Monthly Archives: April 2011

First Peter 1:17-23 – Belief Should Inspire Behavior

Rome - Saint Peter Basilica - Detail

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[Reflections on the Lectionary Reading for May 8, 2011]

In this passage from Peter‘s first letter, he makes a connection between faith and action. He says, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22, NRSV). Peter expects that people who accept the truth of who Jesus really was will begin to live their lives differently. Peter expects them to love one another deeply.

This connection is not always present in Christians, it seems. Even a cursory review of Paul’s letters to early Christian communities reveals that there were bickering and strife among believers. Anyone who has spent much time in one congregation or another is likely to encounter the same. Today we see Christian groups become more involved in politics and protests, and oftentimes their behavior doesn’t seem to reflect a deep love of others.

Why aren’t Christians more loving?  Was Peter wrong in making a connection between right beliefs (orthodoxy) and right actions (orthopraxis)? Jesus certainly taught that we should love one another deeply. Does belief in Jesus as the Messiah lead to allowing Jesus to shape and change one’s life?  Shouldn’t a disciple of a teacher learn from and behave according to that teacher?

Much is made by Protestants that salvation is not earned through works. I fear this leads many to focus so much energy on their right beliefs that they spend precious little energy worrying about whether their behavior reflects the teachings of Jesus. Many claim to have accepted Jesus as a personal savior, but they don’t seem to see themselves as either disciples or servants of their savior.

If I see Jesus just as my savior, then my relationship fits into the worldly mode of focusing on, “what’s in it for me?” As my savior, Jesus rescues me from death. If I see Jesus as my Lord, then suddenly it’s not about what Jesus is going to do for me, but it is about what I’m going to do for Jesus.

Jesus didn’t ask for much.  Jesus asks us to love each other. Christians need to be constantly monitoring their behavior for signs that they have veered from the path of love. By remaining in prayer and keeping the attitude of a servant, the Holy Spirit will help us to see how we should be living and loving.

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“My Bad!”

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“My Bad!” Those are apparently two words that we’ll never hear Donald Trump put together in a sentence. Here’s a man who took to the airwaves to spread false rumors and lies about the President of the United States. He pandered to conspiracy obsessed Tea Party folk to bolster himself, and then when his lies were exposed, he declares that he is proud of himself.

It is a picture of hubris and shamelessness. It is a picture of a person who has nothing but disdain for truth. Unfortunately it is a picture that is becoming increasingly common in the U.S. I am ashamed that many of these people tout their Christianity in public. They give the impression that Jesus stood for lies and hate rather than truth and love.

It is a dangerous thing for a democracy when a good percentage of people allow their prejudices to shape their understanding of reality. If we indeed have as many problems as people think; it is hardly likely that we will build a solution on a bedrock of gossip and innuendo.

Hangover From A Testosterone Binge

Adebayor celebrates his goal in controversial ...

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A recent study finds that “the number of traffic fatalities more than doubled following a nail-biter – but only in areas with a high concentration of winning fans.” The researchers hypothesize that alcohol and testosterone are to blame. Testosterone levels are known to increase in fans when experiencing a close win by the favored team. Testosterone is linked to aggressive behavior, and the link between alcohol and traffic accidents is well known.

I heard about this study just as I was thinking about how deep the hole is that our society is trying to dig itself out of. We entered the George W. Bush years with a government budget surplus, peace, and an unemployment rate around 4%. At the end of his administration, W. gave us a record budget deficit even higher than his Dad’s. He left us two wars with no end in sight.  He left us with an unemployment rate at nearly 6% and on the verge of exploding.

My image of “W.” and especially Vice President Cheney is one of a pair of macho frat guys flexing their muscles and roaring that the U.S. is the king of the global jungle. The mention of a study that links an abundance of testosterone to fatal accidents caught my ear and reminded me of them. We seem to be suffering the hangover from an eight year binge of machismo.

Our reckless machismo did not make America stronger; it led to disaster. Such disasters are not unwound very quickly. America voted for change in 2008, but now we’re getting impatient. We would like to skip the messy parts and get back to where we started a decade ago.

Volatile Oil Prices Reflect A Systemic Problem

Benzinpreis 1994-2010

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Imagine that you had some money to invest last September, and that a financial advisor convinced you to buy crude oil futures. So you invested $10,000 in futures that were selling at $80 per barrel. You are now looking at that investment today, and you realize that it has done quite well. Your $10,000 is now worth about $14,000. You’ve made a forty percent profit in about 6 months. You’d be thrilled

Now consider the hand wringing that is going on right now about gas prices. The price of gasoline for ordinary Americans has risen dramatically.  The supply and demand of gas hasn’t really been pushing up the prices; it is speculators like you who have bid up the price. Is it your fault that unrest in the Middle East has made people willing to pay more for oil futures? Of course not. Is it your fault that you were lucky/smart enough to invest in this commodity at the right time? Of course not.

But the problem remains. When gas prices spike up dramatically, American’s hurt, and our economy suffers. The invisible hand of the free enterprise system is supposed bring more supply to the market when prices rise, and this is supposed to keep prices trading in a fairly narrow predictable range. Four years ago, oil began rising like it is today. It peaked at a level higher than today’s price.  Within a few months, however, it plunged from above $130 to just above $30 per barrel.

Now imagine that you are an executive at an oil company. Suppose you have the rights to drill in places that would cost $85 per each barrel to yield crude. With the price of crude trading at $112, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But if history repeats itself, and oil plunges again, then you might get stuck with a money-losing well. Would you begin to drill under that circumstance? Probably not.

Something is out of whack with oil prices.  Speculators drive the market and make it more volatile. This volatility hurts America.  But what difference does that make? The harm it does to America doesn’t motivate anyone to do anything differently. Would you sell your investment at significantly less than its market value just for the sake of helping the American economy?  I think not.

There are no villains in this story, but there is a harmful system in this story. The system of buying and selling oil futures is hurting America. No individual is doing anything wrong.  Everyone is following the rules. Free enterprise is not going to solve this problem for us. We need to stop our romantic reliance on free-enterprise to solve every economic problem. There are times when society needs to step in for the sake of its own future.

John 20:19-31 – So That We May Believe Jesus Was The Messiah

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[Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for May 1, 2011]

In his Gospel, John reveals his motivation for writing.  He says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 19:30-31, NRSV).

We are a people poisoned/blessed by the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  We like to figure things out for ourselves.  In order to believe something, we rely on evidence and argument.  Jesus had to perform miracles, and Jesus had to be resurrected from the dead in order for us to begin to believe that Jesus really was who he claimed to be.  Such belief is critical to sharing in Jesus’ inheritance of eternal life.

Yet even after all of this evidence, many refuse to believe.  They choose rather to deny those miracles and his resurrection.  This is not just a product of the extended length of time that has passed since these events occurred.  Even at the time, many refused to believe their own eyes, for to believe in Jesus’ miracles requires an explanation for this super-human power.

We have a great capacity to be blind to evidence that challenges our view of the world.  Our confirmation bias makes it very difficult for us to embrace the truth of Jesus’ miracles or resurrection.  The dilemma is that only miracles that no mere human could achieve are sufficient for us to believe that Jesus is God.  However, this fact makes us skeptical.  We don’t believe that “impossible” things were ever done, because we don’t believe in the possibility of the impossible.

Jan Brewer Finally Gets It Right

Jan Brewer

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The governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer became a household name for a few days when she signed into law Arizona’s anti-immigration bill. I believe that was a very bad bill with very bad consequences for America. Yesterday she signed into law another unfortunate bill that makes it harder for unmarried people to adopt children who need to find a home. However, she also vetoed two bills that were sent up to her desk by the Tea Party.

She vetoed a bill that would give Arizona’s Secretary of State the power to decide whether a presidential candidate was born in the U.S.A. She described this restriction as a “bridge too far.”  She also vetoed the bill that would allow guns to be carried onto college campuses.  Kudos to her for finally drawing a line in the sand against the extremism of the Tea Party.

Making Matters Worse

Protester at Madison, WI Tea Party in April 2009.

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The Tea Party has the fascinating habit of doing things that have the opposite effect of what they claim to care about. They say they are defenders of the little guy, but their policies consistently favor the rich over the poor.

Now they are boldly threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. To their minds this probably sounds like a good way to force those undisciplined government workers to hold down costs. In fact what they have managed to do is to convince ratings agencies to downgrade the quality of U.S. debt instruments. What does this mean in real-world terms? It means that the U.S. will have to pay higher interest rates. It means that government spending will go up, and consequently the U.S. deficit will get worse.

That is fine for the puppet masters behind the Tea Party. They love for the debt to get worse because it is their most effective excuse to eliminate more programs that help the poor so that they can lower taxes for the rich.  They will also certainly mis-direct the blame for this rate increase; they will use it as an opportunity to demagogue about how government spending is causing inflation.

Governing According to Urban Legends

Jon Kyl

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We all have friends who regularly forward chain-style emails. Some people like receiving those; others do not. I do not enjoy receiving them. I learned long ago that most of them are bogus.

I had an interesting experience after a friend who sent me one. I checked it’s claims and found it to be a hoax. I dutifully responded to my friend giving her a link to the snopes.com page that gave the facts behind this urban legend. Later, I was surprised to receive another hoax email from this same person. When I mentioned this to her in person, she just rolled her eyes and said something along the lines of, “oh you’re no fun.”

I was reminded of her reaction by the recent response from Arizona senator Jon Kyl‘s office about his wildly inaccurate claim about how many abortions that Planned Parenthood performs. He famously said on the Senate floor, “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” The truth is that only 3 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions. When his office was asked about this by CNN, it responded, “His remark was not intended to be a factual statement.”

People like me just don’t get it. We don’t understand that there are lots of people out there who aren’t concerned about whether some particular legend is based on fact. They like the legend; it resonates with them at some level. I suspect it confirms for them that their view of the world is right. For them the legend portrays a truth regardless of whether or not it is actually factual or not. If it isn’t true; it ought to be.

This is why legends such as the one about the birthplace of our president will not go away no matter how often it is debunked by rational investigation. We live in a time of change and upheaval, and sometimes people want the solace of being able to believe whatever they want to believe. Urban legends are the comfort food of such people.

It is all well and good for people to live in some self-selected fantasy world, but I wonder what the consequences will be to America when our leaders begin to govern according to urban legends and fantasy.

Acts 10:34-43 – God’s Embrace of Cultural Diversity

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[Reflections on the Lectionary Reading for Apr 24, 2011]

I still remember the day a receptionist said to me, “God is no respecter of persons.” I replied, “Huh?” I had never heard this quote. Peter makes this statement in a sermon recorded in the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts. The NRSV translates his words as, “God shows no partiality.”

Peter is proclaiming that a new era has been born. While in the past God worked through a chosen race of people, with the advent of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection, God was now extending grace to all people. This was a radical change for Peter’s fellow Hebrews. For centuries they had known themselves as chosen and set apart from the rest of the world. Their grace was tied up with their heritage and culture. Now God was embracing people of all races and cultures.

Christians today still show some residual thinking that reflects a view that grace is somehow particular to our culture and tradition. We are on the lookout for counterfeit Christians, and we usually spy them among those who have a very different culture than we do. We tend to believe that “real” Christians talk, think, and worship like us.

Peter claims in his sermon, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34b-35, NRSV). Anyone–regardless of their race or culture–who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. Later in this sermon he says, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43b, NRSV). God forgives the sins of anyone who believes in God–regardless of their embrace of particular nuances of doctrine.

Peter tears down the walls between tribes. All are part of God’s good creation. According to Peter, acceptability to God and forgiveness of sins has nothing to do with styles of worship, forms of prayer, or embrace of particular doctrine (other than belief in God).

Each Christian must determine for him/herself what it means in his/her life to “fear” God, “believe” in God, and “do” what is “right.” We can share our thoughts with each other. We can encourage each other. But we should never sink to judging each other as one who is unworthy of God’s grace.

Adapting to Globalization

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While working in the corporate world I learned that as organizations age, they tend to falter because they keep doing what originally made them successful rather than adapting to a changing world. The corporate giants of yesteryear have either disappeared, lost most of their heft, or have been taken over.

It seems to me that nations are also vulnerable to this problem. During last century’s world wars, European powers were still wrangling over colonies in Africa and Asia. They didn’t realize that the world had changed. They didn’t know that the era of colonialism was over. Today in the U.S. we hear many cries to recapture the glories of the past by returning to the policies of the past. We keep trying to recapture a world where there were two super powers with their respective spheres of influence.

We no longer live in a 20th century world.  Globalization has arrived. Travel and technology has tied places together that used to be remote. One of the ways I think we miss this point is our old-fashioned view of corporations. We still think in terms of corporations as residing within a single nation. We consider GM to be a “U.S.” corporation, for example. Yet corporations are global.  They trade globally; they produce goods globally, and most importantly, they are owned by citizens of many nations.

Most Americans assume that big corporations have a loyalty to a nation. Corporations fundamentally are not patriotic. Their mission is not to support a particular nation. Their mission is the make a profit for their owners. They may make a show of some patriotic action, but it is done for the sake of public relations rather than to aid one nation over another.

The old adage that what’s good for GM is good for America doesn’t apply in the way it once did. Prosperity in the nations that make up a company’s marketplace is good for its bottom line, but prosperity in the nations where it makes most of its products may mean higher costs as wages rise. Bringing jobs to America doesn’t necessarily help the bottom line of companies that we think of as “American.” Companies can do better by hiring workers in poor nations and selling their goods in rich nations like the U.S. This is one reason we have seen jobless recoveries recently.

In the face of globalization, our nation must be more active in managing its own economy than in the past when we could rely on a free market of patriotic corporations whose interests were tied to the success of their home nation. We must rethink how we regulate commerce, and we must look for ways to encourage innovation within our borders.