Category Archives: Religion

Know Thy Neighbor

A week ago, Lee Roop, a Huntsville Times columnist, was arrested for possession of cocaine and driving under the influence of drugs. He also happens to be a deacon[1] at my church.

I’m not going to talk about what Lee did. Instead, I’m going to marvel at one guy’s response on the newspaper’s forum when he found out Lee was a deacon at our church.

Yeah but look at the list of other deacons. God, thru the Bible, specifically details what qualifications & characteristics a deacon should have. Here’s where all the femi-nazis are going to attack me–one of those characteristics is to be male. Don’t get me wrong…women have a crucial & vital role in church…and not that it’s unequal to men…just different types of roles. It’s already evident that the Trinity members and pastoral staff are choosing “deacons” unqualified for the job–so doesn’t surprise me that one would be a “cokehead” in some of your eyes.

This piñata is so full of stupid, it’s hard to know where to start whacking. I’ll start with the view that deaconhood is obviously a no-women-allowed club. The comment author is undoubtedly referring to Paul’s list of requirements for deacons. Without going into the full details[2] or listing Paul’s interesting view of women and marriage[3], I’ll note two things. One, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul demands that women not speak in church. At all. Two, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul requires that women cover their heads when praying in public. One guess as to whether or not the comment author’s church follows these requirements as well as Paul’s list of deacon requirements.

I also note that he (and you know it has to be a he even if you don’t check his username) brings in femi-nazi as an epithet. “Femi-nazi” is one of those slurs that gets thrown about by people who think women should sit down, shut up, be happy with making 77 cents on the dollar, and ideally get back to making babies.

Many churches owe their ongoing existence to the faithfulness and perseverance of women. That they continue to do so while being viewed as second-class citizens is astounding, and practically speaking unlikely to continue in the future.

And while we’re talking practicality, let’s get to the heart of the poster’s complaint, the point where his playing-card house of logic collapses: that, since our church has chosen women deacons, it’s no surprise that we chose a “cokehead”. Let’s perform a little Gedankenexperiment[4]. Think about a good acquaintance of yours — not your best friend, but someone you know decently well.

Now: has he ever used illegal drugs? Is she currently abusing illegal drugs? Has she ever cheated on someone she’s been in a relationship with? Does he enjoy autoerotic asphyxiation? Has he ever struck his wife? Does she abuse her children?

We don’t know people. Even with our best friends, we only know so much about their lives. There’s no way we know the deepest, darkest secrets of just about anyone. Oddly enough, we haven’t taken to wearing scarlet letters on our chest to tell everyone our sins.

Furthermore, the expectation that church members, even deacons, would be blameless is idiotic. Church is not where people go because they’re better than everyone else. Church is where people go, and people are messed up and broken regardless of whether they’re religious or not. Expecting otherwise is to ignore human nature, and to keep church — or any community of people, really — from being able to help others.

Of course, it doesn’t sound like helping others is what this guy’s religion is about.

[1] For those of you not steeped in the hierarchical minutia of low-church Protestant Christianity, deacons are members of the lay congregation who are called by the church. The duties vary among Baptist churches, but in ours, deacons are there mainly to minister to and help individual members and families.

[2] If you want to go diving into this, you can look at Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3, and the many, many commentaries on them both.

[3] The short version: ew! cooties!

[4] German for “you mean I can get paid to sit around and just think about imaginary situations?”

Busy, Busy, Busy!

This weekend we are having baby dedication for Liza at church. So we’re going to be up to our eyeballs in company. My dad and step mom are arriving this evening so we can spend a few days visiting. Stephen’s parents, two grandmothers and great aunt arrive on Saturday. Sunday is the dedication and then some friends are coming to visit in the afternoon.

There will be 1.4 gazillion photos by the week’s end but until then, posting will be light. So I leave you with this:

Granade’s Laws of Online Discussion

The first law: The ratio of finished projects to the number of posts and comments naturally approaches zero.

The second law: If the ratio begins at zero, it is unlikely ever to increase.

This helps explain the phenomenon where someone shows up on a forum for writers and starts talking about their fabulous novel which they never do finish.

Flair of the Spirit

How do you know who’s a Christian?

That’s not an easy question. No definitional one is. If you’d like to prove that statement, go into a room of geeks and ask, “How do you know what science fiction is? What’s fantasy? How do you tell the difference?” Then run very far away.

But to return to my original question, how do you know? Sure, people can profess to be Christians, but how can you be sure? It’s not as if we have a Christianity detector, or any other reliable way of reading people’s thoughts and opinions and categorizing them. We’re left with looking for external evidence of an internal state.

Christianity is supposed to be transformative. It’s supposed to make a difference in your life. One outward manifestation of this is supposed to be the fruit of the Spirit.

“Fruit of the Spirit” is one of those Christian terms of art. Roughly speaking, the Holy Spirit is God in us, guiding us and strengthening us. If the Holy Spirit is in us, we should demonstrate its fruit, as Paul talked about in Galatians.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

These are not exclusively Christian concepts, and Christians do not have a monopoly on them — in fact, based on the actions of a number of groups that identify themselves as Christian, we don’t display much of the fruit of the Spirit at all. So how do you use this to judge who’s Christian and who isn’t?

That’s why so many of us Christians don’t pay any attention to the fruit of the Spirit. We make up our own metrics, like political beliefs or stances on scientific matters. It’s how we end up declaring Bill Clinton to be a Christian in name only while affording full Christianhood to Ted Haggard.

Even that isn’t really good enough, though. Sure, elected officials and people in the media end up talking about what they believe, but how do I tell whether the guy on the train next to me is Christian or not? We need some obvious sign that a person is Christian. We need something like…

A play on the Staples 'Easy' button

Why, like that!

Christianity has always gleefully appropriated non-Christian symbols, the Christmas tree and the ichthys being prime examples. “Christian” shirts are the apotheosis of that practice. That’s not the real problem. The real problem is using this sort of junk to identify ourselves as Christians. It’s as if we’re not content to know that we’re Christian and act accordingly. We need to broadcast it to the world. So we put on t-shirts and buttons and WWJD bracelets, and we make sure everyone can see them.

There’s a name for all of these trinkets.

Joanna: You know what, Stan, if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair, like your pretty boy over there, Brian, why don’t you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?
Stan: Well, I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to express yourself.
Joanna: You know what, I do want to express myself, okay. And I don’t need 37 pieces of flair to do it.

Office Space gave the name “flair” to the buttons and other crap the waitstaff at restaurants like Bennigan’s wear to “express their personality”. It’s a wonderful word, flair. It indicates both the supposed purpose of the buttons and the cynical, soul-less motive behind it.

That’s what we’ve bought into. Instead of taking true Christian ideals, internalizing them, and trying to demonstrate Jesus’s love to those around us, we comfort ourselves by wearing trinkets. That way everyone around us can see our Flair of the Spirit.

Dentistry, Health Care, and Bildad the Shuhite

I am ill tonight. I am sick to my soul.

Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died of a toothache Sunday.

A routine, $80 tooth extraction might have saved him.

If his mother had been insured.

This is not, in and of itself, an unusual story. In 2003, nearly 16 percent of the US population was without health insurance. In the US, health insurance is inextricably linked to employment. If you have a job with good benefits, you’ll have relatively low-cost health insurance. If you have a job without medical benefits, or if you are unemployed, you will pay tremendously for health insurance, assuming you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, you’ll pay more for basic health care than the insured plus their insurance company pays.

Let me say that again. If you do not have health insurance, doctors and hospitals will charge you more than they charge insurance companies. Chances are, you’re like me: you have health insurance. Have you ever looked at the claim reports your insurance company sends you? I happen to have received one today. In the itemization section, there’s the following:

Services Submitted Charges Eligible Charges Benefits Paid
LAB-PATHOLOGY $30.00 $6.971 $6.97


Did you catch the footnote there? Our doctor normally charges $30.00 for labwork, but for our insurance company they’re willing to take $6.97.

This leads to a nasty spiral. If you’re employed in low-wage jobs or unemployed, you can’t afford health insurance. That drives up the cost of your health care, to the point that you start playing Russian Roulette with your ailments. You have to guess whether a given illness is bad enough to warrant going to the doctor. That leads to more health problems, which in turn cost more, and soon you’re circling the drain financially.

Insurance companies aren’t helping. They are notoriously optimized for short-term gains over long-term benefits. They’re public companies, and are driven by market forces that reward immediate cost savings. For instance, my insurance company will not pay for physicals, despite the lower cost of early treatment of diseases and cancers.

Deamonte Driver’s case is illustrative. Look back at the article.

Deamonte’s death and the ultimate cost of his care, which could total more than $250,000, underscore an often-overlooked concern in the debate over universal health coverage: dental care.

$250,000 to care for a condition that could have been solved at the beginning for some $80. In 2004, the uninsured cost an estimated $125 billion. That’s out of $1.9 trillion spent on health care costs overall. Roughly ten percent of health care costs are already spent on the uninsured.

We spend more on health care than any other country. Switzerland insures everyone at a cost of some 11% of GDP. Canada does it for 9.7%. Despite our higher rate of spending, our longevity ranks behind all other industrialized countries.

Even if you’re insured now, there’s no guarantee that a life-threatening illness won’t take all of your money and then some. In 2001, half of all personal bankruptcies were due to illness and medical bills. More than 75% of those driven into bankruptcy by medical issues had health insurance when their illnesses began.

There is an overwhelming financial incentive to fix how we pay for medical care. But for me there’s a strong moral component. Why are we willing to let the poor die from easily-preventable diseases?

Among many of my fellow Christians, there is the idea that the poor deserve what they get. If they are poor, it is because of choices they have made.

“Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.”

Job 8:3-4

Those are the words of Bildad the Shuhite to his friend Job. The story of Job is a troubling one. God takes away Job’s family, his wealth, and his health. Job and his friends then argue about why God did this to Job. The safe view of the story is that it explains suffering and pain. It doesn’t, really. You can’t turn to the end of the story and get a pat answer to why, in the words of Harold Kushner, bad things happen to good people.

What we do see is a portrait of how people deal with the problem of suffering. I find Job’s friends’ responses extremely enlightening. Their approach to comforting Job is to tell him to repent. “This is your fault,” they say. “Go back to living a righteous life and all will be well.”

This flies in the face of our experience. Ten-year olds realize that bad people prosper. Good people suffer. “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” Job cries to his friends. And yet, so many of us cling to the idea that luck and circumstance play no role in people’s situations.

If you’re poor, it’s your fault. And that absolves us of our obligation to help.

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we seen you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'”

Matthew 26:44-45

I don’t have a solution to the health care crisis. I don’t even know what I personally can do to begin fixing the problem. But that doesn’t mean I should shrug my shoulders and accept the situation as it is. If this is the best we can do for the least of these, then surely we are all damned.

What We Do During Advent

Since several people had questions about Advent, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the Christian traditions and more specifically what we do to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Stephen and I both grew up Southern Baptist. Baptists tend to be a bit more low church than other strains of Protestantism, so in many cases they don’t follow the liturgical calendar. The church we belong to right now is the most Liturgy-minded church I’ve ever been a part of (our church is also dually aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, so we tend to be a bit more liberal than a typical Southern Baptist church). I don’t know if this more liberal view is why our church is a bit more focused on Liturgy or if it’s our pastor but I do know that following the liturgical calendar produces a rhythm to life that I love. Geof will say that I’m secretly Methodist. I’m not sure that he’s too far wrong in that assumption.

Our two big events during the Christian year are, of course, Easter and Christmas. So just as Lent is the beginning of preparing for Easter, Advent is preparation for Christmas.

My Advent season starts in October. Advent is actually the period of time comprised of the four Sundays before Christmas. I start in October by helping Stephen’s father, Ray, put together his church’s Advent devotional booklet. People from his church write devotionals based on scripture passages (usually tied to the day’s liturgy but sometimes it’s scripture about the coming Christ child), he edits them, and I prepare them for printing. The books are passed out at the beginning of Advent and are a way for the congregation to spend some time every day focusing on anticipating the coming celebration of Christ’s birth and also as a time to anticipate the Second Coming. This year I helped prepare our church’s Advent booklet as well.

At our house, we tend to read them both during Advent. The scripture from each usually overlap but the stories that people tell are often vastly different. The one from Ray’s church is usually chock full of folks that Stephen grew up around, so I know for him, it’s a little piece of home to read from that booklet.

Some people celebrate Advent with an evergreen wreath and candles. (I say some people because I am lazy and have never taken the time to search for the correct colored candles to use. I know that’s a really lame excuse but there it is anyway.) There are four candles that sit on top of a circular evergreen wreath and one that sits in the middle. (More on evergreens in the next paragraph.) The four candles are tied to the four weeks. Usually before a family meal, a devotional and/or scripture is read or a hymn can be sung, a prayer is offered, and one or more candles are lit. The first week is a purple candle that stands for hope. The second candle is also purple and stands for love. The third week candle is either purple or pink and stands for joy. I’ve also heard this called the “Mary” candle but didn’t find any reference to it in my research. The fourth candle is purple and stands for peace. And the white candle in the middle is the Christ candle and is only lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The candles were originally just a way to count down the weeks before Christmas, but of course, in use, have developed a ton of meaning.

Early in the Advent season we have a church service that incorporates the “hanging of the green.” We hang evergreen bows and branches around the sanctuary. Evergreen branches are symbols of the unchanging nature of God and are a physical reminder of our everlasting life in Christ. In researching exactly what the hanging of the green stood for I ran across something that said early Christians put evergreens in their windows to indicate when Christ had entered their home. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a really great story and I love the symbolism behind that. Also, our lovely secular Christmas tree that caused us so much trouble this past Saturday totally counts toward our Evergreen quotient.

We also have lots of extra music during this time. The choir usually has a big performance and the children and youth usually have a musical/drama program sometime during Advent. We sing all the Christmas hymns during the Advent season. My favorite is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” but pretty much all of them make me cry.

We also have a service especially for the grieving. At our church we call it a “Service of Remembrance and Hope.” This is probably a celebration of All Souls Day which is traditionally December 2.

There is usually a Christmas Eve Communion Service which we unfortunately don’t ever get to attend as we are always traveling during the holidays. The Christmas Eve Communion Services I’ve attended are some of the most holy services I can remember.

When we gather on Christmas day we always start with a reading of the Christmas story from Luke 2. Nothing puts consumerism in perspective like a family having no place to go but a stable. We also talk about the things/events/people in our lives over the past year that we are thankful for.

Epiphany is usually the last thing celebrated during Christmas and we don’t do it very well. It is January 6 and commemorates the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem after the birth of Christ. We typically keep our wise men separated out from our nativity and then after Christmas, move them closer. But a lot of years we take our Christmas stuff down before January 6, so we don’t even do this small commemoration.

After Eli was born, we instituted a three gift rule for birthdays and Christmas at our house. If you want, you can tie that to the three gifts the wise men brought but really, for me, it’s just a reasonable number of toys for the grandparents to be giving. When Eli asks about it, I’ll totally be telling the wise men story. “If it’s good enough for Baby Jesus…”

We are also doing something new with Stephen’s family this year to try to stem the flood tide of stuff coming into our house. Instead of everybody buying gifts for everybody we are trading names and giving the money we would have otherwise spent to charity. The best part is we are going to tell who we gave money to and why when we get together to open gifts.

So that’s what we do during Advent and Christmas. A lot of it about building community, some of it is based on old traditions and all of it is about anticipating the coming of light into a very dark world. This is the second time I have been pregnant during Christmas. It is amazing how much extra anticipation I feel during this time, my eagerness and hopes for my own child tied up in the hope and anticipation of the Christ child. I hope you are anticipating Christmas as well. I hope you have family and friends to share it with. Merry Christmas.