Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Price of Toys

Of the Sunday news programs the one I have always enjoyed the most is George Stephanopoulos. The roundtable discussions on the show facilitated by Stephanopoulos are some of the most politically informative and balanced news sources available.

In this week's "Green Room" discussion. George Will, along with Peggy Noonan, Cokie Roberts, and Sam Donaldson give some very interesting opinions on the global fiasco we find ourselves in. George Will lays a lot of the blame on the American people, much to the chagrin of Donaldson. He mentions that 25 years ago Americans saved 9 cents of every tax dollar whereas today we save less than a penny, "they stopped saving, they ran up their credit card debt, they treated their homes as ATMs, and then they (the American people) look around and say, 'gosh, we're innocent'".

For years I have been saying, "When did our homes go from being places we raise our families and shelter us from the elements, to investments in our portfolio?" People always are complaining, "Oh if you put up such and such a place, that will decrease my home value." I respond, "Will your house protect you any less from the rain?" Now we have the term "starter home". You start as a young couple with a 1200 -1600 sq.ft house and then in 3-7 years when the second kid comes along we'll move up to a 2500+ sq. foot house. As if the first house was not big enough for a family of four.

Why do house sizes get bigger in America as our family sizes decrease? Greed. As houses grew and technology increased the number of "toys" that we now seen as needs , grew dramatically. Second incomes went from being an option to make life easier to a necessity to feed the machine. When the economy hits a blip, as it has now, and one spouse loses a job, the results go from being an inconvenience to catastrophe.

Some time ago a friend of mine who is a financial planner told me a lesson she learned quick. She said when she first started, she'd go to a client, see the big house, fancy car and high end furniture and think, "Wow, they will have a lot to invest." Then find out that everything is a smokescreen. All of it is bought on credit and they are spending all they have just to pay it off with little to nothing to put towards investment. On the flipside, she'd go to a modest home with a Ford Tempo in the driveway and discover they are sitting on a hoard of savings they needed help investing.

When I was a kid growing up in 1970's Detroit we had one car, one phone, and one TV. The programs that came on the TV were free and the single telephone line had a modest charge. You know what... we enjoyed life. Now there are cell phone bills, cable bills, and internet bills. We are so desperate to keep up with the Joneses we'll max our credit cards beyond what we know we could pay back...and then declare bankrupcy.

We have president who in a time of National crisis basically says, "OK we'll all get through this, just keep spending". We get a tax credit from the government (that is in huge debt itself) and told not to save it, its to stimulate the economy so be a patriotic American and spend...spend...spend.

As bad as the Great Depression was it produced a charecter in that generation of Americans that has become all but a shadow now. I think that ultimately this financial crisis could be good for America if we can learn our lesson.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Abortion is "like so 5 minutes ago"!!

A couple years back I ran across a New York Times article. It was a look at the daughters of some of the abortion rights advocates that had been instrumental in the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling. Some of this 2nd generation of young women were having second thoughts on the issue and beginning to see the moral as well as the legal aspects involved. This caused their mothers no small amount of grief. They felt the next generation did not appreciate the seriousness of the rights they had fought so hard for.

In a similar fashion, I look at this new emerging generation of Christians. Their parents have been instrumental in bringing the issue of abortion to the fore front of the political process, and yet quite often, they resist taking the baton and running with it themselves. Some of their reasons have been legitimate. Sometimes zealous abortion opponents have hurt their Christian witness through thoughtless actions. Other times, they saw their parents voting for politicians whose policies lacked integrity, yet supported the candidate solely on their an anti-abortion position.

However, I argue that hidden in all of these noble platitudes is a far more base reasoning. Humans in general, and Americans in particular, resist being defined by others. The political profile of the suburban, white, evangelical Christian is that they vote Republican and their main issue is abortion (followed closely by fighting gay marriage). These issues define the evangelical voter hence in a desire to distance themselves from this profile and define themselves they embrace issues that are more palatable to non-evangelicals.

Lets face it, in today's political climate, abortion is "so 5 minutes ago." Championing social justice, the poor, and especially the environment is much more chic and will get you invited to much better mixers and fundraisers. It is best not to even mention abortion in these circles as it will only open you up to accusations of being a "single-issue" voter or even worse, a closet evangelical.

The reality is we all have "single issues" that are deal breakers on one issue or another. Its just that abortion is no longer the deal breaker for many of today's young Christian voters. But if a candidate were good in many key areas yet said, "Hey, I'm not really against a clean environment, its just that I'm not going to dictate to a business what they can and can not do on their own property" there would be many Green "single-issue" voters abandoning ship on such a candidate.

I'm reminded of a stand up comedy routine by Eddie Izzard that says it all. In commenting about Pol Pot killing 1.7 million of his own countrymen he says we can't even comprehend that. He says, "Kill one man, go to jail. Kill 10 and they send you to Texas and hit you over the head with a brick. Kill 20 and they send you to a room with a small round hole in the door. Kill more than 100,000 and we're almost like 'well done, you must get up very early in the morning'.

The sad truth is we have grown numb in America to the statistics. That thousands and thousands of unborn American citizens have their lives ended with the full consent of our society doesn't register much of a blip anymore. In the end, perhaps its good we've grown numb to it. If we actually allowed the reality of it into our lives again we'd have to do something about it. And then we may be identified as single issue voters and even worse...evangelicals ...and that just wouldn't do.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday Night Sarah

For a number of weeks Tina Fey has been doing a spot on impersonation of Gov. Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. Last Sat. Gov. Palin got to turn the tables on Tina as she did a cameo appearance in the show's opening sketch. The spot was a scream and included appearances from Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin.

Seeing renowned liberal poster boy Baldwin sharing laughs with the conservative Palin made me wonder if we all couldn't laugh together just a bit more as Americans...especially during this election season.
Give it a look see if you haven't already. My favorite part was Sarah telling Alec that Stephen was her favorite Baldwin. (If you didn't know, Stephen, who is Alec's younger brother, made a very public conversion to Christianity a while back.)!!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life on Mars: The Fall T.V. Season Pt. 1

Lets pause from the deep reflections on life and politics. I want to blog on a topic that is slightly more important than either John McCain or Barack Obama; and that is the new fall lineup on TV.

Television was a story wasteland for many years. I must admit to watching some old favorites from the 80's and cringing at some of the cheesy dialogue and inane story lines. In the last few years though, the level of storytelling for the small screen has really escalated. Living in China, I-Tunes has kept us up to speed on American TV. Yes, I have to pay $1.99 an episode, but to be commercial's worth every penny. Here is my non-exhaustive rundown on the 2008-2009 television season:

Life on Mars: Any TV show that rips its name from a David Bowie song and stars Harvey Keitel is worth a look see. I downloaded the episode, fired up the projector (so my "tv screen" is the whole wall), lit some candles, and lounged with Tammy as we watched it. Was not disappointed. Jason O'Mara plays Sam Tyler, a New York Detective that is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Suddenly he has to deal with not only the reason why it has happened, but the changed social morals over the last 35 years. In a classic scene from the show, when Tyler first is hit by the car he was listening to David Bowie's "Life on Mars" on his Ipod. When he wakes in 1973, it is playing on an 8 track player in his car. Trying to get his bearings, he suddenly says, "No Way" as the camera angle pans away revealing a still standing World Trade Center. Brilliant! Harvey Keitel shines as the 1973 police lieutenant who is not above beating suspects, spiking drinks, or kicking down doors with out a warrant to get the job done; much to the horror of the politically correct trained Tyler from 2008! "Life on Mars" has prompted me to listen to the David Bowie song a number of times. I'm still trying to figure out what that song is talking about. Of course it was 1973 so I imagine even Bowie had no idea what he was talking about.

My Own Worst Enemy: Christian Slater stars as Henry Spivey, a middle class, middle aged man living in suburbia with his wife and two kids. The only problem is that he isn't real. He is the alter-ego created 19 years ago for Edward Albright, a highly trained covert agent who speak 13 languages and can run the 4 minute mile. Unfortunately, the carefully constructed wall that separates them begins to break down at the most inopportune moments. Suddenly Henry and Edward, who share the same body, have to work together to keep themselves alive. Christian Slater makes the show. I always thought it unfortunate that this lead actor from the 80's who had been designated a "Jack Nicholson" heir apparent never found his feet. I'm hoping that he finds a new acting life through this cleverly written TV drama.

Fringe: Any show produced by Lost creator J.J. Abrams is on my must see list. Fringe focuses on an investigative trio who use techiques on the "fringe" of modern science to solve their weekly adventures. The show stars Anna Torv as FBI agent Olivia Dunham who is described as being "tough as nails". (As a side note to TV producers across the spectrum, can we please stop with the "tough as nails" female charecters. Its starting to look ridiculous having blonde bombshells that weigh all of 100 pounds "beating up" guys twice their size and "protecting" the wimpy guy who could obviously kick her butt in real life). The show really comes together though with the interaction of Joshua Jackson and John Noble playing a father and son team of dysfunctional geniuses. Throw in conspiriacy and government and you have your X-Files for the 2000's.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I'll be commenting on returning favorites such as: Chuck, Lost, Heroes, Smallville, and Battlestar Galactica.

All of these shows are so much more interesting than the debate!!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why So Angry?

I talked to a friend the other day who is not American but living in America. He mentioned how crazy people were getting with the election. A friend of his had an outburst against him because they had a disagreement over some of the domestic issues being wrestled over in the States. The wife had to apologize on his behalf saying the news that day had just made him so angry.

Why are people in the U.S. so angry?

I just got done watching a teaching lecture on TED by Jonathan Haidt on the Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. In it he explains how traditionally there been 5 areas of "morality" that are found in every culture in every era. They are:
* Harm / Care
* Fairness /Reciprocity
* Ingroup / Loyalty
* Authority / Respect
* Purity / Sanctity

The study showed that the great civilizations are ones that were able to utilize all 5 disciplines. However those that view themselves as liberal focus on the first two, whereas conservatives score high on the last three. The liberals challenge to Ingroup - Loyalty is to "Celebrate Diversity" to Authority - Respect is "Question Authority" and to Purity - Sanctity "Keep your laws off my body". Although done for noble reasons, often these elements chip away at order. Says Haidt:
Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. Want change and justice,
even at the risk of Chaos"
Conservatives speak for institutions & traditions. Want order, even
at a cost to those on the bottom

The verdict is that both are needed by a society in order to stand.

Thats why I find it strange that Americans get so angry at those who champion these different areas of morality.

Sarah Palin gets picked as a VP candidate and she is HATED. I've seen some anti-Palin rally footage and thought, "Are you kidding me?" You may think her unqualified, disagree with her positions etc. but why the anger?
On the flip side, I got an e-mail from a newsletter that I usually respect that said, "Obama must be Stopped". Stopped from WHAT sheriff? You may think him unqualified and disagree with his positions, but why the anger?

To my McCain backing friends: Obama is not the anti-Christ. If he is elected (and he probably will be) the sky is not going to fall, abortions won't be available in supermarkets and gays won't be getting married on your front lawn.

To my Obama backing friends: If McCain is elected, we are not going to invade Iran, Canada, or France. The poor and homeless are not going to be executed or tortured. Christianity is not going to become the state religion and Jack Bauer is not going to be made Secretary of State

So can everyone PLEASE take a chill pill, dial it down about 5 notches, and get a life!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Render Unto Caesar

I never agree with Barry Lynn. So it was surprising to me when I found myself on the same side of the fence as he on a recent legal matter. You see, Barry is the Executive Director of the organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and since I want a lot less separation between these two entities, you can see how we would differ.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for a theocracy in America. When Jesus is running it, hey, sign me up! Short of that, I'll pass. It's just that I think it's OK for a teacher to lead an after school Bible study, or to actually call a Christmas party a Christmas party and not a "Winter Festival".

However on Sunday, a group of pastors decided to openly violate their obligation as a tax-exempt organization to preach political partisanship from the pulpit.

I checked the IRS website for the exact ruling on this. It states:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Basically, if you are serving the community, a church is granted special tax exemption so that the church can better use those tax dollars for the good of that community. To become openly partisan and begin politically campaigning, a church violates a truckload of really good laws.

Thats just what this group of pastors did on Sunday. 33 churches, and perhaps more to follow, have intentionally defied this law and are daring the IRS to bring action. Some have even sent transcripts of their sermons to the I.R.S.

Says their defense attorney, "Pastors have a right to speak about biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment,” said senior legal counsel Erik Stanley for ADF, which promised to represent for free any pastor challenged by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). “No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights.”

Who says they don't have the right to speak about biblical truths? They certainly do! They can even endorse a candidate if they wish...they just have to give up their tax-exempt status. See, privilages over time begin to be viewed as entitlements. Some churches begin to see their tax-exempt status, not as a blessing by a friendly government, but a right that they are owed without question.

Not one of these pastors has a real conviction on this matter. If they did, they would simply withdraw their tax-exept status, begin paying taxes like any other business (as many of them really are...who are they kidding?) and speak about anything from the pulpit they wish to.

As a Christian, and as one who wants to see Christ honored in America, I find it difficult to be on this side of the fence...but saddle up I.R.S., strip these churches of their tax status, and let them start rendering unto Caesar what is Caesars.