Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Economic Analogy vs Economic Reality

How to even begin to line up the challenges facing the US economy at this time might be no real challenge to a bona fide economist but since the majority of American voters is only an “arm chair” economist at best, fundamental economics would need to be addressed and explained in such a way that the typical layman could comprehend. Since this is not likely to happen anytime soon, at least not in my lifetime given certain political realities, it would be responsible to consider what is at hand and try to make reasonable election-year choices. That is to say, whom we elect to the US House and to open US Senate seats in this election season is going to have a much more profound and lasting impact on the US economy than who is to become the next US president.

The current economic stimulus package before the House contains billions of dollars in incentives for individuals and businesses in an effort to “jump start” the economy since it is showing signs of losing momentum. So let us consider the analogy of jump-starting a car. The jumper cables in this instance could be the cash rebates that will be offered to all US taxpayers. However, even though the car will likely start with the “jump”, a problem will still exist that will require further mechanical analysis. Is the starter going bad, or do the batteries have to be replaced? The starter is obviously going to cost a bit more than simply replacing the battery but if a new battery is all that is needed, then we could say we got off cheap. But if we replace the battery in the vain hope that this is the only problem without considering all other possibilities which led to the need for a jump start in the first place, then the brand new battery and its expected life could be diminished because we replaced the battery to deal with a symptom without considering and addressing the core problem.

Well, I’m not an economist and I’m even less of a mechanic. I’m one of those who might break down on the side of the road and will raise the hood to have a look while my foot is propped up on the front bumper, but I will be pretty clueless as to what I might be looking at except that it is an engine and it is currently not working. As an “arm chair” economist who has had some college-level classes in economics and who tries to keep up with the political situation of the day, however, I will be pretty sure that there is a potential problem serious than a quick jump-start will address.

I can appreciate President Bush’s philosophy regarding the tax rebates he proposed early in his first term. The Clinton administration bragged about creating a surplus; Mr. Bush maintained that any surplus belongs back into the hands and pockets of those from whom it was taken. The government should ideally not have a budget deficit, but it also should not have a surplus of funds. To suggest that a surplus is the sign of a responsible government misses the whole point of the philosophical differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. Generally it is that the government is not inherently entitled to anything more than the public is willing to give. It is highly unlikely that the majority of Americans are OK with the US government having a surplus of funds while they continue struggling to make ends meet.

This term and this time around, the reasoning for the current rebate and incentives proposal is altogether under different circumstances but the philosophy remains the same: the economy needs the cash, not the government even if the government is facing not only a pretty hefty budget deficit but also a staggering, if incomprehensible, national debt. The blame game has been going on for years between Democrats and Republicans, but the bottom line is that the US taxpayer has done what he is supposed to do by paying the taxes. It is the US Congress that has failed. The current 18% approval rating (depending on which poll is used but was cited last night by news commentators prior to the president’s State of the Union address) is indicative of the reality that taxpayers are aware of the Congress’ failure to act responsibly. Then as if seeking to affirm the low approval rating, Congress would dare to suggest that American taxpayers will have to give up more of their hard-earned pay to make corrections, insinuating that the government needs the cash more than the working families who earned it.

The current incentives proposal before the US House has cash rebates to be paid to taxpayers, but the Senate has all but guaranteed that there will be more added to it by the time it comes before that body such as more in food stamps and an extension of unemployment benefits for those who have been out of work for too long. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? How much good will a few hundred dollars be for those who have been out of work for so long? At best, there will be groceries purchased or bills paid but the relatively small amount will be gone in less than a month. A job, on the other hand, will go a lot further and will provide much more help to the American taxpayer – and the government by way of payroll taxes – than a one-time, very expensive allocation of government funds.

I would much rather the Congress give US businesses more incentive to keep jobs in the US. I would much rather the US Department of Transportation end this experiment of allowing Mexican trucking companies to operate on US highways when US trucking companies are struggling to keep up with high fuel prices and low freight rates which will certainly be driven even lower. I would rather the Congress offer up tax incentives to US businesses according to the number of Americans who are hired or according to setting up in an already depressed region. I would much rather the US Congress seriously consider how expensive it is to do business in the US and then come to realize their part in creating this anti-business environment in an economy that demands it. Though I do not pretend to be an expert in international business, I think I would rather the Congress repeal NAFTA and let American business and consumers get back into the business of making commerce for consumption and jobs and, ultimately, additional tax revenue.

I will always welcome a little extra cash now and then. I would be much more appreciative, however, for a new job or other new opportunities. I do not ask for guarantees, but let’s be reasonable: I cannot compete with a worker in another country who can afford to work for less and whose employer is being given all sorts of incentives by the US Congress, the same Congress We The People helped to elect.

The Congress is about to offer us jumper cables. The truth, however, is that it is not the economic “battery” that needs a boost. There is something much more sinister afoot here. For the time, however, all we can do is to prop our collective foot on the US front bumper and just look under the hood, hoping that someone smarter and more experienced than we will come along with a genuine solution to a genuine problem.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Total Package

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Galatians 4:6-11
John 8:31-36

The biggest issue of this year’s presidential campaign seems to be health care … or health insurance … or the high cost of each … or whether the government should provide … or whether the free market should be allowed to correct itself … or the definition of “adequate health care” … or who is to blame for those who don’t have insurance, or who do not have access to adequate health care.

Truth be told, I’m not sure how to narrow it down, but this I do know: if we are to get into a discussion on a correcting a particular problem, regardless of the problem, the first constructive step would be to define the problem, isolate it to its most common denominator, and then build a solution from there. And as much as we would wish it otherwise, health care is a complex issue that will have no easy 1-2 solutions. Do we need health insurance, or do we need access to adequate and affordable health care? Then we must determine exactly what “adequate” means, and “affordable” is, of course, relative. In other words, what do we need at the core level?

Our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities are limited by our own humanity and mortality; there is only so much we can do, and we are only going to live so long. But if we are not hitting on all cylinders we are not living up to our own God-given potential. The Declaration of Independence says we were created with “unalienable rights”; the Bible suggests we were created with inherent duties and responsibilities as well as opportunities. And these opportunities come as a result of living up to our God-given potential.

We were created in a Divine Image with, I think, a specific purpose and a particular gift. We were carefully designed with something in mind. And just as the cylinders of an engine require regular maintenance in order to operate according to their design for maximum performance, so must we undergo regular, scheduled maintenance periods in which we are renewed, refreshed, and reinvigorated. The key to good health, dear friends, is maintenance because as was stated earlier, once something goes wrong a solution may be more difficult to come by.

Defining a problem is perhaps the greatest challenge because so much can be inter-related. For instance, depression can take its toll on our physical health nearly to the point of incapacity, and clinical depression is said to be a physical problem as a chemical imbalance in the body. Perpetual physical illness and chronic pain can each take their toll on the body as well as the mind and the spirit. Stress alone can cause all kinds of problems for the human person that could perhaps be treated with medication, but the medication will only take care of the symptoms caused by stress; the source of the stress itself will still exist. So even though we’ve chosen a relatively expensive treatment program (medication AIN’T cheap!), we have yet to isolate the genuine problem.

We need only to look around and read the headlines to see all sorts of stress-induced problems. The home mortgage industry is in disarray, and the consumer credit crunch is about ready to bury us all. Just trying to keep our heads above water is a full-time job in itself. We are working ourselves to death, going nowhere, and making record time in getting there because we simply cannot be satisfied with where we are, so we strive for more. In the end, the “more” turns out to be a worldly “god”, a slave driver and task master that demands satisfaction but can never be satisfied because its appetite is insatiable. And believe me when I tell you that these “gods” are C*O*N*U*M*E*R*S; they will eat us alive, sap our spirits, take our souls because we willingly give them up, and then bury what’s left of us after we’ve been all used up. Sadder still, we will have entered into such an arrangement of our own free will, blinded by our own ambitions and selfish desires.

The foundation of our faith has been spelled out to us in Deuteronomy. Paul reiterates the theme to the Galatians, and then Jesus drives it home: in a well ordered and healthful life, something must always come first. It is not a matter of rearranging priorities according to the day’s needs or as circumstances may warrant; something must always come first consistently. The Revelation directly implicates the Church at Ephesus, but we would do well to heed the warning that we have allowed our lives, and thus our well-being, to be defined by the moment – by the “gods” of this age - rather than by Divine design and intent of faith:

“Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, repent, and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lamp stand from its place – unless you repent.” Revelation 2:4-5

The Holy Healthy Initiative of the Arkansas United Methodist Conference speaks of these points in reminding us first of our mission: to make disciples. In order to fulfill this mission, the Conference recognizes that we may be in danger of falling short of our calling and our mission because we are not “hitting on all cylinders”; that is to say, we are not working according to our Divine Design. The Initiative, however, is not about vanity. It is not about making ourselves look better to the opposite gender. It is about fine-tuning the engine so that we may go as needed and respond as called. To do this, all cylinders – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – must be well maintained.

At first glance putting such an emphasis on personal care can seem too inwardly focused, a little uncomfortably selfish relative to the pain and misery with which we are surrounded unless we take such care in its proper context. Jesus often went away to be ALONE. We must surely know, just as Jesus did, that there are literally hundreds of lost souls in any given area who are depending on Christians to help them even if they may be reluctant to admit it. This does not absolve us from our mission, our ministry, our calling; it just makes it a little more challenging.

In this life, in this age, in this consumer-driven society overburdened by debt and its accompanying misery which testifies to the insatiable appetite of this greedy, worldly “god” that demands more of us than we should be willing to give, we must first return to our FIRST LOVE. This is the “something” that must always come first on our list of priorities, our list of do’s, no matter what lay ahead.

It is time to give the Lord His due. It is time to cast off the shackles that are borne of greed, ambition, and worldly desires and give back to the Lord what He asks, what He is entitled to, what He ALONE paid to redeem!

WE ARE NO LONGER SLAVES! We are sons and daughters of the Living God (Galatians 4:7)! We are the “total package” that was offered first to the world in its perfection – with God’s help, we can get it back … and we must. The world is depending on us, and the Lord is waiting patiently … for now.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"I Have a Dream"

This is arguably one of the greatest speeches ever recorded. In its written form it is powerful but if you want to hear it as well, click on the title link.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Life in Perpetuity

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Attending funerals always brings certain thoughts to mind, not least of which is perhaps the greatest of all mysteries: what happens next, and not necessarily just beyond the grave. Answering this question, especially for those who are left to grieve, is compelling because loved ones almost always feel not only a profound sense of loss but also, I think, a lost sense of direction because of a traumatic, if often early or unexpected, interruption. In the case of the funeral I attended this week, the gentleman who was laid to rest is the father of one of my dearest friends since high school. He left behind his two sons, his three grandchildren, and his beloved wife of almost 52 years. It is she who may have a difficult time finding her footing even as his passing was not unexpected due to a long bout with cancer.

If there is to be any uncertainty in the new widow’s life, it will not be because she is not a strong person. In fact, no such statement can necessarily apply to anyone in particular because there are oftentimes circumstances that push us out of that strange but comforting sense of complacency that is borne of a hopeful yet blind notion that it will never end. Because life is but a fleeting moment in the realm of eternity, being prepared for these moments is necessary because there is no way that death will not come to us all.

I have encountered too many Christians over the years who are absolutely petrified at the thought of death; not just their own but also someone close to them. It is only when there is death or illness in the family that the reality of death really hits home. And the reasons for such fears are as varied as our opinions. Few are rational but in the mind of the one experiencing the fear and anxiety, it is as real as reality gets. There is little that anyone can do to allay these fears because it is virtually impossible to rationalize the irrational.

The Christian concept of the Lord and Heaven, however, should inhibit such fears because when we speak of the Lord and His grace, we are talking not about death but about life – even at a funeral. And life, as is said so often, is fundamental to the existence of humanity. There is life and there is death, but there is no in-between. To speak of death in the Christian vernacular, however, should be as foreign to us as any unfamiliar language.

None of this is to say that we will not hurt and grieve when we mark the passing of a loved one; not at all. From that moment life will not be the same, and it never can be because of the attachment we had with that person. Our lives are centered on a particular existence, and those lives sort of define our own being; our associations with these loved ones identify who we are. Though it may seem an unfair comparison, losing a job can be almost as traumatic because this, too, makes a statement about who we are and what we have become. Either way, I fear that we Christians have a long way to go in making peace with the reality that our lives will one day end.

When it is over, however, is it really ALL OVER? In the case of my friend, the answer is a resounding “NO”. He and his brother are both good and decent men. They were raised by good and decent parents who taught them how to love, how to live, how to work, and how to rely on their faith. The patriarch of that family is passed, but he has left behind a legacy of a life well spent as well as a life that will not end. And because he lived a life of faith and community service, his family can rest in the comfort of the REALITY of the Lord calling to this man and saying, “Well done, My good and faithful servant.”

Why, then, do we mourn? Why must our human grief disallow the reality that in the life of faith, there can be no death? Why do we know such fear that can sometimes nearly immobilize some who have become so attached to a life or a way of life so much so that anything outside that particular realm is completely alien to us? Could it be that we define ourselves, FIRST AND FOREMOST, by our worldly and man-made definitions? I am someone’s husband and father. My friend’s father was a farmer and a justice of the peace. She was a farmer’s wife, and he is the son of a farmer as well as someone’s husband and someone’s father. I was once a transportation manager but because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, all these worldly realities are no longer true or will one day change beyond recognition. This is the one true and indisputable reality: things as we know them will come to an end sooner or later.

Is such reality restricted only to those who marry or who reproduce? Not even close -because we touch lives in a positive way NOT biologically nor physically but spiritually. Think of how a slap in the face will sting for a little bit, but words and actions cut straight to the core of our being. We are touched more profoundly by experience than by mere words. Thus is it reasonable to presume that others are as profoundly affected by what we do and say and how we live and teach by our examples. These are the things which compel people to want more of the goodness they can readily see. And these good things are perpetuated from generation to generation by spiritual strength and the courage borne of faith.

The disciples whom Jesus called to follow Him were fishermen, husbands, fathers, tax collectors, and maybe farmers. Those who chose to follow Him later were from all walks of life, but the Life shown to them has continued to this very day. Isn’t it strange how the more things change, the more they stay the same? Especially when it comes to experiences of life, we will certainly encounter traumatic events in our lives. It is absolute, and there is no escaping this inexplicable fact. However, notice how life continues to march. Notice how, no matter the evil that is still perpetrated on this earth and in this world, life somehow finds a way?

It is the way of the Lord. He is the God and author of Life, and He has chosen to perpetuate Life through a whole new Covenant. It is the Covenant for keeps. It is the Covenant of Life. It is the Covenant of Christ. And it is perpetual – and ETERNAL – Life.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Race-Baiting and the Democrats

Alright … who dissed Dr. King? We have a bona-fide, life-enhancing public discourse going on right now between Hillary and Obama with a side of Bill (Clinton) jumping into the mix here and there (although I think Bill sort of backed off after being called to account for his ‘fairy tale’ remark by Al Sharpton). The following is an edited Tongue-In-Cheek transcript of a sound-bite conversation that has been going on between Hillary and Obama. Until now, dear reader, you have had to wait until the next day’s paper to find out what one said in response to another. As a public service to the informed voter, I have assembled the latest conversation and its bits and pieces into one easy-to-read format. I hope you find it as informative as I did.

Hillary: “Yes, you did ..”
Obama: “Nuh-uh”
Hillary: “I am more …”
Obama: “Nuh-uh … me.”
Hillary: “You don’t get it …”
Obama: “Oh yeah? YOU don’t get it!”
John Edwards: “But, but …”
Hillary: “Nuh-uh … YOU!
Obama: “Oh no she didn’t!”
Bill: “She didn’t say that; I did. But that’s not what I really said. The general public is not intelligent enough to understand me. I was misquoted. I was taken out of context. I am misunderstood. I’m way more black than he is!”

Well, I think you get the point. At least I hope you got the point, that being that these two (well, three if you count John Edwards) are SERIOUS contenders for the Democratic nomination. People are actually getting in line to vote for these people and what’s worse: they both currently serve in the US Senate. To be fair, however, we must also realize that some dialogue between two or more of the Republicans can be as easily reduced to such a level, but there seems to be no current spitting match among the Republicans over who is the “blacker” candidate.

Primaries in the south will be make-or-break contests for those who are barely holding on. In fact, these early primaries may well end two or more campaigns depending on the outcome. Political campaigns operations issues are not what is at stake here, however. The fact that there has been such a low level of discourse between Hillary and Obama each trying to stake some sort of political and/or racial claim to Dr. Martin Luther King and the movement he led indicates to me that these candidates and their political operatives really do have a low opinion of the intellect of the typical American voter. It is also very clear that as each of these “top” candidates has been very pointed in accusations against President Bush as the cause for divisiveness in this county, they are doing their level best to divide voters by color. Of course each will take whatever “white” votes they can get, but they really … really …. REALLY want the “black” vote. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what that is. Don’t we all essentially want the same things?

I had hoped that the certain positive thing that might come from this race with Hillary and Obama would be that color would not play into it since there is a serious contender who is not white. Yet it did, and they each fell into a public spitting match, from what I can gather, about who knew more about Dr. King’s part in the fight for civil rights. And Mr. Clinton jumped into the fray by insisting that it took a white, Democratic president to get the job done. Is he serious about trying to lead us to believe that President Johnson single-handedly passed this ground-breaking legislation? President Johnson was no more alone in this landmark than was Dr. King (let us not forget that Dr. King was not walking alone all those times). How did it come to this, and where will it go from here?

I can’t wait to see.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

All Things New

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

A pastor friend was once asked in class about his very favorite part of being a Methodist pastor. His quick response was, “baptizing babies”. Having had the good fortune of watching him in action, his enthusiasm for such ministry is readily apparent. It is not something he simply does as a portion of his office as pastor; the man genuinely loves offering this Sacrament of the Church and he also has a genuine love for children. For him, it is not a duty; it is both an honor and a privilege to welcome newcomers into the Body of Christ.

For baptism to be as important a part of Christian life as it is, it is also one of the sticking points between Christian denominations that causes a great deal of conflict and consternation. The nature of the Sacrament itself does not seem to be questioned. Rather, the timing and method are points on which far too many Christians simply cannot agree.

Some insist that baptism must be done by complete immersion as is presumed by the baptism of Jesus in a “river”; nothing wrong with this. There is also the general notion of the so-called “believer’s baptism” by which one would present oneself for baptism only after confessing Christ as Savior; nothing wrong here, either, except that this notion would necessarily exclude infants because they obviously cannot speak for themselves. What we must be mindful of, however, are the “whole households” that were baptized in Acts as a result of the head of that household coming to the realization of the New Covenant.

Baptizing infants can also be problematic for some because the doctrine of Original Sin comes into play in some traditions. Very simply put (perhaps overly so), this doctrine holds forth that all of mankind is born with the sin of Adam and Eve. It is only through the Sacrament of Baptism that one is restored. There are a couple of flaws with such a doctrine, at least from my own simplistic perspective, that lend to more confusion than anything else but in the end, the Sacrament of Baptism remains an Act Of God merely administered by the hands of man. When man reduces this spiritual encounter with the Divine to a doctrinal formula, it comes near to smacking of an unhealthy superstition and has the capacity, at least in the eyes of man, to diminish the nature of the Act and what is actually taking place.

That the Sacrament of Baptism is an act of God holds true regardless of the time and regardless of the method. Each of these, of course, is an act of man in response to the Lord, but they remain acts of man nevertheless. It is for this reason alone that I believe man should put away his years-old traditions and be a little more open minded about the Sacrament of Baptism. Treat it and approach it with reverence and respect, of course, but recognize that it is still by the saving grace and restorative power of the Lord alone by which man is saved. Anything else is self-serving and, thus, futile.

Rather than focus on the disagreements we Christians have about the correct timing or method of baptism, however, I would prefer that we explore the nature of baptism in the life of the Christian and Christ’s Holy Church. I would prefer that we put aside our own personal or corporate understandings of physical characteristics of the water for instance, and focus instead on the spiritual characteristics of one who is born anew. I would prefer that we dismiss the notion that there can be only one “right” method or “right” time and focus instead on the moment when the “old” is dismissed and the “new” is ushered in.

From what we know about Jesus and His conception and birth, He would be the last One needing to be baptized; yet He insisted upon it. Prior to this moment there is nothing to suggest that Jesus is any less the Christ than He is after baptism but according to what is written in Matthew, something does occur. “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as He came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a Voice from heaven said, ‘This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mt 3:16-17

Gnosticism suggests that it was at this moment when Jesus became the Christ, when man spiritually aligned with the Divine and became one with Him. Even without such a notion, which flies in the face of orthodox Christian dogma, something transformative has taken place at this moment in the life of Jesus. There has been some sort of change that seems to have been visually and audibly apparent to those who were present.

It occurred to me this past week that man must never find himself static in any situation, that regardless of where we find ourselves doing whatever it is we do, we must always be mindful of velocity; it is the very nature of life itself. Forward movement. Constant and continuous evolution (and no, I do not mean Darwin’s ideas about physical evolution!). I was given a transcript of my pastor friend’s sermon this past week in which he reminded his congregation (and me) that “the moment” is never in one place, that man can and should constantly look and move and work forward because the past is gone, never to return. We can learn from the past, but we must not live there nor should we stay there. We can wish and pine for “the good ol’ days”, but spending too much time reminiscing might mean that we will miss the boat of life that is constantly moving forward.

Jesus did not need to be baptized, but the world needed to see what happened as a result of the baptism of man into the Divine; I think it may have been the “dove”. The language of Matthew speaks of the Spirit of God descending “like a dove” which would indicate more of a symbolic occurrence than the mere physical presence of a bird. It is not unlike the use of water in baptism. For being able to appreciate the truest nature of sin and all that sin represents, it would be inaccurate to suggest that any amount of water alone could wash this away.

The presence of the dove, however, goes far beyond the water and the removal of sin. The Spirit, which is represented in the dove, “alights” on the Son of Man. Since we believe that Jesus was born free from sin, the symbolism may come up far short, then, of what we think the physical act of baptism is supposed to mean for us. The act of baptism took place; this is physical. The descent of the Spirit, however, seems to have come as a result of this Act. Man is no longer alone, and the Lord has laid claim once again to His own creation that had once been separated from Him. It is the New Covenant manifest in Jesus the Christ.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean. I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new Spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers. You shall be My people, and I will be your God. I will deliver you from all your uncleanness.” Ezekiel 36:25-29a


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

For the Sake of Change

If there is one thing politicians know, it is whatever reverberates with active voters. This particular “thing” can change from one election cycle to the next depending on what’s happening on the state or national scene. There are “experts” who are hired by political campaigns to advise candidates on how to connect with voters and potential voters. This year the catch phrase (or word) is “change”.

We have seasoned politicians all clamoring for the illustrative title, “agent of change”, and all are keenly aware of the public’s general perception of Congress and its effectiveness in dealing with everyday citizens and their particular needs. This perception is reflected in the public opinion polls which consistently show the Congress at or below the president’s own approval ratings. Americans by and large just do not believe in the Congress or the job it purports to be doing, and I don't think any political party is particularly to blame.

Political consultants are keenly aware of this fact, but these same consultants are also aware of this disturbing fact: Americans are generally ignorant of the policy development process and even more ignorant of their own members of Congress and their voting records, or even how government works. What Americans are aware of and what Americans pay attention to are sound bites, and these sound bites are more prevalent during election season. So while these presidential contenders are aware of America’s low opinion of Congress, these same members of Congress who now want to be America’s next president do not want Americans to know that the general problems America faces probably has more to do with the ineffectiveness of the US Congress than with the president himself. What’s worse: the contenders want us to believe that they can affect the “change” Americans so desperately want, the same “change” that has yet to occur from the Congress while these same people have been serving in the Congress. Now these members of Congress want us to believe that as president, they will bring the “change” so desperately sought.

The truth is, the promises of “change” that each of these candidates offer are not constitutionally possible. The president is limited in what he (or she) can do, and these wanna-be’s know it. What they are counting on, however, is that we don’t know it. This is why the “change” message seems so popular among voters. We’re all tired of the same old game, but the truth is that we have to take some responsibility for the nation’s condition, good or bad. The president cannot wave a magic wand and end wars or balance budgets without some cooperation from the Congress. And if there is one party in control of the Congress and another party in the White House, fugitaboutit. Not gonna happen. Why? Because each party wants Americans to believe that the opposing party is inherently evil and bent on the destruction of this nation.

Democrats want Americans to believe that President Bush and Republicans wanted to kick little old ladies out into the streets with their Social Security proposals. Republicans want Americans to believe that Democrats want to surrender to illegal immigrants and Middle Eastern terrorists and give them run of the country. Neither side is willing to admit that it is quite possible that Americans are a collection of individuals with different ideas about how to achieve a particular goal. Worse, Americans are willing to believe this rot. It seems that we are not happy unless we’ve found someone to blame for our lot in life, and politico's are more than willing to provide a list of fall guys.

The other presidential contenders who are not currently serving a political office are trying to convince Americans that they are the ones most likely to bring about “change” in Washington because they are trying to present themselves as “outsiders”. Well, I can’t say that Jimmy Carter’s “outsider” message carried well on several levels.

If we want “change”, genuine “change”, we have to start with the Congress. This means that NO INCUMBENT returns to office for a new term, including those who are running for president. Set members of Congress on a retirement that is entirely dependent on Social Security and their own personal savings like the rest of us, and end automatic pay increases. Then, and only then, can we look forward to serious “change”.