For the Sake of the Argument

Maybe it’s because this is the internet. Maybe it’s that most of my friends are Reformed theology/philosophy/worldview nutjobs (myself included). Maybe it’s cause we’re in college and we think we’re smart. At any rate, big, important discussions about the world and everything in it seem to be our favorite pastime. About that I have to say two things.

First, that’s excellent. It’s a big world and a wonderful life and folks who want to live it right, who want to live it to the glory of God, are on the right track. Iron sharpens iron, so arguing about it isn’t out of the picture either. While not everyone needs to constantly have these “great ideas” conversations, somebody definitely should.

Here’s the catch. Folks who like to argue–they like to argue. They get caught up in the back and forth, the nitpicking, and the well-made point. We construct our perfect little worlds, our ideal policies and constitutions, a new way of phrasing some doctrine, a new take on an old philosopher, or whatever. It delights us. But sometimes folks get so caught up in searching for the ideal, plotting it out and planning it, that they miss the entire point: living.

All these arguments are about life because we think life is important. It’s worth talking about. And because we’re Christians, we try to have these conversations in a God-honoring manner. But what happens when you spend so much time in the land of theory that you spend considerably less time walking the walk than you do talking the talk? We end up conceding the very thing the argument is about for the sake of the argument. We dishonor God by never living in the world he gave us

What exactly do I mean? I mean that there are people who write blog posts, but never write stories. There are people who argue with adults on facebook but never teach children in real life. There are people who explain social theories with the metaphor of dancing who never actually dance.

Of what worth are the words of a man who praises the beauty of the mountains and never climbs them? Why on earth should we listen to the political opinions of a man who never takes action in politics? Who cares about someone’s opinions on ecumenism when they’ve never talked to the guy from the church down the street, much less some obscure Eastern Orthodox sectarian?

These arguments are about planning our lives and culture. They answer Schaeffer’s question “How Shall We Then Live?” But if the majority of our free time is spent answering the question instead of living, the point becomes moot. If you don’t want to make a better movie than the pagans, why should we hear you complain about them? If you don’t have an interest in music, why should we hear your opinion on why the contemporary Christian stuff is so shallow? Get out off of paper once in a while and practice what you preach. Live how you think we should live. Then your words are worth hearing.

He said on his blog, using examples from his past. We all have a lot to learn.

Small Town Water Meters

For years now, when the sun gets hot and the middle of the month approaches, my dad asks me the same old question. “It’s about time for reading meters. You want to help?”

I don’t always answer yes, depending on what else is going on, but I like to when I can. And it always starts the same way. Early in the morning, when the sky is still grey, the harsh beeping of an alarm or the loud bark of my dad’s voice will jerk me out of a peaceful sleep. Groggy and liable to snap, I grunt my way out of bed and stumble around in search of clothes.

Next I thump down the stairs, where Dad tells me I should eat breakfast, and depending on how fuzzy my mouth feels, I shrug off the advice. He also recommends I fill a water bottle. After a few years, I started listening.

Mt. Enterprise is a little town of about five hundred souls somewhere just across the Rusk county line. Ancient houses and chicken farms radiate out from it like cattle wandering from an untended herd. And after enough hot days in those pastures and woods, I know a thing or two about wandering cattle.

The first hour or so is always the most picturesque. It’s a bit cool, and the dew is still on the grass. This means I get soaked to the bone as I struggle through the weeds after misplaced water meters, but it also means everything feels new and fresh. Thankfully, the first route is usually on the highway headed into town, so a fair number of lawns are well-clipped and thorns and bullnettle aren’t much of a problem.

Reading meters is a simple task, and it starts to take on its own rhythm. The truck moves and then stops. My eyes scan the ground for the nearest square of black plastic or rough concrete. By now each house is familiar and I hardly have to look. There are new buildings though, and sometimes I have to ask Dad where the additions are. Then I walk to the box, bend over or squat, remove the lid and let a series of numbers slip into my head for just long enough to walk back to the truck and rattle them out. My dad takes them down, and we move on to the next meter.

As the day winds on and the sun lifts itself above the tree line, we follow farm to market roads out in every direction. None of the houses flanking the roadsides or the little trailers hidden around curving blacktop corners really deserve the title “ranch.” Their acres certainly count as more than a subsistence farm, and they have more cattle than I would know what to do with, but they are neither vast nor opulent, and few hired hands, if any, count themselves authentic cowboys.

Ducking through barbed wire is fun enough, as is staring down cattle, but that’s not the exciting part of reading meters. That gold medal belongs to the dogs. Most houses have them, especially out of town, and some have several. Though they are occasionally fenced in, virtually none sport leashes. They are free to roam, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I say this as the stranger who invades their territory on a regular basis.

Most dogs are polite, if not friendly. They may grow nervous or bark a little, but only a very few snap to rigid attention and let loose a low, rumbling warning growl. My dad knows which ones these are, and we have the pepper spray to deal with them, if necessary. Then there is the occasional pooch that knows no stranger. Curious and friendly, they walk right up without saying a word and promptly sniff my by now filthy shins. I give these a scratch behind the ears and move on. And I talk to them all.

As the rhythm pounds on and the sun climbs higher, it begins to get hot on top of the humidity, and the sticky thorns and leaves become less tolerable. Some boxes are filled with bees or ants, and others have dirt or water covering up the meter. Occasionally someone is startled by the stranger in their yard. More often than not these folks give a friendly wave and make some variety of small talk. But sometimes a young black lady will look very concerned as I explain just what exactly I’m doing there.

There are, of course, the notorious stops. An enormous, impenetrable thicket surrounded by cars, farm equipment, old couches, and pieces of carpeting has the potential for being the world’s worst snake pit. And I can never remember quite where in the cane and saplings the meter is hiding.

Then, of course, there’s the old Nam veteran, whose chain link fence is topped with barbwire and supplemented a low-lying line of steel that I can testify is very effective at tripping intruders. The gate is barred and has a good three or four locks for which we have the keys. Once I get past there and beyond all the signs about invisible dogs, mysterious cameras, and the holy wrath which has never come down upon our heads, I go to the corner of the quiet lot and read the meter. Nothing much ever happens at that house, but I’m always expecting it to.

We push ourselves hard, and get the meters read quicker than my dad usually predicts. Partway through the day, usually at some point after noon, we stop for a bite to eat. This is probably my favorite part of the day. Sweaty as a jogger in the swamps in high summer, and covered in dirt, scratches, and bug bites, I get to sit down in a cushy chair in the air conditioning and eat some food.

Our usual place, just about the only place, is a Mexican restaurant. Before we make it across the threshold, the owners have recognized my dad and started fixing his sweet tea. I’m a stranger in Mt. Enterprise, a long time observer, but never a participant in the mysteries of the little community. Ergo, I have to remind them that I will have a Dr. Pepper. It’s a tiny little hole in the wall, fairly clean but not showy. There’s a television in the corner with Mexican game shows or Spanish soaps. I can catch half of every fifth sentence, and it amuses me greatly.

By the time the salsa is gone and my miraculous apparition of holy shrimp in enchilada form touches the table, a diner or two has joined us. My dad knows them all, and they know him. Some of them recognize me, having watched me grow up one summer at a time. One of them is a gunsmith. That’s not his job, it’s his vocation. He works at some plant or another, but fixes up all sorts of rifles, pistols, and shotguns in his free time. He reloads shells, too, and lets us use his firing range. One of these days I will use his name often enough to remember it.

When lunch is over and my stomach is filled to bursting, we hit the road again. Back before the meter books went digital, there were four of them. We split them up into two or three days, and worked through them one by one. The lines are fuzzier now, but there are still routes. Doing them after lunch makes me slow and lethargic in the summer heat, but once we get to the in-town routes I’m moving often enough that there’s no fear of nodding off. These are less pretty than the countryside scenery, but sometimes more entertaining. People are funny, and there houses reveal a lot of that.

Not every meter belongs to a house. Some belong to gas stations or churches (the East Texas Baptist Convention has a building across from the Missionary Baptists). There’s a fire department, and the Mexican restaurant. The high school’s meter box has a big metal cover with a little lip underneath that keeps it from coming off right. It’s a chore, but I enjoy going through that side of town.

When all is said and done, I’ve learned a good bit about Mt. Enterprise that the locals might never know. I’ve seen every nook and cranny. I know which dilapidated shacks are inhabited and which are not. I’ve seen the inside of pump stations and know how to tell whether a leak is the water company’s responsibility. I’ve crouched beside the corners of every business in the area and spoken reassuringly to every dog, from the smallest yipper to the biggest, meanest elkhound. Sometimes I even know who’s struggling financially.

But all that aside, I really know very little. The names on the mailboxes filed away in my memory have no faces attached, and no stories. The high school has a team, but I don’t know how they’re doing. The businesses have owners who know me on sight as John Henry’s boy, but I couldn’t tell you one thing about them. I’m an observer, an outsider looking in. This small town has plenty of memories that tug at my heartstrings, but I am not a part of it so much as it is a part of me.

My dad has other towns these days. Murvall, South Murvall, Lake Murvall, or some other Murvall. I’m not sure which. That’s a town I’ve never seen. He’s picked up Sacul, too. It has three churches and a restaurant that’s been voted the best mom-and-pop place to eat at in the state by Texas Monthly. There are one hundred and fifty people, one water tower, and a half-dozen bridges across one of the creeks that feeds into the Angelina. I don’t know it half as well as I do Mt. Enterprise, but I guarantee you it does not know me.

Some people spend their lives escaping small towns. I’ve spent my life observing them. I grew up eventually, and did move away. But I didn’t move away to escape them. I moved away to mature, to work the stupid out, and the arrogance, and the dissatisfaction. I moved out so that when I came back, I wouldn’t have to be just an immature observer. I could be participant.

I will probably never live in Mt. Enterprise or Sacul. It is not likely that I will take over the water systems when my dad retires, if he ever does. But I will be sad if I never go back there, just to drive the backroads, here the cattle low, and pet the dogs. I will be sad if I never know the store owners and town crazies as well as they know me. And the day I stop thanking God for those little towns in their quiet counties is a day I never want to see. I may not be from those small towns, but they are mine, and I’m proud of them.

Lunacy

 

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright.

 

I’ve been on a werewolf kick lately, and so my mind’s been on that mythical beast for a while. What is it about wolfmen that terrifies us so much, and that can inspire the culture (not to mention me) with such a morbid fascination?

Now there’s a lot to werewolves, but you have to start with a basic definition. The most common form they take in our stories is that of a man who involuntarily turns into a ravening beast every full moon. Some variations alter the time when the transformation occurs, and others give the accursed some level of control after the shift. Either way, key themes are either hidden power or loss of control.

Whenever the werewolves have some control over their wolf form, the key theme is hidden power. An unassuming individual can, if the circumstances are right, be granted superhuman strength and eerily keen senses. This idea is appealing to folks who feel like they have no power, or else to folks who are afraid that others might secretly be stronger than they look. It’s either liberating, or unsettling.

But when the werewolf has no control over his shifting or his wolf state, we find something I think is far more terrifying: complete loss of control. The human side is just trying to live in peace and to protect those he loves. But occasionally, he loses control and his peaceful life unravels and those he loves are hurt or killed by his actions. This sort of story is about a terrifying lack of self-control and the consequences that result.

Liberation, hidden threats, self-discipline, responsibility. These are powerful themes, and it’s no wonder they can fascinate. Each of these issues can be approached rightly or wrongly, skillfully or poorly. I do of course have opinions on how that should be done, but I would rather show them to you one day than just tell you about them. But regardless of tastes and opinions, it can’t be denied that the werewolf is a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal.

Storm Clouds

They were grey and thick and covered every inch of the sky that could be seen from this little ditch in the hills. Lightning cut a jagged line across the heavens, a crash and rumble following close on its heels. Fat drops slapped my shoulders as I paced across the pavement, the cool air and the temperamental wind painting a smile across my face.

I had gone to sleep in the wee hours of the AM, having trekked across Moscow for an hour twice that night. I was thinking, and wishing my tired head was clear enough to make sense of the thoughts. I slapped some signs and punched some furniture I’d been trying to get rid of for a few weeks. I’d been told it was fun. True, but also a little hard on the knuckles.

I fell asleep, life still stirring my brains, in a creaky bed with no covers. It’s been too hot lately. To top it all off, I’ve got this sore throat that’s receding, but not quite gone.

I woke late this morning, my sinuses killing me. I thought it must be the sickness, though in other respects I felt better than the previous day. It didn’t matter. I had a package to deliver, and I set out to get the job done.

As I made my way towards Main, I saw the black clouds, heard a faint rumble in the distance. The air was alive, and it was changing. The pressure in my head was the atmosphere making its mood known. I watched with excitement as the sky grew dark and the storm began to build. By the time my package was in the mail and my feet were turned homewards, it was in full swing.

I curled up inside as the tin roof sang and trees bent this way and that. Country sang like a voice from home, and the staccato of the laptop keys formed a counterpoint to the shimmering sound of the water around me. It was a dark story that needed to be written in dark weather.

Now the sky is blue and the breeze is cool. The sun shines down like nothing ever happened, and the green grass smiles up at me from my seat beside the window. My story is written, and off to its first editor. My sore throat is all but gone, and this hot chocolate should finish it off.

In East Texas, you learn to be thankful for the sunny days and the storms. The one means freedom to run and play, the other means the trees keep growing, the grass stays green, and the flowers will bloom for another year. We’re all a little better for the gullywashers.

Charity, Truth, and the Little Guy

A common characterization of the right wing by the left (one I think is inaccurate) is that conservatives don’t care about the poor. We certainly don’t make as much noise as liberal folks do. When it comes down to it, we tend to reject their methods but agree that the poor need help. In this post, I want to talk about a few related subjects: bad motives for charity, bad methods, and how to go about doing it right.

First off, let’s talk motives. There’s a song I used to listen to about the potential emptiness of a starlet’s life of glitz and glamour that used the phrase “designer’s crusade.” I like it. It makes a good point, that certain charitable causes are popular, and that people can tap into that popularity and that charitable image by getting behind that cause. We all want to be cool, so we all worry about AIDS and inner city kids. Why AIDS is more important to the celebrity crowd than abortion, I’ll leave up to you. Why inner city poverty is more important than rural poverty, well, there’s no good explanation for that.

At any rate, giving to the unfortunate, or being known to do so, is a major ego boost. It makes you popular for what we all could agree are the right reasons. Unfortunately, when popularity is the goal, it doesn’t mean much in the motive end of things.

There’s another way in which charity can be for a bad motive—when the point is to cure yourself of guilt. When people feel guilty, whether for their sins, the sins of their society, or for the simple fact that they have been blessed more than others, helping out the little guy can justify them. I live the godless lifestyle of a rock star? But look at all the orphans I saved with my money. Somebody in my country with my skin color used to own slaves? I’m sure if we work hard enough against human trafficking now, we can be forgiven.

It’s a works-righteousness mentality that has little to do with the Gospel. You can’t buy your way out of sin. There’s not enough cash in the world to justify your misdeeds. No matter how many orphans you save, it won’t change the fact that you live a lifestyle of ingratitude towards your own Father.

But let’s set motive aside. I think we all agree these causes in and of themselves are good, and it’s perfectly possible to want to help the widows and orphans simply because they are widows and orphans, and therefore ought to be helped. Let’s talk about methods.
I want to hit this on two levels. First off, there’s giving to charities in the private sector. All I have to say about that is that sometimes it’s really, really stupid. Those starving kids in Africa are in Africa. You have no idea what their situation is or how that money is going to help them, or what effect it will have. Two quick examples about how this can go wrong.

The powdered milk example. I believe it was Nestle or some other western company with milk-related things going on. At any rate, they sent a bunch of condensed milk to a north African country so that the mothers could feed their kids. Unfortunately, due to biology, once they used the condensed milk and stopped nursing, they were able to get pregnant again, thus sending up the number births and therefore mouths to feed. The well-intentioned charity actually made the problem worse. Don’t ask me for citations, because I’ll just plead Paul—somewhere it is written.

A similar anecdote I have heard more often is the mosquito net issue. Charities donate mosquito nets to the local government. In this case, corrupt warlords, who then withhold the mosquito nets in order to force the locals to do what they want. This, if I remember correctly, includes conscripting children into their army.

These examples are important not so much for their factual accuracy as individual cases as for the point they make. It is very easy for those good intentions to pave a better path to Hell. We need to be careful.

Then there’s the other issue of proper methods, the one that doesn’t have to do with private charities. I’m talking about the government, as folks in this season are wont to do. There is a form of charity that says if you have money, you don’t deserve it, and if you don’t have money, then you deserve it. And the government, of course, has the right to everyone’s money and, in its infinite wisdom, the ability to distribute it.

There is a problem here. The Bible says something about “Thou shalt not steal.” This assumes, first off, that individuals can actually own things, and outright says that we should not take said things from them. Private property is a Biblical concept. Whatever other issues come up, if our public policy assumes that there is no right to private property, that policy is wrong and unbiblical.

But, one of you will say to me, the government is the one taking the money, and via taxes. Taxes are not stealing, right? The Bible does allow for taxes. And, of course, you are right. The Bible does allow for taxes. To which my answer is in multiple parts, as always.

First, look at what kind of taxes the Bible allows for. Look in detail. There are actually very few. Property tax is not one. Not income tax either. Or inheritance tax. And there are sound worldview reasons why. But tax policy is not the point of this post, so I won’t go into detail. If you want more info, ask me and I’ll see if I can get you some slides from a good talk one of our church elders gave on the subject.

But, even in a world of limited kinds of taxes, the amount of taxes is limited. No government, for instance, should ever claim a higher tax than God—ten percent. But harkening back to the issue of private property, even setting that aside, we do have to agree that there is a line, that somehow taxation must be consistent with a right to private property, and not by infringing on the truth of either idea. I would tend to say that’s in the department of the functions of government. Government exists primarily to execute vengeance on the wicked with the power of the sword, and possibly to reward the righteous with praise. Check out Romans 13. Somewhere it is also written that the magistrates are to keep up the just weights and measures. But, while there is certainly an element of protecting the weak from the strong, nowhere in the Bible is authority given to take money from the rich for the express purpose of giving to the poor.

Now, I would push these limits to a pretty restrictive place, and you, dear reader, may disagree with that, and more power to you. But you do have to maintain some line, some limit on the authority of government, the purpose of government, its ability to tax, and still maintain the right to private property. However that looks, it will not end up looking like a state that takes gobs of money from the rich in general and gives it to the poor in general, simply for being in their respective financial situations.
So where does this leave us? If conservatives maintain such a restrictive place for helping the poor in public policy, can we still want to help them at all? I would say yes.

Here’s the thing: conservatives aren’t trying to place restrictions on being nice. Stopping abortion is not about being mean to women, it’s about saving the lives of children. Opposing gay marriage is not about opposing love, it’s about upholding the sanctity of a God-ordained institution that is pretty darn beautiful. In the same way, opposing charity by force of government is not an opposition to charity itself, but to the theft being used to get it done.

The Bible commands us to look out for the fatherless and widow, but we can’t do that by teaching them that the world revolves around them, that they have a right to money even when it belongs to someone else. When we tell them coveting is justified and stealing is okay, we are lying to them about God and the world he created. We are causing them to stumble, and woe to us. This is especially true when we don’t ask that they work if they are able, when we feed the lazy. In doing so we contradict the Scriptures, telling them that regardless of whether they work, they shall eat. Free lunches, folks, something for nothing, reaping without sowing. But they are no more entitled to that money by virtue of birth than any other man. Indeed, as a fallen human being, a sinner, they are entitled to nothing but Hell.

And here’s an important point: the Bible tells us not to show partiality to the rich—or to the poor. We are not to be respecters of persons, even respecters of the little guy. A man is not evil simply because he is rich, or good simply because he is poor. The reverse is true as well, but these days that’s a point that hardly needs to be made.

If we really care about the poor, here is what we can do:

• We can preach the Gospel to them, because their soul is more important than their situation.

• We can live out the Gospel for them, sacrificing our own time and money—not the stolen time or money of others—for their benefit.

• We can do so in a way that is genuinely helpful, not in a poorly thought-out plan that leaves them worse off than before.

• In doing so, we can refuse to lie to them about God and his law, refusing to defraud others on their behalf.

And, for a moment, let me tout my own pet peeve when it comes to giving. It is all well and good to take care of the widows and the fatherless halfway around the world. They need to be taken care of, and someone, especially Americans who are in such a good position to do so, should see to it that they are. But when the Bible says to love our neighbor, we tend to ignore the very literal meaning of that word.

There are people right beside us that need help. Abused women, single mothers, children in need, the homeless, and the mentally or physically handicapped. Why is it that we want to donate to faraway causes whose administrators we can’t keep accountable while watching those around us continue to suffer? What is it about helping those in need whom we cannot see, but whose causes are supported by the rock stars, that makes us ignore the needs that we can see simply by walking down the street or across town? Is there a deeper issue here? Think about it.

He Already Won

Life is a tangled mess of trials and responsibilities, the things that keep you up at night worrying and make that time before breakfast the orneriest moments of your life. On top of that, we are sinners, and so we fail to take the lemons life hands us and make that lemonade everyone is talking about. If the world won’t get you, your own stupidity will.

But when you reach the end of your rope, it’s more than just space for a noose. The footprints in the sand story is a bit cheesy, but it’s spot-on. The moments when you can’t handle life are the ones when it’s most obvious that Christ is carrying you through it.

The Gospel is about a lot of things. It’s about forgiveness and new life and a better relationship with our Father. But it is also the simple statement that Christ has already won. He took all the consequences of our own sin in the worst of possible circumstances and then he died. And when he was done dying, he got up and kept going. There is no sin and burden that he has not already paid for, no amount of stress he has not already dealt with.

And now let me get on my soapbox. I’m a Calvinist, which means I believe that God is all-powerful, that he has planned out every last moment from here to kingdom come, and that every last hair on my head has a place in that plan. He has promised us that all things work together for those who love him, that if we take up our cross and follow him, we will become more like him. He didn’t promise it would be easy, but he promised he would deliver us, and that it would be worth it. And because God is in control, and because we trust him, that’s a guarantee.

I’m not a grade-A theologian, but I do know that we’re supposed to lay our burdens on Christ. That means all our burdens of sin and stress and worry, we’re to ask him to take care of them, and quit worrying so much. The tangled mess that is life is never going to defeat you. You are in Christ, and Christ has already won.

 

A Message from the Black Regiment

I had the privilege this Sunday of hearing Pastor Douglas Wilson preach a sermon that badly needs to be heard by more Christians in our country. It’s sure to be highly controversial, and with good reason–it soundly condemns Obamacare as a claim by the federal government in direct opposition to the claims of Christ. In the process, he makes a lot of good points, and highlights this as a key moment for Christians to stand in defense of Gospel. I highly recommend it.

A Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho