Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Man Who Sweetened and Enlightened the World

Recently, Abby and I traveled with other seniors from West Hill Baptist Church in a group known as “Caleb’s Kin” to visit Root Candles, a family-owned candle-making company in Medina, OH.  Root Candles was founded in 1869 by Amos Ives Root.  Now, after 145 years, Root Candles is under the management of the fifth generation of the Root family.  The company still produces industry-leading candles which testify to the values that marked its founder– a commitment to the virtues of honesty, integrity, and diligent craftsmanship.

Candle display at Root Candles store, Medina, OH
Upon entering the store, we were impressed with the beauty and variety of candles.  According to the company website, many contain the purest beeswax and elegantly designed essential oil fragrances…crafted with passion and perfection…consistently flawless, cleaner burning, [and] longer lasting….  The outstanding quality and consistency has made Root Candles a major supplier of liturgical candles as well as a favorite brand of candle-lovers worldwide.

As a farm boy in northern Ohio, Amos I. Root was an avid reader as well as a lover of God’s creation and the natural sciences.  He was fascinated with electricity and magnetism, and he soon began traveling to give lectures on these subjects.  As a young man, he became an accomplished and wealthy jewelry manufacturer. 

One day when Root was in his twenties, a swarm of bees stole his attention when it darkened his workplace, leading him to take up beekeeping.  Soon, Root’s curiosity and inventive spirit enabled him to develop the world’s first beehive from which honey could be extracted without destroying the hive.  Before long, Root was CEO of a large company in Medina, the A.I.Root Company, which was shipping as much as four railroad freight cars of beekeeping equipment each day.  Although the company eventually transitioned from manufacturing beekeeping equipment to manufacturing beeswax-containing candles, it has continued to publish Gleanings in Bee Culture since 1873.   Gleanings provided a vehicle in which Root shared not only practical suggestions to bee keepers, but also spiritual insights and applications based on his walk with God and his knowledge of the Scriptures.

According to “The Wright Stories” blog,

Religion was important facet of Root’s life. His employees were expected to attend daily prayer meetings on company time. He didn’t believe in drinking alcohol, smoking or working on Sunday. He believed that technological progress was a gift from God and would result in social betterment.

Because of his curious, inventive, and entrepreneurial spirit, A.I. Root, was invited by Wilbur and Orville Wright to observe their progress in development of a flying machine.  Root, at age 64, drove his 1903 Oldsmobile Runabout 200 miles on primitive roads from Medina to Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio.  What would cause an elderly businessman to make such a trip?  The following quote from A.I. Root reveals how the Wright Brothers earned the respect of one they would learn to love and trust:

— These two, perhaps by accident, or maybe as a matter of taste, began studying the flights of birds and insects. From this they turned their attention to what has been done in the way of enabling men to fly. They not only studied nature, but they procured the best books, and I think I may say all the papers, the world contains on this subject.
Amos I. Root rides in the Wright Flyer
A man who had years before observed the working of bees and was inspired by his Creator God to launch both the honey industry and hobby beekeeping to new heights was now fascinated by the two brothers who were developing a flying machine based on their study of God’s amazing flying animals—birds and insects.

On September 20, 1904, Root was thrilled to observe the Wright Brothers’ first complete circle in an airplane.  His enthusiasm is evident in the following description:

When it first turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you – a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead, we will further say – a locomotive made of aluminum.

A.I. Root transformed his copious Huffman Field notes into a manuscript and the Wright brothers gave him permission to submit it for publication.  Root submitted the article to Scientific American but apparently the editor did not believe it was worthy of publication.  So, in 1905, an enthusiastic Root published what was to be the first account of the Wright brothers’ historic accomplishment in his own periodical, Gleanings in Bee Culture.  

Being a slow learner myself, I didn’t realize until after our trip to Root Candles and my additional reading on the life of A.I. Root just how appropriate it was for a group called “Caleb’s Kin” to become acquainted with this amazing man and his contributions to science, invention, business management, and aesthetic beauty.  Finally, like Caleb of the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g. Deuteronomy 1: 36), Amos I. Root was still ready for a new chapter of contribution when in his 60’s he was able to encourage the scientific efforts of the Wright brothers.

Amos I. Root with an inset photo of his plant in Medina, OH
The testimony of A.I. Root also speaks to what he and many other Christians have learned from Solomon, the great king and natural scientist, who wrote:  It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to discover and invent (Prov. 25:2).   Our great Creator has made us in His image.  As image bearers, we are each given various gifts and the opportunity to develop and exercise them with hard work, discipline, and a perspective of stewardship that helps us use the fruits of our creativity for the good of our neighbor.  It is the role of parents, church, communities, and government to nurture and encourage each person to exercise their particular gifts.  Thus, the light of a lovely Root Candle can be traced back to the loving nurture of young Amos Root by his parents on in a farm family in Ohio; and to a church and community that would further mark this man and his godly values. 

Root became a wealthy man but not at the expense of the prosperity of others.  Instead, his inventive and entrepreneurial spirit multiplied the wealth and prosperity of thousands associated with his science and invention.  Today, the light of Root candles gives testimony to the Light of God’s Truth that burned within Amos Root and kept him from hoarding his gains or abusing others.  Furthermore, his life reminds us that a person unburdened by unwise laws and taxation can prosper his community and world when he or she is disciplined by the law of love for God and neighbor within their heart.  May Root’s example remind us all that God and His Word is the essential source of our freedom and prosperity which in turn depend upon individual integrity, responsibility, and hard work.

But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you;
And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.
Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you;
And let the fish of the sea declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the LORD has done this,
In whose hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind?
 -- Job 12: 7-10

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Humility in Science and Politics

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
 – Psalm 19: 1, 7

I sat in silence before God and His creation as I observed the beautiful sunrise over Lake Howard in Winter Haven, FL.  The march of brilliant gold and orange hues across the expanse of the morning sky above and the still waters of the lake below seemed to swallow me in the glory of God all around me. 

Sunrise over Lake Howard in Winter Haven, Florida
Beneath my perch on the boat dock, the water was coming alive through the movements of many tiny creatures awakening to the warmth of the sun’s rays. The shallow water teemed with algae, protozoa, and arthropods.  Fish swam amid the littoral grasses and blooming pickerelweed.  A pair of ducks creased the golden glassy surface of the lake as they swam effortlessly in front of me.  Overhead, hundreds of martins and a few herons and ibises graced the sky.

While a myriad of biotic interactions of Lake Howard responded to the rising sun, the sound of automobile and truck traffic around the lake reminded me of the human population of Winter Haven.  Commuters, tourists, and seasonal migrants (“snowbirds”) interact with the natural and built landscape around the lake, each one contributing to the local economy.  My mind drifted to thoughts of the complexity of the “still somewhat free market” economy of America.  I was humbled and awed once again by its capacity to provide goods and services in spite of the tendency of humans toward greed and depravity.  Adam Smith attributed the seemingly unexplainable workings of the market economy to an “invisible hand.”

Now, the sun has appeared at the horizon to my right and I must shift my gaze away from it lest the energy of its life-giving rays damage the visual receptors of my eyes.  I was reminded that many times in Scripture, men have responded to the glory of God with reverent fear lest they “see God and die” (e.g. Exodus 24:9-11).  Likewise, we must respect the workings of God’s creation, learning to fear and respect the power of sun, torrential rain, lightning, tornado, fire, and hurricane.  Each of these fearsome elements of the Earth are necessary in some form to support life.  But they each must have our humble respect if we are to avoid death.

Although no human can fully comprehend the complex workings of either an ecosystem or an economic system, we have been honored by our Creator as appointed stewards of both.  Today, the economy (from oikonomia (Gr.) = “management of a household”) looms large as a determiner of how humans interact with the creation, the so-called “natural world.”  Whereas, in pre-industrial days, most people interacted directly with the forces of nature to obtain food, clothing, and shelter, today most people interact through numerous and complex interactions of the market economy—still influenced by “the invisible hand.”

As the sun now shines above the lake, I am being serenaded by redwing blackbirds and warblers who, like my wife and I, are enjoying this warm, southern latitude before migrating north.  As egrets, ibises, and herons fly across Lake Howard, their vocal expressions join with the sounds of the bustling economy of Winter Haven.  I am humbled, though not nearly enough, at the thought of how blessed I am as an American to have freedom and access to essential elements for life and many amenities besides.

Whether necessity or amenity, each of our goods and services are procured and supplied by people willing to submit to a daily schedule of work and rest.  In return, each worker is rewarded with some wage or salary based on economic and ethical considerations of their employers.  In somewhat like manner, each nonhuman creature of Lake Howard must also labor to obtain food and shelter while avoiding nearby predators.  The reward for the effort of each nonhuman creature is food and survival for another hour, or another day.

Upon contemplating the rising of the sun, the awakening of an aquatic ecosystem, and the onset of another day of labor for farmers, fishermen, homemakers, teachers, health care workers, scientists, lawyers, and corporate executives, I sit in awe that our civilization functions as well as it does.  Who can comprehend the awesomeness of the threads holding it together?  And at the heart of it all is an essential element of moral and ethical commitment to love and respect our neighbor as ourselves.  Each worker has an essential daily role-- the mother who packs lunches and sees her children off to school, the bus driver who provides safe transportation, and the computer programmer who maintains essentials like traffic control, power grids, telecommunication, law enforcement, and national defense.

As I reflect on the wonder and complexity that has unfolded in front of me on this winter morning at the shore of a Florida lake, I am not only humbled, but I am also confronted with many questions.  What then should be the attitude of one who exercises “steward leadership” in our scientific and technological society?  Wouldn’t he recognize the complexity of creation, the challenge it is to quantify and model complex processes and interactions, and our proneness to error?  Wouldn’t she recognize the tendency to view creation in too narrow of terms that must give away to deeper understanding—e.g. recall how classical, Newtonian physics was expanded to quantum physics; or in genetics, the transition from “heritability of acquired characteristics” to Mendelian genetics?  In regard to the latter, is he or she aware of the pitfall of Lysenkoism, defined metaphorically as the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.  [See “Imagination that Contradicts the Reality of Science” Where I have noted how Trofim Lysenko diminished Russian progress in genetics because communist ideology bedded down with bad science.]

Considering the complexity of creation and human proneness to err in even the best science, steward leaders in science must insist on rigorous and repeated hypothesis testing, while providing for open communication and peer review of results in a scientific atmosphere free from “manipulation or distortion of the scientific process” for political gain.  For example, it is particularly disheartening to hear sweeping or derogatory statements about “climate change” from political leaders who know little about the challenge of modeling Earth’s climatology and predicting future climate trends.  Sec. John Kerry’s recent statement on climate change promotes Lysenkoism (metaphorically speaking) because he offers predetermined conclusions as dictated by ideological bias.  His derogatory tone discourages the open discourse necessary for scientific advancement of our understanding of Earth’s climate:

Climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction… We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific facts.

A February morning at Lake Howard in Winter Haven, FL
Secretary Kerry’s leadership influence on climate science illustrates the urgent need for responsible steward leadership in federal, state, and local government?   Returning to my ponderings on Lake Howard, I thought about the role of steward leaders in government.  Are our “civil servants” aware of the depth of responsibility and opportunity as stewards to “do good” toward their constituents?  Do they even care?  Are they aware of the history of America which, though strewn with the evidence of the depravity of all humankind, is also strewn with evidence of great sacrifice, hard work, and faithful stewardship on the part of little known Americans?  Do our political leaders remember why our founding fathers structured our federal and state governments with checks and balances to avoid concentrating power in the hands of one or a few?  Indeed, do our political leaders remember that our rights come from Almighty God above and not from government--a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?   Finally, do they realize that, given the universal sin and depravity of mankind, laws must be justly enforced and due process of the law carried out to resist corruption of our institutions—homes, churches, schools, industries, governments, and financial institutions? 

The sun is now “climbing” in the sky above me and another day has begun not only along the shores of Lake Howard but all across the globe.  Suddenly, I’m reminded of Job’s response after hearing God speak:

I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?'
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
'Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.' – Job 42: 2-4

Lord, I too have spoken of “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”  I am only one of your creatures among many, both human and non-human creatures—all depending on your grace and provision.  Help me to do my part as a humble steward of the opportunities you have afforded to me; and, help me begin by loving you with all my heart, soul, and mind; and loving my neighbor as myself.  Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sports Without Spirit

News from the world of sports is increasingly tarnished by reports of inappropriate or illegal behavior on the part of professional and collegiate athletes and coaches.  Too often, successful sports figures that we have grown to admire and respect are responsible for violent acts, use of performance-enhancing drugs, or other immoral or illegal behaviors.

Some who have studied the increasing frequency of inappropriate or illegal behavior among athletes attribute its cause to an inherent evil within sports.  For example, columnist George Will wrote that football generates an atmosphere of frenzy and violence in a game which he views as a three-hour adrenaline-and-testosterone bath.  For all its occasional elegance and beauty, it is basically violence for, among other purposes, inflicting intimidating pain.  On the other hand, conservatives like Rush Limbaugh oppose efforts to make football softer and safer, and he predicts the end of football if the “chickification” of the sport continues.

Jonathan Turley, a lawyer and liberal commentator, is concerned about what he calls the “corrosive effect” of sports on the educational programs of colleges and universities.  In a recent blog, Turley claimed that intercollegiate sports programs have a range of negative effects from…

lower academic standards to ethical violations to actual shielding of criminal conduct.  Despite such scandals, the blind support for popular football and basketball programs continues with excessive salaries for coaches and the continued use of students for this profitable and popular non-curricular function.

So, we are told that at least some sports like football are too violent and should be drastically tamed or eliminated.  Meanwhile, large intercollegiate sports programs tend to abuse athletes who often are left without assistance in balancing social, academic, and athletic priorities.  For this reason, Turley challenges academic institutions to decide between being a leading academic institution or just a facilitator for sporting events.   Why risk the university’s high academic standards for the sake of its athletic reputation?  Or does it have to be one or the other?  Hold that thought please.

I believe that the root cause of both the growing emergence of violent behavior among professional athletes and the misplaced priorities of universities between their academics and athletics is the tendency to downplay and even eliminate the spiritual dimension from sports.   Instead of viewing athletes from a perspective of the “whole person” with body, soul, and spirit, we have tended to view athletes as muscle-bound “hunks” or “scoring machines.”  For the sake of space, let us focus on the alleged “corrosive effects” of collegiate sports programs as pointed out by Turley.

Jonathan Turley rightly disdains universities that elevate their athletic programs at the expense of academic excellence, and in so doing fail to deliver on their promise to offer their students the opportunity to obtain a quality education.   However, Turley seems oblivious to the important role of athletics in the education of the “whole person” as a means of becoming a fulfilled, life-long servant and learner.  Instead, Turley expresses a narrow view of the role of athletics in education when he defines an athletic program as a profitable and popular non-curricular function.  Really?

Far from a “non-curricular function,” I believe a well administered athletic program is an important and essential curricular and extracurricular component at all levels of education, K through college.  To underscore the integral role of sports in a “liberal education”, allow me to share a portion of the mission statement of the athletic program of Cedarville University (CU) where I was privileged to serve as a biology professor for 32 years:

In addition to the priority given to the spiritual welfare of CU student-athletes, their mental, physical, emotional, and social welfare is also of the utmost importance.   At the heart of this concern is a strong focus on their academic success, which is complemented through the challenges of competition with the opportunity to develop character traits associated with discipline, ethical conduct, endurance, courage, leadership, sportsmanship, teamwork, and faith. [Emphasis is mine.]

At the heart of Cedarville’s athletic program mission statement is the notion that the challenges of competition including the character traits necessary to excel in a sport can complement the academic curriculum and enhance student academic success.  Traits that are essential to an educated adult—self control, interpersonal skills, loyalty, punctuality, teamwork, leadership, and ethical behavior—can be developed in the gymnasium, courts, and athletic fields in ways that strongly complement learning of these character traits in the classroom and laboratory.  However, the integrity of this curricular-extracurricular education will not be realized without a foundation based on the Scriptural teaching that students learn and develop in heart (seat of character and the will) through exercises that challenge body (physical senses), soul (emotions and personality), and spirit (moral-ethical awareness; relate to God).   All of these human dimensions function in an integrated manner and determine our character which is expressed through our behavior.   Therefore, good educational curricula must be able to engage each of these aspects of our being.

I’m sure that no university has fully mastered the challenges of guiding collegiate athletes to achieve a balance among their social, athletic, academic, and spiritual development.  However, successful education of athletes and all students requires cooperative and complementary efforts among professors and coaches who place the welfare of the student athlete as a whole person above his or her value as a contributor to university athletic achievement and prowess.

Thomas G. Palaima, professor of classics at University of Texas-Austin asks, What would it entail to do better by those top athletes?   Palaima suggests four elements of “doing better” for athletes.  Let’s consider two of them and how each one has an intertwined “spiritual-athletic-academic” nature:

1.    They need to be placed at educational institutions suited to their academic preparation and be provided with the tools to play the most important game of their college careers:  the competition with true peers in the classroom.   To which I say, amen!  But placing a son or daughter in a suitable college or university is but one milestone along the journey beginning with the love and prayers of a loving dad and mom at the child’s cradle.

Prayers and the active involvement of parents in a child’s life represent parental obedience to the Scriptural command to train up of a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6).  Sporting activity between parents and children begins on the living room floor and continues through backyard activities and on to the ball field or community courts.  In these settings, the son or daughter can mature physically and spiritually in a setting in which the sport can serve as a means to develop both the common character qualities and unique gifts that will prepare the child (and parent) for the decision about higher education—whether college, skilled trade school, or whatever.  Notice that the intertwining of spirit-sport-study can contribute to choosing the right path for higher education beginning at an early age.
Student athletes at CU invite faculty or staff members
to serve as honorary "coaches"

2.    They need to have time to study and to explore elective courses so as to choose a major and develop secondary interests that will serve them well the rest of their lives. And they need to do this, just like regular students, on their own initiative. 

During my years at Cedarville University, I was fortunate to serve as an academic advisor to many students including student athletes.  I have viewed this responsibility as one of joining with the student and the parents in the continuation of the mentoring process based on my growing acquaintance with the gifts and goals of the student.  As a credit to the academic and athletic programs of Cedarville, I have had many fruitful interactions with coaches who have partnered with me to assure that the student athlete is best served in accord with the university’s athletic mission.  I believe the integrated “professor-coach-parent” mentoring will assure the accomplishment of Palaima’s two final elements of “doing better” toward our student athletes; namely, (3.) assuring that they get their degrees before their aid runs out, and (4.) assuring that they are disabused of the dream that they will ‘go pro.’

In summary, intercollegiate sports have become increasingly commercialized and politicized as a means of advertising the college or university brand.  This trend has tempted institutions of higher education to lower academic expectations of athletes. In so doing, they exchange their pursuit of academic excellence for the chance to become a good “farm system” or “minor league system” in the service of the professional sports teams, while at the same time advertising the brand to promote student enrollment.

The solution to the problem is not to demean the role of sports at any level because of violent, illegal, or unethical behavior on the part of athletes.  Rather, it is to recognize our own selfish, unethical behavior as parents, coaches, professors, and administrators when we create the unreasonable and unbiblical hoops through which our sons and daughters have been asked to jump.  When we as parents publically criticize and demean “Tommy’s” pee wee coach for not treating “Tommy” like a star athlete, we violate the  most basic Scriptural teachings to LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTHLOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF (Mark 12: 30-31).  Is it any wonder when “Tommy” begins to break things (and people) when he reaches the pros?

On the other hand, when we view sports as a God-given platform on which to build up our children and grandchildren in body, soul, and spirit starting from the cradle and living room floor, then we set them on a trajectory that will help them to excel in the larger professional calling God has for them.  Let’s call for an end to the status quo, of “sports without the Spirit.”   May all Christians in athletics strive to add the “salt and light” necessary to create “sports with Spirit.”  Then, our sons and daughters can learn from both the defeats and successes of the game; and, also come to know the God-intended joy experienced by the great Olympic runner, Eric Liddell.  Thanks to loving parents and coaches, Liddell came to understand that God had made him “fast.”  And from his disciplined athletic training balanced with His commitment to learning from the Scriptures, Liddell was able to express the joy of heaven in his running, saying “When I run, I feel His pleasure.”  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Restoration Stewardship of People and Land by Local Cooperation

…he didn’t know it existed until he became involved in protecting the watershed.  And the heart of that gem is definitely the waterfalls, he said.

These words, quoted from the Fall, 2013 issue of my WVU Magazine describe the reaction of Tom Sopher, a city councilman and president of the Raleigh County Historical Society when he became involved in an effort to secure legal access to a 3-acre tract of public land for the City of Beckley, West Virginia.   Accomplishing this goal would not be easy because the land was being held under a private claim made 8 years earlier.  Sopher and other community leaders realized they needed help from outside the Beckley community.

In order to secure legal claim to the beautiful tract, Beckley officials followed the advisement of Jeremiah Johnson, general manager of the sanitary board, to contact the West Virginia University (WVU) College of Law’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic (LUSD Clinic).  According to the LUSD Clinic website, the clinic provides legal services to local governments, landowners and non-profit organizations to develop land conservation strategies and practices.  WVU law students who participate in the clinic gain practical experience in the field of land use law and policy  Guided by experienced attorneys and other land use professionals, students contribute to land and water conservation efforts throughout the state.

Remains of 1800’s gristmill on Piney Creek, Beckley, WV
Photo:  M.G. Ellis, WVU Magazine
The research by the WVU law students and their mentors led to the discovery that Beckley had owned and continued to own the 3-acre tract.  Furthermore, the parcel was home to a waterfall of beautiful Piney Creek which had powered a gristmill commissioned in the mid-1800’s by Alfred Beckley, founder of the city.  The WVU LUSD Clinic report made Beckley community leaders even more convinced of the importance of the Piney Creek property for its potential in watershed protection, aesthetic beauty, recreational value, and historic significance.   Details of this cooperative effort are recounted in the Fall, 2013 issue of WVU Magazine and the larger context of community development of Beckley, WV is presented at the attractive website of the City of Beckley.

Now, let’s travel an hour north of Beckley on I-77 to the West Side of Charleston, WV where Rev. Matthew J. Watts serves as pastor of Grace Bible Church.  According to an article by Jake Stump published in WVU Magazine entitled “West Virginia’s West Side Rising,” this part of the city of Charleston has a varied history.  The West Side community thrived after the abolition of slavery.  In fact, during the first half of the twentieth century, African-Americans owned a large percentage of the area’s businesses.  Washington Street is described as a bustling corridor and the educational system was in sturdy shape.

When well intended desegregation policies were instituted in the 1960’s, the West Side prosperity was decimated by the closure of black schools and black-owned businesses.  The departure of professionals robbed the community of entrepreneurs and spiritual role models, leading to poverty of body, soul, and spirit.  Rev. Watts arrived in the late 1970’s as the West Side was falling victim to the effects of crack cocaine and related violence.  After more than four decades, the community still suffers.  Forty percent of children live in poverty and the elementary schools rank among West Virginia worst.

Rev. Matthew Watts gives WVU officials a tour of the West Side.
Photo: Brian Persinger, WVU Magazine
West Virginia University Chief Diversity Officer, David M. Fryson, grew up on the West Side and earned his law degree from the WVU College of Law.   Fryson remembers the plight of his former community and therefore, was very receptive to partnering with Rev. Watts’ church and nonprofit groups like HOPE Community Development Corporation to “reinvent” the West Side of Charleston, WV.   The result is a partnership that recognizes the need for the professional interdisciplinary expertise and fresh perspective of a land-grant university combined with committed community leaders who can supply the vision of what they would like the community to become.  According to Fryson and Watts as cited in the WVU Magazine article,

Some possibilities include having Chancellor’s Scholars tutor children and involving the University’s urban design team in renovating buildings…  …the School of Public Health and the WVU Extension Service, specifically its Energy Express program, could also play effective roles in revitalizing the West Side. Energy Express is an eight-week summer reading and nutrition program for children...

Rev. Watts is optimistic about the partnership among community nonprofits, WVU, and other entities to revitalize the West Side.  He is particularly confident in David Fryson’s leadership, saying,

He knows that there’s tremendous potential in the population.  He always articulated about this mosaic quilt of humanity and how tapping into all of that diverse talent would make all of us better.

From my summary of the two WVU Magazine articles, we can see that Beckley and Charleston West Side are two very different communities with different histories and current needs.  But both are awakening to the awareness of their potential and are seeking ways to bring expertise and resources together to develop and strengthen their respective communities.  Whether it is watershed conservation, or preserving a historical site, or reviving a decimated human community, a common theme is restoration.  As the two accounts in WVU Magazine suggest, restoration starts with individuals in a community who identify elements that have great value – a beautiful stream and watershed, a historical site, a once bustling community, and the people living in strong families within community. 

Once a community realizes elements of value, a second theme should undergird restoration efforts; namely, stewardship. For example, the City of Beckley cannot go out and create a watershed or duplicate beautiful Piney Creek.  Instead, community leaders have worked with students and faculty of the WVU LUSD Clinic to resolve wastewater problems and develop land use planning consistent with good stewardship of the landscape as it exists. Likewise, the West Side case illustrates the importance of stewarding the sense of community by spiritual and educational renewal.  Instead of simply seeking a pipeline for state or federal monies, Rev. Watts, along with his church and the nonprofit organizations mentioned above, has partnered with Rev. James Ealy, a city councilman who helps oversee a local community center with his wife.  They, along with other West Side church leaders and laymen recognize the importance of stewardship of biblical principles and their transforming power in the human soul.  It is through redeemed human souls that God can bring about true human flourishing and community restoration.

At a time when many in Washington may be learning that hastily crafted federal programs costing billions can fall far short of their well intended goals, it is refreshing to read that my alma mater, WVU, is serving the state of West Virginia and local communities.  Furthermore, it is gratifying that WVU is doing so, not by prescribing an ivory tower vision of what communities should be.  Instead, energetic students and faculty come to a community with a willingness to listen to spiritual and civic leaders and to understand he vision of each community before offering ideas and resources needed to accomplish real change in individuals and community.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dealing with Dangerous Weapons – Guns, Cell Phones…What Else?

Our Advent Wreath and Candles
During this holiday season, I have been impressed by a series of “Christmas contrasts.”  First, Christmas lights have seemed brighter when they are surrounded by the deepest darkness.   Second, Christmas Joy and Hope have been more assuring to me in the midst of our nation’s troubling economic and political climate.  And third, Christmas songs of peace and the promises of Christ’s return have fortified me when I was made aware of several tragic events in the news and then faced some disappointing happenings like we all face in the holiday season.

But sharp contrasts have been part and parcel of Christmas since the joy of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds at Jesus’ birth was punctuated by the murderous threat of King Herod.  I am reminded of the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the third stanza of the old hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:”

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Why is it that even in the season of peace on Earth we find so many intrusions by events that remind us that hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men?  Perhaps those who favor gun control are right.  When we control or even eliminate guns perhaps that will eliminate murder.  But, let’s see—then we’d also have to eliminate other potentially dangerous tools like clubs, knives, and even matches.  Then what about drugs and poisons, and why not eliminate the big soft drinks and foods with trans-fats.  Finally, we almost forgot the most dangerous weapon of all.  This weapon, our tongue, is according to the apostle James one that is humanly impossible to control (James 3: 5).  Short of surgical removal, how can this dangerous member be controlled?

James 4: 1 provides an answer:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?
Is not the source your
desire for pleasures
that wage war in your members?

Spiritual warfare within us erupts in the form of fighting and quarreling (v. 2) and by an uncontrolled tongue (James 3: 1-12).  All of these expressions in one combination or another have been part of human strife since Adam uttered blame toward Eve for his sin in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3: 12), and Adam’s son Cain killed his brother Abel.  

The weapons for killing have advanced over the years from clubs to semi-automatics and aerial drones.  What we have stated elsewhere in Oikonomia (“No Gun Control without Self Control” should be obvious.  We must address the deeper cause of violence, the human heart.  Jesus set a higher standard than the Old Testament law, “Thou shall not murder.”   He pointed us to the same “war within our members” that we have just read from the pen of His half-brother James.  Jesus said (emphasis mine):

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother
shall be guilty before the court;
and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,'
shall be guilty before the supreme court
… -- Matthew 5: 22

Notice that Jesus is pointing out the “early warnings” in a progression beginning with anger and hateful speech that could lead to fighting and even murder;.  These warnings from the Lord Jesus are even more important in our present culture.  Just as the weapons for killing become more advanced and plentiful, so also the vehicles to spread hateful words have advanced from simply word-of-mouth to the printed page to telecommunications and the internet .  Whereas, it once required weeks or months to spread damaging speech from continent to continent, it can now occur within seconds!   

Justine Sacco, while traveling by airplane from London to South Africa, launched a few careless words on Twitter about the AIDS crisis in Africa.   While her plane was still flying toward Cape Town, her words were being retweeted thousands of times and was picked up by media outlets around the world!  The fiery exchanges that resulted from the tiny spark from Sacco’s phone has led to her firing as a communications director, in spite of her apology.   
Just before Christmas,

If James’ warning in the first century about the tongue is to be taken seriously, how much more in the internet age should we heed the starkness of its warning that

the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity;
the tongue is set among our members
as that which defiles the entire body,
and sets on fire the course of our life,
and is set on fire by hell.
– James 3: 6

But, knowing and accepting the warnings of Scripture is only the beginning.  We must recognize and confess our own sinful nature as also described in Scripture; then, surrender to the lordship of Christ and profess faith in His atoning death for us.  In marvelous return, God will fill us with His Holy Spirit Who will then help us to gain victory over the “deeds of the flesh” which are listed in Galatians  5: 19-21 including “…impurity [and] outbursts of anger….”  In place of these evil deeds, the Spirit produces fruit of righteousness including “…love, joy, peace, patience…self control…” (Galatians 5: 22-23).

If the above teaching of Scripture sounds simple, it is not.  God knows as does the disciplined Christian that the pursuit of self-control and control of the tongue is a continual progression of climbing and falling, and sinning and confessing (I John 1: 9).  In regard to this difficulty, James adds the following:

For we all stumble in many ways.
If anyone does not stumble in what he says,
he is a perfect man,
able to bridle the whole body as well.
– James 3: 2

James issues another stark warning (James 3: 1) out of his recognition that Christian maturity requires time and patience to develop:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren,
knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment

Because the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity…and is set on fire by hell the Spirit emphasizes through James that the pulpit, platform, and microphone are not to be given to those who cannot control their tongue; nor should undisciplined believers undertake such responsibility.   God is not honored by leaders in church or school who do not demonstrate self-control and the other fruit of the Spirit.  The body of Christ in a church setting or in an educational institution is taught and edified when the preacher or teacher is a godly “professor” of his or her faith.   A “professor” is one whose behavior matches his or her words; one who professes by both lips and life.

God’s plan is that the body of Christ on Earth will be the shining example, or what the Puritans called “a shining city on a hill” for the world to see and be drawn to Christ themselves.  But, as we’ve noted above, the victory is only assured by a daily disciplined effort in which we submit to God’s authority, confess or sins, and pursue His peace and joy.  If we offend another person or persons, God makes a provision that we should take seriously:

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar,
and there remember that your brother has something against you,
leave your offering there before the altar and go;
first be reconciled to your brother,
and then come and present your offering
.  – Matthew 5: 22-23

This formula for reconciliation applies to both the offended and the one offending.  However, this formula is also a test of our humility.  The proud person refuses to “leave the altar” or his or her religious activity, but waits for another person to come to them.  However, many of us can testify that obeying this biblical teaching will surely end days or even years of grief and separation from God and from our neighbor.  Forgiveness and reconciliation brings the peace and joy God intends for us.

Peace on Earth at Christmas or at any time of the year will not come by surrendering our guns or knives. Nor can we blame our tongues, cell phones, or social media, each of which can be useful tools to build up one another.  Rather, we must address the source of our quarrels and strife – a prideful heart that ought to submit to the authority and work of God’s Spirit.  May God help us to be peacemakers and builders as we surrender our hearts to Him so that

out of the good treasure of our heart
we can bring forth what is good…
our mouth speaks from that which fills our hearts.
 – Luke 6: 45