Friday, March 31, 2006
"What? She's sixteen. No, SIXteen.
"Anyway, they said I might get something in the mail from the DA within four days. If I don't get something by then, it probably means they're going to let it slide.
"I'm on the train now, I'm on my way to Grandma's. I've been at the hospital and I've been up all night, so I hope she'll let me get some sleep there, until you get off work.
"OK, I gotta go. I'm using somebody else's cell phone and he's gotta get off at the next stop. OK. See you later."
What a heartbreak! I can only guess what life is like for this guy, his girlfriend, the rest of their families... The guy who lent out his cell-phone told him to "hang in there" before he got off. I got off 2 stops later, and told him I'd say a prayer for him.
It is astonishing to me to see a kid in front of me, who looked like an only slightly edgy middle-class teen-ager, whose life is so different from my life or that of my kids or, I hope, kids they know.
May God have mercy on him, and on us all.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
The ... danger is in the subordination of belief to the needs of the modern industrial system. As this persuades us on the goods we buy, and as it persuades us on the public policies that are necessary for its planning, so it also accommodates us to its goals and values. These are that technology is always good; that economic growth is always good; ... that consumption of goods is the principal source of happiness; ... and that nothing should interfere with the priority we accord to technology, growth, and increased consumption.Who wrote this? Marx, Lenin or Trotsky? Nope. It was J.K.Galbraith in a 1967 essay "Liberty, Happiness... and the Economy", excerpted in the Atlantic Monthly 297:3 (April 2006) pp. 46f.
We will be the mentally indentured servants of the industrial system. This will be the benign servitude of the household retainer who is taught to love her master and mistress and believe that their interests are their own. But it is not exactly freedom.
Galbraith has described a dystopian future that will surely follow if "we continue to believe that the goals of the modern industrial system and the public policies that serve those goals" always coincide with our life goals (emphasis added). This erroneous mentality, viz., that money not only makes the world go 'round but that it should, was already prevalent when he wrote those words.
But this prophet is not all doom and gloom. Like Moses and the 12 tribes at Gerazim and Ebal (Deut. 27.12f), or Joshua in his last sermon (Joshua 24.14f), he sets before us blessings and curses, life and death -- or at least freedom and servitude; he offers us a brighter future if we choose a better path:
If, on the other hand, the industrial system is seen to be only a part, and as we grow wealthier, a diminishing part, of life, there is much less reason for concern.... the industrial system will itself will be subordinate to the claims of larger dimensions of life. Intellectual preparation will be for its own sake and not merely for the better service of the industrial system.The children of Israel didn't choose the better path, and neither have we. We have grown wealthier, but our country has become if anything more economically obsessed in the past few decades.
Here's an example of what I mean. Let's suppose for a moment that violent video-games lead to increased criminality in teen-age boys. You may not agree with this, but let's just suppose it for a minute. Let us also suppose that given a choice of videogames, teen-age boys prefer games with a lot of excitement and "action" -- that is to say violent games, rather than games involving a lot of thought and strategic planning.
Down at the local arcade, there are many video game machines. As the manager of such an outfit, you have some say in the selection of games. You have to make a profit, so you need games that bring in the players (and payers). Not only do you have to make a profit, you have to maximize profits, because your arcade is part of a chain owned by a public corporation. Your arcade's numbers -- marketshare, sales per square foot, average time on machine, etc. -- are compared with benchmarks. You have to make your numbers, which means you have to choose the games that the boys like to play. Do teen-age boys commit more assaults or strong-arm robberies in your community because your arcade (and all the others!) have so many of the violent games? Maybe there are, but those are externalities. These numbers (crime rates) are somebody else's numbers; your job is only to meet yours. If you don't meet your numbers, you'll be replaced by someone who will.
And who will fire you? Someone who'll be fired if his area/state/region doesn't make its numbers in the aggregate. And who would fire him? The executives, or the board. And all of them stand to be replaced if they don't maximize profits for their shareholders.
And who are these evil shareholders, whose only object is profit? You and I are! We own mutual funds, and the managers work for us to bring us the best returns, don't they? Why would you invest in some fund that you didn't think would maximize your return? Maybe you invest in some funds that are supposed to be socially responsible?
Pah! Do they own any shares of that company run by convicted illegal monopolists - Microsoft I mean? The appeals court struck down Judge Jackson's remedy, but they did not dispute his conclusions of fact or of law. Microsoft is run by unrepentant criminals, but who doesn't own some of their stock? How about pharmaceutical stocks? Of course your fund owns some shares of those drug pushers.
So this morning, Matthew 6:22 came to mind, unbidden. Ummm, here it is in context:
19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.It seems to me that our society, our nation, has bad collective eyes. We have somehow chosen to follow Money. But we do this gradually as a society, as a nation -- just as we do it gradually as individuals.
22The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.23But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
Think about it. Did anyone, in the last 40 years, say "As a society, let's have no national priorities beyond the priorities of modern industry. Art, science, music, literature -- their only value is in service of the modern industrial state"? What Senator or Representative would say that, even in private?
Or, since we're coming up on Easter, consider the priests and scribes who used the Romans to kill Jesus. Did they wake up one day and say, "Today, I'm going to close my eyes to truth and grace and mercy, and help kill a sinless man"? No, they liked their careers and their positions, and gradually, subtly, the career, the perks, the position, the prestige -- these, rather than the service of God, became paramount in their lives.
And how about you and me? When did you decide to buy into this system which grinds people under the wheels of capitalism? When did you decide to put your priority on money above all else? You didn't do that, did you? Neither did I. We just invested our money in what looked reasonable, we followed the advice of a financial advisor, or whatever. But that's it. Our savings are in mutual funds, and those managers are focused on making profits -- externalities be damned. Or ignored.
So what now? I'm not sure. Pull your retirement savings out of mutual funds? And do what instead with them? How much time do you have to manage that stuff?
No answers, only questions. Sorry.
The good news, though, is that Jesus is with us:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and theLord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
But in yesterday's press conference, our president did a pretty impressive job of convincing me that I really really don't want to be a registered Republican either. Effectively, when someone said, "Mr. President, in defending the country, you oughtn't damage it by violating people's civil rights," his reply was essentially this:
"If these people think we shouldn't have a surveillance program to protect the American people, they should stand up and say so: 'Vote for me, and I'll dismantle the security systems that protect America.'"
I'm afraid Fran was right. Simple lies work better.
And now, after taking a deep breath, I remember this:
There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.None of the current disasters, nothing of our country's current trajectory, is a surprise to God.
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;the Lord scoffs at them. (Ps. 2.4)Nowhere is it written that the blessings of the Lord will remain upon the United States forever. Like the children of Israel, we have sinned -- we have chosen consumption over compassion, hubris over humility. We neglect the poor at home, we send the military out on adventures and rain bombs upon civilians, we teach our teens to lust after each other, and if they get pregnant we tell them it's OK to kill their babies. And so it looks from here like the Lord sent a lying spirit in the tongues of presidential advisors to ruin us -- to hand us over to... to Babylon? Nineveh? And what then? Will we be like the Philistines, Moabites, and the Jebusites, footnotes to history?
And now it's time for me to write to BCM to see about volunteer opportunities for a crotchety old curmudgeon like me.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
OK, so about a week ago I was thinking about a possible career change. But now I'm not any more. Basically I think I woke up.
The lovely Carol tutors at our girls' high school some days. When she tells me what happened, it makes me think I could never do that. She tutors some kids in English as a Second Language (ESL). These kids, who didn't grow up speaking English, need to pass the high school exit exam. It's in English, of course. But they can't be bothered to actually pay attention and do the exercises to learn the language. I could absolutely not do this -- short of a miracle in my life and attitude. I'd rather wait tables -- at least at a restaurant the customers want some food.
What I feel like is... if there's a kid who wants to learn a subject -- ideally math or computer science -- but is having trouble... then I might be able to help with that. I will have to talk with someone about this.
I had lunch with a couple of friends the other day. I'll use pseudonyms since I don't have permission to use their real names. One of them (I'll call him "Sean" in honor of St. Paddy's Day) is a new Christian who has been reading the gospels. In Luke 6, Jesus says:
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (6.53, NIV)So how does this work, Sean asked. Do we have greater or lesser rewards in heaven? Another friend, "Andy," pointed out that if you have no expectation of getting something back, you'll have a more relaxed life, which is a reward here on earth.
Cool! I had never thought of that, though it seemed obvious once Andy said it. I mentioned a time in my past when I used to talk to students about Jesus, and one of them asked me if I thought my reward in heaven would be greater because of what I was doing. Well, I would have liked to tell him, "No, I'm doing this out of completely selfless motives," but the New Testament says that "each will be rewarded according to his own labor." (1 Corinthians 3.8). Not that my feeble attempts were going to get me much...
The real reason I was doing it, by the way, probably had a lot to do with the expectations placed on me, and my desire to do well in this group. But to be fair to myself and to the group, I think we all believed that God wanted us to talk to students about Jesus, to discuss their [non]beliefs -- to present an invitation to meet Christ. And some of those young students did give their lives to Jesus.Anyway, Sean ended up deciding that Jesus recognizes our human nature (e.g., wanting rewards) and that Jesus doesn't rebuke us for it; he's willing to work with us as we are. It was a real thrill to hear Sean come up with that. Very cool.
We talked a little more about that passage, and Andy talked about how he tried to apply it in a situation at work. He tried to pray for this "enemy" at the office, but felt frustrated about not being able to really do it. So he did a brilliant thing, which was to ask God to help him pray for this guy. A meta-prayer! And it worked!
Now that, as I told Andy, was something I should have done back in Japan with an office "enemy" who crossed my path. I remember seeing him in the cafeteria one day, eating alone. He seemed a pitiful character. Part of me knew I should go and sit with him, but I also felt so hurt and angry after some dealings with him that, well, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I felt weak and miserable. What kind of Christian was I, anyway? In that instance, I was a prayerless one.
That was Thursday. What a great way to spend the lunch hour! We taught each other, we shared some successes and some perplexity, we prayed together. None of us knew all the answers, but we encouraged each other. At the end of it, I said, "I know what I was made for."
I guess I could title this posting "Three things that irk me".
First on the list is drug reps, which I just read about in this Atlantic article. It is an astonishing exposé; I think every doctor and every patient should read it. So should everyone in congress who voted to deregulate direct-to-consumer drug ads. When we lived in Japan, I was astonished at the corruption built into the medical system -- a doctor's fees were capped, but prescriptions (filled right there in his clinic, rather than at Long's or PayLess) were not. So did they over-prescribe? How could they not?
Could you blame them? A little, maybe. But the system has more than a little to do with the problem. And my complaint isn't really with a drug rep (nor is it with a doctor paid $300,000 to promote off-label uses of a drug); rather, it's with the logical (albeit inhuman) consequences of our market system -- of which the pharmaceutical industry is just one piece. Our market system is terrific at producing what powerful people want. But because our market system has made money the one and only measure of corporate success, well, we're reaping the fruit of that system. These people have to make money, and they have to make a lot of it, or their shareholders will fire them. And every dollar invested in a mutual fund is a vote in favor of that system.
When we lived in Japan, I had a friend tell me that the main difference between a policeman and a yakuza (gangster) was the uniform he wore. What is the difference between organized crime and an industrial complex ruled by money? I'm not sure exactly, but I believe it's a difference in degree rather than in kind.
We recently watched The Godfather on VHS (the younger teen was out of the house at the time), and it struck me that Marlon Brando's character was pragmatic. He wasn't above killing people, but he didn't want to deal drugs. Why not? It wasn't his personal morals, he said, but that his political support would evaporate if he went into the drug business. Unlike gambling and prostitution, which politicos tended to view as victimless crimes, drugs were considered a corrupting influence on society. So in spite of the huge profits to be made, he said, the Corleone family would never participate in a drug-related venture. It was just too dangerous, he said.
Don Vito Corleone would have been impressed with the achievements of the pharmacological-industrial complex in our day.
Domestic SpyingAnother annoyance: the notion that the NSA could be spying on you or me without the protection even of the FISA court. I seem to remember reading that this court denied less than 0.1% of law enforcement requests, and required modifications in less than 3%. Thus were some 97% of NSA requests for domestic surveillance granted with no modification whatsoever.
But this administration deemed 97% as too low a number. This is bizarre.
And stupid. Why did 9/11 happen? Not enough information? Wrong. We had plenty of information, that we couldn't get through the layers of suspicion and non-cooperation between agencies. So we need more information that we also won't be able to get through the non-cooperation...? Fixing intra-agency cooperation (which the commission said isn't happening) is much more important than bypassing even the FISA court to get more information that nobody can use for national defense. (I'm afraid they'll instead use information the way J. Edgar Hoover used it :^<) Unless the democrats do something really stooopid (like nominate Hillary), I predict a democratic president come 2009.
Which brings me to the DNCListening to NPR on the way home, I heard an interview with Fran Lebowitz, who sounded just like our friend Nancy, only not as smart. But I found this comment of hers very clever:
The Right tells simple lies. The Left tells complicated lies. Simple lies work better.When I heard this, I said, "Damn right" -- uh, I mean I said, "Amen! Preach it, sister!" I didn't agree with a lot of what she said, by the way, but she got this one right.
I mention this because of a survey I got the other day from the Democratic National Committee. It was a survey of "Democratic Leaders." I am a registered republican, so I think this must have been somebody's idea of a bad joke. But I played along. On most of the issues, I find myself in agreement with the democratic party: Rich people do not need tax cuts. Unfunded mandates to "improve education" are wrong-headed. It is short-sighted and evil to trash the environment in the name of the almighty dollar. But because the DNC has taken such a strident, extreme position on abortion, I simply cannot bring myself to register democrat or to contribute to the DNC.
I've heard that the democratic party isn't as extreme on this as the Right-wingers say it is, but this survey listed "reproductive freedom" among the Top Ten issues (which it asked me to rank). Then one of the questions asked how I felt about a woman's right to choose. I objected to the wording of that question and everywhere crossed out "choose" and replaced it by "kill her baby." If the question had been, "How do you feel about access to abortion?" that would have been a more neutral way to phrase it. And my answer might have surprised you. But the actual wording spoke volumes about the DNC's priorities and attitude. And about its contempt for those who do not toe the line. (By the way, why is Howard Dean the DNC chair? His own party threw him off the ticket! Why do these clowns think he's the one who will bring voters [back?] to the democratic party?)
And look at the results! How did George W. Bush get a second term? It wasn't because of his great skill as an orator. It wasn't because his policies in Iraq or Afghanistan were such successes. It was because the accursed DNC has driven the party off a cliff! People like me will never register democrat, never raise money for the DNC, never encourage our friends to vote democratic, so long as the DNC sticks to its pro-abortion (call me anti-choice, I'll call you pro-abortion) rhetoric.
I voted for Kerry in 2004. I'll vote democratic in 2008 if I can. Nominate Hillary and I won't be able to. I know it's not logical. I'm not logical. Neither are you. And from reading the DNC survey, I know Howard Dean isn't, either.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
By the way, this is "righteous" in its biblical sense, as in "when the righteous prosper, the city rejoices" -- not in the sense of "take a look at that righteous babe" (or hunk)...Anyway, one characteristic of the righteous, a character quality of a tsadiq (or maybe "tzaddik," if you prefer Potok's transliteration), is that he disadvantages himself for the benefit of his community.
This made me think, how do I disadvantage myself for the benefit of my community?
Well, I don't, much. Well, I write checks. I volunteer for service projects occasionally. But I wonder if what I've been thinking lately about a possible career change is some kind of direction from God. Or if not a career change, maybe something to think about in terms of taking a day off without pay once a week, to do more things for the community. And maybe for the long term, I'd really better call on my buddy Kim to see what she has to say about her life as a teacher...This was part of the overall theme that the gospel must be good news for all, or it is not good news at all. The gospel is not primarily "Here are the minimum entrance requirements to get into heaven" (which would be good news for me); it is rather, as Jesus said, that "the kingdom of God is at hand" -- that what is up there in heaven, is coming down here to this sorry, dark world; it is good news for all -- which reminds me of the angels' announcement at Jesus's birth: "I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people." That's good news even (or especially) to shepherds -- to the underclass, the outcasts. To people whose testimony wasn't even acceptable in a court of law.
The picture our pastor painted this morning was compelling: that we become the kind of people of whom it will be said,
That guy Collin -- I don't necessarily think the same way he does about God, but I'd hate to think what this department (neighborhood, classroom, etc.) would be like without him.In other words, that what Jesus does in the lives of us, his church, should be good news to all the people. Ha -- like the words of that old song:
Cast out our sin and enter inWhat does it take for Jesus to be born in me in such a way that it really would be "good news of great joy which shall be for all the people"? Maybe he already is, and my next step is simply to take the next step? How about for you?
Be born in us today
Saturday, March 11, 2006
At the end, of course, they prevail. Just before the credits rolled, we saw some captions talking about religious freedom.
But Luther wasn't interested in freedom; he was interested in integrity and truth. And so, by the way, were the pilgrims that came to North America from Europe in the 17th century. Contrary to what I was taught in school, they didn't much care about freedom to worship as they chose. They were frustrated because the government forbade them from obeying the Lord.
Purity! Integrity! Truth! That, not "freedom", was the rallying cry. Not that there's anything wrong with freedom, as Paul says emphatically in Galatians. It's not about worshiping as I choose; it's about obeying God.
and now a word from Sheriwho wants me to tell you that she beat me in a round of Boggle this afternoon, 25-18, in spite of my finding stilt(s) on the board.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
What would you tell someone who asked how to become a Christian?If I had been given this question 25 years ago, say, I would have given some kind of formula answer.
There are several of these, known by various names. The lovely Carol mentioned the 4 spiritual laws (Campus Crusade) in her blog. Then there are the Bridge to Life (Billy Graham; the Navigators), the Romans road, and my kids' most recent encounter with formula answers, the A-B-C plan. This one came in a Sunday school lesson they helped present to the K-1 class, and it says you need to
- Admit you're a sinner
- Believe Jesus died so your sins would be forgiven, and was raised from the dead
- Commit your life to him
There once was a gangster, Mickey Cohen, who thought it would be nice to be a Christian. He had heard a Billy Graham crusade or something and asked a few questions. Someone gave him a formula answer, and he prayed to "receive Christ." But after a few months, nothing in his life seemed to have changed. Apparently nobody explained to him about repentance. When somebody did explain this to him, Mickey was surprised. There are Christian carpenters and doctors and auto mechanics, who didn't change their jobs when they became Christians; why should he have to change his?
So, OK, so these formulaic answers may have some issues. What if we look at some of the things Jesus said to people who wanted to follow him, to have eternal life, to have their sins forgiven, to be right with God? What did he say?
- Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Mt 4.19)
- Be poor in spirit; mourn; be humble and merciful; desire righteousness; make peace; be persecuted (Mt 5.3-10)
- If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. (Mt 18.8-9)
- Forgive others. (Mt 6.14-15, 18.35)
- Sell your possessions and give to the poor... then come, follow me. (Mt 19.21)
- Care for the needy, visit prisoners (Mt 25.35-46)
- Humble yourself before God. (Lk 18.13-14)
- Recognize you're a sinner, and ask Jesus to remember you. (Lk 23.40-43)
- Believe in the one he has sent (Jn 3.16; 6.27-29)
- Eat Jesus's flesh and drink his blood (John 6.54)
The point has been made elsewhere, but Jesus would not have gotten a very good grade on questions like this. I think it's because "How do I become a Christian?" is a question that can be answered as simply as "Follow me" but it takes a lifetime to actually do.
So how would I answer the question today?
Well, before answering, I'd want to know what the person's intention is. Why does he want to become a Christian? What is his understanding of what it means to be a Christian?
These are not idle questions, even if we set Mickey aside for now. If Christian missionaries live in bigger houses than the local populace and have luxurious goods, the "local" wanting to become a Christian may have no idea what he's talking about; he may be mainly interested in the good life here and now. Someone may be interested in a political or security advantage that seems associated with Christians. Or he may have noticed some aspect of a Christian's personality or character or a perceived lack of troubles in a christian's life. Not all of these are what I'd call good reasons for becoming a Christian.
So assuming that the person wants to become a Christian because he feels a lack of meaning in his life, he wants to know God more, he knows that he's a sinner and wants to be a better person, or something like this...
I'd say that becoming a Christian is the beginning of a lifelong process of growth, that your problems won't all disappear (in fact you might get more of them). Not only won't your problems disappear; your questions won't all be answered either.
After all that, I'd probably talk about what it means to believe in Jesus:
- that we humans are sick; we're headed to hell for good reason
- that besides being sick, we're stupid, like sheep, and naturally do evil
- that Jesus Christ provides the only remedy for #1 and #2; that to become well and to become good, we must listen to him and emulate him.
So I guess my answer to the question (besides the part about making sure they're not looking for a big house or the wrinkle-free life) is that one has to change one's mind about Jesus and sin and the point of life, and to believe basically the points #1-#3 above. If they do that, then the rest would follow.
So what did I get -- a C+ maybe?
This doesn't go anywhere but I wanted to tell you about it anywayA young friend of ours was praying in mid-December, and his mother assumed he was asking for toys. "No, mama; I was praying to become a good boy."
I guess our young friend had something to teach me....
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
He talked about the temptation to associate only with people of the same socio-economic class, the temptation to use the many advantages we have to serve ourselves and our families. And on that count I am afraid I would be found lacking.
So what does this mean to me? What should I, could I, will I do about it?
Something that has recently come to my attention is that we are developing a real shortage of math and computer science majors in this country. So the first thing that came to mind is trying to figure out a way to get my kids more interested in majoring in it.
After several seconds of deep thought, spread out over several days, I decided that was not going to work.
My next thought, inspired by hearing that the time to create interest is EARLIER than college, was... to pursue a teaching certificate and teach math. Not only do I have a degree in math, I actually love doing math! Maybe I'll ask my buddy Kim about her math teaching life.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
I wrote a check. Not a real big one -- a few hundred bucks.
Then I went back to thinking about my kids' college education, and my own retirement planning.
If I were defending myself, say in court or something, I could argue on my behalf, "What else should I have done?" But that's disingenuous. I could do a lot more.
What is the matter with me? Why don't I feel more compassion for these poor people?
All that is just one example -- I could give others. So could any of us. "What a wretched man I am!" (Romans 7.24)
So what is going to happen? What could happen?
A brilliant sermon
That's what we heard this morning -- a brilliant sermon from Pastor John. He talked about how to spend an ordinary day with Jesus. He showed us a pillow and reminded us that for the Hebrews, the day starts with evening ("... and there was morning, the first day", etc. -- Genesis 1). Get enough sleep... sleep is a gift from God (Psalm 127). Thank him for the gift of sleep. You're going to go to sleep anyway; why not do it with Jesus?
I am really not doing justice to the sermon. You should go to http://www.mppc.org and find the sermon (March 4-5, 2006) and take a listen. It should be there in a few days.
He went on and showed a bar of soap. We spend lots of time and energy cleaning our bodies, the outsides of them. What about getting clean on the inside? He mentioned that Jesus "loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." (Ephesians 5) That's his work and his objective. And our destiny.
And that is good news for a wretch like me.
Come to think of it, God also "chose us in him (in Jesus) to be holy and blameless before him" (Ephesians 1). That's good news too.
And with that, I'll take to bed.