Perhaps we need a hefty dose of the Good Book

Open your heart. I’ve been grinding my teeth a lot lately about this whole Ten Commandments debate and the entire church and state issue. I stayed up past 2 a.m. on Friday relishing a debate with a friend on the subject. The sermon this morning focused on opening your heart and getting past the tradition and selfishness of seeing things your way.

Initially I took much of the sermon to be backing me up. I feel like I’ve done that a lot lately, heard what I wanted to hear in a sermon. That’s a dangerous way to approach God. And while much of the sermon did seem to back up my point (especially the text, Mark 7:1-23 where Jesus rips into the Pharisees for honoring human tradition over God’s law: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” [Mark 7:6, NRSV]), I may have missed something.

The focus of the sermon was how our Associate Priest had been so worked up over unfair dealings at his other job that it was causing him stress-related health problems. When he simply let things go, he found that it wasn’t that bad. The lesson here is that I probably need to calm down a bit. It’s not that I’m having stress-related health problems, but I am so eager to dive into this issue that it’s a bit fanatical. It’s an important issue and worth debating, but not to the point that I should relish finding faults I can jump on. Now I’m reminded of the sermon I heard two weeks ago, which extolled the virtues of unity, despite how intensely we may disagree. Focus on the Family may have blacklisted me, and we may completely disagree on a number of issues, but God still calls us to unity. I’m being just as much the Pharisee, if not more so, when I point out and triumph over the flaws of others.

Like a Chinese K-Mart? Well, that’ll have to do.

Why is WalMart such a dump? I hate to be elitist, but I really can’t stand that store. It’s one part white trash, one part ghetto. It’s as if the only thing they have going for them is cheap prices.

Sadly, the merchandise isn’t worth the slashed prices. We were in the store yesterday to pick up a fridge for a friend, and we swung through the furniture section, always watching for cheap shelving. The shelves were definitely cheap. Probably half the price of other retailers, but they looked like crap. I’m used to buying crappy furniture. My bed (mattress on a frame) and my coffee table are the only pieces of furniture I bought from a real furniture store. Everything else is low-budget stuff, but it looks like gold compared to what WalMart sells.

In addition to their lack of quality, the store is a mess. The shelving goes higher than is probably practical, giving you a boxed in feeling like everything’s going to come crashing down. They also keep you from seeing what limited signage they have to help you find what you need. Every aisle is jammed with extra sale items sticking out in the middle of the floor that just create traffic.

Barbara Ehrenreich talked about how awful it was to work at WalMart in her book Nickel and Dimed, and now I can see why. The place is a circus. Whatever money I can save thanks to WalMart’s price rollback isn’t worth the trauma my spirit suffers simply walking in the door.

Maybe I’m just an elitist jerk (though that doesn’t seem likely when I’m unemployed and poor), but I’d prefer to do my shopping in a clean, well-organized, manageable store. I want to find what I need easily and not feel like I’m running an obstacle course. I need deodorant, not a headache.

I just bought a pity glass.

How sad is this? The city of St. Paul shut down Mikaela Ziegler, 7, and her 4-year-old sister, Annika’s pop stand because they didn’t have a $60 license. So we can’t have unlicensed lemonade stands on every corner, but these are two kids. C’mon.

Speaking of sad stories (OK, this one’s seriously sad), a plane crash near Grand Marais, Minn. killed the pilot and an adult passenger, but the “passenger’s two young girls – a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old – were found alive near the plane’s wreckage, walking around the scene, several hours after the crash, authorities said” (Star Tribune). I can’t imagine how traumatic that would be.

In Rod We Trust

Maybe I’m a flaming liberal. After all, I have expressed doubt about homosexuality, and I wasn’t on board with the one nation under God. Now I’m questioning the Ten Commandments. Something must be wrong with me. Growing up in a Baptist church (“every time a drum beats, a demon gets out of hell”) should produce less discerning citizens.

Alabama state officials moved the Ten Commandments monument yesterday, amid wails and prayers. But less obvious than the righteous grandstanding is the burning hypocrisy. Christians are making a wonderful show of support for a hunk of concrete. But despite their approval of commands to love God and obey your parents, they seem to have forgotten another command to love thy neighbor as thy self.

Melinda Maddox initiated the lawsuit against Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore over the 5,000-pound concrete monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments. As a result, she’s faced eye for an eye justice, in the form of threatening phone calls, pellet guns shooting out windows of her house, and a boycott of her law firm that forced her to leave town. Maddox has become an outcast at the hands of people who claim to love one another.

I can only hope it’s a minority of the intolerant that are making Maddox’s life a living hell, but those who hate their enemies are outshining those who love their enemies in Alabama. If we acknowledge God with the ten commandments, why aren’t we acknowledging God with our actions?

Speaking of troubling actions, the entire installation of this monument is sketchy. Under the cover of darkness Moore and his supporters lugged the concrete block into the state judicial building. They didn’t obtain the proper approvals or go through the required channels. They took matters into their own hands, and the next day bragged about their forced government acknowledgment of God in a press conference. It seems odd that the Bible continually speaks of living in the light and leaving behind deeds of darkness. Acting honestly and in the open is valued, yet Moore seems to have no problem installing his monument under cover of darkness. If his cause is so just, why didn’t he install it in view of the world?

Christians have made an idol of publicly acknowledging God. I’ve learned the hard way that a bumper sticker slogan about your faith means absolutely nothing if your actions don’t back it up. “In God We Trust” means nothing on our currency if it’s not backed up by a people who actually trust in God. But rather than be outraged by our nation serving money over God, we’re outraged at attempts to remove a hypocritical phrase. American Christians, and people in general, are so focused on the outward expression that we completely miss what’s really going on.

I’ve heard so many Christians that get fired up over the Ten Commandments debate, or the pledge of allegiance debate. It’s all building up to the ultimate question of how much religion the government can support. Christians freak out, reminding us that this nation was founded by Christians, therefore it’s OK to acknowledge those roots. But what they forget is that this nation was founded by religious refugees who hoped to escape the religious persecution back home. The goal was to establish a country of religious freedom. With today’s pluralism and diverse religious beliefs, you’d be hard pressed support any religion in any way without offending someone. In the process we lose a public acknowledgment of God, but we gain tolerance: a healthy love and respect for one another that allows us to live together.

What’s a better witness to your non-Christian neighbor? Rallying to keep a God your neighbor doesn’t serve on our currency, or respecting your neighbor enough to let “In God We Trust” go? One seems to open doors while another slams them. We’re like the Pharisees, obsessed with praying on the streets and tithing before others, while Jesus calls us white-washed tombs: we’ve focused on the exterior adornments of faith but neglected the heart. Sadly for those who need God, it’s an outpouring of the heart, not exterior adornments, that make Christianity contagious.

Will boogie down for food

I cashed my first unemployment check today. That seems like some kind of pathetic milestone, but it was definitely needed. The unemployed life continues to be a drag. I had my first interview in four months this week, so that was definitely an encouragement. On the downside, it’s derailed my freelance motivation.

Once again I’m torn between pursuing freelance and pursing a real job. It’s hard to do both. If you land a bunch of freelance work and then get a real job, you’re overworked. But if you don’t look for freelance and a real job doesn’t come through, you’re broke. It’s hard to find the balance.

That’s where unemployment comes in and allows me to avoid commitment. Ironically, today was probably the least productive day I’ve had since losing my job. I spent the entire day reading about the Ten Commandments fiasco, thinking up T-shirt designs, and watching the second half of The Matrix. It didn’t help that my allergies are making life miserable.

While thinking about T-shirt designs (why T-shirt designs? I don’t know. It’s partially a silly-notion of an out-of-work guy wanting to make money online — ha! — and partially wanting to come up with one of those really clever ideas) today I stumbled across a disturbing article of clothing on If you’re not familiar with Cafepress, they offer a bunch of different items that you can customize with your own graphics: T-shirts, lunch boxes, stuffed animals, Frisbees — even though underwear. As you can guess, the disturbing article involves the thong. Someone took their happy Jesus graphic and plastered it on the slimmest of women’s underwear. I’ve seen plenty of similar examples that are purposely trying to be blasphemous or sarcastic or offensively funny. Sadly, I think this one is legit. I probably find this more amusing than I should.

Sorry, I’d rather go to heaven.

I’m not sure if I understand this whole snafu about a 10 Commandments monument in the Alabama state judicial building. A U.S. District judge ruled that it was an unconstitutional promotion of religion and ordered it removed. Now the suspended Alabama judge who had the monument installed in the first place is fighting to keep it. Protesters are gathering and threatening to physically keep the monument from being moved and calling for a nation-wide boycott of any company the government might hire to remove the monument.

I’m all for the ten commandments, but why all the fuss? The protesters are threatening violence and effectively killing the messenger by organizing boycotts. All for a hunk of stone? A graven image, if you will? The amens and hurrahs on the news seem like the gesticulations of an old man. If you care that much about acknowledging the foundations of law, then why not acknowledge them in front of your neighbor in ways that will matter so much more, rather than pounding your black leather bible over concrete.

If the monument listed laws from the Koran the protesters would be crying for a completely different means of justice.

(update: It seems Justice Roy Moore financed the ten commandments monument with private donations and installed it late one night when no one was around. The original source for this story wasn’t loading, so I’m a bit skeptical, but it still sounds rather fishy. Bungling around at night with mobs of people sounds more like the pharisees than the disciples.)

I want some fried sugar!

Yesterday marked the first day of the great Minnesota get together, and we were there. The Minnesota State Fair is just one of those things you just have to do. Famous for massive crowds, farm animals, free stuff, bizarre promotions, and of course, food on a stick, the State Fair is just one of those odd events where you walk around all day picking up junk and consuming even more. Somehow I managed to avoid any food on a stick.

Here’s my picks for best of the Minnesota State Fair:

Best free item: Ford caribeener key-chain.
Best food combo: Mini-donuts and all-you-can-drink milk.
Best gross out food on a stick: Deep-fried Twinkies on a stick.
Best sign up to win contest: Minnesota Public Radio – $20,000 car of your choice.
Worst sign up to win contest: Ford – daily drawings (must be present) pit five winners against each other in a duck pond race. Daily winners are invited back on the last day of the fair for more duck-pond races. Champion duck pond racer wins a 2-year Ranger lease. Too much effort, not enough prize.
Best stupid promotion: Gold’n Plump Chicken – giant fiberglass chicken perched atop a delivery van, drawing attention to a booth holding a drawing for free chicken.
Most forgotten State Fair animal: Pigeon.
Best way to get there: MetroTransit bus – bus fare is way cheaper than parking, plus you get $2 off admission.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Salvation

Photo by Nick Ciske

Pictures like that aren’t very encouraging (thanks to Nick Ciske). It only highlights the division in the worldwide church. Since I attend an Episcopal church, this hits close to home. If you’ve been reading these thoughts lately, you know I’ve been struggling with how to respond to homosexuality.

Yesterday at church the sermon directly confronted this issue. In the past few weeks it seems like homosexuality has been hinted at and talked around, but never directly mentioned. It’s always the “situation” or the “decisions” or simply the “aftermath of General Convention.” It reminds me of the “mistakes were made” political statement that every writing teacher uses as an example of passive voice — hiding who is at fault.

Ernie Ashcroft gave the sermon, a former rector at my church, and coincidentally, the husband of one of my writing professors from college. As a visiting speaker, he made the bold move of potentially disturbing the congregation. But before he began, he made the statement that sermons are intended to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted. The only trick is to figure out which one you are.

Ernie began by plainly stating the decisions of the Episcopal church at General Convention that dealt with homosexuality (as well as another that the media never reported – the 2020 project, an attempt to double Sunday morning attendance in Episcopal congregations by the year 2020). He went on to explain why Paul would be upset about these decisions, which was surprisingly not about homosexuality. He then tackled the varying interpretations of Paul’s stance on homosexuality, concluding that either interpretation is potentially biblically valid, but that homosexuality was not one of Paul’s main points. One of his main points was the unity of the church, which is what Paul would have been upset about.

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3 NIV)

This was Ernie’s main point. Despite all the disagreements, sin, and infighting in the early church, Paul valued unity over all things. Ernie used the Galatian and Corinthian churches of the New Testament as an example. The Corinthians had all sorts of problems. Fighting and division was rampant. But Paul didn’t suggest that each faction should go their separate ways. He encouraged them to live in the contradictions and be united. That is what the church is all about. It’s not a community of like-minded people. It’s a community of people who don’t always get along, who don’t always see things the same way, and yet somehow they have to deal with each other anyway.

Ernie told a story about Charles Spurgeon, who was approached by a woman searching for the right church. Spurgeon interrupted the woman and told her that she would never find the perfect church, and if she did, he encouraged her not to join it because she’d ruin it.

That is what Christianity is all about. We are a broken people. The church is a broken institution. It is only through the grace of Christ that we amount to anything. This confirmed a suspicion I’ve long had that pulling up stakes and leaving a church is not the solution we think it is.

Individualism, which America is founded on, leads us to church shop. We look for the church service that appeals to everything we want, never mind what we need or the fact that church is more than a service. I’ve given in to this as well.

But rather than seeking like minded folks to agree with us, we should simply be seeking fellow broken vessels, people yearning for God’s healing. We can disagree over everything as long as we come together over Christ’s salvation. That is why the church is such a radical idea, and that’s why it’s not working so well today. Social clubs are great, but they don’t change the world.

The church is supposed to be the place where liberals and conservatives sit down together. After the sermon, I realized the importance of liturgy and communion comes because I have to say the same words and share the same food with people I don’t agree with. We say aloud, together, the words that we do agree upon.

(I apologize for recapitulating Ernie’s sermon. The original does a much better job supporting the argument, and I’m merely trying to reiterate what I took away from the sermon. If you’d like to request a copy of the sermon, I’m sure the church staff can help you out.)

Why must I fail at every attempt at masonry?

I didn’t mean to tear my porch apart. It just sort of happened. Trying to stop the hose from leaking lead to filling in a mouse hole which lead to ripping boards off my back porch. Soon I had exposed the rotting underbelly of my porch, launching an all-weekend project.

My name is Kevin Hendricks, and I have home repair syndrome. I am somehow able to ignore all responsibilities for the day and launch into a project, no matter how large. What amazes me is that other times I can completely ignore a project, no matter how simple the task. Several weeks ago we bought new smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. That’s a pretty easy job. They’re still sitting in the package. Yet finding one loose board enabled me to rip out several others and redo my back porch.

Fortunately, I’m almost done and life can return to normal. I still have to do some painting and cut and install the actual threshold, but the hard part is behind me. What did I actually do? I replaced a rotting board that was serving as a threshold, a rotting floor board that was, well, rotting, and installed some fascia and flashing to protect everything from the elements. I also added a new board to the whole threshold structure so I can actually have a threshold. Now all that’s left is to add the aluminum threshold that will cap everything and make it look nice.

In the process I also learned more about the construction of my porch than I wanted to know. Though my house was built in 1910, the back porch appears to be a later add-on. It looks like a do-it yourself job, and it’s probably been shored up a few times. I did my best to shore up what I could without ripping the entire porch down — which was an ugly option. At one point I could see the dirt-floored crawl space below my porch, and the three floor joists supporting my porch. The outside joist was rotting away, clearly offering little support. A true handyman would have ripped half the siding off, jacked up the porch and removed this faulty beam. But I’m just a simple man. I gouged out what rotted wood I could and built a concrete block support for the corner to keep things from getting worse. Not exactly the best solution, but a solution I could handle.

Of the other two floor joists, only one appeared to be supporting any weight. This board looked rather weathered as well, and it had additional support beams tacked on to each side. We added a short fourth board so we would have something solid to drill into. Someday I fear this porch is just going to be a pile of old boards. But as long as the pile of crap is level, it should be OK.

Aside from the floor joists, I could also examine the crawl space. It looked OK, except for the daylight coming through on the far side. Under my deck there appears to be a break in the foundation wall. I don’t know if that was an access point at one time or just a hole, but someone forgot to fill it in. There was no evidence of animals living down there, but who knows how much water seeps through that hole and into my basement. Lifting deck boards will be the only way to address that problem, and I’m not going there now.

I’m no expert, but the other bothering part of my porch construction was the walls. After removing a few boards, it was pretty clear that my walls had been anchored to the floor boards, not the joists. There wasn’t even an attempt to secure them properly in any sense. So at this point my walls were hanging free. Again, a true handyman would have known what to do: rip the wall down and start over. But I’m just a simple man. I looked the other way. In owning an old home, I’ve found that’s really the best defense. There’s only so much you can do, unless you’re somehow paid full-time to work on your own home. And if that’s the case, you only have to face the fury of your wife.

So the downside was I spent most of Friday, parts of Saturday, and a good chunk of Sunday working on my porch. I’ll probably be spending a few hours of my Monday or Tuesday finishing up. On the plus side, my porch threshold is now weatherproofed and slightly more stable.