Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Proper Post-Sin Posture

Using sin's shock to power a spiritual comeback

As mornings come and nights pass by, some people use the words “daily grind” to describe the routines that make up the time in between.
In my world, I’d have to say that “weekly suck” more aptly describes the doldrums of working life.

I don’t say this because my weeks “suck” in the figurative sense of the word, the way that vocab-strapped teenagers describe an uninteresting or inconvenient phenomenon. My life is actually quite enjoyable. I say it because of the way the pages in the calendar so quickly become obsolete, as the vacuum of time rips them from the binding and slurps once-anticipated days and milestones into the oblivion and forgetfulness of past.

My spiritual life often seems to suffer the same fate. A prayer pops up here, a confession there, but each is an isolated event, a seed scattered on the path and pecked away before it can take root as a consistent pattern. Sin becomes less recognizable, as does the grace that acknowledges that sin and glories in its defeat. Soon, what was a brisk walk with God gradually slows to a zombie’s stagger.

When such malaise occurs in my life, our loving God uses one of a few methods to resuscitate me, and they usually come in the form of extremes. He gives me a spiritual plateau—a heartfelt prayer, a piercing sermon, a moment of obedience—which often results in a crash back to mediocrity and routine. Or he lets me feed my sinful nature, opening my eyes to the miserable reality of evil and the necessity relying on him.

Strange as it may sound, I find the latter to be drastically more effective in waking me from a life-induced stupor. The spiritual effects of sin have an ouch factor, like sitting on a tack or touching a hot stove burner. Once you feel the jolt, it’s easy to remember why you gave up the behavior that caused it. The failure shows the need for the savior.

The idea of sin as spiritual CPR seems a bit strange at first glance, but this is a perfect example of the brilliant manner in which grace and justice work together. God’s gets to be right, we get our punishment, and then restoration highlights his mercy and revives our gratitude.

But the key in turning your own sin into a weapon is in striking a proper post-sin posture before God. This is an age-old balancing act for Christians, as we've always struggled to express the appropriate level of remorse without sliding into the hopelessness of condemnation.

For some, a quick turn to grace makes them feel shallow and insincere, like a widow who marries again as soon as her husband is buried. To these people, the wages of sin is death, and any wrongdoing needs a solemn period of mourning. At the risk of sounding like I’m writing a Christian horoscope, these folks tend to emphasize the justice of God, and they’re more susceptible to feelings of condemnation.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who think that because Jesus has taken our punishment, there’s nothing to get all gloomy about. To these people, God is satisfied in Christ’s suffering, so no matter how we’ve damaged the relationship, we can jump right up into his lap. These folks tend to emphasize the grace of God, and they’re at risk of losing their reverence for God’s holiness.

Because of the strange dichotomy of grace and justice, the proper posture is somewhere in between, and it’s a delicate medium to find. Since this is a relationship, the best way to uncover the right response, I think, is to see how Jesus dealt with people in scripture.

As far as I know, he never reacts with happiness to those who are flippant about disobeying God’s word or encourage others to do so. He wants to see a contrite heart (see Psalm 51, a great help in these matters). But at the same time, Jesus attracted sinners, those who knew he disagreed with their lifestyle choices. Why? Because he affirmed wrongdoing without affixing it to their ultimate identity. See the principle at work in his reaction to the woman caught in adultery: Neither do I condemn you, now go and sin no more.

The woman missed the mark, but because she had met Jesus, a slip-up didn’t result in her demise. That same reality is at work in our own hearts. We lament a temporary lapse because in reverting to our old state, we cheapen our blood-bought salvation. But we rejoice in the coming restoration because in taking hold of forgiveness, we're reminded that we’re on the friendly side of the great chasm between our fallenness and his acceptance.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Back to China

At long last (it's been a year and a half) I'm finally heading back to China.

I found out a few weeks ago that I will be traveling to Shanghai to report on Delta Air Lines' new nonstop service connecting Atlanta to that bustling city on China's eastern seaboard. I'll also be meeting with a variety of businesspeople who have some sort of Atlanta connection, and you can be sure I'll be exhausting my Chinese knowledge, which hasn't grown much since I left the University of Georgia.

It's ironic that I'm making it to Shanghai on my fifth trip to China. The city of nearly 18 million is known for its distinctly foreign flair, having been built up and parceled out by the British, French, Americans and Japanese during the mid-nineteenth century, on the heels of the infamous opium wars. From the research I've done so far, it seems like it'd be the perfect place for a foreigner to start his or her China journey, but I've done my core China explorations in places far more remote.

The trip will be no more than a week long, but it'll be refreshing to know that I won't be backpacking or hopping between cities. Shanghai is my destination, so I'm going to do my best to navigate it. One man in a city whose population is greater than all but the top 55 countries in the world? Like I said, I'll do my best. Please pray for me if you get the chance.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Green They're After

Environmentalists have been pushing biofuels - those derived from carbon-based, recently living matter like trees and grass - as the alternative to fossil fuels, which have been charged with causing the greenhouse gas emissions supposedly responsible for warming the earth.

Many tout biofuels as unequivocally better than fossil fuels because they are "renewable" and emit less greenhouse gases when burned.

I'm no expert on biofuels or alternative energy in general, but since the global warming fad caught on, I've been skeptical, trying to look at the whole picture even as global warming activists, led by patron saint and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, try to slam the door shut on earnest inquiry into what these fuels and other environmental measures empirically accomplish.

Although the debate still rages, an article in today's International Herald Tribune seems to validate the idea that it's okay to question whether biofuels result in a net reduction in greenhouse gases, a drop in the guilt of groups who think we're slow-cooking ourselves or just an earnings spike in the bank accounts of those who have us fooled into paying for a big scam.

The article takes biofuels to task, citing two studies as saying that, taking account the fossil fuels expended and the land cleared to produce biofuels on a commercial scale, there's "probably" a net increase in greenhouse gases wafting into the atmosphere.

It's particularly encouraging to see this study being publicized because it bolsters those of us who would question the environmentalist orthodoxy. I don't mind people espousing opinions, and I don't claim to know whether global warming is a man-made catastrophe or a sensationalist fairy tale. I just want people to back up their claims with reason rather than emotion and with pure motives rather than a lust for profits. And I want people to look at the whole gamut of potential consequences, not just the ones beneficial to their own interests.

As a reporter, I've written articles about Germans pushing for legislation that would make wind and solar energy sources more economically viable in the U.S., and I've interviewed a top water technology official from Israel. Throughout those discussions, I've come to the conclusion that as many supposed environmental crusaders as there are out there, companies will not and cannot operate at a loss, no matter how strong their ideology.

In light of these studies, we should take a serious look at the economic (and now environmental) implications for government-mandated biofuel consumption, and when we hear green crusaders spouting their relentless rhetoric, we should do our best to figure out which kind of "green" they're after.

Photo by Trevor Williams in Xinjiang province, China. Copyright 2006.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How Not to Vote

I realize the inconsistency in writing about the primary elections simply to say that you're sick of hearing about them, but I feel like I need to get something off my chest about this election season.

Although it's not an empirical fact, the pundits, candidates and news services have speculated that Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have been splitting the anti-John McCain conservative vote, meaning that either would be able to defeat him if the other would bow out of the race. Some have used this scenario as justification for their supporting one candidate over the other, reasoning that if they don't want McCain, they shouldn't "waste" their vote on someone with "no chance" to beat him.

It seems that most often, this scenario has hurt Huckabee, whom the media has painted as unelectable, possibly because of his heritage as a Baptist pastor. Romney, who has already spent loads of cash and has a magazine-full of monetary weapons at his disposal, at least before today has been seen as a more viable option for voters who see themselves as ideologically right of McCain and hoping to block his ascension. In fact, Romney was quoted as smugly saying, "In a two-person race, I like my chances," apparently totally ignoring Huckabee's strong support among evangelicals in the South.

My point is to say that especially in this accelerated primary season, the crazy whirlwind of media coverage threatens to have a inappropriate impact on the race. Like it or not, visibility is a big deal in deciding how people vote. A New York Times blog entry today said that John McCain had gotten 75 percent more news coverage than Mitt Romney in a week where 51 percent of total news coverage had to do with the elections. If Romney's coverage was that low, think of where Huckabee's must have been.

Although it's next to impossible to totally insulate ourselves from the media, we need to be smarter and more patriotic than to let it, or the candidates' manipulation of it, decide our vote for us. I have to admit that I was almost swayed by such political posturing, but I made a firm decision to vote for the person who I thought was the better candidate, regardless of empty projections about my vote's implications for the race as a whole. Ideally, I hope I would take this approach to the next level, voting for a candidate that had virtually no chance of winning if I truly thought he was the best person out of the available choices.

What I'm saying is that votes made only to block a certain candidate are unfounded if you believe there's someone better for the job. Casting such a vote means the pundits have convinced you to sacrifice your beliefs for their projections and that your voice isn't important for what it is.

Granted, in the general election, it may be necessary to vote for someone who wasn't your ideal candidate. But in that case, though you may not have voted for that person in the primary, you'll at least be voting on the principle that this person is better for the job than the alternative.

It can be confusing, and voting often comes down to the lesser of two evils. Just make sure that you don't vote for an intermediate evil to block a great evil when you could have put your support behind an underdog you don't think is an evil at all. Don't shortchange your voice. However twisted our democratic process is, it's all we've got. And hey, we could live in Russia.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Irish Travelin’

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…

It was my first Catholic mass, and the rhythmic recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was a comforting respite from the endless procession of highly choreographed rituals I had never performed. The familiar lines from the Gospel of Matthew rescued me from the awkward game of Simon Says I was playing with the priest. I sat near the back of the cathedral, but it felt like I drew every disapproving eye in the building as I made the motion of the cross, taxing my peripheral vision to mimic the worshipers beside me. Aside from being in China, I had never felt so conspicuous. When the priest read the part about forgiving those who trespass, I hoped this crowd really meant it.

Truthfully, my friends Brad, Evan and I were out of place, invading a service that was completely foreign to us. And not just because we thought the holy water in the back of the sanctuary was the place where they dunked new believers. Coming to this Saturday mass was a lucky coincidence, a single step on a larger journey bringing us closer to our goal: getting to know the strange and misunderstood people group that made up this monolithic congregation in the town of North Augusta, S.C.

Since Evan moved to Augusta to enroll at the Medical College of Georgia, he heard rumors that a community of gypsies lived on the South Carolina side of the same city. Rumor had it that these “gypsies” led culturally deviant lifestyles, purposely keeping themselves insulated from the outside world. They had the reputation of being wanderers, and they were known to take their trucks around the country for months at a time as they looked for roofing, paving and painting jobs at homes across the country.

To the Augusta residents who let Evan in on the gypsy secret, these itinerant workers were both a nuisance and an enigma. They had a bad reputation for being scam artists. A memo issued by the state of Georgia’s Governor’s Office for Consumer Affairs mentioned their schemes in a May 2007 press release. According to the release, they target the elderly and other unassuming victims, using their charm to sway people into paying exorbitant prices for shoddy remodeling work and getting out of town before it’s detected.

These gypsies, we were told, also had extravagant homes that only added to their mystique. No one we talked to knew where their seemingly disproportionate supply of cash came from, or why some of the homes in their community were so posh, while some looked fit for a trailer park. It seemed that there was a level of incongruity even among such a tightknit community.

I was particularly interested in researching these people from the moment I heard the word “gypsy.” My last year in college, I wrote a profile on a professor who grew up in communist Romania. There, he spent a lot of time with a large contingent of gypsies, the Roma people, who are actually an ethnic group with their own language. The professor described his time learning about them and traveling with them as one of the most exciting and magical times in his life. For a guy who speaks 19 languages or more and has traveled all over the world, that was a pretty heavy statement.

But they’re not gypsies

As I researched on the Internet and Evan continued to ask around, we found out that the term “gypsy” was actually a misnomer, except when used as a way to describe the group’s itinerant lifestyle. But, pejorative terms aside, the true identity of the people turned out to be equally as intriguing. These Irish Travelers, as they were called, were not ethnically any different from any other white people of European ancestry, but their culture—and the way they’ve preserved it in America—makes them unique and mysterious.

Some accounts say the Irish Travelers came to the United States during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. Some say they were tinsmiths or traders when they fled. Others have different opinions, but one thing is clear: these are working class families with a long history of self-imposed isolation, and the ranks of their society are not easily cracked.

There are now only a few Traveler communities in America, the largest of which is the group in Edgefield, S.C., just outside North Augusta. There’s another one near Dallas and a group called the Mississippi travelers near the river of the same name. An informative Washington Post article from 2002 put the Edgefield number at 3,000, and the population is likely to have grown significantly since then. But even with such a substantial community, the travelers are nowhere near entering the mainstream. They are known for a wide variety of unorthodox practices. Among themselves, they speak an esoteric language called Cant (it also has other names), which a Slate magazine article about them said incorporates bits of Gaelic, English, Hebrew and Greek.

Another practice that has become taboo for outsiders (yes, even in the South) but seems to be acceptable for Travelers is arranged marriage, often between first cousins, and usually at a young age. When the Washington Post reporter asked a young Traveler girl how she met her husband, she said, “Well, he’s my cousin, I’ve known him all my life.”

As we found out by experience, the Travelers are staunchly Catholic. Few houses in the area are left without a statue of the Madonna or Jesus presiding over the lawns, and the rule is as true at the ornate mansions as it is at the small, mobile homes that often share a lot with the larger homes. Their community is called Murphy’s Village, apparently named after an Irish pastor who founded the church on nearby land. There are probably a lot of Murphys remaining, considering the entire community shares no more than 12 surnames, meaning that people have to have nicknames or use possessives to describe their identity. On the church bulletin, we saw names like “Brian’s Mary” and “O’Malley and A’s Margaret.”

Getting In

We had set out for the village with no particular plan other than to do some reconnaissance work to possibly set up an interview for the future. Taking off from Evan’s house, we packed our camera and GPS into my car and headed north.

At 3:40 p.m., we started seeing the types of houses we had heard and read about, with aluminum foil and butcher paper covering the windows of small mobile homes and two- and three-level brick mansions. Many of the larger houses had ornately carved wooden doors and beautiful masonry—and they looked completely out of place. On the left side of the road, just off the highway, a Catholic church sat in the shadow of the Edgefield water tower. As we made our first pass, I noticed on the sign that mass started at 4 p.m.

When I mentioned it to the other guys, we all seemed to get the same idea: This was our in.

Going a little further north to make sure this was the right community, we made a U-turn and then took a right toward the church on a street that had "Murphy" in its name.

Still exploring, we drove around the neighborhood a few times, and we made our first contact with Travelers, most of them young males, all driving massive crew-cab trucks in circles on the streets near the church, like sharks closing in on an injured seal. Some older trucks rode past, laden with construction equipment that somewhat validated what we’d heard about their occupations. But the rest of the trucks—Chevy Silverados, Dodge Rams, Ford F-150s and even larger varieties—looked shiny and new, like all they’d ever hauled were hefty loads of testosterone.

We got caught between a few of the trucks a few times, but we finally managed to break out of the cycle and make it into the church parking lot. To our surprise, there were no trucks here. But there were other cars, and if you just looked at them, you’d think a convention of blingin’ rap stars had descended on this small community. Mercedes, BMWs and what seemed like the Irish Traveler vehicle of choice—the Lexus compact SUV—all crowded the small lot, making my 2008 Honda look like a Yugo.

Women streamed from the cars, the middle-aged ones looking put-together but not overdone, and the teenagers with poofed hair and makeup, putting on "that glamour-shot look," as someone described them in an article. Even the little girls wore considerable makeup to match their flashy threads as their moms led them from their $70,000 chariots into the sanctuary.

One group was noticeably absent from the scene: men. Aside from boys under the age of 10 and men over about 50, they were nowhere to be found. Occasionally, a large truck would drive close to the church, reminding us that most of the guys were out playing.

In the parking lot, we debated whether or not to go in. On one hand, it seemed a bit intrusive and sacrilegious. On the other, we had come out here to get close to the Travelers, and this was our chance. But we’d have to weigh that against our being so blatantly lost or out of place. As if being so obviously non-Traveler weren’t enough, we would also stick out because we fit the demographic least likely to attend church in this community: males from 20-30 years old.

Evan, who never saw an awkward situation he didn’t like, was gung-ho. Brad was so-so. Like me, he was waiting to see if a consensus arose without his vote. I broke the tie, reasoning that we should go for it since we made the effort to go all the way out there.

What resulted was a great time of worship celebrating the Epiphany, which was a new thing for me. I was Baptist-bred and stayed in that tradition until college. The priest hailed from India, which made the experience of being in a Catholic mass with Irish Travelers all the more culturally amusing. He had trouble with the word “magi,” and “homage,” (which he pronounced “Hom-idge," in two distinct parts) but other than that, everything went seamlessly. Women led almost all the hymns and rituals, and they distributed communion as well.

And the Travelers were nice. They never once questioned us; no one even looked at us funny. The elderly gentlemen sitting near us shook our hands warmly and welcomed us into their fellowship. Some might say that’s part of their ploy, a method of charm they use before defrauding you. I tend to believe, as one of the interviewee’s said in the Post article, that the stereotypes about the Travelers are probably grounded in reality, that they probably do have a few bad apples. But I like to go on experience rather than hearsay, and if mass is any indication, the Travelers are a warm people. I hope further research will allow me to explore these propositions further.

Photos (from top to bottom): 1) A typical Traveler mansion; 2) A typical Traveler trailer with the Madonna keeping watch; combine that with the mansion, and you get a more accurate picture of the hodge-podge neighborhood.

For more information on the Travelers I couldn’t fit here, visit these sites:

-Washington Post article

-General Info at Slate

-On their fraudulent ways

-Governor’s Memo Against Travelers

-A simple Google search also turns up a variety of resources