Month of Sundays: Witness

So the Jews again called the man who had been blind, and said to him: “Give God the praise; we know that this (Jesus) is a bad man.” “I know nothing about his being a bad man,” he replied; “one thing I do know, that although I was blind, now I can see.” (John 9:24-25)

The disciples were confused. They had been told all their lives that good things happened to good people, and bad things happened to bad people. Why was this man born blind? “‘Rabbi,’ asked his disciples, ‘who was it that sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither the man nor the parents,’ replied Jesus; ‘but he was born blind that the work of God should be made plain in him.’” (John 9:2-3) And Jesus forthwith healed him.

Then he and eventually his parents were hauled in front of the Pharisees. Who healed you? Was he a good person? A bad person couldn’t have done this! But they were stuck with one enormous fact: the man, once blind, could now see. And the man once blind clung tenaciously to his testimony.

We can and should learn how to share our faith with others. It should be a central part of every man’s discipleship process. In addition to being able to bring others to Jesus, it forces us to learn our faith, and that’s a key goal of discipleship.

But early in any gospel presentation, we give our testimony. What has the Lord done for us? How has he changed us? What were we like before? How much better is it now? These are things which people can connect with: if Jesus Christ can do it in our lives, he can do it in the lives of others. The abstract presentation of the Gospel becomes concrete when others read the Bible that God has made us into.

What’s your testimony? Write it down and commit it to memory so you can share it with others, and they will be drawn to God through it.

Let your light so shine before the eyes of your fellow men, that, seeing your good actions, they may praise your Father who is in Heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

After the Palm Beach Season: Sometimes It Pays to Stay on the Island

A few “snowbirds” are finding this out the hard way:

Palm Beacher Jessie Araskog said Saturday she and her husband, Rand, decided to evacuate their Southampton home and get a suite at the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan. “We are all boarded up and ready for the storm,” Araskog said.

Jessie Araskog said her daughter, Kathy; son-in-law Andrew Thomas; and the couple’s children decided to stay in Southampton at the home of a friend. People who live inland have offered shelter to residents of the coastal areas, she said. “They’ve been very generous,” she said.

Araskog said she and her husband expect to be back in Southampton once the storm passes.

Palm Beach–along with much of South Florida–is very much a “seasonal” proposition.  People come from the North in the winter and return in the summer.   The reasons to do this are numerous: it’s hot in Florida during the summer, everybody else we know does it, we’ve always done it this way, etc., etc.

But one reason given is usually the clincher–to get away from hurricane season.  This time, however, hurricane season has followed the snowbirds, much to the amusement of year round residents, past and present.

But you have to admit that using the St. Regis as a hurricane evacuation shelter–Rand Araskog is a former CEO of ITT and a member a Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church–is a fantastic concept.

Covenant Community: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I’ve dealt with the issue of Catholic Charismatic covenant communities–and why I avoided them–at length on this blog.  Now my friend John Flaherty has started a Facebook group on the subject entitled Covenant Community: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  It’s a road that is potentially painful for some, but it’s time for some closure, some healing and certainly some education on the subject.

You can find this group here.

Sharia Law in Libya: Have We Done It Again?

Looks like it:

But despite the Lockean tenor of much of the constitution, the inescapable clause lies right in Part 1, Article 1: “Islam is the Religion of the State, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).” Under this constitution, in other words, Islam is law. That makes other phrases such as “there shall be no crime or penalty except by virtue of the law” and “Judges shall be independent, subject to no other authority but law and conscience” a bit more ominous.

“Democracy in the Middle East” has been our battle cry ever since George W. Bush became the stench in the left’s nostrils in Iraq.  It was his principal goal; I criticised it at the time because I felt that the style of mind prevalent in the Middle East works against a functioning representative system as we understand it.

One consistent result in any of the “democratisations” we’ve seen up to now is the enshrinement of Sharia as the principal law of the land.  We’ve seen this in the places where we’ve set our boots down (Afghanistan, Iraq) and the places we haven’t (Egypt and now Libya.)  The best long-running example of this is Iran which, in spite of what you may have been led to believe, is a representative government.  It is very much a “managed” one, however, and runs within the limits set down by the Shi’ite clerics.  (Wouldn’t the left in this country like to manage our system in that way!)

Why is this?  Societies in general and representative governments in particular are held together by, among other things, shared values among the people.  Representative systems are more dependent upon these values because the system breaks down quickly when there are serious disparities among a group of people who are focused on each other and not on an autocrat at the top.  In places where Islam is the predominant belief, it is the most commonly shared value, and especially in a tribal place like Libya, it’s just about the only one.  One would expect that this shared value would find itself enshrined in the law of the land, and we have seen (and continue to see) that this is the case.  (It should be noted that the Ottoman Empire, itself no paragon of representative government, had Sharia law at the core of its jurisprudence as well.)

Why people in this country are shocked at this repetitious development is only a testament to how naive Americans can be, even after years of expensive education and travel abroad.  But in these United States, like the Middle East, old habits die hard.

Month of Sundays: Unity

But I appeal to you, Brothers, by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree in what you profess, and not to allow divisions to exist among you, but to be united-of one mind and of one opinion. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Like many liberal churches, the Unity congregation found itself far too small for its 700-seat sanctuary. The neighboring elite school had made an offer to purchase the property, which would enable them to relocate to a smaller church. But it fell through when there weren’t enough votes in the congregation to approve the deal.

The Unity church couldn’t get enough unity to make a major decision!

When many people think of “unity,” they think of the “lowest common denominator” type: if we could all just “get along” or “get together” we’d be all right. But like the “Unity” congregation, that doesn’t always work according to plan.

Real Christian unity is a high calling. It involves people being first transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ, to become new people: “Therefore, if any one is in union with Christ, he is a new being! His old life has passed away; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) That unity with God translates into unity with each other, as we both live and work together to live the life and do the work that God has for us.

The key to unity, therefore, is not that we first look at each other, but upward: to Jesus Christ. When we are focused on him and the life he has for us and the mission he has for us to do, it’s a lot easier to be one with each other.

I have given them the honor which thou has given me, that they may be one as we are one– I in union with them and thou with me–that so they may be perfected in their union, and thus the world may know that thou hast sent me as thy Messenger, and that thou has loved them as thou hast loved me. (John 17:22-23)

Why Do Liberals Care When Petrol Prices Rise?

That great Socialist Bernie Sanders evidently does:

Senator Bernie Sanders, a staunch critic of oil speculators, leaked the information to a major newspaper in a move that has unsettled both regulators and Wall Street alike.

In a June 16 e-mail reviewed by Reuters, a senior policy adviser to Sanders discusses how his office received private data with the names and positions of traders and forwarded it exclusively to a Wall Street Journal reporter…

“The CFTC has kept this information hidden from the American public for nearly three years,” he said. “This is an outrage. The American people have a right to know exactly who caused gas prices to skyrocket in 2008 and who is causing them to spike today.”

But why the fuss over rising prices?

Everyone knows that, when petrol prices rise, consumption declines.  When consumption declines, the production of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) declines also.  The dreaded urban sprawl is disincentivised, which over time will decrease the conversion of virgin/rural land to urban usage.  Most importantly of all, that’s the way the Europeans do it, and everyone over there pays it.

The problem, from Sanders’ standpoint, is that the speculators get the profits, not the state via taxation, which is how the Europeans keep petrol prices elevated.  It’s not the fault of the speculators that Congress hasn’t gotten around to raising petrol taxes.  Sanders should direct his ire at his fellow Senators and Congresspeople for their spineless fawning of lobbyists rather than at a bunch of poor slobs on the trading floor (or in front of their computer screens) trying to make a living.  And the environment doesn’t care how petrol prices rise.

I think Barack Obama has actually figured this out, which is why he hasn’t been very proactive on this issue.  Getting oil prices up on a permanent basis is his objective, and he’s decided that it really doesn’t matter how it gets done (although he foolishly backtracked with the petroleum reserve.)  With a media unwilling to really whine on this issue now (unlike when gas prices went up under George W. Bush) he can get away with it.

He needs to send a signal to Bernie Sanders to shut up on this issue.

Ambushing the Faithful: Going Back to the Old Way (Sort Of) in the Roman Catholic Mass

Being unprepared for major change isn’t new in Roman Catholicism, and it’s about to happen again:

Since changes were approved by the Vatican in December, U.S. bishops have been preparing priests and lay Catholics for the first use of the revised missal on Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent. But despite an aggressive effort by bishops to educate the nation’s 68 million Catholics, including training for priests and an extensive web campaign, new survey results released this week say that three in four Catholics are unaware of the upcoming changes.

As part of a broader survey not yet released, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, which studies Catholic trends and demographics, asked more than 1,000 U.S. Catholics if they knew about changes to the Roman Missal. Overall, 77 percent said no. Among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, 43 percent said no.

The sea change that Vatican II detonated in Roman Catholicism was just that–a sea change.  At the centre of that sea change was the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae in 1970, the first major transformation of the Mass since the Council of Trent.  I actually converted to Roman Catholicism two years later, so the NOM was all I ever experienced, but based on what those who would talk about this and the other changes that took place, it was pretty traumatic.

The current Pontiff has as a long term objective the reversion of the church to a “pre-Vatican II” state, short of abolishing the vernacular Mass.  The problem with many of the changes being instituted is the same one that Evangelicals struggle with vis à vis the King James Bible: most people don’t have the formal education to understand the Latinate terminology that’s being re-introduced into the English Mass.  The idea is to restore some theological precision to the sacred mysteries, but they would do better by beefing up their religious education system rather than trying to make a seminary course out of each recital of the Creed (and you can make a seminary course out of either creed, Apostles’ or Nicene.)  It will be one more step separating Catholics from a real understanding of their faith, and at this point in history this is the last thing that Roman Catholicism needs.

Important note: for you superannuated hippies who are depressed at the thought of your old folk Masses going by the wayside, there’s hope.  Thanks to music blogging, many post-Vatican II classic Masses (the music at least) have been preserved and are being disseminated at sites such as this one, the Ancient Star-Song and Heavenly Grooves.   So download them to your mp3 player (or burn them onto a CD,) make sure no one from the parish is listening, and be prepared to become teary-eyed.  If the artist is still selling the work, you can support the artist by buying their music.  And if your priest is as much a superannuated hippie as you are, he can revel in the old times too.

Evangelical Christianity, the Perpetual Road Trip

The recent death of John Stott has given people who are normally hostile to Evangelical Christianity an opportunity to say some good things about an individual whose high place in the movement is deserved.  Such praise is generally joined with criticism of those who had the bad taste to carry the movement into the political realm.  I say “bad taste” because political vitriol is inevitably a sign that you are an existential threat to someone.  Had same people rallied to the “religious left,” they would have given the same fawning adulation as the likes of Jim Wallis (well, most of the time.)  But face it: just because you or your movement comes to an end doesn’t mean that the world will stop.

Or was it more than bad taste?  Was getting into politics really the crime that everyone says it was?  Before I deal with that subject (once more with feeling, I might add) I want to make an analogy based on my own elite (?) experience.

This fall and spring the prep school I attended, the St. Andrew’s School of Boca Raton, Florida, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary.  To start and grow a private school in this country isn’t as easy as it looks in hindsight.  With no support from the state, private schools are forced to build a giving constituency, not always a straightforward business.  Sometimes schools don’t make it; St. Andrew’s almost didn’t.  It started with a reasonable seed and built a reasonable physical plant, but the early years were dicey financially.  Once it built its original physical plant, it had to make do with it for a good while.

That physical plant had gaps that most public schools wouldn’t be caught without.  One of those was a proper gymnasium.  The “workout room” it had was okay for wrestling, but too small for the sport that defines gyms: basketball.  That sport was relegated to an outdoor court, which consisted of the following:

  1. Asphalt court.
  2. Two (2) goals, one at each end.

In the school’s “back forty,” there were no bleachers, no fences, and no lights.  (The fence budget went, as one would expect, for the tennis courts.)  Practice was weather dependent.  But the core problem was that the basketball teams couldn’t play at home.  Their schedule was a perpetual road trip, and that affected their performance.

Below: finding a complete photo of this athletic facility was impossible, so I resort to a composite, from 1973-4.  Left, the corner of the court.  Right, one of my schoolmates takes a shot at the goal.  Women’s athletics were in their infancy at St. Andrew’s (which only admitted women at all in 1971) but the formation of a women’s basketball team was an especially unhurried business.  The school would not get a proper gymnasium until 1981.

In a way, however, a school that professed and called itself Christian unwittingly made a statement in this sad state of affairs.  Isn’t Christianity a perpetual road trip of its own kind?  Didn’t Jesus pray the following?

I have given them thy Message; and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world, even as I do not belong to the world. I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from Evil. They do not belong to the world, even as I do not belong to the world. (John 17:14-16)

“In the world but not of it” is a classic Christian formula.  And what about this?

But all this is the work of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the Ministry of Reconciliation– To proclaim that God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning men’s offences against them, and that he had entrusted us with the Message of this reconciliation. It is, then, on Christ’s behalf that we are acting as ambassadors, God, as it were, appealing to you through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf–Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

An ambassador is someone who is on an extended road trip on behalf of his or her country.

That “other-worldly” aspect has led to the charge that Christianity is basically escapist and irrelevant to everyday life.  Probably no time was that other-worldly emphasis more in vogue than the Middle Ages.  Christian life may have been other worldly, but the church that proclaimed it was anything but.  It could claim that emperors were literally beating the pope’s door down to pay him homage.  It was a very worldly practice of the church—the sale of indulgences—that sparked the Reformation.

By the time the dust and warfare had settled on that explosion, the church scene had transformed from one church with state support to multiple churches with state support.  In most countries the Catholic Church had been effectively nationalized, its episcopal structure transformed to new masters.  Only in places such as Geneva and Scotland (the Scots were never much on structure of any kind) was the episcopacy done away with, but the state enforcement of the religion was there all the same.  The main outliers in this scene were the Anabaptists, and nobody liked them.

As years passed, this arrangement frayed about the edges, both in Europe and certainly in some of the colonies (especially the British) they started.  We started seeing groups come to prominence such as the Moravians, Quakers, Methodists and the aforementioned Baptists, groups with no history of state sanction.  And we started to see Christians in and out of the state churches who took their Christianity seriously begin to take a hard look at some of the evils that civilization had taken to granted up to that time, especially slavery.  With the emergence of democratic institutions which allowed the petition for redress of grievances, many of these evils were banished over time, although in the case of slavery in the U.S. it took Mr. Lincoln’s Army to accomplish that.  It was the Fundamentalist-Modernist split which made it unfashionable for those who took the Evangelical label to shy away from social action—until the 1960’s changed everything again, at which point Evangelicals’ reaction to same made them as unpopular as the Anabaptists during the Reformation.

This unpopularity has brought a lot of soul searching in Evangelical circles.  But it should not obscure two central facts.

The first is that present unpopularity does not mean eternal error.  The Anabaptists faced the wrong end of state churches and the states that backed them up, but we only need to look around to see their long-term legacy.  The totalitarian nature of modern states will make that course more difficult, but we should be mindful of this:

Jesus looked at them, and answered: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for everything is possible with God.”

“But we,” began Peter, “we left everything and have followed you.”

“I tell you,” said Jesus, “there is no one who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or land, on my account and on account of the Good News, Who will not receive a hundred times as much, even now in the present–houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and land–though not without persecutions, and, in the age that is coming, Immortal Life. But many who are first now will then be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:27-31)

The second is that following Christ is really a perpetual road trip.  What we do to make things better in this life is important.  When it becomes our entire agenda, we become irrelevant both ways: that’s the central lesson of liberal churches such as the Episcopal Church.  But we must never lose sight of what really endures:

Then indeed I shall know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and all that it means to share his sufferings, in the hope that, if I become like him in death, I may possibly attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already laid hold of it, or that I am already made perfect. But I press on, in the hope of actually laying hold of that for which indeed I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. For I, Brothers, do not regard myself as having yet laid hold of it. But this one thing I do–forgetting what lies behind, and straining every nerve for that which lies in front, I press on to the goal, to gain the prize of that heavenward Call which God gave me through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14)

Note: a fill in detail or two in this diatribe can be found in A History of St. Andrew’s School: The First Thirty-Five Years by William M. Posey, whose son John Posey is a well known Hollywood figure.

Reality Check: Jobs Weren’t the Real Objective to Start With

Even the Black Caucus has just about had enough:

The problem, Waters said, is that Obama is not paying enough attention to the problems of some black Americans.  The unemployment rate for African-Americans nationally is a little over 16 percent, and almost twice that in Detroit.  And yet, Waters said, the president is on a jobs-promotion trip through the Midwest that does not include any stops in black communities.  “The Congressional Black Caucus loves the president too,” Waters said.  “We’re supportive of the president, but we’re getting tired, ya’ll.  We’re getting tired. And so, what we want to do is, we want to give the president every opportunity to show what he can do and what he’s prepared to lead on. We want to give him every opportunity, but our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is. We don’t know why on this trip that he’s in the United States now, he’s not in any black community.  We don’t know that.”

The core problem here is that American liberalism, embodied by Barack Obama, is at odds with itself.  Let’s just enumerate some of their stated objectives and how they contradict each other:

  1. More jobs for people.  Most of these are generated in the private sector, the government by and large doesn’t have the skill set to do this.  But with our extensively confusing (or is that confusingly extensive) legal and regulatory environment, only the largest players get to be a part of that.  And yet small business has traditionally generated new jobs and industries.  (Everyone has to start somewhere…)
  2. Redistribute income.  That’s terrific until it’s time to run an election, at which point the main beneficiaries of the current system become the main political contributors to maintain it.  You think progress will come out of that?
  3. Make the environment pristine again.  To achieve that will require two things the American people have been loathe to do on this account: sacrifice and reduce their standard of living.  If one believes in the apocalyptic scenarios that the likes of, say, Al Gore, puts forth, that sacrifice needs to be pretty drastic, as I pointed out (before I found out about all of the conspiratorial protocols Michele Bachmann talks about) in Barack Obama: Dreaming of the 50 Square Metre Apartment.
  4. Reduce the “colonialist” power of the U.S. around the world.  But that would embolden the jihadis, who would (given the chance) zip the flies and mouths of the left faster than any “Christianist” scheme (real or imagined) would.

To achieve all of this will require some kind of universal poverty, equally distributed, so that our “environmental footprint” will be reduced along with our income inequality.  Levelling and reducing incomes would, ideally, redistribute both wealth and spread the payroll around more, which would reduce unemployment.

But making an economy of this nature to really work is a trick, as the Soviets found out.  The next “best” (or really worst) thing is to put a good portion of the population on the dole, where their environmental impact is limited by what they get out of the government.  Maintaining that is dependent upon the cooperation of the working sector of the population, but over time that becomes harder and harder to come by.

The Black Caucus is beginning to figure out that the current scenario on their side of the aisle (they really don’t admit to Allan West) is a non-starter.  What’s needed is a new paradigm, but at this stage none is on the horizon.

If You Believe That Everything in Life That Goes Wrong is Someone Else’s Fault, You’re a Failure

A few years back I was involved in an extraordinarily complex business transaction.  It was complex not only because our legal system makes even the simplest transaction a mess, but also due to the nature of both sides of the transaction.  On my side, I was set as the chief negotiator of a group of peoples whose perceived best interests neither coincided with mine nor with each other, but who expected their respective laundry lists to be fulfilled.  On the other was a group of people who I suspect had the same problem, but from my standpoint their modus operandi was, in a word, bizarre.

The whole process took far too long and had far too many “bumps in the road,” to use their terminology.  My counterpart on the other side was what I would describe as a huffy, moralistic social liberal whose favourite habit when I hung tough on certain points was to browbeat me with the accusation that everything that was going wrong was my fault and that I should just capitulate on that account.  His ostensible goal was cooperation, but that was belied by his methodology.  In the end, however, we finally got the deal done.

After that, when they were in the driver’s seat, things didn’t go well for anyone.  When I would bring up problems, I would get the same huffy, moralistic response I got before.  Seeing the same style of mind going both ways, I understood the life lesson in front of me: if you believe that everything in life that goes wrong is someone else’s fault, you’re a failure, even if it really is someone else’s fault.  To put it another way, you can blame others and in some cases it will stick, but it doesn’t make for success.

That, in many ways, is the lesson our President has yet to learn in the wake of the debt crisis, the downgrade and the subsequent volatility of the stock market.  Every speech he makes seems to be an exercise in finger-pointing: it’s a “Tea Party downgrade,” the Republicans won’t compromise, etc..   Political analysts attempt to explain this rhetoric as an attempt to appeal to independents, who supposedly love compromise more than life itself.  But such an appeal will only stick as long as the independents are focused more on the political process and less on their own swelling indigence.

Others attempt to excuse our President as having a community organizer, Saul Alinsky “lead from behind” style.  Mobilise the masses, they say, and same masses will roll the opposition, as Mao Zedong predicted (and ultimately made happen) in China.  The difficulties of making that effective should be evident by the situation in Wisconsin.  They mobilized the masses, all right, but that hasn’t translated into defeat of the opposition.

It should strike one as odd, though, that the President of the United States, with broad executive powers, would feel compelled to resort to such tactics when he has a much more powerful arsenal at his disposal.  Mao was a revolutionary on the run when he reported on the peasant movement in Hunan, and one who didn’t have the undivided support of his party (to say nothing of the Soviets.)  A more pertinent model can be found across the Gulf of Mexico with people such as Juan Peron, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, who used both their popularity with “the people” and whatever executive authority they commandeered to cement their position and reward their supporters.

I don’t think that Barack Obama’s program will succeed any more for the country than it did for the countries of any of the aforementioned revolutionaries and heads of state.  But from a left-wing standpoint, the frustration with Barack Obama is justifiable.  Obama could have called the Republican’s bluff in a big way during the debt ceiling debate; he did not.  He could have decided to let the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010 and gotten away with it; he didn’t do that either.  Instead he’s reduced to a whiny blame game where his own failures—from his standpoint, not necessarily the country’s—are the fault of others.  It’s bad enough when you’re a failure from your opponents’ view, but when you become one from your own, you’re really in trouble.

At this point the country has the worst of both worlds.  The left cannot get their nirvana of “social justice” with the level of patronage for their clients and the bureaucrats they desire.  The right cannot get the victory either; they’re stuck in a country where too many people are of the same style of mind as the President.  So we have deterioration and failure on every side.

But my original life lesson from negotiations long ago remains: if you believe that everything in life that goes wrong is someone else’s fault, you’re a failure, even if it really is someone else’s fault.  In that respect Barack Obama is a failure.  The only thing he is accomplishing is to be the American equivalent of the Roman Emperor Honorius, who presided over the first sack of Rome and the loss of Britain.  He had a very long reign, and Barack Obama has a better than even chance of getting his second term. Personally, however, I wouldn’t want to be remembered in that way. Contrary to usual American thinking, the history of this country will be written after it is gone and people will only care about its—and his—success or failure.