Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Butting Heads Without Being Butt-Heads

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Philippians 1:15-17 (New King James Version)

“Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.”

Last Saturday the Gazette published the following letter from Rita Stark, a fellow Emporian:

“I hate to write letters to the editor. I really do. They do nothing to endear me to this community of conservatives, but you know what? Somebody has to do it.”

“There has been some terminology bandied about of late regarding the “Christian war” on people who don’t see things 100 percent their way. These people also say that America is a “Christian nation.” Now this runs contrary to what I learned in Mrs. Follett’s class back in 1963. Mrs. Follett said this is a nation of many faiths, and that everyone’s ideas are welcome here.”

“Now Mrs. Follett was a pretty good Christian, but she didn’t make a big deal about it. She got along with everybody, and like most people back in those days, she figured school was a place to learn and church was a place to pray. I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine she said “Merry Christmas” to Christians and “Happy Hanukah” to Jewish people.”

“Now I realize that 75 percent of the people in this nation are Christian, and that many of you thing that makes this a Christian nation. Like it or not, however, we have that darn Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of a national religion. If I remember right, Mrs. Follett venerated that Constitution right up there with her Bible and the “board of education” on her desk.”

“There is a movement in this country right now that a lot of people are unfamiliar with, led by Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye and others, some of its les well-known goals are to bring about Armageddon and a return to Biblical law, including stoning for women who have had abortions, homosexuals, and, presumably anyone who sasses back in any way. Sermon-on-the-mount Christians like Mrs. Follett need to educate themselves about the Dominionist movement, because unfortunately, they have the full support of the Bush administration and most of the conservative media. Do not be misled into aiding the establishment of an American Taliban. Educate yourself.”

“I am certain that Mrs. Follett would have wanted nothing to do with the Dominionists, and neither should any good American.”

After I read the letter I was tempted to respond in haste, to respond in kind. I figured that if Ms. Stark could engage in logical fallacy (taking the part for the whole), I could do likewise. If she could paint conservative Christianity with the broad brush of “dominionism”, I figured I could use my brush to paint Ms. Stark as a member of a sinister cabal of “distortionists.”

After a few days of breathing and living, however, I decided, as much as I possibly could, to take the high road. I started by agreeing with some of what she’d written and used that as my springboard in an attempt to butt heads without being a butthead. Last night I sent my response to the Gazette. I hope I succeeded in what I was attempting to do. My response follows. Let me know if I did:

Mrs. Follett taught Rita Stark some very valuable lessons back in 1963. I’m conservative and I agree that this is a land of many faiths. While I don’t agree that all ideas are welcome, or equal (sedition, advocating infanticide, etc.), I do believe there is plenty of room for public expressions of faith and philosophy, including some that are unpopular. As Roman Catholic scholar Richard John Neuhaus once observed “In a democracy that is free and robust, an opinion is no more disqualified for being “religious” than for being atheistic, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or just plain dumb.”

Like Mrs. Follett, I also have a deep and abiding respect for our Constitution. I too oppose the establishment of a national religion. That respect, however, does not mean that I accept the notion that government can mandate where, when, or how “we the people” express our religious sentiments. In other words, our government can no more mandate religious neutrality than it can mandate national religion, stoning, or Armageddon.

Eighteenth century statesman Edmund Burke greatly admired our Revolution, principally because it made room for Divine Providence in the affairs of men. In so doing, he believed, America had overcome the error of Europe, which was “
blindness to the effulgence of the burning bush, deafness to the thunder above Sinai.”

I believe that Mrs. Follett would agree with me that the right to express one’s faith is our national cornerstone. I support that right for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and atheists. I believe Mr. Follett would also support my right as a conservative, Pentecostal Christian to express mine in the public square.

In keeping with that wisdom, I intend to continue doing so. To do otherwise would only encourage a secularized version of the Taliban to take that right from me.

Phil Dillon
Emporia, Kansas

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Edmund Burke


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Finding a Way

“We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

- From “We Are One in the Spirit” by Peter Scholte (1966)

Yesterday brought more of the continuing stream of good news on the economic front:

“Employers added 211,000 jobs in a springtime hiring burst that benefited almost all sectors of the economy and lowered the national unemployment rate to 4.7 percent.”

The numbers are very good indeed. They reflect an economy that has just about reached what economists call “full employment.”

Another positive development was the rise in wages reported by the Labor Department. March numbers revealed that American workers are now making an average of $16.49 per hour in return for their sweat and toil, a three and a half percent increase over March, 2005.

In the light of those numbers I find myself perplexed at all the rhetoric about jobs that illegal immigrants are taking from able-bodied American citizens.

Now, as I’ve said before, I understand the need to fix the problem we have. What I don’t understand, though, is some of the solutions offered, especially the most draconian:

“The three major components of immigration control--deterrence, apprehension and removal (my emphasis added)--need to be strengthened by Congress and the Executive Branch if effective control is ever to be reestablished.”

Earlier in the week it appeared that a compromise on immigration policy had been worked out. Unfortunately, politics at its ugliest took over and the spirit of cooperation was doused by suspicion and partisanship:

“Democrats fear that although Senate Republicans have been offering centrist compromises, they will tilt the bill sharply to the right when it reaches a conference with the House.”
“Conversely, Republicans fear that Senate Democrats, while appearing conciliatory, at heart want to block passage of a Senate bill so that the GOP will be forced in this year's congressional campaigns to defend the much more conservative bill that the House approved in December.”
”The suspicion over motives suggests that in the difficult and emotional immigration debate, the most impassable border might be the space between two parties bruised by years of partisan conflict.”

The real problem I have with this “let’s get ‘em outta’ here solution” is that it won’t work. Mexicans and other Latin Americans are coming across out southern border, not because they are criminals, but because they are desperate, as Spiegel ONLINE recently reported:

“Our government thought a place like this was a natural obstacle, and that no one would be so desperate as to try to make their way through here,” Mayer says. “Now they're finding out that Latino refugees have no other choice.” Mayer once found a baby carriage in the desert. Another time, a woman came stumbling towards him in high-heeled shoes.”

“Mayer leaves water bottles in the scorching sand and arranges for maps to be handed out on the Mexican side of the border. The maps tell refugees where the water bottles have been deposited. It's their only survival aid in the relentless heat. According to official statistics, 473 people died making the border crossing last year, a record number.”

I cannot, and will not, find myself supporting any policy that criminalizes desperation. As I’ve said before, it’s un-American and un-Christian.

Yesterday I read a piece of astounding news, again from Spiegel ONLINE:

“A United States official on Wednesday said that Europe's inability to integrate its sizeable Muslim minority represented a risk to American security. Europe, meanwhile, is desperately searching for a strategy to confront the problem.”

“The alienation and isolation of Europe's substantial Muslim minority does not just present a potentially explosive problem for the continent, a United States State Department official said on Wednesday. Europe's inability to integrate its immigrant population (my emphasis added) also represents a threat to US security, he warned. US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington that high unemployment among Muslims in European countries combined with widespread discrimination and integration problems have created fertile ground for Muslim extremism.”

Talk about chutzpah. The United States is browbeating Europe over its failure to integrate its Muslim minority into the mainstream of European life. We’re telling Europe to solve its immigration problem while we refuse to find the way to solve ours. If things stay on the course they’re headed, in a week or so we’ll be recommending that Europe ship its Muslim immigrants back across the Mediterranean.

For me, this has also become as much a matter of faith as it is politics. Many of those desperately trying to enter the United States are brothers and sisters of mine. They are fellow members of the “household of faith.” Latin America is home to approximately twenty-seven percent of the world’s Pentecostal Christians. They constitute half of the entire population of our southern neighbors. In fact, there are more Pentecostals in Latin America than there are in the United States. (Source). They come armed with a theology that I find quite appealing. While they hold firmly to the essentials of Christianity, they also bring something very distinctive:

“Yet it is also undeniable that Pentecostal experience, like all religious experience, is also inherently political.”

As author Rowan Ireland has noted, that theology includes “fervent moralism, a conviction that God punishes the unjust in this world as well as the next.”

Beyond the theology and critical thought, though, this issue is also deeply personal to me. In one of the most recent issues on Christianity Today on line, Daniel Goody tells the story of a Guatemalan woman named Maria:

“I remember meeting Maria, who came north from Guatemala and wanted to work in the United States for only two years, then return home to her family. I met her on the Mexican side of the border just before her third attempt. In the previous 10 days, she had tried twice to cross the border through a remote route in southern Arizona. On her first attempt, she was mugged at the border by bandito gangs. Though bruised and beaten, she continued her journey through the desert and ran out of food. Just before she reached the road, she was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol and put in an immigration detention center. A few days later she tried again. This time, her coyote smuggler tried to rape her, but she managed to free herself and push her way through the desert once again. After four days of walking, she ran out of food, water, and even strength. The border patrol found her, helped her, and then sent her back to Mexico.”

At the end of his interview with her, Goody asked her a question and got a very revealing answer:

“I was curious about how Maria dealt with these trials before God. ‘If you had 15 minutes to speak to God,’ I asked her, ‘what would you say?’ I thought she would give him a long litany of complaints. Instead, she told me, ‘I do not have 15 minutes to speak to God. I am always conversing with him, and I feel his presence with me always. Yet if I saw God face to face, the first thing I would do is thank him, because God has been so good to me and has blessed me so abundantly.’”

I am as committed as any American to securing our borders. But, I’m also committed to finding an avenue that lifts the burden of fellow pilgrims like Maria. There are millions of them. I do not believe that citing the law and shipping them back across the border is an American, or a Christian solution.

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Christianity Today



Monday, April 03, 2006


“I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud,
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood,
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass.
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass.”

- Bob Dylan – “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” (1967)

I’m finding myself at cross purposes with some readers over the immigration issue. Last Thursday, for example, I got the following comment:

“The real heart of immigration is a low wage work force, keeping all wages depressed. If you can keep the bottom of the work force impoverished through fear and exploitation, you can keep the excess profits for the very top.”

While the commenter never said it directly, the implication was that, in supporting the U.S. Senate’s approach to immigration, I really support fear and exploitation. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I support is opportunity.

What’s happening on our southern border is a validation of the law of supply and demand. There is work available here in the United States. Mexican workers, whose wages for the available jobs in Mexico, take the risks they do because the wages offered, which by American standards are very low, are still far better than the wages offered in Mexico. That reality does not mean that I support fear and exploitation. It means that I believe we need to find the mechanisms to improve the lot of those coming north.

While things aren’t now where they need to be, it simply isn’t true that illegal immigrants are depressing wages here in the United States. Just the other day columnist Tony Snow observed that:

“On the work front, Hispanic unemployment has tumbled to 5.5 percent, only slightly above the national average of 4.7 percent.”

Snow then went on to cite some very startling economic data:

“According to 2002 Census Bureau data, Hispanics are opening businesses at a rate three times faster than the national average. In addition, there were almost 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses generating $222 billion in revenue in 2002.”

The long and the short of the report is that Hispanics are taking advantage of the opportunity America offers. A million and a half businesses created and a quarter of a trillion dollar contribution to our GDP by this community hardly seem to be the result of fear and oppression. Hispanics have taken the opportunity and run with it. The result is that they are flourishing in America.

I’ve also heard some claim that illegals don’t pay taxes or contribute to Social Security. Some even go so far as to claim they’re clogging up the social welfare system in this country. Are the claims valid? Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey recently reported that:

“62 percent of illegal immigrants pay income taxes (via withholding) and 66 percent contribute to Social Security.”

For close to two years now I’ve been receiving a Social Security check. Come July of this year my wife, Nancy, will be too. I’m grateful for the contribution the 66% are contributing to our welfare.

As to the claim that illegals are clogging up the social welfare system, Forbes magazine recently noted:

“Mexican illegals aren't clogging up the social-services system: only 5 percent receive food stamps or unemployment assistance; 10 percent send kids to public schools.”

What the numbers seem to reflect to me is that those coming do so to seize an opportunity. They come with a strong work ethic, family values, and pride. I admire them for that and I want them to find a way to flourish and succeed here in America. That’s one of the things this country is all about.

It’s interesting how it all works. This morning I read a short piece in the Kansas City Star about current labor crunch in China. Apparently the Chinese are beginning to pay the price of having a superheated economy:

“The shortage of workers is pushing up wages and swelling the ranks of the middle class, and it could make Chinese-made products less of a bargain worldwide. International manufacturers are talking about moving factories to lower-cost countries such as Vietnam.”

Interesting. The laws of supply and demand really do work.

In the same way, finding a legal way to solve our current immigration/supply-demand problem here in America will go a long way toward bringing wages and benefits for those here illegally in line with those of America’s workers. That’s not fear and exploitation in action. It’s fairness and decency. If our legislators allow for it, programs and laws drafted under the Senate provisions will work.

My views on immigration seem to have also set me crossways with a large number of my fellow Christians. Last week I got the following two question survey from the American Family Association:

The first step in dealing with the illegal immigration problem is to seal the borders and keep additional illegal immigrants out.
I agree.
I disagree.
How strong is your feeling on sealing our borders?
Very Strong
Not Strong

The survey results to this point indicate that 95% of those surveyed believe that “sealing our borders should be the first step in stopping illegal immigration.”

I’m in the five percent minority. It’s not that I believe that protecting our borders isn’t important. I do. But the questions were obviously loaded, meant to provoke fear and emotional response to the issue.

That’s really unfortunate. Christians, of all communities, should be thinking clearly about this. As Snow noted, the problem needs to be solved, but the solution must be in keeping with our national values:

“The United States somehow has managed to absorb 10 million to 20 million illegal immigrants not only without turning into Animal Farm, but while cranking up the most impressive economic recovery in two decades and the most prolonged period of declining crime in a century -- all in the teeth of the post-9/11 recession, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the double-whammy hurricane season of 2005.”

“Rather than panicking, the political class might want to take a deep breath and attempt a little common sense. Virtually everyone agrees that we need to secure our borders, deport lawbreakers and slackers among the illegal-immigrant population, and revitalize the notion of citizenship by insisting that prospective citizens master the English language and the fundaments of American history and culture.”

Finally, the solution to the problem must also be in keeping with the Christian value of grace. I believe we Christians should take the time-honored approach of Christian memory and apply it to what’s happening today:

Ephesians 2:12-13 (New International Version)

“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.”

If we apply Snow’s common sense and the Christian virtue of grace to this problem, I’m convinced we can, and will, solve it.

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Bob Dylan



Sunday, April 02, 2006

Thinking My Way Out of Writer's Block

I’m in the throes of a bout of writer’s block. Like anyone who enjoys the craft, I’m in a bit of a dry spell. It will pass. One of the tools I’m employing to move the process along is something I wrote last fall, a reminder of what it takes to keep the fires of inspiration burning.

That post, originally titled – “Inspiration – Lessons Learned on the Rubber Chicken Circuit” – now follows. Perhaps it will also help some fellow writer going through his or her creative valley:

“Use what talents you possess. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang the best.”

- Henry Van Dyke

We’ve been back from Glorietta close to a week now. The afterglow of the creative fires we shared there travelled home with us. While the coals are no longer white hot, the embers still remain.

Over the past few days the question of how to keep those fires burning has crossed my mind. How does one stay inspired?

There are times I’m able to sit for hours, with words flowing like the milk and honey of the Promised Land. I can sense heaven above my head opened wide, revealing rooms filled with words, there for the taking. I find nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, gerunds, clever catch phrases, sonnets, sermons, stump speeches, treatises on the nature and shape of illusion, grocery lists, or letters to the editor. Most often, though, I sit like Jeremiah, agonizing in the darkness of a well. I look up, casting prayers heavenward, only to have them ricochet back down to the subterranean depths. Each time this happens I try again, often with the same result. The heavens seem to be like brass, a dome above me preventing me from laying hold to the treasures I so desire. There are times in this painful process I wonder why I even try. “It’s too hard, too frustrating, there are too few immediate rewards,” I often murmur.

Years ago I went on a revival tour of the Ozarks, tugging on the coattails of a revival preacher who considered what he was doing as much a job as it was a calling. As we wound our way south from Kansas City he talked proudly about it. “This is my job, Phil,” he said over and over, as if there was a message I needed to hear in all the repetition. “This is my job, Phil.” “This is my job.”

Once we got to our first stop the day to day logistics of making things happen seemed to drown out the four words I’d heard over and over as wed come down the highway. We were on the rubber chicken circuit and now we were going to get down to business. There would be no more talk of this being nothing more than a job. We were called men, on a mission for God, and early indications said as much. We sat, eating fried chicken, corn on the cob, country gravy, a few “praise the Lords” and “amen brothers,” the stuff that makes the rubber chicken circuit what it is. It was, as I saw it, the essence of being called.

Breakfast the next morning re-confirmed the message. The early morning was jump-started with eggs, biscuits, sausage, white gravy, and a few leftover “praise the Lords” and “amen brothers” from the night before. At about quarter to eight, Earl, the revivalist, told me it was time for us to go over to the church. “It’s time to go to work, Phil,” he said. I secretly wanted to protest. “The meeting doesn’t even start till seven tonight. Why are we going this early? I mean, there’s a lot of rubber chickening left in me.” But I went along with Earl, thinking and hoping that we’d be back sitting around the table “amening” within an hour or so.

We got to the church at about eight. As soon as we entered, Earl told me to start praying at one end of the sanctuary and he’d start praying at the other. A confused look came over my face. It must have been very transparent. “Pray for revival here.” “Pray for the fire to come down.” “Read your Bible.” “Listen for what the Almighty has to say.” Earl’s instructions came, in rat-a-tat-tat fashion, much like his words repeated over and over again on the highway the night before. “This is my job, Phil.” “This is my job.”

And so we prayed, read, and listened. At about noon Earl decided that his belly was hungry. At one we returned from lunch and went right back to work. The hamburger and fries seemed to energize Earl. “Oh, Lord,” he prayed over and over again as he walked up and down the aisles of the sanctuary. “I can’t make any of this happen. I need you to bring down your fire. Bring revival tonight, Lord. Touch hearts. Touch souls. Touch spirits.”

While my manner wasn’t as animated as Earl’s, I also prayed, quietly, much in keeping with my Episcopal roots.

At five-thirty we left the sanctuary. I thought we were going back over to the preacher’s house for more chicken, but Earl had decided to have dinner out at a small cafeteria he’d seen on our way to the church. “How come we’re not going back over to the preacher’s place? I asked as we pulled into the parking lot. Earl smiled. “Don’t wanna’ get caught up in table talk right now,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do and I need to focus on that.” We sat, silently eating for about twenty minutes. My curiosity made those minutes seem like hours. I couldn’t stand it. I had to ask. “Earl, is it like this every time you go somewhere to preach a revival?” “Like what?” he asked in return.
“You know. Eight hours in the sanctuary praying and listening. That sort of thing.”
“Yes. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s my job, Phil.”
“What about your calling?”
“What about it?”
“I guess it’s the connotation of a job that’s bothering me.”
“A calling seems a lot higher to me than a job, that’s all.”
“Really.” Earl paused, then leaned over the table and looked directly at me. “Would you have anything to do with a doctor who only worked an hour or so a day and didn’t practice his craft? Would you trust a surgeon who did nothing but sit around with friends all day to cut you wide open? “
He’d made his point. The only correct answer to both questions was “No!”
“Besides,” he went on. “I’m working out my calling, Phil. You see, I’m called to work. To me, that means that there’s more to what I do than sitting around eatin’ chicken and swillin’ down iced tea.”
Earl’s words sunk in. “It’s your job,” I said knowingly.

What does all of this have to do with writing, and craft? I think there are a lot of times I stumble over the same things I did in the Ozarks so long ago. I can’t treat what I’m doing now like the rubber chicken circuit. Writing must be as much my job as it is my calling. I’ve heard it said that inspiration is at least two thirds perspiration. I need to remember that at those times when the heavens seem like brass, when the words won’t come or the prayers for inspiration seem to just keep ricocheting back at me.

A while ago I read a short passage from Luke, the gentile physician who recorded, in striking prose, two books of the Christian bible. The words that follow are a bit more polished than the words Earl spoke long ago, but the message they convey is the same:

Luke 11:9 (King James Version)

9 “And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

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