Friday, September 30, 2005

Original sin?

Some of the Eastern Orthodox blame it on Augustine (not "Saint" Augustine in their reckoning). Some blame Jerome for the Latin Vulgate's allegedly careless rendering into Latin of a key prooftext, influencing western thought on the topic ever since. Whatever the case, the Eastern Church and the Western Church took different paths very early over the issue of "original sin". Many in the west took the view that guilt itself is inherited through generations; this is without sound Scriptural basis and is being openly questioned even in many Western Christian circles.

But the doctrine that we are born imperfect (sinful) is commonplace -- and not just within Christianity. The Hindus teach rebirth after rebirth on a path towards our true and pure spiritual state -- the upshot of which is that we are far from that now. The Buddhist stance that we need enlightenment and that we should strive after right thinking, etc. stands testimony to a view that naturally we are comparatively in the dark and don't even think straight. The Taoist emphasis on the Way makes its own comment about how often we're on the wrong path. Confucius' constant examination of the ideal man, the gentleman or benevolent man, includes a lament that he has never met one. The ever-growing self-help/self-improvement sections of the book stores reflect the widely-held assessment that we are not what we should be. All the religions mentioned here have a teaching of how we are meant to be, what we are meant to become -- and imply how sadly and tragically and even dangerously we are less than that. This is "original sin" in the Orthodox sense, possible in the original sense: being sinful or separated from God.

Want a test for how far off the mark we are?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself."

Did you ever notice that, if this were really the fullness of our desires in life, we would always be glad? When would we ever lack a source of joy if this love filled us? What part would boredom or apathy have in our days? Mediocrity, pettiness, loneliness and futility would be banished. Would we even recognize our lives if it were characterized by a deep-rooted love of all around us?

I would not comment on "original sin" to make anyone feel bad about how they are. On a basic level, people recognize the fact of being less than we were meant to be.
To think that this is actually how God intended us strays dangerously close to blasphemy against the creator. The "total depravity" doctrine of some circles is an acknowledgment of how low mankind can and will sink when it turns wholeheartedly away from God. An honest and humble survey of every life I know shows not just the scars of sins done by others, but the shame of those we ourselves have done to the harm of others. Rightly taught, "original sin" gives genuine hope that this is not all there is to humanity, that in the future there will be a restoration. That we hope for something better requires an admission that something is wrong here and now.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

My next-door-neighbor owes his life to 4 Katrina evacuees

Here in Houston, we're still picking up after Hurricane Rita which clipped us, helping our neighbors to the east as best we can ... and trading evacuation stories. The best so far was my next-door-neighbor.

He left Houston and like so many got stuck in horrible traffic in 100 degree weather. Being young and healthy, it never occurred to him that he could not drive out of Houston without stopping for water -- even after 10 hours behind the wheel, most of that in blazing heat. He passed out and hit the steering wheel. As he tells the story in his own words, "Four big black guys from New Orleans saw me, jumped in and doused me with water, got me some help." 90 or so people died during the evacuation, most of them from heat-related problems. We have the Katrina guests in Houston to thank that my next-door-neighbor was helped on the spot. As a side note, I can only be amazed what a selfless thing it would be to empty your water bottle under those circumstances ... trapped in 100 degree weather with no way to get more water and no idea how long you'll be stuck.

I've seen some disturbing posts around the blogosphere about what "those people" from New Orleans did, or will do in their new homes. It's a shame. A lot of the New Orleanians are heroes. One of the saddest parts of the New Orleans fiasco has been this: there has been relatively little notice of the thousands of people who did well and helped others and rose to the occasion.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The big problem with megachurches

I know my sheep and my sheep know me. - John 10:14

When Jesus describes his relationship to us, he repeatedly uses the picture of a shepherd taking care of the sheep. The shepherd knows who is lost, who is hurt, who is tired. He knows where they live and whether they have enough to eat. "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out ... His sheep will follow him because they know his voice" (from John 10:3-4). There is a bond of love and trust that is the most important part of making sure nobody gets lost.

The biggest problem with the megachurch is not all the things which can go wrong with the theology or the leadership. The biggest problem is what is sure to go wrong because the leader does not know each of his followers well enough to do his job of shepherding. Teaching and inspiring are only parts of the job of a pastor. If the pastor does not know who is hurt, who is tired, who is lost, if he does not know his peoples' names and where they are staying, if he does not know who is hungry, then he is not doing his job. "He makes me lie down in green pastures" (from Psalm 23); the shepherd knows who is tired in this overworked, overbusy culture and insists that they get some rest.

The problems can be traced back long before the megachurch movement. Pastors may perceive their job as teaching their people or inspiring their people. While that's part of the job, some have forgotten that this is not their entire job. American mass culture is very efficient -- but people get lost in the shuffle. We have let church become a place where people can get lost in the shuffle, even though our communities should be the last place on earth, the light on the hill, that people can call home. This is more important than ever in this era where fewer and fewer people have families on which they can rely.

I do not mean to suggest that the problem is limited to megachurches; only that, in megachurches where people come and go unnoticed unless they fill out a form, the problem is inevitable.

Update: To make the long story short, I think the missing ingredient is fellowship, which is the human aspect of it all. There's no fellowship between the pastor and the congregation, and most members have no fellowship at all with most of the other members.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Evacuated: Posting from a motel in Sugarland

Hi all

I've talked a couple of teenagers into giving me a shot at the computer but I said I'd only be a few minutes so I'll make this short: we evacuated just about 60 or 70 miles inland, which only took 3 hours despite the traffic because I'd put a lot of time into studying roads and alternate routes. I found what was apparently the last open motel room in Sugarland (which is a suburb on the west side of Houston). The storm was not much effect right here, maybe 40mph winds and not even the trailers are down, still have power and water where we are. Trying to get word about my home but that's hard to come by. Thanks for those who have expressed concern.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Mandatory Rita Evacuation ... 13% Probability of Strike

Local officials here, seeing that we are in the highest probability zone and the center of the probability projections for landfall of hurricane Rita this coming weekend, have ordered a mandatory evacuation of the suburb of Houston in which I live and all of Galveston County.

Problem #1: Though we're in the "highest probability" strike zone, that probability would be 13% at latest estimate. If you add in roughly another 12% for striking elsewhere but still too close for comfort, that still leaves a 75% chance of a miss.

Problem #2: The probability is only marginally lower than 13% for the entire Texas coastline all the way from Brownsville to Beaumont, a stretch of several hundred miles. A hit in Corpus Christi, much less Brownsville, would hardly affect us.

Problem #3: But if we're going to evacuate that many people in time, it means starting several days early. Starting several days early means there's a high probability that it's a waste of time.

If any of you outside of hurricane country have ever wondered why it's so typical to ignore warnings to leave, the reason is really very simple: most of the warnings are unnecessary. Playing the odds, people have won more often than not.

As for me, I expect to be evacuating. It's one thing to suspect that the current leaders are just a bit paranoid in the aftermath of Katrina; it's another to defy a mandatory evacuation order. I hope to be back before the start of next work week.

Update 09/21/2005 9:40pm
The above was written while Rita was category 2. Now Rita is category 5. This time, the call for evacuation seems to have been justified. As for me & mine, we're planning to head inland shortly. Our evacuation order calls for us to be underway by noon. Additional problem: roughly 1 million people are evacuating. The roads are parking lots. The inland cities receiving us probably do not have a combined population of 1 million themselves. And my original plan to head across town to stay with a relative on higher ground are now scrapped because she is also now under evacuation order.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Guilt, forgiveness, and regret

If you have lived long enough, then by now there will be something you have said or done that you truly regret. It may be unkind words that were out of your mouth and you could not call them back. It may have been something against your conscience. Maybe nobody knows about it except you.

Guilt is a miserable thing. And as awful as guilt is, it's strange how little comfort people -- even Christians -- draw from God's forgiveness. How often is God's forgiveness actually embraced with gladness and relief? How often is forgiveness, instead, looked on with suspicion and distrust? Distrusting God's forgiveness leads very directly to an apathy towards that forgiveness. How can you receive something gladly if you doubt that it applies to your own sin, or when you doubt that it is here to stay?

There are various reasons for this. The one on which I wish to focus now is regret. When we do something wrong, we regret it. We wish we had never done it, or said it, or felt it, or thought it. We imagine, because we still regret it, that we are not truly forgiven. When we are plagued with regret, we take it as evidence against our forgiveness. We imagine that, if we were in fact forgiven, that we would no longer feel that way.

But the more we look at that idea, the more plainly we see that it's wrongheaded. The more pure-hearted we become, the more we will regret ever having hurt another person or ever having contaminated our lives with sin. I would be much more worried about a sinner who never regretted wrongdoing. A pig who rolls in the mud doesn't mind being filthy. If he hates being filthy, it's a good sign that he's not at home in the mud anymore. The day will soon come when the mud disgusts them so badly that he can never go back to it. The more strongly we have repented of our sins -- the more we have turned away from what is wrong and turned again towards God -- the more strongly we will regret ever having done evil things.

Are we able to turn our backs on our regret? Should we even try? Turning our backs on regret does not mean turning our backs on a person we have hurt. If we have harmed someone, they should know our regret. If it is in our power to do anything to make things right again, we should do it. For whatever is beyond us, we should pray for God's help and healing as often as it comes to mind. And whenever we think of what we did, the proper feeling may in fact be regret. It doesn't mean we are not forgiven.

Two more things remain to be said.

First, this does not mean it is right to stay mired in regret. Our goal is not to feel regret, but to turn towards God. A mind filled with regret is a mind still filled with thoughts of the sin that is past. It's better if we fill our minds instead with God, reminding ourselves of his power, his majesty, his holiness -- and his compassion on our weakness. When we look at the world he has made and see how full of goodness it is, we know that all the sins of all of us combined will never destroy his goodness. So we can allow our hearts to be glad in God, even give the heart a nudge if it needs it.

Second, our regret may remain after we are forgiven. Regret does not mean that we are not forgiven. We have a covenant with God; Jesus is the covenant. That covenant is for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is our ransom and our atonement. When plagued by regret, I remember the account of the sinful woman who came and wept at Jesus' feet. She was so full of regret that she couldn't hold it in, even in front of critics. Jesus told her, "Your sins, which are many, are forgiven." There was no "maybe" in his words. We might find that our minds trust in forgiveness sometimes and doubt it at others. Regardless of the whirlwinds in our minds, we can stand on God's promise: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us ..." (Been there, done that.) "... But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8-9). God will forgive us and cleanse us ... whether my spinning mind can grasp it or not.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Katrina Evacuees in Houston: A look inside a megashelter

It's been about 3 weeks since Katrina now. Anyone interested in how the megashelters are actually working, and how people are actually doing inside there?

After the initial scramble to get everyone situated here in Houston, things have settled into a bit of a routine. The various religious groups within the first few days coordinated the massive volunteer efforts, with each group having a designated day or set of days to staff the volunteer posts. (Mental note: next time someone goes on about how they don't like "organized" religion, tell them how nice it was to have this organized.) My group doesn't come into rotation until next week, but they put out a general call for extra hands for some special projects this weekend, so I found myself at the Astrodome/Reliant Park complex Saturday night. A number of people find homes or apartments daily, and some people are now able to go back home, so that now only a few thousand people are left in the megashelters. In fact, today they consolidated down to only one megashelter, from an original high of 4 megashelters in town.

Outside, dozens of national guardsmen in uniform made a very visible security presence. Inside, both the Houston Police and the National Guard had a visible presence. There obviously wasn't going to be much trouble with that much display of security. Volunteers were tagged with wristbands to identify us and cycled through orientation sessions beginning roughly every 10 to 15 minutes. Then we were staged much like day laborers in a pool of people waiting to be called. As I went through my orientation I could see the occasional people in Red Cross uniforms or various other official uniforms come call out their needs for jobs and number of volunteers, and the volunteers filed away to work. After my orientation, it was only 5 or 10 minutes waiting in the labor pool before I was put to work: evening food service. They formed us up into teams to work the half-dozen serving lines that were open. My team was four typical Houstonians (a white woman, a Hispanic woman, two black men) and a man who had driven all the way from San Jose, California to find some way to help, and had been helping all day every day since he'd arrived in town. Our team stayed intact during the entire evening meal service.

A TV camera crew was moving through the commons. Most people seemed bored with TV cameras by now. The camera crew sought out a family with an extra-cute toddler with her hair done up pretty sitting at a large table and picked up an interview. Some of the residents who weren't tired of cameras made their way over. One was the angriest woman I'd seen in the shelter. She got an interview. (Most people looked more bored and worried than angry.) Another man with an odd grin and shuffling walk followed the cameras around and tried to walk in front of the camera as often as he could. He did not get an interview. Mental note: glad they got the angry woman's interview *before* she saw what was for dinner.

Saturday night dinner: sweet and sour chicken over rice; bread; ice cream for dessert (really nice big individual-serving containers); bottled water or kiddie-sized juice or milk containers; granola bars; fresh apples. Special needs meals on request. Lots of funny looks for the sweet and sour chicken. Lots of people looking and walking off. Lots of people getting huge helpings. Policy: serve as much as they want. Comments: Chicken again? We had chicken for lunch. When I'm at home, I make red beans and rice. At the Superdome they fed us red beans and rice. I wish we could have catfish. The guy from San Jose mentioned that there had been many more people at dinner the day before. Later, when I was bussing tables, I noticed many tables with no signs of the sweet and sour chicken, but instead loaded with McDonald's bags, or Burger King, even the occasional KFC or Popeye's Chicken bag from a smiling person who had his red beans and rice. (That's a Cajun favorite, for anybody not from around these parts.) Luckily there are several fast-food outfits in walking distance of the complex. After all the residents had their fill, the San Jose volunteer took a large helping of the sweet and sour chicken and said it was great, went back for seconds.

For a short time I was sent as our line's official line helper to carry meals for people pushing wheelchairs or strollers. One fellow in a wheelchair wanted help carrying his ice cream and bottled water back to the dorms, which was my first view of any of the dorms. It was a huge open area, just a sea of cots. His family had a section of cots together.

How are they doing? Everyone had food and clothes, was clean and fed. Some are still looking for family. Most are worried about their homes and about how they will replace what they lost. All of them are tired of being in a shelter. Some are frustrated to still be here, had hoped to be out by now. The apartment waiting list is long, the city has only been able to place a few hundred people per day in apartments and other homes, as they're also trying to arrange at least basic furniture as well.

The resident kids were bored. Some of them had basketballs and were dribbling around. Two had "borrowed" unused wheelchairs and were having a wheelchair race. Someone put a stop to that pretty quickly, they were having a blast but it wasn't the safest thing for them to be zipping around that fast between tables in a crowded commons. A toddler had a push toy. Two tables full of teenage and pre-teen boys had an electronic game hooked up to a portable TV plugged into an outlet.

Bussing tables, I had the chance to see one thing mentioned in orientation. "Excuse me, sir, I'm clearing up the trash. May I take that?" "NO NO NO that's MINE." No problem, let me know when you're ready. After the same scene had recurred three or four times, it sank in: They've lost everything. Some of them cannot handle the thought of being parted from anything at all, even if it's just an empty chicken McNugget box. Eventually, maybe on the next trip through the commons, they were all ready to let me take their trash. After my third round of the commons bussing tables, it was about time I had to head out. My volunteer coordinator replaced me with another busser. A cloud of smoke outside the door, no smoking indoors. Outside, a man with a resident wristband who had saved basically only his clarinet from the flood was playing a bluesy tune. Reminded me of my last trip to the French Quarter. One boy was in the parking lot with a wheelchair he obviously didn't need, popping wheelies and staying like that longer than I would have believed.

Quite a mix of ok and not ok. It'll do for today.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Women's Movement: The Line between Justice and Revenge

I'll have to admit that, as a woman, I've lived all my adult life taking basic legal rights for granted. I can vote. I am in a job that was once considered a man's job, and it's been over a decade since anyone even commented on a woman being in my position. What did it take to get where we are today, where I can own property in my own name, hold a job outside the traditional women's ghetto, be admitted to institutions of higher education, vote, sign legal contracts, and all the other things our founding fathers took for granted as men? I have to read about that in the history books. The first stage was justice, legal recognition, full personhood. It was much needed.

But we're only human. "Righting the wrongs" tempts us to go one better and stoop to revenge. Have we gone there? I see T-shirts in the stores: "Girls are smarter than boys," reads a T-shirt in the girl's section. The boy's section has no "Boys are smarter than girls" shirt. My children watch reruns of Wonder Woman on DVD: "Men are violent, our peaceful paradise has no men". I watch movies with my children: "They're just men, that's how men are" (the movie Mulan had some parts that were so anti-male that they offended me). I hear female comedians, "I don't like to blame men for their inadequacies. It doesn't seem fair. After all, they can't help it" (in Garrison Keillor's Pretty Good Jokes audio collection). Let's face it, too often we've stooped to revenge. If it was really wrong when they did it to us, then it's also wrong when we do it to them. The examples I've drawn are all taken from the mainstream; denigrating men in public, whether in broadcast or in writing, has become acceptable. Is denigrating someone for their sex really acceptable to us? Is it truly justice that we're seeking?

I've often tried to pinpoint the dividing line between justice and revenge. It's no simple thing to do. I don't claim to have solved the problem. But I'm fairly sure of this: when we say or do things calculated to hurt someone we hardly know over a wrong that most of us can hardly remember, we're on the wrong side of the line.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Abortion, Choice, and Wisdom

With the confirmation hearings underway for a new Chief Justice for the U.S. Supreme Court, it is inevitable that political conversation has turned toward abortion. The discussions of legality are important, and I hope to blog about different aspects of that in future posts. But for today I'd like to focus on wisdom.

In the Declaration of Independence, we find that our forefathers considering fighting for independence from Britain were not prepared to make such a momentous decision for "light and transient" reasons. In general, serious and permanent decisions should be made for matchingly serious and permanent reasons, not comparatively light and transient ones. When it comes to abortion, the decision is momentous and permanent. Given that abortions are legal, we are asking: are they wise?

A coworker told me she was struggling with whether to have an abortion, and though she was distressed because she wanted the child, for financial reasons she chose abortion. A friend from high school had two abortions. Years later, she would still tell me how old each of her children would have been, would even talk to the fathers of her children about how things might have been. Another friend of mine who had an abortion admitted to still having nightmares about it years later.

I know these women, friends and coworkers. What do all these abortions have in common? The women later regretted them. They second-guessed themselves, knowing that they could have made some sacrifices and kept a child -- their own child. If the only ones who ever questioned abortion were people who never faced the hardships of raising children under tough conditions, then we might more easily brush off the criticism. But the most heart-rending reasons against abortion I've ever heard are from friends who have aborted their own children. Looking back, they considered their own reasons to have been insufficient -- at least in comparison with their child's life. They're living with deep regrets, wishing they could undo something that simply cannot be undone.

I think it does reflect a problem with our land when an abortion is available for any reason at all. The decision is permanent. When stacked up against your own child's life, most reasons just won't do. Even for those who believe that this genetically unique human is somehow not yet human while still in the womb, there's reason to ask: your decision is permanent; how sure are you that your reasons will be permanent as well?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Christian Carnival

This week's Instant Carnival is now up at Pseudo-Polymath. Personal favorite from this week's carnival: And He Shall Be Called.

Seeker-Senstive Church?

I've read a few commentaries on the pro's and con's of seeker-sensitive churches, or how to be a seeker-sensitive church. But the articles I've read have managed to miss the point. It seems intuitive that the best way to be a seeker-sensitive church is to have something worth finding. Most churches assume without question that they have something worth finding, and so turn their attention to other matters which at its worst comes nauseatingly close to marketing.

Shouldn't churches assume without question that they have something worth finding? To the extent that they have Jesus, that's true. But how many churches are really centered around Jesus? Isn't that what we ought to be seeking, and what the seekers ought to be finding? If people want good music, Christianity has produced some of the best music in history from Bach to Beethoven and beyond. I don't want to under-value good music; I know what it's like to belong to a church where good music is under-valued. Bad music takes the joy out of the songs and can completely frustrate any good that might be in the lyrics. C.S. Lewis' comment -- fourth-rate sermons set to fifth-rate tunes or something to that effect -- comes to mind. I've also been to services with contemporary music where the tunes and lyrics aren't great, and I don't see it matters much which style of song it is that people aren't singing because the words are vapid and the tune difficult and unmemorable. But if people were leaving their homes just for music they'd go to a concert. If people were leaving their homes just for the emotional rush involved in the high-impact service, they'd go to a movie. If the church wants to be sensitive to seekers, we have to ask ourselves: people seeking what? And which things being sought are legitimately what we're here to do?

"We want to see Jesus." (John 12:21)

That's what the seeker-sensitive church is about: having what is worth finding. After that, we can worry about the music.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Over-pruning the tree of life

Have you ever met a quality assurance department? Their job is to catch mistakes. They can weed out what is flawed. If they have a good eye for quality and for the final product, that improves the end results. But if they prune too fiercely, the plant is damaged. When that's the case, they create deserts in their wake and for all their work, the one thing they cannot create is quality. They can prune, but they cannot grow. They can destroy, but not create. And if the quality control department itself has no quality controls on its own workings, the results can be disastrous. Like a letter that has been cut to pieces in a well-intentioned effort to improve it, an overly-zealous QA department can actually leave things in a worse condition than the first.

Right now, I believe the Quality Control branch of Christianity is out of control itself. It doesn't know when to stop pruning. It doesn't recognize healthy growth when it sees it, doesn't recognize which parts ought to be cut and which ought to stay. And it definitely does not recognize that it could ever, ever be part of the problem. In an effort to have something pure, it has instead made some areas nearly sterile.

There are three areas that I think need to be reclaimed from being blacklisted by the folks in QA:

Reclaiming a collegial approach to certain aspects of theology
While many things are clearly taught us, we have also asked questions that go beyond what is written. Areas in which the Bible and the ancient church do not require a specific stand may allow some legitimate differences of opinion. The QA department intuitively dislikes the idea of legitimate differences; their entire job depends on knowing with certainty what is right and wrong. That's a good job; it should be limited to areas where we do in fact know with certainty what is right and wrong.

Reclaiming a rightful place for joy, gladness, and love
In today's vast academic desert, many serious thinkers -- and even many Christians -- have abandoned matters of the heart. With all the intellectual rigor of my son fleeing cooties on the playground, we've swept "emotions" into Oprah's corner of the world or into the world of psychology. The heart has been deemed irrational and largely unworthy of serious consideration. Although joy, gladness, and love are among the things we most treasure in life, we've lost hold of them and have become unwilling to publicly consider them as even worthy of mention. The gifts of God which give us the most value in life must not be an embarrassment and cannot be banned from our discussions.

Reclaiming a rightful place for beauty, awe, and wonder
We're an age that likes its mysteries solved, its facts catalogued, measured, and analyzed. But few things energize a human soul in the same way as beauty, awe, and wonder. Having analyzed the world around us does not require that we cease to appreciate it. I'd like to reclaim the great heritage of Christian mysticism: a rational soul's response to an awesome world. Granted, the Quality Assurance department had largely shut down mysticism in this part of the world because mysticism had its fair share of flakes, and (at its worst) had become just one more avenue for the unspiritual to exercise spiritual one-upmanship and call it spirituality. (Most of that work has now been transferred to the Quality Assurance department.) But the sidelining of mysticism has left little appreciation for beauty and wonder, awe and mystery. Those who acknowledge the experience of God as part their lives often these days present a one-sided intellectualism or emotionalism instead of a deeper, more sustained encounter with God.

Experiencing problems with the theological QA department? I'd like to hear about it.

Give to God what is God's

Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and give to God that which is God's.
It's the answer with which Jesus outsmarted those trying to trap him. But is that really all he was trying to do? Outsmarting us sinners, so blinded by our own self-centered natures, is not a very difficult thing to do. I imagine we're very much missing Jesus' point. Every sermon I've ever heard on this subject, every time I've ever heard it quoted, was about giving to Caesar that which is Caesar's. But what about giving to God that which is God's? Jesus did more than try to side-step a trap; he also tried to open our eyes. It was a short exchange between Jesus and those trying to trap him:

"Is it lawful to pay taxes?" they asked him.

"Show me the coin for paying the taxes," he said to those trying to trap him. "Whose name is on it, and whose image?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

"Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and give to God that which is God's."
What has Caesar's name on it and Caesar's image? The coin. When it was made, it was stamped with his name and image. Give it back to Caesar. It's his doing anyway; it's only fitting that we give it back to him.

What has God's name on it and God's image? We do. We have God's name on us. We are made in God's image. The thing that has God's name and God's image, the thing that's supposed to be given back to God -- that's us.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Gettysburg Principle and Biblical Inerrancy

In American writing, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is considered among the true masterpieces. I'd heard for years that, if run through a style checking tool in a word processor, the style checker would fault the Gettysburg Address. I tried the experiment tonight, pasting the text of Lincoln's address into MSWord and running the style checker. And, according to the computer, there are quite a few errors for such a short speech. Roughly 40% of the text was underlined as needing attention. So is Lincoln's style not really as good as we think he was, or does the computer analysis have roughly as much awareness of the greatness of the speech as a silverfish (paper-eating insect) who complains the speech is too dry?

I've long been impatient with the errancy/inerrancy debates on the Bible because, like the silverfish or the word processor, they're analyzing the wrong thing to be relevant. I could rush to defend Lincoln's grammar from the word processor ... or I could mention that the word processor actually has no clue about what's really important about the speech. The inerrancy debate on the Bible often focuses on things like how many years such a king sat on the throne, or how many generations passed between one person and the next. And while the Bible has shown itself to be generally reliable in its record, the fate of the universe does not actually swing on whether Saul's daughter Michal ever had a child. The fate of the universe swings on whether God loves and forgives and restores to life.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hurricane Readiness: The Search for a Workable Plan

I've lived in hurricane country most of my life. I've been through more named storms than I could easily count. For the conversation about what we can do better, I'd like to offer this modest proposal.

Hurricane response should be tiered according to the classification of the hurricane. An example response plan might be:

All Categories of Hurricanes
  • Have warehoused containers of emergency supplies ready to ship within 1 day's drive of areas likely to suffer disasters
  • Have designated, pre-announced bus pickup sites for evacuees to avoid confusion and road congestion
  • Have designated, pre-announced shelter plans for large-scale evacuations
  • Have registry of people needing further assistance evacuating

Category 1
  • Evacuate all areas within 1 mile of coast and structures not rated for Category 1 winds (e.g. trailers, shacks)
  • Non-evacuees to have 3 days' supplies on hand

Category 2
  • Evacuate all areas within 2 miles of coast and structures not rated for Category 2 winds
  • Have 1 week's supplies on hand

Category 3
  • Evacuate all areas within 5 miles of coast or elevation less than 10 feet above sea level, and structures not rated for Category 3 winds.
  • Have 1 week's supplies on hand

Category 4
  • Evacuate all areas within 10 miles of coast or elevation less than 10 feet above sea level, and structures not rated for Category 4 winds
  • Have 2 weeks' supplies on hand

Category 5
  • Evacuate all areas within 20 miles of coast, or elevation less than 20 feet above sea level, and structures not rated for Category 5 winds
  • Have 2 weeks' supplies on hand

In addition to these, I think it would generally be advisable to have emergency funds available for disasters -- which occur with predictable regularity -- pre-approved and budgeted.

Friday, September 02, 2005

100,000 refugees in Houston: best in-town efforts

With current estimates that 100,000 of Katrina's refugees are with us in Houston now, with some 15,000 at the Astrodome alone, I'll have to say that one more time I'm in awe of this city's generosity and efficiency. I have to wonder how this compares with other large-scale refugee relocation efforts in our nation's history, and how close Houston 2005 comes to topping the list for sheer vastness.

There are too many heroes to count or name; I don't know of anybody who hasn't contributed money, material, and/or time. Still, here are a few that especially caught my eye:

Local TV Stations
Various local TV stations have run fundraisers, blood drives, food drives, and campaigns and databases to match refugees with employers, housing, and other family members. The fund-raiser which I mentioned on the blog in my previous post generated $6.3 million dollars from Houston viewers and corporations that day, and people continue to contribute.

500 Midnight Volunteers
This morning at 1:00am, the call went out that the Astrodome was full and we would also need to prepare Reliant Stadium to receive refugees, volunteers please report immediately. In how many other cities would a call at 1:00am have generated 500 volunteers before daybreak?

Houston Independent School District
Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston

Houston Independent School District is expecting to enroll as many as 8,000 new students in this next week. They have waived normal requirements for transcripts, vaccination records and so forth, and are enrolling refugees provided only that they show up. Some refugee children are already in classes. The Houston-Galveston Archdiocese has similarly agreed to enroll refugees without much of the normal paperwork filed; given the numbers of Roman Catholic schools in New Orleans whose students are now in Houston, this will be a much-needed help.

Papa John's Pizza
Many restaurants are donating food. Papa John's Pizza has also pledged 150 jobs (largely created by feeding the refugees) to the refugees themselves.

Best Website for On-the-ground Houston Efforts
Rice University has information of the kind I look for, generally more useful for activist purposes than the news stations' websites.

Bill White, Mayor of Houston
Rick Perry, Governor of Texas

These two have done a top-notch job of lining up resources, smoothing out administrative hassles, cutting hotel taxes, and in general assisting however possible.

Free Activities for Refugees
There are many, many places around town offering free admission to anyone showing a valid driver's license from Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama. Of these, Houston Museum of Natural Science is my personal favorite.

Many Area Churches
Many churches have offered up their facilities for use as Red Cross shelters; a large percentage of Red Cross shelters are in churches. As Houstonians will remember after the incredible flooding in Houston in 2001, the largest shelter was not an official shelter at all, but the church of Joel Osteen, which was filled with thousands of refugees from that storm.

Out-of-town Kudos
Nods are also due to the cities of Dallas and San Antonio, each expecting an additional 25,000 refugees, and to the city of Baton Rouge, which has done Louisiana proud.

For Anyone Interested in Logistics
The Astrodome has been assigned its own ZIP code so that residents may begin receiving mail. For today, New Orleans mail was rerouted to Houston by default, and some people have already received much-needed social security checks.