July 28, 2009

An ITZBEEN To Remember

As anyone with multiple young children knows, parenting can often be a simple test of survival from one day to the next. From tantrums to toilet-training, diapers to drool-wiping, mid-day messes to mid-sleep disruptions, there’s always an adventure lurking just around the bend. Unlike my wife, who has gracefully mastered the art of juggling competing needs of a toddler and a newborn, I tend to lose my bearings in the fog of perpetually unfinished tasks.

The craziest time of day in our household, 5 to 8 pm every evening, can almost be reduced to a series of questions (nearly always asked by me): Where’s Vincent’s pacifier? When is his next feeding? How long was Theo’s nap? When was his diaper last changed? And so on.

Sometimes it's the simplest things that are hardest to remember.

To preserve our sanity amid the chaos, we've come to lean heavily on an innovative new gadget, the ever-trusty ITZBEEN Baby Care Timer (pictured at right), a musubi-sized portable device that keeps track of how long “it’s been” since the most recent feeding, diaper change, nap or any other fine detail involving elapsed time. In addition to its four timers that can be individually reset with the touch of a button, I’ve even used the ITZBEEN as a handy reading light that won’t disturb anyone’s precious sleep.

And while the ITZBEEN’s backlit display provides important details to help ensure our newborn’s health and well being, it's no surprise my forgetful tendencies extend beyond my role as a parent. Even as a grown adult, I forget to put myself to bed on time. I forget to say “please” and “thank you.” I forget to floss my teeth and put away my '
toys.' I probably couldn't tell you where I last saw the ITZBEEN.

Beyond the physical realm, I am spiritually forgetful to the core.

I forget to practice God’s presence. I forget to celebrate His goodness. I forget to surrender my life daily to Christ. I forget to thank Him for the Cross. I forget the great cost of His sacrifice and consequently, I forget to tell others about His matchless grace.

Which makes me wonder: If I had a spiritual ITZBEEN, what would it tell me?

When did I last pray (not including mealtimes and church services)? How long has it been since I practiced hospitality or welcomed a stranger? When did I last enjoy the beauty of God’s creation? How long has it been since I shared the gospel (whether through actions or words)? When was the last time I gave to the poor or visited a sick person? How long has it been since I reflected on the Cross or pondered the Resurrection that changed human history?

Could it be that my drool-dispensing, diaper-soiling sons have a better grasp of their daddy's care and affection than I do of God's? As much as I adore those two boys, the Everlasting Father’s love goes so much deeper.

I think I can remember that.

July 23, 2009

Should government stay in the "marriage business"?

From the pages of Time magazine to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and everywhere in between, I've heard numerous calls for government to "get out of the marriage business." The heated national fracas over gay marriage has caused some to question whether government should have anything to do with marriage as a social institution. If I may paraphrase, the argument usually goes something like this:

Marriage is a church issue, not a state one. Since marriage is a private agreement between two individuals, it should not be subject to government interference. Just as one's personal religious beliefs should not be a matter of public debate, neither should someone's marriage. If the government doesn't regulate people's baptisms, confirmations, Bar Mitzvahs or other religious ordinances, what gives them the right to meddle with marriage? Most of the political-religious controversy surrounding same-sex marriage could be resolved if the government would simply stop issuing marriage licenses. This would allow states to maintain religious neutrality by not promoting or discouraging any form of relationship over another. People could define their relationships according to their own beliefs, religious or secular.
The appeal of this reasoning plays well in today's post-religious climate. Most people don't want the government telling them what to believe, who to love or how to behave in their private lives. Ceasing the government’s role in the recognition of marriage, so the theory goes, would be a way to validate gay partnerships in the civic square while protecting the religious freedom of churches and clergy. By simply removing the dreaded M-word from the vocabulary of government, we could all put away our bullhorns and go home happy.

Or could we?

These days, it's nearly impossible to discuss the civil-legal institution of marriage (namely, the kind of thing conferred by a marriage license) without opening a religious-political can of worms. Perhaps I'm naive to attempt such a feat, but instead of discussing the theological nature of holy matrimony (which in my Protestant tradition is a sacred, lifelong covenant uniting a husband and wife as "one flesh" in the sight of God) or adding my voice to the cacophony surrounding the politics of gay marriage (been there done that), I would like to address the following question: Is there any solid non-religious (dare I say "secular") basis for the government to issue marriage licenses?

The short answer is yes.

While some well-meaning libertarians and others see the elimination of civil marriage as a means of resolving the gay marriage controversy, this would create far more problems than it solves. It’s not that I believe government should be promoting a particular religious agenda or regulating what goes on in private between consenting adults. Nothing could be further from the truth. My concern is that political bickering over the issue of same-sex unions has caused us to lose sight of marriage's much broader sociological purpose beyond religious ceremonies and warm fuzziness shared between committed partners, gay or straight. In the public square, marriage is not merely about religion or sexual orientation. It's about the fundamental need for societies to gauge the comparative significance of human relationships.

To put it bluntly: Marriage provides a measuring stick we cannot do without. We can tweak it, re-think it, re-name it ("civil unions" or "domestic partnerships" anyone?) or re-define it however we think best, but until we decide that drinking buddies and pen pals should receive the same benefits and protections as couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other, government will always play a role in the so-called "business" of civil marriage. Even if marriage licenses were abolished and replaced with civil unions as some have suggested, I suspect most of the voices so loudly engaged in the gay marriage standoff would quickly re-direct their energies to the laws governing civil unions.

Let's say the government stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether and as an alternative to civil marriage, couples could create their own private contracts that would be enforced through contract law. Administering pensions, inheritances and custody battles would become more difficult, but not impossible. The bigger question would be how to legally distinguish between those who wanted an “old school” lifelong partnership type of arrangement (gay or straight) versus a pragmatic contract between drinking buddies who wanted to save money on health care coverage. Without the draconian categories of "single" and "married", what other simple criteria would employers and health care providers use to determine the seriousness of a relationship and consequently, who qualifies for benefits?

For example, if I signed a private civil contract with one of my friends who has a terrific health care plan or education benefit for "spouses", would his employer be willing to cover my medical expenses and pay for my grad school tuition since we signed a similar contract to the married couple next door? Would such a contract excuse me from testifying in court against my friend, as married couples are? If I were to obtain a “divorce” or terminate my contract with him, could I sign another contract with one of my international friends to secure U.S. residency for them, as married individuals can? What about those employers who actually DO want to provide certain benefits to an employee’s spouse (defined in the old-school, marriage license sort of way) instead of just a drinking buddy or casual acquaintance? If there were no civil marriage, would such an employer be guilty of discrimination for offering "special" benefits to certain types of contract signatories and not others?

As a deeply religious person who cringes at the conflation of God and country, I can understand why some people would like to throw the civil marriage baby out with the political bathwater. But just because the word “marriage” (a perfectly good and practical concept, even for non-religious folk) has become associated with culture war carnage does not mean government recognition for lifelong partners is a bad idea. Judging by the eagerness of gays and lesbians to obtain government validation and not merely sign a private contract, maybe there is something special about marriage licenses after all.

July 10, 2009

Is Jon Stewart a prophet? I think not.

As a loyal subscriber to Sojourners magazine for nearly 5 years, I've seen a wide range of personalities and social activists covered in its pages. Even so, I'm thoroughly baffled as to why potty-mouthed fake newsman Jon Stewart was selected to grace this month's cover for the award-winning Christian publication whose stated mission is to "articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to inspire individuals, communities, the church and the world."

Here's the best explanation I've come up with so far: Jim Wallis really, really likes him.

Sojourners' founder and editor-in-chief opens the interview by likening The Daily Show's host to an Old Testament prophet: "The Hebrew prophets often used humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across, and I feel you do a combination of all three." From that point on, the interview largely consists of Wallis trying to convince Stewart to 'admit' he's some sort of contemporary prophet/activist/sage while Stewart, with trademark self-deprecating wit, coolly deflects every attempt to conjure what simply isn't there.

Despite Stewart's insistence that he's actually who he appears to be, namely a successful TV personality doing his job attracting audiences in order to "sell enough Budweiser [so] that Comedy Central will let us stay on the air," Wallis remains unconvinced and tries in vain to frame him in the prophetic tradition of "speaking truth to power." The irony of it all is that Stewart recognizes his clear lack of prophetic/spiritual credentials even as Wallis continually offers him the mantle if he wants it.

Granted, Stewart's clever satire mocking politicians and 24-hour cable news coverage can be both entertaining and insightful when he's exposing the phoniness of Washington-style politics. And yes, The Daily Show still makes me laugh from time to time, although I'm starting to outgrow its crass humor and cheap laughs at the expense of religion. But last time I checked, Hebrew prophets in the Scriptures were not primarily comedians delivering applause lines for big audiences. They were typically unpopular and counter-cultural messengers who preached repentance and obedience to God.

In many ways, I fit the profile of a typical Sojourners reader. I'm a 20-something evangelical Christian who believes global poverty, the environment, human trafficking and health care access are the most pressing issues of our time, although abortion and gay marriage require healthy discussion as well. At its best, what has made Sojourners unique through the years is a commitment to Scripture-based activism, not commercial politicking cloaked in religious language. With all the untold stories of Christ-centered ordinaries doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God among the least of these, I'm not convinced we need to co-opt the bright lights and celebrity of a mainstream entertainer to build the mustard seed kingdom Jesus spoke of.

If Jon Stewart is the closest approximation to a modern-day prophetic voice Sojourners can find for its cover story, we're in a lot more trouble than I thought.