Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Will 2012 Look Like?

Greetings, Friends and Neighbors. Christmas 2011 is soon to be history and the New Year is right around the corner. 2012. It is hard to believe this is the "stardate." I remember reading 1984 by George Orwell in junior high, and thinking how far off that year was. Of course, some of the things Orwell's story predicted have come true; others, not so much. Hal Lindsay, a Southern Baptist evangelist wrote a book in the 1960s called The Late Great Planet Earth in which he suggested that, based on certain signs and prophesies he had "decoded" from the Bible, Jesus Christ could return before the end of the 1980s to usher in God's Kingdom and judge the earth. the 80s came and went without global judgment. Then we all feared the arrival of 2000 and the "millennial bug" that would fry all computers, clean out ever bank account, and steal candy from babies. Only happened in a gut-bustingly funny episode of My Name Is Earl. And let us not forget this old guy in California--Harold Camping--who predicted the end of the world this past May, which he then revised to October when it didn't happen in May. I guess what I'm getting at is: Why all this emphasis on "doom and gloom"? What if we were to look at the new year as an opportunity for progress, peace, and justice in our society and the world? Actually, I think this is more what Jesus was about. Oh, he talked about judgment, but more as a motivator to his listeners to live rightly and to care about others more fervently.

2012 could be an interesting year. The "Arab Spring" revolts have left a number of nations without a government. I traveled to Egypt this past November and met young leaders who asked us to pray for their country, that an intelligent, justice-oriented, progressive government might be elected, and that this could help rebuild hope for Egypt's people. Will do, Egypt; our prayers are with you. Could 2012 finally be a year when the global economy might begin to seriously turn around? Something to pray and work for, I guess. We all look forward to the days when basketballs and beach balls are bouncing playfully instead of the stock market and the unemployment rate.

Prayer is an important way for people who believe in it to "affect" the world. So if you believe, DO. However, all of us have the opportunity to affect how we conduct our own lives, and through our giving and volunteering, positively make a difference in the lives of those in need around us. Don't wait for "someone else" to be a community activist, volunteer, or generous philanthropist--do it yourself. And, as a citizen, take an active role in choosing a better government by voting. I continue to be amazed by the number of people I hear complaining about "the government," while in the next breath almost bragging that they "haven't voted in years." Shame on you. Vow in 2012 to not listen to these people; they have wasted their voice by not casting a ballot. They're just blowing hot air. As a wise sage has said, we can either be part of the problem, or we can be part of the solution. Remember JFK's variation on this theme: "Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country." The concept works for your partner, family, community, and world, not just for America.

Hey, have a wonderful Christmas Season as we remember the Christ. I told my congregation recently about Michael Slaughter's book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, and his suggestion that Christians take HALF of what they would normally spend on Christmas gifts and give it to World Vision, the Heifer Project, the Salvation Army, or some other mission or charity that touches peoples' lives. It's not to late to do that, friends! Happy New Year to "yinz." And peace and goodwill toward all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I Owe, I Owe, So It's Off to Work I Go!

Yes, it's a lousy parody of the Seven Dwarfs' song, I know, but it does describe the U.S. economy right now! And not just you and me--the entire government. As I write this, a major debate is raging between the two political poles about whether the "debt limit" of our nation should be raised. One side is being ideological about it--don't raise the limit and we will be "forced" to find a way to balance the Federal budget. This is not actually true, however. In fact, it is impossible to totally balance the Federal budget in one year. Even if we are able to do it, it will take years, unless we are willing to cancel all Social Security and totally disband the military. The other side says they are being practical by wanting to raise the debt limit in that without doing so, the government will not be able to pay its bills and will go into default--a scenario that has never happened in the U.S.A. Many economists believe that if our nation goes into default that other world economies would crumble and the stock market could plummet 7000 points almost overnight. Regardless of which camp you side with, THAT would be bad.

The "Great Recession," as it has been dubbed, has caused many Americans to reign in their personal debt to a great extent. Many families have sacrificed to pay off credit cards and have developed new habits that greatly curtail frivolous spending. This is a good thing. My wife and I had already been working to tame our debt, and we are now at a point of financial relief we haven't experienced since we were first married (34+ years ago!). Our debt has dropped to a manageable level and our credit score has soared, but none of this happened without personal sacrifice and careful management of our limited resources. I'm not bragging--just suggesting that this is an extremely liberating turn of affairs, and I would encourage any of you reading this blog to "do thou likewise."

Jim Wallis of Sojourners says in his book, Rediscovering Values that a budget is a moral document. As a nation, our budget should reflect the care we have for our citizens, from poorest to wealthiest. Unfortunately, when we find ourselves in the lean times (and debt-ridden ones) that require paring the budget, the "powers that be" almost always leave intact the military (which is, by far, one of the largest pieces of the Federal budget) and cut education and social programs. Wallis would suggest that this says that our nation is less concerned for our future and for the "least of these" than we are for funding the military/industrial complex, which is often touted as "protecting our freedom" when it is "PRed" by its proponents. While I would never be in favor of gutting our national defense to the place where it would be ineffective, I believe it needs to seriously scrutinized for substantial cuts. There are few intelligent people alive who don't believe that military spending is way out of bounds. When we cut education, we devalue our future. When we cut social programs, we turn helpless, hurting, and sometimes troubled people out into the streets where many are heard to say about them: "That's a shame; someone should DO something about it." Friends, we are that "someone," and as long as we as Americans continue to resist any and all tax increases and reasonable cuts to the defense budget, these are the people who will take it on the chin, and will forever be before us as a reminder of our selfishness. When it comes to taxes, the United States of America is one of the least taxed nations on the face of the earth. I don't like to pay more in taxes any more than any of you, but I am MORE THAN WILLING to pay more, if others are willing to cut defense spending requisitely, so that our young people can go to college or to technical and trade schools to get decent jobs.

Sorry for the rant. No, I guess I'm really NOT sorry! Mr. Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had three "simple rules" for finances, and they are golden. To paraphrase them, "MAKE all you can, SAVE all you can, GIVE all you can." We all want to "make" more money, too few of us are willing to live a simpler lifestyle that includes low debt and high savings, and, indeed, not enough of us are GIVING all we can to charity, including church, social agencies, schools and colleges, the United Way, etc. What a different country this could be for ALL people if we would commit ourselves to these simple financial rules! Shalom, friends.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Age of the Spirit

Harvey Cox, in his most recent book The Future of Faith, divides Christianity into three eras: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of the Spirit. He suggests that the young Christian Church lived its faith and by its faith. It was both an experimental time and an experiential time for these new followers of Jesus. They were called "Followers of the Way," not "Christians," a term not coined until they reached Antioch.

In Cox's view, the Age of Faith came to an end as the church began to "institutionalize" and create hierarchies of ordained leaders--bishops, cardinals, popes, etc. When Constantine made Christianity the "religion of the realm," the Age of Belief was fully realized. The issue became "right doctrine" or dogma, and creeds and confessions attempted to codify specific statements that one either "believed" or was relegated to the category of "unbeliever" or worse, "heretic." People died because of not believing the "right" things. Cox believes that the modern example of this view of Christianity is fundamentalism, with its tightly defined doctrines and literal view of Scripture. In this era, what you believe has a higher priority than how you live your faith.

Dr. Cox writes that we may now be entering the third era, the Age of the Spirit. All kinds of polls and studies from Barna to the Pew Foundation have shown that people in this current culture are very interested in spirituality. A great number of younger adults are fascinated by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. However, this spiritual curiosity is largely divorced from "organized" religion, and has little time for dogmas and doctrines, hierarchical clergy headship or denominational "labels." And it is a time of syncretism--persons picking and choosing from various forms of religious expression what they like and combining theologies and practices into a self-made, personal "faith." In some ways, it is a return to the early days of Christianity, before the "organization" took over.

If Cox is right, and I believe he is, this is a challenging time for the church. We have an opportunity to re-style our telling of the Christian Good News into a form that connects better with this new generation of seekers. We also are charged with down-sizing our hierarchies and encouraging grass-roots spirituality in our local assemblies, complete with "hands-on" ministries with poor and oppressed peoples. The day of gathering local funds and sending them up a denominational chain to a general church agency or mission board to be used as the hierarchy deems fit is probably coming to an end. Instead, efforts such as "Imagine No Malaria" will be the model for cooperative efforts in the future. "Imagine No Malaria" is a partnership between the United Methodist Church, the United Nations Global Fund, and others that has a goal of eliminating deaths from malaria in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa by the year 2015. Here we have a specific goal, with defined fund-raising parameters, a viable, cooperative leadership team, and an end date. No more open-ended "you put the money in the offering plate and we'll decide how to use it.

If you are reading this blog, and you are one of these spiritually curious "Age of the Spirit" folk Cox is talking about, please don't give up on the church. We need people like you to help us reform yet again. One reformation made quite a difference in the "choices" persons had to engage the Christian faith. Another one is needed, and I would say inevitable. Think about it, and thanks for listening. Shalom, friends!

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