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Wednesday, December 22


Nathan McClelland writes in response to "Dangerous Giving":

In his response to Mr. Kushiner, Christopher Encapera states that giving money to an addict is a positive harm. This very well may be the case, but after seeing a close family member struggle with heroin addiction, I know the pain withdrawal can bring and the utter desperation that entails. An addict only has to go through the initial stages once to know the agony it brings - uncontrollable tremors, wrenching cramps, vomiting, just to name a few symptoms - and most will do whatever it takes to avoid going through it again. If an addict cannot get the money peacefully through asking people on the street, he or she will resort to prostitution or violence in order to get their fix. I came to the conclusion long ago that it was better for that person on the street to use my $5 to buy their drugs than it is for them to hurt themselves or someone else in order to get the money they need. My money could be buying the safety of someone else, so I have no problem in giving it away in the off chance this is the case.
This is the very sort of rationalizing that naturally occurs once we start trying to figure out to what extent we are helping or hurting someone. Which is why I adopted a reticence to think of such giving as clear charity. In this case, I think, it almost seems as if we are dealing with a form of indirect extortion. If a known robber walks the street and asks for money so that he won't have to rob, is that similar? Well, in the case of the addict, the drug is a powerful drive. But do we absolve him of all responsibility? Giving money that I know will be used for drugs? I have a real problem with that.

You see, once again I am getting into all sorts of pros and cons, which I don't think I can satisfactorily address. Perhaps an orthodox moral theologian could. I just have to do the best I can. Of course the situation is greatly complicated by the anonymity of city life. I suppose in other times or in smaller towns, you knew who was needy and who was not really, but was being hurt by donations. But even charity that is clearly charity might in the end make someone more dependent that he should be. But who can even say precisely when that line is crossed? Not me.

2:02 PM


This article post on the website of Orthodox Europe relates the comments of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei about the state of church and society in that country. After criticizing the "cupidity" of clergy who charge fees for sacraments, especially baptism, he addresses abortion:

"We are doomed to live in a horrible time when our nation is extinguishing. We have every reason to say that its extinction has moral roots," the Patriarch continued. "To kill a baby in mother's womb is the most heinous of deadly sins. That precept has always been part and parcel of the Church doctrine. Meanwhile, the number of abortions in Russia defies imagination year in, year out. The nation is dying out, and that is nothing surprising. Does this nation deserve to survive at all, we wonder."

The Patriarch then went on to a more hopeful matter-church statistics. The outgoing year added another 85 houses of prayer in Moscow. Now the city possesses 645 churches and chapels, as against 560 last year. More than a hundred added to the city clergy, 1,586 from last year's 1,485. "At present, the Russian Orthodox Church possesses 132 dioceses, with a total 167 bishops. Twelve of them have retired. The Church has 26,590 parishes -12,638 of these in Russia," said the Primate.
Now 645 churches in a city of around 10 million is not very many. But compare to the number of operating parishes 15 years ago, it's a sign of growth. But going uphill from atheism is no stroll.

12:12 PM


Christopher Encapera writes in response to yesterday's "Panhandlers":

Mr. Kushiner knew folks were going to disagree with him. Here are my two reasons: First, it is a simple fact that the vast majority of panhandlers are mentally ill and/or heavily addicted. It is widely known that giving them cash is a positive harm. This is not even argued by both Christian and secularists who work with them, and is confirmed by common sense. Second, if a person is looking for a way to discipline himself and correct his sin of avarice he could do it in other ways (not to imply I do not suffer from avarice - I certainly do). For example, he could give place
his spare change into the many jars and boxes charitable organizations place at checkout counters. These little jars "ask", just not in the same way ;). Still, I sympathize with his
reasoning but given the known consequences, I can not agree with his conclusions...
Of course I knew not everyone would agree. I admit I have not spoken with experts who can tell me who is who among those asking for money. I also note, as a qualification to what I wrote yesterday, that I do not give to every one I see. There are many who stand on the exit ramps of the highway who are professionals, with convenient limps which I have seen miraculously disappear in my rearview mirror.

My earlier experiences referred to yesterday were in very poor neighborhoods which were not targeted by professional panhandlers for obvious reasons. They were locals. My use of the word panhandler perhaps is also misleading, since it is entirely negative and really should be used of the pros.

I did also work in Chicago's Uptown, and my wife and son (and grandson) have volunteered at one of its local soup kitchens. Indeed, there are mentally ill and addicts on its streets. These are often seem to me at least to be looking for food money. What percentage is what, I don't know. In my own neighborhood, I have come to recognize the pros. They don't get much from me.

I did not mean my other comments about mammon to apply only the sin of avarice, but more generally an attitude of detachment. Granted, it's not total detachment as you would expect from a monastic. I have to feed my family, pay the bills and all that.

I thank Mr. Encapera for his comments and the opportunity to clarify a bit.

11:01 AM


As a rule, Touchstone does not print sermons, and we tend to discourage their submission. Anyone who listens to a lot of them, in a lot of places, as we have, will understand why.

In a great many churches what passes for the sermon is the sort of stale, lumpy pabulum that gives no evidence of serious study or thought, or of an engaged spiritual life. It coddles when it should offend, delivers platitudes in the place of wisdom, shows confidence where reticence is called for, and would rather die than say, "thus saith the Lord." The priest or minister has been educated in critical method to the point where he can no longer use scripture except as support for the best modern opinion, nor has he come through enough life and learning (or gained enough humility) for sort of post-critical re-engagement in which he can meet it once again as divine authority. His tradition, although it may have once contained masters of the art, passively discourages good preaching. It is far more interested in Company Persons who are reliably affable, good administrators, and do not upset people, either in their congregations or in the denominational executive. What is defined as "good" in these environs is what I call the Sunset, Butterfly, and Shaggy Dog Sermon, pleasing to delicate tastes and, above all, short.

Not all preaching traditions are so contemptible. There are some that still believe enough to support greatness. Their preachers are well trained in the scriptures, which they still believe. They frequently have a good grasp of biblical Hebrew and Greek, and, with growing skill and maturity, are able to relate them well to the lives of their people. The people still give of their best to the Lord: their brightest and most able sons are encouraged to enter the pastorate, and may even still be granted high status in the community. The kind of sermons they seek to preach are in the tradition of Chrysostom, Benedict, Wesley, St. John Vianney, and Edwards, and would no doubt be recognized by these old saints as such.

But most of these, too, we could not accept. The problems? From my perspective, at least, a good many of these have strong formulaic or boilerplate overtones, various kinds of formulae taking the place of serious, thoughtful, engagement of the texts upon which the sermons are constructed. Part of the reason for this--once again, as I see it--is, as in the weak preaching traditions, the considerable risk involved in doing otherwise, for there is danger in reaching conclusions unfriendly to denominational convictions, not to mention offensive to the congregation. The price of being able to call the elders (or a house of Bishops) a brood of vipers is, quite frankly, a single life sustained by locusts and wild honey.

Another is that the press of time is great. Truly fine sermons, like any piece of good craftsmanship, take not only skill, but time, to prepare. Preaching is just one of the things that the typical church "pays its pastor for," not realizing or appreciating the ancient recognition (see Acts 6) that those who are called upon to tend to the Word of God should not be obliged to concentrate their efforts on diaconal work. The typical pastor in this tradition is really a deacon upon whom has been placed the added burden of preaching and teaching. Only a few, in the largest churches, are in the position to bargain for the time necessary to teach and preach well.

There is also the matter of the expected length of the sermon. It must be so many minutes long. Shorter (to those who have never composed a sermon) means lazy, longer means the roast burns and the ladies turn against you. How many sermons I have heard that would have been twice as good if the pastor had been bold enough to make them half as long, and how many times the Spirit has been quenched by the dinner bell or the noontide demon incarnate in a beeping watch.

And finally, even a good, solid sermon, intelligent, well made, and spiritually engaged, is frequently, if I can put it this way, the creature of a different moment than that of an article in a magazine such as this one. There is often, and very rightly, a quality to it that is local, more like that of a father addressing his children within the walls of their own house rather than the church at large. This, of course, is nothing we wish to discourage, but at the end of the day, working along with all the considerations above, means so few sermons will find their way into Touchstone that its editors feel it is in general best to discourage their submission.

10:42 AM

Tuesday, December 21


A friend sent me a holiday list of comparisons between Republican and Democrats, one of which goes: “Republicans help the poor during the holidays by sending $50 to the Salvation Army. Democrats help the poor by giving $50, one buck at a time, to panhandlers on the street.”

I suppose this confirms me as an independent, since I both send checks and give money to panhandlers on the street.

The last time my wife and I reached out to the panhandler of the moment was in Washington, D.C., last week. An elderly lady was asking for money for food so we gave her a small bill but enough to get a meal at McDonalds or a decent sandwich at a carryout. After we left her she continue to panhandle. I was irked, briefly, for my wife reminded me it didn't matter at that point. “It's just money.”

While the check to the Salvation Army is a charitable act, the giving of money to panhandlers has nothing to do with charity, for me at least. You see, I learned to hand out money more than ten years ago without thinking much about it, as an act of obedience to Our Lord's teaching about giving to those who ask.

Why? At the risk of sounding selfish, I note that it taught me greater detachment from money itself. We are taught by society, generally, to hold tight to our money. Loosening our grip on mammon's hold on us is a good thing, and I think that this is reason behind the teaching rather than giving us an approach to charity. With true charity, you find out or encounter those who have a need for food, clothing, shelter, and you provide it out of your own means. And the Lord does teach that sort of charity in Matthew 25, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

What I learned working on the streets of very bad neighborhoods in Chicago from 1992 to 1997 was to give money to those asking for it without me worrying about whether the act was charity or not. In other words, I didn't worry about whether they needed the money, or, to put it more to the point, whether they were “worthy” of the donation. It's a relief not to have to worry about that. Don't get me wrong: it wasn't 100 percent of the time. Once in a while someone staggering-drunk would ask for money, for booze, and in such clear cases I would just say no, but not because I wanted to keep my money. I didn't want them to kill or injure themselves. In other cases where I just know that it's a flat-out con, I say no. Otherwise--and those were the majority of the cases--I gave as asked.

In one case, a young African-American woman gave me the usual line about her needing money for food for her baby and about how she was trying to get an apartment lined up. I gave her a nice bill and she thanked me. A couple of weeks later she approached me as I got out of my truck--to thank me and say she had gotten a job and an apartment. She didn't want any money. She asked permission but didn't wait for a response to plant a kiss on my cheek, after which she informed me she had AIDS. In another case I walked with a hungry woman into a restaurant and ordered her a lunch.

I was also approached several times by females and asked for 10 bucks in exchange for a “date” with them in the back of my van amidst the boxes. I soon fled the scene in those cases, but always as a gentleman. As I reported to my wife, I replied on one occasion, “No, thank you.”

Giving to the “panhandler” is not a charity program at all. I am sure many will disagree with me; but I feel a lot more free not having to calculate how worthy a beggar is. Besides, everything I have is by the grace of God, so it's not really mine, especially the mammon, which, thank God, someday rust and moth will consume anyway. In the meantime, I keep a loose grip on the small bills and change in my pocket.

5:01 PM


A Mere Comments reader told us about this alarming story published last month on the Wired Magazine website (quoting the first several paragraphs):

Internet pornography is the new crack cocaine, leading to addiction, misogyny, pedophilia, boob jobs and erectile dysfunction, according to clinicians and researchers testifying before a Senate committee Thursday [November 18].

Witnesses before the Senate Commerce Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee spared no superlative in their description of the negative effects of pornography.

Mary Anne Layden, co-director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Therapy, called porn the "most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today."

"The internet is a perfect drug delivery system because you are anonymous, aroused and have role models for these behaviors," Layden said. "To have drug pumped into your house 24/7, free, and children know how to use it better than grown-ups know how to use it—it's a perfect delivery system if we want to have a whole generation of young addicts who will never have the drug out of their mind."

Pornography addicts have a more difficult time recovering from their addiction than cocaine addicts, since coke users can get the drug out of their system, but pornographic images stay in the brain forever, Layden said.

Jeffrey Satinover, a psychiatrist and advisor to the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality echoed Layden's concern about the internet and the somatic effects of pornography.

"Pornography really does, unlike other addictions, biologically cause direct release of the most perfect addictive substance," Satinover said. "That is, it causes masturbation, which causes release of the naturally occurring opioids. It does what heroin can't do, in effect."

The internet is dangerous because it removes the inefficiency in the delivery of pornography, making porn much more ubiquitous than in the days when guys in trench coats would sell nudie postcards, Satinover said.

11:53 AM


Ray Keating, a columnist for Long Island's Newsday and a Mere Comments reader, sends this link to his Christmas column.

10:33 AM

Monday, December 20


From the Wall Street Journal's best of the web: California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has ignited controversy by presiding over the lighting of what he has renamed the state's Christmas tree. Under previous governors, it was called the "holiday tree." At the ceremony, Mr. Schwarzenegger talked about how he celebrated Christmas growing up in his native Austria, adding, "We were taught to think about the spirit, the joy of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ."

The governor was promptly attacked for injecting religion into a state ceremony and possibly offending people of other faiths or no faith. But his press secretary had a quick rejoinder: "He called it a Christmas tree because that is what it is."
The article also noted that the use of a Scripture verse from the Psalms (95:2) on the White House Christmas Card is avoiding ACLU scrutiny because the mailing is being funded by the Republican National Committee and not taxpayers.

4:01 PM


For the first time ever, we're offering a year of Touchstone (ten issues) bundled with our handsome 2005 Calendar of the Christian Year. You get a year's delivery of Touchstone magazine along with this one-of-kind liturgical resource for only $35 (a $44 value).

This limited-time, web-exclusive offer is available to new subscribers and on any one-year renewal of Touchstone from now 'til January 13.

Here's what you get:

— 10 issues of the best Christian commentary, essays, reviews, and reporting from gifted Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox writers delivered to your home, business, or post office box.

— A calendar of the Christian year (marking feasts, fasts, and other commemorations of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican & Lutheran traditions—and the principle Jewish holy days) with illustrations by Masters of sacred art (this year's calendar features Rembrandt, Tissot, von Carolsfeld, and Doré).

We invite new readers and seasoned subscribers to take advantage of this limited-time offer.

You can order here.

A blessed Advent, Christmas, and New Year to you and yours!

2:40 PM


A Canadian reader just sent me this in response to our appeal for funds: "Keep up the terrific work. Can I make a contribution by credit card?"

The answer is Yes. Please call our toll-free number—1-877-375-7373—to give us your information, and so we can also say "Thank You."

1:35 PM


I received this in the mail last week:

Dear Sirs,
I am very sorry that I am not renewing my subscription to Touchstone. I am almost 91 and my sight is deteriorating so that I cannot keep up with my reading.

I have enjoyed your magazine very much with your broad reach and firm convictions. I have given many copies away hoping that they would bring more readers (with subscriptions) to you.

My income is limited, but I am enclosing a check for $10, as a small “thank you” gift.
My former Sunday School teacher is now in her 90s and she, too, has had to give up most of her reading as the eyes are simply wearing out. Perhaps that will happen to me someday, if I live that long.

Such letters I find humbling. And such gifts, too.

Our income, too, is very limited given what we do, including supporting this website and writing what we can for it. We do appreciate and depend entirely on such gifts, both large and small.

Please, readers of Mere Comments, if you would like to see us continue, know that it's only with contributions that we can go on. We are facing a substantial deficit this year. I would appreciate hearing from any of you (write me an e-mail) or call toll-free 877-375-7373 to make a contribution to Touchstone. We have around 600 “Friends of Touchstone” who support this ministry, and we could very much use a few more Friends such as the kind writer of this letter, who tell others about Touchstone and support us financially to keep us going.

10:50 AM


The Wall Street Journal's Houses of Worship column, which appears on Fridays, had this to say about the religious dimension of the political upheavels in the Ukraine.

10:34 AM


One of my “Internet friends” (you know the kind: you’ve known him via e-mail for five or seven years, but never met him in the flesh), Alex Wainer, who teaches film at Palm Beach Atlantic College, turned me on to the humorist James Lileks just after this year’s presidential election.

Lileks is an accomplished descriptive writer, the descriptions bearing much of the comedy. His preschool-aged daughter, whom he christens “Gnat” in his blog writing, is the precosious source of some of his most tender and arresting moments.

In his column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week, Lileks takes a little hyperbole to a recent department store trip, yet many of you will relate to his experience:

Maybe it's just me. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive. But when I wish a store clerk "Merry Christmas!" they often appear stunned and flummoxed for a moment, as if I've just blabbed the plans for the underground's sabotage of the train tracks in front of the secret police. I've said something highly inappropriate for the public square, and I almost expect a security guard to take me aside on the way out. He'll lead me to a small room. He has no enthusiasm for this; it's the end of his shift, and he's done this a dozen times already today. But policy is policy.

Sir, you realize that the store does not use the, um, ah, C word. We have nothing against it, of course, and wish you a merry (cough)mas, as well. But when you say that to a store employee, it puts them in a difficult position.

"You mean that position where they have to smile while wondering if they're going to be disciplined for saying the wrong thing?"

That's the one, yes. I hope you understand that we have a long-standing relationship with the (cough)mas holiday—

"Like the relationship between a sucker fish and a whale? Only the fish isn't really interested in whether the whale exists or not, only that it doesn't fall off and die."

Sucker fish, remora, intestinal parasite—we don't have an approved aquatic metaphor for the relationship. But that's not the point. We prefer the term "festive season."

Which is a euphemism for Christmas, of course.

Yes. And "Happy Euphemism" is acceptable on store property. You must understand that this is not about Christmas, but about the holiday season, which encompasses many beliefs.

Hence the trees, the lights, the berries, the Santa costumes, the Nutcracker statues, the Nat King Cole music on the speakers, the poinsettias, and other symbols of Hinduism. Come on! It's Christmas! What's the problem?"

Sir, you needn't use that tone of voice. It's hostile, and—

"It's not hostile. It's festive! See? I'm happy! Big grin. I'm happy for a variety of reasons, and one of them is the yearly reminder that my britches are not as tightly cinched as yours. You could celebrate every single religious holiday and I wouldn't mind. If your staff all wished me a merry whatever, I'd take it as an expression of goodwill. The other day, for example, the Disney Channel had a little ad between shows wishing the viewers a Happy Hanukkah. My kid asked what that meant, and I explained it as best I could, even spinning around like a giant dreidel. We went to the grocery store and got latkes, even. With some nice cream cheese. If anyone had looked at us, your textbook goyim, and said "Happy Hanukkah" I would have taken it as a warm and friendly wish to celebrate the goodwill inherent in the holidays crucial to the great religions. So why can't I say Merry Chris—no. Wrong question. Why can't you say it?"

Sir, this conversation no longer sounds real, but has come to resemble a fictional contrivance designed to make you seem sensible at my expense. I shall have to pepper spray you.

AAAUUUGGHHH! Man, I hate it when my straw dogs fight back. Have to go wash out my eyes. Hold on.
For more of this odd cheer, in which Lileks reports on the Postal Service’s phobia of “the season that dare not speak its name,” read the rest of the column here.

Lileks also writes a daily blog, Bleats (published since 1997!) which is always good for a dose of comic relief.

In the meantime, be sure to greet everyone you meet with an unafraid and joyful “Merry Christmas!” It's good for their soul (and yours).

9:46 AM

Sunday, December 19


On Friday afternoon, we learned that some readers were still unable to access our website due to the server move we reported earlier in the week (see below). The staff worked with Network Solutions to resolve the problem on Friday. We were told that the fix—which involved a new ISP address for our website—might take 24-36 hours to correct itself across the Internet. On Saturday, most readers in an informal survey were able to access the site, though one reported no connection.

We hope this latest fix resolves these connectivity issues for good by Monday morning. We apologize for any inconvenience. We are investigating a more reliable hosting service.

10:14 AM

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