What Others Say

We use your column in our Saturday Spiritual Life section, so I always read it. The new one about Rafael is just totally cool. Again, great column. It touched me enough to email you.
- Greg Jaklewicz - Editorial Page Editor, Abilene News Reporter

Monday, August 29, 2011

Authenticity

I stepped up to the counter and handed the cashier my twenty-dollar bill. She glanced at me, lifted the bill up to the light, squinted and examined it, then laid it on the counter. She whipped out what looked like a felt tip marker and marked it. After a long second, she placed it in the cash register and gave me my change. It seemed simple enough. But it made me wonder.

What made her think my twenty might be fake? Did I look dishonest? I reminded myself that it was standard procedure. She had been taught to check every twenty because you never know who might pass a counterfeit. You can’t recognize honesty or dishonesty by a person’s looks.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just as easy to discern fake people as it is to recognize a fake twenty? What if we could hold people up to a light, squint and examine them for watermarks, or just swipe them with a pen and watch for discoloration?

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Sometimes the people we trust the most disappoint us. That was the case with Richard Nixon. After winning the presidency by a landslide vote, the Watergate investigations revealed a man far different than the public image. One of our great difficulties today is the widespread doubt that no politician can be trusted. They seem more intent on vilifying their opponents and promoting their own agenda than engaging in sincere dialogue.

We all know that no one is perfect. We are all human. We are all sinners and we all make mistakes. We are not looking for perfection. But we are desperate for authenticity. We are desperate for authenticity in parents, teachers, employers, employees, preachers and politicians.

Jesus ranked authenticity among the highest of virtues. His harshest words were leveled at those who pretended to be what they were not. Speaking to people of his day, Jesus said, “You're like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it's all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you're saints, but beneath the skin you're total frauds.” (Mt. 23:27-28, The Message). He warned his disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1 NASV).

What really gets scary and complicated is to examine ourselves. Am I authentic? Is there any hypocrisy in me? Are we being open, honest and authentic with one another? Someday, of course, there will be a test. God will hold each of us up to the light. He will not be concerned about the flaws and imperfections. He will examine us for authenticity. Are we people of authentic faith living authentic lives?

Monday, August 22, 2011

When He Comes

Beyond confessions of faith, hymns and sermons, the Second Coming of Christ remains virtually irrelevant to daily life. We pursue our educations, work at our careers, raise our families, worry about retirement and prepare for the inevitable: death and taxes. The lives of believers and non-believers show little marked difference beyond church attendance.

But what if He comes today? What if He comes tomorrow? What if He came yesterday? No, I am not suggesting you missed the “rapture.” But, He did, in fact, come yesterday and He will, in fact, come today. Before you dismiss this as crazy, let me explain.

This is exactly what Jesus taught His disciples before His ascension into Heaven. Jesus said when He returns, “the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25:31-46)

Jesus comes to us everyday if we are looking for Him. He comes in small, imperceptible and unexpected ways. He comes in the interruptions that beg for our attention and threaten to derail our pre-planned agendas.

Yesterday He came to me in the person of a young Hispanic employee at Wal-Mart who needed words of encouragement. A couple of weeks ago He came in the form of two brothers in their sixties who stopped to help me work on my 1977 VW bug when it quit running. A month ago He came in the form of a Chinese woman named Chiu who was fishing on a pier with her mentally handicapped daughter. Last year He came in the form of a teenage unwed mother who had given birth to a son who died a few days later. How many times I have missed Him and did not recognize Him? I don't know. He comes every day in many ways and forms that we are likely to miss if we are too focused on our own agendas. We might even miss Him by being too focused on our opinions about eschatology.

If we live our lives alert and ready to receive Him each and every day in the small encounters with the “least of these” we will be ready to receive Him in that day, when He appears like lightning from east to west. We might even hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fear

We all know that sex sells. Companies have used sex to sell everything from cars to cabbage. But sex seems to be yielding its throne in the marketplace. Fear may be surpassing sex as the emotion of choice for marketers who want to control commerce and politics.

Life insurance, annuities, real estate, technology and political candidates are all marketed through the advertising of fear. Fear sells. Marketers call it “shockvertising.” It is sometimes referred to as “fear mongering.” Nedra Weinreich, who teaches social marketing at UCLA says, “What all of these campaigns have in common is that they try to instill the fear of what might happen if you do not support their causes.” As we enter a presidential election year, I expect the fear campaigns will intensify. Politicians know that people vote their fears.

We have always lived with fear. Those who grew up in the 1950s learned as children to “duck and cover” beneath their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. (How much protection that would have provided, I don’t know.) Many of us lived through the cold war, the star wars arms race and 9-11. Those who are entering their teens have never known a world in which people greeted one another at the airport gate and walked freely through the terminal without security lines.

The wild swings in the stock market are evidence of the fear and panic gripping our world. Fear may be one of the primary reasons corporate executives are sitting on record cash profits rather than creating jobs and investing in the future. We are in danger of becoming a fearful people.

God does not desire that we live fearful lives. Jesus spoke a great deal about fear and how to overcome it. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. … Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? … Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12).

When a distressed father received the news his daughter was dead, Jesus said, “Stop fearing. Only believe.” When the disciples were on the sea, struggling against the wind in the dark, Jesus came to them and said. “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7).

It is important that we not fall victim to the fear tactics of market manipulators. It is important that we find a faith that frees us from the paralyzing fears that can rob us of power and love and a sound mind.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Anger

Anger. There is a lot of it out there. Last week Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating largely due to the boiling anger within congress and the inability of elected representatives to work together. In the final analysis, congressmen were angry, the president was angry and now the American people are angry.

Anger doesn’t require such significant issues to raise its ugly head. Last weekend several Tampa Bay baseball fans got into an angry fight over a foul ball that landed in a garbage can. After tempers flared, the security guard stepped in and ruled that the ball would remain where it landed, beneath a pile of peanut shells, beer, hot dog wrappers and whatever else had been deposited in the can. If we can’t get along with one another, nobody wins.

We are all acquainted with anger. We have felt the rising resentment and boiling emotions that overwhelm rational thought and take control of our words and our actions leading us to say things and do things that we later regret. We call it losing our temper. It is built into us. We are born with it. Anyone who cares for a newborn soon discovers that babies have a temper. For most of us, age helps. We call it “mellowing.” Things that once pushed our button and shoved us over the edge are not as frustrating as before. We become more patient, we gain greater perspective.

It is okay to become angry. When anger causes us to take action that will result in improved environment and behavior, it is good. Jesus became angry. He did not casually cleanse the temple. He drove out all those who were using religion for profit, overturning their tables, scattering their money on the stones and driving the bleating sheep, braying oxen and fluttering pigeons before him with a whip. Later, when the religious authorities wanted to prevent him from healing the sick on the Sabbath, the Bible says he looked at them “with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.”

But, it is not okay to lose our temper. Uncontrolled anger can be disastrously destructive. It is not okay to live an angry life as an angry person. Angry people alienate others, and, when their anger spins out of control, they inflict damage and injury to themselves and others. When anger cuts off conversation and communication that can lead to understanding and solutions to shared problems, it is a bad thing. When anger spills over into rage that lashes out at others to hurt and to harm, it is a bad thing.

Anger is one of those human emotions we all possess that must be channeled and controlled to produce constructive results. Left unchecked and allowed to run wild, it can destroy us. The Bible instructs us to “Be angry and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”(Eph. 4:26). The Bible also says, “The anger of man does not fulfill the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20).

Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt

The nation and the world watched with shock, horror and disgust as the United States congress argued and bantered till the last minute to raise the debt ceiling, adopt a budget and avert the United States’ first ever default. As best I can understand it, the irreconcilable conflict had at least three positions: the Democrats who wanted to raise the debt ceiling so that the U.S. can continue borrowing and pay its debts until after the 2012 presidential elections, the Republicans who wanted a short term increase in the debt ceiling that will require another round of negotiations within the year and the Tea Party Republicans who wanted no increase in the debt ceiling forcing the government to immediately reign in its spending to current levels of income. (I am sure this is an overly simplistic appraisal of the situation.)

Regardless of political positions or opinions, the underlying issue to our current crisis is debt. We simply owe more than we can pay. Everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike seem to recognize that this cannot continue. We cannot continue as a nation sinking further and further into debt.

Perhaps debt and credit will be the defining issues of the twenty-first century. We have watched Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland wrestle with debt issues that totter the European markets. We are still struggling to recover from the debt and credit crisis of 2008 that sent our economy spiraling into the "Great Recession."

The generation that grew up in the Great Depression and fought the second World War learned early in life the value of saving and of avoiding unnecessary debt. But they are quickly passing from the scene. Those of us who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first are having to relearn those lessons the hard way.

For decades we have lived under the illusion that budgets could be based on credit. We ran up credit card debt adopting life styles and standards of living beyond our income. We even coined a phrase to describe it: the “standard of living bubble,” defined by Investopedia as “The concept of consumers living beyond their means for an extended period of time. … the use of consumer credit and spending increases in order to provide the illusion of increases in standard of living.”

Prior to the “Great Recession” of 2008 the average savings rate for Americans was negative. We were, on average, spending more than we earned. Fortunately, we are making progress. Americans are reducing personal debt and increasing personal savings. Now we are painfully watching our government wrestle with the same debt issues we each must address. The way forward will not be easy and will not be rectified overnight. But, if we as a people and a nation learn to live within our means we will establish a firm footing for prosperity and health.

Writing in 1757 as Poor Richard, Benjamin Franklin warned, “when you run in debt, you give another power over your liberty,” and “the borrower is a slave to the lender and the debtor to the creditor.”

The Scripture says “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” (Romans 13:8).