Friday, October 10, 2014

Cross Controversy on Dewey Hill Exposes Misunderstanding About Constitution

(From the October 9, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Dewey Hill, that grass-covered dune, is a focal point of our community and a controversy once again. One or two people are “offended” by the cross that appears on that hill on Sundays

It’s ironic that someone could be offended by something that is meant as an invitation, an offer of hope. They are still free to reject the message of the cross. But their being offended should not preclude others from the right to display the cross. All of this is allowed because of something called free expression, a freedom that some in our society frequently propose be denied to those of Christian faith.

It’s all a big misunderstanding.

At issue is the U.S. Constitution.  People often justify their bigoted exclusion of Christians from the public sphere with the phrase “separation of church and state.” Please know this:  that phrase is NOT in our nation’s founding document.

There is, however, something called the First Amendment, which reads exactly as follows:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It goes on to speak of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right of people to assemble peaceably.

But most folks who argue for separation of church and state utter only the first part of what I quoted. This is known in legal circles as the “establishment clause.” But they ignore the part after the comma, the part about free exercise.  Allowing a cross on Dewey Hill, especially if it is provided and hoisted and funded by local citizens and not the government itself, is certainly not endorsing religion. It is not an example of the government saying, “Hear ye, you all must be Christians and worship the same way.” No. Ridiculous. But not allowing a cross to be displayed on public property violates the constitutionally guaranteed free expression of religion. 

This misunderstanding of the constitution, and misappropriation of a phrase, is disturbing given the intent of our country’s founders. The phrase “wall of separation” is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but not in the Constitution. According to Philip Hamburger, author of the book called “Separation of Church and State,” Jefferson coined the now much-disputed phrase in an 1802 letter to a Baptist congregation concerned about religious liberty. The church was concerned about the government controlling the church, not the reverse. Far from separating church and state, Jefferson himself and others of our nation’s founders frequently and eloquently intertwined the two. Michael Novak points this out in his book, “On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.” It was Jefferson who wrote “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” And in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and other national leaders of the fledgling nation indicated a strong measure of religious faith in opposing the British when they wrote of a “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” 

Legally, others would also have a right. Current complainers want to display messages in favor of hot-button issues, such as pro-abortion and same-sex marriage. This may be offensive to a majority, but Madison warned against a tyranny of the majority and that minority opinion should also have voice.

However, the long court history on free speech refers to the right and responsibility of governments to rein in that which violates a “prevailing community standard’ of decency. That is subjective, to be sure. Grand Haven leaders may also decide not to allow political messages, i.e. words on signs, because it is a visual distraction from the natural beauty of Dewey Hill where only a flag and cross—mere symbols without words—are displayed. The Supreme Court has ruled that speech may be limited if not completely censored by the ‘TPM’ standard. That is to say it can be controlled given certain times, places, and manners of speech.

We’ll have to see what city leaders do on this current issue. But here’s a final point. Whether a cross is displayed on public property or not isn’t the big issue for many Christians.  For millennia governments and religions have had a tenuous coexistence.  But perspective comes from a noble source. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul, a Roman citizen and often persecuted for his Christian faith, wrote to Christians in Rome: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is--nothing. No earthly government can do so, and certainly not the misinterpretation of our modern constitution, whether done out of ignorance or intolerance.

In the end I, and I’m certain many like me, are less concerned about a symbol on Dewey Hill than about the unchanging reality of a cross long ago, on a hill far away.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Don't Deny Your Cancer

We met some people recently for the first time, and learned they have cancer. One couple talked about how they just deny it, they don't talk about it, they don't say the 'C' word.

That struck me as wrong.

For one thing, I don't know how that is possible. My wife, in the two and a half years since diagnosis, has had to talk about it. Just this week she spent more hours on the phone with doctors' offices trying to set up appointments, get questions answered, and deal with other aspects of this disease. Even though people say my wife looks good (and she does), there is still a lot going on and I don't see how pretending otherwise is possible.

But it's also not healthy to deny cancer. To deny it is to let it take the upper hand, to own you. To deny cancer is not to beat it but to give it power. To really fight this disease, and you have to fight it, you have to face it head on. You have to get to know all you can about it so you can attack it strategically.

As a Christian, I would have to say that denying cancer--or any trial you may be going through--is to deny Christ. The Bible is replete with assurances that God is with us through the storm, through the trial. To deny your caner is to live in fear instead of faith. Having cancer is not pleasant, but denying it doesn't change facts or attitude. And denying cancer, and therefore denying the opportunity for spiritual growth and perseverance and character, is to deny yourself the opportunity for blessing in the midst of trial.

My wife and I have done the opposite. We have not hidden from cancer. We have taken it head on. We speak its name, the way Christ spoke the name of demons when casting them out. We have prayed and asked for specific prayers as we fight cancer. And we are better for it.

Cancer has also given us opportunity for witness. My wife tells people in stores, at restaurants, and out walking all about it. This opens conversations and starts relationships. And when we start talking about cancer, we end talking about Christ and give those we talk to hope.

Just the other day, this came back to us. Walking the pier at Grand Haven on a beautiful early fall night, we saw an older couple getting back into their car. The woman was obviously battling cancer. "Keep enjoying sunsets," my wife said to them. When the woman looked at us, my wife explained: "I have stage 4 cancer, and you have to take every day as a blessing, enjoy life. Tonight's sunset is gorgeous isn't it?" The woman responded. "Yes it is! I'm stage 4 too. It's been 25 years now."

Wow. A 25-year stage 4 survivor. We have learned not to look at statistics, because they are based on averages and if there's anything we hear a lot it's that everyone is different. But we know that a stage 4 diagnosis usually means about 6-8 years before cancer comes back and treatments can't overcome it. So to meet a 25-year survivor was a pleasant encouragement. No denying it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Theory About Fear of Death Bolsters Faith

(From the September 11, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It seems lately that I am surrounded by death. From this newspaper I learned of the deaths of three staff members of Grand Haven Schools, a fellow community columnist,  and the young son of a local family. Meanwhile celebrities Robin Williams and Joan Rivers recently passed away. In addition, I attended funerals for the father of a friend and the mother of another friend.

I did not know most of these people. But the sudden increase in the news of deaths is striking. The people range in age from child, to middle aged, to senior citizens. They are common local folks and international celebrities. The causes of death vary. It is a reminder of mortality.

Then I got an invitation to attend a speech on campus about the subject of death. I haven’t attended the speech yet, but I read a book chapter written by the speaker. Essentially, this speaker will hold forth on “mortality salience”, or being conscious of death, and something called “terror management theory,” which posits that human beings, being conscious of their inevitable death, are in danger of being overwhelmed with anxiety. People respond by constructing cultural worldviews, which vary but have in common the “psychological function of providing meaning and value in the face of death.”

These worldviews range from religious conceptions of an afterlife to leaving a legacy of accomplishment or accumulating wealth while alive. This latter worldview is the subject of the speech he will give next week: how fear of death leads to conspicuous consumption.  In other words, people are so uptight about eventually dying that they buy a bunch of stuff while they are still alive just to distract themselves.

I’m an open-minded guy, so I can see how there is some truth to this. But I take issue with the over-generalization of this theory—even with some empirical studies he mentions—to all of humanity. Some may consciously or unconsciously buy lots of things as a distraction from a fear of death. But there could also be more variables, such as trying to keep up with social pressure. Or maybe they simply did well in life and can afford to have nice homes, cars and other benefits of wealth.

I also would challenge the idea that all or most people are out-of-control spenders. Here again, certainly that is evident in American society. In fact the Wall Street Journal recently had an article about people with six-figure salaries living paycheck to paycheck because they can’t control their spending. But I know many people who live simply, spend frugally, and are not attracted to mere things.

While I am a thoughtful academic, I also am unashamedly a Christian. I subscribe to the Christian “worldview” that the speaker coming next week considers to be, like all worldviews, a fiction. (Never mind that his theory is also a worldview and subject to consideration as fictitious by others). I believe with billions that that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a victory over death. That is a not a fiction I cling to in order to ease anxiety about the truth of death. It is a truth I profess to challenge the fictions this world throws at us.

The author concludes that humans will be better if they gave up these various psychological functions, accepted our “puniness and ultimate mortality,” and “consume life instead of being consumed by consumption.”

I wonder if the author realizes how much his own assertions mirror the teaching of the Bible. The word  “puny” is used in some translations to describe man’s condition relative to God. The inevitability of our mortality is a frequent theme. There are also many cautions against greed, consumption and the “love of money.” A famous passage asserts that “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”

But the issue of fear of death is where Christianity diverts from this secular terror management theory. The phrase “do not be afraid” is replete in the Bible, spoken by prophets, angels, apostles and Jesus himself. The Christian Gospel teaches that rather than accepting death as inevitable in the manner of ancient stoics, we can accept that Christ defeated death on our behalf by dying on the cross, and being resurrected. There is nothing we can do to earn eternal life, we can only confess our sins and accept the gift of salvation. And we are not to consume life because we will one day die, but live in grateful joy and glorify God because death is not the end.

I will listen with interest to the speaker next week. But I’ll tell you right now that I am not going to admit to a fear of death or denying the inevitable. On the contrary, I accept my mortality without fear, and precisely because of that I won’t deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In Tree Trimming, Homeowners Feel Powerless Against Consumers

(From the August 14, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It was noticeable right away. First was the sound. The persistent angry buzz of  gas-powered machines broke the summer morning stillness. Next was the visual shock. A row of backyard trees gone, exposing the siding of the new home in the development beyond.

Neighbors felt a mix of emotions. There was the surprise. There was confusion. There was a feeling of helplessness. And there was anger.

What was happening was a clearing of trees in the backyards of a row of homes. A set of power lines runs through there, and Consumers Energy is engaged in maintaining the lines on their easement to prevent power outages from tree limbs falling during storms.

They all understand the right and responsibility of the power company to maintain the poles and wires and do what they can to maintain consistent power. In fact, power companies have a federal mandate to do this. But local neighbors are disturbed by how it is being done, by what they perceive to be excessive clearing of trees and not enough respect for their own rights and concerns as property owners.

Their primary complaint is that Consumers did not follow its own protocol of letting residents know about the planned trimming and allowing them to discuss specifics. Door hangars were left months previously, but the norm is to give two-weeks notice before actual cutting begins. They feel some trees were not trimmed but clear cut, leaving only stumps. They also feel that some trees were not tall enough to be a threat to the power lines, and others were not anywhere near underneath the power lines. One neighbor’s underground sprinkling was damaged. Add to that the loss of aesthetic view, privacy, and personal investment in landscaping, and you have a set of angry neighbors. A neighbor was offered $200 after complaining, but says the amount doesn’t come close to covering the cost of replacing landscaping.

I contacted a friend who works in public relations for Consumers, and he referred me to the company’s forestry communications director. He told me that this is an unusual case, because a neighbor in the new development behind my neighbor wanted to remove trees, do their own landscaping and put a fence around the property. They contacted Consumers about tree removal in the easement, and the Company contracted with a crew to remove trees on that part of the easement only. But that neighbor was shocked at the extent of cutting also. That particular section is clear cut, but other portions of the easement should not be cut so severely, I was told. Also, the remainder of cutting in this particular section of power line is not scheduled til November.

I was also informed that the normal protocol is to send a postcard to residents informing them of plans to trim trees. After that, an employee paints blue Xs on trees and goes door to door to talk to residents, or leaves a card with a phone number if residents are not home.  The forestry communications director told me that Consumers will meet with residents on a case by case basis to discuss questions and concerns to balance property owners’ interests and maintaining the power lines.

Consumers does remove—versus trim—about half of the trees they address. This is determined based on the species of tree and its potential to grow too near power lines, the health of the tree, and the physical relationship to power lines. All of Consumers’ foresters are certified arborists capable of making these assessments. The representative of Consumers also encouraged me to share the Right Place Right Tree concept, a program of the Arbor Day Foundation that helps homeowners select species of trees to plant that will not grow to the height of power lines. More can be found at

In spite of assurances from Consumers, neighbors are still concerned. One had an arborist on their property and was assured that since they have a professional tree company maintain their trees that they would not be trimmed. But the trees have been marked, and this neighbor believes the company lied to them. They have moved because of it.

This set of neighbors is especially sensitive because several years ago the Spring Lake Township Planning Commission made assurances to residents that the new development behind them would not come too close to their property lines.  But at a subsequent meeting, when the developer was present but neighbors were not, plans changed. More trees were cut than they had expected to make way for new homes.

One neighbor is working to set up a meeting between Consumers representatives and a group of residents. They feel they may have more strength of voice and gain more respect as a group than they have had as individuals. Their concerns are logical—to get Consumers to be reasonable about which trees are affected, and whether they can be trimmed as opposed to clear cut.

Time will tell if Consumers actually considers the interests of their customers. As a public utility, they are a monopoly allowed by law. But they are regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission. Other residents in the Tri-Cities who have similar issues with Consumers Energy may want to file a complaint with the MPSC, which can be done online” 

UPDATE: As of September 10 neighbors informed me that Consumers met with the group of them and determined they could remove and re-route power lines behind their row of homes. So they can take out the poles and lines at no cost to the neighbors. And they will not need to cut down any trees.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

'Expressions in Ink' Has Writers Commenting on Art

(From the July 10, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It would not be unusual to find me in an art gallery. I have enjoyed art since I was a child. I enjoyed it even more when I took an “art appreciation” class in college, which gave me a greater depth of understanding of what I was looking at. Since then, I have been fortunate to know and work with all manner of artists, from graphic artists and photographers to painters and sculptors.

Over the years I have visited fine art museums and galleries from the good ones in West Michigan to the Louvre in Paris and MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York.

So I am not a stranger to art galleries. What is strange is that I will be part of an exhibit at a West Michigan gallery later this month.

Don’t worry. You won’t be subjected to rudimentary efforts on my part to render something worth looking at in any visual medium. I’ll actually be participating in the event as a writer.

“Expressions in Ink” is an interesting participative event hosted by the Water StreetGallery in Douglas. They have invited a number of writers, including me, to select a work of art from their current exhibit, “Not So Still Lives,” and write a short essay, poem, story or paragraph about how the art inspires us. The exhibit opened July 5. The “Expressions in Ink” event is July 19 from 5-8 p.m. at which artists will be present and writers will read what they have written about their chosen piece of art. Books by the writers will be on sale in the gallery that night.

The event coincides with the “Taste of Art” tour, which offers free trolley rides to participating galleries in Douglas and Saugatuck.

I’m excited about the event. But I also feel uniquely challenged. Earlier this week when I visited the gallery I encountered another writer and we both discussed how 100 words is not a lot. To non-writers that seems easy, but to writers that is a challenge. The other writer, a poet, said she had so much to say. Even poetry is often long form. Writing is not just the acting of putting words down, it’s choosing the right ones, and deciding which ones are not appropriate.

This column is 800 words. Each month when I write it, I normally go too long, and have to comb back through it and remove the excess. Imagine my struggle to keep my thoughts about a work of art to a mere 100 words. This is why writing is also an art.

The exhibit gives a lot to write about. “Not So Still Lives” is an effort to show that a “still life” work of art can go beyond the stereotypical painting of a bowl of apples on a table. A still life really is a depiction of inanimate subject matter. That means it could be painting, but also sculpture and other media. It also means subjects are not all fruits and flowers. Trust me, it is a fun exhibit.

I selected my work of art to muse about very quickly. It caught my eye, sparked memories or personal experience, and inspired thought. That is what art should do, and that is its value. I sat in the gallery and jotted some notes down, a series of key words that came to me, almost like a word association game. Now, I just have to put them in proper form—a haiku, a free verse poem, an anecdote, a very short essay? I’m not sure yet. Writing is about making choices, and I have work to do.

I won’t tell you more about the exhibit or the piece I selected. I will say that is worth your time to go see it. I will share this much: the “still life” exhibit reminded me that it is so easy to get caught up in life that we are too rarely still. But being still is part of life, to pause, savor something beautiful, reflect on the past, and think deeply. A mind in motion is part of an active life too, and it requires exercise to maintain it.

So, come out on the 19th to see the art, and witness my art gallery debut. It may be the only time you’ll see me in an art gallery as a participant, and not just an observer.