Monday, March 30, 2009

A Dangerous Precedent

Today President Obama announced the government-mandated resignation of General Motor’s CEO, Rick Wagoner, as a condition for more government aid. And he did all this without consulting the Congress. Even more strangely, Mr. Wagoner stepped down immediately. Stranger (or scarier) still, Mr. Obama rejected GM’s and Chrysler’s restructuring plans because he felt the plans did not do enough to make either company “viable”. Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, was “sad” upon learning of this development and expressed concern regarding a “double standard in the treatment of the US auto makers and the financial industry” ( Now, according to President Obama, warranties on new GM vehicles will be backed by the US government rather than the manufacturer.

The government, regardless of who is at the helm, has been virtually out of control for a number of years as it grows larger and larger and thinks up new ways to be more things to more people – and on a much grander and more expensive scale. The promises Obama made while campaigning for president guaranteed that we would see government on an even larger scale than before. Now with control of GM, and to a lesser extent Chrysler, seemingly settled into the Oval Office, I fear we ain’t seen nothing yet. President Obama says the government is not in the car-making business, but evidence to the contrary would indicate otherwise since one word from the White House would cause the sudden “retirement” of GM’s CEO. And the US government is going to back auto warranties? What is this if not “control”?

This is not a good move, and it does not restore my confidence in the industry since I have virtually no confidence in a US government that cannot seem to manage itself. Now Mr. Obama is an auto industry expert, so much so that he alone can determine whether a restructuring plan will be adequate.

I fear the worst is yet to come.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Greater Purpose

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Psalm 51:1-12 Hebrews 5:5-10 John 12:20-33

Having a sense of purpose is the reason we do what we do, whatever it may be. Having a sense of purpose moves us beyond a mere existence, drives us forward, and defines our very being and sense of self. We become whatever it is we choose to do. For good or bad, it is who and what we are. For instance, I am not a professional writer though I still hope to one day be published AND paid for my work. Until such time, however, an inspiring article told me that if I think about writing and study about writing and enjoy writing, then I AM A WRITER. But in that effort, it’s not simply about writing for writing’s sake. Writing is not the end; it is a means to an end. I hope to inspire and persuade through whatever I choose to write about. So writing – and preaching – cannot be considered “ends” unless they each serve a useful purpose beyond themselves.

Watching a favorite movie the other night, I was reminded (by a simple line in the movie!) that as hectic and overwhelming and burdensome as our lives can often be, there is really only “one thing” that truly matters. In the movie, “City Slickers”, the trail boss, Curley, is explaining to “Mitch” that ‘city slickers’ spend 50 weeks out of the year getting knots in their rope, and then go on a trail/cattle drive as they were on, thinking 2 weeks on such a trip will untie those knots and clear their heads. “None of ‘em get it”, Curley says. Then he asks if ‘Mitch’ knows the secret of life. When ‘Mitch’ says no, Curley holds up his index finger and says, “One thing. Just one thing. You figure that out and stick with it, and all the other stuff just won’t matter.”

Having a clear sense of purpose actually defines what we do and determines whether what we do will have a profound effect on the outcome, or if the outcome will merely be a natural result. In other words, does our sense of purpose exceed our sense of self so that we are focused not on how something may affect only us in the end but, rather, on whether what we will achieve will ultimately serve a greater good, something far beyond self. Will the result be purposeful or simply incidental to the act which created that result?

In John’s Gospel (12:20-33), Jesus has a clear purpose. Though at first glance Jesus may seem to come across as somewhat haughty when these Greeks wanted to see Him (vs 20, 21), perhaps to learn more about their own conversion from the Teacher, the Rabbi many were likely talking about. If these Greeks were the Jewish converts some scholars believe them to have been, then it is interesting that since Judaism is relatively new to them, they would certainly like to talk to the Man who seems to be challenging the Jewish faith, or at least what they have come to understand about Judaism.

Think about the religion the Pharisees taught and the many confrontations between Jesus and them. The religion the Pharisees pushed was a cult of rules and regulations (the means) which seemed to do nothing more than to suppress and oppress. Its only end seemed to be toward keeping people in line. It’s not unlike the cattle drive of the movie in which the cattle are moved in a particular direction, surrounded by cowboys as “enforcers”. The cattle will move as they are directed to move and under some circumstances may even panic (stampede), but they can be quickly brought back under control. And throughout this whole ordeal, the cattle have no idea where they are headed or why.

In reality, however, Jesus is not trying to re-invent the wheel; His whole ministry is about reorienting the way the faithful think about and approach the Lord God. He is challenging a man-made religion that came to feed and serve only itself and had little to do with the Lord God Himself. That religion which Jesus sought to destroy served no legitimate purpose except to create a “ruling class” of pharisees who were served by the people who were kept “in line” by their sense of fear. The Pharisees created a “god” more aligned to their own image of self as merciless enforcers and task-masters.

Still for the moment, it must be remembered that “the hour has come” (vs. 23) and Jesus has something profoundly important to do. Distractions such as unexpected guests could not be allowed because The Greater Purpose is now on track to be fulfilled. There can be nothing more important than this. And when we stop to think about it, it is such distractions that perhaps created a scenario as this one which finally made such a Sacrifice necessary in the first place, to create a New Means of Reconciliation between mankind and the Holy Father.

In a busy world such as the ones we have created for ourselves, it is easy to get knocked off course when we are on track to do the things we need to do even beyond those more practical and mundane, day-to-day tasks that mark the moments in our day. Yet there are so many other tasks we have before us that we never seem to get around to because of the busy-ness of our world and our lives. Our necessary focus on that purpose for which we were created is profoundly diminished when we are distracted by other things, especially things which serve only themselves.

Yet we live in a society that values “multi-tasking”, meaning that one can do many things at the same time with some careful juggling of priorities. The truth that actually comes out of such efforts, however, is that no matter how many tasks we are able to juggle at the same time, it can rarely be said that we can do any ONE thing really well not because we are incapable but because we are distracted (jack of all trades, master of none!). It is not unlike the argument and safety concern about cell phones. One cannot be fully engaged with the task of operating a vehicle AND fully engaged in a phone conversation at the same time. One or the other is going to suffer as a result of a distracted mind, and the purpose of neither one will be adequately served or fulfilled. In fact, it can be said that more harm than good will result.

When Jesus challenges His followers – then and now - to “take up their cross” and follow Him, there is a Greater Purpose in such a journey that transcends our own personal needs or wishes. And the Journey itself is a Purposeful Means because the Journey cannot be the ultimate Destination. We must also necessarily notice and embrace verses 27-28. Therein lies our Purpose: to please, honor, and glorify our Holy Father, to make Him well-known to those whose existence lacks Purpose, to give to the “last, least, and lost” clarity and meaning.

Faithfully purposeful, dear friends, we will hear the Immortal Words we long to hear: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kids, Condoms, and Common Sense

Pope Benedict has been quoted as having said that condoms are not the solution to the HIV/AIDS problem and, in fact, actually make matters worse though the story did not say exactly how the pontiff justified his remarks. What he actually said, as quoted by is: “AIDS is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems".

If there is one thing that can rile a Protestant, it is a Catholic telling them that artificial birth control is a ‘bad thing’. As a Methodist pastor who grew up in the Catholic Church, I have seen these arguments go back and forth and accomplish very little. I have seen Protestants (and many Catholics) arm themselves with very worldly, though pretentiously pious arguments in favor of birth control while the pope has been intent on defending Church traditions and teachings, both claiming to know the mind and will of the Lord. Is it possible that one is wrong? Or could it be that Protestants will not take the pope seriously because, well, that wouldn’t be very ‘protestant’ of them, now would it?

In the past there have been those ridiculous arguments that the Roman Church, and specifically the pope, are responsible for the AIDS epidemic and world over-population by telling the “ignorant masses” that artificial birth control is a sin and against the historic teachings of the Church. I don’t know how much more ridiculous an argument can be, but a reason to reject such teachings out of hand - because these teachings seem so out of touch with the contemporary world - may be the very reason why the faithful, even contemporary ones, should give pause and consider more closely exactly what is being said.

Abstinence is ridiculed by so many as “unrealistic”, a violation of the rights and natural responses of human beings. Abstinence does not consider the animalistic nature of the human mammal. Abstinence solves nothing. 90% chance of safety with a rubber is a far cry better than a 100% chance with abstinence (??). And these statements are made with a straight face. And yet not one statement supposes to tell those whose “rights” may be violated that rights come with responsibilities, and there is also that possibility that some rights may even have consequences. Of course, we don’t want to hear this. We only want to know what our rights are (self-designated is much preferable, though) and how we go about not only exercising these rights but how we go about securing a reasonable safety net that will protect us from ourselves as we exercise our rights with no mind toward imminent results for which we are not prepared.

Whether abstinence is unrealistic is a matter of what is most important to us. Bristol Palin, the teenaged daughter of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, has been quoted by the national media as saying teenage abstinence is unrealistic. Along with those who suggest (or rather, demand) that abstinence on the continent of Africa is also unrealistic, these arguments fall flat when defending our humanity and our human instincts with the notion that we are mindless, instinctive animals with no control over our urges. We demand that governments clean up after we exercise our natural rights to engage in whatever sex we choose. We demand abortions even though we know that pregnancy is a very natural result of sex. We demand government solutions to STD’s, including HIV/AIDS, even while we reasonably recognize such as a quite natural result of sex with multiple partners. Not once do we consider that, as humans with the capacity to reason, we have the ability to control these “natural” urges; that what we actually lack is the will.

That which “aggravates the problem”, as Pope Benedict has pointed out, is not only that condoms offer no absolute guarantees, only a reduced risk, but that we are more willing to put such absolute faith in man-made products and mindlessly (though instinctively) go on about just doing what feels natural. The pope is right on the money in this. Condoms will not solve problems, birth control pills will not solve problems, abortions most certainly only compound and multiply existing problems, because the problems are not the results we actually hope to avoid. The problem, instead, is humanity’s lack of self-responsibility and self-control beforehand. The problems, as they are, are exacerbated when we demand rights but reject responsibilities.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Failure & Ideological Perspective

Rush Limbaugh has a unique way of getting under one’s skin especially if one happens to disagree with him. Like President Obama. Or White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Or White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. And especially if Mr. Limbaugh makes such a disdainful statement as expressing a hope that President Obama will fail. Well, this is not exactly what Limbaugh said, but for purely political purposes it is what is being interpreted and expressed by those who care nothing for, or completely misunderstand, what Limbaugh and conservatives really stand for and believe. Instead, the White House would prefer you and me to believe that anyone who disagrees with Mr. Obama is either a racist who resents a black man being in the White House or an elitist who does not care for the poor. It is not unlike the accusations against President Bush and his crew for those who were not “patriotic”. Name-calling. It’s what’s for dinner (talk). And in the midst of all these charges and counter-charges, nothing gets done.

This Congress seems clueless about what the country needs right now, and I’m not so sure the President or his economic team even knows what must be done next. And in the absence of a firm grasp of this economic melt-down, President Obama sees it as an opportunity to push a social restructuring agenda. Since the Congress is unsure about what must happen next, they do the next best thing: give-aways and ear-marks. These items translate into dollars in terms people can understand, and these dollars translate into a misunderstanding about how much the Democratic Party “cares” about Americans. This, in turn, translates into votes from the misinformed and the allegedly disenfranchised.

The failure that Mr. Limbaugh is hoping for is purely ideological, not financial or economic. The very idea that government can solve all our problems and the problems of the world if it just spends more money, particularly on social programs, is outrageous both practically and historically. The failure Mr. Limbaugh is talking about is this very notion that we can only succeed with government’s help. The failure would be the people coming to realize that overarching government creates dependency, and the Democrats seek to exploit that dependency by seeking to convince these people who are dependent that their lives would be in shambles without government support.

Just as dependency breeds dependency, success breeds success. Even failures which come, from time to time, as a result of entrepreneurial initiative breed success. These are the initiatives successful business leaders across this nation have taken their lumps in and learned from to ensure eventual success. And these initiatives have never been borne of a government’s intervention and/or control. Mr. Obama and company will ultimately fail because their first failure has been an utter refusal to acknowledge this ideological reality of capitalism. And failure breeds failure.