Friday, December 7, 2012

The Ant and the American Grasshoppers

With Social Security facing a long-range shortage because more people are retiring and less income is available to support retirees with inflation-based benefits, does it strike you as strange that both the President and the Republicans want to continue the reduction of "payroll taxes" (note that they don't talk about this being the funding for Social Security)? This short-term view (put a little more money in people's pockets now and leave the bankruptcy of Social Security for some miracle worker to solve in the future) is typical of our culture. This situation reminds me of Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper, and we Americans are the grasshoppers!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Moment of Grace in a Public Arena

I had an experience in the ninth grade that has made me especially conscious of failures in public places. In my case, I was selected to become a member of the Junior National Honor Society and was inducted into the Society during a student body assembly. As part of the induction ceremony, several of us were assigned to highlight the various aspects of the Honor Society’s values. We were to light a candle that symbolized the value and then give a short speech about that value.

When my turn came, I walked up to the table where the candles and matches were located. I struck the match, but I was so nervous that my hand began shaking as I reached out to light the candle. My hand shook so much that I couldn’t light the candle. The first match went out, and I had to light a second match. This time my hand shook even more. Finally I put my elbow down on the table, grabbed the match with both hands, and lit the candle. Of course, there was a loud wave of laughter that arose from the student body. I gave my short speech flawlessly, as I remember; but no one paid attention to the speech. All they remembered (and all that I can recall) was my difficulty in lighting the candle.

The next year in high school, one of my church friends was chaplain of the student body. She oversaw a morning meditation period before school each day. She asked me to speak at the morning meditation. Needless to say, I accepted reluctantly; and the memory of my embarrassment from the previous year soon seized my mind. I didn’t want to be laughed at again, and my anxiety began to rise. On the morning I was supposed to give the morning devotion, I woke up physically sick. I couldn’t get myself out of bed, and I persuaded my mother that I was too sick to go to school.

Fortunately I made it through that experience. In the next year or two I gained confidence and even gave a testimony before a large congregation in our church. The public embarrassment of that Honor Society assembly, however, has remained in my memory these many years.

This memory came flashing back in connection with my middle daughter’s recent marriage. My youngest grandson, Clay, is now six years old. He is bright and articulate; and somewhere in the planning for the wedding, Clay volunteered (or was enlisted) to give a brief recitation during the wedding. He marched in as the ring-bearer with the rest of the wedding party and then took his seat beside Evelyn on the second row on the bride’s side of the audience. In preparation for the wedding vows, the bride and groom moved up on a higher platform; and I was to signal Clay at that point to walk over to a microphone on the floor of the auditorium and give his brief recitation of a Mr. Roger’s song, “It’s You I Like.” To make his recitation a surprise for the bride, he hadn’t practiced during the rehearsal the previous evening; but he had both spoken and sung the part for us previously.

When I gave Clay his signal, he was just a little reluctant to move to the microphone. With a little encouragement, he walked over to it; but when he turned to face the congregation, you could sense the fear in his eyes. He stood there frozen, and I kept signaling him to go ahead. After a long hesitation, Clay walked away from the microphone toward the outside window aisle. He stopped there and stood frozen in place. With more encouragement, he moved finally back toward the microphone; but he still stood there frozen. And then came the moment of grace.

Diane, our youngest daughter and Clay’s mother, was the matron of honor in the wedding party. Grasping the situation, she came down off the platform and knelt down beside Clay to give him encouragement. When Clay was still reluctant to recite, she volunteered to say the piece with him. That seemed OK, and Diane began the recitation. Clay still said nothing. Diane, who probably had said the piece as often as Clay had, stopped as if she couldn’t remember what came next. Clay began to whisper the words into her ear so that she could recite the piece with him as the prompter. At one point she made a mistake (whether deliberately or not, I do not know); but Clay stopped her. He continued to whisper in her ear as she made the correction and then finished out the piece. Diane redeemed the situation. She acted with love for her precious son. She protected him from the embarrassment he would have experienced if left alone to fail. She gave him the opportunity to show that he knew the piece he was going to recite. She became his voice for a message he wanted to deliver to the bride—It’s you I like, just as you are. I love you for who you are.

Diane returned to the platform after the recitation, and Clay came back to sit with his grandmother and me. The moment of grace passed on to other moments of grace as the bride and groom gave their vows and became a new family together. I never have been prouder of my daughters—one who was wrapped in love by a new relationship and one who with love and grace rescued her son from an uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing situation. That is what grace is about--taking us from our moments of incapacitating fear and rescuing us with grace for another day, speaking the words of our hearts that we just can’t seem to vocalize on our own, wrapping us in loving arms that restore our confidence and gives us expansive opportunities for tomorrow.

And that is just a peek at what divine grace offers us.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Condemning the World

My technologically resistant wife has suddenly found a level of expertise since she got an Apple computer earlier this year. After we both installed Kindle Reader on our computers, she discovered that a lot of free books are available online. She began to scan various sites for free books, and she now receives regular emails listing a wide variety of books available for downloading without cost. She looks carefully at the description of the book; and if it looks interesting, she downloads it. Since we share our Kindle files, I now have access to a lot of books that I probably would not have looked at otherwise. I’ve ended up reading a wide variety of books, and many of them have been pretty good reads.

Right now I am reading a book by J. J. Hebert titled Unconventional (Mindstir Media USA). The book features a high school graduate, James, who works as a janitor in a school but who has a special gift for writing. He meets an upper-class Christian woman, Leigh; and they fall in love in spite of the objections of her parents. Her hyper-Christian parents make a quick judgment that he is far less than what their daughter deserves. They openly abhor him, and they do all they can to protect their daughter from making a monumental mistake. I’m at the point in the book where Leigh is sympathetically sharing the plan of salvation with James. I was stopped in my tracks when she testified, “The Book of John says this: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.’”

The “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world” took on a new meaning for me when I saw that statement in the context of the condemnation that the outsider James was receiving from Leigh’s parents. I suddenly was reminded that too much of our Christian witness is directed toward condemning the world, and too little of it is directed toward so loving the world that we are willing to sacrifice our very lives to show love rather than condemnation. I have read that “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world” numerous times, but I never had thought of that statement in the context of the condemnation we subtly and sometimes not so subtly direct toward “the world” and the worldly.

We sometimes adopt the stance of “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” but even that places hate in parallel with love; and the sinner cannot see love in the condemnation of who the sinner is and what the sinner does. We need to rediscover that “the world through him might be saved” is most clearly seen in sacrificial love rather than in condemning judgment. Condemnation comes at the end when lack of faith in a loving God is the focus, not the sins that all us have committed. Our condemning attitudes may stand in the way of sinners discovering the compassing love revealed in Christ.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Water of [My] Life

This past week has been a time that I have had water on my mind (not "water on my brain" fortunately). It started last week when my water bill arrived--the bill was 50% higher than it had ever been. After checking with my wife to make sure she hadn't been watering the garden or doing anything else that might have caused the increased consumption, I called the utility company. They suggested how I could determine if I had a leak between the water meter and the house, and they proved prophetic. We had a leak somewhere in the 90 feet from our water meter to our house's shut off valve.

Wednesday a plumber came by, assessed the situation, and gave me the price for putting in a new water line. I was tempted to let the leak go (80 months of the higher water bill was cheaper than installing a new water line--if the leak didn't get any worse). Being the good corporate citizen and conservationist that I am, however, I relented and approved the new water line. A couple of holes were dug in our yard Wednesday, anticipating the installation of the new line on Thursday.

I won't go into all of the details of Thursday's work. Let it be said that it took about 5 hours to dig a trench with equipment that should have done it in one hour. As darkness began to envelop us Thursday evening, I was about to give up hope that we would have water overnight. The plumber, however, was intent on "finishing up." He did--but he left behind a leak at the water meter, a trench that was shoddily refilled, a flowerbed that was devastated, and a corner of our downstairs bedroom in shambles (where he had ripped out the corner box that hid the water access and shutoff valve from view).

Friday morning, our utility company repaired the leak at the meter; and Friday afternoon and Saturday we were able to get the front yard and flower bed back in shape. I'm still contemplating how I'm going to repair the damage in the bedroom. I'm a pretty good handyman, but this project has some challenges (the box has to be attached to walls that have paneling over wallboard, furring strips, and a concrete block foundation; and the locations of the in-house water lines and shut-off valve interfere with a regular box structure). A project plan is stirring in my head, and my wife is hoping it won’t stir for too long.

To top it all off, this morning we discovered water leaking around the bottom of our refrigerator. When you interfere with your house's water system, it seems you invite other problems to visit you. No way was I going to call a plumber and take a chance on a wall in the kitchen being torn out. So “plumber Mike” attacked the problem. It turns out that a kink in the supply line had cause a crack in the line. The turning off and on of the water supply had resulted in a slow leak. A quick trip to the hardware store, and I was able to fix the leak for about a thousand times less than the cost of repairing the first leak and a hundred times less than a plumber surely would have charged to fix the refrigerator leak.

Now I have access again to safe water without much thought or concern. Of course, that is a privilege not available to millions of people in our world. I’m thinking maybe I should make a sizable donation to an organization that is addressing the issue of worldwide access to supplies of safe water—providing abundant cups of water in the name on the One who is the true Water of Life.

Friday, August 24, 2012


I don’t know too many ways that we can measure all of the disputes about the current economic environment in the United States and determine who is to blame for it; but I have one very personal measurement that seems to reflect my own status, and I think it is a valid reflection of our economy in general.

When George W. Bush took office at the beginning of his second term (January 20, 2005), I already had retired. Part of my retirement package was a 401(k) account with my former employer. That account has been invested continuously in an array of mutual funds through all of these years with no deposits and no withdrawals. I think my 401(k) probably represents pretty well the status of our economy’s growth and tribulations during the last seven-and-a-half years.

On George W. Bush’s second inauguration day, the value of my 401(k) exceeded its cost basis by 4.7%. That’s nothing great, but it did show some growth had occurred through the years of ups and downs in the market. When George W. Bush left office on January 20, 2009, and Barack Obama became president, the value of my 401(k) had dropped from a positive 4.7% to a negative 21%. In other words, my retirement account had lost $1 out of every $4 during Bush’s last term. As of today, three-and-a-half years into Obama’s term, my 401(k) account has not only regained the 21% loss , but it now stands at a gain of 9%. In other words, I now have $4 in my account of every $3 I had when Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009.

I know these results only reflect the investment environment, and I’m sure that many working people (and especially those who have lost their jobs) have faced a much different financial situation. Yet the reality is, that in spite of a hostile opposition party that has refused to take the obvious blame reflected in the losses of the second Bush administration, Barack Obama’s leadership has provided a turn-around in investors’ confidence in the future of our economy. I suspect that if we had a collegial atmosphere in Congress instead of an intransigent, uncompromising Tea-Party stalemate, we would have seen even better results in our economic progress.

I cannot in good conscience support a party or any candidates who think that they can get elected if they injure the economy and place the blame on the opposition party. In my eyes, that is “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” Aesop recognized the fallacy; I hope the American public can as well.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Jesus and the Health-Care Debate: A Non-partisan Call for Compassion and Mercy

I am beginning to despair that we can have a rational, non-partisan discussion about any significant issues in our current political environment, and that is especially true of issues that relate to the poor. The only way I can see around this polarization is to shift the discussion from how we address our concerns for the poor (the programs, budget, and apparatus of our welfare system) to the underlying issues of why we are concerned about the poor, the hungry, the needy, the disenfranchised, and the aliens in our midst (i.e., those general categories of the needy to which the Bible so often gives attention). Focusing on programs and methods without consideration of the compelling motives that must undergird our efforts will always lead to disagreements, disputes, misunderstandings, suspicion, and partisanship.

In a recent series of Bible study lessons, my friend Dr. Janice Catron pointed out that two emphases are central in Scripture: loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (she called this “simple-minded, single-hearted worship of the Lord God”) and loving your neighbor as yourself (which she simply called “caring for one another”). These two emphases are distinctly separate, but they also are inextricably bound together. In some ways God is the “theory” and our neighbors are the “practice.” The former is “abstract” while the latter is absolutely “tangible.” Some do effective and compassionate ministry for the poor and needy without the “theory” of a divine imperative. Others so emphasize the “abstract” that they never connect the heavenly vision with the earthly compulsion toward tangible action. I am afraid that without some kind of moral imperative we will never give adequate attention to the needs of the poor. On the other hand, I also am afraid that ministries to the poor will never succeed without some moral expectation for personal responsibility and ultimate self-sufficiency.

Self-centeredness is evident on both extremes of our economic spectrum. The rich resist efforts to take their money via taxes to help the poor. Some of their objections are so strong that they will aggressively contribute to groups and organizations that advocate withholding or limiting assistance to the poor. I suspect their contributions far exceed what their tax bills would be. On the other hand, many welfare folks have a sense of entitlement to government assistance and “disability” payments. They think they are entitled to everything they want or need without putting out any effort—including full cable TV service, mobile phones, and their “smokes.”

In my next few posts I want to explore two passages in the Gospel of Luke that I think will help us to put these issues in context. Two of Jesus’ parables will give us some basic principles that will help us incorporate compassion and mercy in our perspectives and our actions.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Who’s to Blame for Slow Job Growth?

I find it ironic that Republicans blame the Obama administration for slow job growth in the current economic environment. I’m not really sure how that accountability is assigned. Here’s my take on the matter.

1.    The administration certainly is accountable for jobs in the federal government, but those job are shrinking, not growing, because of the Republican cuts in the federal budget. These same Republicans complain that the government is too big, and they want to eliminate more departments of the federal government and the jobs that go with those departments. I can’t blame Obama for that!

2.   Jobs in the rest of the economy are created by businesses, which hire and fire based on the demand for the business’s products and services. The demand for products and services certainly is affected by consumer confidence, and Republicans blame the Obama administration for the lack of consumer confidence. I attribute the lack of consumer confidence to the gridlock and intransigence that characterizes the Congress, and I think we all know which party has pledged never to compromise. The Tea Party movement in the Republican Party has exacerbated the situation by demanding pledges from its candidates that they will never vote against the interests of their local supporters (see my blog post of July 26, 2011, “The Fatal Flaw in the Tea Party Movement”). That banishes the prospects for compromise. Consumer confidence will improve when cooperation, good will, and commitment to an “all for one and one for all” spirit returns to our Congress and the executive branch. Frankly, in a bitter election year, that is an unlikely outcome; but you can’t blame Obama alone for the mean-spirited partisanship that undergirds the current environment and erodes consumer confidence.

3.   All the non-government jobs in our economy are created by businesses. Based on the salaries being paid to top business executives, you would think that our economy is doing great; but business are not hiring. The concentration of wealth in our country among the top 1% or even 10% means that most of our future economic prospects are controlled by the wealthy, not by the President of the United States. (Of course, if Romney is elected, the two categories will be merged). If the wealth of our nation is not invested in economic growth, business expansion, innovation, job creation, and social improvements, we cannot just blame the politicians for economic stagnation.

I have little confidence that we will change the current decline of our economy or our society. The attention of our media is on the frivolous. The focus of our economic power (exemplified by the current valuation of Facebook’s public offering) is increasingly on the superfluous. The greed of the wealthy and the hunger for power among our politicians offer little hope that substantive attention will be paid to our fundamental needs. And our moral voices are dying—except for those that entertain and inspire with little substance and even less attention to the core issues of the poor Galilean, whose voice has been lost in the megaplexes we call churches and the extravaganzas we call worship. The moral voices that are left are watered down by secular values that embrace rather than transform our culture. Maybe we are all to blame for the social environment that is leading to a stagnant economy and a stagnant society. Maybe we all should be giving more attention to moral and ethical dimensions of our society so that we are laying up treasures in heaven rather than treasures that moths, rust, thieves, politicians, and the super-wealthy can destroy or steal away.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Illegal Aliens and Other Illegalities

Most people favor a society that is guided by law and order. We know that we cannot allow everyone to do their own thing without any regard for the impact of their actions on others. At the same time, we sometimes cringe at the impact and implications of quirky laws that seem intrusive on our own interests, behaviors, or practices.

A lot of people in our society are concerned about the matter of illegal aliens. Others defend a more lenient policy that allows the “illegal” aspect to be overlooked in the interests of opening our society to people who share our common interest in freedom, self-fulfillment, and economic advancement. The simple matter is that “illegal” is “illegal”; and once you close you eyes to keeping the law, the basic premise of law and order begins to disintegrate.

Similar concerns can be found in numerous areas. Let me identify three others.
·      Many in our society are concerned about the integrity of our system of voting. Recognizing that the very foundation of our democracy cannot stand if the will of the people is distorted by votes cast illegally, these advocates of election integrity want all voters to register to vote personally and to prove their identity when they vote. That seems a small matter when confidence in our democratic process is at stake.
·      Many municipalities have installed cameras at intersections where traffic accidents occur frequently. These cameras take pictures of vehicles that run red lights, and the owner of those vehicles are then ticketed by mail for the traffic violation. While many complain that this practice is designed to generate revenue for the municipality, the fact is that a basic law that protects the safety of people operating motor vehicles on our streets is frequently being breached. Ignoring traffic signals raises the threat of injury to innocent drivers and their passengers.
·      Almost every road in America has a posted speed limit. Speed limits are imposed in an effort to improve the safety of all people traveling on public roads. Excessive speed raises the danger of accidents, endangers drivers and passengers in the speeding vehicle, and exposes law-abiding motorists to higher risks of accidents, injuries, and even death.

If you were asked to rank the importance of these four laws (illegal aliens, voter ID, running traffic lights, and speeding), you likely would rank those that have the least impact on you higher than those that you think are intrusive on your freedoms. The reality is that the law is the law. If our society is tolerant of breeches in its laws at any point, our system of justice for all is under threat. You might want all illegal aliens to be tracked down and deported, but you don’t want traffic cameras catching you running a red light or speed traps catching you speeding. This unequal application of the law, however, is the basis for undermining the entire integrity of our legal system. Just because you think one law is picky and narrow and should be ignored will not exempt you from charges of vehicular homicide if you run a red light or crash into another vehicle as your cut back and forth between lanes of traffic while trying to get to your destination more quickly. In those cases, the consequences of the illegal action is considerably higher than, say, illegal aliens or checking voter IDs.

When citizens blatantly ignore laws, they are undermining the basic foundations of our law and order society. The reality is that we want the authorities to focus on the illegalities in which we are not involved rather than on the illegalities that we think are minor and unimportant. Our law enforcement agencies have to make difficult choices in deciding where to focus their energies. Those choices often are influenced by the priorities of the constituencies they represent. This leads to ignoring violations that are “minor” in the view of the constituents.

One major problem that this approach raises is that research has generally shown that when law enforcement focuses on minor infractions, a significant drop occurs in major infractions as well. For example, when law enforcement cracked down on NY subway passengers who jumped the turnstiles and didn’t pay the subway fare, the incidents of other crimes in the subway dropped dramatically. Law-abiding subway travelers were not affected by the crackdown on paying subway fares, but everyone benefited from the drop in crime.

Maybe we need to focus law enforcement more on speeding and running red lights. Law-abiding citizens will not be affected, and we might just see a corresponding drop in other major crimes as vigilance is focused on the minor infractions. Major law-breakers are more likely to also ignore minor laws. A focus on minor regulations like voter registration, car registration, mandated automobile insurance, and other nuisances might well do more to improve the law-abiding nature of our society than crackdowns on major crimes. At least, that’s my thinking aloud.