Thursday, November 30, 2006

Fairfax County - The New Nanny State

Those of us who follow government pretty closely pretty quickly get used to stupidity being something of a normative principle that guides political bureaucracy. Government idiocy is similar to what Al Bundy once said about yard sale junk - there's lots of idiocy, but eventually, you get to the head idiot. In my book, Fairfax County is now seriously contending for this dubious distinction.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on the implementation of a new regulation imposed by the County on volunteer organizations and churches when it comes to providing food for the County's homeless population. From now on, all food served in shelters and church kitchens must be 'County-approved', meaning that the shelter and kitchen must be inspected and certified by the County before it can fry a single egg for a homeless person. This goes for meals prepared at home by compassionate citizens as well. The County's list of requirements for certification is steep, and is likely to shut down any number of food kitchen operations designed to feed the homeless. Tom Crow, the County's health bureaucrat, was quoted as saying that this measure is designed to look out for the health of the homeless, and that such a measure is not heavy-handed government.

I just finished writing a Letter to the Editor to the Post that says this:

Fairfax County's inane decision to insert itself into the volunteer safety net of providing for the County's homeless population (Metro, 11/29) is nannyism run amok - again. The idea that County oversight of food preparation and cooking facilities is an absolutely necessary ingredient for 'protecting' the homeless has no connection with reality at all. The logistical problems and red tape that the County's intrusion causes greatly handcuff the volunteer efforts of those who are looking out for the underprivileged. The fact that the County has unleashed itself on its own citizenry on the eve of the winter season when the homeless are acutely in need is a 'delicious' irony.

Tom Crow insists that handcuffing volunteerism helps the homeless, and that such handcuffing should not be perceived as heavy-handed government. I guess it's nice to know that the people who were apparently behind this action are as out of touch with reality as the action itself. I suspect such consistency will be little consolation to the homeless in the County who have to go back to the dumpsters to find food, rather than risk eating a hot meal cooked in a church kitchen. To put it nicely, the County's decision couldn't be more backwards.

My guess is that this Letter will not be published by the Post because I didn't succeed very well in hiding my outrage over what the County is doing. We must realize that the County is insisting on levels of sanitation that many middle and upper class house kitchens wouldn't pass. But the County is telling its volunteers that when it comes to providing for the most vulnerable segment of the County's population, they must have something close to a 4 Star kitchen, or stop volunteering - the homeless be damned.

For my part, I would strongly advocate that everybody in County government that was involved in this wretched decision be placed on a 2 week probation period. During this period, they will be deprived of their homes, their jobs, their income, their savings, and any friends or relatives who would be willing to take them in. For 2 weeks, let these bozos live on the street with no money, food, or shelter, and then give them the courtesy of being turned away from a homeless shelter or church kitchen by some very nice person who says the shelter can't feed them because the County thinks it's looking out for the homeless' interests better than the volunteers who are actually doing the work and donating the time.

The level of idiocy is truly breathtaking and would be a great late-night object of joking if it wasn't so completely tragic. Welcome to Fairfax County, the new capital of the Nanny State.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Art Monk for the NFL Hall of Fame

I know, I know - where did this blog entry come from? This one will be short and sweet - and necessary.

Art Monk is one of the classiest individuals to ever play in the NFL. He was also a tremendous receiver. At the time of his retirement, Monk held the all-time record for most catches. He was the most important guy in the locker room during the entirety of the Redskins glory run of the 1980s and early 90s. He was undoubtedly the best blocking wide receiver that has ever played, and speaks to what is universally recognized about Monk - he was unselfish, always did what was asked of him, and always put the team's interests first. His impact was enormous, and can only be partially seen in measured statistics, which alone ought to be sufficient for his induction into the Hall.

However, for a number of years now, the selection committee has rejected Monk in the final phases of the voting. Monk's rejection highlights a number of problems in the selection process, not the least of which is that Monk is only one of several outstanding receivers who have been snubbed for problematic reasons.

But on the plus side, it now appears that Peter King has finally seen the light. King has been one of the committee members who has been very influential in keeping Monk out of the Hall. King has previously been brave enough to give his reasons for rejecting Monk, and his reasons have been exposed to considerable critique from many. But now it seems King has changed his mind on Monk, and will vote in favor of his induction during the next round of Hall selections. This is a very positive development, though it doesn't guarantee anything in part because one of Monk's biggest backers on the committee, Michael Wilbon, will no longer be on the selection committee because of his increasing focus on basketball coverage.

One more thing on Monk. Monk has been one of the most outstanding members of the community that anyone can remember. He is quiet, soft-spoken, and doesn't seek after the limelight. Much of what he has done both on and off the field have gone unrecognized by a public and a press that's more enthralled with showboat entertainment than dignified professionalism. But Monk has been a leader in the community both during his playing days and during his retirement from the NFL. As great a football player as he was, he is a much better human being. Monk is exactly the kind of person/player who should be in the Hall. The fact that the selection committee has spurned his candidacy for so long is a travesty that speaks very ill of the selection process. Art Monk will never campaign for himself, but there are many who have been campaigning for him for longer than I have. But I am proud to lend my meager voice to the many others who are outraged that Monk is not already in the Hall and that there are apparently significant numbers of folks on the committee who continue to make poor excuses to justify their nay.

Art Monk belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame, not because Monk needs the Hall, but because the Hall needs Monk. The time for stonewalling his candidacy has long past. The time for casting a proper vote that will help redeem the selection process and make the Hall itself a more worthy institution is long overdue. It's time to finally do the right thing. The selection committee needs to get it done, big time.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


As with most everything American, Thanksgiving Day means different things to different people. For some, it is a day off from work reserved for eating good food and watching football. For many, it's a holiday to enjoy time with family and to suffer through the miseries of American travel. For others, it is a very lonely day filled with regrets and frustrations over what they're not thankful for. And increasingly, Thanksgiving is seen as an unpleasant reminder of how terribly Native Americans were treated by the early European settlers of America, and how the US continues to this day to overlook and 'whitewash' its unsavory past (and present). As you can see, even the most authentically American holiday on the calendar is far from monolithic in its significance.

But while the factionalistic tendencies of pluralism have pretty much chewed up Christmas and increasingly reduced it a controversial sore on American life in the last decade, Thanksgiving has largely avoided such controversy. But concerns about the Native American side of Thanksgiving certainly carries the risk of embroiling the holiday in similar scrums, and in our society, I fully expect this to happen. Thanksgiving won't be banned in public schools the way Christmas is constantly at risk of. Instead, students will get a revised history lesson about Thanksgiving's darker side, in the hopes that a more well rounded appraisal of the holiday will be inculcated into future generations.

What these initiatives miss, however, is that Americans in some ways are quite similar to many peoples around the world in at least one important way. In short, we, like many in the world, enjoy myth. Mythology is thought to be a mark of unsophistication by those who believe they are sophisticated. We look at the religious and cultural practices of other nations and shake our heads at how so many people can wholeheartedly believe things that to us, are clearly mythological and disprovable. But what we fail to see is that we do the same thing. The myths we believe may be sanitized, but they are still myths. In regards to Christmas, many of us happily go along with the secular mythology that is the modern Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty. We know that such things aren't real, but if any of them are attacked, as Santa Claus often is, we rally to the defense of a myth, often vigorously. Thanksgiving is much the same way. When the aura of Thanksgiving is threatened by viewpoints that tarnish its absolute goodness, we stridently resist, not because the facts are on our side, but because we want to hold onto myths. The converse is also true. Word that Thanksgiving might become an opportunity to highlight American cruelty to Native Americans will cause many who think that America is inherently bad to rejoice. This isn't because the Native American angle on Thanksgiving is the whole story or is totally unbiased in its own right, but because there are people who believe the myth that America is simply not a force for good in the world. In the end, many of us are much more interested in holding onto our respective myths and beating back all threats than we are in sincerely seeking the truth and allowing our beloved myths to be better shaped by the truth.

For me, Thanksgiving is a wonderful day to reflect on God's goodness to me, and to be challenged ever more by God's insistence to be salt and light in a world that desperately needs both. I don't minimize Thanksgiving either by blowing off the Native American angle, or reducing it to a gluttonous day off. Instead, I see the day as a chance to renew my fidelity to God by 'keeping it real' rather than succumbing to myth. As Paul says in 2 Tim 4.3-5:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Happy Thanksgiving in the Truth.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Grace of the Levitical Sacrificial System

Luther strongly believed in a law/grace dichotomy between the OT and NT. For Luther, this was critical in developing his doctrine of justification. For him, the NT was all about grace, in contrast to the OT, which was primarily about law. Such a view is quite common in both Christian and non-Christian circles, and in some measure, sets the table for dispensational understandings of the discontinuities between the various dispensations we allegedly find in Scripture. In contrast, the Reformed view has always been that there is a great deal of continuity between the two testaments. In Reformed thinking, there is an abundance of both law in the NT, and grace in the OT. The Reformed position is quite correct, in my view (what a shock!)

Ironically, one area where we can see an abundance of grace in the OT is in the setting down of the legal sacrificial system in Leviticus 1-7. Of all places, it is in the giving of the sacrifical law that we find one of the most poignant examples of divine grace anywhere in the Bible. Consider this:

In the giving of the sacrificial system:
1) God provided an abundance of sacrifices,
2) To cover an abundance of sins both intentional and unintentional,
3) That were committed by an abundance of people from every social and economic strata.

The abundance of sacrifices are indicative of divine grace because they cover an abundance of sins committed by everyone in the community. Since the wages of sin are death, the most merciful thing God could do for his people Israel was to offer a multitude of ways for everybody to atone for every sin through sacrifice. In short, in the setting down of the Levitical sacrificial system, God is offering forgiveness for all, no matter if they be priests, lay leaders, the laity, or the community at large. In Leviticus, we find radical grace as the basis for detailed law. The substitionary nature of the sacrificial system clearly prefigures the work of Christ and is thoroughly harmonious with it (the book of Hebrews provides the most extensive NT analysis of this).

This means that if we consider the work of Christ to be an act of grace, then the Levitical sacrificial system that Christ clearly consummates is also a system of grace. There is no law/grace dichotomy between the testaments. The sacrificial system is God's mechanism of extending forgiveness to the sinner who has been (graciously) given the opportunity to atone for his sins through substitionary sacrifice. In short, law is all about grace, and has grace as its basic operating principle. There is great continuity between the OT and NT.

Paul's Theology of Community

Paul has a very strong thematic emphasis on community. Paul’s letters were written to strengthen communities in fledgling churches. His writings and instructions are not simply about practicality and keeping people together. He develops his account as a fundamental theological theme of the Gospel. What is God doing during this period of history? God is at work through the Holy Spirit to create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world. This is classic already/not yet Pauline eschatology presented in the context of community. The fruit of God’s love is the formation of confessing, praying, worshipping communities (Rom. 15:13-17). We are one with Christ, no longer identified by distinctives (Gal. 3:28). We are one family (Gal. 2), joint co-heirs. Paul has relativized the distinctly Jewish marks of participation in the community, and replaced it with other marks – baptism, the Spirit, etc. Volf describes Paul’s vision of community as ‘particularist universalism’. The vision of community whose unity Paul passionately seeks is not pluralistic, but the particular community of the church, the community of faith. Paul’s ethic is particular to the community of faith. In Gal. 5:16-24, the offenses are against the unity of the community. The conformity to JC is in the context of community service and love.

This is also seen in 1 Cor. In 1:9, the call to fellowship becomes the ground for a plea to unity in 1:10 in light of existing quarrels. In 1:18-2:5, division is a sign of immaturity in the faith and an affront to the cross. The community being built is God’s building (3:9), so he is deeply concerned about contractors messing up the building. The glory of God now resides in the church, the new temple. Communal edification is the standard for judging spiritual gifts in ch. 12-14. Paul stresses the interdependent common life of the Body (12:4-7). The diversity of gifts is necessary for the common good of the church. All parts are necessary for a healthy organism (12:12ff). The regulation of worship is governed by its goodness in terms of common worship and edification of the church. If something is not building up the church and community, it should not be done (14:26). Paul’s placement of his discourse on love in ch. 13 is interesting. Love, rightly understood, should restrain behavior that threatens the unity of the community. It is particularly ecclesiastical; its placement is in a section on church division, not marriage in ch. 7. For Paul, love's primary focus is in the common life of the church.

The metaphor of living sacrifice describes the vocation of the community in Rom. 12:1. The community is called to present their bodies as a singular sacrifice. This is a collective expression of worship. This is not addressing private individuals, but corporate sacrifice. The NIV translation of bodies (plural) and living sacrifices (plural) is incorrect. In the Greek, 'living sacrifices' is in the grammatical singular, so that the correct translation is presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice. Many bodies; one sacrifice. Corporate, corporate, corporate. In 15:14-19, the offering is the obedience of the Gentiles, with Paul is the metaphorical priest. The community’s corporate obedience is in view. The community should be set free and transformed/renewed. Paul envisions God’s eschatological salvation in both individual and corporate terms. God is not just saving atomized individuals, but is also saving a people. Our identity is discovered within the Body of Christ. That’s why Paul cares so much when others don’t get his teachings, or are in the midst of problems and creating problems for others.

Offering our bodies as a living sacrifice forces us to care about the health of the whole community. That's right. That stranger sitting next to you in the pew is part of the same Body as you, and the communal sacrifice you offer together to God is impacted by the spiritual health of everyone involved in the collective sacrifice. This is why we care about purity in the church. This is why we have to bear with one another and love one another. It's not good enough to measure our fidelity to God solely on the basis of our individual walk. As part of an interdependent Body that makes a collective sacrifice to God, the degree to which this sacrifice is pleasing to God doesn't just depend on our own walk. I like the NIV, but its translation of Rom. 12:1 is so individualistic that the real meaning of the passage is almost entirely obscured. It makes us think that things like the spiritual disciplines and even church discipline are totally about individual improvement. Not so. The purity of the Body is enhanced when all of its members are practicing the disciplines. As the church becomes more holy, we will hasten the great Day of the Lord (2 Pet. 3:12). Eschatology is both individual and corporate. The importance of community cannot be overstated.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My Status

I apologize in advance. This blog was and is meant to be something very different than a personal online diary. It is intended to be a place where I can offer musings about a variety of topics to whoever might be interested enough to read them. But because I know that some folks who occasionally stop by these parts know me personally, I thought it would make sense to offer this one post on my current situation so that folks might know what's going on with me. Again, I don't intend to make this a habit, so pti.

After much thought and prayer, my wife and I have decided that I will not be pursuing a PhD as originally intended. I have been working towards getting accepted into a good PhD program for over a year, and I just took the GRE very recently, with respectable results. So I was very invested personally in trying to see this through. A number of folks whom I greatly respect had encouraged me to pursue this, and I was humbled and appreciative of their support and continue to be. But in the end, it was not to be.

As I have indicated to some folks already in separate correspondences, I may well have been intellectually and even emotionally ready for the rigors of a PhD program and subsequent teaching career. But I am not spiritually ready. I know that my walk with Christ is decidedly less than exemplary, and while this will always be true, one would hope to find some clear indications of progress when thinking about pursuing a career of teaching and mentoring the next generation of church leaders. I do not sense such progress near as much as I would like. This has made me unsure that a PhD track is the right course of action at this time, or ever. It scares me to think of the kind of damage I could do in the classroom, given the kinds of sins I know I would bring into the classroom. I take the purity of Christ's bride very seriously, and I have what I believe is an appropriate level of fear about tarnishing the church. In my mind, we would do well if many more Christians felt the same way. The church would be much better off.

In addition, my wife would have had to pay a very heavy price that was likely disproportionate to the benefits. We are currently in the process of grieving the reality that we cannot have children of our own, and we are now fixin' to start the process of foreign adoption. My wife longs to be a loving, attentive mother. But in order for me to be able to pursue a doctoral degree, she would likely have to remain in a vocation that would make it very difficult for her to be the kind of mother she wants to be, and the kind of mother our adopted child will need. These are very severe consequences to pushing the PhD track that we cannot take lightly. And in the end, such consequences are too high a price to pay.

So I have made a decision to scuttle the PhD based on a preponderance of concerns. It is a very difficult decision for me. As I said, I have invested a great deal of time, effort, and emotion into pursuing this. It's very tough to give it up, particularly when the alternative is to work a secular job that I'm not terribly enthusiastic about. If I was unquestionably convinced that God was calling me to pursue a PhD, the price that would have to be paid wouldn't matter - I would do it. But I'm just not convinced enough of this calling to pay the enormous price we'd have to pay in order to pursue it.

I have found that when one gets a taste of the possibilities, it can be very difficult to find contentment in the realities. Seminary gave me a taste of the possibilities; a taste of the Kingdom and my place in it. I thought my role in the Kingdom would be through formal teaching of material that was relevant to the expansion of the Kingdom. To me, this was very exciting stuff and I felt privileged that so many people I respect thought it was my calling. I did too, and in some ways, I still think it is. But as with so many things, the way in which my desires might be fulfilled are at variance with my vision of how they will be fulfilled. I suspect that God is not finished with me on this topic yet. That means that I have to get used to the likelihood that my desire to teach will be fulfilled in very different ways from what I had hoped. It's not an easy pill to swallow, particularly after all the effort and tears that have gone into this pursuit. As I said, it's difficult to be okay with realities that seem to water down the possibilities. I think I am learning and experiencing something of what Richard Pratt struggled with for years while teaching at RTS. I hope that God will give me the ability to be content in all things, and to trust him with all things. It sounds trite and overused, but believe me, there are very few answers in life that are tougher to live with than this. This is why so few people live in the tensions such a resolution creates, and opt to short-circuit things instead, usually for ill. I hope not to do that.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Republicans Needed This

I'm not a party-line guy, but I am a Republican mainly because I agree with Republican ideas more often than I disagree. Given this, it's hard to say I'm happy about yesterday's election results. But I do think in the end, Republicans needed this loss.

I remember back to 1994. The Democrats in Congress who had been in power for many years looked tired and complacent, and had been embroiled in various scandals going back a number of years. It was very hard for me, or most people, to look at them and particularly their leadership and see anything forward-looking. These were tired old men desperately trying to hold onto a power that was entirely too familiar to them. They got beaten, badly. And they needed it.

Fast forward to 2006. Republicans in Congress have done very little in the last 2 years. They have been sloppy, complacent, and have been embroiled in various scandals over the last couple of years. They have largely abandoned their oversight function of the war. And while many Republicans on the Hill have been uneasy about how the war has been prosecuted, they were willing to go along so long as everyone was winning and holding onto power. Now that that's over, I think we'll see a lot of Republicans seemingly coming out of nowhere insisting that things need to change in Iraq and elsewhere. Put simply, Republicans needed to be shaken up and snapped back into reality, and this election was the first step in that process.

I have no doubt that in the coming days, Pelosi/Reid and Bush will all say the right things about working together. But each of these players is a partisan, and none of them will be particularly interested in working with the other side on much of anything. We will have gridlock. But for the Democrats, this will be a victory. The Democrats never offered the country much in the way of a domestic agenda during the campaign, so achieving little on the domestic front is not really a letdown. What the Democrats wanna do is put the brakes on the war, and this they will do, with Republican help.

It is very unclear if Bush possesses the same skill as Clinton when it comes to adjusting your approach to governing after getting pummeled in a congressional election. I doubt it. It is also unclear if the Republican apparatus as a whole has the ability to thoughtfully self-examine itself and emerge with fresh vitality. It took the Democrats 12 long years to regain any kind of congressional control through the ballot box. Will it take Republicans just as long or longer to get back on track? That's the question. But what's clear is that Republicans had grown stale while in power, and they needed to get kicked around a bit to wake them up. How will they respond?