Thursday, June 04, 2015

Federally Recorded Blessings

I'm not the biggest fan of the federal government. I don't mean that in any revolutionary kind of way, but I don't like the scope of what they do and what they have their hands in. And that feeling has persisted across administrations, and is irrespective of the party in charge.

That's the backdrop to the letter I got from The Federal Government telling me that I would be contacted by Federal Agents - honest to goodness G-Men - in the coming weeks.

Those who know me might expect my Constitutional-federalist, libertarian, individualist hackles raised. Off to the law I would go, to decipher exactly what minimal statutory and constitutional authority these privacy-flouting Census agents actually had. My answers would be kept narrowly within the boundaries allowed by our Constitution, the text of the relevant statutes, the presiding SCOTUS jurisprudence (if I felt it was well reasoned), the Anglo-American common law tradition, and the Holy Bible. Basically, I'd be like a clichéd POW in a movie: Name, Rank and Serial Number only. And really, aren't Census agents just wanna-be ATFE agents that even the Federal Government wouldn't trust with a gun?

If that's what you thought, then you're wrong. Even I'm not that cranky. My hackles were kept firmly in place. Data are useful, and while I wasn't about to spill every last secret I wanted to keep private, the scope of the household survey data seemed reasonable. Also, I didn't want to be a jerk to some Census worker whom I knew was probably a contractor looking to pick up some extra income (and in all seriousness, I would hope I wouldn't be a jerk even if they were actual ATFE agents).

However, I proceeded to lose the letter. Not because of any latent AnCap reflexes, but just out of sheer laziness/disorganization.

No matter, the Census agent proceeded to show up at my home. It (truly) wasn't a good time to talk, but made myself available to talk in the coming days on the phone in the late afternoon. She gave me another copy of the letter (which I lost), and politely asked me to review it so that I would be more ready for the conversation.

A few days later, she called at nearly the exact time I said would be most convenient for me. I settled in for the grilling, not really sure what was going to happen or how long it would take, but genuinely wanting to help.

There were a few standard demographic questions up front, and then it got right down into the business of defining my household. And not just who was in it.

"How many rooms does your home have?"
"How many of these rooms are bedrooms?"
"How many full baths?"
Etc. Nothing too interesting*. But then,
"Does your home have a permanent heat source?"

A little later...

"Does your home have air conditioning?"

In central North Carolina? Of course! "Yes."

As the questions kept coming, and they came in detail, I stopped thinking about my home as something altogether ordinary-
"Does your home have any windows boarded up?"
-and instead saw it as an extraordinary blessing.
"How often do you feel unsafe in the area within half a block around your home?"
In my subdivision? "Never."

As the survey went on, I started thinking of the people that gave answers that were different from mine.
"In the last twelve months, have you gone without hot water?"
"In the last twelve months, have you ever been uncomfortably cold for more than a day?"
"In the last twelve months, have you lost electricity for more than a day?"
About the only question I could answer in an unfortunate way was that I had seen (or likely seen) a roach in our house at some point before, although I wasn't really certain.

Those questions kept popping up in my head for a few days. This morning, I got into my car, and it started like it pretty much always does. I drove to my job that pays enough for all my material needs, and a great many other things. I have a wife that I love, and that loves me. I have the world's best Beagle. I have supportive family and friends. I'm writing this on my desktop PC, though there are at least four other devices in the house I could write it on.

Monday was Memorial Day. We have the blessing of a day off to go to the beach, grill burgers, buy a car, and just maybe spare a thought for the unspeakably great sacrifice of those who died in terror and pain at a young age for the safety of others.

Today, and every other day, I can be thankful that the Creator of all existence sacrificed for me personally to reconcile me to Him**.

It's almost out-of-fashion to tell people to count their blessings. Indeed, sometimes it's pious and insensitive to demand it of others. But I was put in a position to have my blessings smack me unexpectedly across my face (from a Fed, no less), and I'm thankful for it.
Our church recently changed their order of service to collect offerings during the service, as opposed to simply having boxes at the rear of the church for deposits. I think it's a great move. It is a mysterious and sacred part of worship to offer back to the one who has everything, and provides everything. And we conclude the offertory by singing the classic Doxology. While it's easy to fall into habit or sentimentality with more liturgical elements of a worship service, it's beautiful truth whenever we take the time to pay attention.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow

* What a giveaway. As if having multiple full bathrooms is anything but astonishing compared to the historical norms of humanity.
** For myself and countless others. But as it is rightly said, if it had only been for me or any other single person, He still would have.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

David Cameron's new Tory Majority Wants to Toss Freedom in the Bin

Cameron's rhetoric is almost worse than the actual policy change.

Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway outlines the proposed shift in focus on "extremism."
Cameron will tell the NSC: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance."
He is directly rejecting the very notion of a secular, liberal state. And I don't mean secular or liberal in the very narrow, partisan way, but in the broad outline of how western political society is arranged. Maybe it's a privilege I take for granted, but I would have hoped it understood that a just state DOES leave alone all law abiding people. That a just state seeks first to secure the natural rights of the people, and DOES maintain neutrality in the issues of mind and conscience, seeking not to bind people in those matters (though here I am certainly more American, which is technically more secular than other western states). I would have hoped that disagreement from these broad principles of liberalism are rare, and that most of the squabbling of the day is fighting over a pretty narrow ground in the grand scheme of things. Small details where small differences in values can produce tensions.

And yet, here is a (somewhat) head of state, a chief legislator, feeling the freedom to not even pretend to respect such foundational principles. If a major party leader in a major western state can be so outwardly dismissive of the root of state protected personal freedom and autonomy, then it is pretty troubling.

The gains in wealth, opportunity, freedom and equality brought about by liberal government over the last few hundred years are an anomaly in historical terms. They're nothing to take for granted.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Loving the Haters

Hang around Twitter long enough, and you'll see some pretty vicious hatred. Usually it's not from someone you follow, but instead is retweeted by someone seeking to shame the hater. And when it comes to the most bitter of partisan and culture wars, I get the feeling that large swaths of people on either side would not actually be disheartened to hear of their ideological foes being swallowed up by the earth in a single, cataclysmic act.

The hatred is usually justified as being a response to hate itself. Such objects of hatred are usually identified as part of a movement: patriarchy/feminism, gamergate/anti-gamergate, Democrats/Republicans, etc. Their gatherings, protests and hashtags are closely screened for any offense, and when the norms of the group are crossed, the virality magnifies the offense.

No identifiable group seems particularly immune, Christians included. And not just those from some disaffected, detached corner of the internet, but people I've known and loved and worshipped with. Often the target is some enemy of the country, or even a domestic political opponent.

I am also not immune. I may have had the grace of restraint to often hide it away inside, but it's been there before (and maybe I haven't hidden it well sometimes - I'm too scared to trawl back through my social media posts for evidence).

Nothing about this is new. The good 'ole days were as hateful on balance. In some ways, maybe better, and in some obvious ways, much worse. But in all times, people are very, very capable of hating, and doing so with a self-flattering indignation when the target is themselves identified as a hater.

So to many, there is no problem. Hate the haters, the world says. But that's not what Christ said, and what he said is as radical as it was when it was offered thousands of years ago: love your enemies.

You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

It's said enough to be cliché, but it's obviously not practiced very much.

So who do you hate? What person or group of people get your blood boiling to the point where you no longer care about their welfare? Or that you actively imagine their destruction? Or that you even actively work towards their destruction?

I don't believe this is a call to pacficism or resignation to evil. I still believe in actively pursuing justice, in protecting the weak from the strong, and in speaking truth to power. But all that can be done in love.

So, who do you hate?

How do you feel when someone mocks your beliefs? Love them.

How do you feel when someone blasphemes the Lord? Love them.

How do you feel when someone twists your words and beliefs into untruth and ugliness? Love them.

How do you feel when someone is caught on camera making racist statements? Love them.

How do you feel when someone acts indifferently and dangerously in traffic? Love them.

How do you feel when someone puts you down to make themselves feel better? Love them.

How do you feel when someone brings shame to the Church when they fall from a position of prominence because of their personal sin? Love them.

How do you feel when an official makes a thoroughly bad call that unfairly costs your team the game? Love them.

How do you feel when a politician moves the country away from protecting and defending the values you identify as critical to good and just governance? Love them.

How do you feel when someone carries out extreme acts of violence against helpless and innocent people? Love them.

How do you feel when people acting on behalf of your nation or state or city torment and torture captive people? Love them.

It becomes harder and harder the more you think of extreme examples. But there is no limiting principle to the commandment. No balancing. No, "Yeah, but, what about..."

It's frankly impossible. Except with grace.

Pray for the grace to love haters. I know I need it. You probably do too.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Introducing: 33 Packs a Day

I have finally completed the story I've been writing with my wife for some time now. I got the idea in 2013, and worked off-and-on for a while, getting her help to add some needed humanity to it.

It tells the story of Seran Barzani, who came to America in the 1980s with her father from Iraqi Kurdistan to escape the violence there. In the midst of her busy life, she decides to take time to engage in political protest against a city government that was betraying the principles of liberty she had thought her family had fled to.

In the process, she catches the attention of an ambitious and career-focused agent of the Department of Homeland Security.

33 Packs a Day on Smashwords

It is available for purchase immediately, and is currently being reviewed for inclusion into the Smashwords premium catalog, which will distribute it to retailers of eBooks everywhere, including iBooks, B&N's Nook and others.