Archive for November, 2005

Regarding the Stem Cell Debate

November 29, 2005

I am a big loser for using someone else’s article again, but trust me when I say that I (almost) could have written it.

What are we fighting for?
I just lost a pregnancy, but gained new insight into the stem cell debate.

– – – – – – – – – – – –
By Lisa Moricoli Latham

Sept. 5, 2001 | The beginning of human life is under scrutiny as never before. Late-reproducing baby boomers have pushed reproductive science toward more and more intensely technological end runs around ever more minute problems on the way toward the holy grail of fertilization (with the result that fertility specialists measure their success rates in positive pregnancies, not healthy babies). At the same time, even us Gen-Xers who can still try to make babies the old-fashioned way are testing earlier and earlier for pregnancy, becoming more and more invested in life beginning as soon as we see two pink lines on those plastic sticks.

Small wonder then, that the rhetoric of the stem cell debate is a far cry from the pro-choice “viability” arguments we grew up on — and small wonder that the stem cell debate presents the dilemma of whether the earliest result of a sperm and an egg united inside the womb is more or less a “person” than those united in a petri dish.

Having just scrutinized a pregnancy that ended at the point when most stem cells are collected, I’ve decided to push away the microscope to look at the problem as a mother. I might have assumed that losing a very early pregnancy would have made me an opponent of stem cell research. Surprisingly, it had the opposite effect.

Some embryologists argue that an individual’s life begins about 14 days after fertilization, as the possibiity of separation into a pair of twins disappears. Others see life as a process, unfolding as the egg and sperm (already both living things) join and gain complexity over a longer period. Then there are those, like William Calvin, president of the anti-abortion group LifeNet Inc., who call leftover fertilized eggs created for in-vitro fertilization “children who have been living to this point as frozen embryos.”

Many women these days refer to their loss of very early pregnancies as “having a child in heaven.” The first time I saw this term was on an electronic bulletin board for women trying to conceive. I had tapped into the board as I began to worry that I was in the process of losing my own pregnancy, but it was too soon to tell.

The greatest hormonal changes occur early in a pregnancy, then reverse rapidly once a pregnancy ends, so as my body pulled its second 180 that afternoon in front of the computer, I empathized with my sisters on the bulletin board. Awash in hormones and emotions, I understood the desire to dramatize the surge of biochemicals that had crashed over me going in one direction, only to riptide back a couple of weeks later.

My husband and I had tried for months to conceive, so that afternoon, not knowing whether I was just “spotting,” or losing the pregnancy altogether, I read the board messages with my three positive home pregnancy test sticks lined up in front of my monitor. It was as if I had to prove to myself I hadn’t imagined the whole episode, like the women whose phantom pregnancies turn out to be bad gas.

After a few hours of bleeding, as well as three, unquestionably negative home pregnancy tests, my obstetrician explained that what I had experienced was not even considered a miscarriage, but just a “chemical pregnancy.” Oddly, this new phrase was more comforting than dismissive.

Doctors now rely on the new term “chemical pregnancy” for very early pregnancy loss because pregnancies are being detected earlier and earlier — both due to infertility treatments and the availability of sophisticated over-the-counter ovulation and pregnancy tests. For as little as $1.50, a woman can now purchase the same tests that doctors use to know for certain if the egg and sperm united and have implanted in the uterus. After implantation, the uterus emits human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), pregnancy’s first chemical symptom. In the past, even doctors’ pregnancy tests were limited to detecting 100 units of hCG and thus worked only after the fourth or fifth week after fertilization. New tests can detect 15 or 20 units, making it possible for a woman to detect pregnancy as early as a week post-fertilization — a full week before she misses a period.

Women’s bodies reject early pregnancies frequently — but unless a woman is actively trying to conceive, she’s unlikely to test early enough to know about it. As a result, countless pregnancies end without much ado, dismissed as “late” periods. Like mine, they end before the embryo has developed into a fetus.

Chemical pregnancy relates to stem cells because both phrases refer to the earliest stages of human development. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Primer, some stem cells come from removing the inner cell mass from its hollow shell in the stage of embryonic development called a blastocyst, which begins about four days after fertilization. Stem cells also can be retrieved from the “genital ridge” of fetuses from pregnancies terminated in the first trimester; at that point they are called primordial germ cells.

My chemical pregnancy ended about four weeks post-fertilization, as the embryo’s limb buds and the primordial germ cells began to form, but well before a four-chambered heart had formed, or the tail disappeared. When I logged onto the women’s bulletin board, bleeding and cramping after I’d spent the previous day airing out my old maternity clothes, I was in no shape to absorb the finer points of biochemistry. Nevertheless, even before I spoke to the doctor, I didn’t consider my loss heaven’s gain. I hadn’t lost a baby — not quite, not yet.

While disappointed, I also felt lucky. My body was functioning as it should, weeding out mismatched gametes to spare me a devastating late miscarriage, fetal demise or a seriously debilitated infant.

Of course, it is infinitely easier to lose a chemical pregnancy than a fetus with a heartbeat. (It’s easier still when you already have a healthy toddler.) But in addition to increasing evidence that doomed chemical pregnancies are indeed physically “easier” to lose because they produce lower levels of pregnancy chemicals from the beginning, the increasing popularity of the new term reflects not only current scientific understanding of pregnancy’s earliest days, but also the idea that well-chosen words are a doctor’s bedside tool that make it easier on women like me.

There’s an old Jewish custom that keeps new mothers from bringing any baby paraphernalia into the house until the child is born. While this practice might seem like an anachronism (and is totally beyond my limited self-control in baby boutiques), even today when the overwhelming majority of children survive birth, up to 50 percent of pregnancies do not go full term — though most are lost before the woman misses her period and thus are undetected. Perhaps, as we approach these very modern problems — chemical pregnancies and leftover in-vitro fertilization embryos — it may help to rely on the oldest Western traditions.

Motherhood challenged my once-steadfast pro-choice position. I don’t think anyone who’s felt the quickening could lightly decide against following a pregnancy to term — though I defend a woman’s right to weigh the circumstances for herself. Yet, as thrilled and utterly “changed” as I felt within days of my firstborn’s conception three years ago, I accept the medical definition of his coulda-been sibling’s brief appearance and quick demise. It just didn’t take.

But here’s the rub, important for my legislative representatives to understand: If a united egg and sperm implanted in my uterus is not a child, then a petri dish of similar cells, however poetic, however potent, isn’t either. It is, however, an enormously important source of cells, a potential gift of life, that should not be wasted. As soon as I saw my negative pregnancy tests, I turned my attention away from the changes going on inside me, and back on the child in front of me. As a nation, we should do the same.

SILVER LININGS – by Al Sturgeon

November 24, 2005


Truth be told, Thanksgiving is typically a time of year I succumb to the vices of gluttony and professional football while meaning to pause and give thanks for blessings received. I’m not missing it this year. This year is different.

When I’ve paused in the past to actually give thanks, I’ve identified fuzzy things like a warm bed and a roof over my head for which to be thankful. Believe me, I’m not saying those things aren’t important, but I’ve learned this year that they can be a bit overrated. I’ve now done without. They were near the top of my list last year. This year is different.

I used to be thankful for cars and movie theaters and two-ply toilet paper and those cute little toothpicks Applebee’s puts in your club sandwiches. Now I still like all those things (especially the thicker, softer toilet paper), but this year they all seem a little less valuable than before. I’m still thankful for the little things, but this year is different.

I used to be thankful for a nice stable life where everything was in place. I was especially fond of planners and things “working out” and days when nothing major happened. I used to be thankful for being comfortable in other words. That doesn’t seem so important now. This year is most definitely different.

In short, I used to be thankful for things. I used to be thankful for ideas and concepts and institutions and ways of life. Well, I’m still thankful for all this on one level or another, but the difference is that these used to be my leading ladies. These used to be the things that came to mind first when I began rattling off my Thanksgiving list. They aren’t first anymore. That was before. This year is different.

This year people like Grady come first on my list. Grady has the most Southern accent in the Milky Way galaxy (fact, not opinion), and other than that, most wouldn’t even notice this quiet, unassuming man. I came to know him rather well, however, on one of his four one-thousand-mile trips to help hurricane victims we know and love. We now know and love Grady, too. I’m most thankful for people like him this year.

And this year I’m thankful for kids from Fort Cherry Elementary School in Washington, Pennsylvania, and the 11-year-old young man who brought the gift cards they bought so families like mine could go to Wal-Mart and buy groceries. They don’t know me, but I know them intimately. They are angels of mercy. This year I’m thankful for them.

This year I’m thankful for Koryn, a cute young girl from Killen, Alabama, who plays the dulcimer like nobody’s business. She came on a mission trip to our church and ended up sick. She wasn’t so upset about the sick part, bless her heart, but she hated missing out on the work. That’s what she came to do. Instead, she brought us music, and with it a pleasant example for my young daughter to see up close. I’m thankful for Koryn.

This year I’m thankful for the Norfolk Chainsaw Ministry Team, six guys who came to sweat and stink and cut up every tree they could find – especially for elderly folks who have no one else. They worked all day for nothing. Wait, I mean they worked all day for no money. They worked for something. Love. This year I’m most thankful for people like them.

This year I’m thankful for Roy and Joann, and for Larry and Jean, two elderly couples from Arizona who loaded up their trucks and trailers and drove a few thousands miles to stay for a couple of months to rebuild lives instead of watching Wheel of Fortune. They aren’t wasting a second of their lives or an ounce of their talents and energies. I’m sure I’ve seen people like them before, but I’ve never noticed. I’ve noticed this year.

This year I’m thankful for Gene. I watched Gene, whose personal house sustained little damage, sleep on the floor of our church building every night until all of his fellow members had a bed to sleep in at night. Just because. I’ve seen him bubble with enthusiasm (and Gene bubbles very little, mind you) over the prospect of spending every waking hour helping people. I’ve been thankful for Gene before, but this year the level of my gratitude is different.

This year I’m most thankful for my wife and daughters. Oh, I’ve always been thankful for them (I think it’s in the contract somewhere), but this year the thankfulness runs deeper. This year I’m thankful for their indomitable strength. It was tested this year, and they passed with flying colors. They are more than my family now; they are heroes in my heart, heroes of mythical proportion. They are invincible. I’m always thankful for them, but this year…well, it’s just different.

There are a million more. One day in November will not suffice this time around.

Yes, this Thanksgiving is very, very different. Hurricane Katrina gets the credit, but I thank God because this year the objects of my thankfulness have changed dramatically. Instead of things, I’m now most thankful for beautiful people filled with pure love. That’s top of the line now. I’m glad that this year is different for that fact alone.

All I want for Christmas is a real good tan.

November 21, 2005

Have you heard this Kenny Chesney Christmas song? It came out during last Christmas season, but since we have agreed as a society to bypass Thanksgiving, it’s already making the rounds on the country stations this year. [Quick editorial: Can’t we take a day to be thankful for what we already have before starting the mad rush to give and get more stuff?] For those that have never heard it, it’s about getting away from the cold, winter weather and taking a tropical vacation for the holidays. Pretty much the opposite of “White Christmas”

I grew up in the South, so a white Christmas holds no sentimental value for me. Heck… I remember riding my new bike over to my Grandmother’s on Christmas day while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Personally, the idea of a tropical Christmas appeals to me.

Some of you may be saying that I already live in a tropical paradise here in San Diego. I admit that the weather is nice, but have you ever waded into the Pacific off the California coast in August? Imagine it in January. Granted, we don’t have to bundle up in parkas, but sweatshirts are the SoCal uniform from November to April.

Well… this year I get my wish. Courtesy of Uncle Sam, I am getting an all-expenses paid 6 month trip to a tropical Caribbean island. That’s right! I’m headed to Club Gitmo!

As far as I know, I’m going to be working on the administrative review board that determines the disposition of detainees’ cases. That’s all I know about the job – that and the fact that I have to report to Arlington, VA on December 21st.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Gitmo as a detainee facility, as I realize the human rights pitfalls that surround such an undertaking. But the pragmatist in me has to ask, what choice did we have? We can’t try these folks in our criminal justice system. They aren’t U.S. citizens, nor did they commit crimes on American soil. They aren’t traditional POWs, as they aren’t members of a belligerent country’s armed forces. We certainly can’t play “catch and release” with terrorists that are hostile to the U.S.

I believe that they have been correctly characterized as “illegal combatants”, which are in fact covered under the Geneva Convention. We are fighting a war against an enemy the likes of which no one (except maybe Israel) has ever faced. During unprecedented situations, unique solutions are attempted and sometimes mistakes are made. Were some mistakes made in detainee handling and processing? Undoubtedly. Did our government and military make a good faith effort to process these individuals in accordance with international law? I believe so.

I hope to gain some insight and understanding of the process during my temporary assignment. To the extent that security concerns permit, I hope to share it with you in this forum. Though I’m not excited one bit about leaving Whit behind for 6 months, I am upbeat about the work that I will be doing. It’s been over two years since I was last involved “operationally” with the GWOT, and I’m happy to get back into a more active role. I’ll let the Marines and Soldiers on the ground dole out the battlefield justice, but I’m content to work behind the scenes to ensure that our nation’s enemies are brought to justice off the battlefield as well.

Our Schizophrenic Biblical Interpretation, Part One of a Few

November 20, 2005

By way of introduction, I decided that I’ve been dealing with only easy issues for way too long and am not getting many comments and interaction. Since I see the purpose of the blog world as a way to engage in dialogue, I am starting this week by throwing out some thoughts on a tough issue, but you, O blog reader, have led me to it.

When one looks at our interpretation of Scripture, our holy book, one finds that we can be very schizophrenic at times. For instance, we believe that the commands of Scripture are important, but choose which commands we like to follow. When Peter tells the crowd of Jews in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized” (or “baptize yourselves”—a very plausible interpretation if you know Greek and Jewish practices of baptism), we say that is a command not only to the Jews but also to us by extension and that is how we become Christians. Great! I follow that. But then we come to what Jesus says to his disciples in John 13:14, “Since, therefore, even I have washed the feet of all of you, the Lord and Teacher, even all of you are obligated to wash one another’s feet.” Some Christian traditions do foot washing, particularly on the Thursday before Easter, but the Church of Christ does not. Yet it is laid upon Jesus’ disciples as an obligation (the word “ought” just does not express in English the force of the Greek word here).

Our interpretive thinking would go something like this: In those days the custom was to wash feet because everyone wore sandals and walked on dusty roads. It was just common courtesy. Therefore it is not a command or example for us (even though Jesus specifically calls it such in John 13:15) because it had to do with their customs and their situation. In Acts 2, Peter was telling people how to become Christians so this applies to everyone at all times. We see this practice continue in the book of Acts and can therefore assume it to be normative.

Going back to the custom thing, the custom with footwashing was to have one’s servants wash the feet of one’s guests. The “lord” of the house did not do such menial tasks. The point Jesus was making had nothing to do with the what of footwashing, but the why of footwashing—i.e. why he, their Lord and teacher, did a slave’s work. The command still applies and concerns humility, not custom. If we don’t want to wash feet, we need to find a different way to humble ourselves before others that is similar in kind to footwashing in the first century if we want to follow Jesus’ teaching. [I say this not derogatorily, but assuming that perhaps we don’t think Jesus’ teaching to his disciples has relevance for us today. I would then wonder how it functions as Scripture for us, then, and not just a good story.]

The real point of departure for discussing our schizophrenic interpretation comes in the so-called women’s issue, or the role of women in the church [don’t swallow your gum, Al, when you read this]. For the purpose of this particular blog article, I prefer for all of us to stick with 1 Corinthians and try to understand it first, without bringing in 1 Timothy or 1 Peter. After all, if we cannot make sense of Paul in just one of his letters, how can we bring in a later letter of his and then the letter of another author?

Here is another example of our schizophrenic interpretation. We read in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women are to be silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak. So we (i.e. Churches of Christ, and others) say that women cannot say prayers in the morning worship assembly, they cannot read Scripture, cannot lead singing, cannot lead the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist, communion), and cannot even pass it down the aisles (you who are not from this tradition will see the differences between us in how we do the Lord’s Supper). How this last thing relates to being silent I do not get, but that’s what we do. However, women sing from the pew in our assembly. If there is an announcement and the person announcing has incorrect information, women are free to give them the correct information from their seat in the pew. We do not follow this command even though we say we do. Women are not silent in our churches. Were they completely silent in the Corinthian churches? They certainly weren’t before Paul wrote this. Does he expect them to be completely silent until church is over? I don’t think so. This is where 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 comes in. It reads:

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head– it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious– we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Although I have some issues with the NRSV translation here, I present the text so you don’t have to go look it up. Some important issues to deal with to get out of the way with this text are that the head covering is clearly a cultural issue. It was a custom when going to offer sacrifice before a pagan god for a man to cover his head. We don’t really have a similar custom. Secondly, Paul is no egalitarian. He is definitely more liberal than many in his day, but he stills sees women in a subordinate role. I don’t have a problem with saying that this is Paul’s understanding of things. Thirdly, in 11:14, when he says that nature teaches men should have short hair and women long hair, he clearly does not mean “nature”, as hair on both men and women can grow long or be cut short. There isn’t a gene that keeps men’s hair from growing long or a gene that prevents women’s hair from being cut—what Paul means is that the custom of his culture is that women wear long hair and it is disgraceful for them to have a shaved head. Such is not the same for men. It is disgraceful for men to have long hair, but there are also certain Jewish rites in which a man shaves his head and this is not disgraceful for him. This is custom, the word he uses in 11:16, but there he is dealing with a larger issue. Finally, as all good God-followers do, he uses Scripture to buttress his argument. 11:8-9 deal with the creation account in Genesis 2:18-25, where God takes a rib (customarily) out of Adam and forms Eve so that she is both made for him (11:9) and taken from him (11:8). This is also likely behind what he says in 11:3 about man being the head of woman and that for this reason there should be a “symbol of authority” on her head (i.e. to symbolize her husband’s authority over her) in 11:10. Paul gets very egalitarian on us when in 11:11-12 he talks about neither being independent of one another, but that man now comes from woman and all things are from God. He seems to mean here that neither is better than the other, but both are equal. An issue that never has been resolved satisfactorily (to my understanding) is what the “because of the angels” in 11:10 means. I do not attempt to solve it here. I do have a problem with Paul saying that only man is the “image and glory of God” (11:7) because Genesis 1:27 says that male and female were made in God’s image, but I’ll leave that point for now.

Leaving all of the prior discussion aside for the moment, let’s focus on the key issue here. This passage is about customary practice in the churches when it comes to men and women praying and prophesying in the churches (Which were, of course, groups of people meeting in houses, with the possible exception of the Jerusalem church meeting in the temple [see Acts 2:42-47]. There was no distinction between private worship and public worship—it all took place in homes.). When Paul sums up his argument in 11:16 by saying no other church has a different custom, what he is talking about is the central concern—the practice is that men do not pray or prophesy with any sort of covering on their heads and women do pray and prophesy only with a covering on their heads. This is the customary practice in all of the churches and Paul wants it to be the case in the Corinthian church as well.

Getting back to our schizophrenia does Paul have it too? Does he contradict himself by allowing women to pray and prophesy in chapter 11 and then telling them to be silent in chapter 14? Most interpreters in Churches of Christ would say that 1 Corinthians 14 is what Paul really wants to happen—he doesn’t want women to pray, prophesy, talk, or anything. Is this true?

Without boring you too much, 1 Corinthians 12-14 deals with speaking in tongues and prophesying in the assembly. There was complete disorder in the Corinthian churches as tongue-speakers and prophesiers all spoke at once so no one understood and no one got any benefit. What Paul tells these people, both tongue-speakers and prophesiers, is to, you got it, “be silent” (14:28, 30). Why? Because God is not a god of disorder, but a God of peace as in every church (14:33). “Be silent,” is exactly what he tells the women to do (14:34). Clearly this is not the main cause of commotion in Corinth or Paul would have spent more time on it like he did with speaking in tongues and prophesying. But just as that was a problem unique to Corinth, and was situational, so also was the problem of certain women who kept piping up in the assembly with questions for their husbands, thus adding to the chaos that already existed there. Paul’s advice to them parallels his advice to the prophets and tongue-speakers—be silent, submit to having order in the assembly, and further specific instruction for them is to ask their husbands at home. The Greek bears this interpretation out and I can reference the person who demonstrates this because this is not my original thinking. What is shameful, then, is not for women to speak, but for women to keep on causing chaos by asking questions, thus interrupting the speaker and creating disorder in the church. Once again, Paul is dealing with the same issue in all three cases—the prophesiers, the tongue-speakers and the women are all causing disorder and chaos that are making it so no one benefits from their time of corporate worship.

Paul does not want all women to be silent everywhere any more than he wants all tongue-speakers or all prophesiers to be silent at all times. Women who pray and prophesy with their head covered are the normal custom in the churches and Paul wants this practice to continue. (For further reference to Christian women prophets, see Philip’s four unmarried daughters in Acts 21:9.)

I’ve gone on for too long, but this is what I see as an example of our schizophrenic biblical interpretation. Tell me what you think.

Sports thoughts for the fan and anti-fan

November 17, 2005

Some stolen, some original but I endorse them all

“The Big 10 plus 1”
1. MLB and the players’ union agreed this week on a much tougher drug policy, which not only stiffens the penalties for steroid use but also bans amphetamines for the first time. Many see the ban on uppers as the real breakthrough. Indeed, it’s about time baseball slowed its unnaturally helter-skelter pace.

2. I think I think USC will be Pittsnogled by Texas in the Rose Bowl.

3. Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez edged Red Sox DH David Ortiz for the AL MVP award in voting announced on Monday. A-Rod said that he’d happily trade the MVP trophy for Ortiz’s 2004 World Series title — if only he hadn’t already lost it when an opponent back-doored a flush on the river.

4. Former Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd turned himself in to federal agents on Monday to face charges that he threatened a former girlfriend over the phone. Of course, there’s two sides to every story. Boyd’s version is that gold-digging women have been all over him lately given the skyrocketing value of oil.

5. Japan’s Sapporo Breweries will honor manager Bobby Valentine by issuing BoBeer, a special version of its Black Label lager, to commemorate the Chiba Lotte Marines’ first title in 31 years. For verisimilitude’s sake, BoBeer drinkers will quickly become convinced they’re smarter than everyone else in the room.

6. Vikings coach Mike Tice says that the knee injury he suffered when Giants special-teamer Jamaar Taylor crashed into him during a punt return on Sunday won’t keep him from the sidelines. Tice will still coach even if he is unable to walk. But on the bright side, such an immobilization would allow Tice to take up gum-chewing again.

7. The New York Landmarks Preservations Commission has declared that Yankee Stadium holds “no architectural significance.” The team now regrets turning down the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright as the Stadium’s architect in favor of boozy skirt-chaser Babe Ruth.

8. Rant Alert: Poems by J.J. Reddick do as much for Duke Academics as this guy does for Christianity.

9. Warning Explicit Content: Here’s a photo of the worst sports injury I’ve seen in a while. And it’s the main reason LSU will be playing in the SEC Championship game

10. Here’s who to watch this college basketball season. Now wake me when its March.

Plus 1. Attempting to set a Guinness record for most falling dominoes doesn’t generally devolve into bloodshed. Well, try telling that to an unfortunate swallow in the Netherlands. About 100 people at the Dutch TV company Endemol have spent about a month at an exposition center trying to set up some four million dominoes (the record is 3,992,397). Somehow on Monday, the sparrow — which is on the national endangered list — flew into the hall and knocked over about 23,000 dominoes. The bird was chased into a corner and shot with an air rifle. Now protestors are decrying the killing in what sounds like a Curb Your Enthusiasm plotline rejected for being too outlandish.

My final thought
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire opens tomorrow in theaters. Upon hearing that, many of you may have had my reaction: Who cares?

I really do not understand the social infatuation with the Harry Potter books and films. It’s one thing for children to be attracted to the storylines in these films–since the films are about children–but I find it a little strange when adults are so captivated by fantasy worlds full of magic wands and pre-adolescent-heroes.

Along those lines, I remember really liking the film The Never Ending Story when I was about 7 years old. But then again, I was about 7 years old.

So how does any of this relate to sports? Well, without any empirical evidence, I suspect that a number of adult Harry Potter fans are the very same persons who find sports to be frivolous, and they are the very same persons who regard adult sports fans as juvenile and sophomoric, even unsophisticated.

But really, is it less mature to seriously follow the plight of an actual team, which plays actual, organized sporting events–featuring real persons doing real things–or to seriously follow the plight of fantasy characters who are very young and have magical powers?


SILVER LININGS – by Al Sturgeon

November 17, 2005

[Note: After a LONG absence from the blog, I’m going to try to get back in the swing of things on Thursdays. Amy agreed to fill in for me from time to time, but the new regular plan is for me to write something pretending to be “inspirational” each Thursday. Since I’ve been inundated with Hurricane Katrina, you’ll have to excuse that most of my entries will be Katrina-related. That’s where I came up with a little title for these weekly attempts to inspire, to find a “silver lining” or two in storm clouds.]


Her name is Claire. Her name makes me think of classy Mrs. Huxtable from The Cosby Show, or maybe Hannibal Lecter making those sick little chipmunk noises in Silence of the Lambs. Wait, that was Clarice, wasn’t it? Oh well. It truthfully sounds most like a cute name for a little girl, but none of these fit with this Claire.

Since Hurricane Katrina screwed up the Gulf Coast, my major responsibility in life has been to organize scads of volunteers descending on our church family to help hurting people. This has not been easy. I have taught 7th grade geography classes in years gone by, which in my estimation stood as the epitome of managing chaos, so how hard could organizing good-willed adults coming to rebuild the Gulf Coast really be? Not nearly as easy as you’d think.

I prefer having things planned out well in advance. I mean, like years in advance. It’s a sickness I know, but then again so is Star Trek. At least I don’t attend conventions in pointy ears. But I digress. In the aftermath of Katrina, as volunteers arrived in droves, having things planned five minutes in advance became quite an accomplishment – which was what I was trying to do the morning I met Claire.

Someone had fielded a phone call from Claire a day or two before, and since I had a new volunteer group with nothing yet to do, the note saying she needed help combined with her proximity to our church building allowed me to run by her house quickly to see if we could offer some assistance.

It turned out that “running by her house quickly” would not be hard at all, given the fact that the house was no longer there. Claire’s house used to be a block or two away from Front Beach in Ocean Springs, but when I arrived all that remained were a lot of cinder blocks – and a trailer.

The note on the trailer made it very clear that no one – NO ONE – should be on the property or knock on the door without the express written consent of Major League Baseball. And this consent must be secured over the telephone. So I took out my cell phone, and while the phone rang and rang unanswered inside the trailer a few yards from where I stood, the door cracked open and an old lady peeped around the corner.

This is when I introduced myself to Claire. This went rather well, using the “she-didn’t-shoot-me” standard of things going well. Claire thought I was the scooter guy (which it’s quite possible I do resemble a scooter guy), but it turned out I was just a goofball preacher instead. This was okay (read: she didn’t shoot me), but she wasn’t particularly impressed. She probably didn’t even know if I was safe. Heck, neither do I.

Claire told me a bit of her story. She is paralyzed. She is alone. She had lived in a house it took her six months to design to be accessible to her physical challenges. It was swept away. She also informed me that her trailer had not heat and that it had been very cold the night before. And that she was hopeless. (She didn’t say she was hopeless. This much I gathered.) And that I should have been the scooter guy.

I told Claire that we could send some people over right away that could do whatever she needed them to do, but she wasn’t overly excited by that prospect. It would take her a long time just to get shoes on, much less take on my difficult task of managing volunteers at her house. (She may have read that I was unloading this on her now.) But in the end, she decided to take them anyway.

At one point in our conversation I said something I wouldn’t normally say. I asked Claire if she could use a hug. She said no. I have always had this effect on women.

Just before I left, however, just as I had convinced her that the people I would send would be nice people and help her and leave if she wanted them to leave, seemingly out of nowhere she added one final statement: “Okay, you can give me a hug now, but be careful.”

I was careful. I did not step on her mangled feet, or hurt her damaged shoulder, and I possibly didn’t help her wounded spirit. But I offered what I could offer. I offered her human touch.

It’s not much, but at the time, it was all I had to give. And more importantly, at the time, it was the only thing anyone had offered Claire.

My Final Word on Marriage, I Promise

November 15, 2005

Well, at long last I return to Desperate Houseflies. I vaguely recall that I promised there would be a part three to the same-sex marriage series, so here it is. If I sound less than enthusiastic, I guess I was (owing to my naivety and lack of familiarity with the brainwashing techniques of Rush Limbaugh) a little disheartened by some of the comments that followed part two — mostly the ones of the “oh, come on, you know that there is an organized conspiracy in the public schools orchestrated to convert young children into the gay lifestyle by reading ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ to them in the classroom” variety. Because no, I really don’t know that, and I don’t believe that. It never ceases to amaze me that numerically tiny and despised groups are relentlessly characterized as having enough power to “take over” the public schools, but yet groups that in many places constitute a significant and aggressive numerical majority are always downtrodden and persecuted and are consistently silenced in the classroom when they make the weakest attempts to share their views. How uncritical do you have to be to buy that?

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, back to same-sex marriage. As you may recall, installment one was an interview with Stephanie Coontz, who explained some of the changes that have occurred in the institution of marriage. In the second installment, I argued that anxiety about same-sex marriage is reflective of anxieties about changes in gender roles and accompanying issues, such as no-fault divorce, single parenthood, abortion, women’s participation in the workforce, and so on – and that what we think of as “homosexuality” is also derivative of sex and gender concepts. In this installment, I offer some thoughts about why the government declines to recognize pair relationships that do not fit within the “traditional” definition of marriage.

For purposes of the discussion, I think it is helpful to parse out the three separate issues I see in the question of government recognition of relationships beyond the male-female dyad: caretaking, sexuality, and power.

In her book The Autonomy Myth, Emory law professor Martha Fineman argues that caretaking should be publicly supported and marriage dethroned as the privileged form of family. Her argument is easy to follow. First, we are all, at some point in our lives, dependent on others. Because of this, the work of taking care of dependents is something in which the state should be vitally interested, as it is necessary to producing functioning citizens. But instead, caretaking work has been privatized, and the family is the institution that is expected to subsidize and effectuate dependent caretaking. What subsidies the government does provide are largely funneled through the marriage relationship. But if the necessary work of the family is caretaking of dependents, why are pair relationships between sexual affiliates necessary to effectuate dependent care? More importantly, why are benefits connected to caretaking provided only to those in a qualified sexual relationship, rather than to anyone who is in a caretaking relationship? A few months ago, the California Supreme Court decided a pair of cases that granted parental rights to “second parents” in same-sex relationships, one in a series of cases like this from various states. The premise: that being a primary caretaker for a child counts for something. In other words, what you do is at least as important as who you are and who you sleep with. Caretaking matters, and it deserves state recognition.

But one reason that such a simple proposition – let’s subsidize what needs subsidization and leave the rest to private contract – will be greeted with skepticism and/or hostility is our society’s troubled relationship with sexuality. It is fair to say that marriage is the only universally accepted place for the expression of sexuality in this culture. That the norms surrounding sexuality have relaxed somewhat relative to what they were fifty years ago does not change the fact that the ideal is marriage, even if behavior has drifted far from the ideal. And because our society considers sexuality and thus marriage so significant – I think agreement on this is near-universal whether one is in favor of expanding or curtailing available forums for sexual expression – marriage also tends to be the last repository of intolerant beliefs about others. To take a well-known example, laws banning interracial marriage were not found unconstitutional until 1967, and many people who are otherwise racially tolerant are against it and still feel entitled to say so in 2005. To sanction interracial marriage is to sanction interracial sexuality, which has a great deal of cultural baggage in general, and in the United States in particular. Anytime you wade into this thicket, it is fraught.

But race as an analogy to gay marriage is of limited utility – not, as some right-wingers claim, because there are not parallels to be drawn, but because race and sex are fundamentally different kinds of inequalities. I once asked a professor at my law school why it was that so many civil rights advocates seemed so indifferent to feminist issues. He said he thought it was because it was so much easier to be in favor of racial than gender equality; to be anti-racist only entailed changes made “out there” in the world, while to be a feminist required changes in the nature of one’s everyday and intimate life, “in here,” that a lot of folks were unready or unwilling to make. This brings us to the final issue brought to the fore when we talk about government recognition of other types of family relationships: power. Same-sex marriage brings into the open the “in here” challenge that, as I have tried to explain in my previous posts, is already upon us: equality of the partners in a marriage. Although I would guess that there are relatively few male-female couples who would state publicly that their relationship is hierarchical – that is, that one of them has authority over the other – the Southern Baptist Convention did not pass the “obedience” resolution in the late 1990s for nothing. Same-sex marriage implies that marital partners are equal, that neither person is “in charge.” Far-right conservatives can wrap their opposition to this up in language about the “complementarity” and separate but equal roles of the sexes as much as they like, but the fact is that this is about who has power over whom. Let us not forget that it is only relatively recently that married women obtained the right to have credit in their own names.

As Coontz said in the interview, the changes in marriage pose tremendous challenges to us as society adapts to them (and always have, as such changes are nothing new). In my view, caretaking and sexuality are both important parts of life that deserve to be taken seriously, and about which decisions should not be made lightly. But I also believe that the increasing equality of women is good for society and good for relationships. Moreover, I don’t think these two positions are at all inconsistent. So, trying to put the hierarchical genie back in the marriage bottle seems to me exactly the wrong way to go in facing the challenges before us. It is at once the seemingly simplest solution and the least likely to be achieved. Better that we take stock of the things that are really important to us and formulate our policies accordingly.

Downer Syndrome

November 15, 2005

Man… what a couple of months it has been for me as a sports fan. I’ve had the excitement of watching the Astros scrape through in another down-to-the-wire pennant chase. They conquered some demons and finally made it to the World Series. I know that doesn’t mean much to you Cardinal fans out there, having been there many times, but for us Astro fans, it was a huge deal. The end result of the Series didn’t do anything to take the shine off. I was still elated. And of course, the Longhorns have been living up to the hype and gittin’ er done during an amazing march towards the Rose Bowl. Now, the Runnin’ Horns are ranked number two in preseason polls and considered serious contenders for a national championship in hoops.

I’ve devoted a lot of attention to watching sports lately. It takes my mind off the news. I’m sure many of you are like me and have to just step back and take a break for a while. I was suffering from politics overload, so I ignored most news with a political bent. I formed no opinion on Harriet Miers. I could have cared less about Tom Delay and Scooter Libby. It caught me by complete surprise when elections took place last week.

I was blissfully ignorant and enjoying a little sports induced euphoria.

All it took to break me out of my haze was a seemingly innocuous article about prenatal screening for Down’s Syndrome. The big news in the article is that Down’s Syndrome is now detectable in the first tri-mester of pregnancy. That’s great news, right? It allows parents to prepare for the challenges ahead and undergo further testing to best treat and care for the child. This sounds like a good thing.

Then things get downright depressing.

Screening women before the second trimester allows those who might opt to
terminate a pregnancy to make that decision when doctors say an abortion is
safer and less traumatic.

That was it for me. I could barely read the rest of the article.

The saddest thing for me, though, is that I was not surprised in the least to hear that people were willing to abort a child because it was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. People are willing to abort pregnancies for much smaller reasons than that.

Have we really sunk this low as a society? Are we really this shallow?

Here’s another article about a case in England where a woman aborted her baby late in the second tri-mester because it had been diagnosed with a cleft palate. Let me say that again… she aborted her baby because it was going to be born with a cleft palate. A cleft palate is a very common birth defect and is routinely corrected with relatively minor surgery.

We have become so desensitized by the commonplace practice of abortion, that situations like this don’t even phase most people. And those that are phased by stories like the one in Britain, but consider themselves “pro-choice”, don’t recognize the contradiction in those two positions. We allow women to abort perfectly healthy babies, so how can we take offense when an “imperfect” child is aborted.

The ultimate problem is, how far do we take this? Today, children are aborted because of Down’s Syndrome or a cleft palate. Tomorrow it could be because parents wanted a boy instead of a girl, or a blond instead of brunette.

Sound ridiculous? Ask the mothers of female babies in China or India. We cringe at these human rights violations in other parts of the world. It offends our sensibilities that female children are still viewed as undesirable.

Why aren’t we similarly outraged by similar occurences in our culture? Because we are blinded by the log in our own eye. Our society views children that would be inconvenient as undesirable. We view children that might be physically unattractive as undesirable. We view children that might be a financial burden as undesirable. And we salve our collective conscience by rationalizing and debating over when life begins.

"Maturity—Knowing Our Limits" or "How Much Meat Do You Get?"

November 13, 2005

Book of Steps, Discourse 12.5-6:
5. Just as a nurse who brings up a child teaches it to eat bread as something superior to milk, so does this visible church teach her children to eat something better, and far greater, whereby they can grow up…. But what nursing mother who has many children, some thirty years old, others only thirty days old, is going to be able to set before them all one and the same food? If she were to set before them just solid food alone, then her thirty day old childe would die, whereas the thirty year old would grow; but if she provided only milk, then the thirty day old one would live and grow plump, whereas the thirty year old one would die in agony. This is the reason why our Lord and his preachers, who serve as leaders for everyone, instruct the thirty day old child as follows: ‘Do not eat with adulterers or mix with prostitutes, drunkards and accursed people, or with any whose actions are evil’; but to the thirty year old they say, ‘Take on the sickness of the sick, and be all things to all men; (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9; 9:22) do not call anyone a pagan or unclean (Acts 10:28) or evil, even though he may be so. Hold everyone to be better than (Phil 2:3) yourself, and in this way you will grow in stature.’
6. Thus they instructed everyone in accordance with what was appropriate for him. If someone thirty days old were to go off to the house of evil men, he would perish; but if a thirty year old goes to the house of evil men, he may convert them; and if they are not converted, he himself will not perish, for he has become a fully grown man in the spirit. [The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, trans. by Sebastian Brock (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1987), pp. 50-51.]

Sorry for the long quote, but I believe in giving a proper context for a quote and this time it seemed necessary to give more so that you would know what this writer was trying to say. The Book of Steps is a document written in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic in the province of what would be modern-day Iraq in the late 4th century A.D. It is one of those documents that are written for spiritual nourishment, training in righteousness one might say, for Christians’ growth. The reason I have quoted it here is to introduce you to such writings and also because I think this unknown Christian writer had something important to say. I’ll take two approaches to the topic under discussion.

First, I think this talks to us about knowing our limits and staying within them. From a confessional standpoint, I find that I have had many times when I have gotten myself in a situation where I was “in over my head.” I thought I was more prepared for a certain situation than I actually was. For instance, when I was in Iraq working at a hospital there, I really struggled with how to talk with two soldiers whose five friends had all drowned in a horrible accident when their armored vehicle rolled over into a canal. I had been notified myself only an hour or two before I had to go and talk to these two people. It was difficult to say the least and I think God helped me when I spoke with them, but I still felt inadequate to the task. As my deployment drew on, I learned how better to handle such situations, but one still is never fully prepared to face death and talk with people who have faced it.

On a lighter note, I remember as a teenager in high school how hard it was not to succumb to peer pressure. When I hung around with friends at school, who were inevitably not Christians, I used horrible language and really struggled with trying to maintain any sense of being a Christian amidst so many who were not concerned with morality of any kind. I was like the thirty day old mentioned in the quote above.

This is the type of problem I think that so many otherwise-well-intentioned Christians of all walks of life have when they succumb to pressures of the culture around them, even particularly in the form of an extra-marital affair. We are often shocked when we find out that a minister or a loved one we know of has had an affair and is getting a divorce. We self-righteously think, “I would never do that,” and wonder how such a person could have fallen so far. When we see a fellow believer that struggles with alcoholism or some other form of addiction, we think, “That could never happen to me.” But that is where we have a problem. The preacher who gets caught in sexual sin or the alcoholic that never intended to be such thought they knew their limits. They thought that they could handle more than they could. Paul, in the context of dealing with the Corinthians who are succumbing to outside pressure from people who mock their belief in the resurrection, tells them, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NRSV) We have signposts along the way, little urgings from God to warn us that we are in over our heads, but we tend to ignore them until it is too late. Good Christians friends, ones who are more mature than us, are essential sounding boards to help keep us in check.

The second trajectory I want to take is the idea of growing by actually delving into deeper portions of Scripture, you know, the wrestling with God thing. So often in our churches and our Bible classes we hear the same things we’ve always heard. We read the same texts, hear the same comments, interpret them in the same way, and never get beyond the milk of Scripture. We have thirty year olds who are trying to live on milk and are not getting the nourishment they need. For instance, we gloss over the differences in our gospel accounts of the same incidents in Jesus’ life and act like the stories are exact in every detail. They are not. When will we wrestle with this and get beyond ignoring the differences in the text to grow into understanding why the gospel writers wrote the things they did the way they did? If Mark 16:9-20 was not in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the gospels, why is it in all of our Bibles? Is it Scripture? Why or why not? Getting beyond the thought that Scripture dropped out of the sky from God to really struggling with how God communicates his word to us through human authors, transmitted by fallible humans using imprecise writing instruments and paper, this is starting to get to some meat. Going beyond reading for information, i.e. which king reigned during what time and did what during his reign, to looking in broader strokes about what Scripture says about the nature and character of God—this is meat. Going to Job and struggling with why God picked a fight with Satan at Job’s expense and then never gave Job a real answer to his question—this is meat. God is not someone whom we can control, quite the opposite. We grow by struggling in our relationship with him, learning to trust him more each day. Without wrestling with the harder questions of Scripture, we do not grow into being able to face the difficult situations in life. We’re trying to grow up on milk without ever eating solid food.

I can honestly say that I was not completely prepared to deal with all the death and dismemberment I saw when I was in the hospital in Iraq. But if I had not already wrestled with the problem of evil in my academic education, I would have been paralyzed and completely lost, not knowing what to do or say to minister to the soldiers in Iraq.

As a final example, we wonder why so many Christian marriages fail today. I am convinced that at least part of this reason is that we have failed to grasp the concept of self-sacrificial love that was embodied in our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul goes back to the cross to solve every problem he encounters in writing to the churches. Philippians is a particularly relevant one in this discussion. To deal with a problem of two of its members fighting, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Paul gives many examples of self-sacrificial love, culminating in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11:
5 This think among yourselves which also Christ Jesus thought, 6 who being in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans, and being found in appearance as a man 8 humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death of a cross. 9 Therefore, God both highly exalted him and graced him with the name that is above all names, 10 so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and in earth and under the earth 11 and every tongue confess, “Jesus Christ is Lord” for the glory of God the father. (my translation)

Learning how to put that love into practice, we then grow up in the Lord, and are capable of facing even the most intense situations, perhaps converting others, but at least not losing our faith in the process. May God bless you with an environment in which you can grow and become more like Christ!


November 9, 2005

I’ve started several books lately but finished none of them as of yet. So I’ll give you an up-til-now assessment of the books in my backpack. A good friend of mine swears by John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. He’s read it multiple times, and I can hardly have a conversation about books with him without him asking if I’ve started it yet. Another friend jokes about Owen Meany. He lists it among his favorite books, but he’s never finished it. He made it half-way through and thought it was brilliant and then something happened in the book that made him lose interest. So, I finally decided to read the book. I devoured the first hundred or so pages. It was funny and smart and a good story. Everything you want from a book. What made it even better is that I was reading a copy I picked up at a used bookstore and the previous owner had commented in the margins, and I got a hoot out of her comments. And then about half-way through, something happened. Nothing specific, it’s just kind of a general feeling. The previous owner’s remarks sum up my feelings at the half-way point: “Come on, Johnny, this is getting tiresome” and then “you don’t have to spell everything out for us. Give readers some credit — we aren’t idiots.” So I’m still half-way through. Probably will be for a while, although I feel some obligation to my friend to at least finish it.

I’m almost finished with Jonothan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It’s a book about a boy, and mostly narrated by the boy, who lost his dad in the September 11 attacks. I loved Foer’s first book, Everything is Illuminated, and couldn’t wait to read this one. Unless something very special happens in the last 50 or so pages of the book, this will be one of the biggest disappointments of the year for me. There are a lot of reviews bashing this book, so I’d love to disagree with them and say how very wrong everyone has been about it. I can’t. It’s contrived and despite trying to be a touching story, it isn’t. I’d much rather read a pre-teen’s account of searching for a piece of information about his father than a 20-something attempt to reproduce a pre-teen’s perspective. At least, if they can’t do it any more convinceingly than Foer does here.

One of my friend’s from grad school in Syracuse, Christian Tebordo, just had his first book published: The Conviction and Subsequent Life of Savior Neck. I’ll try to do it justice in a review at some point, but for now, every single page has at least one incredible sentence on it. A sentence that you would never even have thought of writing. A few random examples, just because I like them:

“Your own death smells like withered flowers doused in gasoline, or so I’m told.”

“Death is a long series of disappointments.”

“My son will not be in today as he has awakened to the smell of withered flowers doused in gasoline. His pulse is in the bed, his reflexes are in the carpet, and his hearing is in the doorway. In short, my son is feeling dead.”

“Most humans don’t wake up with an aching in the head that radiates from the right eye. Nor do they generally wake up with memories of having been knocked out by a cat.”

“The smell of urine floated along the currents, ricocheted against the back window, split, and circled the heads of the officers, stopping beneath their nostrils. Officer Longarm and his partner sniffed. They made wasn’t-me shows of sniffing.”

Now, back to what I’m reading. Yesterday I started Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story About the Hard Life. O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds is a masterpiece, and this book has me laughing out loud in crowded rooms. He’s very, very funny. I highly recommend your checking out his stuff.

That’s where I am.