Friday, December 12, 2014

Parenting "advice" and good intentions


“Is your family coming to visit for Thanksgiving?"

I was in a conversation with several others one Sunday when this question was asked. The question was an innocent one, but the receiver literally blanched when it was directed at him. He hemmed and hawed for a moment before explaining why this wasn’t a good idea. 

The main reason? His parents couldn’t keep from constantly offering “advice” and counsel about how he and his wife are raising their children. It has gotten so bad with this guy and his family that the stress from his parents’ constant critique has become a strain on their marriage—so, for the sake of his immediate family’s health, they have chosen to limit their time with in-laws significantly.

These parents are the very model of what author Marshall Shelley described as “well-intentioned dragons” in his book of the same title. Although Shelley was describing people in the church—and how ministers might be prepared for such “dragons” and minister to them more effectively—his description of the situation from the very beginning of the introduction fits perfectly with only the slightest modification: “The community that gathers in the name of [family] is often populated by problem people who make things much, much harder for everyone."

If my experience as a pastor is any indication, I think this is a large and growing problem for the current generation of parents. Before you pass the rolls around the table this season—and deal with all of the relational complexity that comes from the holidays—it may be useful to consider why, and to offer a bit of pastoral advice.

[A quick disclaimer for my own extended family: This post isn’t aimed at anyone, and I timed it intentionally for between the holidays so that it wouldn’t come across as if it was. That said, I think what I have to say applies to just about anyone and everyone…]

Some Background

For starters, let’s think about who we’re talking about. While this problem of well-intentioned dragons can be a sibling or even an older niece or nephew, it is usually a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent. This means that, in all likelihood, they are from the Baby Boomer or Silent generation. (If you really want to get your head around generations, their “archetypes,” and how these play out in family and social situations, you have to look into the generational theories of Neil Howe and William Strauss.)

If they are from the Silent generation (born 1925–1942), then they may tend to be highly conventional yet possessing confused morals; expectant of disappointment—and even fatalistic—while having desires for ideals that are either long-dead archetypes or impossible to reach; and often holding out a standard for work, family, culture, and especially retirement that are very different from the world we live in today, yet they firmly believe that everything they experienced could (and should) be attainable for their children and grandchildren. They are also dealing with the internal trauma of feeling the increased loss of control of things around them, both on an individual level (they are aging and facing the realities of retirement, physical and mental frailty, and the death of many of their peers)—and may grasp for every opportunity to exert control where they believe they can.

Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers understand cultural change and even counter-culture in ways that generations before them didn’t (remember, this was the generation that brought us hippies); however, they have also lived their entire adult lives with a kind of entitlement and self-centeredness that was unprecedented before them and hasn’t been seen since. This was and is the “me” generation, and therefore they believe that they remain the driving force behind every activity, event, or decision; they are even more confused morally than the generation before them, yet they consider themselves (individually, not as a generation) to be the standard by which others should be measured; they are optimistic about authority, hierarchy, and tradition—therefore considering their role in the family to be the de facto center. Whereas the Silent generation fears their control is slipping away, the Boomers are utterly confident that they will remain in control until their death (an event which they are still not entirely convinced will actually happen).

This is the generational baggage that parents, aunts, uncles, and many grandparents are bringing to your Thanksgiving table tomorrow! This is not to mention the various issues that may affect the situation further: the parenting models that were—for good or ill—put before them when they were younger; the emotional, psychological, and spiritual struggles and conflicts that have been, or still are, at play in their lives; the circumstances they are in, and how they press upon them (be they trouble at work, strife within their own marriages, being shaken by cultural or world events, etc.).

And let’s not discount the fact that, for several generations now, the transition from “parent-young child” relationships to “parent-adult child” relationships has been a persistently difficult change to navigate. Some parents simply have never learned how to relate to their own children as adults, and so they go on parenting as if their twenty-something or thirty-something (or forty-something) child still needs their approval for every decision, and that they have both the right and the responsibility to correct whatever they deem to be a mistake or error in their child’s judgment. Short of feeling free to bend them over their knee and spank them, nothing has really changed in the parent-child dynamic in so many families.

More Reasons for This Phenomenon

So that’s the background. Now consider what is at work in our culture now, today, and how it affects these family dynamics…

For one thing, we are in an age where there are “experts” all around us, and their so-called expertise is for topics and subjects that are not always academic or matters of certainty. There are dozens of books proclaiming the “right” way to raise children—despite the fact that they often contradict one another blatantly—and hundreds of others who are claiming expertise in parenting because their field abuts the border of this nebulous category of knowledge (read: psychologists, pediatricians, etc.). Whereas parenting was once understood as something that was largely mastered by experience and influenced by the monoculture that they young family existed within, now it is something that we are convinced can be studied and universal truths grasped about it, while the multi-cultural world we live in exerts diverse influences on our thoughts and views on what makes for “good” parenting.

(This, too, is partly an artifact of generational influence—both the Silent and the Boomer generations revere academia and the culture of expertise—but it is also the fruit of changing world philosophies and the expanding sense of global culture that we live within.)

Whereas even a few generations ago there was not enough information about parenting available, today there is such a surfeit of information (and, even more, opinion) about parenting that no one should be any more certain about it than they ever have been. Yet, the tendency is not to look at this objectively and recognize the uncertainty of it all, but to latch onto one or two “experts” and evangelize their views—which, it just so happens, probably line up pretty closely with the even lesser-informed opinions and views that are held by those latching onto them.

The “Truth” about Parenting

There ARE “right” and “wrong” ways to parent. The problem is that the line between them is wide, fuzzy, and gray.

An analogy (one I’ve used before) may help here: to say that someone is “middle class” means very little objectively. It might mean that, most months, all of the bills get paid on time and no one misses meals if they don’t want to; or it may indicate that the big decision next year is whether to buy a boat or that time-share you’ve been looking into. Usually, simply saying someone is “middle class” means either, “Not as poor as so-and-so” or “Not as rich as so-and-so.” It is a term of comparison.

Apart from the clear “right” or “wrong” categories of parenting (and even here there seems to be some soft edges), parenting advice is much like this. It may be a little good but mostly bad, or it may be a little bad but mostly good.

The Bible helps us with the “right” and “wrong” categories. Careful attention to biblical principles on parenting, ethics and morality, character development and sanctification, and love will firm up the softer edges of right and wrong when it comes to parenting.

However, God did not see fit to provide a parenting manual (as we think of one, at any rate) within the realm of Scripture. Rather, God demonstrates that there are some good parents who do well with some children and poorly with others, and some bad parents for whom some kids still turned out alright. And even these are examples, and not normative in their form or presentation.

Therefore, we have to recognize that no parenting strategy, system, or set of principles will be both explicit and also biblical. Any of them will invariably venture into speculation, opinion, and/or matters of experience. (And since one parent’s experience is inevitably different from another’s, even the most experienced parent can offer only so much counsel and wisdom to another.) We have to hold these things loosely.

What to Do: If You’re the “Dragon"

Some of this—maybe a lot of it—hits pretty close to home for some readers. Maybe this is you exactly, and you don’t even realize it. Here’s a diagnostic: if you’re related to parents (of children any age up through adulthood) and you offer unsolicited advice with any frequency, you probably are falling into the category of “well-intentioned dragon” for them. Of course, I can’t comment how much this bothers them; it may roll right off their backs, or it might be creating trauma in their marriage! (Or anywhere in-between.)

What can you do? Here are some suggestions:

  • First and foremost, please care about this. The chances are good that at very least, whether you realize it or not, you are damaging your relationship with your child (or grandchild, nephew, niece, cousin, sibling, etc.—insert relationship for the parent in question here). There may be more damage than you are aware of (witness the guy I mentioned in the introductory paragraphs), but you should care about this for no other reason than the self-preservation of whatever relationship you have with your relative: if you want to be a welcomed, healthy presence in their lives—and I assume that you do, since you are “well-intentioned”—then you should take note of what I am saying.
  • Next, recognize that you don’t understand the situation like the actual parents do. If their kid is rebellious, overly quiet, disobedient, overly obedient, or whatever pathology you are sure you have identified, it can be way too easy to assume that you have fully comprehended the situation. I can tell you this with certainty: unless you have lived with this family for more than a year, then you do not understand all of the dynamics. Maybe it has been long enough that you forget how drastically the behaviors, attitudes, and life patterns change when there is company in the house—even, or especially, family. In 95% of contemporary households, there is almost no chance that you have succeeded at being the normal presence in the kid’s life that you would need to be to observe him/her in their normal, natural life patterns.
  • Also, you need to realize how condescending your input may sound. It probably comes across as if you are either a know-it-all or an over-simplistic naif if you come up with “have you tried doing x?” or “all you need to do is…” Here again, you are coming into a situation that these parents live with every day and probably have spent hours, if not cumulative days, trying to deal with. It’s not possible that a one-sentence solution is the answer to the whole problem, or even part of it. (If they don’t outright roll their eyes, it’s because they are striving hard to obey the fifth commandment.)
  • Please, also: watch it with the passive-aggression. You know what I mean: instead of telling your relative what you think they ought to be doing, you’ll drop “hints” by posting articles on their Facebook page or buying them a subscription to a parenting magazine. (Congratulations: now you have crossed the line from merely butting in to butting in and lying about it!) Assuming a passive-aggressive stance is deceitful, untrusting, condescending, AND even more damaging to a relationship than a direct approach—and the even worse news for you is that it doesn’t even work: healthy people often just delete the e-mails and throw out the magazines, regarding your advice as even less valuable each time they do.
  • Finally, wait until you are asked to weigh in. You successfully raised a child of your own, and possibly more than one! Chances are good that you probably do have some good wisdom to share—though it is probably more from your own experience as a parent than from some book or website that you visited. Your family members know this, and it’s likely that they have a lot of respect for it. When they are ready—and when they recognize that your experience has real relevance to the situation(s) they are dealing with—they will ask you for advice. This is really what you want, not just because you are itching to share your thoughts but also because now they are ready to truly listen to you and take your counsel to heart. This is one of those times where the hard work of waiting will pay big dividends, both in your relationship with them and in your own sense of personal satisfaction.
These are hard truths to read, I know. You want to be helpful, and your intentions genuinely are good ones; you see someone you love struggling, and you want to help. This is where you need to trust me (as a pastor AND a parent): these things are not helping, they are hurting. You need to be confronted with the hard truths about the damage you are doing to your relationship, and possibly further than that.

What to Do: If You’re the One under Fire

If this has hit close to home for you, as well, then you probably don’t need a diagnostic. In case you do, consider this: if the anticipation of Thanksgiving (or any other family-oriented holiday) causes you to experience any feelings other than love, nostalgia, and hospitality, then you probably need to read on and take at least one or two of these ideas to heart.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with well-intentioned dragon family members in a more healthy way:

  • You also need to care about this. You may not realize how much the dynamics of your family relationship are unhealthy and even damaging. We all grow up assuming that our family is normal, and those other families are the weird ones; this can continue well into adulthood, even when a spouse and our own children are introduced into the mix. It’s not wrong to long for unhealthy aspects of relationships to be different, and if you struggle to allow yourself to care that may be a good sign that this has a deeper hold on your than you realize.
  • Also, you need to be attentive to how this affects the others in your immediate family. Hopefully, you already have your finger on the pulse of your marriage enough to recognize how difficult it may be for your spouse to be with certain members of your family; if not, then ask him/her outright! (But be prepared to hear an answer that could make you feel like you are being forced to choose between your spouse and your parent/grandparent/etc. And here’s another thing to be prepared for: you already made that choice when you committed to your spouse in marriage.) You might be able to shrug off the nagging critique of your parenting, but it could really get under the skin of your spouse. It may also be affecting your children in ways that aren’t immediately apparent; at very least, it is teaching them about the way that their parents relate to other adults in the extended family, probably in ways that you wish they would not learn.
  • Beware of “co-dependency” in your relationship(s) with extended family. “Co-dependency” is when a (dysfunctional) relationship enables you—or someone else—to remain in a state of immaturity or irresponsibility. If you find that “it’s just easier” to go along with the unsolicited advice you’re given from a well-intentioned dragon than to find your own way, you may very well have a co-dependent relationship with that dragon. That’s not good! It needs to change, for your health and for the health of your family.
  • Also beware of “triangling” in relationships. This is a lesser-known problem, but can be equally as damaging. Relational triangling (the unhealthy kind) is when a third person is a necessary presence for the relationship to exist or advance in the way that one member wants or needs it to. An example would be: father has strong opinion about adult daughter’s parenting style, and suggests to son/brother that he needs to encourage sister/daughter to change in a certain way. (This can be a form of passive-aggression, but it can also take other forms.) Triangling gets a little tricky in a marriage, because the husband and wife are “one flesh” and therefore can function healthily as a relational unit—but often it can be unhealthy, even when the third part of the triangle is the spouse to the second member of it. Some extended families have all kinds of triangles, and the family members rarely deal directly with relational matters. Start moving away from these immediately!
  • Don’t be afraid to say “no” to unsolicited advice. If the well-intentioned dragon in your family give you the opportunity, simply decline their advice! Maybe they lead in with, “Can I make an observation about so-and-so and her behavior?” Don’t be slow to respond, “No thank you—we’re dealing with it in the way that we believe is best.” Even if they don’t give you such an easy “out” then you can find ways to politely refuse; whether it is, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but we are already well-sourced with information about how to address this,” or, “You know, I have so many articles I want to read as it is; you can stop posting those parenting columns to my Facebook,” one of the best ways to deal with a well-intentioned dragon in the family is to address their advice and critique with a polite but firm comment that will make it clear that it is unwelcome.
  • Above all else, protect your family. Your marriage and your children are your first priority in the grand scheme of family relationships. Lay down some boundaries for your extended family if the polite refusal (above) doesn’t work; make it clear to them that, unless you’ve asked for it, their input about your parenting is not welcomed. If, after that, protecting them means that you need to spend the holidays apart from certain relatives, you should do that. This is a hard choice, but it is the right one. (And if you make this choice, don’t believe it if other family members offer you the lie that says, “You’re keeping the rest of us from enjoying the holidays by refusing to come.” YOU aren’t the one keeping them from that—your unhealthy, well-intentioned dragon family member is.)

 A counselor I saw once used this analogy: when a damaging, unhealthy family member presents themselves to you, it is as if they are coming to your doorstep with muddy shoes. The healthy response is to say to them: “We have worked hard to clean the floors in our house; you are welcome to come in, but you need to take off your dirty shoes and leave them at the door.” If they do it, then welcome them in and engage them honestly and earnestly in the relationship that you have with them; if they refuse, then simply say, “Okay—we would love for you to come in, but we can’t have you inside with your muddy shoes; it’s your choice."

It’s hard to make that “leave and cleave” break from relating to parents, siblings, etc. as your immediate family to relating to them as extended family. Once you are married, however, that break must happen—and the struggle of a well-intentioned dragon family member offering unsolicited counsel for your parenting choices is a perfect illustration of why.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve read this far, you probably really do care about the well-being of your child/relative and their circumstances. Given that, let me broaden this out a bit more: “parenting” in this post is simply a microcosm for a more general harmful and sinful attitude toward others. 

Maybe you don’t offer any unsolicited advice on parenting to your family members; they may not even have children. But maybe you’re guilty of being the same kind of “well-intentioned dragon” about another issue: work, health, appearance, lifestyle choices, weight, dating, financial matters—all of these are potential candidates for the same sort of damaging intrusion that unsolicited input from well-intentioned dragons too often is. 

Check yourself: are you “butting in” where you don’t have a right to? One way to diagnose this is simply to ask, “Would I say this to a peer?” (Sometimes even that’s not enough, and hopefully if you’re the kind of person that speaks up too frequently in unwelcome ways then you know that by now, and have learned to keep it under control.)

Paying attention to this is, in my pastoral assessment, probably the biggest—and hardest—step in forging a healthy relationship with a relative as they move through the varying stages of life and adulthood. Your child (sibling, niece, etc.) does NOT have to think, feel, or act like you in order to be someone who loves you and whom you love well. Please, for your sake and theirs, stop trying to make them do so.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Changing cameras (again)


While it seldom factors into my actual pastoral work, I’ve been a photographer for around thirty years now—starting when, at the age of 12, my father gave me a neglected Canon AV-1 kit that was laying around his office. “The others say it doesn’t work,” he told me. “But if you can get it to work, you can have it.” It worked fine for me, and I shot many a photo (including a number of them published in the school newspaper and yearbooks) with that camera.

Dad, however, was a Minolta guy at the time, and in high school I switched to a Minolta X-700 so that I could take advantage of his extensive and growing lens collection. Later—in my 20s—I switched again, for a while shooting a Pentax ME Super, then settling in on Nikons for a long while: first an F3, then an N90s (a system which I shot for the better part of a decade). In 2005 I finally switched to digital, and found that Nikon’s D100 was a good (if already somewhat dated) analogue to my beloved N90s system—and it accepted the same lenses I already had, so that was a plus.

At a mere 6 megapixels, however, the life of the D100 was limited; in the late 2000s, I sold it for what little bit I could get (relative to the price I paid for it), and for what seems like a good while now we have had only a “point-and-shoot” Nikon—a CoolPix P7000, really a very good little camera—and our iPhones for capturing photos of any sort. 

Through the years, by the way, I’ve also shot with varying other systems; dad had a complete Bronica ETR medium format system in his studio, as well as a Toyo 4x5 view camera—both of which I used extensively. I picked up a Bronica system of my own in my 20s, this time the ETRSi (I had an ETRS backup. I sold that system before seminary, but then I got a couple of other medium format systems in my 30s: first, a Kiev (a Russian knock-off of the basic Hasselblad 500), then a Mamiya M645. I really liked the Mamiya system, but the one I had left me zero upgrade path to digital, so I sold it for pennies a few years ago. And I got a Crown Graphic 4x5 press camera in the early 2000s, which I still have (and it still works) but I never shoot it. It’s just too expensive to shoot film anymore, unless you have a full wet darkroom set up (which I did in seminary, but had not been able to set up again since—so that gear got sold last spring in a yard sale).

My biggest regret of cameras that I’ve owned and sold was a Zeiss-Ikon Super Ikonta C (pictured above), a 6x9cm viewfinder medium format camera that I got for a song. It worked, and the lens was super-sharp—plus it looked awesome on display on a bookshelf. I sold it for far less than it was worth (though I didn’t know it at the time), and now these things go for hundreds more than I would put into a camera that I would shoot only occasionally as a novelty. Alas.

All of this is building up to an announcement, of sorts, that I’ve scrounged together some cash given to me for birthdays, etc. and bought another camera. I’ve been reading about the “micro four-thirds” format and system for a few years, and have been very interested; it seems like a perfect medium ground for me: small size cameras and high portability, yet with a wide range of interchangeable lenses available and camera bodies ranging from the most simple and consumer-friendly to ones with near-pro (or some would argue fully professional) capabilities. They all allow full manual exposure and focusing, and the sensors, while much smaller than a full digital “SLR” camera (like the Nikon D series), turn out really fantastic images. An interesting thing, too, is that the µ4/3 system is the result of an agreement or partnership of several manufacturers—including Olympus, Panasonic, Kodak, and others—so there are a wider array of lenses for the system than for many systems from major manufacturers. (Thus, an Olympus lens will work on a Panasonic camera, etc.)


And so I picked up a used, 2011 model from Panasonic, the Lumix GF3. So far I’m still getting to know it, but I really like what I see. I haven’t made any prints from it yet, but the images I’ve taken look very good on the screen; I’ll post an example or two once I actually have something that feels like more than just playing around and getting familiar with my equipment. 

I’m really delighted to be re-engaging with more serious photography. I think it will give me a welcome aside from the other endeavors I have in front of me, and perhaps I can make some art that others will enjoy, as well. As I go through the coming months, I’ll post more about photography and my reflections on it.

And now that Jack is 12, maybe it’s time for him to get more fully introduced to photography as well! He was just talking about wanting a camera the other day… maybe sometime in the next year I’ll get him started, just like my dad did with me.

Monday, November 24, 2014

How Grand Juries Work

In 2013, I was called to serve on a federal grand jury for one of the Arizona districts. This meant that I was called upon by the government to appear every other week for one year, unless circumstantially hindered, each time for a full day of hearing cases. As a consequence of my service on a grand jury, I find myself informed and understanding of circumstances related to recent events in ways that many of my family and friends are not. I thought it would be worth some time to reflect a bit on how grand juries work.

How a grand jury is formed

Grand juries are called by random selection, like normal juries. When I was called, I was one of more than 40 people who appeared; from the 40 of us, 22 jurors and 10 alternates were chosen, again at random. There were a few who were asked to serve and were dismissed because of a hardship (in one case, the woman was the primary caregiver for an aging parent and could not afford to be gone every other week) or circumstance (in another case, the potential juror worked for a law firm which sometimes represented federal cases, and it was deemed a conflict of interest). No one was dismissed because of their profession, age, gender, political views, race/ethnicity, or for any other subjective reason. 

Obviously different grand juries are constituted of different numbers of people (the grand jury in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO was a twelve-member jury)—in my grand jury, the minimum number of jurors to constitute a quorum was 17. But grand jury members are not picked in the way that a lot of people think of juries being chosen by the attorneys, where the jurors are selected based on a hoped-for outcome.

The duties of a grand jury

Grand juries are brought cases in the form of “proposed bills of indictment”—that is, a case is made that a crime has been committed, and the evidence in support of that case is presented. Then the grand jury must decide whether a crime has, in fact, been committed, and if so then whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial charging the person or persons named with the crime. If the grand jury determines that both are true of a case, then they submit a “true bill of indictment”—and if not, then they submit a declaration of “no true bill."

A grand jury may take as long as they like to determine whether or not there is a true bill; however, they are dependent, to a degree, on the prosecuting attorneys (whether they be district attorneys, state’s attorneys, or U.S. attorneys) to present the case and all of the relevant evidence pertaining to it. In other words, while a grand jury has the power to subpoena evidence or witnesses of its own accord, the members of the grand jury wouldn't know how or what to subpoena apart from the facts of the case offered to them by the prosecutors. In my experience, the extent to which the attorney was able to lay out a thorough, well-evidenced case was often the difference between whether the indictment was clear or whether it was up for debate.

Once a case has been presented, the members of the jury may deliberate about the case before voting on its outcome. They may amend the charges presented on the proposed bill and vote for the amended charges, or they can vote it up or down as-is. A majority of a certain number of jurors is required for the indictment to be voted a true bill; for the grand jury I sat on, it was a two-thirds majority of the quorum (which meant a minimum of 12 votes in favor were required). 

How a grand jury works

Before any case can come before a grand jury, the members of the jury must be instructed on the laws that govern the crimes in question. With the grand jury I served on, we saw a number of cases that were similar in nature (being southern Arizona, it may not surprise you to know that we saw a lot of immigration and smuggling-related cases), so we became pretty familiar with the laws about these kinds of crimes. But most weeks there was something new, and we would receive new instruction. The grand jury may ask questions of the attorney(s) who are instructing them, until everyone is satisfied that they understand the laws that are relevant to the proposed indictments.

Next, the case is presented. At minimum, this will involve an attorney interviewing a law enforcement officer who is familiar with the facts of the case; it may include more than one officer, other witnesses, and/or the presentation of other evidence. The grand jury may examine the evidence as much as they wish, and they may ask questions of the officers and/or witnesses. There is no judge present to preside over the proceedings; instead, a foreperson leads the jury proceedings both during the presentation of the facts of the case and in the deliberations. Once all of the facts are presented and questions asked of the witnesses, then the jury may also ask further questions about the law of the attorney(s).

Having completed the gathering of all of the information that they can, then the grand jury goes into deliberation—meaning, they will discuss, debate, and sometimes argue about whether a crime was committed or whether there is sufficient evidence that this person committed it. During this time, the attorneys and the stenographer leave the room and only jurors are allowed to be present. Deliberation may take as long as the jury needs, after which they vote. 

When all of the cases before a grand jury have been presented and voted upon, the foreperson takes all of the proposed indictments before a judge and testifies under oath about the findings of the grand jury, presenting the true bills and the no true bills accordingly.

The role of the attorneys

The attorneys play a crucial and central role in the grand jury process. Not only do they present each case and all of the facts related to it, but they are also the guides and teachers of the grand jury with regard to the law itself and what constitutes a crime under it. 

In my experience, these attorneys wield this power with great trepidation. First of all, everyone I encountered, from top to bottom, in the grand jury system exuded a sense of respect and even reverence for the importance of the grand jury process; they did not take for granted a single piece of it, even when we were on the 18th immigration case of the day (which was almost exactly like the other 17 cases). Not only so, but they regularly reminded us—the jurors—of the gravity of each case and of the process as a whole. Every case mattered, because every case was about someone and their standing before the courts.

Secondly, they were also aware that the proceedings of the grand jury would be the basis upon which any future trial would stand or fall—so they were vigilant to protect their cases from even a suggestion of mishandling. For example, if a juror asked a question about a matter that was irrelevant to the facts of the case (and perhaps could be seen as prejudicial), they would instruct the witness not to answer the question. They knew that they would be accountable for the outcome of the grand jury proceedings, and they didn’t take that lightly.

The difference between justice (according to a legal system) and ethics

All in all, my experience on a grand jury served to give me a greater appreciation for the justice system and how it works, and for how much those involved in the system took it seriously and treated it with respect. It made me trust the system more, and to feel more at ease that, insofar as our system allows, “justice" according to the law is served—even in a case like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. Those members of the grand jury who have seen all of the evidence and heard all of the testimony know better than I do about whether a crime was committed.

What I also saw, and what comes to mind again tonight after the Ferguson grand jury returned “no true bill,” is that there is often a gap between “justice"—according to our judicial system—and ethics. There were times when, as a member of the grand jury, I had to vote in favor of an indictment because, according to the law, a crime had been committed; nevertheless, I was equally convinced that it was a waste of time, money, and other resources (not to mention a life-changing matter for the indictee) to prosecute the crime that was before us.

Likewise, even though I trust the system that returned no true bill against officer Darren Wilson, I cannot help but believe that his actions were unethical. And that leaves me wondering: what is broken in the whole of it all? Is it the legal and judicial system? Is it the law itself?

In the end, my theology and my instincts tell me that the problem isn’t so simple or so singular as either of those. Rather, the problem is the fallenness of humankind—so it’s me. And it’s you. But it may be more me than you—because I’m a part of white, middle-class culture that accepts privilege and ignores racial sin and can turn off the TV when we’re tired or overwhelmed or frustrated with the news about grand jury returns and the reactions to them. I haven’t spent much time in Ferguson, but I still have a part in what led to both the shooting of an unarmed teenager and the riotous reactions to it. And I need to confess that, as do all of us who are part of the corporate racial sins of our culture.

Don’t blame the grand jury. Blame me. Blame us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting ready for Thanksgiving: Turkey Edition

If your household is like many (most?) American homes, you are starting to think of plans for Thanksgiving, which is next Thursday. Maybe you are going to a friend’s or family member’s home, and they are doing the heavy-lifting. If you’re the one responsible for the bird and most of the rest of the meal, though, then read on to learn from my experiences in preparing a dozen or so Thanksgiving dinners.

Let’s talk turkey

If you’re buying a bird, here’s what you don’t even know that you want: a fresh one. This means that it has never been stored at temperatures below 26°f (which is apparently the approximate temperature that a turkey freezes—so fresh turkeys are right at the threshold of frozen). These kinds of turkeys are always better-tasting, and they are usually better for you too; that’s because fresh turkeys are often raised without steroids or growth hormones, and sometimes they are raised in a more “free-range” way. Note: this isn’t the least-expensive kind of turkey to get, but you should be able to find one for a fair and reasonable price. Because of the way it is stored, you will obviously need to get your turkey much closer to Thanksgiving Day; stores that sell them typically accept orders and you pick them up on the Tuesday or Wednesday before.

Okay, now the next thing you don’t know that you want: get one that is not “pre-basted.” So-called pre-basted turkeys are injected with saline solution. What’s the big deal about that? Well, two things: first, the pre-basting injections are sometimes poorly done, and they are usually insufficient to really achieve the goal of pre-basting (which is to keep the meat moist at all costs). Second, it creates problems with a future step (more below).

“But wait!” you say. “Won’t that mean that my turkey will dry out?"

Not at all—IF you follow the rest of my advice. If I’ve lost you, or if I lose you below, then go ahead and get the bird that was injected with a saline solution at some point in the unknown past.

But if you really want the juiciest, most delicious turkey you can have, I’m happy to share with you all that I’ve learned.

What you do with the bird, part 1

Next up: brining. This is an interesting category of cooking, because some cooks (especially pros, but many amateurs as well) know all about this, while others have never heard of it. The idea of brining is to soak the entire bird in a “brine” (which is, at very least, water and salt—yes, a saline solution—but can also include a variety of other things) for a certain length of time, based generally on the concentration of the ingredients in the brine and the weight of the bird. (Note: you can brine ANY meat; I find brining my pork roasts before smoking them for pulled pork is excellent… but that’s another post.)

To brine your turkey, you need some sort of vessel large enough to submerge the turkey entirely in water. A large cooler will do, though I’ve found that a food-grade bucket is a better option. I bought a 4-gallon bucket with a lid from a restaurant supply store years ago, and it is perfect; it cost me about $20, and it will fit in the bottom of a refrigerator (with a shelf or two removed), or sit in a large cooler with ice around it. This is key, because while that turkey is sitting in the water, you still need to keep it cold (and safe—so just sitting it outside in a very cold climate may serve in lieu of refrigeration, but it also might invite curious neighborhood animals).

I brine my turkeys with salt, water, and sometimes some whole sprigs of fresh herbs. If you do the herb thing, you need (a) to adjust the concentration of salt for a longer brining time, and (b) a LOT of herbs. Just a few sprigs for a few hours will mean that the herbs were wasted—it’s just not long enough for their oils and flavoring to go anywhere. You need to really soak them.

The “normal” brine ratio is 1 cup of salt for every gallon of water; this means that you will need to brine an average-sized Thanksgiving bird (in the 12–16 pound range) for 4 to 6 hours. The problem is, if you do it this way you’ll be getting up in the middle of the night, either to put the bird in the brine or to take it out! So what I do instead is cut the salt in half, and double the time. Then I can set it to brining at 8 or 9 the night before Thanksgiving, and it will be ready to come out of the brine early the next morning (when I’m ready to put it in the oven).

Once it is done brining, take it out of the brine and dry the whole bird completely (paper towels are great for this).

[If you want to read more about brining turkeys, check these two articles: “The Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining Chicken or Turkey” from Serious Eats, and “How to Brine a Turkey” from The Splendid Table.]

What you do with the bird, part 2

Next up: preparing and seasoning the bird for roasting. (Note: if you’re grilling, smoking, or deep-frying your turkey, you’ll need to look elsewhere for advice from this stage forward; I just don’t have much experience with any of those—though I will vouch for brining the bird before grilling or smoking as a key for a moist turkey.)

After you pull the turkey out of the brine and dry it off, the next thing is to season it. The first thing I do to season the turkey is cover it in melted butter; I usually melt a half-stick or so in the microwave, and use a silicone brush to apply it all over, inside and out. The butter serves three purposes: first, it gives the seasoning something to “cling” to; second, it lends a great complementary flavor (there’s a reason why a popular brand is “Butterball”); and third, it helps the skin/outside of the turkey achieve a beautiful golden-brown color.

Next for seasoning is salt and pepper. No need to overdo it here, especially on the salt, as the brine will have given a nice amount of salty flavor to the meat. But go ahead and give a moderate coating of each.

After salt and pepper, apply other seasonings that you prefer. If you’re at a loss for which ones to choose, here’s a tip about poultry in general: it’s always safe to take them to Scarborough Fair. In other words: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are a wonderful combination for seasoning poultry. Want more than that? Check out Penzey’s Spices; they have an awesome Poultry Blend that will really fix a turkey up. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, Kenji López-Alt has a great recipe for an herb butter to coat your bird in over at Serious Eats.

How about what goes INSIDE the bird? You have this great cavity (two cavities, actually—be sure to remove the giblet bag from your bird at some point before or at this stage!) that you can put more stuff in. This is where the dressing can go, which (by definition) is when it officially becomes “stuffing.” Instead of stuffing, though, I prefer to cut up an onion or two, some carrots, a little celery, and a few sprigs of fresh parsley and rosemary, and fill the cavities with these. They will flavor the turkey as well, and you can serve them as an additional dish alongside the bird—OR, you can save them for later, as I do.

What you do with the bird, part 3

Now it’s time to prepare the turkey for the oven. I like to roast my bird traditionally, so my advice will follow that path. If you’re spatchcocking your turkey, now is when you should seek input elsewhere (I recommend this piece at Serious Eats for starters).

I always truss my turkey; this is when you tie the bird with kitchen twine so that it holds a certain shape (which it will maintain without the twine, once it is cooked). I know there is a debate over whether trussing is good or bad, but I’ve had good results from a trussed bird. In my view, it helps the different parts be well-positioned for even cooking. There are good instructions for trussing at the Williams-Sonoma website (but I always follow the guide in my well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking). I also use some kitchen twine to make a few stitches that hold in the carrots, celery, onions, etc. that are in the cavities of the turkey; this keeps them out of the bottom of my roasting pan.

Now, as for roasting pans: If you absolutely must, you can get away with a disposable aluminum foil one from the supermarket; they are flimsy, and can be dangerous, but they will do when there is no alternative. (If you DO use one of these foil fellows, set it in a shallow jelly-roll style cookie sheet for more stability.) I recommend that you use a real, heavy-duty roasting pan with handles, a rack, and so forth. This is, at very least, because you’ll actually be taking the turkey out of the oven more than once, and the foil pans won’t hold up to much movement. (The Splendid Table did a great short piece on what defines the quality of a roasting pan.)

This is one of my favorite “secrets” for Thanksgiving turkeys: put the turkey into the roasting pan upside-down—that is, with the breasts on the rack, and the legs and thighs facing up. Why? Because the dark meat must cook to a higher temperature than the light meat, and positioning the turkey this way puts the dark meat closer to the heat. When there’s about 30–45 minutes left to roast it, you can turn the bird over (I use some poultry lifters like these) and it will brown up nicely on the breast side, for presentations’ sake. (One more excellent turkey roasting tip scored from The Joy of Cooking.

There should be a generous amount of liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan, along with some fattier chunks and drippings. These are great for basting, which can be done with the old bulb-baster—but a large spoon works just as well (maybe better). Once the turkey is done, don’t discard these drippings! Instead, save them for gravy. (More on this below.)

Once the turkey reaches temperature (155–160 degrees for light meat; 170–180 degrees for thighs and legs), let it “rest” on the rack, outside of the oven, for about 10 minutes (or until the temperature has dropped about 5 degrees). THEN it is ready to carve.

Good Gravy

My mother and grandmother always made flour gravy, and it was what I grew up with. I still love it, but I admit that it is not easy to make. I’ve done it a few times, with some success, but I have become a convert to cornstarch gravy in more recent years. It’s darker in color, thickens a little faster and more evenly, has a less distinctive taste of its own, and has the added benefit of not being gluten-based.

The key with cornstarch gravy (and I’m pretty sure this works with flour gravy too) is to mix it with cold water until it is a slurry, rather than pouring it straight into the hot liquid. This will avoid the lumps that are so unappetizing in gravy, and help it to thicken quickly and evenly.

Gather your drippings from the bottom of the roasting pan (if you have a heavy roasting pan, you can even make the gravy right in the pan) into a heavy skillet or dutch oven. I like a dutch oven, because I can whisk vigorously and it won’t slosh out! Skim out the fat as much as you can, so that the gravy won’t be greasy. Set the skillet or dutch oven on a large stove eye on high heat.

Let the drippings boil down until it is almost syrupy in consistency. Add 3–4 cups of chicken broth, and bring this to a boil, then reduce to simmering—stirring frequently—until it is reduced to 2–3 cups of liquid. 

Now add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (or flour) to a half-cup of cold water, and beat with a fork until the cornstarch is completely dissolved in the water. Slowly whisk this into the simmering pan of liquid. Keep whisking and simmering it until it is thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. Season to taste (it may need a little salt, and don’t underestimate the benefit of some black pepper to really liven up a gravy).

What about Leftovers?

In many households, a fair-sized Thanksgiving turkey will yield more leftovers than you may wish to eat as straight sandwiches or re-heated plates. What to do with all that turkey?

In our house, I usually pick the turkey carcass over on Thanksgiving evening, cleaning it of the leftover meat as much as I can. I divide this into two groups: slices and chunks for sandwiches and plates, and smaller bits for soup and other dishes.

Then I put the picked turkey carcass into a large stock pan, covered with water, and boil it for an hour or more. This will create a rich stock. I pull about three cups of this stock out, and to the rest of it I add 2 cups of the smaller pieces of turkey, ¾ cup of white rice, and the carrots, celery, and onions that were stuffed into the turkey earlier. This will cook up to a nice soup that it a hit with our family.

I also prepare a large batch of creamed turkey (following the recipe in The Joy of Cooking), from which I can make a turkey pot pie (adding some peas, diced carrots, and diced new potatoes and covering with a frozen pie crust) and/or a turkey casserole (adding some cooked white rice and sautéed mushrooms, and covering with a mixture of breadcrumbs, grated parmesan cheese, and butter for a crust).

And that’s what we do with Thanksgiving turkey in the Eubanks house! What do you to at your house?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The city wants to read your sermons; why are you saying no?


If you are (a) a Christian, and (b) on any social media platform, then you probably read that the city of Houston is demanding that pastors “hand over” transcripts of their sermons to city hall! Or something terrible-sounding like that. If your feeds are like mine, this news may have been accompanied by appeals to first amendment rights, discussions about pastors preaching boldly in the face of persecution, and so on.

The hyperbole I offered above is not exactly what happened, but something did, indeed, go down in Houston this week that should make pastors and other Christians take notice. And maybe rejoice.

The Background

Houston mayor Annise Parker, one of the first openly gay mayors in the U.S. (that’s relevant, as you'll see), signed a bill into law on May 28 of this year (2014) called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. According to the Houston Chronicle, the ordinance can be summarized as such:

The measure bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions would be exempt. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

The law itself was controversial from the start, not least because it offered a sweeping ban of “anti-gay” discrimination, and because originally it contained language (later removed, but said by city officials to still be implied in the substance of the law) that stipulated that those who identify themselves as transgender could choose which bathroom they wanted to use—men’s or women’s. Attempts to appeal the ordinance have failed. 

The responses of Christians have made headlines, as well. Beside protests, one group of Christians, which included two pastors, sued the city; those pastors and others are also said to have openly preached about and against this ordinance. 

On the heels of that lawsuit, city attorneys issued subpoenas for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” (ref: Houston Chronicle). And thus, the big stir on Fox News, Facebook, and elsewhere about how the city government is trying to control what pastors in Houston preach.

It should be noted, too, that Mayor Parker and the city council have tried to put distance between themselves and the subpoenas, and Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has called for the city to rescind them. This was clearly too hot a potato for even the most daring of city politicians to handle for long.

(By the way, tip o’ the hat to my Facebook friend Sarah Pulliam Bailey, whose coverage of this issue through Religion News Service has been stellar.)

Inconsistency & Problems (mostly not the subpoena kind)

Surely, if the city was, in fact seeking to control what the pastors of Houston—or even a select few pastors—are allowed to preach, that is problematic. First amendment rights do indeed apply, with respect to both freedoms of speech and the free exercise of religion. I’ve pointed out before that the suppression of freedom of speech for some other group eventually means potential threat to that freedom for your group! That’s to say nothing of questions like, “How would they enforce it?” and “Should(n’t) pastors be willing to preach with integrity, even in the face of legal consequences?"

And, while sometimes Christians may think they are being “persecuted” when they are not, such an act would, indeed, be persecution (if mild compared to some incidences). Beyond that, it would violate the very terms of the ordinance, by discriminating against others on a religious basis. But there is no evidence that this is anything more than an attempt at overreaching for information and evidence regarding the suit filed against the city. At any rate, a grand jury would have to approve of the sermons being evidential, and some, such as Texas College of Law professor Charles Rhodes have speculated that the bar may be too high for the grand jury to approve them (ref: Houston Chronicle).

What is equally as striking as the legal/political ramifications is the inconsistency of pastors on the matter. I’ve read comments from dozens of pastors who are incensed, even outraged, at the nerve of the city to require that these ministers provide copies of their sermons. Some have suggested that they would refuse, and that the Houston pastors should as well. (One Houston pastor, at least, has said the opposite: that he would gladly deliver his sermons to city hall in person.)

The irony of those who decry is that many of these are men whose churches publish their sermons every week in video, audio, and/or transcript, and that it doesn’t require a subpoena or anything more than a decent internet connection to get them. They, and their congregations, often portray these published messages as a means of outreach; after all, who knows whether some unbeliever might not be surfing the web, come across a sermon, and actually read or listen to it? And I suspect that some of these pastors monitor their views and downloads with a zeal that would be troubling to their fellow leaders, and that they find much of their confidence and identity in how many people are listening to their podcasts.

Which is it? Do we want anyone, including those outside of the church, to read, listen to, or watch our sermons? Or do we want to keep them fire-walled from the world, and only for the ears of those who show up on Sundays? (And what happens if a city attorney comes and starts to make notes—do we have the ushers escort him out, since he is not a member?)


These Houston pastors should instead see this as an opportunity. These city officials—perhaps including the mayor herself—are asking to read their sermons! Does this seem inconsistent with the call to preaching? It does to me.

The preaching of the Word of God should always be something that is done boldly, confidently, and without reservation. Furthermore, it should be something that, while crafted for believers, is pastoral and clear even to unbelievers, who should be able to hear the grace and invitation of the gospel and respond accordingly (even if their response is a hardened heart). Why would any preacher not want his sermons to be published and read by the city officials?


That is, unless these sermons are not so gospel-driven. If they are filled with the kind of hate that has come to define Christianity for much of the secular world (see: Westboro Baptist Church), it would be totally understandable that those pastors might not want the civic leaders, or the courts, to read their words. If the pastors in question are unconcerned with the planks in their own eyes (and, full disclaimer here: I have no idea what those pastors have or have not preached, so I’m not accusing them of anything), it’s possible that they have good reason to be fearful instead of bold. But we need to ask: is that really faithful preaching, anyway?

I think this is an opportunity. Consider a few of the things this suggests:

  • It shows that the public still sees Christian sermons as relevant and important
  • It demonstrates that God might use the most unexpected ways to get His Word before those who need it
  • It offers a chance to face challenges in a manner consistent with the gospel itself, and with the ways that the New Testament apostles and preachers modeled for us

What If...

Imagine a church—maybe in Houston—that made it clear that all who would come are welcome, without qualification. That opened its doors wide to the LGBT+ population. That ensured that privacy in bathrooms was sufficient that no one would feel uncertain—even a transgender person. That embraced visitors of all kinds.

AND imagine that this church preached the Word faithfully, not qualifying away or dismissing any part. That the preaching exposed the sin of everyone present, gay and straight, including the pastor and leaders. That it preached about all sin, not just the prominent or sexual ones. And that this sin was met with gracious, humble, and gentle hope that is found only in Christ. That there was true accountability, but accountability which took into account that everyone—believer and unbeliever alike—is in a different place, and that the Holy Spirit works differently in my sanctification than He does in yours.

This could only happen if the commitment to it was bigger than just the pastor’s commitment, or even the leadership’s. The entire congregation would need to be committed and consistent, even if/when they were put in awkward or challenging contexts.

I don’t know if such a church exists. If it does, it may be small and struggling. Churches that are so given to grace and truth together are seldom the kind of church that grows to huge numbers; it’s just not what most people (Christians included) are looking for in a church. 

But that seems like the kind of church that can minister effectively to Houston today.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mississippi State—congratulations

I made this for my Mississippi State friends tonight...


MS State Cowbell

Friday, October 10, 2014

Todd Gurley is a paid athlete

The University of Georgia suspended their star player this week: Todd Gurley, who had been considered a Heisman Trophy candidate at one point, was suspended indefinitely, which means he likely will never play college football again.

What did Todd Gurley do? Was he caught robbing a local store? Did he get drunk and drive under the influence of alcohol? Was he accused of sexual assault? No, those kinds of offenses won’t get you an indefinite suspension in college football—at least, not one mandated by the NCAA.

No, Gurley apparently autographed 80 different items, in exchange for $400. Now, apart from the offense that comes from valuing a star player’s autograph at only $5—because let’s face it, this guy will likely go on to play NFL and has all the makings of a star—why is that so bad?

Because, according to the NCAA, college athletes are strictly defined as “amateurs” and cannot profit from their athletic careers. Gurley’s $5 signature violates this definition in a manner that makes the NCAA indignant like little else will.

There is another side of the debate that thinks the NCAA can shove it, that college athletes—especially football players—should be paid a cash salary for all of the income that they generate for their schools, and let’s forget about this façade of “amateur” status. I’m not exactly there, but I am sympathetic to the argument that declaring them “amateurs” is, indeed, a façade.

Why? Because most college football players receive scholarships. So do most basketball players. And baseball, soccer, and other sports have their share of scholarships as well. And scholarships are a form of payment.

The Bleacher Report, another of the growing number of sports news websites, put together a nice summary a couple of years ago entitled, “So What’s a College Football Scholarship Worth Anyway?” In summary terms, here’s what they declared it to be worth (in 2011 dollars):

  • Non-resident college tuition: $29,671
  • Room and board: $9,067
  • Books/school supplies: $1,009
  • Personal/misc. expenses: $1,939
  • Total: $41,686
  • Non-quantifiable benefits: tutoring; special study facilities; medical, disability, and catastrophic injury insurance; possible financial help for the students and/or their families (via the NCAA Student Assistance Fund); equipment, uniforms, athletic equipment; access to trainers, coaches, and facilities for health and athletic conditioning.

And those are not to mention the benefits that being a high-profile athlete inevitably has for the player’s long-term career. Look at how athletes like John Elway, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Peyton Manning have parlayed their images into commercial success. These advantages are not available to just any college student.

By comparison: I got out of college with relatively few student loans (only about $15K), mostly because I went to a pretty affordable state school and my mother was generous with her support. Still, I left college with $15K in student debt, and I was in my 30s and on the THIRD job in my chosen profession (and, at the time, had also completed graduate school, thereby incurring some further debt) before my annual salary exceeded the cash value The Bleacher Report claims a college freshman will receive if he is a full-ride scholarship football player.

I was very active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in college, and I had a number of friends who were scholarship athletes (including a number of football players). I’ve seen the differences in the dorms, the cafeteria food, the study areas. I knew then, and remember well, how much these students were taken care of by our university. I don’t begrudge them that; they worked hard to earn their scholarships, and I was never an athlete in any sport at a level required to earn one myself. But don’t think for a second that their college experience was pretty much the same as mine.

Let me repeat: These are not advantages available to just any college student.

The only reason why they are available to the students who receive them is this: those students have signed a contract, agreeing to play football for the college in exchange for all of these benefits. (Often these contract signings are accompanied by press conferences. Covering 18-year-old kids. Whose claim to the media attention is that they play a game well.) Does that not strike you as surprisingly corporate, for something that is supposedly an “amateur” activity?

There is no conclusion that we can reach other than this: college football players who are scholarshipped are paid athletes. They are already professionals. They should be treated like professionals. They do not need to be paid additional salaries; they are being well-paid already, and if they perform well in these “entry-level” positions they will have opportunities for huge advancement. Plus they are being given the privilege of a college education, on top of all of the rest—which, for as much as we take it for granted in the U.S., is nothing to be glib about.

Todd Gurley should not have been suspended. He should have been counseled that his signature is probably worth more than $5.

Come on, NCAA: if you really want to crack down on something important, how about addressing the rape culture that is way too common in college athletics? How about focusing on other truly dangerous activities, like assault, drunkenness, and drug use? 

Or is it time to finally stop taking the NCAA seriously as an organization that is “dedicated to safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes”?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Inconsistency and the "Hobby Lobby" thing

Much ink has already been spilled over the recent Supreme Court ruling that Hobby Lobby (and another company, as well as other “closely-held” companies) are exempt from the regulations of the Affordable Care Act with regard to what sort of insurance coverage is required for their employees. There are a lot of interesting takes on the matter, including these that I recommend—which demonstrate the complexity of the topic:

Why the Hobby Lobby case makes our job as Christians even harder

Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We Lose

Why the Hobby Lobby Decision Actually Hurts People of Faith

I’m not interested in discussing whether or not this was a good decision by the Supreme Court or a “victory” for Christians; that’s been done enough already. I’m also uninterested in debating the inconsistencies of whether Hobby Lobby is hypocritical for offering 401(k) plans that invest financially in companies that make birth control pills which are abortifacients. That, too, has been talked about enough.

What I want to look at are two (other) specific ways in which this decision represents inconsistency that Christians should be aware of.

Inconsistency #1: whither liability?

For folks concerned with ethics (in a formal way—everyone is concerned with ethics informally, whether they know it or not), a reasonable question of the last couple of generations is concerned with liability and ownership regarding for-profit companies. 

A bit of history: prior to the 90s, in most cases a privately-held, for-profit company meant that the owners held some degree of liability for the actions of that company (or corporation). The concept of a “limit of liability” was around, but there were stipulations as to which kinds of companies qualified. Further, the very concept of a limit of liability is essentially a product of the era of industrialization; the first modern law allowing a limit of liability for a company was passed in New York in 1811—a long time ago by U.S. history standards, but not so long in the grand scheme of western history.*

Mostly, it was the big corporations that got to limit their liability until the 90s, when the idea of an “LLC” became widespread. Anyone who remembers the Bailey Building and Loan Association from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life will recognize how this was so (spoiler alert): George Bailey was personally “on the hook” for the lost money at the end, even though it was technically his business’s money (and an employee of the business that lost it).

For the last handful of decades (if not for centuries), businesses have been striving to sever the liability of the business from the liability of its owners—precisely because of examples like the fictional George Bailey—and many, many real-life counterparts. And, for the most part, they have succeeded: it is now possible to have businesses that lose money from the very beginning, and never become profitable, but those in charge are not liable. What was different with someone like Bernie Madoff wasn’t that he was liable for the practices of his investment business (Madoff Investment Securities, LLC—a “limited-liability corporation”) in ways that others aren’t, but that his investment business was fraudulent in its practices.

Jump forward to the Hobby Lobby issue before the Supreme Court. One of the fundamental claims in this case was that Hobby Lobby, as a “closely-held private company," is itself a “Christian business” because its owners are Christians. In other words, the company is claimed to assume a characteristic of its ownership by nature of that very ownership.

[To be clear: Hobby Lobby is NOT an “LLC” but is a standard C-Corporation, which also affords it a limit of liability similar to that of an LLC in some ways.]

This seems to blur the lines a bit. If there is a limit of liability, it seems most consistent that there should be a limit too of what aspects of the owner’s identity can be carried over to the corporation itself. I think it raises the question: are the owners of Hobby Lobby willing to forfeit their limit of liability in order to preserve this corporate identity of their company as a “Christian company”?

Let’s look at it in a very realistic counter-example: had the Supreme Court differed by a single vote, then Hobby Lobby (famously) would have been on the hook for a fine of $100 per employee per day in violation of the ACA; this would have amounted to a fine of $2.1 million per day! If the assets of the company had been unable to absorb that cost, were the owners prepared to pay that fine (or at least the balance of it) out of their own pockets? 

This appears to be a major step “backward” in the effort to divorce owners from the liability of their companies. And, ethically, perhaps that’s a very good thing—but it is certainly inconsistent with the trajectories and trends of the last couple of generations’ worth of business law in the United States.

Inconsistency #2: “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” round two

Maybe a bigger ethical question is related to how similar this issue is to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of recent vintage. (I wrote about that issue a few years ago, including some thoughts regarding the inconsistencies of it, so I won’t cover the same ground very much here.) 

One of my problems with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was this: it essentially said to homosexuals, “We don’t care whether or not you are a homosexual—or whether or not your homosexuality is sinful according to the Bible—as long as we don’t know about it.” This is not a biblical position, and it is not a pastoral one. Insofar as repealing that policy removed this apathy toward the sin or temptation to sin in others, I was (and am) for it.

The Hobby Lobby issue is very similar in this regard. In essence, the argument was, “We refuse to be forced to provide medical attention to women who work for us, if that medical attention includes something that we recognize as contrary to our ethical and theological convictions.” Fair enough, as far as it goes.

But I would say it doesn’t go far enough. Like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” this posture ignores the possibility that there may be women in their company that would otherwise accept such medical attention. What does Hobby Lobby offer to them? 

David Green, the founder, is on record saying, "We do everything we possibly can to be a help to our employees… that they can structure their lives based on biblical principles. It’s not something that’s forced on anybody, but it’s there for them if they would like” (Link). He has also said, "We're Christians, and we run our business on Christian principles. I've always said that the first two goals of our business are 1) to run our business in harmony with God's laws, and 2) to focus on people more than money” (Link). What he hasn’t said is how their focus on people, and how their Christian principles, have shaped the way they care for their employees.

Yes, they pay a decent wage. Do they also look after their employees when they are in financial distress? What happens when one of their 21,000 employees gets pregnant out of wedlock—do they offer support and help in those cases? Do they offer teaching, instruction, and counsel on why they believe abortion is wrong?

These are more than a company might ordinarily be expected to offer to employees. But Hobby Lobby has declared itself to be a “Christian company” that operates on Christian principles. This demands that they meet and exceed a much higher standard than an ordinary company does. If Hobby Lobby is a “Christian company” they should do these things—because these are the kinds of things that Christians should do.

Public lawsuits and giving a chunk of profits to Jerry Falwell are not the extent of what it would mean to operate according to Christian principles. If Hobby Lobby wants to be taken seriously as a “Christian company” they have a lot more work to do—or, at least, they need to be more open and forthright about things they may already be doing.



*For more on the history of limits of liability, see Limited Liability (in Wikipedia); Limited Liability Company (from Inc. magazine); and LLC History (from

Monday, July 14, 2014

A problem of emphasis

Every now and then I come across a statement like this one I saw recently:

"People should be able to talk about their faith without fear of judgment or reprisal."

Without getting too much into the topic of evangelism and how/when people can and should “talk about their faith,” I want to point out a problem of emphasis when many people say something like the above.

More and more, it seems, the emphasis many Christians will read into a sentence like this one (or intend if they write it themselves) is on the judgment and/or reprisal. That is to say, they mean that Christians should be able to speak openly about their faith and there be no consequences. If a Christian stands up and speaks out about Jesus, they believe, then he/she should have no opposition to it.

I witnessed this not too long ago when it turned up that a man in Scotland had been arrested for street preaching. (Again, I’m not out to engage in questions of methodology today.) I saw a handful of links to articles about this on social media, with comments to the effect of, “They can’t do this—it’s a violation of his rights!"

While that may or may not be so (it certainly is not a “right” granted constitutionally in every country across the world), this is beside the point. When we turn to a “rights” argument we’ve lost the plot, as they say across the pond.

If this is what was meant (or should be meant) by the kinds of statements in question, they should read something like this: “People should be able to talk about their faith without judgment or reprisal from others.” But that’s not what is said!

Rather, it is the fear of judgment and reprisal that we should be without. This is the model we see in the New Testament: time and again, Jesus and the apostles faced the potential of being arrested (or worse) when they would preach the gospel. These potentialities (and actualities) did not stop them; rather, often they returned to preaching as soon as they got out of jail!

Acts 5:27–32 is a clear example of this:

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers  raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and  forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 

What was distinctive about this response was not the insistence that these men has the right to teach and preach whatever they wanted—they didn’t. Rather, what distinguished them was that they said, “We must obey God rather than men."

They had no fear. Not of these leaders. Not of judgment. Not of reprisal.

Today, I hear fellow Christians say that laws passed limiting or restricting our “religious freedoms” are a threat to the gospel, and laws passed that support our “religious freedoms” are a victory for the gospel. No they’re not.

Let me be clear: I’m grateful for our country, and for the freedom that our constitution allows us (regarding our religion, and otherwise). I don’t take that for granted, nor do I wish to casually see it done away with. There are definitely times when I believe that our lawmakers (and law enforcers) act well, in accordance with our constitutional rights, and it is definitely something I give thanks about when it happens.

But the gospel is not beholden to the laws of the United States or any other nation. Indeed, if history is any indicator then the gospel thrives the most when the laws of nations oppose it. If you doubt this, consider where the growth in the church is in the 21st century:  Africa (where most of the countries are decidedly Islamic, culturally and legally) and Asia, especially China (which still has much of the atheistic secularism of its communist history intact). So maybe we can stop talking and acting as if our over-interest in political activity is a matter of the gospel—it’s not.

[There’s nothing wrong with an interest in politics. Politics is important generally for our culture. It’s a fine hobby for some, and a reasonable profession for some others. But it’s not a gospel matter—not in the “what must I do to be saved?” way. Even the Theonomists would agree with that, I think.]

What hinders the gospel—especially in a nation like the United States—isn’t the legal system. It’s not the liberal media or the secular pop culture. It’s the apathy of humankind for their fellow man, as manifested in our individualism. It’s our lack of belief that God actually can and will save those who are opposed to him. And it is our fear of the judgment of others, and our lack of willingness to suffer any inconvenience (let alone actual hardship) for the gospel’s sake.

I’m pointing the finger at myself here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in being at fault in these ways.

What if we cared a little more for our neighbors? What if we believed God’s Word when it says that our neighbors can be saved? And what if we weren’t ashamed to love them well in the name of Jesus?

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Alternative" transportation

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This is my Kymco People S250 motor-scooter.

Since May of 2013, it has been my primary transportation (well, it and my Specialized bicycle). It gets around 65–70 miles to the gallon; I still fill up about once a week or so, but I pay about $6 (compared to the $50–$70 I paid to fill my Toyota Highlander before). With the top-case and saddle bags, I can bring home as many as 10 bags of groceries; Molly and Jack love to ride on the back, so I can even pick one of them up from school when I need to. It has an automatic transmission, a 250cc engine, and can get me up to 75mph easily (it can go higher, but I’ve never done it; 75 is the speed limit on the interstate here, and I went that fast once—usually I prefer to stay on much slower roads).

Since June 13, it has been in the shop. It’s still not fixed.

This is my second motor scooter in 10 years; in both cases, we reached a point in our family life where we realized that we didn’t need two cars—we needed one and a half. A scooter has been a great alternative to buying another car for us.

Scooters are safer and more comfortable than motorcycles: I sit upright, which is better for my back and also increases my visibility; I don’t have to straddle a large machine, but have a floorboard for my feet; the automatic transmission means I’m not futzing with changing gears and have more attention to focus on the road; and the center of gravity is much lower, so it’s easier to balance and take corners with. Yet, my scooter is just as powerful as many motorcycles, and goes faster than I’ll ever need it to go (and yes, you can get scooters with 500 and 750cc engines, especially for touring and carrying bigger loads). Most of my (so-called!) friends who chuckle when I tell them that I ride a scooter are surprised at how big it is (I think they’re thinking about Vespas, which are fairly tiny).

I have wondered why these are not more frequently considered as viable alternatives to car ownership, especially in more dense urban areas (such as when we lived in St. Louis) or in areas where the weather permits year-round usage (like here in Arizona).  They get amazing gas mileage, are easy to drive, easy to park, and fun. They are immensely popular in Europe and Asia; why not the U.S.?

But now I’ve figured it out—or part of it, anyway.

It’s the shop’s fault

The bottom-line: if those who sold scooters told themselves more seriously, then others would take their products more seriously too.

I bought my first scooter (also a Kymco, and also from their People line) from a shop in St. Louis called—I’m not kidding—the “Extreme Toy Store” (they are out of business now). They also sold ATVs and jet skis. I bought my current ride through a shop in Tucson called ScootOver Tucson. ScootOver’s slogan is “fun in motion” and the front page of their website features a playful (if a little goofy) video featuring a Fine Young Cannibals song that auto-plays when you land there.

In both of these large cities (Tucson has about a million people, metro), these are/were the main dealerships for a scooter like my Kymco. If you’re looking for something more than a beat-up Vespa, you have to go to ScootOver. To be fair, they have a very nice inventory, especially given the somewhat limited showroom space that they have.

When you compare ScootOver’s self-presentation to another dealer in Tucson—let’s look at RideNow, which sells motorcycles (and, yes, some ATVs and the occasional scooter)—you should instantly notice a difference. RideNow looks like a place where people looking for a new vehicle might go. ScootOver looks like a place where folks with some disposable cash might find a new toy.

Repairs matter

While in St. Louis—and within the first few months of owning my brand-new Kymco People S125, my first scooter—it had a problem with the starter. I took it back to the Extreme Toy Store (they had a mechanic on staff), and they took it in for a repair (under warranty). After nearly two weeks, I hadn’t heard anything from them; a call revealed that they were “waiting for a part.” Two more weeks went by, and they still stalled. Only after I filed a report with the local Better Business Bureau did I hear back that the bike was fixed (within three days of filing the report, too! Coincidence?).

Jump ahead to now: I took my People S250 in to ScootOver (again, a mechanic on staff—two, actually) for a repair almost three weeks ago. Also a starter issue, though this was more widespread through the whole electrical system. The mechanic who took it in suggested that it might take a while to get the part, but that he should have it ready in a little over a week. I was going out of town for a week, so that was fine—and I told him that. He reiterated that it wouldn’t be long after I got back for it to be ready; probably that Tuesday (June 24). 

He called on Thursday, June 26, to say that the part would be delivered on the following Tuesday, and he would have it ready on Wednesday—over a week after his original quoted time, and more than 2½ weeks after he received it for repair! I told him that I needed it for transportation (it is my primary vehicle, after all), and that I needed to be able to pick it up on that Tuesday instead. 

That Tuesday came, and around mid-day they called to say it was ready. I go to pick it up and—surprise!—it still won’t start. They fixed part of it, but not all of it. So they took it back into the shop and now (several days later) I still don’t have my scooter.

Fixing the greater problem

Back to my original thesis: if scooter dealers want Americans to take scooters more seriously as a regular means of transportation, they have to start taking themselves seriously. Here’s what that looks like (or at least, a start):

  • Quit presenting scooters as toys. As it is, scooters are almost universally seen as something less than a serious daily vehicle. This is because the dealers show them as a hobbyist’s item. They are portrayed as something like the urbanite’s version of the ATV. 
  • Take repairs seriously. One way that the U.S. is very different from Europe and Asia is that public transit is fairly unreliable—or at least, relegated to underclass status—in most major cities. So Americans need to know that their vehicles are reliable, and that they can have them repaired quickly if they break down. It is the rare major repair that requires a car, truck, or minivan to be in the shop for more than a day; you can drop it off in the morning, the shop might even give you a lift to work, and pick it up at the end of the day. It is ridiculous that a repair for a scooter (or any vehicle) should take more than a couple of days, or at most a week—even for major repairs. Several weeks is simply embarrassing.
  • Figure out the parts issue. It makes sense that no shop has all the parts for every vehicle that they might need to repair; so, sure, a scooter shop will need to have some time to acquire the parts they need. What should they do? Pay for overnight or two-day delivery and factor that into the cost of the part, just like every other serious repair shop would do. Probably the counter-argument to this point is that some of these parts have to come from overseas, and overnight and even two-day delivery isn’t possible. I can accept that for something very heavy and expensive, like an engine or transmission. But smaller and fairly lightweight parts (like my ignition switch) can be shipped from Taiwan in two-day delivery; it might cost $60 or more, but it can be done. This should be an option offered to customers.
  • Network with other shops. One way to cut down on shipping costs and times would be to form a network of dealers and shops that can share in these costs by shipping things in bulk, and before they are needed. You need an ignition switch for a Kymco People S250? You may not have one, but a shop in Colorado does—you can get it tomorrow for $28 overnight delivery. Meanwhile, a shop in Seattle needs a part that you have on the shelf, and you sell and ship it to them for another $28—and your costs for shipping are essentially zeroed out; it’s like you had the part on your own shelf, which you sell to the customer for cost + $28. 
  • Scale out your business. As the above four issues are addressed, the market for scooters should slowly increase. Maybe your shop is the only one in Tucson, and that positions you perfectly to become not just a retail shop but also a wholesaler for parts for your region. This generates additional profits for your shop, and also improves the market generally, so that the market is positioned to continue in improvement.

These ideas won’t solve all of the obstacles to motor-scooters becoming strong contenders as alternative vehicles—but I promise that, without them, it will never happen.

Scooters could be, and (I would argue) should be, a viable alternative to car ownership in the U.S.—they are relatively inexpensive (I paid just over $2000 for my current scooter, and insure it for less than $100 a year); they are gas-efficient (more so, even, than a Prius); and they are nimble and fun ways to get around town. But some fundamental issues have to be addressed before it can happen.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Amazon's drones—rejoinder

Well, I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet; but many of my 10s of readers will remember that, in December, I predicted that Amazon’s drone delivery plans would be thwarted by the FAA.

And would you look at this: a report on Ars Technica entitled, “FAA Grounds Amazon’s Drone Delivery Plans.” Huh. Who knew?

Every now and then, I actually know a little about what I’m talking about.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A mishmash of thoughts on schools and education

After sharing a link to an article about public schools on Facebook fairly recently, a few of the commenters asked for me to elaborate on my thoughts on the matter (in a blog post, no less). So—risking the ire of nearly everyone, especially those who have committed themselves strongly to one particular school choice—here I go.

Some background

I grew up in a private school; it was NOT a Christian school, but was, I later learned, a “white flight” school. (I should point out that, while I was there, the tide began to change; that school has, in the last 25 or so years, completely repudiated its white flight roots.) I went there from first through 12th grade, and for a while it was the only real frame of reference that I had.

When I was a Young Life leader, I found myself on campuses in another part of my hometown that were in many ways the polar opposite of my own experience; attending the large state university in my town also enriched my understanding of differing views on school cultures. As I worked as a youth minister in a couple of churches, my exposure to different school models and cultures broadened further.

While in seminary, I taught at a small Christian classical school. There I encountered students with a variety of backgrounds, and came to be intimately acquainted with a form of private school I previously never knew could have existed. Over the course of my first 15 or so years in ministry, I have known students and parents that were in just about every conceivable form of schooling: homeschooling (independent); homeschooling (via a network); small private Christian schools, and large ones; small public schools, and large ones; private non-religious schools, montessori schools, Charlotte Mason schools, magnet schools, charter schools. 

With our children, we have homeschooled, had them in private Christian schools, and had them in public schools. We’ve had the experiences of having children in a public school where the administration celebrated when a grade level reached the 35th percentile, and in a public school that was a nationally-recognized blue ribbon school. We’ve dealt with learning disabilities and with advanced learners. 

I’ve considered schools as a teacher, a youth minister, a pastor, a parent, and as a student myself of course. I was even asked once to write an article for our denominational magazine about schools and schooling options. I’m not claiming to be an expert by any means; but I do think I’ve been around the block on this question at least once or twice.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking

As a brief pastoral aside: in the many occasions that I have had (over more than 20 years of ministry) to counsel those who were struggling, a couple of predominant themes have emerged as prevailing struggles, at least in the generally white, middle-class contexts that I have ministered. One of those is “all-or-nothing” or “black and white” thinking, where everything is seen in an extremely binary form: it is either this or that. It is one thing or it is another. There is no “gray area” in between, no possibility for a third way, and no “and”—it is either/or.

I believe this is a problem with schools and education as well as countless other things. Most of us have reached a point where we are unable to accept the possibility that we might be overly binary in our thinking about schools.

I’ve heard this from the pro-Christian school side: anything other than “Christian” education is a forfeiting of our children’s very souls. I’ve heard this from homeschooling folk: we dare not cede our children’s education even to other adults. And I’ve heard it from public school advocates: how arrogant to think that a parent (or even an unaccredited teacher) could teach as well as a trained, board-certified teacher.

I don’t think every person in any of those “camps” thinks this way, but it does seem like the loudest voices on every side will eventually put forth something like the above. And I would say to them the same that I tell my congregants: it is rarely ever so simple as that.

The Complexity of It

The truth is that there is no one right way to educate our children—and there is no definitively wrong way, either. There are problems with every system. There are obstacles in every family. There are challenges for every child. And what works with one child might not work for another, even within the same family.

One wise friend, who has spent his life teaching and leading in Christian schools, and who received a PhD in education from a secular university, told me point-blank: there is no such thing as a public school that does not have a decidedly anti-Christian worldview at its core. There is at least a secularist and atheistic foundation in all of the curricula, all of the teaching methods—if not an outright anti-theistic bent to them all. Thus, he concluded, Christian parents shouldn't in good conscience submit their children to something that is going to undermine all of their discipleship at home.

I countered: what if my alternative is the Christian academy which pushes every child toward academic excellence and achievement, to the point that the only students that are seen to “succeed” in their midst are those that are admitted to the most prestigious universities? Is that worldview one that is preferable to the secular one? Which of those is easier, so to speak, to supplement with training and discipleship in the home—the one that is primarily intellectual, or the one that is character-shaping? I don’t think there is a simple answer to that question. (He didn’t have one either, and granted my point.)

Other conversations have explored other challenges within the Christian school movement: a Zionist nationalism that equates Christianity with a quasi-idolatry of our country, which is present in so many schools; the almost-universal neglect of accommodation of anyone with special needs; the tendency for cliques to arise and social strife, even bullying, to go unchecked because, after all, these are “Christian” kids; the high tuition costs that effectively eliminate most of those below upper-middle class socio-economic status; the way that many of these schools present Christianity as an “add-on,” just one more subject to be studied, rather than something that shapes all of life.

Not that pubic schools are off the hook: there is the extraordinary inefficiency and financial waste (if not outright corruption) in the administrative systems; an inconsistency from school to school, and even from teacher to teacher, in the quality of education offered; the often-troubling tendency of school officials to assume how they know better than parents; the struggle to undertake the teaching of a student who is advanced in one or more subjects without leaving them bored; the “canned” quality of the education that may well strip children of whatever love of learning you have been able to instill in them; and the aforementioned issues of a secularism and, yes, occasionally (though not, in my experience, universally) anti-Christian thinking.

And then there is homeschooling: if you can get past the economic challenges (which many, frankly, cannot) of buying all of the curricula AND having a parent at home full-time to teach; if the personality clashes of children with one another and/or with their parents are not damaging to those relationships; if your kids are introverted enough to be able to spend most of their school time with just their own family; and if your own education was sufficient, and your capacity to teach others in subjects you may barely remember is adequate; well, then homeschooling might be a good alternative for you.

Every System Has Its Successes and Failures

As I mentioned, I’ve seen just about every kind of schooling option that can be envisioned, and I have seen where every system has had amazing successes. And I’ve seen students that have been failed by their system—in every type—as well.

Sure, I’ve seen homeschooled kids that were exceptionally well-taught, who are socially adept with both adults and children of all ages, and who have been wonderfully prepared for life with a strong faith, a love of learning, and cultural enrichment. And I’ve seen homeschooled students that would not have passed placement tests two grades below their age group, who are socially awkward, or who have become jaded toward the faith their parents pressed on them; or all of the above, in at least one case.

I have seen Christian school kids who I was simply proud to know, who were models that I wanted my own kids to grow up to be like; and I’ve seen those that were arrogant brats, elitist snobs, and/or wash-outs who burned out in 10th grade—or, in other cases, who never learned to apply themselves. I have known public school kids that were high-achieving, despite the poverty of their system, and those that were illiterate graduates; I’ve known ones whose faith was more mature than any other kid in the youth group, and those who were easily wooed by worldliness (both of those from the same family, in one case); and I’ve known public schoolers that were lifelong learners and always fascinated by new things, and those who learned from their school teachers not to bother caring.

One of my dear friends, who is a head of school at a Christian school, has told me many times: it ultimately comes down to the parents and the kids. The system is not irrelevant, but it almost is.

Important Considerations

With all of that said, I think there are some things that all Christians need to consider and take into account, whatever the system that they find themselves in:

  • Every system’s weaknesses demand that, as parents (AND as the church as a whole, since we vow to share in the nurture of children when we baptize them—or when we “christen” them, if our tradition doesn’t baptize infants), we must be diligent in attending to the weaknesses of our chosen system. We have to face the reality of questions like: what is my child hearing, seeing, or intuiting from their peers, teachers, and others in the school that they attend? Are their classmates bullies? Do their friends pressure them toward drinking, drugs, or sexual immorality (yes, these are present in every kind of school)? How am I actively engaging in the discipleship of my child so that they are taught grace, truth, and a faith that can withstand the trials of life?
  • Private schools and homeschooling is a privilege, generally speaking, of the wealthier members of our society. There are plenty of people who simply cannot do either because of economic reasons alone. Even if we choose one of these, we must reckon with questions like: What would Jesus’ claim of the Kingdom bringing hope for the poor and the outcast have to do with our local school systems? Am I inadvertently committing to, and investing in, a system that entrenches the socio-economic divisions in our culture? Is the way that I speak of public schools directly or indirectly stripping the dignity of my brother or sister in Christ who cannot afford anything but public schools? Is there an issue of “doing justice and loving kindness” (Micah 6:8) involved in the issue of school choice?
  • Parents of children with special needs, such as autism and Asperger Syndrome, are almost always left without options when it comes to Christian schools and homeschooling. We should be asking: is there a way for the church to address this inequality? Could we include programs and systems for these kinds of needs in our Christian school and homeschool structures? How can we serve our fellow Christians in their children’s education, particularly when their children present the particular challenges that these needs do?
  • In many cases those outside of the church only understand Christian schools and homeschooling as a decided and intentional self-segregation from the rest of the community, regardless of the reasons for doing either. While our faith is counter-cultural (it already is, without pulling out of society) and we must obey God’s commands to raise up our children in the covenant, this must be an important consideration for every Christian family. We must ask: how am I teaching my children to love their neighbor, and even their enemy, when I pull them out of a school solely because of disagreements—even core theological ones? Am I providing them with contexts where they can love and serve those around them, especially those who aren’t fellow Christians? How am I, and how is my family, extending care and hospitality to fellow citizens whose children attend public schools (or Christian schools, or are homeschooled)?
  • It is too easy—partly because we have all bought into the cultural lie that tells us so—to believe that our children’s education is what matters the most. But it isn’t; if God has saved them, nothing can take them out of his hand. Not even an anti-Christian worldview, whether it is taught by a secularist public school or an elitist Christian school or homeschool association. We must confront ourselves, and one another, with questions such as: have I bowed before the idol of education? Do I believe that God can, and does, sustain the faith of his children in spite of intellectual or social challenges? WHY do I believe that an educational model is so vital to their spiritual well-being? 

“Final" Words

We have changed our children’s educational structure almost every year that we have had children to educate. We’re changing again in the coming year. So obviously I don’t think I have the “final” word on it! 

These are hard choices for every parent. It’s hard enough without someone else imposing a legalistic “either/or” simple answer on me—or on you. My great hope in posting this is simply these two points: that you will recognize that the decision is far more complex than soundbite-theologians would have you believe; and that you would feel free to take your decision for yourself, and not allow someone else’s choices to dictate what you must perceive as a “right” or “wrong” decision.