Falling into the gnat-camel trap

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I was intrigued recently while putting the advice page together for the paper, a daily event. Thankfully, I don't actually have to give advice to build the page. I just position syndicated columnists on the page. Sometimes, however, the temptation to give advice is almost more than I can bear.

Of course, Dear Abby remains the hands-down favorite advice columnist for most readers and if I don't have room for anything else, I must make room for Abby.

On this particular day, Abby dealt with three queries. One was quite serious, dealing with a family of five living in their car and whether or not the mother should temporarily move into a shelter with the children while the dad worked to save enough money to establish a new home for them.

The other two letters were about taking time to go golfing and a boyfriend whose spelling was so atrocious his girlfriend was embarrassed by his Facebook postings.

Seriously? That's what you're writing about to Dear Abby? To the guy with the golfing problem. Golf isn't the problem. Your priorities and sense of entitlement are the problems. Deal with them. You can play golf when you're done.

As to the spelling issues spoiling a romance -- sister, if you're going to micromanage every aspect of his life you'd better set yours aside for the foreseeable future because in my experience, most of us can barely manage our own lives. Either that or he goes. Of course, a third alternative would be for you both to abandon your Facebook personas and spend some time speaking face-to-face. That way you can save the spelling lessons for when you're trying to talk in front of the children.

Last fall an unexpected glimpse of the coming wintry weather descended with little warning. It happens like that sometimes in this part of the country. Less than two weeks ago, we were outdoors with no coats, hats or gloves, tending to the winter kill in the flower beds and cringing at the hint of green representing the weeds that will soon be the bane of our existence. As I write this, a sleeting rain falls, we haven't seen the sun in days and March is apparently unable to make up its mind whether to go out like a lion or a lamb.

On that day last fall, at recess, the school children ran straight from the classrooms to the playground, having stored up hours of energy that needed to be quickly expended. Some left the building in such a hurry, they didn't consider that the weather in Nebraska is fickle and they might need a jacket to ward off a brisk wind that had come up while they toiled in their classrooms. A concerned relative, seeing the children without their jackets, queried the staff and discovered that school policy dictates that no students re-enter the school building without adult supervision.

Concerned for the health of the children, she took exception to the policy and a brief, well-thought-out, letter was submitted to the editor of this paper. All well and good and good for her. That's what freedom of speech is all about, that's what community conversation looks like. Over the next several days, after her letter was published in print and online, the concept of community conversation really took off.

In nearly every online posting, online readers are given the option of responding to a story, an editorial, or a letter to the editor. By midnight of the day it was published, there were no fewer than 15 comments, both pro and con, to the "Jacket Rule." By midnight of the following day, 28 additional comments were recorded. By the time the comments ended a little over a week after the letter first appeared, it had garnered 72 reader comments that ran the gamut from harsh opposition to strong approval, with not a few "rabbit trails" thrown in for good measure.

Wow. That's impressive. And somewhat puzzling.

This newspaper is printed five days a week, 52 weeks out of the year. Except for the all-too-infrequent holidays, subscribers should find a paper on their doorstep every Monday through Friday of the year. We cover a wide range of community activities throughout the year including City Council meetings, school board meetings, county commissioner meetings, and so on. Also, we publish any number of human interest stories, new businesses, and crime stories. The opinion page presents a perspective each day on any number of issues and has a featured columnist each day, each with their own perspective to share. This newspaper and its contributing writers don't shy away from hot button topics, tackling issues as divisive as religion, politics, abortion, even the death penalty. This is as it should be. Things are a mess and without a community conversation, we will be hard-pressed to discover any solutions to the myriad problems that threaten to consume us.

Yet, very few of these stories garner many comments, if any, and certainly none have come anywhere close to the 72 attached to the jacket letter.

Jesus took on the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23, chastising them for their all-consuming preoccupation with appearances. They wanted everything and everyone to look just so -- presumably, just like them. Those who failed to measure up to their standards were treated as outcasts, ignored as they languished -- hungry, thirsty, naked or alone.

He also took issue with their public tithing -- of mint, dill and cumin -- all while ignoring justice, mercy and faithfulness, saying, "You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

As a community and a culture, I'm afraid we're falling into a similar trap. Innocent men, victims of over-zealous prosecutors or lying witnesses, languish in prison, some even on death row, but we're all up in arms about the evils of tobacco or the failure of some to buckle up.

Millions of babies are aborted in the almighty name of choice and we're arguing about whether or not the toys in a Happy Meal present an incentive more powerful than mom and dad.

While approximately 13.6 percent (or 925 million) people worldwide will go to bed hungry tonight (providing they have a bed to go to), we're astonished that virtually no one guessed what college teams would make the final four in this year's March Madness.

I'm afraid our madness isn't limited to March.

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:6, 7 (NIV)

I don't have all the answers, but I know the One who does. Let's walk together for awhile and discover Him; together.


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