Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Taking God's Name In Vain

When I was a kid, I was taught that it was a sin to "take God's name in vain". What did that mean? I was told that saying "God damn you" to someone was an example of taking God's name in vain.

As I got older, I thought a lot about that, and I came to understand the connection between the two things. The word "vanity" has multiple meanings, but the definition gets to the heart of the matter, in my opinion, is not necessarily the first one listed in the dictionary. One dictionary defines the word thusly: "something worthless, trivial, or pointless". Also, "lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness: the vanity of a selfish life".

We often describe people who are excessively preoccupied with physical appearance as "vain". Why? Because it's pointless and futile to spend most of one's time trying to preserve one's appearance. Sooner or later, if we live long enough, we all get ugly, no matter how attractive we once might have been. (Of course, if we don't live long enough, our physical bodies and faces get even uglier! Bodily decomposition is not pretty to behold.)

Most other definitions of "vanity" also hinge on these fundamental assumptions. For instance, a "vanity" is a dresser where people traditionally spend their time in pursuit of the goal of making themselves look good, hoping that folks won't notice that they get older and uglier by the day. One might just as easily describe a gymnasium as a vanity, because muscles eventually grow flaccid, no matter how much time one spends in physical exercise. (There's a good reason why Arnold Schwarzenegger no longer looks like Mr. Universe, and it isn't solely on account of the fact that he no longer takes steroids.)

Just as it's pointless to try to prevent the aging and dying process from occurring, it's equally pointless to try to damn someone by invoking God's name. Why? Because God has not authorized any human being to damn other human beings. It's a bit like impersonating a police officer and pretending that one has been authorized by the state to place someone under arrest, when that is not actually the case at all. Just as impersonating a police officer is a crime against the state, claiming to speak for God when one has not been authorized to do so is a sin against God. It's the same principle.

Once one understands that a principle is at stake, one begins to realize that there are numerous ways to take God's name in vain, and not all of those ways involve threats of damnation. In fact, any unauthorized invocation of God's name could be described as a vain attribution, and could therefore be legitimately characterized as a violation of the injunction against taking God's name in vain.

There's a reason why false prophets were stoned to death in the Old Testament. It is not a matter to be lightly regarded when someone claims falsely to speak in the name of God.

To make an oath by swearing "by God" or by swearing by something which is of God is to commit a similar sin. Jesus forbade the making of such oaths. In Matthew 5:33-37, it says the following:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
In other words, if what you say is a lie, adding "I swear by God" or "thus saith the Lord" does not make it any less untruthful. In fact, it makes things much worse. It's bad enough to lie, but ten times worse to lie in the name of the Lord, because "God is not a man, that he should lie" (Numbers 23:19). Therefore, claiming that God said something when God did not in fact do so could be described as "taking God's name in vain," even if the word "damn" is never mentioned.

In 1987, Oral Roberts, a well-known TV evangelist at the time, claimed that God had told him that God would take Oral's life unless Oral's followers donated 8 million dollars to the ministry. Oral met and exceeded his fundraising goal, so there is no objective way to know for sure whether or not the claims he made about his "revelation" were legitimate, but I personally do not believe that God told him any such thing. Nevertheless, I hope for Oral's sake that I am wrong about that, because manipulating people by claiming that God has said something which God has not actually said might be deemed every bit as offensive and sinful as saying "God damn you" to someone. Of course, such a sin is forgivable (as are most sins, except for the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit), so I would not presume to make any statements with regard to Oral's eternal destiny, even if I knew for sure that he had sinned by making that claim. But my point here is simply this: When it comes to making claims about what God has or has not said to us, it is much wiser to err on the side of caution. If indeed a revelation from God is true, then adding "thus saith the Lord" will not add anything to the statement's truthfulness. That is why Jesus said that we ought to simply let our statements be judged on their own merits: "Let your 'yes' be yes, and your 'no,' 'no'."

How does one assess the legitimacy of claims which are made with regard to what God has or has not said? One excellent way to do so is to compare the contents of a person's claims about what God has said with what one already knows about the character of God, based on what the scriptures teach.

We know that God is not a liar, for example, so any claim which is demonstrably untrue would be inconsistent with the character of God. Consequently, prophesies which do not come to pass are obviously illegitimate.

There are also other aspects of God's character as well. People who have spent time getting to know God by reading God's word have a means of identifying those aspects of God's character.

For instance, God vehemently disapproves of sexual iniquity, so anyone who says, "God told me to have sex outside of marriage" has compounded the sin of adultery (or fornication) by claiming that God told him or her to commit such a sin. Likewise, God forbids idolatry, so anyone who claims that God told him or her to bow down to a graven image and worship that image is obviously lying.

The aforementioned ideas are pertinent to something which occurred to me recently. On Sunday, I attended a new church in Chicago for the first time. The folks at that church were generally nice to me, and I enjoyed the worship service for the most part. But the pastor said something from the pulpit, and it deeply disturbed me.

The aforementioned pastor stated, correctly, that God sometimes tells us things which we don't want to hear, but which we nevertheless need to hear. So far, so good. I have no problem with that idea. Jesus is not the wimp some folks seem to think that he is, and there are recorded instances in which Jesus said things which might be regarded by some folks as harsh and even "judgmental".

But then the pastor went on to cite a situation which he considered to be a good example of God saying something which he needed to hear. He said that he'd been feeling sorry for himself because he hadn't yet found a wife for himself. According to him, God told him to "man up" and get off of his "pity party". When the pastor said that, a huge red flag appeared in my mind, because I honestly do not believe that God would ever say such a thing to any person.

To say that a person who is feeling depressed about his situation needs to "man up" is to imply, incorrectly, that real men do not get depressed, or that they most certainly do not tell anyone about their depression if in fact they do get depressed. That idea might come as a great surprise to decidedly manly men such as Ernest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and others who have struggled with severe bouts of depression at various points in their lives. (I'm not arguing that the aforementioned men were perfect; but whatever problems they might have had, lack of masculinity was not one of those problems!)

If one prefers biblical examples, it should be remembered that the prophet Jeremiah was described as the "weeping prophet". It's unclear as to whether or not Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations, but whether he did so or not, it seems noteworthy that there is an entire book of the Bible which has that particular title. (A "lamentation" is an expression of sorrow or grief.) David poured out his feelings of grief in very clear language in certain portions of the Psalms. And Isaiah 53:3, which is considered by most Christians to be a description of Jesus Christ, describes him as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief".

So where's the justification for a belief that it's unmanly or ungodly for a person to experience grief and depression? To my way of thinking, such a claim is unsupported by logic and by the scriptures.

I also can't help but wonder if women are exempt from the need to "man up". Is it OK for women to feel sorry for themselves but forbidden for men to do so? If so, why the double standard? Whatever happened to the idea that in Christ, there is no male nor female, as stated in Galatians 3:28?

I would be hard pressed to think of a much more uncompassionate phrase than the phrase "pity party". It falsely implies that people enjoy being depressed. That's absurd, and it's insulting to those who suffer from depression. Most depressed people would gladly accept any legitimate solution which would relieve them of their mental anguish.

Matthew 5:1-16 says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Perhaps Jesus should have added, "unless, of course, they happen to attend a church led by a pastor who thinks that it's more appropriate to tell them to 'man up' and bury their feelings than it is to comfort them."

God is a compassionate God. There is nothing with which I am familiar, in the scriptures, which would support the idea that God disparages or condemns people who are unfortunate enough to suffer from depression. I'm inclined to think that the aforementioned pastor's concept of God was derived from too many viewings of old Clint Eastwood movies, and I'm inclined to think that his beliefs about God insofar as the issue of depression is concerned have more in common with the pagan belief known as stoicism than with Christianity. I do not believe that God ever told him what he claims that God told him, so I'm also inclined to think that he's guilty of taking the Lord's name in vain. I could be wrong, of course, but that's how I see things.

None of this is to deny that it's undesirable for people to wallow in self-pity. But there is a right way to respond to such people when they seek help, and there is a wrong way.

The right way to deal with the situation, when one is confronted with depressed people, is not to add to their feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness by telling them to "man up" and implicitly accusing them of being immature sissies. The right way is to comfort the afflicted, pointing out that Jesus also suffered, and that Jesus is there with open arms and a heart full of love for those who suffer from deprivation or from the perception of deprivation. The right way is to take one's responsibility to "bear one another's burdens" seriously. Ridiculing people is generally not a good way to bear their burdens! To implicitly ridicule hurting Christians is to abdicate one's moral responsibility to one's brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Creepy Isn't Good When Playing Keyboards

I love portable digital pianos, when they're made well. My favorite digital stage piano, in terms of sonic power, keyboard "action" and its built-in amplification system, is the Yamaha CP300. One of the people who uses the CP300 is Chuck Leavell, former keyboardist for the Allman Brothers Band, who has played with the Rolling Stones for many years.

But even though it's one of the best professional digital pianos available, there's one feature which the CP300 is missing: A solution to the problem of "pedal creep". (There are other areas of improvement which I could also suggest, but I'm not focusing on those areas in this article.)

If you don't play keyboards, or if your primary experience with playing keyboards is creating monophonic leads with synthesizers such as the Moog, then you probably have no idea what I'm talking about when I say "pedal creep". So let me explain.

A real grand piano is connected to a system of three pedals (soft, sostenuto and sustain) by means of a rigid column which suspends the pedals just above the floor. The pedals are connected to upright pianos by means of the wooden piano case. Home digital pianos similarly have pedals which are attached permanently to the case, so those pedals work fairly well, too.

However, real pianos and home digital pianos are hard to transport to and from gigs (including live performances, rehearsals and professional recording sessions).

Of course, one could transport a home digital piano to gigs if one had a custom flight case for such a piano, and if one also had a van or cube van in which to haul the instrument. A home digital piano in a flight case certainly wouldn't be any bulkier than the Hammond B-3 organs many professional keyboard players used to haul around with them. But many keyboard players lack proper vehicles with which to carry such instruments to such gigs; and even if they have driving licenses, renting such vehicles can get expensive if one has to do so on a regular basis.

Another issue is that home digital pianos often lack some of the important features found on stage pianos such as the Yamaha CP300 (such as pitch and modulation wheels, for use when playing guitar sounds, sax sounds, etc.).

Both of the aforementioned reasons help to explain why digital stage pianos are used by most professional keyboardists today, if they prefer to use instruments which sound and feel as much like high quality acoustic pianos as possible, and which are also easy to amplify without worries about feedback, and which don't get knocked out of tune whenever they're moved around from place to place. I am the type of keyboard player who feels a strong need for such an instrument, especially when I'm playing solo gigs, but also when I'm playing in a band with other musicians.

A digital stage piano is usually connected to the sustain pedal by means of a flexible cord plugged into the piano. That's preferable in terms of portability, but it creates a problem during performances, regardless of whether one is sitting down or standing while playing the instrument. Specifically, it causes the problem of pedal creep.

One may start out playing a tune with the pedal in the perfect position, only to discover at some point prior to the end of the tune that the pedal has crept so far away from one's foot that one can no longer reach the pedal. In the intermediate stages of such movement, one can still reach the pedal, but not comfortably. This can be frustrating! Trying to retrieve one's increasingly distant sustain pedal with one's foot in the middle of a performance tends to greatly diminish one's ability to turn in a top notch performance. If it's a solo piece, one isn't free to take one's hands off the keyboard, bend over, and move the pedal to the proper location once again.

In addition to hindering the quality of one's performance, pedal creep can also cause physical strain on one's leg and one's torso, especially if one is standing up. At the end of such a performance, one may feel far more exhausted than one would feel when performing on a real piano.

One possible solution to pedal creep is to tape the pedal to the floor using gaffer tape (similar to duct tape, but with a low-tack adhesive which doesn't leave harmful residue when removed). But that isn't a great solution. The tape tends to come loose after a while (at which point the pedal starts to creep again, dragging the tape with it), and such tape sticks to some surfaces better than others. (It works very poorly, for example, on carpet.)

Another solution, which I tried back in the late 80's, is to build a custom pedal board which holds one's pedals in place, eliminating the possibility of creeping pedals. Mine was made by a friend who was a woodworker. It worked pretty well, especially since it was designed to hook around the legs of the keyboard stand so that the stand held the pedalboard in place. It had holes in the back rail so that the cables for the pedals could poke through and so that they could be plugged into the keyboard controller (which was a big Yamaha KX88).

The main problem with my custom pedalboard (in addition to its cost) was twofold. First, the pedalboard was big and heavy, adding to the considerable overall bulk of the equipment I already had to carry (which also included a rack mount case for my sound modules, an amplifier with its own flight case, and the keyboard stand and a stool on which to sit). Second, since it was wood (and since I had no custom case in which to carry it), it started to splinter after a while. It also had no built-in carrying handles, so it was a bit of a pain to carry it around.

A few years ago, I bought a product called a Creep No More. I saw ads for it in Keyboard magazine. It was small and portable, and the ads promised that it would cure the problem of "pedal creep". Unfortunately, it didn't work very well.

Korg, it would seem, has come up with an excellent solution (albeit an imperfect solution) for its SP-250 digital piano and its Pa588 Professional Arranger Keyboard. Click the preceding links, or read the following description, to get an idea of what I mean.

The SP-250 includes a high-quality damper pedal that is so important for proper piano performance. It provides the ultimate expressive control thanks to half-pedaling, which is a variable damping effect based on how deep you press the pedal, rather than the simple on/off switch found on cheaper instruments. The dedicated stand is both simple and stylish, and fits securely into a recessed area in the bottom of the piano providing a remarkably solid feel. The stand’s lower crossbar even prevents the pedal from “creeping” forward in performance. Best of all, the SP-250 can be easily removed from the stand for moving and taking around for live performances.

The Korg design seems to be well thought out. My only gripe with the design is that it only has one pedal, not three. (The Yamaha CP300 has 3 assignable pedal inputs in addition to the input for the Expression Pedal, so you can have a soft pedal and sostenuto pedal, not just a sustain pedal. That's essential for replicating all of the effects of playing on a real piano. Adjusting the dynamics with a "soft pedal" is NOT the same as using a volume pedal, as any pianist could tell you. As for sostenuto, that pedal is rarely used except for classical music --- but if you've got to have it, you've got to have it.)

The problem is that the Korg solution seems to work only with the two aforementioned Korg keyboards. (For one thing, the polarity of Korg's sustain pedals is different from the polarity of Yamaha's sustain pedals.) Neither one of those keyboards is my idea of the ideal digital piano, even though there's reason to believe that they both have fairly decent digital piano sounds and weighted 88-note keyboards.

I'd like for a keyboard stand manufacturer to collaborate with a company which makes keyboard pedals (such as M-Audio) in order to create and market a universal digital piano stand which emulates the general design of the Korg stand insofar as its solution to pedal creep is concerned, but the product would have three piano-style pedals plus a volume control pedal, rather than being limited to just a sustain pedal. (Versions with fewer pedals could also be sold, for people who didn't need more than one pedal.) As in the case of the universal sustain pedals currently being made by M-Audio, the piano-style pedals (for soft, sostenuto and sustain) would have switchable polarity so they'd work equally well with keyboards from all manufacturers, not just Korg keyboards.

I'm posting this blog article with the idea of sending e-mail messages to makers of keyboard products, hoping to persuade them to make a product similar to the one described above.

I'm thinking that some existing commercial keyboard stands could easily be modified with add-on products designed to connect to those stands and to keyboard pedals. For instance, the stand being sold for the Yamaha CP300 looks as if it wouldn't be hard for someone to design a crossbar which would connect to both ends of the existing stand in order to secure one or more pedals to that stand. Such a crossbar could be removed at the end of the night for ease of transport.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Appreciating The Gift of Pain

Some time ago, I read an excellent book, by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, entitled The Gift of Pain. Today I was browsing through back issues of the Chicago Tribune, and I discovered an article (12-1-2008, page 22, by Ofelia Casillas) which discussed the same issues. She mentions a website ( which is written from the perspective of people who live with such issues.

Nobody likes physical pain. Most of us would probably like to live in a world in which such pain did not exist. Such a world might indeed be ideal, if it were not for the fact that we are susceptible to injuries and illnesses which can damage our bodies in numerous ways. However, there is an easy way to see what the effects would be if we could not feel physical pain, and that's to examine the lives of the small number of people who have neurological impairments which prevent them from being able to feel such pain. That's what the book by Brand and Yancey is about. It really helps one to see such matters through a whole new perspective.

Pain is our best indicator of health problems which need to be addressed. Without pain, we tend to ignore such issues. Even though we might wish for a pain-free world, we should be glad that God designed our bodies so that they would alert us to physical problems which needed to be addressed.

Admittedly, there are times when chronic pain is caused by neurological malfunctions, just as there are times when people who ought to feel physical pain do not in fact feel such pain on account of such malfunctions. Pain isn't infallible as an indication of physical problems, but it would nevertheless be foolish to ignore pain unless one has very little choice in the matter.

Even when pain is an indication of a real problem, there is nothing wrong with attempting to relieve pain whenever possible. Once pain has served its purpose of calling our attention to matters which urgently need to be addressed, there's no point in allowing pain to linger any more than is absolutely necessary. In fact, allowing pain to linger can, in some cases, hinder effective treatment. There's a good reason for the extensive use of anesthesiology in the operating room. Part of the reason is to prevent needless suffering, and part of the reason is to help to keep the patient as still and relaxed as possible so that the surgeon can do his or her job as effectively as possible. But it isn't sufficient to relieve the pain. The surgeon must then act on the knowledge which he or she has acquired, and actually treat the injury or disease, lest he or she be guilty of professional incompetence.

It's hard not to see some metaphorical significance when examining the issue of pain, because we often experience pain which isn't necessarily physical in nature.

For example, when a person persistently brings problems to our attention, our unfortunate human tendency is to resent the messenger. We might even say that such a person is "being a real pain". That may be true. But the "pain" is not usually the primary problem. In most cases, the "pain" is simply making us aware of the problem. To hold it against the messenger that he or she is making us aware of the problem is illogical, because the problem existed before we were ever made aware of the problem. If indeed there is a problem which needs to be addressed, we should be grateful that someone cared enough to call it to our attention. The longer that problems are ignored, the worse they tend to get. (As a person who sometimes has issues with procrastination, I can attest to that fact.) The result of ignoring problems in the hope that they will magically disappear can sometimes be tragic.

This is true of any family, organization or business. But it's especially pertinent when it comes to the Church, which (interestingly enough) is also described in the Bible as the Body of Christ.

I wrote in an earlier article about what I described as "happy face churches," where people are encouraged to keep it to themselves when they experience problems. This kind of attitude is counterproductive if the goal is to create a thriving and healthy church. Ignoring problems does not make them go away, although doing so may very well drive people away from one's church.

In some Christian churches, there is a tradition of acknowledging that sins can be sins of commission or sins of omission. A sin of omission occurs when a person fails to do something positive in order to address a problem which is brought to that person's attention.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” is the web address for one page in which the applicability of Burke’s observation is appropriately noted.

We are not always in a position to help, but we ought to help whenever possible. And it should be remembered that the Church is collectively capable of ministering to needs which cannot be met by solitary individuals (or even by individual local churches), provided that those in charge of local churches are not indifferent to their responsibilities to their members and to members of the human community who don't necessarily happen to attend their churches.

When one goes to the hospital, the doctor encourages one to tell him (or her) where it hurts. It isn't that the doctor loves hearing that other people are in pain. It's simply that the doctor knows that an accurate diagnosis is essential if the injury or illness is to be properly treated. Clear communications are essential if the chances of complete healing are to be maximized.

People, and Christians in particular, need to be much more receptive to those who wish to openly express their pain and to communicate freely about problems which need to be addressed, whether those problems be physical, emotional, relational, financial, vocational or whatever. Only by being made aware of problems can we properly address those problems in an appropriate manner.

People employed in the ministry, including (but not limited to) pastors, have a special obligation to be sensitive to the needs of hurting people. Just as it would be foolish for people who can’t handle hearing about people’s physical ailments to go into the field of medicine, it is equally foolish for people who can’t handle hearing about people’s emotional and spiritual issues to go into the ministry. When one is a minister of the gospel, dealing with hurting people is not a distraction from one’ job — it’s a significant and necessary aspect of that job. Those who are unable or unwilling to perform that particular job function are professionally incompetent, no matter how eloquently they may preach the gospel.

If Christian leaders abdicate their moral and professional responsibility to listen to hurting people in a caring, compassionate manner, they should not be surprised when those people turn to secular counselors for help, nor should they be surprised when the humanistic beliefs which are often espoused by such counselors have an adverse effect on the moral values and spiritual commitments of people who have been abandoned or betrayed by church leaders.

We Christians must take care not to send mixed messages to hurting people. It is possible to say that our doors are open to people who are hurting, and yet to turn around and use hostile, needlessly judgmental language which — intentionally or unintentionally — sends a completely different message.

When people open themselves up and talk honestly about their fears and their painful memories, they make themselves extremely vulnerable to those who would abuse them — and make no mistake about it, neglect is a form of abuse. Telling people to “get over it” when they share painful intimacies with us is tantamount to telling them to keep their problems to themselves. It communicates the idea that we are not really interested in them or in the issues with which they may be struggling.

If we truly want to help people to transcend their problems, the best way to do so is to offer comfort comparable to the comfort which is offered by the Holy Spirit, the ultimate comforter.

Telling a person not to think about certain things has been proven to be ineffective. If I tell you, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” chances are good that you will be unable to put the idea of pink elephants out of your mind. The same principle is true with respect to painful memories. The way to heal such memories is not to command people not to think about negative things. The proper solution is to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

In short, we need to emphasize the idea that even though people have been hurt in the past, Jesus is waiting with his arms outstretched, ready and willing to heal wounded people. We need to emphasize the idea that we will do everything in our power to love people, just as God loves us. We cannot change the painful incidents in the past, but we can do our best to make sure that such things do not happen again in the future.

Painful memories seldom if ever disappear entirely (unless people literally get amnesia), but such memories gradually recede in importance when people gain newfound confidence and optimism based on the Christ-like behavior of people with whom they interact on a regular basis.

Such healing is rarely an instant thing. Just as physical injuries and illnesses usually take time to heal, the same is true with regard to emotional and spiritual healing. Yes, there are occasional exceptions to that rule, in which healing is instantaneous, but expecting such instant healings to take place in every instance is unrealistic. Such an expectation is somewhat comparable to saying that since Peter was once able to walk on water with the help of the Holy Spirit, we should all therefore abandon the use of boats and walk on water as our normal mode of marine transportation! Many of the miracles which occurred during Bible times happened only once, never to happen again. Therefore, basing one’s entire methodology on the assumption that such miracles are guaranteed in every situation is literally unbiblical. We should always have faith that God is able to work miracles if God so chooses, but we should also be prepared to do the hard work which is necessary to bring about healing and restoration in the event that such miracles never take place in particular circumstances. If we are willing to be the instruments with whom the Holy Spirit brings healing into people’s lives, God will gladly use us in such a manner, to the mutual benefit of all concerned. When that happens, we will have fulfilled our responsibilities with regard to how we ought to respond to the reality of this sometimes-painful world in which we live.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Guv Is At It Again

Here's a link to the latest news about Illinois' governor, Rod Blagojevich. Apparently, he's been arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama's old senate position to the highest bidder. It's about time. Too bad they didn't arrest him earlier when he tried to deny pharmacists the right to act in accordance with their consciences, thereby denying them their constitutional rights insofar as freedom of religion was concerned.

There is no evidence to the effect that Barack Obama was in on Blagojevich's latest scheme. But anyone who genuinely thinks that Barack Obama hasn't been tainted by the corruption which runs rampant throughout the state of Illinois (in both political parties) is a master of self-deception, especially in light of the numerous sleazeballs with whom Obama has been associated during his brief political career.

As for the profanities with which Blagojevich's recent taped conversations were laced, we can expect a lot more of that type of thing in the Obama White House. Rahm Emanuel, for example, is known for his frequent use of such "salty" language. Word on the street is that he particularly loves using the "f word". That undoubtedly impresses the street thugs with whom he's been associated in the past, but people with more class are likely to long for a time when such behavior wasn't considered to be acceptable or professional.

Of course, that isn't to say that Democrats have a monopoly on bad behavior. Nixon, as we know, used foul language as well. And I confess that even I have used the "f word" a few times in my life --- usually when I was so furious that nothing else seemed to adequately express my anger. But I am not proud of having done so.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Global Warming, Bovine Flatulence and Related Matters

Last year, RedEye (published by the Chicago Tribune) published a cover story which reported that a major cause of "global warming" was flatulence from livestock, particularly cows. That topic has been widely covered on the web.

I just did a web search using the word "flatulence" and the phrase "global warming" and I got 112,000 results. That doesn't mean that it's true, of course, but it does suggest, at the very least, that a lot of people are talking about the issue. The fact that a reputable publication like the Chicago Tribune reported it as fact also suggests that people who believe in the aforementioned theory are not limited to members of the "lunatic fringe".

Here's a link to a rather humorous commentary which I happened to find when I randomly clicked on one of the links I got when I searched on the aforementioned terms. I thought that the part about the possibility of a "flatulence vaccine" which might theoretically cause massive bovine starvation was particularly thought provoking.

What if the use of the proposed "flatulence vaccine" results in the starvation of numerous cows (by making it impossible for them to digest their food properly), thereby killing them in a manner which (unlike normal animal husbandry) does not result in the creation of meat which is fit for human consumption? What if this results in a significant decrease in the amount of available protein with which to feed human beings? Will not the starvation of numerous human beings as a result of the decrease in available meat cause every bit as much human suffering as that which might theoretically be caused by global warming itself? Could the cure, in this case, be worse than the disease?

What if the vaccine doesn't work? Should we deliberately kill the cows ourselves and have a giant meat-a-thon in order to insure that the excess meat does not go to waste and that the cows have not died in vain? That would certainly be enjoyable for meat lovers, and it might also make sense from the standpoint of reducing the amount of gas caused by eating the beans with which vegans often compensate for the lack of animal protein in their diets, if such vegans could be induced to change their dietary habits. But that's highly unlikely. It's more likely that such a strategy would outrage the vegans, even though they make up a substantial portion of the liberals for whom belief in global warming is irrefutable dogma. So it seems to me that such liberals are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they are really serious about eliminating the global warming which ostensibly grieves them so, then the logical course of action is to encourage the killing and subsequent consumption of the sources of bovine flatulence --- but of course, they can't do that, because their opposition to the eating of meat is often motivated by the (ludicrous) belief that killing a cow for the purpose of eating it is as immoral as killing a human being. More immoral, in fact, when you consider that many of these same liberals endorse the killing of human beings, when those human beings happen to be unborn children (and, in some cases, newborn infants who have survived their parents' attempts to abort them).

I've always wondered what vegans think would happen to domestic cows, pigs and chickens if people all converted to the vegan lifestyle overnight. Do they honestly think that farmers would continue to feed their livestock, shelter such animals from the weather in their barns and chicken coops, and furnish those animals with excellent and expensive veterinary care? Where's the economic incentive for people to do such things, if they cannot eventually get a reasonable return on their investment by killing the animals and selling the meat and poultry to people who want to eat such food? As far as I can see, there is none. Farmers don't provide care to their animals for noble, altruistic reasons. They do it because they can turn a profit, and because there is a market for meat.

If indeed farmers ceased to provide care for their cows and pigs and chickens, what alternatives would such animals have? Well, we could theoretically release them into the wild, where it is highly likely that most of them would perish (as a result of predation, starvation or disease), on account of the fact that they are poorly adapted for the purpose of fending for themselves.

That's assuming, of course, that we could do so without causing serious environmental damage in the process. Maybe there are people who can honestly picture a world in which feral cows and pigs and chickens compete with wild animals such as moose and caribou and bears for the available space in wildlife sanctuaries such as Yellowstone Park, but I personally think that a person would have to be an idiot to see that as a viable option. Most likely, the wild predators living in such parks would feast on domestic farm animals until they were fully sated, and then most of the rest of the farm animals would slowly die from starvation and disease.

Admittedly, feral horses survived the experience of being released into the wild, and in fact, became the legendary "mustangs" of the west. But anyone who's ever observed a cow standing in the field, content to chew its cud and moo moronically all day long knows that there is a huge gap between cows and horses in terms of intelligence and independence. And while there may be those who insist that pigs are very "intelligent" creatures, I can't help but ask, "Intelligent in comparison with what?"

Besides, it's a well-known fact that hog farming causes harmful pollutants to run off into nearby streams and other water sources. Relocating those animals to places such as Yellowstone wouldn't eliminate that problem. Rather, it would merely insure the slow environmental destruction of our few remaining wilderness areas.

As for the mustangs, it should be pointed out that the total number of mustang horses now living is but a small fraction of the number of domestic animals currently receiving care from American farmers with a vested interest in the upkeep of such animals. (One website I just visited states that there are currently 7 billion livestock animals in the United States!) Yet, the Wikipedia listing for mustang horses states that the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) "considers 27,000 individuals a manageable number, but the feral Mustang population currently exceeds 33,000." If indeed those excess 6,000 mustangs are considered to be unmanageable, imagine the effects of turning 7 billion livestock animals loose in the wilderness! To say that this would cause chaos and unimaginable environmental damage would be an understatement.

There aren't enough zoos in the world to care for more than a tiny fraction of the domestic cows, pigs and chickens now living. So that isn't really a viable option, either, at least not in terms of preventing a huge reduction in the number of living domestic farm animals. It could prevent those species from becoming extinct altogether, but that's all.

Another option in such a scenario would be to simply kill (i.e., "euthenize") all farm animals, in a manner which would be incredibly wasteful since their meat would not be eaten. It's difficult to see why killing animals in such a manner would be any more "moral" than killing them for the purpose of eating them.

But perhaps I've overlooked one viable option. Perhaps vegans would propose that we simply refuse to allow animals to copulate and reproduce (or that we impose birth control measures on them in some manner), so that it would be possible to reduce or eliminate such animals over a relatively short period of time without the necessity of killing them. This would have the added benefit of eliminating the sources of flatulence from livestock, thereby eliminating their contribution to global warming.

While we're at it, we could also forcibly sterilize all of our wildlife, since wild animals fart, too.

And why stop at animals? People fart, too, especially if they limit themselves to vegetable sources of protein such as beans. It doesn't seem to bother most liberals that countries such as China employ forced sterilization for the purposes of keeping the birth rate down, so forced sterilization of human beings would be one additional way to substantially reduce the "greenhouse gases" caused by flatulence. Never mind that the "choices" which liberals claim to value so much would be severely curtailed. After all, eliminating greenhouse gas takes precedence over human liberty, right?

My point is that liberals tend to think with their emotions, not with their brains. They tend to argue against certain ingrained practices without giving much serious thought to the ramifications of their arguments.

Perhaps the biggest cause of unnecessary environmental gas is the gas liberals emit every time they open their mouths to speak. Such people would do well to worry much less about an alleged problem which, at worst, is only a potential threat to human lives --- namely, global warming --- and to worry far more about eliminating practices, such as legal abortion, which currently take millions of innocent human lives every year, day in and day out.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Be A Burden Bearer

What is the "law of Christ"? Do you know the answer?

Galatians 6:2 says the following:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
This is not a suggestion or a negotiable option, my fellow Christians. If we fail to bear one another's burdens, we fail to obey the law of Christ. Breaking the law of Christ is a very serious matter, notwithstanding the fact that we are saved by grace and not by the law. Doing so might be aptly described as a sin of omission.

How will people know that we are Christ's disciples? Because they see us going to church regularly? No. Because we preach or confess orthodox doctrines? No. Because we give a lot of money to the church? No.

In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." Love for one another is the mark of the true Christian disciple. Loving one another is not an option. It is a "new commandment" from Christ himself.

Bearing one another's burdens and loving one another in the biblical sense are synonymous. If you read I Corinthians 13, you'll see that "love," as defined in the Bible, is an action verb. It is not mere sentiment or emotion. Jesus doesn't just say that we should love one another. Jesus says that we should love one another as he has loved us. How does Jesus love us? With unconditional, self-sacrificial love which is willing, if necessary, to pay the ultimate price. Admittedly, that's a lot for Christ to ask of us. But it isn't a request. It's a command!

When I was a young Christian, I sometimes heard other Christians say things like, "I've really got a burden for (so and so)". Often, that burden would find expression in the form of frequent prayers for the person who was the object of the burden. (It wasn't always a burden for a specific person, of course. For example, it might be a burden for a particular nation in need of missionaries; or it might be a burden for a particular class of people, such as alcoholics or handicapped people or abused children.)

When Christians make such statements, it's usually a way of saying that they feel an intense moral obligation to bear the burdens of other people, just as the scriptures command. But Christians can also be burdened by their own problems, and they often are. When that's the case, it's incumbent on other Christians to help bear their burdens.

Sometimes praying for someone is really all that one can do, if one lacks the means with which to address a problem in any other way. But prayer alone is insufficient if one also has the means with which to partially or completely alleviate another Christian's burden. Prayer and action are not mutually exclusive.

Many needs go unmet in the Body of Christ, not because the means with which to meet those needs don't exist, but because of the selfishness of immature Christians who don't understand that they have moral responsibilities to one another.

In some cases, needs may also go unmet because such Christians are part of churches which place more value on external appearances than on internal realities. In such "happy face" churches, there is very little authenticity, and very little freedom to share one's burdens with others. In such churches, people who complain about their troubles and ask for help may be labeled as "whiners" instead of being treated with compassion. It's virtually impossible to bear another person's burdens if that person is inhibited by social expectations from telling other Christians about those burdens. Regarding other people's burdens, one has to be aware in order to bear.

What individual Christians can't always do on their own, they can often do collectively by combining their resources. That is one of the main justifications for the existence of "organized religion," as it has sometimes been called. Tragically, however, the institutional church often fails to use its resources in order to address real needs among the brethren. Instead, many church leaders seem more interested in building their own little kingdoms, at the expense of other Christians.

Unfortunately, there isn't much one can do directly in order to change that sorry state of affairs, other than to pray for such leaders and to boldly speak the truth to them regarding their responsibilities and their failure to take those responsibilities seriously. Beyond that, we must leave such things in the hands of the Lord.

However, even if we never succeed in our efforts to persuade church leaders to take their moral responsibilities seriously, we can also do something more; and indeed, we remain responsible for doing so.

We can take every opportunity to communicate directly with other Christians whenever we wish to make it known that we are willing to help others who need help.

We can also create options for Christians who find themselves in need of a means of bypassing the hierarchical barriers and negative church environments which have often prevented believers from communicating their needs directly with other believers, so that genuine ministry can take place whenever and wherever it's needed. We need not be licensed or ordained ministers in order to do such things. In fact, there are cases in which people who are not clergy are actually better qualified than the clergy to meet such needs.

To quote a saying which was popular in the sixties when I was growing up, "If you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem." I don't know about you, but I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I want to be a doer of the Word, not just a hearer of the Word.

For a long time, I've had some specific ideas about how to do just that, with respect to the needs which often go unmet in the Church. It occurred to me long ago that the real issue pertains to difficulties in communicating our needs with one another. The informal networks which often form at local churches are better than nothing in that regard, but there are times when such networks fall woefully short of meeting needs in particular situations. This is particularly true in very small and/or very poor churches where there are very few resources available to the congregations, but even the largest and most prosperous local churches have their limits.

What is needed, it seems to me, is a means of communicating directly with large numbers of fellow believers, in a timely and rapid manner, without having to filter such communications through local church leaders or to meet with their approval. In the interest of maximizing the probability of success, such a method of communication must transcend the boundaries of individual churches, geographical areas and church denominations. By definition, that requires the creation and sustenance of a "parachurch" ministry.

You would correctly think that it was a dysfunctional family if you visited your neighbors and discovered that brothers and sisters living within that household had to ask permission from their parents every time they wished to speak with one another. It is equally dysfunctional when such ecclesiastical red tape hinders communications within the church, which is also known as "the family of God".

Some pastors would argue that there is nothing stopping individual Christians from speaking with each other on a one-on-one basis, and they would usually be correct. But speaking with people one-on-one can be a very, very time-consuming and inefficient method of communication, particularly in cases where one's own circle of intimate friends is very limited. So such communication simply isn't adequate for every situation.

My proposed solution is the creation of a newsletter, to be published and distributed inexpensively online, to be known as Body Power News.

As the title suggests, Body Power News (BPN) would consist, in part, of news from churches and from individual members of the Body of Christ, regardless of their denomination or local church or geographical location.

The objective would be to empower the Body of Christ; hence, the "power" part of the name of the publication. BPN would naturally be beneficial to all local churches and the leaders of such churches, because it would enable them to regularly publicize the activities at their local churches in a manner which would be accessible to other Christians throughout a given city, region, state or nation.

But Body Power News would also feature classified ads, supported by the donations of those who felt blessed by the numerous benefits offered by BPN, which would enable a diverse array of individual Christians to publicize a wide variety of needs and opportunities for ministry. (Properly understood, every need is an opportunity for ministry!)

What kind of needs could be met by means of ads and articles published by Body Power News? Any needs whatsoever, provided that they could be justified within the framework of a Christian worldview. People would be free to run the same types of ads they might run in secular classified ad publications or on classified ad websites such as CraigsList, for example. If they had items they wished to sell or buy, they would be free to use BPN for that purpose.

But that would not be the primary justification for the existence of Body Power News. Unlike CraigsList or the classified ad sections in city newspapers, BPN would offer opportunities to publicize needs or opportunities in a manner which would maximize the chances of success by focusing on readers who professed to know and love Jesus Christ.

Christians specifically looking for Christian roommates, for example, could certainly publicize such needs via CraigsList or local newspapers, but they would have a much better chance of reaching the specific types of people they wished to reach if they could also run such ads in a Christian publication specifically optimized for the purpose of reaching members of the Body of Christ.

Christians seeking employment or volunteer opportunities in fields pertaining to ministry would find Body Power News to be indispensible. The same could be said for companies and organizations seeking ministry-oriented employees and volunteers.

Christians seeking to share rides with other Christians (to concerts in distant cities, for instance) could publicize their needs for such rides via Body Power News.

In these days of extremely high gas prices, many people seek to form car pools in order to reduce the expenses of traveling to and from work, and also in order to reduce the pollution from their automobiles. Wouldn't it be great to form car pools in which one's fellow travelers were all Christian believers, so that one could productively use such unavoidable travel times for the purpose of fellowship based on common values, instead of wasting time on idle talk about trivia? Body Power News would make it a lot easier to organize such car pools.

Christian musicians seeking to form bands and musical ensembles could advertise for other Christian musicians with whom to collaborate; and they would not be limited to the musicians they met at their own local churches. Christian musicians could also publicize upcoming concerts and new CD releases and more, using BPN. They could buy, sell and trade music instruments and other necessary equipment using their BPN ads. They could publicize the need for space for rehearsals and for individual practice sessions, using those same ads.

Christians wishing to form parachurch ministries of various types (such as Christian coffeehouses, homeless shelters and much more) could publicize their vision for such ministries via ads in Body Power News.

Christian bloggers could invite other people to visit their blogs and become part of ongoing conversations facilitated by those blogs, using ads in BPN.

Christians could organize Bible studies, prayer meetings, picnics and many other types of events, using BPN, in a manner which would reach all of the Christians (whether those Christians attended their own churches or not) within close physical proximity of their homes or places of business.

Christian parents seeking baby sitters could run ads for such sitters in Body Power News, if they sought to maximize the chances that their children would be cared for by people who shared their moral values.

Christian landlords could seek new tenants via ads in Body Power News, thereby minimizing the likelihood that the people who rented apartments or business properties from them would lead lifestyles which could be injurious to their properties or reputations.

Christian singles wishing to meet other compatible Christian singles could run personal ads in Body Power News, knowing that the vast majority of the people viewing their ads would be fellow believers. Christian singles' ministries could likewise publicize their activities in a manner which could attract people from throughout the city or region, rather than being limited to the people they could reach by placing ads in the church bulletin.

Christians in need of emergency housing or legal help or financial assistance could publicize urgent or desperate needs in a manner which would reach the maximum number of fellow believers in a timely manner. Likewise, church leaders who were made aware of such needs could run ads on behalf of such people as one means of obtaining the resources with which to meet the needs of the members of their congregations more effectively. (If necessary, they could do so without embarrassing the people in need of help, by omitting the names of those people.)

Display ads could also be offered, for a modest charge, to people wishing to publicize their businesses, organizations and ministries in a manner which would specifically reach members of the Body of Christ.

These are just a few of the many options which would be available to the readers of Body Power News. I invite you to use your imagination in order to come up with your own ideas about how YOU could use Body Power News!

In the past, the cost of creating such a publication in printed form and then distributing the publication throughout a given region would have been very high. But thanks to the power of the Internet, that cost is now extremely small.

Body Power News could be distributed in the form of PDF documents which would be regularly updated and uploaded to a website, where the documents could be downloaded and printed for free. The primary costs associated with creating such a publication would be the administrative costs associated with paying someone to create the publication, publicize the existence of the publication, solicit news stories from local churches, input and edit the ads and articles, convert the publication to PDF format, upload it to the website, and so forth.

I have all the skills which would be needed in order to perform those duties. In addition, I have a real passion for the project, because I understand just how badly it is needed.

In addition to the PDF publication, I also envision a parallel option which would consist of an online community bulletin board or forum, so that late breaking news and situations could be addressed immediately rather than having to wait until the next edition of the PDF publication. Such a community could be created with content management software such as Joomla or Drupal, or with bulletin board software such as phpBB. I have minimal experience with such open source software, but I do have web design experience and skills, and I've been told that all of the aforementioned solutions are fairly user-friendly, relying at least in part on easily available templates. (Even so, it couldn't hurt to get some volunteer help from someone who already has experience with such solutions.)

My hope is that I can raise the funds which I would need for the purpose of obtaining the necessary office space, computer equipment and other resources which would be needed in order to turn this vision into a reality. In addition, I really believe that I could perform such tasks most effectively if I performed the numerous tasks associated with such a project as a paid staff person, rather than trying to squeeze such work into my free time while working for another company or while looking for employment. So raising money for my financial support would be crucial to the success of the project.

Body Power News is only a small part of my vision, which also encompasses all aspects of the Christian Arts Initiative, which I will describe in more detail in the near future. Meanwhile, I would suggest that you visit my website,, in order to get a better idea of how my passion for the arts fits into my overall vision.

If anything you've read in this blog post appeals to you, feel free to contact me via e-mail. My e-mail addresses are: mwp1212[AT] or mark_w_pettigrew[AT]

I look forward to hearing from you.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Everybody Hurts

A couple of days ago I walked into the nearby White Hen convenience store to pick up a cup of coffee. There was a song playing on the radio, by the band R.E.M. (It might have been the original version, or it might have been a cover version by another band or musician. I’m not sure.) The song was entitled “Everybody Hurts”.

Later, I found the complete lyrics to the song via a Web search. Here are those lyrics:
When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone,
When you're sure you've had enough of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go, 'cause everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes.

Sometimes everything is wrong. Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone, (hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go, (hold on)
When you think you've had too much of this life, well hang on.

'Cause everybody hurts. Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts. Don't throw your hand. Oh, no. Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone, no, no, no, you are not alone.

If you're on your own in this life, the days and nights are long,
When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on.

Well, everybody hurts sometimes,
Everybody cries. And everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes. So, hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on
Everybody hurts. You are not alone.
As I listened to the song, I felt as if God was speaking to me through that song. You can take that however you want to take it. You probably won’t be wrong.

Regarding the need to “hold on,” I’m trying to take the advice contained in the song, even though it isn’t easy, and even though it’s hard to “take comfort in your friends” when one feels as if there are very few people who genuinely fit that description.

Of course, God is the ultimate friend. (“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”)

But people still need the love and support of other people. They need to feel as if they can share their burdens without being condemned (or, in some cases, incarcerated) for doing so. They need to be able to believe that a brighter day is coming.

Such a belief is far more plausible when people offer help in practical ways, not just in terms of lip service.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Celebrity Sightings in Chicago

On Friday night, I went over to the nearby hostel, after using the computers here at the library, in order to use the phone there. (The hostel is just a block south and a block east of the Harold Washington Library, and there are also dormitories there for Columbia College students.) After using the phone, I walked next door to a small cafe known as Cafecito, in order to get myself a cup of coffee before going home. As I was sitting there sipping my coffee and going through my To Do lists, I looked across from where I was sitting and spotted a face which looked strangely familiar, even though I couldn't put my finger on who it was or where I'd seen the face. Then I suddenly realized (or thought that I realized) who it was. "It's that guy from the Lord of The Rings!" I thought to myself. "None other than Dominic Monaghan, who played Pippin, and who rode atop the shoulders of Treebeard on the way to defeat the evil wizard Saruman!"

I thought about going up to him and introducing myself. I even thought about how I might possibly capitalize on the rare opportunity to meet one of the stars of one of the most successful movies in the history of the Academy Awards. I considered giving him the web address for the web page which showed my pen & ink drawings, with the idea that I would offer to create a similar portrait for him if he'd sent me a photo. But I never got up the courage, and after a while, he stood up, along with the other folks in his entourage, and walked out of Cafecito.

It's a good thing that I didn't introduce myself to him by calling him Mr. Monaghan. As it turns out, Monaghan was the other hobbit who rode astride Treebeard. The guy I saw was Billy Boyd, who played Peregrin Took, also known as Pippin. So I was right about the name of his character, but wrong about his real name. (Meriadoc Brandybuck, a/k/a Merry, was the name of the character played by Dominic Monaghan. I always did get those two guys confused!)

It would have been a bit embarrassing to call Mr. Boyd by the wrong name when introducing myself. Almost as embarrassing as the time when I met musician Todd Rundgren at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston years ago. There was a computer fair there, and Rundgren was one of the first musicians to embrace the Apple computer as a means of creating animations for his videos. He was just sitting there by himself, so I walked over and said, "Excuse me, are you Todd Rundgren?" He affirmed that he was, to which I replied, "I thorta sought so!" Yes, you read that correctly. I meant to say, "I sorta' thought so," but the words came out wrong. It wasn't as if Rundgren was one of my idols or anything. His tunes were nice in their own way, but I was a much bigger fan of Christian rock musicians such as Larry Norman. But people sometimes make fools of themselves when they're in the presence of celebrities, for no other reason than the fact that they know that such people are celebrities.

Fortunately, I've usually acquitted myself more admirably in such circumstances. Not that I've met a huge number of celebrities in my lifetime (unless one counts the numerous well-known Christian musicians I've met as a result of my strong interest in Christian music). Unlike Los Angeles, Chicago isn't just swimming with famous actors. But there is a movie industry here of sorts --- certainly more than there was in my home town of Springfield, Missouri --- so one does see such people every now and then.

Here in Chicago, back in the 90's, I met and talked briefly with John Rhys-Davies, who was playing the part of Elliot Ness' sidekick in the modern TV adaptation of The Untouchables. He was in the ElekTek computer store when I was there, and we left the store at about the same time. I then followed outdoor signs to the Union Club, where they were filming that show that day. Later, I briefly met and talked with Tom Amandees, who was playing Elliot Ness in the show, between takes. I also watched them filming the episode quite a few times, before I got tired and left. Part of my conversation with Amandees took place when we were standing adjacent to one another at the urinals! (A similar conversation took place one day when I met Roger Ebert at the Borders next to the Chicago Water Tower. All in all, a strange place to have a conversation with a celebrity, but hey --- celebrities have to relieve themselves just like normal people.) John Rhys-Davies also played the bearded dwarf Gimli in The Lord of The Rings (after I met him), and he'd previously played an important role in the first Raiders of The Lost Ark movie.

I also saw John Mahoney, who played Kelsey Grammar's father on Frasier, one day when I was walking around out in Oak Park. (Mahoney is from Oak Park.) And I saw David Schwimmer from the TV show Friends one day, in the line in front of me at a nearby bagel place which is no longer there. (That was appropriate, since he's Jewish.) He was undoubtedly doing something in connection with the Looking Glass Theatre here in Chicago.

Of course, I also watched Nicholas Cage across Wabash from me as I worked for a very long day in the Loop as an extra for the movie The Weather Man. I'm even visible behind Cage in an actual scene from the movie. But it wasn't exactly a high point in my life. I thought that the finished movie was a pretty poor movie, particularly in terms of its gratuitous nudity (in a fairly explicit sex scene involving Cage and a woman to whom his character wasn't married), and in terms of the frequent unnecessary profanity.

Too bad I couldn't have been an extra in The Lord of The Rings! Now there was a movie! But they filmed it in New Zealand, not in Chicago. Chicago would have been a pretty lousy choice of locations for The Lord of The Rings.

Jesus Wept. Why Can't I?

In recent years, there have been changes in many American churches, with regard to how those churches and their leaders deal with people who are in crisis.

There was a time when people who were suicidally depressed were advised to consult with their pastors. There was a time when church leaders believed that they had moral responsibilities to such people. No more!

We are now living in the age of the "happy face" church. It's not about real ministry anymore. Now it's all about marketing and maximizing the number of people in attendance, even if doing so means marginalizing certain people and dismissing their very real needs as unimportant. It isn't good public relations for churches to admit that there are struggling people in their midst. Therefore, Christians who admit that they are less than perfect, and who admit that they have sometimes been depressed to the point that they have been tempted by thoughts of suicide, are shunned, even to the point that such churches sometimes refuse to engage in any further communication with such people. Never mind that such Christians may be struggling with a wide variety of issues, including poverty and persistent unemployment, as well as the shameful legacies of neglect passed on to them by their abusive alcoholic parents. There is no room for such people in the Church, unless of course they are extremely adept at burying their pain (in the name of "forgiveness") and pretending that all is well when it is not.

That's not the way things ought to be. The church leaders who have abdicated their responsibilities to such people ought to be deeply ashamed of their depraved indifference to such people. Pretending that suicidally depressed people do not exist within the Church will not make such people go away, but it may very well drive them over the brink and cause them to do the things they've contemplated doing. If and when such things occur, their blood will be on the hands of those who turned them away when they cried out in desperation for the help which they needed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Live Like You're Dyin'

Some time ago, I heard a country song by Tim McGraw. The title was "Live Like You Were Dying". The song talked about how important it is to do the important things in life while one still has the opportunity to do so, because one never knows when life will come to an end. I think that's good advice. Having lost quite a few family members and friends to death during the past couple of decades, I grow more and more aware of such things with each passing day.

One of the most important things to do in order to achieve closure in life is to thank the people who have treated one with kindness and Christian charity along the way. So I've decided to use this blog post for that purpose.

Truthfully, the list of those who have treated me badly in this life is a lot longer than the list of those who have treated me the way they ought to have treated me. I don't want to sound like a whiner, but that's my candid assessment of the situation.

There are also people who, due to their inconsistencies, would rightfully show up on both lists.

In either event, it isn't my job to punish people for the wrong things they've done. I can tell them how I feel about the things they've done, and I can tell them why I believe they should have acted differently; and I see nothing wrong with doing so. But God alone will judge people for their sins in a manner which is beyond contention. I have resolved in my mind that I will therefore leave final judgment up to God.

I don't want to be guilty of focusing solely on the negative aspects of my life, so I want to be sure that I acknowledge the positive things which have occurred in my life. I want to offer recognition to the people responsible for those things, even if they haven't always treated me with as much kindness as I felt I deserved.

For example, both of my parents have grievously hurt me in the past. But my mother and father also did some things right in terms of the way they raised me.

Many of my best moral values came from having spent many hours sitting on the front pew and listening to my father's sermons when he served as a lay minister in the Methodist church. He could have gotten drunk every weekend when I was a young child, choosing to live only for himself, but he did not do so. He did eventually deviate from his righteous lifestyle, which is why he was an alcoholic by the time of his death in 1999, but I am thankful for the early foundation which was provided by the good example which he did provide to me for a limited period of time. Dad could have been far more consistent in terms of the extent to which he demonstrated love and affection for me, but he also could have been far worse than he was in that respect. I'm also thankful for the fact that he was concerned about matters of basic justice, particularly with regard to racial issues. He expressed that concern by serving as a Chairman for the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights in Springfield, MO during the late sixties. I admired him greatly for taking a principled stand against racism. I aspired to be like him in that respect. I still do.

My mother was a very positive influence on my life insofar as issues of personal morality were concerned. Her constant messages in opposition to alcohol and drug abuse might have seemed like indoctrination or brainwashing to some people, but they helped me to resist temptation in spite of the fact that I grew up in the late sixties, when it seemed as if most people in my age group were doing drugs. The role Mother played in providing me with a strong foundation in traditional Christian values should not be underestimated. She also made a strong effort to insure that I grew up in a home where expressions of love were frequent, whether those expressions took the form of delicious cookies and other baked goods, or whether they took the form of hugs before I went to bed at night. And of course, there were plenty of other examples as well, especially during the Christmas season.

It should go without saying that my grandparents also did loving things for me during the time when I was growing up. I am especially grateful to my maternal grandparents for the strong moral foundation they provided to me, and for the fact that they often went out of their way to provide me with fun and memorable experiences when I visited them in their home in St. Louis.

Over the years, I have known a number of other people who have exhibited the love of Christ in practical ways. Some of them will have to go unnamed, because I have forgotten their names. For example, I am grateful to the numerous people who kindly offered rides to me when I hitchhiked from place to place during the seventies and eighties because I lacked adequate money for a reliable car of my own. On several occasions, people I met during those adventures even offered me a comfortable place to rest my head at night so that I would not have to sleep on the side of the road.

I have been helped on a number of occasions by people who have given me substantial monetary gifts when I badly needed such help, or who offered other forms of help which were equally useful. A partial list of those people would have to include the following: Andy Pratt, a Christian musician who helped me with a gift of $500 when I was living in the Boston area; pastor Jordan Greely, who allowed me to freely use the piano at his Jamaica Plain, MA church for practice purposes, when I was desperate for a place to play so that my skills would not deteriorate; Jon and Debby Speckman, who allowed me to live with them several months rent-free during a very stressful time in 1992 when I had nowhere else to go; Joseph Hollingsworth, who has offered me numerous opportunities to earn extra spending money by doing office work for him; Paul and CeCe Ellingsen, who offered me an opportunity to earn extra money by helping them to paint a room in their house last year; Pastor Donald Abrahamson, who helped me with $1,000 from the church's Benevolence Fund (in late 2005) when I was facing possible eviction; Kenny Kissane, a fellow Christian blogger from the East Coast, who sent me $60 back in 2007 when I needed help; Jim and Marg Rehnberg, who offered a substantial monetary gift of $600 to me back in 2007, when I needed that gift in order to avoid eviction (and who also gave me the opportunity to earn additional money by helping Marg to paint her art studio); Chris Shannon, who gave me $800 in early 2008; my mother, who helped me financially last spring with a gift of $1,000, and with another gift of $300; Dywen Lauren, a Christian woman from Perth Australia, who sent me an incredibly generous gift of $2,000 even though she'd never met me face to face. I've tried to be reasonably complete, but there may be people who I've left off of the list, not out of lack of gratitude, but simply because my memory is less than perfect. (And, in one case, because a man who donated $500 to me in 2005 expressed a strong desire for anonymity.)

It's been said that it's more blessed to give than to receive, and I agree that that's the case. I've tried to be generous with my own resources during times in my life when I was presented with needs and when I was able to help. I picked up countless hitchhikers during the seventies and eighties, because I knew what it was like to need a ride, and I wanted to give as good as I got, even though it meant taking some risks. I once invited a guy I'd never met before to sleep overnight in my apartment in West Somerville, MA because he had no other place to sleep. And I have helped needy people with small financial donations on occasions. But I haven't been able to help people as often as I would have preferred, simply because I didn't have the resources with which to do so. That has been a disappointment to me.

I am not a self-centered person, or at least I don't think that I am, but I have had goals as a musician and artist, and those goals have involved the need to acquire expensive equipment which was, for the most part, beyond my reach financially. In some cases, I've experienced extended periods of unemployment (or, in some cases, underemployment), not because I didn't want to work, but because my search for a good job was not successful. That fact has influenced the level of generosity I've been able to exhibit in my own life. I know that God understands that I would have done more to help others if I could have done more. I also know that he understands that one of the reasons I want to prosper more in the future is so that I will need help from other people less frequently (if at all), and so that I can have the resources which I need in order to be as generous to others as I would like to be.

I don't know how much more time I have on this earth. God alone knows the measure of a man's life. But regardless of whether my remaining time here is long or short, I want to make certain that when I face my Maker, I will be able to honestly say that I was appreciative of the good things people did for me, and I want to be able to say that I was grateful for God's provision for my needs on those occasions when he provided for my needs.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

When Prayer Is A Cop-Out

Prayer is an integral part of the life of any Christian believer, or at least it ought to be. I would be the last person to suggest that prayer is unimportant. But even prayer can be abused.

Let's say, for example, that a person comes to you and tells you that his house is burning down and he needs someone to come and help him to put out the fire. Here are some possible ways that you might respond to him:

"Brother, I've prayed about it, and God has told me that I haven't been called to perform that particular task. But don't worry. I'll pray that you'll soon find someone who will help you to put out the fire, before your house burns down to the ground and kills the children still trapped inside. Trust in God, brother --- trust in God."

"Show me what you want me to do, and I'll do it right now, before you lose your home and your children."

Now, it ought to be clear to anyone with a brain or an ounce of compassion that the second option is the correct response. To respond in a manner comparable to the first option is despicable, no matter how religious one's language might be. Yet, I have found that there are many people who claim to believe in Christ who typically respond to crises in a manner analogous to Option One, not to Option Two. My own cries for help have met with such responses on multiple occasions. Thankfully, I've also known a few people who responded in a more appropriate manner, but such people have been far too rare in my experience.

Christians ought to spend more time reading the biblical book of James (particularly James 2:14-17) and meditating on its significance. While it is true that we are saved by our faith in Christ, and not by our good works, it is equally true that faith is useless if it is not accompanied by good works. It is an incredibly poor witness to neglect to use the resources which are available to us when presented with needs which could easily be met if only we were less self-centered and inflexible.

None of this is to say that people do not have legitimate limits. God doesn't expect the impossible from us. But God does expect us to do everything we can do to help those in need, instead of making lame excuses and then "spiritualizing" those excuses by using language which suggests that God endorses our apathy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good and Bad Things About Megachurches

Some of my earliest memories pertain to the tiny country churches where my father, a professional optometrist, served as a Methodist "lay minister" (back in the sixties, shortly before a merger caused that denomination to change its name to the United Methodist Church). There really weren't many "megachurches" in those days, if any, but even by the standards of that time period, the churches where my father preached were incredibly small churches.

Over the years, I've watched as local churches have developed and expanded, to the point that some of them now have to meet in sports arenas or in buildings of comparable size. Or they may have four or five church services every Sunday. Or they may have numerous "satellite" churches which serve various communities throughout the city. Or all of the above, in some cases.

On one level, I think it's great that there are churches which have experienced that level of success. There are definite benefits associated with such growth, such as the fact that larger churches have considerably more resources with which to put on presentations which can compete in terms of quality (to some extent) with the secular concerts and other events which increasingly compete for the attention of their friends and neighbors. I think there's a lot more that could be done in order to achieve that goal (particularly in terms of remuneration of the musicians and others who are involved with such presentations, so that those people can afford music instruments and other related expenses which will enable them to achieve their full potential), but there's no question that the presentations already being offered at many megachurches are extremely impressive in comparison with the types of presentations which were once common in traditional churches.

In theory, such churches should also have far more resources with which to deal with crises (particularly economic crises) which affect the lives of their members. Unfortunately, the theory doesn't always match the reality.

That's just one aspect of the megachurch phenomenon which bothers me tremendously. Another aspect is the tendency of the leaders of such churches to develop supersized egos which can make it very difficult for them to humbly accept criticism. This can lead to some abusive situations, some of which have been documented in several well-known books.

There are different levels of abuse, of course. Most churches don't become as abusive as the infamous cult which was led by Jim Jones, and which led to the mass suicide of most of his followers at Jonestown in Guyana. But even lower levels of abuse can lead to a substantial diminution of the pleasure which ought to be associated with being involved in a church.

When I use the word "pleasure" here, I should hasten to specify that I am not talking about worldly or carnal pleasure. I am talking about the legitimate satisfaction which comes from believing that one is genuinely loved by one's fellow Christians. I am talking about the satisfaction which comes from believing that God is using one's association with other local believers in order to accomplish his purpose on earth. People who attend churches which are devoid of those types of pleasure and satisfaction are being cheated out of what is rightfully theirs. No one should go to church solely for the purpose of receiving benefits, but it is equally true that no one should feel more drained and dissatisfied after leaving church than they felt before they came.

Megachurches also tend to foster a sense of isolation and distance from one's leaders, and that sense of isolation further exacerbates the tendency to place such leaders on a pedastal. No one should feel intimidated by the thought of inviting his or her pastor to dinner, but some Christians do indeed feel that way. A certain amount of delegation is necessary in any large church, but it can become excessive. When one has to get on a waiting list and wait for several months in order to sit down and have a personal discussion with the lead pastor of one's church, then something is seriously wrong with that church. There is a difference between a preacher and a pastor, and one of those differences is that a pastor is accessible!

In megachurches, it's easy for people in leadership positions to get the attitude that they have no real need to resolve conflicts or address problems within those churches, because it's no big deal if people leave on a regular basis because they're dissatisfied with the way that they're being treated. After all, there are always new people where those people came from. It's like there's a revolving door on many megachurches. If you dare to voice a complaint or criticism, you're likely to hear a subtle version of the old statement, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!" People with unusual needs are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing. Such people are often denied a voice because their needs are considered unimportant relative to the needs of the majority of those who are relatively satisfied with the status quo.

Is it possible for a church (or a parachurch ministry) to experience phenomenal growth without becoming impersonal and insensitive to the needs of all of its members? Yes, I believe that such a thing is possible, but it's uncommon. It requires leaders who actively cultivate personal humility, and who guard against the temptations which are inherent in such growth by resolutely determining that their churches will not become victims of their own success.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How To Listen To The Critics

Regardless of the choices one makes in life, one is bound to come into conflict sooner or later with people who think that one ought to have made different choices. In his song "Garden Party," Ricky Nelson acknowledged that such was the case. He responded with this astute observation: "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."

I would agree, but I would add that pleasing one's self is less important than pleasing the God who made you.

Recently, megachurch pastor Joel Osteen astutely wrote, "I tell people all the time that when you are doing what God wants you to do, there will be people who will criticize you in a destructive way in hopes of destroying your purpose. It is important to listen to God's voice and not to those whose intention is to pull you away from your God-given destiny."

I don't agree with everything Osteen does or says. I tend to agree with those who say that he sometimes needlessly soft-pedals the more negative aspects of the Christian message in an effort to market the message of the Church to people who can't handle the complete truth. Nevertheless, I think that Joel Osteen is absolutely correct with regard to the substance of the preceding quotation.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that people sometimes confuse their own bad ideas with the voice of God, and it should likewise be acknowledged that God sometimes speaks to people through other people. Therefore, we all need to be humble enough to seriously consider the merits of all suggestions and criticisms, rather than automatically becoming defensive and rejecting such suggestions and criticisms.

Also, regarding Osteen's comment about "intentions," I don't think that we should automatically assume evil intentions on the part of people who criticize us. Even when their criticisms are flawed, our critics may still be motivated by good intentions. Unless we have substantive reasons to believe that their intentions are malevolent, we ought to try to give our critics the benefit of the doubt insofar as their intentions are concerned, since that's the way we would wish to be treated.

However, we ought not to automatically assume that all criticisms of our ideas and plans are valid, any more than we ought to assume that such criticisms are not valid. This is particularly true when our ideas and plans pertain to ministries which have the potential to substantially advance the Kingdom of God. Satan loves to discourage people from doing things which have the potential to undermine his destructive activities. And even godly men can sometimes unwittingly become tools of the devil in particular circumstances. (You may recall, for example, that Jesus replied with the words, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" when Peter tried to discourage Jesus from going to Jerusalem, knowing that crucifixion was the fate which awaited him there. Remember, Peter was the man destined to become the "rock" on which the Church would be built! If the devil can use Peter in order to undermine the work of God, he can use anyone for that purpose!)

Often, when people are criticized for ideas which ought to be embraced, the problem is simply that such critics lack vision. One of the most difficult aspects of being a visionary, I have found, is the frustration which comes from having to deal with people who lack vision. Sometimes such people fail to perceive the needs which one perceives. At other times, they perceive the needs, but they fail to perceive their responsibilities to help to meet those needs.

What makes it particularly difficult to deal with such people is that some things which badly need to be done can only be done with the enthusiastic help and cooperation of others. It can be very frustrating to feel as if one's hands are tied, on account of one's inability to persuade others who are in a position to make a real difference that one's ideas are worthy of support.

The problem of garnering support for new and visionary ideas is compounded by the existence of numerous people who presumptuously and falsely assume that lack of prior support for particular ideas automatically means that those ideas lack merit.

History refutes that idea. In the life of every invention, innovation and breakthrough, there is often a period of time, in the earliest stages, when the idea is embraced only by a handful of people --- or in some cases, by just one individual. Precisely because their ideas are sometimes ahead of their time, society's visionaries are often forced to endure numerous rounds of rejection by people who lack vision, prior to finally finding enough help and support to enable such visionaries to prove that their critics were wrong.

I am discussing these things, in part, because of negative feedback which I received a while ago by someone who was made aware of my vision for a ministry to be known as the Christian Arts Initiative. (I quoted that criticism in a previous blog post.) It was clear to me that his criticism was based on a couple of major factors:

First, he didn't perceive the need for the ministry which I'd envisioned. He was happy, it seems, with the status quo, insofar as the relationship between the church and the arts was concerned. He thought that the Christian ministries which already existed were doing an adequate job of promoting the arts in such a way as to counter the negative influences of artistically talented but godless people.

I personally think one would have to live a very sheltered life to think that way, but I suppose that I can understand why he might think that way nevertheless. After all, he is not an artist himself, so he probably hasn't spent much time acquainting himself with the numerous examples of depravity which are abundantly evident in secular or "mainstream" culture. It's hard to get a burden with regard to a particular problem if one isn't aware that the problem exists. Secondly, he probably doesn't have firsthand knowledge of the daily struggles experienced by people who, having sacrificed certain economic opportunities which are available to less principled people, have very few viable options in terms of being able to earn the money with which to purchase or pay for the resources they need in order to achieve what they're capable of achieving.

Second, my critic argued that the principles of political conservatism (to which we both subscribe, at least in part) were inherently opposed to the goal of helping struggling artists. Clearly, his definition of "conservatism" was different from mine. He couldn't seem to grasp the idea that the arts play a vital role in shaping the values of the members of any society, so he seemed to be equally unable to grasp the idea that one of the best ways to promote a particular ideology or belief is to support and empower like-minded people to use their artistic talents for the purpose of promoting that ideology or belief.

It's hard not to respond with a measure of anger when obstinately obtuse individuals such as the aforementioned critic stand in the way of doing what needs to be done. But I suppose that occasional rejection is just part of the process of launching new visionary projects. Sometimes anger is an appropriate response (as Jesus demonstrated in his response to the travesties perpetrated by the money changers in the Temple), but there are also times when anger is counterproductive. Sometimes the best response is to shake the dust off one's feet and move on with one's life. Perseverance and tenacity are as important as great ideas when it comes to the character traits which are necessary in order to insure the eventual success of those ideas.

Such traits don't come easily, though, especially for discouraged people who have been knocked down time and time again. These are the issues with which I am dealing in my own personal life.

One needs to be open to the possibility that one's critics may be right, but one also needs to have enough self-confidence to defy one's critics when one is honestly unpersuaded by their arguments. That's a difficult balance to achieve. It requires humility, self-awareness and courage in equal amounts.

That, it seems to me, is where faith comes in. To avoid being overcome by discouragement and depression, one must have faith in the belief that worthy ideas will eventually find a home, even if that doesn't necessarily happen in one's own lifetime.

It also helps to know and believe that God only requires that we do our best. The question of whether or not we succeed is a separate matter altogether. Success is never guaranteed when we obey God, but we must do so nevertheless, knowing that God's criticisms are ultimately the only criticisms which count for anything.

Some Thoughts About Labels

When it comes to convenience, labels can't be beat. They help us to organize items according to categories and to find what we're looking for more easily.

When one visits a local book store, the products aren't scattered randomly throughout the store. They're organized and labeled according to categories, such as Science Fiction, History, Romance, Art, Music and so forth. The same thing is true in record stores. There are sections for Rock, R&B, Country, Folk, Classical, Jazz and so forth. For shoppers, it's usually a big time saver for things to be organized and marketed that way.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one's point of view), some things aren't so easily categorized. Was Miles Davis a jazz musician? Undoubtedly. But it could also be argued that his later albums could be categorized as rock music as well. Music by people such as Linda Ronstadt and Charlie Daniels could be described as country music or rock music, and I've seen their music in both sections in various record stores. (In the Midwest, I saw their music in the Rock sections at various record stores. Later, when I moved to New England in the 80's, I found their records in the Country music sections. It was the same exact music, but it was perceived differently in different parts of the United States.)

Labels can be useful, but they can also be very limited, and very limiting. A musician such as Neil Young, whose output has ranged from country music to electronic music, can't be easily described by any single label. Often, the label which is applied to a musician or a visual artist or a writer is whatever label was attached to that person at the beginning of his or her career, even if the label subsequently becomes very inaccurate when used to describe that person's most recent creations.

Often, artistic people end up creating rehashed versions of earlier material rather than exploring fresh territory, because they're afraid that if they stray too far from their roots, they'll lose their existing fans while running the risk that they won't acquire any new ones (or not enough new ones, at any rate, to sustain their careers economically). Sometimes they are pressured by their record companies, publishers, etc. to play it safe, and they eventually become parodies of themselves.

Labels can also be limiting from the standpoint of the intellectual growth and maturity of consumers. This can be seen particularly in terms of the changes which took place in radio broadcasting during the 80's and beyond. In the sixties, when I was growing up, one could tune into a Top 40 music station and hear a wide variety of music styles. A single Top 40 station would often play tunes by artists which included the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Fifth Dimension, Al Hirt and the Tijuana Brass, Antonio Carlos Jobim (e.g., "The Girl from Ipanema"), Glen Campbell, Carole King, Iron Butterfly and more. I won't say that things weren't stylistically categorized at all back in those days, but I will say that things became a lot more compartmentalized once broadcasters discovered a little thing known as demographics.

These days, it's very unusual to find a radio station which will play tunes representing a wide variety of styles, including folk rock, heavy metal, pop music, rhythm and blues, jazz fusion, blues, hip hop and much more. It's far more common for stations to cater to fans of specific subgenres. The problem with that approach is that it tends to promote narrow minds and immature people. People grow when they're exposed to new things, even if they don't like everything that they hear or see or read.

The preceding statements mostly relate to the arts (and to music in particular), but they're equally applicable to other facets of life. Take politics, for example. It's very difficult to find people who have enough confidence in their own judgment to assess issues on the basis of their own merits, instead of being swayed by a bandwagon mentality. Such a mentality is caused, in part, by limited exposure to people with differing opinions. I've especially seen the effects of such insularity here in Chicago, where the domination of popular opinion by the Democratic party is nearly monolithic. It's common for people to associate the term "provincialism" with smaller towns and rural areas, but the reality is that big cities in "blue states" such as Illinois can be just as provincialistic, and their citizens can be (and often are) just as uninformed and narrow-minded. I say this as a person who has spent a considerable amount of time in both types of environment.

Fortunately, there are also some Americans who dare to think for themselves. For instance, Newsweek magazine recently published a letter from William Wright of Antioch, Tennessee (on page 23 of the November 10, 2008 issue). Apparently, Mr. Wright doesn't like to be defined or limited by conventional political labels. Here's his letter:
The whole liberal-versus-conservative thing, the us-versus-them mentality, serves no useful purpose but to keep divide-and-conquer politicians in power. Why not judge each issue on its own merits? As for me, I'm an atheist pro-lifer who supports gay marriage and the right to bear arms. That makes me an American.
Personally, I'm more of a stereotypical conservative than Mr. Wright. I'm a Christian pro-lifer who opposes gay marriage and supports the right to bear arms. But my views aren't stereotypical in every respect. I oppose the death penalty (for reasons which are somewhat different from the reasons often cited by liberals), and I was granted legal status as a conscientious objector when my draft board called upon me in 1974. (My views on war have become slightly more moderate over the years, but I am still proud of the stand I took at that time, and I still believe that America needs to make a much stronger effort to promote peace and avoid war.)

One of the problems with labels is that they make it easy for people to dismiss one's views without giving them a serious hearing. One of the things which caused me to become more passionate about my pro-life commitments was that I resented being dismissed in that manner by people who falsely assumed, on the basis of those commitments, that they knew everything else about me. I read a tract, published by a pro-abortion group (or a "pro-choice" group, as they would prefer to describe themselves) falsely claiming that "right to lifers" were universally in favor of war and capital punishment. It was a form of argumentum-ad-hominem, and it made me more aware of a wide variety of specious arguments frequently being made in favor of legalized abortion. (Over the years, nothing much has changed in that regard. Most of those lame arguments are still being repeated by abortion supporters today, with little or no real thought being given to the implications of those arguments.)

It's ironic, it seems to me, that liberals who practically make a religion out of respect for "diversity" are so often unwilling to acknowledge the diversity which exists in this country when it comes to issues such as abortion. Pretending that all pro-life people are clones of one another makes it easier for such people to dismiss our arguments without considering or addressing the substance of those arguments.

I understand why this sort of thing takes place. People often find that it is necessary for them to establish political alliances in order to get things accomplished. Such alliances do generally have characteristics which can be analyzed and summarized. As a rule, political conservatives do tend to share certain common characteristics, as do political liberals. It isn't wrong to acknowledge those shared characteristics, provided that one is willing to acknowledge the exceptions and to evaluate issues based on their own merits, even if doing so means being willing to defy conventional wisdom and to openly take a stand against the prevailing views of the group to which one belongs. Even though labels can sometimes be useful, we need to learn to look beyond the labels if we want to obtain a completely accurate understanding of reality, whether one is talking about music, politics or any other facet of life.