Friday, December 26, 2014

Where Are the Shackeltons?

 In 1914, Ernest Shackleton began preparations, both materially and financially for what he dubbed "The Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition".  The goal was simple; to be the first men to cross the continent of Antarctica.  A journey of that sort requires supplies and backing, but it also requires men who possess  more than just a little bit of the spirit of adventure.  Shackleton, sensing this, ran the preceding advertisement in the newspaper.  His interest wasn't so much as what was in a man's head as what was in a man's heart.  He understood that you can buy brains, but you can't buy character.
  Amazingly, thousands of men saw the ad, and over 5,000 responded.  Along the journey their ship, the Endurance, was entombed in the Artic ice and the expedition had to be abandoned.  The rest of their journey was a journey of survival, in which the crew made it's way across the ice, and a majority of the crew had to stay behind on the continent while Shackelton and two other men went for help. Even then, the rescue was delayed by weather and the men who answered the ad were forced to wait in man-killing cold and deprivation.  Impossibly, all but three men made it home, and it's a fascinating story. 
  What's particularly fascinating to me is that it did not have to happen that way. The men who answered this ad could just as easily perished on the ice,and they knew it.They left behind comfort, security ,and family in order to be part of a grand and glorious adventure.  I don't know if it was the spirit of the age or simply Shackletons powerful vision, but men responded,and put their very lives on the line for something that could have ended in unspeakable tragedy.
  As Christians, God calls us to be a part of a grand and glorious adventure; the ministry.  He promises us a hazardous journey but a journey with a fruitful end.  Yet so many of us look to the ends of the earth and then cast an eye back towards the safety and familiarity of that which is known.  We live in a quagmire of our own comfort, never daring to really risk anything for God.  We  anticipate that somebody else will reach the lost, somebody else will preach the gospel, somebody else will leave all to teach the Bible.  Truthfully, most people are already experiencing as much  discomfort and persecution for Jesus Christ as they desire.  I mean, I know Jesus Christ  endured the contradiction of sinners against himself for me, but give up Starbucks? Are you  mad?  Go knock on a stranger's door and talk to them about their soul? You must be insane! Preach in public?  What are you, some sort of weirdo?
  I fear that the spirit of Shackleton age has left us.  Honestly, in the  grand scheme of things, if no one had EVER crossed Antarctica it would have very little bearing on the lives of anyone.  The things God has called us to do, however, are eternal in nature, and  bear results long after this world will have passed away.  But are any of us willing to do it?

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Popeye Preacher

"I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam"-Popeye
  Trust me, this will all make sense by the time that I'm done. Maybe.
  I recently made a trip to the Philippines to help out a  dear friend and  mentor of mine. While I was there I  fell in love with what is going on over there, and it is my hearts desire to return with my family and minister there indefinitely. That sort of work requires outside funding and as an independent Baptist, the way those funds are usually procured is a  process by which the  missionary-wanna-be travels around to various churches asking for a financial commitment towards the ministry.  were I  to join some sort of denomination or convention this process  might be easier, but at a cost of autonomy or doctrinal compromise.
  It has been made clear to me that, in the minds of some, I am horribly inadequate for this task, and they are probably right. I have been told that I don't have the personality for such an endeavor. I have been told that nobody will like me, and nobody will support me.  I , in the minds of some, am unqualified, anti-social, uncouth, and  too dogmatic.
  I also have no knack for self-promotion, and on this point I must agree with my critics.  I know of a  younger fellow in the ministry that  has a rather dominant (at least in my estimation) social media presence.  He is on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and he literally has thousands of followers.  As he travels and does his thing he puts up pictures and  what-not.  Hundreds of people comment on his activities and he is booked  for meetings years in advance.  It's really  quite remarkable to me how he has achieved near-celebrity status in our circles and how he makes it look easy.  This is not a criticism; I genuinely wish I had a 'feel' for such things.
  But as my favorite one-eyed sailor would say "I ain't no tailor but I know what suits me".  I am , as much as anybody can be, exactly what I appear to be. I'm not smooth-talking or glib. I say stuff I shouldn't on occasion and  unfortunately, way too often I do things I shouldn't. I am gruff sometimes and  rude from time to time. I consider  brutal honesty a sign of respect. I have no 'sugar-coat' button  in my head. I'd rather go through something than go around it. I don't have  bulgy arms ( but not from lack of trying)  or tattoos and I don't smoke a pipe but I do want to hit people from time to time.
  I preach the Bible with very little fanfare. I am  a laborer in word and doctrine, and in the ministry. I may not be  as smooth as you or as handsome as you or as glib as you, but I will work you into the ground trying to keep up with me. I  adore doctrine , and I believe public ministry is the highest form of evangelism.  I will preach what I think is right, even if it costs me, and I've proven that. I'm sure there are ways to explain things  and ways to present things that would make me more effective, and in that area I am still learning, but  I cannot change the core of who I am. You will never have to worry what version of Michael Alford you're dealing with, and as much as  you would think  such genuineness would be an asset, it doesn't appear to be.
  I  am told that I need to  'market' myself, but I don't even know where to start.  Obviously  going to a group of strangers and  telling them what I just told you  probably isn't the best tactic.  Though I have no doubt that my honesty would resound with some people (us knuckleheads can always spot our own), many Christians have never seen anything like me come down the pike.
  If on the off chance you are looking for exactly that sort of guy to send out, I present myself to you as someone willing to  go in your stead and minister in a foreign land.  I'm Popeye the Preacher man.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

War on Terror: The Great Foundation Destroyer

  I have a co-worker who I sincerely  believe means well, but he is a 'conservative' in the nastiest sense of the word.  'Conservatives' used to be the champions of individual liberty and the Constitution, but somehow, somewhere along the way, conservatives became the 'bomb the brown people' crowd.  This co-worker, sad to say , is one of these. He is very much  a 'law and order' Republican while claiming to be for 'limited government'. He, in essence advocates a police state in order to stop terrorists while decrying Obamacare. The government, according to him, cannot be trusted to run medical care, but can be trusted to run secret prisons and torture chambers and drone strikes and  endless warfare. Discussions  with him usually devolve into a frantic attempt to  define words by what they actually mean rather than how they are used by the political spin doctors of the GOP. In his mind, Mr. Bush was the great savior of the republic; the man of the hour who looked evil in the face and didn't flinch. Instead Mr. Bush marched bold forward, vowing to  stop terrorists wherever they may hide, and by any means necessary.  Mr. Obama, by comparison, is a mealy-mouthed minister of half-hearted measures.  Keep in mind that the policies of both of these men are virtually identical, and you can see why my head hurts if I talk to him for very long.
  But I'm nothing if not stubborn and so I am  am always looking for common ground. I am always searching for some sort of intellectual bridge by which he can be  shown the insanity of his position and be led back to reality.   So far my quest has been fruitless, but at least it makes me think about what I believe and why I believe it.
  One of our more recent discussions had to do with accused terrorists and  trials.  He has taken the position that there are bad people who want to kill us and destroy our way of life and we cannot be bothered with the niceties of the law in the midst of this struggle.  He seems to take the position that things like 'proof' and 'due process' are things you do when  the stakes aren't quite so high. He advocates simply shooting bad guys on sight. He laments that  they might be given access to courts and lawyers. He forsees a future in which the ACLU ( akin to Satan in his world-view) might get involved and bearded cartoonish bad guys are simply released free to kill again.  He somehow thinks that prisons which hold on to rapists and  murderers on a daily basis are insufficient to house terrorists.  Like I said, it makes my head hurt.
  But have you ever thought of  WHY stuff like that is important? Why is it important to the very notion of justice that people, regardless of what they are accused of, receive due process?
  The very idea of  things like  police and courts  assume that the state has certain exclusive powers. with all  apologies to my anarchist and minarchist friends, let's assume that Thomas Jefferson was right;"...That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...", Having instituted a government, it could then be argued that  in order to fulfill it's role as the protector of rights, that government needs certain powers exclusive to itself. It has to be able to  define crimes, investigate crimes, catch perpetrators and punish them.  Of course the very act of handing such power to a man or a group of men is terrifying. No man or group of men can be trusted with the  power to detain other men and put them in a cage for years  No man or no group of men can be trusted with the absolute power of life or death over other men.   That is the great paradox of government.
  At least a partial solution to this is the idea of due process and jury trials.  The idea is that , if the government accuses you of a crime, it has to make its case, not to itself, but to  the populace via a jury of citizens. If this  cross-section of the  citizenry do not  agree unanimously that the government has made it's case, then the accused goes free, and can  not be charged  again for that particular offense.  The overall theme is one of openness.  In due process, the accused is allowed to defend himself against the state, and his accusers are made to face him. In due process, there are no secret trials, no  coerced confessions, and any and all evidence aligned against the accused, including the means by which evidence is gathered can be scrutinized by the public and assessed by the jury.  It is,  a huge balwarck against the abuse of the powers of arrest and incarceration. Things like this are the  very building blocks of civilized man.
  But not so on the  war on terror.  By using the language of terror, the  state has swept away all safeguards to it's own power, oddly enough, to a cheering crowd of fist-pumping faux patriots who cry out "take away our liberty, but keep us safe from the shadows".  The presumption of innocence is kicked away; we have people in Gitmo, but nobody knows for sure how or why they were captured.   We're told we don't need to know. It's better that way. The   presentation of evidence has been smashed to powder; an accusation is enough. The evidence against them, if it exists, is hidden under the  thick veil of national security.  There is no need for citizen review, we're told . After all, we're the  state, and we have your best interests at heart. 
  My co-worker was vehement in his belief that every single person in Gitmo  was  arrested on the battlefield as they  fired a weapon at the US military. I  told him that not only could he not prove that, but that he couldn't find out for certain  WHO is at Gitmo, HOW they were  captured or WHY they are being held.   He backpedalled and  said that he was "certain" that we had the right guys.  Fine, but how do you prove it if  any and all evidence against the accused is hidden away? 
  It is  curious to me that the powers that be are so terrified of  their deeds being brought to light.  They will move heaven and earth to conceal  evidence against the supposedly guilty. They will 'classify' phone records, detention logs, video surveillance. What do they have to hide?  Why is scrutiny something that must be avoided at all costs?  I have a theory about this.  They avoid scrutiny because they know that  scrutiny and openness is the death blow to the monstrosity they have built.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Land of the Free"

  I recently returned from a missionary trip to Asia. I flew out of Jacksonville , Florida to Dallas. I flew from Dallas to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to Manila, and then from Manila to my final destination somewhere else in the Philippines.  I covered  almost 20,000 miles on  by the time it was over and I would like to simply relate to you a handful of anecdotes that reflect, in my opinion the true state of freedom in America.
  To begin with, this trip was in the works for months, and  my  biggest concern was  not the Muslim hotbed I was traveling to , but rather what my own countrymen might do to me as I tried to leave.  As it stands, if you are making a trip of this magnitude, it is, as far as I can tell, impossible not to interact with the Department of Homeland Security.  I had no desire to be groped or  body-scanned, but the TSA is counting on the fact that you are  willing to endure such  abuses in order to make your trip.  I could have made a scene, but they would have  stopped me from traveling (at  the very least) and processed me as a bad guy at the very worst.  So I stood in line, removed my shoes, my belt, my hat, and emptied my pockets.  I  stepped inside the body scanner and adopted the 'I surrender' pose and then  on the other side of the scanner began to redress myself in full view of strangers.  I know this is the new normal, but that, dear readers, is not normal.  On the far wall,  visible as you are being violated is a sign that says something like '9/11-We will Never forget'. I suppose that is there to make me feel better about the process, but since I think 9/11 was an inside job, the fact that I was being reminded to remember did nothing to lessen my anxiety.    Just before you step into the body scanner there is an interesting  sign. The sign says, more or less that TSA employees are people too, with feelings. The sign goes on to say that snide comments  towards TSA employees or derogatory comments about the procedures will be taken as a threat to their persons and dealt with accordingly.
  Now, before my neo-con friends interrupt me with songs of praise for the  'first responders' in the 'new war on America' and before my conservative friends warn me about the Muslim hiding behind every bush or start to chirp about 'freedom isn't free' ,  please keep reading.
  I left Jacksonville after having been seen nude by  a total stranger and flew to Dallas where I had a substantial lay-over.  Over the loudspeaker at the Dallas airport I was constantly reminded that  the DHS had   laid down new rules and regulations with which I was expected to comply.  Literally every  5 or 6 minutes they would announce that  any  bags left unattended for any period of time would be  confiscated and destroyed.  By sheer repetition I began to feel paranoid and   did not take my eyes off of my bag.  Everywhere in the airport there were direction to do this or don't do that. DHS  and TSA  people were seemingly everywhere and eyed everybody suspiciously.
  From Dallas I took a 17 hour trip to Hong Kong, which is titularly  owned and run by the communist Chinese.  I went through their security checkpoint and was expecting nothing short of a cavity search.  While I  have no love for the communists, I will say this; the  checkpoint was ridiculously humane compared to the TSA.  I  set  my bag down, sending it through an x-ray machine. I walked through a metal detector, shoes on , and was instructed to  empty my pockets on the other side. I was wanded, thanked for my time, and was through the entire security apparatus in less than 3 minutes.  The overall vibe was  one notch above a security guard at the mall.
  I can already  tell what you're thinking. You are thinking that the TSA HAS to act like a bunch of  thugs.  After all,  terrorists are  hiding behind every bush and they won't rest until America the Great Satan has fallen.  I've  heard it all, trust me, and assuming that  to be the case, let me  encourage you to keep reading.
  From Hong Kong I flew to Manila.  Manila is  possibly the most horrid airport on earth, although I suppose until I have visited every airport on earth, I can't say for certain.  Manila is however, an amazing example of third-world inefficiency.  Nobody knows where anything is in the Manila airport and nothing opens or closes when it is supposed to.  But still airport terminals are a temporary place by nature so I soldiered on to my final destination in Mindanao.
  Mindanao, in case you didn't know, does have a substantial  population of Muslims.  You see them everywhere and although I don't endorse Islam by a long shot, I must say that if Islam really was the problem, it would seem like the bombs would never stop in Mindanao.  This may be the opinion of an unenlightened  buffoon, but there it is.  Despite being everywhere you go, there was no overt hostility towards me even as I preached in public to large crowds of them.  The concerns of my fellow Americans that I would  be beheaded the first day  have proven to be unfounded.
  The other thing that didn't happen in Mindanao was that  the police weren't called.  As a public  preacher in America I deal with the  police regularly, but while  overseas I preached  everywhere from a street corner to a Catholic nursing home and not once did anyone complain. Not once did an officer of the law stop me or  harass me. I literally stood on the top of a van in the  market with a loudspeaker and preached to people buying their groceries and nobody called the authorities. I had to explain to my  Filipino brothers that  it was not so in the 'land of the free'.
  Mindanao has had it's share of Muslim-tinged violence.  There really has been bombings, as opposed to the phony terror plots trotted out by the DHS  to justify their jobs.  So how did they address the need for beefed up security? Well when I went to the mall there was a private security guard there who  briefly ran his hand over the small of my back to make sure I didn't have a gun. I may have had to also take my hat off. That was it, That was the entire exercise, and once you got accustomed to it, you could almost go through it without breaking stride.
  After a few days in country, it was time to return back to America.  I checked my bags in Mindanao and was waiting for the plane to begin boarding when my name was called over the intercom. I headed back through the reasonable security and was flagged down by a  very courteous baggage handler. He led me to a back room where several security officers were waiting.  I must admit, I thought this could go very badly. They asked  me politely (and by politely I mean they really were polite, as opposed to the  faux-politeness of American thugs) to open my bag. They stood by quietly as I rummaged through dirty laundry until I located the object of their concern; a bracket that sort of looked like a weapon. I removed it, showed it to them, and explained it's function. Despite the language barrier, they agreed that it wasn't a weapon, and they thanked me for my time.  I  walked back through the security checkpoint and was waived through because they recognized me.  I boarded the plane and headed back to Manila.  From Manila I went to Hong Kong where I once again went through the security checkpoint that took almost 4 minutes this time.  I boarded the plane and we landed in Dallas.
  Back in the 'land of the free' we were herded into a disorganized and confused line where  our bags were searched  and our personages  assaulted.  We were handed confusing declaratory  forms while  costumed uniformed officers wandered up and down the  line barking out  orders for us to have our papers in order lest we  be detained.  To leave the airport we had to  go through the same procedures as if we were entering the airport and it took  almost two hours to clear it all. One lady in line with us  told a completely unsympathetic officer that at this rate she would miss her connecting flight. The officer shrugged his shoulders in helplessness and  proceeded on down the line to remind us that all they needed to see was our documentation, The man actually said, at the top of his lungs, "We don't want to see your vacation pictures."
   I am not unbiased in all this, and never claimed to be. I think the 'war on terror' is  almost entirely a hoax, and I believe  most of what  DHS and TSA does to be unconstitutional., so yes I have a small axe to  grind, but I have not cherry-picked these incidents to prove my point. In light of my experience, I  ask you dear reader to draw your own conclusion about 'freedom'.