Thoughts on the Government Shutdown

I don’t typically wade into political waters – something about lying down with dogs and getting fleas, if I may be permitted to mix my metaphors. The events of recent days, however, have my hackles up. So, here are just a few short thoughts.

Democratic Congressional Types, yes, you won. The ACA passed a majority of both houses and was signed into law by the President. The individual mandate survived a Supreme Court challenge and, though I think the Court missed this one, it decides law, not me. The ACA is the law of the land. I hope you know what you’re doing, because the majority of the American people are beginning to doubt you. Personally, I like what the ACA tries to accomplish. God help us if we don’t help those who can’t help themselves. However, I think the way the ACA plans to go about it (inasmuch as I—or anyone for that matter—understand it) is a potential train wreck for many reasons, not the least of which is the assault on personal liberties it represents. The truth is you don’t know how it’s going to work. Most of you didn’t even read it. Try not to be so smugabout having passed a law that amounts to throwing stuff against the wall, waiting to see what will stick. I don’t blame you for the government shutdown. Believe me, though, if the ACA turns out the way I think it might, I will blame you and you alone. Good luck. We’re all going to need it.

Republican Congressional Types, like you, I am a registered Republican (for now—this is probably an affiliation with a very short life expectancy), so it pains me to say this. Individually, you may be great folks. Collectively, you’re all idiots. You’ve thrown your lot in with a man whose idea of political discourse is reading Dr. Seuss to an empty chamber. Well, almost empty. CSPAN was there. There are a lot of things that trouble me about the course of action Republicans have taken. For starters, you all apparently have forgotten everything you learned in high school civics. If you don’t like a law—and no, the ACA is not a bill, it is the law—you convince people that it needs to be repealed, convince those people to elect you to office, and then repeal it. I get that you are operating under the maxim of “desperate times call for desperate measures.” I get that you think out of control spending is bad for the country and I agree with you. But here’s the thing. You can’t avoid one fiscal catastrophe by careening toward another. Well, I suppose you can, but why would any sane person want to? Meanwhile, all of those whose paychecks plummeted to zero as well as the full faith and credit of the United States are caught in the wake of your ill-conceived grandstanding. You have sold your birthright of intellectual excellence and integrity for a few measly bags of tea. Most disturbing is that you have no end-game. Much like the proponents of the ACA, you’re just throwing stuff against the wall and hoping against hope that something will stick. That’s a poor way to do government and the rest of us are paying the price.

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Context is Everything: The Early Church in the 21st Century

      Ever since the time the “Early Church” was no longer the early church, people have sought to return to the practice of the early church.  Confused yet?  No wonder.  People have spent nearly two millenia trying to identify what the early church thought and how it practiced.  Even more fundamentally, people have wrestled with the question of what exactly the “early church” was and whether it is even useful to speak of the early church as a single body.  While this last question is well beyond our purview here, all of these questions point to a larger question: why do we care?  Even within the greater Protestant tradition, there have been movements to return to the ancient Christian church and its practices for centuries.  What drives these movements?  Is it an idealized nostalgia for times gone by, an appeal to times before formal theology grew out of “authentic” (a word so ubiquitous in modern Christian circles that it has lost all of its rhetorical force) Christian worship?  Is it a belief that because the early church worshiped and lived closer to the time of Jesus it must have embodied more proper orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) than we can centuries later?  Is it merely antiquarian curiosity run amok?
      My friend, Trent, asked me some months ago to do a piece for his blog on the views of the early church on violence and warfare, a particular interest of mine.  After several false starts, it occurred to me that I had to deal with the “so what” question first.  Again, why do we care?  I’m not really here to answer that question but only to identify it so that you, the reader, can decide why you really care.  Assuming we can reasonably discern what the early church both thought and did, do we take its experience as the gospel (no pun intended) and graft it whole cloth into our own experience?  If not, how do we distinguish the wheat from the chaff, deciding what to appropriate from the early church and what to discard as belonging to another time and place?  In an important book on early Christians and military service, the authors caution that it is a “false methodological assumption that the teaching and practice of the Bible and early church, without analysis of sociological and historical context, and without the application of a balanced hermeneutic is literally normative for contemporary teaching and practice.”  In other words, context is everything–always–no less in looking to the ancient church for modern-day guidance.  And even once we consider context, we evangelicals, biblicists that we are, must measure what the early church did and thought against the witness of scripture (and just how we decide do that is yet another gargantuan task).  Appropriation across millenia is not, therefore, as simple a process as we’d sometimes like to think.  These are just some thoughts to keep in mind as we delve into what the early church thought about certain things.
      By way of disclaimer, I am something of an armchair historian.  I hold a masters degree in church history with a concentration in early Christianity  What that means is that I know just enough to be dangerous and am frequently humbled by those, regardless of education or degree, who know much more than I.  That said, my studies tend to focus primarily in the fourth century and shifts in both the rhetoric of Christian self-identification and in the relationships between the church and the state.  In other words, how did Christians talk about themselves and how was that influenced by changing social and geopolitical realities in the fourth century?  Next time, we’ll get into what the early church or, more specifically, the church until AD 306, thought about violence and warfare.  Bonus points if you can tell me why AD 306 is significant.  Until then, grace and peace.

My First Speech

1977 was a good year for me.  Star Wars opened at big screens across the nation.  I learned to read.  I no longer had to take naps.  Miss Jenkins was my first grade teacher (if you saw her through the eyes of a six year old boy, you’d understand).  I won the Charlotte, NC, Royal Ambassadors “Pinewood Derby.”

For those of you who don’t know, the “Pinewood Derby” was an event in which its participants race small (about six inches long) cars built from blocks of wood.  These cars were placed on inclined tracks and, powered only by gravity (and aided by some well placed weights) raced in head to head heats until only one remained undefeated.  My car was the one.  Cool huh?

But that’s not the moment I want to tell you about.  This moment occurred several weeks later when I, a shy six year old boy, was asked to get up in front of my church and talk about winning the derby…

OK.  I can do this.  It’s Sunday night, so there aren’t that many people here.  Wait, here come a few more.  Why don’t they lock the doors at 6 o’clock?  These people should at least have the decency to be on time.  Oh, more people!  Maybe I shouldn’t look around.

OK, deep breath.  Time to sing.  “Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”  I really don’t like that song.  Maybe it’s because we sing it like the Darlings from Andy Griffith, only in the key of off.  Mr. Worship Leader, I know you like singing verses 1,2 and 4, but you can throw 3 in, too, if you like.  No?  Oh well.

Maybe Pastor Stone’s sermon will run long tonight and he’ll forget about me.  I am supposed to go on last, after all.  Besides, it’s been a long day.  Everybody’s tired and just wants to get home in time for “In Search Of.”  That Leonard Nimoy sure is talented, but how’d they get his ears back to normal?  Acts.  OK, I can find Acts.  New Testament.  I just learned these.  Let’s see…Genesis, Exodus.  Wait, wrong half.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, ACTS.  There it is.  Oh, 6:40.  Getting close.  I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.

Now to Matthew?  Shouldn’t we have hit that one first?

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”

Thou, thy, thee, ye, killest, stonest, gathereth?  Who talks like that?  Hey, I’m in church, maybe I should throw in some of those thees and thous when I give my speech.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  This is going to be great!  I’m going to tell everybody about how my Dad and brother and I built this great car.  Or builteth this great car.  I’ll regale them with tales of how I vanquished all foes who dared to come against me on the field of battle.  I’ll tell them how they (or thou) were (or werst…is that a word?) a great source of inspiration as I placed the car on the track for each race;  about how with each race, I became surer and surer of victory;  of how I accepted the trophy with the grace and humility that would bring honor to Calvary Baptist Church.  THIS IS GOING TO BE AWESOME!

What’s that Mom?  Oh, he called me up?  OK, here goes.  Why is everything moving slowly?  Why are there trails behind every person?  Why does Pastor Stone sound like a broken tape recorder?  Why don’t my legs work?  What happened to the stage?  This morning there were only six steps up.  Now there are, 1, 2, 3…5643!  OK, last step…shake Pastor Stone’s hand.  This is good.  The lights in the auditorium are still down, just like when the Pastor preaches.  WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, what are they doing?  It’s getting brighter.  I don’t need to see these people!  Hey, who let them in here?  They really need to lock the doors at 6.  Since when did this church seat 50,000 people?

Deep breath.  Another one.  One more.  Whew, I’m beginning to feel light headed.  I can do this.

“When I won the pinewood derby…”

OK, what do I say next?  I have to pee.  What’s happening?  I didn’t eat anything before I came, but something’s flying around in my stomach.  Is it hot in here?  I told you there were too many people in here.  Why is everyone staring at me?  Didn’t your mothers teach you that was impolite?

“It meant so much to me…”

Nada.  Let’s see…by my calculations I’ve been up here about nine hours.  Don’t these people have homes?  A little help here, Pastor!  I’m six, remember?  Come on, Mark, tales of victory on the field of battle!  Vanquish, victory, trophy, grace, humility, thee, thou, builteth.  SAY SOMETHING!

“Excuse me, but I’ve got something I’ve got to do.”

And that’s how it ended.  Well, almost.  I then ran off the stage into the arms of my mother and cried until they had to re-hydrate me with an IV drip.  The pastor commented that mine was the most polite exit he had ever seen. Was this an important event in my life?  Sure.  I’ve never been afraid to speak in public since.

Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God. A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope (Christopher Yuan and Angela Yuan, Walterbrook Press, 2011)

In the 1990s, Christopher Yuan was a gay man who worked hard and played harder.  After an experience
with the drug Ecstasy, Yuan quickly became one of the top drug dealers in the major gay clubs of the Southeast, living the glamorous lifestyle marked by cars, clothes and the adoration of his new family in the homosexual community.  As spectacular as the story of his life in the 90s is, it is not the subject of this book.

Yuan’s world eventually came crashing down.  Arrested for conspiracy and intent to distribute illegal drugs and later sentenced to six years in prison, Yuan was abandoned by all but a very few of his supposed “friends”.
To add insult to injury, Yuan learned, while wearing the tell-tale orange jumpsuit of the Atlanta Detention Center, that he was HIV positive, likely the result of one of his sexual encounters of the previous several
years.  As dramatic as the story of his Yuan’s fall is, it is not the subject of this book.

In recent years, Yuan, now a Christian speaker and HIV/AIDS activist, has garnered a fair amount of notoriety for his frequent speaking engagements in which he talks about HIV and issues surrounding sexuality and
Christianity.  For this he has been both praised and roundly (and often angrily) criticized.  Though one of this book’s thirty two chapters is entitled “Holy Sexuality” (a chapter that offers a view of sexuality that
will challenge the ingrained beliefs of many on both sides of the Christianity/homosexuality debate) neither HIV nor questions of Christian faith and sexuality are the subjects of this book.

What is Out of a Far Country about?  It is a modern-day prodigal son story, about a son who rebels against his parents and effectively abandons his natural family in favor of living life on his own terms.  It is about an awkward boy whose struggle to fit it and to make sense of his attractions led him on a journey into manhood
defined by rises, falls and, ultimately, redemption.  It’s about a God who says to us “I created you in my image and, for that reason and that reason alone, I love you.  Period.”  It’s a story that demonstrates that God’s ways are not our ways and that God uses whomever He wills, however He wills and does so perfectly.  Yuan’s journey from outcast kid to drug dealer to HIV statistic to Christ follower is, at bottom, simply a story of
God’s unconditional love for even “the least” of us (a category into which we all fall).

In addition, Out of a Far Country, is about a mother’s struggle.  In alternating chapters running roughly chronologically with Christopher’s story, his mother, Angela, tells her own story of redemption
through the trials of a rebellious son, a lifeless marriage, and lifelong scars that haunted her inmost being.  From her childhood in Shanghai and Taiwan to her life in the United States with husband, Leon, Angela describes for us her journey from atheist to Christian, from staunch anti-religionist to powerful prayer warrior, from suicidal mother to child of God.  Hers is a story not only of redemption but also of the power of a praying parent who asks God not to bail her son out of whatever situation he might be in, not to allow him to remain in
a school threatening to expel him, not to spare him from prison, but to do “whatever it takes” to bring her son to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.  It was a bold prayer.  It was an instructive prayer.  It was an effective prayer.

At bottom, Out of a Far Country is a story of hope.  No matter how far from God we may think we are, God pursues us in the most unlikely ways and in the most unlikely places, in a swank Atlanta apartment, in
a prison bunk—even in a trash can.  Read the book.  You’ll understand.

Dropbox: Strengthening Relationships Since 2008

Ever so often, I’ll hear a news story about how increasingly mobile our society is becoming, how children grow up and leave the cities of their youth, how, under pressures of scarce employment and growing obligations,
otherwise intact families live with one parent or spouse away.  This summer, we became one of those families,
however temporarily.  My children and I live in North Carolina while my wife remains in Illinois, working out an employment obligation.  My wife will join us, God willing, in September, so we already see a light at the end of the tunnel.  Nevertheless, this experience (and one other, similar, occurrence several years ago) has given us at least some insight into what it means for loving, intact families to live apart.  It is hard. Frankly, it sucks.

I am an admitted “gadget guy.”  I love the newest, best technologies, not necessarily for their usefulness, but rather for their cool factor.  Of course, I’m also broke, so for now I can only read about the newest gadgets and tools on the market.  Despite my gadget obsession, however, I’ve never particularly held them in high regard.
Like many people my age and older, I long for a simpler time when our attentions weren’t divided between the laptop, the iPad, the Blackberry (or Android or iPhone), Twitter and Facebook. I’ve never seen technology as a savior.  I still don’t, but I think my critical attitude is beginning to soften.

During the time we’ve been apart, my wife and I have used a variety of technologies to keep in touch.
Our favorite is an unnamed video chatting app developed by a rather fruity company.  There is something that
is both exceedingly cool and comforting about seeing the person to whom you are talking on the small screen of your cell phone (“cell” phone? Do those still exist?).  Of course, use of such a tool is intentional and planned.  We use it for exactly the purpose for which it was intended.  Despite having such devices at our disposal, what I really enjoy are those unexpected moments of connectedness with my wife, those times when I feel just a bit closer to her without even trying.

It was a relatively low-tech program running in the background on my desktop computer that gave me just such an experience yesterday.  I was sitting at my desk when a small pop-up appeared in the lower right hand corner of my computer’s desktop.  The text read something like this, “Amy Resume SRMC PICU.docx added to Dropbox.”  For those of you who don’t know, Dropbox is an application that automatically syncs documents among multiple devices.  You can create or edit a document on one device, save it to a Dropbox folder on that device and it will automatically save the new or edited document on all other devices on the same account.  Pretty cool (note to Dropbox developers: shoot me an email and I’ll tell you where to send the check for the
endorsement).  Whenever we know what a loved one who happens to be far away is doing at a specific time, we somehow feel a little closer to him or her, as if distance were no barrier to participation in that person’s life.  I
saw that small balloon pop up and for just a moment I felt just a little closer to my wife.  I knew that at that moment, she was editing her resume and that something she had just touched (so to speak) had made the 700 mile trip to nest on my computer.  I knew what she was doing and I had a little memento of her day.

OK, OK, I know this is teetering on the nauseating and overtly geeky.  To that I can only say, oh well.  Whenever my family is together again maybe I can write something that isn’t a jumbled mix of sentimentality and nerdy fascination.  For now, we are counting the days until my wife is reunited with us.  Until then, we will hold on to and appreciate those little moments that close the 700 mile gap between us.  Thank you, Dropbox, for making me feel closer to my wife.

Heirs of the Early Church

OK, so I’m doing something out of character for me.  I’m posting a first draft.  Actually, I need help.  I’m writing a paper that explores the changes in the early church brought about by the conversion of Constantine and his ascendancy to the throne of the Roman Empire.  The basic storyline is that the pre-Constantinian church was less materially motivated, more independent, and less violent than the post-Constantinian church.  Yeah, I know. DUH!  The paper goes into more detail arguing that a politicized Christianity looks very different from the early church.  I use that idea to spring onto something of a soapbox in my conclusion.  It’s not very academic sounding, so I may not keep the conclusion as written.  Nevertheless, I need all my editors to read it and give me some feedback.  Please.  Oh, and be critical, but kind.  It’s only a first draft.  THANKS!

Nearly 2000 years have passed since the church entered the world of secular politics.  During that time it has vacillated from complete withdrawal from secular affairs to outright theocracy and made stops at every point in between.  In the modern United States, the church lives a confused existence.  On the one hand, it preaches being “in” but not “of” the world, yet it flies its national banner beside the pulpit as if to equate its faith with its political allegiances.  It preaches peace on Earth every December yet sees providential endorsement of every military operation undertaken by its nation.  It embraces its earliest roots in defending the lives of the unborn against the spectre of abortion yet can abide seeing “a man put to death, even justly” when the outrage of the citizenry demands it.  It confesses “one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible” yet fractures over issues of money, power, prestige, and politics.

           It is a unique occurrence when something happens for the first time.  “Firsts” always shape history.  Yuri Gagarin showed the world that existence is not necessarily tied to this celestial ball – that there is indeed a great big universe out there.  The Enola Gay’s payload showed the world that we hold the power of self-annihilation.  Some firsts are good.  Others are not.  The church during the reign of Constantine was a first.  It was the first instance in which affairs of the Christian faith and of the secular state became mutually and voluntarily intertwined.  Was this first experience a good one or a bad one?  If we believe that we in the United States are somehow heirs of the fourth century church, the answer could go either way.  Certainly, much of our accepted doctrine owes its acceptance to the work of those resilient, pious, and faithful fathers of the early church whose work would likely not have been possible without the patronage of the state.  Looking at what the Roman empire became and what the church has today become, though, one wonders if we have not lost something in the trade.

The Sometimes Silent World of Autism

Many of you know that I have a son.  Perhaps fewer of you, including some who may have met him, know that he is autistic.  To be sure, he is definitely on the milder side of the autism spectrum and has made tremendous progress due to very early intervention and the help of numerous family, friends, teachers and therapists.  He’s actually quite interactive, will make eye contact, and on occasion will talk you into a coma — not exactly either of the Hollywood autism stereotypes; he’s neither a “Rain Man” savant nor a completely withdrawn, non-reponsive shell.

That’s the problem with stereotypes.  They are, in truth, bad caricatures.  Good caricatures reflect some kernel of the person they intent to portray.  Bad caricatures seek solely to elicit the audience response intended by the artist at the expense of the model.  It’s not my intent here to offer anyone an extensive education on autism.  I thought it would be nice, though, to let you meet one autistic young woman.  Her name is Sarah Stup.  She is unable to speak, but she definitely has something to say.  It would be wrong to say that hers is a “representative” story because, like all of us “typical” people, each person with autism is unique.  I don’t want to say more.  I haven’t walked the road that earns me that right.  Watch the following video.  I suggest you watch it when everything around you is quiet.