Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Greatest Presbyterian Who Ever Lived

The following is a tribute to my former pastor, Tom Barnes. Tom was the Teaching Elder of our little P.C.A. congregation in Greenville, Westminster Presbyterian Church, from 1989-2005. He has completed his sojourn here on earth now in Robertsdale, Alabama, surrounded by his family.  This blog is being distrubed privately to those of us closest to the Barnes.

Why are we Christians? Why does God choose us, and why do we reciprocate the choice? Every now and then in life you meet someone who fully answers the question. This individual doesn't actually give a verbal answer, but instead reveals it through his life and actions, of which any words to the effect are a subset. This individual is an expression of the Master Artist. He or she is a sculpture fitted for God's garden, even if we are currently banished from the garden.

Tom Barnes was one of these individuals. He had been in private business and received the call to ministry late in life. He left behind a successful insurance agency to work as a church janitor so that he could attend seminary during the day. Simultaneously, he and his wife Mary had their third child, Claire. He joked that his fellow seminary students claimed that Tom and Mary's conception of Claire proved the scientific likelihood of Abraham and Sarah's conception of Isaac.

This is but one example of the joy that coursed through his veins. But it is his actions I will never forget. When one smarts off his mouth, God gives one a Tom Barnes to gently correct the attitude. When one abuses the gifts one has been given, God gives one a Tom Barnes. When one makes commitments one can't or won't honor, God gives one a Tom Barnes. When one is so full of himself so as to manipulate others into the same delusion, God gives one a Tom Barnes. When one’s family is in pieces, God gives a Tom Barnes. When one's sinfulness and weakness succeed in alienating one from everyone else who cares about you, God gives one a Tom Barnes. God gave me a Tom Barnes.

Presbyterians are notorious for being inward, or the "frozen chosen." Whether you are involved in a vibrant fellowship or a dying mainline congregation, the tendency of those of us whose worship is intricately woven with Calvinism tend to think we’re special. Tragically, and in disobedience to God, our openness and evangelism suffers. Not so if you ever met Tom Barnes. He understood compassion and didn’t think twice about expressing it. Presbyterians get their name from the Greek presbuteros, which means “elder.” The ancient Hebrews used it to describe the men of faithful devotion in their synagogues and institutions well before Paul used it in explaining how a church was to be organized and governed. 1 Timothy 3:2-4 lists the qualities a “presbyter” is to have. The verses read like the Apostle just met Tom Barnes. He was the greatest Presbyterian who ever lived.

When we wonder why we are Christians, God reveals to us a Tom Barnes so that we can not only see and understand the model, but we can get a glimpse of what that mysterious thing called God's glory looks like. Servants like Tom Barnes are the happy subtext to the Bible's statement that Christians become "the righteouness of Christ." When we doubt the journey we are on, we can look at the twilight faithfulness of a Tom Barnes and remember why we are Christians.

God bless you, Claire and Mary as you hold this great man by his hands as he nears the river. God bless you, Tom. Save me a place in the court of our King next to General Lee and Stonewall.

NOTE:  This blog has been revised from its original post date.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

REVIEW of "Lincoln": Spoiled by Spielberg

The only redeeming quality about watching Steven Spielberg's candidate win reelection earlier this month was eagerly waiting to watch his movie about Abraham Lincoln, which was released yesterday.  Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President, my two sons and I were counting the minutes when we could see the big-budget Hollywood treatment of the man responsible for the War Between the States.

Of course, the craftsmanship of the film is exceptional.  And my biggest fear was not realized:  that we'd be stuck with another drawn out visual snoozer a'la War Horse.  This was remedied by Tony Kushner's strong script which went the route all period dramas should, which is do the best you can with historic language.  This script in turn forced Speilberg to rely on his skill with the camera to deliver the diaglogue-reliant story without falling into the boredom which can come from, say, a poorly-stage Shakespeare play.  And, I earnestly believe Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor of our time.  I don't fawn after his movies, but Lewis is unbelievable - or fully believeable - in this role.  I actually thought it was Lincoln from the very start.

Here, however, I have to stop the good words.  Blame the history nerd within.  Spielberg and Kushner do accomplish one lone service to the record:  that Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field) was not completely deranged as First Lady.  In fact, she was every bit the political animal Lincoln was, and that comes across masterfully by Field at sweet moments in the couple's scenes.  The tragedies of her life were hard on her, undoubtedly, and it is true that she had trouble holding herself together as the years went on, but the real Mary Todd was quite lucid and sharp in the interval.  Lincoln probably would not have made it to be the President to push through the 13th Amendment had it not been for her.

Otherwise Lincoln tells one big liberal lie that is hard to stomach, and it does it with a uniquely Leninist technique:  by embellishing history.  The film's plot is built around passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives.  Passage of an amending resolution (an H.J.Res) requires a 2/3rds majority in each chamber before it is sent out to the states for ratification, as set forth by the Constitution.  In early 1865, Lincoln needed 20 votes beyond the Republican bloc in order to get this.  In the movie, an affable crew of political fixers, including an especially greasy James Spader, set out to bribe congressmen they suspect are ripe for the corrupting.

Yes, the record reveals that considerable horse-trading was done by the administration with congressmen to get passage.  The record does not, however, suggest anything to the degree of corruption portrayed in the film.  I guess having a unit of "plumbers" supported by the White House is ok as long as they are pursuing a liberal agenda.  But dirty politics aside, the deeper, uniquely liberal lie of the film is encapsualted by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, who was Al Gore's college roommate) at the film's end:  "The greatest measure of the 19th Century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."  In other words, the means are irrelevant as long as your motives are righteous.  Knowing of the filmmakers' mega-support of President Obama, this line is nauseating, frankly.  I was being pleasantly entertained by Spielberg,, until I was forced to hear the jarring note of an Obamacare commercial.

Anyway, these are my thoughts.  Go to see it just to witness Day-Lewis' grand performance.  To keep your inner history nerd from spoiling all the fun, check out this handy article from The Kansas City Star which does the fact-checking for you.  WARNING:  spoilers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Signature #25,674,681

We've been having some cyber adventures this week with Micah H.'s petition to the White House to allow Texas to secede.  I do not know Micah H.  I did, however, sometime when were back in the 19,000s, notice a "Trey B.," but he was from Cedar Hill, which is roughly 60 miles to the southwest of me.  Micah H. holds the either certifiable or heroic -- depending on your point of view -- Signature #1 on the petition.  He's either the first patient in the asylum to scream or the Samuel Adams of the state.  I wonder if he and his 103,736 (as of this writing) fellow cantakeriots realize that via their email, they have eagerly done the Obama Administration's work for them of creating a database of subversives.  Don't let the four simple fields fool you; by signing in to the We the People website to sign on, your email and the IP address that got you there now mean there is absolutely no escape for you, your family, or that dog of yours with the heavy carbon footprint.

The secession petition is legitimate protest, however.  Millions of freedom-loving Americans are still stunned over what happened last week - but not over Obama's status quo reelection.  We are reeling from the contest's symbolic shift of America's descent into irresponsibility.  Columnist S.E. Cupp attempted to downplay this great conspiracy by the 47% by going on about how conservatives need to explain themselves better.  Not possible given the current educational system, I'm sorry.  To quote Ann Coulter, It's over.

But that's OK.  If you're a Christian, see my last post so that you don't despair.  There is also reason not to despair if you just a good ol' red-blooded American, too.  But secession is not the answer.  It should only seriously be considered if you have the chance to be Signature #25,674,681 (this figure is the 2011 population of Texas).  If you are this signature, we have already formed the Army of the Republic of Texas.  Please report to your nearest recruiting station.  Every man, woman and child will need a gun.

Seriously though, there is a Ghandiesque flavor to the secession petition.  It kinda fits in the "first they ignore/then they ridicule/then they fight" mixture.  We'll see how long the White House takes to respond.  With the exceptions of Georgia and Florida, which were sill close to the 25,000 signature threshold at press time, only the Texas petition cries out to be answered.  I'm not expecting much, though, outside of a boilerplate response that the petition was received with subtle instructions to replace one's sheets back on to one's bed.

I don't need to expect much, either.  Nor do I need to.  My goal is to take care of myself and my family and focus on my neighbor.  I believe steadfastly in the power of conservative principles to help my neighbor care for himself, but the onus is ultimately on me as a follower of God to convey those principles.  Any document that comes my way better not require a signature that commits me to anything less.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Out With the Newt, in With the O

A old friend of mine from the Hill -- a Democrat -- giddily reported to me last night that the President was going to do something new in his second term to promote fitness and competition among the country's youth, starting next year.  The program, which he can implement via Executive Order, had been on hold pending his re-election.  Apparently, starting in the summer of 2013, regions of the country will be organized into twelve districts, then each district will send a boy and girl to compete in a kind of national Olympics.  My friend said the EO will provide that the rules of these games will be such that they can be altered from year to year in case they start to get boring.

Jusk kidding.

To be honest, I'm quite puzzled as to why this tired, jaded hack feels the way he does about last night.  As a Republican, I have more heartbreak than consummation for my trouble; as a consultant I definitely have more Ls than Ws.  So why do I have a sense of foreboding about the totals from yesterday?  Why am I not resting on the comfort that the House of Representatives has been bolstered in its role as stopper to the Obama agenda?

I think because last night we saw America say, "Yes, I want what's mine and some of what you have, too."  It was raw.  It represented a paradigm shift, permitted by the financial bailout starting four years ago.  We are becoming a statist nation.  It's real, and it's here.  We no longer have to warn and whine about it.  We are, in fact, there.

But I don't want to scrawl out some kind of lament, either, because I'm not sad.  Politics has never given cause to depress me.  I actually think this is a good thing, chiefly because Christians who have taken on the duty to get engaged in the process can finally begin to separate their American-ness from their faith, their house from their true Home.  We can jettison this hackneyed, specious attitude of exceptionalism that's been around in various forms for the past 175 years and finally celebrate our country's true virtues for what they are.  We can accept the gross defects along with those virtues and truly understand God's right purpose in our lives, communities and nation.  And if persecution develops as a result of observing and celebrating these virtues, well, then, we as American Christians can officially say we have joined the human race.

Many of my fellow activists are verbalizing their preparation for the next fight.  Certainly, this is a duty that should not be avoided.  But the old style of conservatism found in the old Grand Old Party is dead, and it will not return.  The nation is not listening to us.  Governor Romney was an as articulate rock star of business and fiscal policy as we've ever put on the ballot at ANY LEVEL, and he could not close the deal.  This is because the people don't even want the deal; they are not even in the room.  Empathy and concern within public policy positions is part of the solution, but this has been tried overtly before in Compassionate Conservatism with ridiculous results.  Neither is the solution in picking "tougher conservatives" to lead us.  For every Ted Cruz there's a Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock - two nincompoops who failed us miserably.  And as capable as Mr. Cruz is, the nature of his service will be one of vocality and confrontation, not stewardship.  Pontificating will become the nature of Senate service as never before for both sides.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich got a burst last winter because he is a man of ideas who can get your attention with them.  He more than anyone got Romney the nomination because he forced the Governor to take on the language of problem-solver and creative thinker during the GOP debates.  This is indeed Newt's great legacy to the Republicans.  But America has chosen to reject ideas.  They only want benefits.  To borrow a phrase from the President during the second debate, "There's nothing wrong with that; that's just what they do."

Sorry to be a downer, but I think it helps for us all to understand exactly what we're dealing with as we move...well...Forward.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Liberal Who Was Saved (or How to Anger Every One of your Facebook Friends)

In light of the upcoming election, I thought I would provide a memoir-like post that might shed a little light on what's happened to the country politically and where the Christian fits in.  That, and world peace are all subjects one can easily lay out in an online post.

Winston Churchill once said, "If you're not a liberal when you're twenty you don't have a heart.  If you're not a conservative when you're forty, you don't have a brain."  This kind of describes most of my political journey.  As I've always said, I've had a special affinity for politics, becoming active when I was very young.  In college, however, at Wheaton, I dallied with more liberal-minded ideas.  There were two "cultures" or dynamics which allowed for this, and they sketch a miniature version of what I think has happened to so much of the electorate.

First, almost all of my friends were through the theater, and perhaps my most influental professor was there, the late Jim Young.  Jim was an unabashaed liberal Democrat whose office was adorned with McGovern campaign posters and the like.  Although it was easy to spot and slightly obnoxious, his liberalism nevertheless possessed the street cred of deep, true, unconditional compassion for others.  This influence had the effect of turning young people from conservative Christian households into partisan Ds and of legitimizing the free-thinking rebelliousness of others, which is common at this age.  Most powerful, Jim's theater culture was a place where young Christian men struggling with their sexual orientation could find acceptance.  I had many friends who were having a hard time with this.  But during my years at Wheaton (1990-1993), I witnessed Jim change from a counselor who hoped to guide these young men out of their homosexuality, into a quiet supporter of homosexual behavior among those who still tried to call themselves Christians.  In the process he took up their demands for political equality.  As a twenty-year-old who thought Christians could still respect each other but disagree politically, this disillusioned me.  To make sense of brothers in Christ like Jim who seemed to cross a line from a policy disagreement into condoning sin, I tried to tell myself he was being caring of someone who was gay the same way he might care about another student who was struggling with some chemical addiction or another sexual problem.  But to see Jim become a quiet advocate convinced me that Christians who went down the path of modern liberalism could not escape compromising where it mattered most.  Although I loved Jim, I was made afraid of his weakness in this area, specifically how he essentially politicized sin.  I wanted to find another path, which I'll talk more about in a minute.

The second culture which flirted with my political conscience came courtesy of the ministry-driven extracurricular program of Wheaton.  Located 20 miles from Chicago's notorious West Side, the College sponsored a score of ministries for us which were heavily oriented toward the metro area's urban poor.  I myself opted for the jail ministry inside the foreboding Cook County Department of Corrections.  Even though I was no stranger to African-Ameircan poverty having grown up in East Texas, the size and scope of it in a city like Chicago took my breath away.  It was easy for me to buy into the despair of so many of these people, especially the men, who were lost in a wilderness of thousands and fed each other with a sickening diet of blame, ignorance, laziness, mediocrity, manipulation, immorality and envy.  I began to think that these people needed more than just Jesus - they truly needed a leg up.  I labored at my ministry of helping the men in the jail earn their GED.  That, to me, seemed the best way I could help.  But of all my students, only one showed the slightest motivation, and at age 27 his brain was so damaged by marijuana that he simply could not compute the most basic of fractions.  I left the ministry after my sophomore year very discouraged.  There had to be another path.

I was desperate for another path.  Many of my generation don't like the political divisiveness we are in and believe that common ground is there.  Because this has not been forthcoming, many are becoming permanently absent on Election Day.

I desperately hope there is a better path.  The fruit of my friends in the theater today reveals just how I have been saved.  My friends who struggled with their sexual orientation are now fully out of the closet, such that I wonder why they even bother to identify with Christianity at all.  Another close buddy is an actor who's best gig was getting cast as this scary pimp on a network television show.  Another is an actress who portrayed an incestous wife in a major motion picture this summer - a film filled with that and other rank vulgarities passed off as comedy.  Many of these brothers and sisters of mine seem truly lost, such that it pangs me.  They are all outspoken in their support for Obama.

What was the fruit of my work in the jail?  I'll never know.  But, our President's political career is rooted in Cook County.  Maybe if that one inmate had learned his fractions, none of this would have happened.

And yet I knew the shortcomings of the old path I was on within Reganite Republicanism.  I loved the Gipper's ability to inspire and get Americans to believe in the best of themselves, but I saw at Wheaton how the appeal of Republican values to the people who needed to hear them the most fell flat.  I concluded the problem lay in empathy, or in what pollsters today call "the concern gap."  Bill Clinton brought this to bear in 1992 and it has been an important plank of campaigning ever since -- for candidates of both parties.  The perception that Obama is more concerned about Americans is the single biggest reason he is tied with Romney, even when the former's record is so atrocious.  It's why FDR was constantly reelected during years of hardship.  Suffice it to say there are plenty of opportunties for Republicans who can show concern.

I also became alarmed, even resentful, at how my fellow Republicans were so eager to become self-righteous and legalistic about our ideas.  I got turned off by what the GOP had become in the mid-Nineties when I came home from college.  This attitude is the stark opposite of empathy.  It's this spirit that is creating so much contention in the party today where unity is less important, such as in Texas -- if they haven't left altogether and formed a TEA Party.  Now, unfortunately, we Republicans are forced to vote nationally more out of fear than hope due to Obama's policies and the agenda coming out of Cook County.  Voting out of fear rarely carries the day.  Even though we are forty, there's a tendendency not to use our brains when fear is in the air.

So, to summarize this meditation, I wonder how the country can also be saved from liberalism.  It will take more power than I have, certainly.  I think the change lies in returning to an idea that humans always have the tendency to do the wrong thing.  This is not where secular conservatism begins; it begins with the idea that my self-interest -- rugged individualism -- will bring about wealth, order and fairness.  That's OK if I remember that my self-interest is unreliable and I need to God to direct it.  May God save us all.