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.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No One Is Expendable

One of the Bible stories which made a big impression on me when I was a child pertained to the idea that Christ cares for every single individual, no matter how insignificant that person might be considered to be by other people. The following excerpt is from Matthew 18:12-13:
How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
In context, the preceding verse pertained specifically to children, and more specifically, to those who have strayed from the truth --- but I believe that it is equally applicable to all human beings, since the scriptures make it clear elsewhere that God loved the entire world, and died so that the entire world might be saved.

The general principle which is behind the preceding verse is that God does not regard any human being as unimportant, unloved or expendable.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of modern American society, or even of the Church.

Perhaps one of the most potent examples of the chasm between God's attitude towards human beings and the wrongful attitude of fallen human beings can be seen in the way that we treat the poor, or in the way that we treat people who seem to be lacking in qualities we regard as essential for full "personhood," such as retarded or disabled people or unborn children.

Even in churches which are conservative with regard to issues such as abortion, there is often a distinct lack of love for those who are considered to be more trouble than they're worth. I personally have felt as if I was regarded as unimportant and expendable by numerous churches and their leaders, on the occasions when my personal circumstances put me into a position of needing to ask for help from my fellow believers. I can attest to the fact that it is incredibly painful to be treated in such a manner.

Just as the Declaration of Independence says that "all men are created equal," the Bible teaches us that "God is no respecter of persons." All people are equally valued and loved by God, even though they sometimes fall short of God's glory. When churches and their leaders treat people in discriminatory ways (whether the discrimination is based on race or on any number of other factors), they nullify their witness to a watching world by misrepresenting God's attitude towards the human beings God has created.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Message From An Old "Friend"

A while back, I received the following message in the form of a comment for one of the posts on this blog:
Mark, I'm probably wasting my time here, but what the heck. I knew you long ago and stumbled on to one of your blogs a few years ago and have checked in once in a while ever since. I guess I'm writing to encourage or at least prod you into doing something to get OFF the train wreck that has been your life so far.

The 70s are over and it might be time to grow up a bit. There are a lot of grown ups who minister for a living and I'd like to encourage you to join them before it's too late. You are 50-some years old and what have you accomplished? I'm a business man who can tell you your dream for the Christian Artist thing is not going to happen. There are plenty of ways that Christian Artists can sell their goods in the marketplace and many people have made good businesses of it. I share your conservative politics and they are in direct conflict with the idea of fundraising for starving artists. Sorry. You haven't gotten it off the ground for years because it's a bad idea. It's a business plan that will interest nobody.

Mark, I'm not writing to be cruel or sarcastic (like many I've watched you spar with). I'm just hoping this will be one of those voices from out of the blue that make you think about THINKING in a different direction, a direction that could make you a happier person. It's not like I think you should alter your faith, which is well grounded. Alter your attitude and your approach to life. At least consider it.

Here is what perplexes me. You are most certainly a man with many talents. You have extraordinary musical gifts. You are very articulate, creative, intelligent and a pretty darn good writer. Why in the name of common sense are you not employed in a ministry? Good grief man, go to Carol Stream, or Moody or Colorado or Texas. There are hundreds of ministries who could use your talents, yet I've never heard you mention working for any of them. Get IN the game Mark, instead of just commenting from the sidelines. I've worked for ministries and I can tell you, the people can be miserable (like EVERYWHERE else), but your product is worthy. Imperfect perhaps, but WORTHY.

I don't want to hurt you and what I say, I say because I think it's true. I could be wrong, but take it as an idea or just a whack on the side of the head. I'm not sure why, but you seem to have always been a difficult person to get along with. Your writings are filled with stories of those who have not agreed with you or who offended you. You've got some core beliefs that you hold to, some may be good, but some may not have served you very well. Within the Christian community there is a common practice of passing judgement, and I think it can be very destructive to relationships. We come off looking as "holier than thou," and it ends up repelling people rather than attracting them. The most effective Christians I've known seem to have a remarkable ability to suspend judgement. They don't reward sin, don't approve of sin, they just don't seem to act like they are above it.

Life is passing you by Mark, and I'm sorry to see that. In 20 years (which will pass in a heartbeat), you'll be 72. What then? I know, you are not storing up things for yourself on earth, and your reward will most surely be in heaven. It's true. But for the next 20 years, you can make a better contribution. Not by begging for a dream that is not unique and makes no fiscal or practical sense. You CAN make a difference and enjoy your life a LOT more by getting up every day and asking, "How can I SERVE others today?" Go to a ministry. Ask to serve. Take whatever they pay you. And don't try to impress others with your ideas on doctrine. Refuse to be offended. Apparently God has kept you in a humble social state. Allow your mind and spirit to join you there. You'll be amazed at where genuine humility will take you.

For what it's worth. –Mitch
Initially, I responded to the preceding comment with a comment of my own. I speculated about the identity of this particular commenter, since he refrained from furnishing me with his surname. Later, as I thought about the matter some more, I realized that the guy I initially thought had sent the message wasn't even named Mitch. I then remembered having a roommate named Mitch, back in the 80’s, when I was living at 219 Park Drive in Boston. I could be wrong, but I suspect that that’s the guy who left the aforementioned comment on this blog. It certainly makes sense.

He was a jerk even then, and apparently, nothing much has changed.

After leaving my initial response up for a day or so, I decided to delete Mitch's comment and my response to that comment, and to re-post the original article minus those comments. (Mitch's comment had little or no relation to the contents of the blog post on which it appeared, which I think says something about him.) I’ve waited until now to post a more thoughtful response to his comment, but I’ve wanted to do so for some time.

I find it fascinating that someone who admits that he knew me "long ago," and whose assessment of the current state of my life is based solely on what he's read in this blog, feels entitled to pronounce my life to be a "train wreck" --- and even more fascinating that he then goes on to criticize me for being judgmental, as if telling me that my life is a train wreck isn't at all judgmental.

He writes, "The 70s are over and it might be time to grow up a bit." I'm not quite sure where the comment about the 70's comes from. Maybe he's making assumptions based on the fact that I'm wearing a tie dye shirt in my photo. But I don't wear tie dye shirts all of the time. It's just that I never actually had such a shirt during the 70's, and I always wanted one because I thought they looked cool. The newer tie dye shirts are far better than the old ones, in terms of the intensity of the colors.

Does believing that people should be able to dress the way they want to dress, regardless of whether or not they are following the latest trends, mean that I haven’t grown up? No. In my opinion, having the self-confidence to dress the way one wants to dress, instead of being intimidated by peer pressure, is a sign of intelligence and maturity. I am not an insecure slave to fashion. It isn’t about nostalgia.

But now that I think about it, I am nostalgic about a few things. I miss the days when people couldn't legally kill their unborn children. I miss not knowing what a drive by shooting was. I miss the days when schoolyard slayings of massive numbers of children were virtually unknown in American society. I miss the days when most of the Christians I knew seemed to be more interested in evangelizing the lost than in tearing one another apart with their hateful words. If missing certain desirable aspects of previous periods of history means that I haven’t “grown up,” then I hope that I never “grow up”.

There are aspects of our current era that I think are very cool, such as improvements in technology. But things aren't inherently better just because they're newer. Those who uncritically accept new things, just because they’re new, are unintelligent and lacking in discernment.

Mitch writes, ‘There are a lot of grown ups who minister for a living and I'd like to encourage you to join them before it's too late.’ One would think, from reading that sentence, that he is unaware of my passionate desire to minister for a living, and equally unaware of the severe financial impediments which have prevented me from being able to do so.

Here's a clue for Mitch and other clueless individuals like him: High quality music instruments, recording equipment and the other items which are needed by musicians cost MONEY! (Christian musicians don't get a special discount. They have to pay the same prices charged to everyone else.) It's very difficult to finance the acquisition of such equipment, when most pastors seem to believe that musicians who want to be paid for their contributions are spiritually deficient. (20 years after the incident occurred, I still remember being called the "moral equivalent of a prostitute on the street" from the pulpit because I asked a pastor to take up a love offering for me so that I could purchase music equipment which I could not afford to buy on account of the fact that my minimum wage job barely even paid my living expenses.)

So, yeah, there are a lot of things I'd like to be doing that I'm not doing, in terms of ministry. Thanks for rubbing that fact in my face, Mitch. What a jerk.

One of the reasons for my vision for a Christian arts ministry is because I want very badly to “get in the game,” and I need to find a solution which will enable me to do so. I need the benefits of the Christian Arts Initiative as much as anyone else.

But that isn't my only reason for wanting to start such a ministry. I genuinely believe that it could make a real difference in terms of improving the moral climate in this country, and in terms of helping many other artistically talented Christians. People who are actually paying attention to the way things are going in this country ought to understand that the Church could be doing a much, much better job of reaching our culture, notwithstanding the fact that there are thriving ministries such as the ones Mitch mentioned in his message. Our insular Christian subculture is far less effective than some people like to think that it is. In my opinion, the recent election of Barack Obama is proof that our country has lost its moral bearings. (He will be the first U.S. President to have openly refused to take a stand against infanticide. His stand on issues such as gay marriage is equally appalling from the standpoint of biblical morality.)

Speaking of politics, Mitch writes the following:
I share your conservative politics and they are in direct conflict with the idea of fundraising for starving artists.
It seems clear to me that Mitch’s ideas about conservative politics are in conflict with mine. I was unaware that turning a blind eye to the needs of the poor was one of the prerequisites for people who wanted to call themselves conservatives.

There’s a basic principle of business: You get what you pay for. If you aren’t willing to invest much, then you shouldn’t expect much in the way of returns. One would think that a fiscal conservative would understand that basic principle of business. Apparently not.

Conservative Christians who claim to be appalled by the moral decline evident in popular culture need to put up or shut up. If such people aren’t willing to invest tangibly in the success of artistically talented Christians who have the potential to make a positive difference in the world, then they have no business complaining about the moral decline of our society.

And by the way, one of the reasons conservative politicians are doing so poorly in this country is that the left has successfully persuaded the average American voter that conservatives don’t care much about the poor. So Mitch, if you want to insure that conservative politics will continue to lose popularity in this country, then by all means, continue to reinforce the negative stereotypes. But I don’t think that’s very bright.

Regarding my vision for a Christian arts ministry, Mitch writes, “You haven't gotten it off the ground for years because it's a bad idea. It's a business plan that will interest nobody.”

Nobody, that is, except for bestselling author Anne Rice (who described my vision for a Christian arts ministry as “magnificent” when I described it to her via e-mail in late 2005). Nobody, except for Ken Wales, the Executive Producer for the movie “Amazing Grace,” who told me that he very much liked what he saw when he visited my website, Nobody, except for John Howard Sanden, a Christian who (according to Forbes Magazine) is one of the nation’s most successful professional portrait painters. Personally, I’ll take their opinions over Mitch’s opinion any day of the week. But maybe that’s just me.

Mitch also writes the following:
I'm not sure why, but you seem to have always been a difficult person to get along with. Your writings are filled with stories of those who have not agreed with you or who offended you.
Hey, Mitch, if you think that I’m “judgmental” and hard to get along with, try reading the story of John the Baptist. He called people things like “snakes and vipers” and he later had the audacity to speak the harsh truth to Herod about Herod’s adulterous relationship. John was rewarded for his honesty by having his head lopped off.

Up to this point, no one has lopped my head off, Mitch. By comparison, I’d say that I’m a fairly easygoing guy.

Was John’s life a “train wreck,” Mitch? Maybe. He certainly experienced his share of troubles in this life. But Jesus said that no greater man had ever been born of a woman. That’s unsurprising, considering that Jesus’ own harsh words in the Temple, in response to the presence of the moneychangers, led to his crucifixion a week later. Jesus was not the spineless wimp some folks imagine him to have been.

So here’s another clue, Mitch: Maybe you need to revise your ideas about the role which popular opinion ought to play in terms of guiding folks’ behavior. Maybe you need to revise your ideas about what it means for Christians to be effective.

I’d love to get along with everybody. I do not enjoy conflict for its own sake. But “getting along” isn’t always possible, in a world in which people do evil things which merit harsh criticism.

When a person takes a principled stand for that which is right, it sometimes ticks people off. Friendship with the world is enmity with God, according to the scriptures. A person who never clashes with anyone is a person who is too cowardly to speak the truth when it needs to be spoken.

Are there areas of my life which are dissatisfying to me? You bet. I’ve struggled a great deal in terms of my financial situation. I’ve had to deal with a lot of clueless so-called Christians, such as Mitch, who wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them on the behind, and who prattle on about God’s love while living in a way which is completely devoid of any real love for their fellow Christians or for the lost. I’ve stood and watched helplessly as our nation has continued to slide downhill in terms of an appreciation for basic principles of justice, such as the right to life.

Are there areas of my life, in terms of my own behavior, which could stand improvement? Of course. No one needs to tell me that I have not yet arrived, because I am poignantly aware of that fact.

But humility does not require an abdication of one’s responsibility to speak the truth as one understands the truth. Humility does not mean automatically accepting all criticisms regardless of whether or not they possess any intrinsic merit.

There is much more that I could say here, but my time on this public computer is almost at an end, so I think this will suffice, for the time being, as a comment on the statements which were previously made by my former so-called “friend” Mitch. With friends like that, no one needs enemies.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Lack of Integrity Besets Political Liberals

I just received the following message in an automated e-mail newsletter which I receive from Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council:
Members of the radical "No on 8" campaign in California have quickly turned their disappointment over the homosexual marriage ban into rabid hostility. Protestors have flooded the streets in Los Angeles with their sights set on the Mormon Church, railing against its leaders for their powerful role in protecting marriage. Together with allies in the Catholic and Protestant churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) was one of the main ingredients in Proposition 8's success. The Mormon Church's donations, estimated at roughly $22 million, fueled the hundreds of ad placements across the state that ultimately tipped the scales in the amendment's favor. Yesterday, 2,000 homosexual activists vilified the church, huddling outside the gate of an L.A. temple with profane signs and rainbow flags. Today, another march is scheduled for Temple Square in Salt Lake City, but the Church's leadership has no regrets about its involvement. In a statement, Elder Clayton said, "We believe it's a moral issue, and we reserve the right to speak out on moral issues." At LDS headquarters in Utah, leaders called for a ceasefire with gay activists and "goodwill" on both sides. Unfortunately, that message has yet to stick with the "No on 8" crowd, which has lashed out with unprecedented aggression against the faith community. Apart from the attacks on the LDS church (including ugly ads that depict Mormon missionaries invading the home of a lesbian couple and tearing up their marriage certificate), churches like Jack Hibbs' Calvary Chapel at Chino Hills have been spray-painted, cars vandalized, and police have confirmed at least two reports of physical assault. Once again, the Left is proving its unwillingness to practice the very "tolerance" they preach. FRC is proud of the example that the interfaith community has set on marriage. If the Prop 8 outcome is any indication, homosexuals could stand to learn a thing or two from the church on civility.
How sadly typical. As usual, the political left has demonstrated its utter lack of integrity insofar as "tolerance" is concerned. The same lack of integrity can be seen when they talk about the necessity of free speech, and then turn around and accuse pastors and others who speak out against homosexuality of "hate crimes" (showing that they're so immature that they can't handle viewpoints which aren't aligned perfectly with their own opinions). Or they'll accuse conservative Christians and political conservatives of being "judgmental," never quite grasping the idea that such accusations are just as judgmental.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes, They Did.

I can't say that I was completely surprised that Barack Obama won the election yesterday. After all, anyone living in Chicago, as I do, could see that the city was virtually unanimous in its support of his candidacy, with the exception of a few diehard Republicans such as myself. Anyone who was aware of the overwhelming support of Obama's campaign by the national news media understood that John McCain had a huge hurdle to overcome in order to win. Also, George Bush's extremely low job approval rating undoubtedly played a big role in the results, notwithstanding John McCain's repeated efforts to point out that it was he, not Bush, who was running on the Republican ticket this time around.

In any election, loss is always a distinct possibility, so people have to learn to deal with loss in a mature and gracious manner.

What bothers me, though, is the kneejerk way in which most African-Americans voted for Barack for reasons pertaining to his race, rather than seeming to care much about Obama's record as a politician or his positions on the issues. Listening to the comments which were made over and over again by various African-Americans, both on TV and within my own immediate social circles, it seemed that Obama's race was the number one factor which caused them to vote for him. In many cases, I strongly suspect that it was the only factor.

I understand why many African-Americans have felt that the election of a black president represents a victory and a milestone. Historically, black folks have long felt disenfranchised and underrepresented by the political system in America. On one level, I am happy for them, because I do understand that they deserve to have an equal shot at leading this country. Perhaps the election of Obama will help to improve the racial climate in this country by showing some cynics just how far America has come with regard to racial issues. Perhaps incidents such as the LA race riots which took place during Clinton's administration are less likely to occur in the future. I hope that's the case.

But I confess that I am disturbed by the huge disparity between the attitude of many African-Americans and the attitude of a historical figure they claim to greatly admire.

Martin Luther King said, in his justifiably famous "I Have A Dream" speech, that he dreamed of a day when men would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Ironically, it was the color of Obama's skin, not the content of his character, which caused most African-Americans to vote for him. Never mind that he had a record of opposing Illinois legislation written solely for the purpose of preventing infanticide. Never mind that he supported gay marriage, which threatens the ability of the nuclear family to maintain the cohesion which is the source of community stability. Never mind that Obama had been closely associated with scumbags such as Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko and Jeremiah Wright, often enough to raise serious questions about whether or not Obama had shown good judgment throughout his life.

These were matters of substance which should have deeply troubled thinking people with strong moral convictions, but they were overlooked because Barack Obama was young, handsome, charming and articulate. His calm and reassuring manner made voters feel that he couldn't possibly be a bad person. Never mind the solid evidence to the contrary.

America survived Bill Clinton, and it will probably survive Barack Obama, too. But I am saddened by the realization that there are so few Americans who care about whether or not our laws and public policies are consistent with the historical American values in which we profess to believe. Instead, self interest seems to be the predominant factor which motivates people to choose the candidates they choose.

As a person who has struggled financially for many years, and who continues to struggle, I have a measure of sympathy for those who base their votes, in part, on perceptions pertaining to the likelihood that particular candidates will increase the chances that they will experience prosperity. But presidential greatness is not measured solely by whether or not a president improves a nation's economic prosperity. If that were the case, Abraham Lincoln would be widely despised, not widely admired, because his presidency was a disaster from an economic point of view, especially (but not exclusively) in the South, which was economically devastated by the Civil War.

As a person who received official status as a conscientious objector in 1974, when I was called before the draft board in my home town, I have a measure of sympathy for those who base their votes, in part, on perceptions pertaining to the likelihood that particular candidates will hasten the end of war and bring peace to the nation. But presidential greatness is not measured solely by whether or not a president leads the nation into peace. If that were the case, Abraham Lincoln would be widely despised, not widely admired, because his presidency was a disaster from the standpoint of issues pertaining to war and peace.

In fact, there were far more American casualties during the American Civil War than there were during other American wars.
One web page says that there were 623,026 casualties during the American Civil War, versus 4,177 for the war in Iraq. So even if one is merely talking about raw numbers, the number of Americans who died during the Civil War was roughly 149 times the number of Americans who have died in Iraq. But that doesn't really capture the true scope of the discrepancy between the two wars. Remember, the overall population of the United States at the time (roughly 30 million) was only a small fraction of the current population of this nation (roughly 280 million). In other words, the casualties of the Civil War represented more than 2% of the entire population of the United States at that time, and that was during a war which actually lasted just four years (versus roughly 5.5 years for the war in Iraq). If 2% of the current population had been killed during the war in Iraq, making those casualties statistically comparable to the casualties of the Civil War, that would have been more than 5.5 million casualties! That idea is mind boggling.

Whatever else might be said about Lincoln, one certainly could not refer to the man as a bringer of peace. In fact, many claim that it was his first electoral victory which sparked the attack on Fort Sumter. Lincoln had to sneak into Washington D.C. in order to escape the first assassination attempt (which, fortunately, did not succeed).

It also bears mentioning that George W. Bush never instituted any type of involuntary military conscription, so all of the soldiers who have died in Iraq since the war first began were there of their own choosing. By way of contrast, the
New York Draft Riots were the first riots of their kind in the United States, in direct response to the military draft imposed by Lincoln. And it wasn't just the fact that people were being forced to serve the military against their wills which led to those riots. It was also the perception that the draft was unfair to the poor, since people who had the money to do so could ostensibly pay a $300 commutation fee in order to obtain an exemption from the draft. So when folks accused Bush of being insensitive to the needs of poor people after he dragged his feet when responding to the crisis in New Orleans, it wasn't the first time that such charges had been leveled at a Republican. Lincoln had to deal with such accusations during his own presidency.

As a person who loves liberty, I have a measure of sympathy for those who base their votes, in part, on perceptions pertaining to the likelihood that particular candidates will respect the civil liberties of all American citizens. But presidential greatness is not even measured solely by whether or not a president respects the civil liberties of all of the nation's citizens. If that were the case, Abraham Lincoln would be widely despised, not widely admired, because his presidency denied civil liberties to select Americans, when Lincoln declared martial law (in 1863) as a wartime measure. In fact, resentment in connection with that act was said to be one of the primary motivations which led John Wilkes Boothe to assasinate Lincoln.

In fact, if one were to objectively judge Lincoln's presidency solely according to the same criteria which Democrats have used for judging the presidency of George W. Bush, one would have to call Lincoln one of America's worst presidents --- far worse, by all of the aforementioned measurements, than Bush. Yet, paradoxically, most Americans now regard Lincoln as one of America's best presidents.

Was Lincoln a great president, or have we all been brainwashed by years of exposure to romanticized propaganda? I think that it largely depends on how one defines presidential greatness.

Peace, prosperity and maximization of civil liberties are all desirable things, but none of those things are what makes a country truly great, nor are they the things which make for great presidents. The measure of a nation and its leaders lies first and foremost with whether or not that nation has integrity. Integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy. People of integrity do not practice one thing and do another. When they claim to believe in certain principles, they act as if they actually believe in those principles.

The United States was founded on a set of principles, first expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and later expanded upon in the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The foundational assumption, from the Declaration of Independence, was that all "men' were created equal. (In the language of that era, it was understood that the term "men" also incorporated boys, girls, women and all other variants of the human species.)

I believe that Lincoln was indeed our greatest president, in spite of all of the negative factors cited above, because Lincoln had a deeper understanding than most men and women of what was at stake in the Civil War (in terms of the future of democracy), and he had a deeper understanding than most people of the necessity of integrity for any nation which would claim the moral high ground, as our nation historically had done ever since the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Slavery had to be abolished if our nation was to become a nation of integrity, because the philosophical premise of slavery was that all men were not created equal. Therefore, public tolerance of the institution of slavery made a mockery of the documents which formed the philosophical foundation for our new nation. Most people who did not have a personal vested interest in the continuation of slavery understood that this was so.

As I see it, the premise which is used to justify legal abortion is likewise a contradiction of the premise of the equality of all human beings in terms of their innate value.

Why do I care so much about public issues pertaining to the sanctity of human life? Because I want this nation to continue to be a great nation, and to become an even greater nation than it is already. America cannot honestly claim to be a great nation if we Americans do not respect the most fundamental right of all --- the right to life --- in a manner which shows no unnecessary partiality to certain people (such as adult women) at the expense of others (such as unborn or newborn children).

One would think that African-Americans, of all people, would understand this better than anyone else, in light of their history of being treated as if they were not equal in value to white people. But one would be wrong, judging by current attitudes which are prevalent in the black community. Instead, they seem to be willing to dance on the graves of innocent unborn children and infants if they feel that an alliance with people in favor of abortion and infanticide will help them to achieve their objectives in terms of social advancement and empowerment.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to that generalization, such as Alan Keyes (who, in my judgment, would be a much better president than Obama). There are black men and women, such as Thomas Sowell and Mildred Jefferson, who have not mindlessly jumped on the Obama bandwagon. Such men and women understand that when people promote policies which contradict the idea that all people are of equal value, they jeopardize the philosophical and moral foundation upon which the civil rights movement was built.

Not long ago, a guy living in a room next to mine said that the election of Obama meant that black folks had finally reached the "promised land" to which Martin Luther King alluded in his last public speech. If the "promised land" is one in which all people will be judged according to their character, then I think that he is seriously mistaken.

Men of good character do not refuse to oppose infanticide (or to oppose abortion, which in my view is morally indistinguishable from infanticide, since I am unpersuaded by the argument that unborn children lack the qualities which are prerequisites for legal status as people who are worthy of protection). Men of good character also do not promote morally destructive practices such as gay marriage (which is why I am glad that Proposition 8 recently won the approval of the majority of voters in California). Unlike Barack Obama, men of good character do not regularly associate with men of demonstrably low character.

Like all men, Barack Obama has the potential to be a great man. In terms of his intelligence and his personality, he even has the potential to be a great president. But he will not fulfill that potential unless and until he repudiates some of the positions which he has taken in the past --- especially issues which pertain to the right to life, without which all other rights are meaningless.

I wish that I could see that happening in the near future, during Obama's first administration, but I don't think that that's likely. Even though our city of Chicago now celebrates Obama's election, it's likely that I will always remember November 4, 2008 as a day of great sadness for our nation.