was signing to another lady a few seats away and it occurred to me that if this conversation had been taking place in a theatre filled with hearing persons, she would have had to have gotten up from her seat and moved closer to the other lady so that she could be heard. Even then, I doubt that the emotions which were being very clearly expressed visually would have been any more effective if spoken. Under the circumstances of what would have been deafening noise in a crowded theatre, it is highly unlikely. What I witnessed were two ladies having a very pleasant conversation. I also found myself trying to catch the signs until I realized that it would have constituted eavesdropping! So many new rules, so many new “sounds”!

What turned out to be the most ironic part of the evening was when Mrs. Northup, one of the MC’s, introduced all the ASL student visitors and asked us to stand and be recognized. I happened to have been seated next to Tyna Roy, an adorable child who signed for us the poem, “Sick”. Once I took my seat, I could see Tyna from the corner of my eye starring at me just as I may have at one time found myself starring at a deaf person. Was she looking for something? Was she waiting for me to do something stupid? I couldn’t say for sure, but I knew I wanted to crawl in a hole and die! Why did I not just say hello and compliment her on her performance? These are signs I know, and I could have done these easily. The potential problem was that she might have tried to engage me in conversation and even though the conservation would have been coming from a 10-year-old, I am quite certain it would have been over my head!

Although the kids were great, I was bowled over by Mr. and Mrs. Northup singing (and signing), “You needed me”, together. It was then when I coined my phrase because even though that happens to be one of my favorite songs, I could never have fully appreciated it until I had “seen it signed”. There was emotion and poetry in the hand movements and the interaction between the two and in addition to being sung by two persons who obviously love and respect one another, it was most appropriate in understanding the relationship which exists between those who can hear with their ears but don’t always comprehend and those who hear with their eyes and understand all too well.

What the future holds for me with the deaf community only the Lord can say. I only know that learning ASL is not like learning another foreign language. I have no plans to travel to another country anytime soon, but I will live in the United States where a sizeable portion of the population is deaf. They cannot be taught to hear because they lack the physical capability to do so. After this evening’s visit to the Arkansas School for the Deaf, I have found that with just a little effort and willingness on my part there is whole new world for me to discover and a host of bright young people who are more than willing to help me along the way.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Where was I??

Click the link in the title to see the photo since I am apparently not smart enough to make it show up on the post.

The prize-winning image: A vulture watches a starving child in southern Sudan, March 1, 1993.
Haunted by the horrific images from Sudan, Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter committed suicide in 1994 soon after receiving the award for this photograph.

Like Mr. Carter, I also find myself as “haunted” as I am speechless. It occurs to me that perhaps at our Judgment, if there is such a thing as a “play back” during that Judgment, we will be confronted by such images and asked the question, “Where were you?”

I think it safe to assume that this precious child is now safely in the bosom of Abraham. It may soon be that as the rich man was reaching out to Lazarus and Abraham for mercy (Luke 16:19-25), we who have plenty but live in fear of the dreaded “rainy day” may one day be reaching out to this child for mercy as she receives the good things which we denied her.

Make no mistake. This is not a call to “social action” by which we brow-beat the snot out of government officials until they “do something”. Rather, this is a call to the Church of the Lord God, the Church established by the Eternal Covenant which is a far more potent force on this earth than any government can ever hope to be. How can we be satisfied that we are “safe” when we know that such atrocities occur every single day? “There but for the grace of God …”

Even though this image was presented in one of my political science classes by the instructor, it occurs to me that this is anything but political though international politics can – and does – certainly play a part in it. Is it solely the responsibility of government to “do something”? Is it the Church’s responsibility to make the government “do something”? Or is it, as I suspect, the privilege and honor and duty of the Church to “do something”?

Holy Father, have mercy on me.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Making Sense out of Nonsense

The massacre at Virginia Tech on Monday 4/16/07 is but the latest chapter in a series of tragic events in which we are compelled to question the virtues of a free society such as ours in which anyone can buy virtually any kind of weapon legally or illegally and then choose to go on a shooting rampage. Angry parents and students at VT are asking questions of the university, its president, and its police force. Such questions are inevitable and necessary because when it comes to such senseless and mindless violence, we need to understand how it happened, why it happened, and what can possibly be done to prevent such a thing from happening again.

We try to make sense out of nonsense, and in the end we can never be quite satisfied because there are no logical conclusions. We as rational humans would not dare to commit such a horrendous act but we also know, or should know, that we cannot control the thoughts and the actions of others. They will do what they will do, rational or not, and others will be left to pick up the pieces. I was reminded of comments made by the governor of PA when he was questioned after the awful shooting at the Amish school last year: we cannot stop random acts of violence especially when the perpetrator is willing to trade his life for another.

Then come the political arguments about gun control and metal detectors and concealed-carry permits with folks trying to convince us that more weapons in the hands of more citizens will somehow put an end to the madness that is random violence while others will be trying to convince us that we need to more aggressively control the weapons that are available.

This is not an attempt to interpret the 2nd amendment. Constitutional arguments have no bearing on what we are facing. I am painfully aware that there are such things as accidental shootings – my own son was shot in the eye with a B-B gun at point-blank range in ’93 by a kid who had no business owning a gun of any kind (I shutter to imagine what our lives would be like now had that been a hand gun, shotgun or a rifle) – but in the end we cannot blame weapons that are inert and have no soul. To quote a familiar bumper sticker: guns don’t kill people. People kill people – but then I would add: and sometimes they use guns.

To this end, then, is a question of what kind of battle we face. For many, perhaps most, this is a political and public-policy fight by which we consider the constitutional implications of lawful gun ownership while also being mindful of the fact that some persons just don’t need to own weapons of any kind for the sake of public safety. It already is that convicted felons are not allowed to buy weapons – legally, that is. As should be clear to us, however, this does not stop an as-yet unknown assailant.

It occurs to me that, typically, it is conservatives who demand “gun rights”. Again typically, this particular crowd is also pro-death penalty and anti-abortion. They demand “In God We Trust” to stay on our currency, they advocate prayer in public school, and they vow to keep “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why is it, then, that these presumably godly persons who continue to invoke the name of the Lord and insist that ours is a “Christian nation founded on Christian principles” have somehow come to the conclusion that meeting these threats of violence with violence is the act of a righteous person?

I will grant you, it is not easy to assume the role of ‘potential victim’ in which we wait for someone else to see to our well-being and protection while we live in fear. We are essentially survivors, and we come by such instincts honestly. So if we perceive a threat to the well-being of those whom we love, we are instinctively going to move in such a way as to protect them by whatever means necessary. It’s what we do. It has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat, and it has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative.

Here’s the thing, though. This is not our world, and our carnal nature (our human instinct, to a degree) is that which we are called to overcome. Evil entered into this world through Adam who voluntarily succumbed to the temptation; he made a bad choice, but the choice was clearly his. The devil did not make him do it. Evil still exists as it did then but only because it has been perpetuated by man’s careless and self-serving choices. Man belongs in Eden’s garden where he was created and was intended to live but by man’s own choices, he is ejected from Paradise and into the realities of another world, another realm.

By our own choices and actions we become a part of the world we are called to reject. By our own choices and actions we are ejected from a realm in which we are cared for and provided for and then thrust into a world in which we are forced to stand alone and to fend for ourselves, left by our own choice to trust no one or nothing except our own instincts and judgment. By our choices we become a part of everything we abhor, everything we are called to resist, and everything we claim to be struggling against. It is a dark and sinister world we voluntarily enter into when we go in armed and with intent to destroy for the sake of vengeance. Especially in cases such as these random acts of violence, there is a fine line between justice and vengeance.

When we choose to combat evil on its own terms and on its own turf, we choose to enter into the realm of evil where evil resides, a world of darkness, a realm where the people of YHWH are prohibited from entering into. By resisting the temptation to repay evil for evil or responding in like manner, however, we are clearly within the realm of Eden where we belong in the first place. When we witness such tragedies as occurred at VT and call it “unmitigated evil”, why would we then actively choose to become a part of it? I do not believe that Jesus literally meant we would die by the sword (or gunshot wound) if we chose to live by the sword. Rather, He may have been referring to another death, a premature death, perhaps a spiritual death as a result of such a choice as meeting evil on its own terms.

We will continue to be concerned for the well-being of our loved ones, we will continue to be concerned for the future of our society, and we may also fear for the continuing downward spiral of our culture in which random acts of violence seem to have become so prevalent. However, if we allow such fears and anxieties to overwhelm us to the point that we become impatient and choose to take adverse action ourselves, we will have far more to fear in the eternal world that is to come than from the temporary state we are now in. “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot destroy the soul. Fear instead the One who can cast both body and soul into the lake of fire.”

The only thing that can possibly make sense for us now in this madness of nonsense is to remove that fear from our lives and replace it with the presence of the Holy One who chose not to subject us to the judgment, choosing instead to take that judgment upon Himself. He did choose to meet evil face-to-face, my dear friends, and, in effect, allowed evil to destroy itself. “I now hold the keys to Hades and death…”

Thursday, April 19, 2007

You just never know ...

.... how or when you may positively impact the life of another.

After every Sunday morning service at the church, the Pastor and his eleven-year-old son would go out into their town and hand out Gospel Tracts. This particular Sunday afternoon, as it came time for the Pastor and his son to go to the streets with their tracts, it was very cold outside, as well as pouring down rain. The boy bundled up in his warmest and driest clothes and said; "OK dad, I'm ready." His dad asked, "Ready for what?" "Dad, it's time we gather our tracts together and go out." Dad responds, "Son, it's very cold outside and it's pouring down rain." The boy gave his dad a surprised look, asking "But Dad, aren't people still lost even though it's raining?" Dad answers, "Son, I am not going out in this weather."

Despondently, the boy asked, "Dad, can I go? Please?" His father hesitated for a moment then said, "Son, you can go. Here are the tracts, be careful son." "Thanks Dad!" And with that, he was off and out into the rain.This eleven-year-old boy walked the streets of the town going door to door and handing everybody he met in the street a Gospel Tract.

After two hours of walking in the rain, he was soaking, bone-chilled wet and down to his VERY LAST TRACT. He stopped on a corner and looked for someone to hand a tract to, but the streets were totally deserted. Then he turned toward the first home he saw and started up the sidewalk to the front door and rang the doorbell. He rang the bell, but nobody answered. He rang it again and again, but still no one answered. He waited but still no answer.

Finally, this eleven-year-old trooper turned to leave, but something stopped him. Again, he turned to the door and rang the bell and knocked loudly on the door with his fist. He waited, something holding him there on the front porch. He rang again and this time the door slowly opened. Standing in the doorway was a very sad-looking elderly lady. She softly asked, "What can I do for you son?" With radiant eyes and a smile that lit up her world, this little boy said: "Ma'am, I'm sorry if I disturbed you, but I just want to tell you that *JESUS REALLY DOES LOVE YOU* and I came to give you my very last Gospel Tract which will tell you all about JESUS and His great LOVE." With that, he handed her his last tract and turned to leave. She called to him as he departed, "Thank you, son! And God Bless You!"

Well, the following Sunday morning in church Pastor Dad was in the pulpit. As the service began, he asked, “Does anybody have a testimony or want to say anything?” Slowly, in the back row of the church, an elderly lady stood to her feet. As she began to speak, a look of glorious radiance came from her face, "No one in this church knows me. I've never been here before. You see, before last Sunday I was not a Christian. My husband passed on some time ago, leaving me totally alone in this world. Last Sunday, being a particularly cold and rainy day, it was even more so in my heart that I came to the end of the line where I no longer had any hope or will to live. So I took a rope and a chair and ascended the stairway into the attic of my home. I fastened the rope securely to a rafter in the roof, then stood on the chair and fastened the other end of the rope around my neck. Standing on that chair, so lonely and brokenhearted I was about to leap off, when suddenly the loud ringing of my doorbell downstairs startled me. I thought, 'I'll wait a minute, and whoever it is will go away.'

"I waited and waited, but the ringing doorbell seemed to get louder and more insistent, and then the person ringing also started knocking loudly. I thought to myself again, 'Who on earth could this be? Nobody ever rings my bell or comes to see me.' I loosened the rope from my neck and started for the front door, all the while the bell rang louder and louder. When I opened the door and looked I could hardly believe my eyes, for there on my front porch was the most radiant and angelic little boy I had ever seen in my life. His SMILE, oh, I could never describe it to you!"

"The words that came from his mouth caused my heart that had long been dead TO LEAP TO LIFE as he exclaimed with a cherub-like voice, "Ma'am, I just came to tell you that JESUS REALLY DOES LOVE YOU." Then he gave me this Gospel Tract that I now hold in my hand. As the little angel disappeared back out into the cold and rain, I closed my door and read slowly every word of this Gospel Tract. Then I went up to my attic to get my rope and chair. I wouldn't be needing them any more. You see " I am now a Happy Child of the KING. Since the address of your church was on the back of this Gospel Tract; I have come here to personally say THANK YOU TO God's little angel who came just in the nick of time and by so doing, spared my soul from eternity in hell."

There was not a dry eye in the church. Shouts of praise and honor to THE KING resounded off the very rafters of the building. Pastor Dad descended from the pulpit to the front pew where the little angel was seated. He took his son in his arms and sobbed uncontrollably. Probably no church has had a more glorious moment, and probably this universe has never seen a Papa that was more filled with love & honor for his son... except for One. This Father also allowed His Son to go out into a cold and dark world. He received His Son back with joy unspeakable and as all of heaven shouted praises and honor to The King, the Father sat His beloved Son on a throne far above all principality and power and every name that is named.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Why does Don Imus mean so much to us?

How does a non-issue go from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye so much so that it is elevated to the status of national conscience issue by which we judge ourselves and our progress from the days of separate lunch counters and back-seat bus rides? How can we take the comments of a radio personality who is more about entertainment than hard news so seriously when he is actually more familiar to us in the “shock jock” genre than in serious news and talk radio?

Ok. I am among those who barely knew Don Imus existed before his unfortunate comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, so it is easy for me to dismiss the “crisis” as “not really one” as it is easy for me to dismiss Mr. Imus as insignificant. If his {former} show was even carried in this market, I was never aware even though I am a regular listener to the talk radio that is available in this particular market. How can it be, then, that I barely know anything about Don Imus except for what is now being offered by almost every other radio and TV news personality, every political commentator, and even every wanna-be writer (myself included)?

Is this a free speech issue that some insist upon? Not exactly because even free speech has its limitations such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. And besides this, Mr. Imus was employed by sponsors and news media outlets that were actually paying for the air time so if there was a violation of any kind, it was Mr. Imus who did the violating by polluting the air that was actually paid for by others.

The comment made by Mr. Imus should have cost him his job. It was crude and considering the political climate which currently exists, he could not have reasonably believed that he would be allowed to get away with it. I do not believe he had any right to say what he said because his comments were inflammatory and derogatory and were directed at a group of young women who did nothing but compete in an athletic contest. If they did or said anything that might have provoked such a comment, no one is talking about it.

Even if we grant that Mr. Imus had a right to say what he said, it must also be acknowledged that with rights come not only opportunities but also responsibility. Mr. Imus was careless and irresponsible with his comment. He is also paying a price. Give Mr. Imus a little credit, however. Even as such derogatory comments have been attributed to him in the past that he was called on to which he reportedly responded that we should “get over it”, he took the time to apologize to the young women whom he had insulted. Given his past, he really didn’t have to. It was his choice, and it was the right choice. Now, though, I have a problem with one of the young women who suggested that she may have been scarred for life. Puh-leeeeze.

But what about the “gangsta” culture that some are suggesting may have been a contributory factor to this whole mess? For pity’s sake, some rappers are being given awards for the use of such derogatory language that is in some circles considered to be artistic expression! When such comments are elevated in such a way, are we then to believe that such expressions have been legitimized? Is Mr. Imus such a fan of this culture that it has begun to influence the way he thinks?

Not even close. Even if Mr. Imus and so many others might try to suggest that the prevalence of such language grants to them certain license to use it and even if we try to suggest that we have been influenced by such a culture, we still must acknowledge that we have minds of our own and will rise or fall by our own choices regardless of how and by whom we may have been influenced. Just as such comments are, in my opinion, careless and irresponsible, so is trying to weasel out of accountability by suggesting that “the devil made me do it”.

Of course no written commentary that involves racism is complete without an obligatory acknowledgement of the contributions of certain civil rights watchdogs as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and I’ve done that by simply acknowledging that they had a hand in the uproar. Their comments and opinions, however, are irrelevant. They will each do and say whatever they choose to do and say and they certainly each have their own rights just as I have mine, but I believe that the interests they are seeking to protect are their own. Just witness their profound silence in the aftermath of the Duke University fiasco.

In the words of that great 20th century philosopher, Rodney King, can’t we just get along?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Life and Ethics

Ending life support that exclusively involves nutrition and hydration infusions: is this the same ethical consideration as turning off a machine that that forces the body to function artificially?

In the case of Terri Schiavo, the removal of the feeding tubes meant that she was literally starved and dehydrated until she died. It appears to be the same ethical and moral dilemma for little Emilio except that Terri’s husband insisted that it was her stated wish that her life never be artificially prolonged, and a court agreed. The hospital that is caring for the baby has an ethical obligation to provide the best care possible and they have done this, but a determination has also been made that there is no medical benefit for the child and that his demise is imminent. As per the hospital’s policy, Emilio’s family has been given a 10-day notice of intent and another 10 days on top of that to give the family time to seek alternative care. Now the hospital’s decision has been put on hold by a court. For what reason?

Artificial life support in cases where the hope of recovery exists is, to me, a no-brainer. This is the very reason such advances in medicine have been made possible: to give doctors time to treat a patient. There is a dividing line, however, when such a determination as “no hope for recovery” is made and a decision rendered in which the support much come to an end. Still, allowing a patient to dehydrate and starve to death in such an environment as advanced medical technology exists seems barbaric and ironic in light of arguments that allowing the life to end naturally would be merciful.

In such cases as these and perhaps many others, what is the ethics question? In Terri’s case there was conflict in prognosis. Some said Terri had no hope and was in a “persistent vegetative state” while others insisted that, though impaired, Terri was very much alive and cognizant and would have lived with feeding assistance; her body would still function essentially. With Emilio, there seems to be no dissension; Emilio will certainly die and soon, obviously too soon for mom. To treat or not? To feed or not? To allow life to fade away while trying to comfort the patient or take steps to deliberately end the life rather than allow it to prolong unnecessarily?

While the hospital says money is not a factor, at least for them, since Emilio is insured, there are still practical realities that must be considered and addressed even if no one wants to. Prolonging this child’s life will accomplish nothing more than to run up a bill. No one has suggested that there is a finite price one can reach when talking about human life. The only consideration with this point is simple: how much shall we spend until we finally agree with the doctors and embrace the obvious?

Emilio’s case also does not appear to genuinely involve “quality of life” issues. According to news reports, the hospital is forced to take extraordinary measures routinely because Emilio’s little body simply will not function due to brain abnormalities. His lungs, for instance, cannot expel a persistent build-up of secretions; he cannot cough. Essentially, then, his body cannot function and will likely never function the way it must.

For me and my own stated desires, if artificially sustaining my life will give doctors more time to diagnose and treat my problem, then ok. If my life cannot sustain itself within a reasonable time frame (and health professionals would be better suited to determine “reasonable” in this case, not lawyers or judges or even Congress), then I should be allowed to die. With few exceptions, this is about as natural as it can get, and it is a reality we humans will never escape. We live until we die, and no medical technology does (or even should) exist that can change this reality.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Constitutional Boundaries

Did US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi overstep her boundaries during her recent trip to the Middle East? While she claimed that “her message” was “the president’s message”, the administration insisted that they had strongly discouraged her from undertaking this trip for fear of sending “mixed signals” to a regime that should be isolated because of its questionable practices related to international and regional conflicts. Syria has long been accused of sponsoring terrorism and has also been at a near-constant state of war with Israel for years though in recent years by proxy through Hezbollah. Current intelligence indicates that there has been recent movement across the Syrian border with Lebanon as Hezbollah is apparently rearming itself with help from Syria and perhaps even while Ms. Pelosi was there affirming “the president’s message”.

The United States Supreme Court has addressed horizontal separation of powers: "By allocating specific powers and responsibilities to a branch fitted to the task, the Framers created a National Government that is both effective and accountable. . . .The clear assignment of power to a branch, furthermore, allows the citizen to know who may be called to answer for making, or not making, those delicate and necessary decisions essential to governance."— Loving v. United States, 517 U.S. 748, 757-58

It is more than a little arrogant to put oneself in a position of speaking on behalf of a president who did not authorize the trip. Yes, she is the speaker of the US House and she is in line behind the vice-president in succession to the presidency, but is Ms. Pelosi not getting a little ahead of herself by leading a delegation into a volatile part of the world surely knowing that the leaders with whom she would meet are well aware of the political situation in her own country, knowing that she is no supporter of the US president and knowing that she is part of a growing demand to end the US presence in Iraq? How could she not know that her “message”, whatever it may have been, would likely not be received as consistent with a president she very publicly (and apparently very actively) opposes?

Regarding the vertical separation of powers at the heart of our federalism, Justice Kennedy has similarly observed: "The theory that two [branches] accord more liberty than one requires for its realization two distinct and discernable lines of political accountability. [C]itizens must have some means of knowing which of the two [branches] to hold accountable for the failure to perform a given function. [Separation of powers] serves to assign political responsibility, not to obscure it." —Lopez, 514 U.S. 576-77

It is not unusual for members of Congress to take these fact-finding trips to others parts of the world, and it is actually in our best interests that they do so. It is all part and parcel of the Madisonian system of checks and balances which has served this nation well. Even though the secretary of state, as an extension of the executive administration, has primary duties to build and maintain relationships with other nations, the Congress funds these trips and allocates any aid packages. So it is careless to suggest that a congressional delegation should restrict its travel to certain areas and only with prior approval by a presidential administration.

However, this is a delicate time for the United States especially in the Middle East. Even if only a few members of Congress should believe that the US must be in constant communication with a particular nation, in this case Syria, it can well be said that making such a trip was a “thumb your nose” gesture at this administration and its foreign policy. In this case, there was also some level of miscommunication between Israel and Syria via Ms. Pelosi’s party which is, to say the least, outrageous given that this is indicative of where Ms. Pelosi’s obvious ignorance (or arrogance) about constitutional separation of powers is most acute when she suggested that she was delivering a message to Syria from Israel, a message Israel denies sending (she has since suggested that Israel is mistaken. Did she call the Israeli prime minister a liar?). Additionally, she should have known that she was well outside of her duties by even attempting to negotiate or broker a line of communication between two adversaries.

Article II, section 2 of the US Constitution states, in part, that “he {the president} shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the SENATE, to make treaties…”, the implication being that it is within the duties and responsibilities of the executive branch to initiate, create, and propagate foreign policy consistent with the best interests of the United States. Even by this it cannot be clearly inferred that playing mediator between sovereign nations is part of this area of responsibility without the consent of the nations involved even if the United States has an active interest. At the very least, there is no indication on any level that a member of the US House, even the speaker, should put herself in a position to be used in such a way which seems potentially so in this case. Whether the Israeli “message” to Syria was sought after by Ms. Pelosi or handed off by the Israeli prime minister (who denies such at any rate), she had an obligation to remove herself from a process that clearly is outside of her realm. Considering the constitutional separation of powers, Ms. Pelosi should have immediately contacted the state department with such information as being asked to hand-deliver a message to Syria.

The danger of such a move as playing “go-between” lies in the very public airing of our dirty political laundry, especially with so many members of the Senate running for president and actively seeking to discredit the current president and his policies. Rogue nations such as Syria can easily see an opportunity to further widen the gap between Americans by manipulating public opinion and using our own members of Congress to play us against each other. Even some Syrian news reports questioned whether there was a genuine interest in Syrian affairs or if these members of Congress were doing nothing more than bringing our domestic affairs disputes out and into the world arena.

Each new presidential campaign season comes with new territory upon which we seek to tread not so lightly in trying to push the envelope and employ new tactics in efforts to discredit opponents. Under the adversarial circumstances which currently exist on the American political landscape, Ms. Pelosi’s trip could hardly be construed as seeking to affirm the “president’s message” especially since the president did not ask her to speak in his behalf nor is she a nationally elected official even as House Speaker. We currently have a perfectly capable secretary of state whose duties, responsibilities, and authority were usurped by this delegation. Whether it was their intent to do so is irrelevant.

It becomes clearer with each election season that we continue to elect into constitutional office those who swear by the Constitution to uphold the Constitution and apparently have no idea what the Constitution says. One would also wonder whether they even care especially with such potential for enormous political gain.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hope best described - Easter 2007

I once read a story about a maritime incident which occurred years ago off the coast of Massachusetts. A ship had accidentally rammed a submarine and the submarine, being disabled, sank. Crews of deep-sea divers worked diligently to try and find a way to free the crew that was still on board the submarine. After many hours, however, it soon became all too clear that time was running out and the possibility of being able to free the crew bleak.

As one diver worked frantically to find some sort of escape hatch or thin part of the hull, he suddenly heard what sounded like a faint tapping noise coming from the submarine. As he got closer to the area where the tapping sound was clearer, he put his helmet up against the hull and realized that he was hearing Morse code. His heart sank as the message became clear: Is … there … any … hope?

We’ve also heard stories of former POW’s who, when describing the horrific conditions and treatment they endured, would invariably be asked the question: “How did you survive such an ordeal?” And the answer was always the same: HOPE.

There is a wide range of emotions we can display depending on the situation we face and the mood we’re in. These emotions are evidence of our response, and they speak to the moment. They are a reactive answer to something which already took place. However, there is only one state of mind that feeds our sense of purpose and gives us a reason to move forward from one moment to the next, from one day to the next. We call it “hope”.

We can even go so far as to define hope as evidence of anticipatory excitement, evidence of something yet to be but, like faith, we believe in its promise. We haven’t seen it yet, but we know that if there is nothing else that comes with it, there will at least be the potential that it will be better than where we are. With hope, we don’t even ask for or demand guarantees though we might like to manipulate an outcome better suited to our liking. Hope, for all intents and purposes, is good enough.

As evidenced by the sailors and the POW’s in the stories I share, hope is the one thing that gave them a reason to hang on for just a little longer. In their minds there had to be something hanging before them, sort of like a carrot on a stick, which would give them a reason to move beyond the moment and into the next. For humans, I think, there has to be a reason to move, to dream, to even pray. It is because right before us is hope, which which gives us that reason to move into the next moment, that reason to hang on for a little while longer.

“Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Christ Jesus, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
Romans 5:1-5

What do we hope for most? Paul tells the Romans that “hope does not disappoint”, but do we honestly give much thought to the Resurrection? I would suggest that the only time we really give any serious thought to the life that is to come is when a loved one passes from this life. Is this what the disciples had uppermost in their minds when they approached the tomb? It does not seem so. In John 20:1, Mary Magdalene is the only one mentioned who came to the tomb. In Luke 24:1, however, we are told that “they (Mary, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women) came to the tomb taking the spices they had prepared”, but there is no indication that they expected to find the tomb empty even though they had been told more than once by Jesus that He was to be raised on the third day. This was the third day.

What does this tell us? It is clear they had no idea what they were about to encounter, and it is implied by the mood of the story that the promise of the third day was all but forgotten. The spices prepared for Jesus’ body had more to do with customs of the culture than with any notion of a resurrection. It would appear that the momentum Jesus had begun had come to a halt. There was nothing left and the disciples were certainly mourning the loss of the One whom they loved, but they were about to perhaps return to their lives as though nothing had ever happened.

Even when they encountered the empty tomb and rushed back to tell the others of what had happened, there is still no hint of resurrection. In fact, in John 20:8-9 it is told that they reached the tomb, saw the clothing with no body, turned and left. The “other disciple … saw and believed” but it seems as though the only thing he really “believed” was that the women had told the truth; that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb. Verse 9 implies such when it is written that “they as yet did not understand the scripture, that He must rise from the dead.”

Whether there was any reason for the disciples to have any hope at this point according to what they knew is hard to say. It was not until Jesus made His appearance to Mary that it became clear. Even after she saw “the two angels”, she seemed clueless until she turned and saw Jesus.

It’s very strange that, throughout Jesus’ life and as many times as He reminded them that all this would take place but that He would be raised up on the third day, it never occurred to them that everything they had pinned their hopes on was unfolding right before their eyes, but they were still not able to comprehend that the HOPE they still had before them looked exactly like an EMPTY TOMB.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday 2007

What’s so “good” about it? Is it because it was “good” that the Blood of the Paschal Lamb has been spilled and offered for our sake? Is it “good” that another Man was brutally murdered so that we might live or because we did not want to hear what He had to say? Is it “good” that so many of Jesus’ followers turned on Him, abandoned Him, or even denied Him, when things turned ugly and Jesus seemed no longer “the man”?

Because of the name alone, Good Friday is probably one of the most misunderstood of all holiday observations (how many today have heard the greeting, “Happy Good Friday!”) because the crucifixion of Jesus can hardly be construed as “good”. If there could be anything “good” from it, it could only be so by virtue of our 20/20 hindsight. We can see from what is written and by our faith that there is no power man wields on this earth that the Lord God cannot overcome.

I also happen to think that it is careless theology that suggests that Jesus’ brutal death was by the design and/or intent of the Lord God because the death of Jesus was ultimately a rejection of everything He tried to teach us; it was a rejection of the One who sent Him. Whether the crucifixion was foretold does not necessarily imply that it was foreordained or intended to happen as it did.

Beyond this, however, what do we need to be focused on when we enter into such an observation as Good Friday? It seems unfair that we would emotionally or spiritually thrash ourselves with such a colossal guilt trip by which we are convicted of our part in it because, after all, this was long before our time. As a physical confrontation which took place so long ago, it does not seem conducive to spiritual development to beat ourselves over the head with something we may or may not have actually taken part in had we been alive during that time.

Pope Benedict recently spoke at a church in Italy about the reality of hell as a “real place” and caused me to consider whether our need to know about this real place had any relevance to our spiritual journey. I think that, yes, we have a need to know and a more acute need to acknowledge the spiritual reality of hell but not so much so that we can beat ourselves up with it or use it as a spiritual stick with which to beat others over the head. In much the same way, Good Friday requires of us a spiritual acknowledgment of something very real which took place so long ago that we may never be fully able to comprehend. This does not mean, however, that we should permit ourselves to ignore its reality nor overlook its relevance.

I will not suggest that each of us needs to feel guilty about what happened on that dark day so long ago. I will suggest, however, that we not allow this day to pass without gazing upon the Cross and considering the very real and very dark capacity of humanity to succumb and surrender to evil. This, in our observation, is where the contemplation must necessarily stop.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Inclination of Man

Is it possible that in the design of humanity, man is flawed so much so that sin is inherent to man’s physiology? We were created in a Divine image and yet because of a seemingly inherent flaw or weakness in human nature, that design was (and is) too easily corrupted.

Such a statement may border on the blasphemous, yet there is a compulsion to ask in light of such evil as runs rampant in society today. The church as a collective entity seems powerless (or unwilling) to address such social concerns that are considered by many as hard evidence of a breakdown in societal standards perhaps for fear of being labeled “judgmental” or maybe for fear of alienating or being alienated. How can it be, though, that we are created in a Divine image – incorruptible, uncompromising, perfect, holy – and consistently fall short of where we need to be? Is it a question of design or the colossal influence of evil, or is it a combination of the two? Or worse, is it possible that man has redefined evil to suit a selfish purpose?

It hardly seems plausible that what is created by the Almighty Himself has any inherent flaw. Yet because of this incredible and priceless gift we know as free will, the divine image will take a beating not because He is not known but because humanity is known better. Man has an enormous capacity for good as evidenced by the countless missions and missionaries at home and abroad, the fruits of their labors being well-known and well-documented. Yet these same persons who exercise their free will to do good are created by the same One who also created Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and Jeffery Dommer, to name only a few.

The evil which exists in this world and influences such blatant acts as those perpetrated by mankind must surely be the same evil that encourages us to cheat on our spouses, commit unnatural sexual acts, take things which clearly do not belong to us, destroy unborn children in the name of “choice”, and withhold our abundant resources from those who are in such desperate need. Still those who commit these and other acts that are contrary to biblical teachings consider themselves to be “basically” good persons capable of charitable acts but with a different system of core values or beliefs.

Are there degrees of evil measured only by the severity of consequence? For instance, can a homosexual relationship involving two consenting adults be viewed in the same manner as the contrast between an overweight American who obviously eats more than is needed (apart from those with contributing medical conditions) and a child who is hungry and left to fend for herself through no fault (choice) of her own? And can either of these be fairly compared to the atrocities currently being committed in Darfur and other parts of the world?

It is a fair question of judgment values by which we determine the “good” or “bad” nature of a particular act, and it seems easy for us to make a decision based on the relativity of consequence such as who might be hurt directly as a result of our action. Too often, however, the indirect consequences of our actions are less noticeable and seemingly unworthy of our consideration because, we reason, we cannot control – nor should we be held responsible for - the behavior of others who will make their own free will choices. Even though our actions may influence a particular response, we still let ourselves off the hook by insisting that others are free to make their own choices independently.

Even a political theory known as “realism” acknowledges that man is prone to conflict and violence, and this theory is based upon political observations from theorists and philosophers past. Man has an instinct to survive, so the thought of Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” violates our inherent nature, instincts that seem bred in us. Jesus calls us, in this instance, to move beyond our animalistic instincts and strive toward something better, something more perfect and holy that transcends our human nature.

It would seem, then, that our inherent nature is as much a part of a divine design as the gift of free will. We are designed to survive, to breed, and to flourish. Man was given dominion over the earth and all that is in it as a means by which to survive. The nature which resides within us to protect that which is needed is also equally capable of perceiving any who attempt to share as a threat against our existence.

There is no flaw in our design. The image in which we were created is without blemish. It is our instinct and our ability to reason that has separated us from Eden.

Ethics in Government

As this Arkansas legislative session has drawn to a close, there are some disappointments for those who did not see their particular issue make it out of the session but probably should have. Animal cruelty springs to mind, an issue that has brought some passionate pleas from those for whom this issue defines the very nature of human behavior. I happen to agree that malicious cruelty toward any animal for the sheer pleasure of getting one’s extremely perverse jollies is a peculiar behavior that should concern us all.

Some are not satisfied that the legislature fully answered the state Supreme Court’s mandate of “equitable” education when a recent article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported some Arkansas school districts as able to offer substantially higher teacher pay because they desire “the best”. I will believe “equitable” when I see “equitable” according to the state’s need to have “the best” working in a district where the need for a particular discipline is greatest and fully addressed not according to what the position pays but according to the students’ needs.

The one issue that should be fundamental to any endeavor, however, failed. It is a curious thing that mature adults cannot agree on what constitutes ethical behavior as it relates to accepting gifts from lobbyists. Lest one believe that “lobbyist” is a bad word with negative connotations, let us consider that lobbyists are paid consultants who speak on behalf of a group of voting citizens (that would be you and me) with a common interest. This is not the problem.

The problem exists when elected representatives believe that it is somehow ok to accept any gift of any value, including meals and coffee, from a person or persons who would not have given them the time of day prior to their election, thus giving the illusion of granting favors to the highest bidder or simply seeking special, personal privilege. Does it matter that the gift, however small, is “ethically” listed on a financial disclosure form for all to see? Is it not more ethical that there be no gifts listed as having been received? Legislators have been granted a rare privilege to speak and work on behalf of their constituents. There are certain privileges that come with the office; however, “freebies” don’t happen to be among those privileges. Why? Because these “freebies” do not benefit the state or a particular district as a whole.

This is not to suggest that all lobbying activity should be declared illegal or even unethical. You and I as individual citizens do have access to our elected representatives, limited though it may be. We cannot take time off from work to wander the halls of the state capital and visit with committee chairs or individual members so we hire someone to speak for us, to wander the halls of the state capital and meet with the committee chairs and other individual members whose influence can enhance our cause. This, as they say, is truly “how it is”. There is no ethical concern related to how well a lobbyist can present a case. It is a sales job with talented and knowledgeable persons who are able to help the legislator work through the intricacies of a particular issue and perhaps gain a broader perspective.

The boundaries of acceptable behavior are crossed, however, when a legislator gives the impression that the greater gift or the finer meal will somehow help make the case. Even if most lobbying efforts take place after normal business hours, it is still all in the course of doing that business which concerns the whole state and not just the individual doing the selling nor the individual being lobbied. Does a finer meal at a nicer restaurant somehow make the selling point of a particular issue more acceptable?

Ethical behavior demands a certain standard by which we are all governed on an equal plane. A committee chair is obviously going to be more influential and a member of a particular committee is going to be more sought after than a rank-and-file member of the legislature. It then becomes incumbent upon those who hold these favored positions to consider that they are not there because other members believe they are most entitled to special privileges. The opportunities are greater, of course, but the duty is the same. It is the state’s business as a whole that is being looked after. Bearing this in mind without seeking special status or privilege is completely ethical.

Since legislators cannot seem to agree on an amount acceptable to all, my proposal is ZERO. This is not arbitrary, and it is the right thing to do. And if there are legislators who are still unsure of what constitutes an ethically questionable gift, allow me to help you. If a lobbyist would not have given you a gift of any sort prior to your election and will likely not return your calls after you are termed out of office, you should probably refrain from accepting even a cup of coffee. Trust me, ladies and gentlemen; this will end the ethics debate once and for all when you come to realize that yours is not a position of personal privilege. Rather, it is a position of honor that requires a certain level of reverence especially toward those who have entrusted to you the privilege to speak in their behalf.