Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Good Samaritan Test

I recently posted about a boy we discovered while driving through our new neighborhood. The boy had been locked in an animal cage by his brother and left by the road across the street from their house. We set him free, but we didn’t get the full story. Yesterday the boy from the cage and one of his friends came by after school to visit our grandson. Soon both of the mothers of the visiting boys came by for a visit as well. We finally got the full story, and it turns out that things weren’t as they appeared.

The boy and his brother actually had been collaborating in an experiment to see how people would react to a child locked in a cage on the side of a road. (Sounds similar to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?) While we were told that the older brother had locked his brother in the cage and left him beside the road, actually the boys had collaborated in the stunt. The younger boy got in the cage, and the older boy hid across the street and watched to see what would happen.

When their mother learned that the new neighbors (us) had been drawn into this stunt and thought that it was a real dispute between the brothers, she was embarrassed. She knew that the stunt was real enough to allow people to misjudge her family life. On the other hand, the mom seemed proud of the boy’s “test” of their neighbors. She talked in particular about an older man who walked right by and hardly gave the caged child a notice.

Obviously we passed “the test” because we stopped and set the boy “free.” The test was a “charade,” but it was realistic enough to make us think that the situation was one of real need.

“Tricks” like this probably don’t advance people’s willingness to take a risk and offer help to people in need. On the other hand, is it not better to offer help even if the situation is a hoax than to turn aside and leave a true victim lying by the road in need of help?

Our society often is short in addressing obvious needs because we have a hard time assessing genuine needs. We faced this dilemma frequently in the benevolence ministry of our church in Jefferson City, TN. We met on Tuesday mornings and generally had 3-5 interviews with people who had asked for assistance from the church. They needed help with paying utility bills, buying food, getting transportation to a doctor’s office, or some similar kind of need. We found a few hucksters along the way, and we marked them off the list of those whom we had helped who seemed to have genuine needs. We may have judged unfairly occasionally, but we still provided well over $20,000 of assistance each year.

The old saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” might be a way of applying the “Good Samaritan Test” in many situations. I’d rather be a fool for Christ’s sake in helping a few who might be exploiting the system so that many with genuine needs might be helped.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mike’s Seven Steps to a Stable Financial Future

1. Give away 10% of you total income each month. In the church, this 10% is called a “tithe”; but you can call it “contributions,” “gifts,” “donations,” or whatever you like. The reality is that giving sets in motion a plan for looking at your entire financial, social, and spiritual life. Most people “waste” 10% or more of their income already on frivolous, superficial, and unnecessary things. When you give away the first 10% of your income, you are better prepared to eliminate the superfluous expenditures and will more carefully utilize the 90% you have as operational funds.

2. Establish a small “splurge fund” as part of your budget. Pull out no more than 5% of your income at the beginning of each month and stash these funds in a coin purse. Use these funds in any way that you wish during the month; but when the splurge fund is depleted, cut off all unbudgeted expenditures for the remainder of the month.

3. Pay all of your ongoing and regular expenses at the time of purchase or immediately when billed. This is a hard rule for most people to follow, but it provides the initial discipline necessary to get your finances in order. Interest rates, late-payment penalties, and other extra charges take large portions out of your operating income and end up reducing your buying power. If you cannot pay these ongoing and regular expenses each month, you are living beyond your means. You will need to develop a budget that focuses on necessities and reduces your other expenses.

4. Pay down your debt as quickly as you can.  Every dollar that you borrow costs you that dollar plus the interest that you have to pay—and the interest costs are applied every single month until the debt is paid. Every dollar that you pay against your debts reduces your future interest payments and allows you to pay off your debts more quickly. Generally you should focus on paying off the debts with the highest interest rates first. Your goal should be DEBT FREE! Another way of eliminating debt is to focus on your smallest debts first. Pay extra each month on that small debt until you have eliminated that debt. After one debt is eliminated, take what you had been paying on the eliminated debt and add that amount as an extra payment on the next smallest debt. Continue to use the eliminated debt payments on remaining debts until you are debt free.

5.  If you can’t pay for it now, maybe you can’t afford it. Most of us have “things” that we feel like we must have or we can’t be happy. We have a difficult time separating our “needs” from our “wants.” It’s the “wants” that give us the most problems financially. You should never borrow or over-extend your budget for “wants.”

6. Borrow wisely and only when absolutely necessary. Most people will have to borrow to pay for large purchases like a home or a car, but everything else that you buy should be paid in full at the time of purchase. If you use a credit card, you should pay the full amount due every month. Interest rates on credit card debt are very high. If you can’t pay off your credit card balance each month, shred your credit cards (or removed them from your wallet or purse) and operate on a “cash only” plan. Your goal should be to pay-as-you-go for all your ordinary expenses.

7. Plan for the long-term. The biggest problem in most people’s financial planning is the failure to plan ahead. Major expenditures like buying a car or home or paying college tuition for your children require long-term consideration. Preparing for retirement is important as well. If you postpone planning for these kinds of expenses, you will have to go deeper in debt somewhere down the road. On the other hand, if you save money in a savings account, invest in stocks or mutual funds, or add to your retirement plan, you will be better prepared when major expenses come along. Even just a little bit put in savings or investments regularly over a long period of time will create a resource that will help you over the big humps in life and will sustain you in good times and bad.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bonhoeffer on the Bible

I have been slowly making my way through Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). I was especially touched by a letter the conservative Bonhoeffer wrote to his theologically liberal brother-in-law in 1936.

“First of all I will confess quite simply—I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course, it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by talking them to bits, but by simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible.”