Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A New and Dubious Career Opportunity

The other day, while walking in the Barkley Village shopping center in Bellingham, I spotted an a-frame sidewalk sign, advertising a new business. I not only was made aware of a new business, but indeed, of a new business category. Call them "professional enablers for substance abusers".

The name of the business was Sober Rovers, also known as "Designated Drivers for Hire". Their business card (which I saw today for the first time) says, "Too drive to drunk? We'll get you and your car home."

Prior to this occasion, I had known about the designated driver concept, of course. After all, I'd just moved to Bellingham from Chicago, where Halloween and St. Patrick's days seem to exist mostly for the purpose of giving adults an excuse to get drunk (even though there's no historical evidence, as far as I know, to support the idea that St. Patrick was himself a drunk).

I only recently realized that playing nursemaid to drunks (or "inebriates", as one recent news story described them) had actually become big business. I guess it had to happen, sooner or later, especially in this economy. Ya' gotta' love that entrepreneurial spirit!

Back when I was in high school, I remember being asked a question which puzzled me: "Do you party?"

Well, of course I partied. "What a stupid question," I thought. "Doesn't every kid love cake and ice cream?" I partied every year, on my birthday. and on every other kid's birthday to which I got invited. I also partied on various holidays, such as Christmas and Halloween (back when Halloween existed mostly for little kids who wanted to dress up in silly costumes and beg for candy).

It wasn't long, of course, before I figured out that in many teenagers' minds, the seemingly innocuous term "party" was synonymous with other phrases, such as "get inebriated (or high) and make an ass of one's self". Or another phrase which (quite appropriately, in my opinion) ends with the suffix "-faced" and begins with a word which means "fecal matter". (Gosh, doesn't that just sound enormously fun? Maybe to you it does. Personally, I'd rather keep my face feces-free.)

Can't be bothered to exercise a bit of self-control? No problem, dude (or girl friend)! Call Sober Rovers, and they'll act like adults, when you want to pretend that you're half of your actual age, but without the benefit of wisdom or parental guidance or supervision or a social conscience.

Some folks would undoubtedly think that this is a new and socially beneficial business trend. After all, there have always been certain individuals who had difficulty imagining how folks could enjoy themselves without getting plastered. If such folks are going to get drunk, regardless of what anyone says, then I suppose that some might argue that companies like Sober Rovers can minimize the extent to which they jeopardize the lives and health of other people.

Sorry, I'm not buying it, because I don't buy the fatalistic idea that people are going to get drunk regardless of what anyone says. What people say can make a huge difference in what decisions are made by their peers. Some folks will still make bad decisions, of course, but giving in to determinism only serves to make things much worse. People do have free will (until their addictions get so bad that they can barely even think for themselves about the most rudimentarly aspects of living). We do no one any favors by denying that such is the case.

The decision to get drunk is itself a form of socially tolerated (if not approved) acquiescence to the ludicrous idea that drunks can't help getting drunk, and that the best we can therefore do for them (and for those they might harm) is to furnish them with a kind of safety net. Hence, we have those who want to disingenuously describe alcholism as a "disease," as if one catches drunkenness the way another person might catch a cold, from viruses floating through the air, or the way a camper catches poison oak. (In a similarly fatalistic way, there are those who talk about a host of other problems, including homosexuality, adultery, urban crime, abortion and more).

If that were really true, then folks would be incapable of planning ahead by making arrangements to hire the folks from Sober Rovers for the evening. By definition, for anyone to hire anyone from that business or any comparable business is to plan ahead to get drunk, or to stand by and watch as someone gets drunk, without doing anything to stop it.

Was public drunkenness a problem only when folks started driving automobiles? No. Drunkenness has been dangerous as long as people have been getting drunk. If you have read the Bible, for instance, you know that Lot had incest with his daughters, after they got him drunk. For similar reasons, women have been raped, and men have been murdered, and little children have been mercilessly beat by the parents entrusted with their protection and care. One doesn't need a car to do any of those things. Therefore, hiring a designated driver will not prevent any of those non-automotive things from happening. So how exactly such a service makes it "safe" to get drunk is anyone's guess. Certainly not safe for the guy's kids, after he arrives home from his night of self-centered "fun".

The weird thing is that even though folks who set out to get drunk can actually plan consciously to do so, and can tell you while getting drunk that they are aware that they are getting drunk, it's also true that sober folks tend to be better at exercising impulse control, compared with drunks. That helps to explain why people under the influence have done appalling things they probably wouldn't have done if they'd stayed sober. We're told that boozes reduce people's inhibitions. To my way of thinking, that is not a good thing. Inhibitions are vastly underrated.

Of course, if one doesn't think that any of those things are undesirable, then one is unlikely to see drunkenness as a problem. But I beg to differ.The men who have been attacked and the women who have been raped and the children who have been abused all have good and logical reasons to beg to differ.

It would appear that God and I see eye to eye on that issue. Perhaps that's why the Bible tells us "Be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit.".... Ephesians 5:18. I also find it interesting that the author of that scripture saw being filled with the Holy Spirit as a superior substitute for intoxication. Or more to the point, perhaps he saw intoxication as a cheap substitute for what God wanted to do for all people who would ask for his blessings and seek to obey him.

Based on the aforementioned scripture, I can easily imagine God saying, "You can be filled with the Holy Spirit; or you can get high or drunk What you cannot do is to have the real Holy Spirit, and have your fake chemical "(un)holy spirit(s)" at the same time. Make your choice."

It is sad, but true, that some people of faith also manage, nevertheless, to get around Ephesians 5:18. It kind of makes me want to ask them: "What part of Be NOT drunk with wine do you not understand?" One doesn't have to be a teetotaler to understand that principle, it seems to me.

Nevertheless, this trend towards professional enablers probably isn't going away anytime soon, for the simple reason that there are plenty of stupid people in the world (and the equally simple reason that there are folks who care more about exploiting people's weaknesses in order to make money off them than in actually helping those people). Just doing a Google search on the phrase "professional designated driver" just now yielded 2,450,00 results for me, including:
I have a final question: Why would anyone expect or trust someone whose judgment has already been impaired to make the right decision about whether or not he or she needed to call a professional enablement service, as I like to call them?

About the only justification I could ever think of for such a service, would be if it was paid for by a restaurant or private host which chose to serve alcohol in moderation, and which knew that certain customers would nevertheless overindulge in spite of their best efforts to discourage people from doing so. Since a sober person's life can be endangered by a drunk driver just as easily as a drunk's life can be endangered by a drunk driver, I suppose that I have to grudgingly admit that in limited circumstances, such businesses may have an important role to play.

Still, I'd much prefer that we as a society would grow up, and stop accepting the idea that that's the best we can do. If we can put the right kind of social pressure on smokers to stop smoking, and if we could thereby make a serious dent in the smoking problem, why wouldn't the same thing work when it comes to inebriation? You say that it wouldn't work. How do you know? Has it ever really been tried? More to the point, have you ever tried it?

I'm not talking about  using the blunt weapon of legal prohibition. I'm talking about restoring America (by virtue of our own good examples) to a renewed sense of personal responsibility for our communities, and to the well-being of the members of those communities.

In other words, let's start promoting the idea that sobriety is cool! Let's start doing the Christ-like thing by seeking to become true friends to people with substance abuse problems, thereby refuting (with our lives and examples) the false idea that a booze-free life is a fun-free life. Self-righteousness never liberated anyone from an addiction, but the love of God has often done so, and it can do it again. So let us become conduits of that love. Not a romanticized and unrealistic type of love, but a love based on speaking the truth.

As tennis player Andre Agassis said to "Inside Tennis" magazine not long ago, "God wants us to grow up, and love is how we do it."

If we want other people to start living their lives in a responsible manner, we must begin to do so ourselves.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Some Thoughts About Church Benevolence

The subject of church benevolence funding is one which, it seems, is not discussed very often in churches, judging by the churches I've attended over the years.

That isn't to say that I haven't attended churches which have set such funds aside, but the subject tends to be kept under wraps for the most part. It's so much more glamorous to raise funds for missionary trips to exotic foreign countries or for dramatically catastrophic needs which have been well publicized by the media, than it is to raise funds for the folks who are living right around the corner and barely managing to survive from day to day.

The first kind of charity admittedly makes for much better "PR" (public relations).  But it seems to me that our first priority ought to be to meet the needs of people in our own local communities, if we are able to do so. I am not suggesting that the other category of giving ought to be neglected; I'm only suggesting that the needs of people in the local community should not be neglected, either.

It's in the best interests of every local church to do whatever can be done to help Christians in the local community to prosper. After all, the extent to which such people are able to support the church with their tithes and offerings is shaped in large part by the question of whether or not they are themselves prosperous. One would think that this would be common sense, but if it's so "common", why do so many church leaders neglect to act as if they believe that it's true?

I did a web search just now, regarding the definition of a church benevolent fund. I found a section at, where "What is a church benevolent fund?" was the question.

One person answered, "Every week poor people visit churches in hopes that they will give them some money to help with their living expenses. It could be food or an electric bill or medicine. It is a way for the church to help out those in need."

Another person answered, "A benevolence fund is a sum of money (that can be added to) that is used for people in need. If the members of the church see someone in the community with a need for something food, clothes, whatever, money from the fund can be used. If there is an emergency situation within the church or the community, like a fire or other disaster, the church benevolence fund can be used to give aid. A 'poor box" or 'alms' is a little bit different. That money is collected specifically for the poor. Most churches in most communities have benevolence funds."

A third answered, "It's probably where the pastors get their nice cars from. There's not much accountability to the congregations, so the pulpit monkeys can pretty much do as they please. They lie about the scriptures, so what's a little fib to the flock? If the funds were going to the needy, we wouldn't HAVE needy people. It's such a sham, and it's why we have government assistance. If the churches were doing what they are supposed to be doing, there would be no need for our taxes to feed the needy. SAD, BUT TRUE." (Tellingly, I thought, this person identified himself or herself as NXile, as in the phrase "in exile". I know the feeling.)

The first two answers represent the types of things pastors would most likely say in answer to the question. When benevolence funds work as they ought to work, those first two answers are sometimes accurate.

The problem is that there's a lot more truth to the third response than a lot of people would like to admit. NXile's statement that "there's not much accountability to the congregation" is spot on, in my opinion.

Over the years, I've found myself in positions where I was desperate for help with basic and necessary expenses. Sometimes, when I've approached church leaders for help, I've gotten the help I requested. More often than that, I have not. (As for the question of whether or not I will receive church help with my current need, I think that's still an unresolved question, and it's still a question for which a speedy positive response is needed.)

I still remember the time (more than 20 years ago) when I approached the pastors of Rolling Hills Baptist Church in my hometown of Springfield, MO because I was in desperate need of funds with which to pay for dental work (specifically, a root canal) in order to alleviate pain which was jeopardizing my ability to make a living at my new telemarketing job. (I hated and still hate telemarketing, but one does what one needs to do to survive.)

I was told that a particular person on the pastoral staff was the person with whom I needed to meet. So I set an appointment to meet with that pastor, only to discover that he had no intention of offering any help to me. Instead, it seemed to me that he wanted to look for any excuse (consisting of a real or imaginary flaw in my personality or character) which would justify sending me away with NOTHING.

I was so angry about the fruitless mini-inquisition I'd just undergone in his office, when I drove away from that meeting, that I was unable to focus on my driving. As a result, I had a car accident on the way home, and since I was technically in the wrong, things just snowballed from bad to much worse. I eventually lost both my license and my car, which of course made it even harder for me to find work, after I'd lost the telemarketing job and moved to Chicago in search of emergency housing.

Thank the Lord, nobody died in the aforementioned car wreck, but if that had happened, I think that that particular pastor would have shared in the blame. I went to him needing meaningful help, but he preferred to play mind games instead.

One of the first things Christians did on the day of Pentecost after being filled with the Holy Spirit was to help to meet the material needs of other Christians. Acts 2:44-45 says, "All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need."

There's a good reason why some pastors continue to preach that there are both sins of commission and sins of omission. But other pastors don't seem to recognize that Christians have responsibilities to one another at all.

A few years ago, I approached the leaders of the downtown Chicago branch of Willow Creek Church. I requested financial help so that I would not be evicted from the YMCA room in which I was living at the time. In response, I was told that they had no program, either formal or informal, with which to help people in my situation.

Frankly, I was appalled. To my knowledge, Willow Creek was one of the largest megachurches in the nation. (The third largest, according to my most recent visit to the listing for that church at I'd visited their suburban church in South Barrington, Illinois, so I knew that their church had far more material resources than the vast majority of the inner city churches in Chicago, many of which were little more than little storefront operations. I would have understood it if churches with far fewer resources of their own had been limited with regard to what they could do, but Willow Creek has plenty of resources with which to help the poor, if they choose to do so, so I thought that that church's treatment of me was despicable and inexcusable.

I didn't leave Willow Chicago immediately. I persisted in asking for help, and hoping against hope that they would change their minds. But I eventually got tired of waiting for the leaders of that church to treat me the way that Jesus said people should treat "the least of these". My situation was dire, and I simply didn't have time to spare (i.e., time to waste) trying to find solutions where there were clearly no solutions to be found in that church.

Later, I read a news story about how their pastor Steve Wu had recently been forced to leave his position at the church, as a result of the discovery that he'd been involved in unspecified sexual sin. "Aha!" I thought. "Now I understand why he couldn't be bothered to find help for me. "He was too busy boinking the church secretary, or whoever he'd been sexually sinning with, to think about the needs of the poor."

(By the way, the incident was well publicized in the media, giving Christianity a black eye in the process. I googled the phrase "Steve Wu resigns" just now, and Google came up with a whopping 2,800,000 search results.)

It seems to me that it says something bad about the church that they're so focused on sexual sins, but uninterested in enforcing other types of equally important moral standards, such as those which pertain to pastoral responsibilities to the flock. Jesus told Peter to "feed my sheep" THREE TIMES. That says to me that he wasn't kidding around! And while I realize that he may partially have been referring to the need for "spiritual food" (in other words, good teaching), I also think that it's pretty lame to suggest that Jesus ONLY cares about spiritual matters. He demonstrated throughout his life that he cared about the material needs of people as well.

I'm not going to deny that there have been other occasions when I've received compassionate help from church leaders, even in one case giving me $1000 of badly needed and greatly appreciated help. But such instances have been few and far between, compared with the times I've been turned down.

Most people, let's face it, find it rather humiliating to have to ask for such help. I know that I do. I am a capable and qualified worker, and I'd much rather know that I've earned my money legitimately. But what am I supposed to do, if I find myself in a situation where it's a choice of either asking for help or sleeping on park benches?

The other day, I asked a young man who was preparing to serve as a pastor what the church could do in order to combat the problem which existed in the church with regard to the prevalence of divorce even among people claiming to be followers of Jesus. He correctly answered that we needed to teach the meaning of covenant.

The problem is that people who teach covenant tend to lack credibility when they do not practice the making and keeping of covenants. I'm thinking in part of those pastors who have broken their covenants with their own spouses, of course, but covenant is not a concept which should be limited to sexual relationships. As a community of people ostensibly bound together by love, Christians should make covenants with one another, and they should keep those covenants.

It's unlikely at this stage of my life that I will ever have the financial resources with which to finish the kind of education I'd need in order to get a job as a pastor.

Of course, Jesus didn't need a college degree in order to have a ministry on which all other ministries have ostensibly been based for more than 2,000 years. In light of that fact, I'm inclined to think that we rely on academic credentials far more than we ought to rely, when assessing a person's suitability for that particular position. But what do I know? Not much, according to a lot of "leaders" in the church.

So, OK, it's pretty much a given that I am unlikely to become a pastor. Also, I'm not necessarily convinced that that's the specific ministry to which God has called me. Nevertheless, I have ideas about how I would serve as a pastor, if time were to prove me wrong.

Here is a covenant which I as a pastor would make with everyone who entered the doors of my church, if I were ever to be put in such a position of authority, regardless of whether or not that person chose to enter into a formal membership arrangement with my church:

As a pastor, I, Mark Pettigrew, on behalf of this local body believers and the much larger body of believers known throughout the ages as the Church, do solemnly pledge to you the following:

I will treat my position of authority here at this church as the stewardship and moral responsibility which it is, bearing in mind the truth of the scripture which says, "To whom much is given, much is required."

I will treat you, to the best of my ability, in a manner which recognizes that my responsibility to "the least of these" entails an obligation to treat all people (and not just the people privileged to live inside some arbitrary inner circle of my favorite folks) as I would treat Jesus Christ himself.

I will base leadership decisions on defensible scriptural principles, not on prejudicial assumptions which cannot withstand logical or scriptural scrutiny. This will especially be true when it comes to decisions which affect the manner in which this church responds to extreme needs within the body of Christ.

I will treat all of the members of the local community, and particularly those who do their best to support this ministry with their tithes and offerings when they are able to do so, as if the meeting of their basic needs is my first priority. If there is a surplus after that goal has been achieved, I will allocate as many funds as possible to the meeting of the needs of people in other regions and other churches. But I will not expect people to believe me when I claim to be engaged in the meeting of the needs of the residents of distant lands, if I cannot show evidence that I even care about the needs of the people in my own local community.

I will not play self-serving mind games with people in an effort to excuse my indifference to people's needs.

If evidence is presented to me that I have intentionally or unintentionally sinned by omission, by allowing unmet needs to exist within the local community of believers, I will repent of that sin (openly and publicly, if necessary) by not only acknowledging my guilt, but by doing everything within my power to make things right.

Maybe it's naive of me, but this is the kind of church for which I long, and it's the kind of church for which I would gladly sacrifice my time, energy, resources and talents.

But some might say that it's pretty meaningless of me to talk about what kind of pastor I'd be if I were offered the chance to be a pastor, given the fact that that's pretty unlikely to happen.

Fair enough. I want to be a person of integrity, so when it comes to the subject of compassion for people with unmet material needs, I am determined to do the best that I can do in order to raise funds with which my church and others can help the needy people in their midst.

The concept behind my project, The Artistic Rescue Project, is to raise funds for folks in crisis, to be administered by reputable organizations such as World Vision, Convoy of Hope, and the United Way.

But smaller needs also exist within the church, so local churches have a necessary role to play, too, in terms of meeting those modest needs. I don't ask that they do all the work themselves. I just ask that they help me to publicize my efforts to raise funds on their behalf, so that they can do what God wants them to do. It's a win/win scenario, in my opinion. The folks who would come to church in the hopes that their needs would be met would walk away satisfied and content, not disappointed or maybe even angry. The churches' reputations would improve, and the result would be church growth, which most pastors would tell you they desire. And yes, I would hopefully be able to raise enough funds that my immediate needs would be met as well. (Is that too much to ask?)

For more information, please visit Also, feel free to e-mail me at This invitation applies to the leaders and members of my current church, of course, but also to other churches throughout the city of Bellingham, WA and to any other churches which want to stop being part of the problem and becoming part of the solution when it comes to the problem of poverty.

Postscript: Dare to criticize churches or their pastors for the way in which they operate their ministries, and sooner or later, one is sure to be criticized for failing to exhibit the proper submission to authority. But the last time I checked, Jesus was the ultimate authority, to whom church leaders ought to be subservient.

Jesus could have thrown his weight around, but he did not do so. Instead we are told this: "For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give my life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).

The surest way for a pastor to disqualify himself as an authority, in my opinion, is for him (or her) to define a pastor's prerogative in such a way that it entails ignoring the needs of hurting people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Arrogance a Progressive Value?

In November 2010, I moved from Chicago to Bellingham, WA, where I moved into the house of a fellow Christian who was also a Facebook friend, and who had chosen (admirably) to respond compassionately to the fact that I'd just been evicted from my room at the Lawson House YMCA in Chicago.

Unfortunately, until I actually moved in with my friend, I was unaware of certain things about my friend. They were things which, if known by me, might have given me second and even third thoughts about moving in, if it had not been for the fact that I really had no choice, in my desperate circumstances.

This is not to say that I was ungrateful for the help. But living here was (and to some extent has been) a challenge, nevertheless.

One of the first thing I learned at the time was that my friend was a passionate "progressive" (whereas I, as a Republican, was by implication a "regressive", even though I was sufficiently savvy with regard to modern technology that I was able to be able to get my friend out of some jams by helping him with his computer).

I had come to Bellingham because my friend ostensibly thought that my goals were worthy of attention, with regard to a project I called the Christian Arts Initiative. One might have thought, therefore, that he was a particularly artistic person. But I suppose that some folks define the arts differently than others, because my friend didn't really seem to show a very pronounced interest in the arts. So far as I could observe, he almost never read novels or watched movies or even listened to much music (other than the classic rock tunes he sometimes listened to on the radio in his car).

Instead, my friend's entertainment appeared to consist primarily of two things:
  1. Spending long hours in conversation threads on Facebook (which, of course, was how I met him in the first place).
  2. Watching MSNBC on his satellite TV, often for hours on end. (To some, this is apparently entertaining. Then again, some folks like watching a nice car wreck, I've been told.)
I knew very little about MSNBC, but I would soon learn that it was a media haven for liberals (excuse me, "progressives").

The more I watched the network, the more I came to realize how much MSNBC resembled Rolling Stone magazine (a magazine which has long delighted in putting the spotlight on the most appalling role models one could possibly choose, such as Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Iggy Pop and countless others over the years). Like Rolling Stone, MSNBC is, as some might say, a "wholly owned subsidiary" of the Democratic party (in terms of its content, not necessarily in terms of who actually owns the network).

For instance, there was Keith Olbermann, whose most distinguishing characteristic seemed to be that he would end each show by throwing papers at his viewers in what appeared to be his attempt to demonstrate that his mentality had never progressed much beyond the mentality which he'd had when he was in kindergarten. (He now appears to have another show elsewhere, after having been fired by MSNBC, possibly after throwing one too many televised tantrums.)

A similarly childish attitude was observed in Rachel Maddow (whose apparently never met a lesbian she didn't like) and Ed Schultz (whose catch-all word "crazytalk" appeared to describe any talk with which he didn't completely agree, which made me wonder if he'd ever said a humble word in his life).

There were other, somewhat more moderate hosts, but they all started to blur together for me after a while. I came to expect a pretty steady diet of incredibly biased commentary in the guise of "news". They would sometimes feature guests, some of whom were even conservatives, but it soon became apparent that the conservative guests had been cherry picked and invited to the MSNBC shows precisely because they made for such easy targets.

Ed Schultz's show was called "The Ed Show". One night, Ed's guest was the pseudo-commedian known as Bill Maher. On that episode, Maher referred to a conservative female politician as a "mouth breather", a phrase which in some circles has apparently come to mean "as stupid as dirt".

Now, I have to admit, I've been known to breathe through my mouth occasionally myself. For instance, I've had colds in which the primary feature of those episodes of illness was that my nasal passages would become congested, and I would find that I could only get enough oxygen, while lying in bed, was to breathe through my mouth. I sometimes breathed through my mouth for somewhat similar reasons, back in the days when I ran track in junior high, and when I was running as hard as I could run, around the track. And of course, when I took a course in SCUBA diving back in college, I found that it was pretty necessary to breathe through my mouth while swimming twenty or thirty feet underwater. Pretty much every SCUBA regulator I've ever seen or used is designed to go into one's mouth, not into one's nose.(Ditto for snorkels.)

God, in his wisdom, gave people two different orifices through which to breathe: A nose, and a mouth. Undoubtedly, breathing only through one's nose, and reserving one's mouth for speaking and eating, is ideal. But there are times when breathing through one's nose just isn't very practical or feasible. It's a lot better to breathe through one's mouth than to stop breathing altogether, or so it seems to me.

It therefore seems to me that a person who uses the phrase "mouth breather" as a synonym for "stupid" is, by definition, stupid. The fact that MSNBC thinks that Maher is qualified to talk about politics says a lot about that network's definition of the word "competent". And it definitely says a lot about Mr. Schultz.

Back when Gabby Gifford was shot, Ed Schultz had the audacity to imply that political conservatives were to blame for the shooting, and then to call for more "civility". As if continuously slandering all political conservatives in various ways was a good example of civility. (Practice what you preach, Ed.)

Thanks to the examples of various people on the staff at MSNBC, I've come to realize that being a progressive means not being constrained by the rules of what most people regard as logic or genuine civility. Being a progressive, apparently, means using slanderous innuendo, when the stockpile of weapons in one's intellectual arsenal is particularly low.

The political condescension isn't limited just to MSNBC, either.

Eric Alterman, for example, had an article (The Nation, June 20, 2011, page 10) entitled "The Problem of Republican Idiots". In that article, he wrote that "it is hardly an exaggeration to insist that (an) astonishing combination of willful ignorance and stubborn stupidity can be found virtually everywhere Republican politics are discussed."

Eric, in case you're reading this, let me just say this: I am a Republican, because the Republican party has, in my judgment, taken the right side on one of the most important issues of our time, which pertains to the question of whether or not we will affirm the important principle that all human beings are of equal value, by opposing the legalized murder of millions of unborn children. Undermining the idea that all human beings are of equal value by supporting the so-called "right" of women to kill their own unborn progeny is, in my opinion, the quintessential act of hypocrisy, for Democrats who claim to believe in equal rights.

My IQ has been tested at 140, so I hardly think that by any objective criterion, I could accurately be described as "stupid".

In any event, there's a difference between intelligence (which we cannot for the most part control) and wisdom (which we can all attain, if we will humble ourselves and ask God for it).

All of us, whether we are geniuses or idiots or somewhere in-between, will be held accountable on the day of judgment for how we have lived our lives. According to the Bible, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Laugh at me and mock me, if you will, for my "stupid" and childlike faith in divine justice. Call me a "loser" if you like. But it's a bit premature to declare winners and losers, it seems to me, when the game is not yet over.

Here's a clue for the clueless, regardless of where you may stand on the political spectrum: YOU will not be the one making that judgment call (about who is and is not a loser) when each person's life is at its end. So try showing a little bit of humility in the meantime.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Isn't Howling What Animals Do?

As a child, I was taught in school that poetry was an art form, with an emphasis on the word form. Rhyme and meter were probably the most obvious aspects of poetic form, but I gradually became familiar with other aspects of poetic form as well.

Not that there wasn't also a substantial amount of thought-provoking content in the poems of people such as Robert Frost. In fact, the poems with which I initially became acquainted were actually about something; and rather than trying to cover up a lack of content by writing in such an obscure and formless manner that one spent most of one's time trying to decipher the meaning, the form actually seemed to enhance the meaning of nearly every poem.

It was a lot easier to respect poets back then. They actually seemed to exhibit a certain measure of self-discipline in the ways that they wrote.

Such poetry didn't usually leave readers feeling befuddled and confused. It might take a little bit of work in order to understand every last reference in some  poems (especially when reading poems which had been written centuries ago), but an imperfect understanding could usually be achieved, unless the poem was one where the entire point was to engage in verbal gymnastics which would delight readers with the sound of the words alone, without reference to any content.

I am thinking, for instance, of the writings of Lewis Carroll, whose poem "Jabberwocky" was considered to be an example of the genre known as "literary nonsense". I'm not sure who came up with that label, but you have to hand it to them for their honesty.

However, compared to the writers of some of the garbage now being marketed as poetry, Lewis Carroll demonstrated that he was a master of clarity.  At least Mr. Carroll was somewhat funny, which is more than many modern poets can claim.

Is it any wonder that poetry sells so poorly these days? People don't like wasting their time trying to decipher the intentions of writers who don't seem to have any idea what they are trying to say.

The way I look at it, the whole point of expressing things with words is communication, not obfuscation! If a writer cannot be bothered learning how to communicate with clarity, then why should I be bothered trying to read that writer's mind in order to compensate for that writer's laziness and communicative deficiencies? Life is too short for that kind of time-killing nonsense.

Traditional poetry nearly always required mastery of whatever form might be required for a particular kind of poem. Epic poems were dramatically different from haiku, and both were dramatically different from psalms, but all three forms were definable. They all possessed certain characteristics which could be both studied and mastered.

Traditional poems might can be somewhat constrictive, compared with prose, in the sense that poets who hope to create poems with a definable style are not (or traditionally have not been) free to use all of the words in the dictionary in any way they see fit. But that, it seems to me, is part of the secret to the delight which well-written poems can bring.

If everyone could competently create good poetry, everyone would do it.

By creating an "anything goes" climate in which no one has a basis for declaring a poem to be objectively good or objectively bad, the pioneers of modern poetry effectively created a situation in which any pretentious person with nothing much of value to say can therefore claim to be a poet and an "artiste".

There is order in the universe, as seen from the viewpoint of a Christian such as myself. That sense of order can be seen in many traditional poems, regardless of whether or not the subject of those specific poems is specifically Christian or religious. Notice, however, that I describe such poems as traditional. As time has gone by, we have entered an era in which rules of any kind whatsoever have come to be seen as anathema.

As a side comment, I might note that anathema once referred to rejection by eccliastical authorities within the Catholic church, and to some extent, it still does. But popes and Bishops hold less sway these days, so that the word anathema is also defined broadly as "something or someone that one vehemently dislikes". (Merriam-Webster)

So, for example, if a person is excommunicated from the Catholic church for practicing homosexuality, then that person is "anathema" according to the older definition of the word. But if members of the "gay community" vehemently dislike Catholic leaders for the reason that gays embrace an utterly different set of values, then those religious leaders are likewise "anathema" according to the newer, secondary definition of the word.

When one thinks about it, that's kind of amusing. Gays like to criticize their critics for being "judgmental," but it turns out that they are just as "guilty" of judging others. The only difference, as far as I can see, is that they are subservient to a different (contradictory) set of moral principles.

When freedom is seen as a necessary means to a desirable end, then it is worthy of being defended. But freedom for its own sake can, ironically, become a form of slavery.

It might seem odd to some readers that I'm talking about relativistic morality, when the original subject of this blog post was modern changes of attitudes regarding poetic styles. But bear with me, because I think there is a relationship.

Carl Sandburg, from Chicago, was one of the poets to begin to challenge the rules of poetry. Free verse seemingly operated in accordance with a rejection of the use of rules and formulas, regardless of what the nature of those rules and formulas might be. Robert Frost once wrote that free verse was comparable to playing tennis without a net. (And how long would you want to spend, watching that kind of a tennis game? Without the net, how could either player legitimately declare victory?)

Some people might argue that a lover of jazz, such as myself, ought of all people to appreciate the value of spontanaeity. But this displays a sad misunderstanding of jazz. It's true that jazz involves a level of improvisation which is seldom observed in modern performances of classical music, which is mostly about the interpretation of written transcriptions in an attempt to replicate the original experience of listening to those pieces of music for the very first time. But even classical music has changed over the last several centuries. Improvisation was a component of the original performances of classical music (as seen in the movie "Amadeus"). I suspect that if we had high quality recordings of those pieces as performed by people such as Mozart, as is the case with even the earliest examples of jazz, the differences between jazz music and classical music would be far less obvious. There would be more improvisation of classical music, because modern performers wouldn't be burdened with the preservationist functions which now dominate the manner in which classical music is usually performed.

Jazz is just as beholden to form as any piece of classical music. In fact, it's precisely because the jazz format is so well known that jazz usually sounds so coherent (even when jazz musicians are  "jamming" with musicians they've never even met before), in spite of the improvisation. (There are exceptions, such as the "free jazz" of Sun Ra, but that is not by any means the only type of jazz; and in fact, it's doubtful that the majority of people who consider themselves to be lovers of jazz prefer that type, preferring instead the numerous other varieties, including Dixieland, Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Fusion and "smooth jazz".)

It's been written that "free verse" is not utterly lacking in form, but rather, that the poet is "free" to make up his own rules as he or she goes along. But of course, a "rule" which is non-binding isn't really a rule at all. If a "rule" is known and understood only by one person (the person who has just finished making it up), then it really isn't a rule at all, is it?

It doesn't take much of a stretch, in my opinion, to see a connection between that rather noticeable aspect of free verse and the moral relativism which dominated modern thought during the twentieth century.

The connection between the two had not yet become glaringly apparent in the poems of Sandburg, but by the time when Allan Ginsberg read his profanity-filled so-called poem "Howl", it had become glaringly apparent that poets were no longer content to thumb their noses at the stylistic rules of traditional poetry. They took things to their logical conclusion, and decided, as well, to thumb their noses at the rules of traditional morality, and to foolishly spit in the face of God.

Inasmuch as one of the stylistic elements of traditional poetry is alliteration (from which I occasionally derive a certain amount of amusement), I found myself composing a little alliterative poem (earlier today) which poetically describes how I might have talked about Ginsberg if I'd tried to do so while he was still alive:

Please pray
     for the puerile poet
with the pathetic propensity
     for pointless profanity.

Some might use the preceding poem as evidence of my "judgmentalism". I would wear such a criticism as a badge of honor. In this modern era, in which art is whatever anyone chooses to call art, and in which anyone who shows any backbone with regard to matters of morality is ostracized by the self-appointed arbiters of all that is "cool" and "hip", I long for a time when the word "standards" did not just refer to tunes which all jazz musicians were expected to know by heart.

It also referred to moral standards, without which the world would be ruled by chaos.

Artists, whether they be poets or novelists or musicians, ought to care less about whether or not they will be embraced by the self-appointed taste makers (who, in many cases, are pathetically out of touch with the values of ordinary people in the real world) than about whether or not they will eventually be embraced by God, who is the source of the artistic impulse which is so frequently abused.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Compassion and Condescension

Some words have multiple meanings, some of which are positive, and others which are not so much so.

One such word is the word "condescension". Usually, in American culture, it has a very negative meaning. People who act haughty and arrogant and who rub their alleged superiority in other people's faces are said to be "condescending".

Perhaps that comes from our cultural background and our assumptions to the effect that no one is better than any other person. Anyone who thinks that he or she is better than any other person is thought, by default, to be seriously mistaken, if not downright delusional.

When I was young, I recall hearing one or two kids say, "You think you're better than me," with the unspoken conclusion "... and that's obviously not correct." But it seems to me that that begs the question: Is it invariably true that no one is better than any other person?

Certainly, it is true from the perspective of a Christian such as myself that no one is more loved than God than any other person. God loves all people equally, because God is the essence of love itself. God, says the Bible, is "no respecter of persons". All people are equally valued by God, and our history in America seems to demonstrate that in spite of our obvious failures to perfectly embody our ideals, we have repeatedly returned to that theme, which was the very backbone of the Civil Rights movement.

Still, I'm not quite sure that saying that all people are equally valuable is quite the same thing as saying that all people are literally equal. Are all people literally equal in terms of intelligence? Are all people literally equal in terms of strength or physical health? Are all literally equal in terms of wealth? Are all people literally equal in terms of wisdom or insight? Are all people equal in terms of moral character? It seems to me that the answers to those questions and other similar ones are obvious.

In fact, it is precisely because of the fact that people are not equal to one another in every respect that we need to be reminded that God loves and values all human beings equally, in spite of their observable differences. What establishes a basis for equal treatment under the law is not the literal equality of all human beings, but rather, it's the fact that we are all equally valued by God, who shows no favoritism with regard to how he treats individuals. The same mercy available to one is available to all. Conversely, all will be equally subject to God's justice. No one gets any special favors on account of class or race or any of the other criteria which have so often tainted the judgment of human authorities.

If indeed it were true that no one was better than anyone else, there would be no incentive to aspire to greatness. After all, greatness often requires special effort, and even a certain amount of self-sacrifice. If all people are literally equal, why bother?

Saying that God loves everyone equally is not tantamount to saying that there are not differences between people, nor is it the same as saying that there will be no rewards or penalties attached to those differences. Saying that God's judgement is and will be impartial is not the same thing as saying that there will be no judgment at all.

We often think of condescension as a negative thing, and it often is. But there is a kind of condescension which we should all covet. Here's one definition of condescension, which I found at

"To put aside one's dignity or superiority voluntarily and assume equality with one regarded as inferior: He condescended to their intellectual level in order to be understood."

In the preceding definition, the word "assume" (in the phrase "assume equality") is not being used to indicate a person who believes something falsely, without any real factual basis for that belief. Rather, it's being used to indicate someone who takes something upon himself, as if he or she were putting on a cloak.

In that definition, we see a kind of positive condescension which is for the benefit of others. A person who lives life in this manner demonstrates through his or her actions that moral superiority is impossible without genuine compassion and humility. To be genuine, compassion must be communicated in a manner which causes the recipient of help to genuinely believe that he or she is completely and unconditionally loved.

Jesus had every right to act "condescending" (in the negative sense) towards every human being he met while he was here on earth. Yet, he put that right aside voluntarily, out of compassion for the human race. He humbly washed the feet of the disciples, not because he had to do so, but because of his colossal love for us. There was nothing snide or haughty about the manner in which he did so.

"This," said Jesus with his actions, "is what it means to be a true leader." We Christians should demand nothing less of our leaders.

Too often, people unfortunately choose to work in the service professions for ulterior motives which reveal the extent to which they have failed to get that message. Having been in a position where I was forced by unfortunate circumstances to plead for help, I have felt the brunt of the negative condescension which seems to motivate some people with whom I have had to deal. For example, some folks seem to find it difficult to wrap their minds around the idea that in spite of my current need for emergency help, I am nevertheless a highly intelligent, highly talented and highly principled person who has a lot to offer to the world and to the church. Consequently, I have been treated as if I am in some second-class category, to be tolerated and maybe even grudgingly helped when doing so does not take too much effort, but not taken seriously.

The presumptuousness behind that kind of treatment has suggested to me that such people are sadly oblivious to their own vulnerabilities. They seem to think that just because they have been materially blessed more than I, they are therefore more virtuous than I, even though they may know little or nothing about the specific circumstances behind my current condition. It is only on account of the grace of God that their material circumstances are temporarily better than mine, so I don't envy such people, because I know that God will humble them in due time, if it proves to be necessary to do so. But of course, if they would choose to humble themselves voluntarily, that would not be necessary.

In the book of Job, Job's so-called friends made the mistake of assuming that God must be punishing Job for his iniquity. The real story, as readers of that book know, was that Job was a righteous man, who had been set aside by God precisely because God was confident that Job would pass the test, thereby putting Satan to shame.

Such truths about people are often hidden for a season, but people need to remember that a day of judgment is coming, and on that day, all will be revealed. When all is revealed, it will result in punishment for those who deserve punishment and who have failed to avail themselves of God's mercy. But the positive side is that it will also be a day of vindication, when people's presumptuous and erroneous judgments will be rebuked. The haughty will be laid low, and the people who have been abused will be rewarded for their longsuffering.

I believe these things to be so, not just with respect to those who have treated me disrespectfully, but indeed, with regard to those who have wrongfully treated any other people in such a manner. I believe these things, because I have read the Sermon on the Mount, and I have observed that Jesus lived his entire life as if he really believed that sermon to be true.

We need leaders who will condescend in the positive way that Christ condescended: By putting aside their own superiority, whether real or imaginary, and choosing to love and serve mankind as Christ loved and served mankind.

Whether or not one is truly superior to another human being is, in a sense, utterly beside the point. If Jesus Christ could voluntarily humble himself, in spite of his utter perfection, what makes anyone else think that he or she is entitled to do otherwise?