Sunday, December 30, 2007

WWJD? Not this

WWJD? Not this.

When visiting the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, especially at

Christmastime, is it best to:

A. Kneel worshipfully at the manger's site and touch it reverently, as millions of people have done through the centuries? (This is a picture of the manger site that I took in October.)

B. Approach the altar of the Church of the Nativity, built over the manger site, and pray or meditate silently.

C. Get into a fistfight with other Christians over the custodianship of the church.

I mean, WWJD, yes?

If you answered, "C," then step to the head of the line.
Seven people were injured on Thursday when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Following the Christmas celebrations, Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church, which is built over the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.

But the ladders encroached on space controlled by Armenian priests, according to photographers who said angry words ensued and blows quickly followed.

For a quarter of an hour bearded and robed priests laid into each other with fists, brooms and iron rods while the photographers who had come to take pictures of the annual cleaning ceremony recorded the whole event.

A dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen were sent to try to separate the priests, but two of them were also injured in the unholy melee.

Click this pic to see video of the fight.

National Geographic has an article this month on Bethlehem. It mentions the contentiousness over "every square foot" of the Church of the Nativity.
The Christians themselves are not immune to infighting. Literally every square foot of the Church of the Nativity is battled over by the three sects that share use of the
church: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox.

The holy men of the three denominations bicker over who gets to clean which sacred wall, who can walk in which aisle. The guards in the church, it sometimes seems, are not there to protect tourists but to keep priests from attacking each other. "Apart from Christ," says Father Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan friar who served in the Church of the Nativity for 12 years, "there have been few here who would turn the other cheek."
Yes, I am sure Jesus is so proud.

Apart from that, though, the Geographic's piece seems fairhanded, based on what I learned there. And it does explain the plight of the Christians, although its numbers are off. My studies showed that the percentage of Christians living in Bethlehem was never as high (since World War II, anyway) as the 90 percent the article says; it was between 70-80 percent. And today the percentage of Christians is down to no more than 15 percent (and likely less than 10 percent), rather than the 30 percent the article claims. Also, the article does not relate the fact that Christians there and in the rest of the Palestinian areas are strongly persecuted by Palestinian Muslims. Even murder is not unusual, and the Palestinian Authority does not investigate.

(Fuggitaboudit in Gaza, controlled by Hamas.) More routine is property confiscation or destruction or coerced emigration. The week before my group arrived, 300 Palestinian Christian families were forced to leave their home in and near Bethlehem. They were simply thrown out of their houses and told that for their safety they'd better get out of town.

Together, the fighting at the Church of the Nativity (not by far the first time it's happened) and the Geographic article show that all religion is volatile in Israel and surrounds, in fact, throughout the whole Middle East. Peace shall not come easily there.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I gotta get me one of these

Behold, the Segway of the Sky.

It works like the ground Segway - you lean (but not too far!) in the direction you want to go and the stand-on helicopter flies that direction. Known as the Vertipod, it's not a new idea, being about 50 years old. None of the earlier concepts got off the ground (heh!) but AirBouyant promises to get this machine to both military and civilian market within a short time.

Gizmodo, whence the link, says that the Vertipod "is intended to travel five to 15 feet above ground at a top speed of 40 mph" and will cost about ten large. That's about what it costs to buy a new, no-frills ultralight airplane, which can fly a lot higher and farther and one-fourth faster. But you still need a runway, even if it can be a flat pasture.

Anyway, the ultimate in personal flight has always been seen as vertical takeoff, as in from your back yard. I'd say they should push the Vertipod's ceiling up to 50 feet. Then most of us could fly over obstacles around the manse.

The Hiller Flying Platform of 1955 did fly higher and was very stable. So stable, in fact, that the Army rejected it (and for other reasons).

Another concept from the 50s was the WASP - a jet-powered, one-man platform that could fly up to 10,000 feet altitude.

I'll take any of 'em.

Monday, December 17, 2007


"Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing." Battered pilot Bob Robertson waits in shock for rescuers to cut him free from his plane after it disintegrated around him.

In The Right Stuff, the story of the Mercury 7 astronauts, Tom Wolfe related some stories about jet fighter flight testing in the 1950s. This was the time when the first supersonic fighters were being developed. Not much was known then about the aerodynamics of transonic and supersonic flight. Some of the early designs turned out to be unstable. They oscillated wildy - nose up, nose down - at transonic speeds.

Pilots found that they could not give control inputs in time to counteract the oscillation. By the time they tried to correct an upward oscillation, the plane was already heading down. The control inputs therefore only made the problem worse.

The pilots who lived to tell about it said once they figured out they were not going to be able to control the plane, they used the "Jesus maneuver." They cut the throttle, folded their hands in their lap, took their feet off the pedals and said, "Jesus, it's your airplane."

Sometimes the plane stabilized. Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the pilots walked away from their landing. More often, they were carried, provided there was anything left to be carried.

Any stop you can walk away from is a good stop. The remains of my 2004 Chevy Malibu after spinning off Interstate 40 at 70 mph, Dec. 15.

Hard rain, a shallow left turn, I-40 West at Tenn. mile marker 171, near Dickson, 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I pretty quickly figured out that my control inputs were not doing any good. Looking through the windshield at other westbound traffic behind me was one clue. (Fortunately, the nearest traffic was 200 yards or so away.)

In one gestalt moment, I realize that I am wrecking at interstate speed and surely will not survive.

"Jesus, it's your automobile."

There were two or three high-speed revolutions on the road surface. All I heard was whizzing of the tires skidding across first the pavement and then the grass. The windshield went opaque from water and thrown mud. I hear two loud bangs and the car suddenly stops. I am surrounded by pine trees. I smell and see smoke. The car's on fire! Seat belt off, pull the door handle.

Nothing happens. The door's jammed. I see shattered glass all over me and feel cold air against my face. The driver's side window is shattered. Even if the door worked, it wouldn't open more than two inches because of the trees. Great: I lived through the crash to burn to death.

But the smoke smells different than smoke from burning petroleum or rubber. It smells explosive. Then I see the deflated air bags and realize they are the smoke's source. Relax. I feel no pain.

The front of the car is buckled upward. Nothing penetrated the passenger compartment, which did not deform.

I find my Treo 650 phone on the floor and punch 9-1-1. The dispatcher gets a fix on my phone's GPS signal and assures me help is on the way.

I hang up. Then I tell God I am thankful I am alive and for whatever he had to do with it. ("In all things give thanks," says the Good Book, so I did, right then.)

A man and a woman appear to the left, unable to come close because of the trees. I assure them I am fine and say I've already called 9-1-1. A very cold rain is falling hard. The man leaves but the woman says it's hard to see the car from the interstate, so she will stay to flag down the police.

I try to call my wife but get her voice mail. So I call my eldest son and tell him what happened. I see blood on my right hand. A glance in the mirror reveals cuts above my left eyebrow. Blood covers my left cheek, but the cuts are very small.

I call a colleague and ask him to call our district superindendent. He doesn't have the number with him (he's traveling, too) so he calls my church's secretary, who quickly calls me. I assure her I am fine.

"Here they come," says the woman. I hear a police siren. The interstate is 30 feet behind my car and about 10 feet higher. A highway patrol car screams by, blue light flashing, siren yelling. It disappears over the far hill.

The woman says, "Chasing a speeder, I guess."

Soon a deputy's car appears, parks, and the deputy walks to my car. The woman says she is leaving now. "I am very grateful," I call to her. Later, I berate myself for never asking for her name. I tell the deputy that, except for the cuts on my face, I am uninjured. He asks for and takes my license and makes a report to his dispatch office. A few minutes later the rescue squad appears. One man come to my window and confirms that I am of sound mind ("What is today's date? What is your full name? Do you know where you are?") and so he believes me when I say I have no injuries.

"Do you want us to take you to a hospital?" he asks. I tell him I want the glass cleaned from the cuts in my face and that my left eye feels like glass dust may have gotten in it. So they put the collar around my neck, ignoring my protestations. I crawl headfirst out the front-passenger door. They say they'll get the stretcher-board to take me to the ambulance. I insist on walking.

I should have let them carry me, that way my dress shoes wouldn't have been ruined!

I say I'll sit up in the ambulance for the ride. "Okay," the medic says, "but you'll have to sign all kinds of release forms."

So I lie on the board. They strap me down. "What hospital?"

Dickson's is nearest, but my wife doesn't know how to get there and I don't want her to learn in the driving rain. "Vanderbilt," I say, in Nashville.

After 40 minutes riding on the board, I almost wish I'd said Dickson, rain or not.

Two X-rays, one eye exam and a face swabbing later, I'm checking out. Not even a headache, not a Band-Aid.

While walking from the car to the ambulance I had seen that the car had plunged off the interstate's outer edge, fortunately facing forward, and down the sodded embankment. The Malibu bounced over a small, concreted drainage ditch and then front-first into a stand of pine saplings, plowing over successively larger trees until it hit one that stopped it. The loud bangs I heard were the air bags deploying.

For five seconds - surely the whole event lasted no longer - I expected that I would not celebrate Christmas this year or ever again. But in truth, I've had roller-coaster rides that were rougher.

When the car left the road, it missed by two feet hitting the end of a guard rail head on, which would have been disastrous.

Another two or three feet to the left and it would have bounced off the rail back onto the road. Maybe it would have gone across to the median, which was broad and level, but more likely the car would have stopped in the middle of the lane, almost invisible in the pouring rain to oncoming traffic. That would likewise have been disastrous.

Samuel Johnson, one of the leading literary figures of 18th-century England, wrote, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

So does spinning out at high speed in the rain on the interstate. It gives your mind a certain focus.

Today, someone asked me what I want for Christmas. "I've already got it," I answered.

"The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up." - The Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2.


It is not really that for five seconds I was dead, and now am alive again. That is God's gift truly, but my life has always been God's gift, even before I acknowledged it.

The clarity is this: I know that for the rest of my life, I am really just a dead man walking. That evokes a certain freedom and a longer view of life. So Saturday night, just before I went to bed, I went alone in the dark to my living room, sat down and thanked God for the clarity.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

God, guns and signs

A Bible scholar she ain't:

Here is what Malachi 1:3 says in its entirety: "but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals."

Sorry, I don't get the connection.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Chicken, egg, religion, family

Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt of the Hoover Institution has a fascinating essay about the relationship between family size and religion, "How the West Really Lost God." She explains the conventional wisdom of the anti-religious class , that large families result from religious belief and, not quite so explicitly, that the diminution of religion has resulted in the shrinking of the family - especially in Europe, where the birth rate has plummeted in just the last generation or two.

But Mary stands this thesis on its head and posits that the demographic data of Europe and America show just the opposite: that religion is inculcated by large families, and that the decline of religion in Europe generally and in certain American demographic classes has followed rather than preceded shrinking family size.

Southern Baptists are worried about their birth rates, as are other denominations:

It is time for us, as Southern Baptists, to recognize that our success can kill us. As a denomination that once was derided as "redneck" and backward, we're now invited to the Rotary Club meetings. We're being elected to Congress. We're not in the trailer parks anymore. Our young men are successful, suburban, and careerist, and our young women are too. And we think that's a sign of health. Meanwhile our baptisms go down, and our birthrates do too. It turns out keeping up with the Episcopalians can have a downside.

John Ballard has some commentary on Eberstadt.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is Methodism's decline inevitable?

I've just returned from three days of the Bishop's Convocation of the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences of the United Methodist Church. The theme of the convocation was "Restoring Methodism."

I'll not address the content of the convocation in this post except to note that the presenters, Professors James and Molly Scott, offered excellent ideas and processes for a potential restoration, if one is to be done. Their book and CD can be found here.

However, despite my enthusiasm for their ideas, I am pessimistic that anything can be done to reverse the decades-long downward trend in the number of people belonging to the UMC in the United States. (The UMC is a worldwide denomination and is growing outside the US.) In 1968 there were almost 13 million UMs; now there are about 8 million. Of these, we were told, the average age is 60. They didn't say what the median age is, but I expect it's higher. However, for this post I'll assume that the median age and the average age are about the same. The median age for all Americans is 36.4 years (Census tables here).

What the convocation ignored was what the graying of the denomination portends. Once the mention was made of UMs' ages, the subject was dropped and we moved on to discussing how to fix the machinery of the denomination as a whole.

Most demographers say that Europe is in a demographic death spiral, that is, the birth rate has fallen so low that there literally is not enough time left for the declining populations to recover and begin to grow in number. I could not help but ponder whether United Methodism is in the same fix. The thrust of the convocation was that we UMs can reverse the decline if we return to Wesleyan basics. Now, I'm keen to return to Wesleyan basics and think we should do that anyway, but the idea that we can (much less will) evangelize faster than the Grim Reaper reduces our numbers is a proposition that I find highly dubious.

Consider some actuarial facts. If indeed the median age is about the same as the average age, 60, that means that of the 8 million UMs living today, one-fourth, or 2 million, will be dead within 20 years, and another million dead about eight years later. So in less than 30 years, we will lose from death alone three-eighths of our present membership, leaving us at 5 million.

That decline does not include the hemorrhage of our youth who, when graduating from high school, graduate from the church as well (an issue affecting all denominations). I don't have the
demographic breakdown for that age group as a percentage of the UM total, but the church admits that, relative to the general population, people under 35 are underrepresented.

So the decline due to death of our numbers will be amplified by dropouts, mostly, though not exclusively the under-35 cohort.

There is only a small chance, IMO, that the number of people electing to leaved the denomination can be matched by those joining. But the idea that new members can offset losses from both dropouts and death is simply not supportable. If we could do that (or were willing to do it), we would already be doing it. And the losses from death in the coming years will only accelerate.

It goes without saying that with an average age of 60, United Methodists are generally no longer bearing children. Of course there are families in our churches, but there is a very large number of UM churches that have no children. The fertility rate among European-descended, American women is lower than the 2.1 replacement rate. The overall American fertility rate of 2.08 is that high only because non-white women are having more than two children each (on average, of course).

This national trend is reflected in the UMC, so I think I stand on safe ground in saying that, on average, UM adults of childbearing age are not having enough children to replace themselves when they die, much less replace themselves and one or more older members. But no one I know of in the Methodist church's hierarchy or think tanks is addressing this part of the issue.

We might also consider that the median age of UM elders (who serve as senior pastors of churches) is 52, which is my own age. The average age is almost 51. Of the 17,000-plus elders in the denomination, only about 840 are 35 or younger. As a rule, older clergy will not attract younger members, especially families.

Furthermore, with a mandatory retirement age of 72, half of all elders will retire within 20 years (most clergy elect to retire before 70). So in addition to a shrinking membership, the UMC will be faced with a steadily graying clergy and an accelerating shortage to boot.

Update, 2016: "Coming to Terms with Numerical Decline in the U.S. UMC"

... the latest iteration of Vital Congregations data were released last month. They show growth in some faithful practices among American United Methodists, but declines in the production of new members. Combined with the death and other losses of existing members, this struggle with producing new members contributes to a pattern of numeric decline among American United Methodism that continues a decades-long trend in place since the formation of the denomination through merger in 1968.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

In the century and a half since, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," was composed, it has come into widespread use by both Britain's Royal Navy and the US Navy, becoming known as the Royal Navy Hymn in the former and the Navy Hymn in the latter.

William Whiting of England composed the poem in 1860 for a student of his who was soon to sail for America. The music was composed by another Englishman, Rev. John Bacchus Dykes, an Episcopalian clergyman. The music was published in 1861, but I don't know how the lyrics and the music came to be put together.

 The hymn was sung at Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral, as well as the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. And as the 1999 movie, Titanic shows, it was sung during services aboard the doomed vessel the Sunday before she sank. (However, the version sung in the movie was not arranged until 1940.)

Since the hymn was penned, a number of other verses have been composed by various persons over the years. Some of these have been adopted by the Armed Forces Chaplain's Board for inclusion in worship services conducted by military chaplains. These additional verses, prayers for the Marines, aviators, astronauts, the wounded, families at home and others, are included as an addendum on the US Navy's web page devoted to the hymn. Verses for the hymn are easy to write. The rhyming is simply, aabbcc, with each line consisting of eight syllables in iambic tetrameter (which, definitionally, is eight syllables anyway).

The original hymn itself, of course, long ago passed into the public domain, so anyone may use the music or compose a verse thereto. In my church service today, we will sing the hymn in five verses honoring all who serve at sea, on the land or in the air, finished by a verse of prayer for our country, thus:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Lord of hosts, to you we turn
To give us grace we cannot earn.
Our soldiers guard our way of life;
Be with them all in times of strife.
Let courage flow from your command;
We pray for those who fight on land.

Eternal Father, grant, we pray,
To all Marines, both night and day,
The courage, honor, strength, and skill
Their land to serve, thy law fulfill;
Be thou the shield forevermore
From every peril to the Corps

Lord, guard and guide all those who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!

Almighty God, whose arm is strong,
protect us e'er from doing wrong.
We pray to always do what’s right,
for justice only be our fight.
Let peace now reign across our land,
brought to us by your gracious hand.
Of the verses above, authorship is as follows:
Verse 1 - William Whiting, the original first verse.
Verse 2 - me, composed for this day as a prayer for the Army Verse
3 - J. E. Seim, 1966
Verse 4 - Mary C. D. Hamilton, 1915
Verse 5 - me again

 You can hear the US Navy Sea Chanters, the service's chorus, sing the first verse by clicking here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Hamas, Fatah human rights abuses documented

The man I am sitting with in the photo below, taken in Jericho last Saturday, is Bassem Eid, the founder and manager of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Mr. Eid is a Muslim and a member of the largest Arab tribe in the West Bank.

Right to left: the author, Bassem Eid, Ruth Lautt.

Mr. Eid formerly helped monitor and investigate claims of human rights violations by the Israelis. After the founding of the Palestinian Authority by the Oslo agreements, Eid noticed that no one was paying attention to HR violations by the PA or Palestinian militias. So Eid founded the PHRMG in 1996.

PHRMG's latest revelations of human-rights violations by the PA and Hamas were released yesterday, entitled, "Fatah and Hamas Human Rights Violations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories from June 2007 to October 2007" (PDF online).

No one else is doing the work that Bassem Eid and his small number of assistants are doing. He was arrested by the PA in the 1990s, but was held only a day. The fact that his tribe is the largest in the West Bank - and therefore has the most muscle to retaliate against anyone who might harm him - is almost certainly the only reason he is still breathing.

I'll post a summary of our conversation with Mr. Eid soon.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

My biography

I was born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., where I graduated from Hillsboro High School. I earned my BA degree in philosophy from Wake Forest University. An ROTC scholarship student, I took a commission as an officer in the U. S. Army field artillery.

I married the former Catherine Stephens of Durham, N. C., in 1980. We have two sons, the elder a former U.S. Marine and Iraq veteran now living and working in Madison, Wisconsin. Our younger son graduated in 2010 from Wake Forest University and medical school in 2016; he is a surgeon in the US Air Force in Ohio. His wife is a pediatrician at Dayton Children's Hospital. Our daughter is a chemical engineer in Nashville.

I served on four continents in the Army. I was an artillery forward observer and battery fire direction officer in Korea. In Germany I served as a battery commander and brigade fire support coordinator in 3rd Armored Division. Afterward, I was operations officer of an 8-inch howitzer battalion of V Corps Artillery. I was also operations officer for a Multiple-Launch Rocket System battalion in XVIII Airborne Corps Artillery at Fort Bragg, NC. Along the way, I was trained as a nuclear target analyst by the field artillery center and in counterterrorism by the Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. I was one of the relatively few officers to graduate from the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School at Fort Jackson, S.C..

In 1986 I attended the Defense Information School, from which I graduated first in my class. I then served as chief of media relations for XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, N. C. During the invasion of Panama in December 1989 (Operation Just Cause), I served on the Corps' Battle Management Cell. I also served a six-month, joint-staff tour as director of public affairs for Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras.

Assigned to the Pentagon in early 1990, I was the the speech writer and personal public affairs officer to Secretary of the Army Michael P. W. Stone, traveling with the secretary until January 1991, when I was assigned to the U. S. Army Operations Center for the Gulf War.

After the return of forces to America, I was appointed Director of Media Relations for the National Victory Parades in Washington, D. C. and New York City, coordinating directly with White House staff and more than 650 national and international news organizations.

Subsequently, I was a plans officer on the Army Staff until May 1993. My final Army assignment was as chief of public affairs, U. S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. Just before retiring, I served as a member of the Oklahoma City Bombing Investigation Task Force, whose work resulted in the arrest and conviction of Timothy McVeigh for the bombing of the Murrah federal building in spring of 1995.

I retired in August 1995, answering my call to ordained ministry. I began classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School the same month. I was awarded a Master of Divinity in 1999 and have served full time as a United Methodist pastor since 1997. I was ordained an elder in full membership of the Tennessee Conference of the UMC in June 2002.

Since 2003, my work has been cited by The Washington Post, MSNBC, ESPN, OpinionJournal, ABC News, Commentary magazine, Time Magazine, Real Clear Politics, Real Clear Religion and many other major media outlets. I authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on the subject of same-sex marriage entitled, "Save marriage? It's too late," which was subsequently reprinted in several religious journals.  I have also written for the Knoxville News Sentinel on the security implications of Osama bin Laden's death. I was a columnist for Right Network during its brief existence.

In April 2005, as a result of my online essay, "The pope and communism’s fall," I was an interview guest on FoxNews Channel's, "The O'Reilly Factor," on the topic, "Does the Vatican have a Realistic Plan to Confront Evil in Today's World?" On Sept. 2, 2013, I was an interview guest on the BBC's program, "World Have Your Say", on the topic of the then-impending American war against Syria (a followup post is here, "Just War and Syria Strikes").

By the grace of God I have served under full-time appointment as pastor United Methodist churches since 2007, and I joyfully serve with the good people of the Church for the salvation of souls and the transformation of our lives and community.