Monday, September 28, 2009

Writer's Block?

It's not because I haven't been thinking about the blog that nothing has appeared recently from me. Indeed, I have two topics that I have been trying for days to form into a post. One of those is the conundrum of the role of community in Christian life. There is no doubt that we are called to live in community. Many people much more able than I (such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together) have written about Christians and community. In addition, it seems that the Christian response to losses in the advantages of community is a popular topic right now.

But, the problem is that Jesus rules out some of the most popular vehicles for forming community, such as social identity (the parable of the Good Samaritan) and private advantages to community building (see Mark 9:33-25). I have been stuck on what to write, and yesterday my Pastor, Bill Bess, preached a sermon on Mark 9 in which he discussed this same problem in the concept of a community without boundaries. So, I still haven't figured out this riddle, but I hope to return to it.

The second topic I've wanted to write about is the powerful and humbling passage from the lectionary two Sundays ago. Finally I've decided that there's no commentary that I can write that adds anything to the text itself, so I've just decided to repost it here (this is copied from the PCUSA lectionary service):

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4:1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More on "Cash for Clunkers"

Over at "The Economists' Voice", two economists estimate that the net benefits to society of the cash for clunkers program is significantly negative, even after accounting for the reductions in carbon emissions. The details are here (warning: may require guest registration).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The "Man Who Fed the World" Has Passed Away

Anyone who wants to be "Wise as Serpents" in fighting starvation and poverty must surely honor the work of Norman Borlaug, "The Man Who Fed The World." Thanks to Powerline Blog for the tip on the link.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thursday Thoughts

I. Doug and I have just had a short analysis article published in the Presbyterian Outlook. The topic is the review that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is undertaking regarding its Washington lobbying office.

II. I was very interested that President Obama switched away from using the Post Office as his analogy for a government health insurance program to using thepublic/private mix in higher education. Recall that I wrote about that analogy here is Wise As Serpents in "The Post Office Always Rings Twice" back in August. It is an important example (and I think one of the few examples) in which we see a significant, stable mixture of government and non-government providers (it's actually an interesting mix among governments, non-profits, and even some for-profit providers). I raised the analogy to see if we could consider why higher education was so different than first class mail (the Postal Service is protected as a monopoly), Amtrak, and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac. I came up with three hypotheses, none of which applies, as far as I can tell, to the President's plan for health insurance (even reading texts from his specch I still don't really know what his plan is). As a quick review, the three attributes that I hypothesized were important were:

1 ) The government universities are forced to compete with one another. This certainly wouldn't be the case with a national government health insurance system, and the Administration's proposals to weaken Medicare Advantage means that they are probably going in the opposite direction. It's not clear whether any of the ideas of regional public health exchanges would include government/government competition.

2 ) State governments make only minimal attempts to control the operation of private universities. This is clearly at odds with the various Democratic proposals.

3 ) We have a social norm that accepts heterogenous outcomes in higher education. I question whether we would have that same social norm with regards to health insurance. Attempts to mandate this or that in private plans, again, go in the opposite direction.

So what would a "public option" look like that resembled higher education? Perhaps:

a) regional exchanges that could compete across state line, particularly for the purpose of addressing the adverse selection problems of high-risk individuals;

b ) freeing private providers from government imposed mandates as to what constitutes an acceptable policy, and allowing consumers more choice between limited and complete plans;

c ) accepting a social norm of hetergenous outcomes beyond some core of "major medical" insurance.

In thinking about this post, I drifted towards the following thought experiment. Would we ever arrive at a system that, once it was in place, we as a society would accept that individuals had enough options that it would not be the federal government's responsibility to step in if someone, after the fact, regretted that they didn't choose some particular features in their health care plan? For example, suppose I chose a plan that excluded payment for organ transplants after I reached the age of 80. What would happen if, when I am 84, a doctor told me that I could extend my life by an expected X years by having a liver transplant? Would I be able to "recontract" by claiming, through the legal or political process, that it was unjust for my insurance company to refuse to pay?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

More Purpose

This past Sunday our pastor preached a sermon filled with purpose --the timing of which could not have been more appropriate given my last post on meaning and purpose. Specifically, he talked about "work" and the idea of a "calling" to work.

Before the Fall Adam worked in the garden. Thus, work happened even amidst perfection. After the Fall however we are told that work becomes painful and toil isn't always a delight. God had always intended for us to work though, to grow things and be fruitful.

Linked to the action of work is the concept of vocation. We talked about the word vocation (that comes from the Latin word "vocari" when means "calling") and how many of us believe that we do not have a calling --regular people just have jobs. What a misconception! First, we are not regular people, we are a New Creation. Secondly, while it is true that there may be a few people who have vocations others would recognize as going down in the history books as a calling that is not equal to saying, "your position does not matter to the world," or, "Because you're going to fill one of special positions God does not want to fill your life with a calling."

Fundamentally, there is a distorted view of God at the heart of such a line of thinking. Possibly we view God as having scarce resources and only being able to have impact on the world through people who we view as important. For example, we had a really great development economist fly in earlier this year to talk about the condition of Africa. But, as he was about to leave and get on the plane he was somewhat scared to fly, a woman here at FSU told him "[Do not worry], You're not going anywhere. The universe isn't through with you." There was a notion that he was called to do great things. But, I wonder, if she saw herself the same way.

The goodness of God is such that I'm not sure we can even fathom the extent of His calling on our lives.

Finally, whatever we do, we do it to the best of our ability. One of the very best portions of the sermon was the idea that my work (and your work) could be a form of worship. I spend much of my day at work and if I learned to worship God in my work and the way I conduct myself and motivate my life what more purpose, joy, and love could be found!?! There is so much possibility.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What Just Happened?

“And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him ‘Then who can be saved?’”

I am fascinated by this line from the story of the rich young ruler. It comes just after Jesus has just made his “camel through the eye of a needle” analogy. Most of the commentary I have read about this goes in one of two directions: 1 ) The disciples’ eyes were opened about salvation through faith; or 2 ) the disciples were culturally conditioned to believe that the pious wealthy and elite were most likely to enter the Kingdom, and thus astonished by Jesus’ remarks. I think the second explanation just doesn’t make sense, and the first is on track, but doesn’t go far enough.

Starting with the second idea, I mean I know the Gospels present the disciples as somewhat dim bulbs, but the idea that they could hang around Galilee and with Jesus for most of his ministry and still assume that the wealthy had an inside track to salvation strikes me as dubious. James (2: 6) probably depicts the gut reaction of the common people of the time (the “poor”) when he says “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” And the story of the young ruler occurs late in the Gospels, so the disciples would have had to have been in a coma for a couple of years not to have heard Jesus’ constant message (through explicit statements, parables, choice of disciples and repeated confrontations with the elite) that the least were going to be first in line for the Kingdom.

The argument about salvation through faith is more credible, especially when the story begins with the ruler asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Undoubtedly, part of Jesus message is that we can’t achieve our salvation by what we “do.” However, I believe that there’s more to the disciples reaction than this.

Imagine that the disciples indeed had soaked in Jesus' message about the last being first, and had heard his attacks upon money-changers and the religious elite. Now ask yourself, “What just happened?” Jesus and the disciples are not in Galilee (they are crossing between Judea and Trans-Jordan). So here is Jesus, an unorthodox, itinerant rabbi, somewhat akin to a rural Alabama preacher walking the streets of the Hamptons, whose message is one of woe to the powerful and comfort to the poor and afflicted, when suddenly a rich young man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks him for spiritual advice. In the day of Jesus, this by itself is astonishing. And furthermore, when Jesus answers him “You know the commandments ….” The young man does not argue with or attempt to engage Jesus in tricked conversation. He accepts Jesus statement. I think that what astonished the disciples is that they were thinking “This is the jackpot. Jesus is finally getting his message through to the most important people in society. They finally get it. If we can walk into Jerusalem with this man as the new face of Jesus’ ministry, there is no stopping us.”

As usual, Jesus did what confounded his disciples. Rather than signing the young man on as his “outreach minister to the Hamptons”, he adds to the demands for salvation, sends him away, and then seemingly dismisses his chances of salvation, saying that they were worse than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.** For me, this then explains what the disciples said: ““And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him ‘Then who can be saved?’” To me, they were saying to Jesus: “We don’t understand. This is what your entire ministry has been about: the humbling of the wealthy and self-righteous into a life of faithful observance of the Law. If you are not satisfied with this, what will you be satisfied with?” And Jesus answers them “All things are possible with God.” (And then, completely in character, Peter gets his nose out of joint and begins a rant of self-justification: “WE have left everything and followed you.”)

So, yes I think that the story is one about salvation not being through works, but I also think we have to be careful that we don’t fall into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the trap of “cheap grace.” To me, the whole meaning of this interchange is not that salvation through faith requires less of us, but rather that it requires more. There is nothing we can do as followers of Jesus that will gain our salvation by a finite amount of our efforts. But this means that at every point, Jesus will say to us, “But I require more.” Of course we will fall short, and it is then that we must realize that, solely through God’s grace and not through our own merit, Jesus has died for our sinfulness. As a consequence, we should not be satisfied, but instead we must want to offer more.

** One of my pastors was of Middle-Eastern ancestry, and he suggested that the phrase had a double meaning. The “eye of the needle” was a city gate intended to allow entry only to people on foot, and the absurd picture of a rich man riding a camel loaded with possessions trying the enter through the eye of the needle would have been instantly recognized in that time.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Early to Bed, Early to Rise.....

Doug and I have some research underway which we’ll probably have a chance to review here in the future, but in the meantime it’s made me think about the role of wealth and worldly position in the Gospels. It seems undeniable to me that Jesus considered that the distractions of the world are a hindrance to participation in the Kingdom. Just as a couple of examples: the story of the rich young ruler (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” [Mark’s version]), and the opening scenario to the Parable of the Great Banquet in which Jesus was dining at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and noted how the other guests were interested in being seated in places of honor [Luke 14:7].

But there is a paradox. Contrary to the picture that many people like to paint, Jesus and his disciples were not a rag-tag bunch of destitute homeless people. There is a difference between being homeless because you are an itinerant preacher and being homeless because you are destitute. Jesus clearly had several bases for operation for his ministry: Peter’s family home, the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, and obviously some unnamed contacts in Jerusalem (the owner of the upper room for example). There was a mission fund large enough to be noted in the story of Judas [John 12:6], and Jesus’ ministry was apparently financed by many people, including a woman inside of Herod’s court [Luke 8:3]. People who came “to the Great Banquet” included many people of power, wealth, or status, including at least three Roman centurions, Matthew, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Saul of Taursus, and possibly the author of the Gospel of John. Some people (Peter, Matthew, and in a sense, Saul) seem to have abandoned their livelihood to follow Jesus as disciples but, for example, there’s no evidence that the Centurions left their post nor that Joseph of Arimathea took a vow of poverty. (And there’s no evidence that Jesus asked them to do so --- Nicodemus was still wealthy enough at the time of the crucifixion to purchase an impressive amount of funeral spices [John 19:39]).** In other words, there’s no neatly tied-up, unambiguous playbook on what we are to do about our own wealth or wordly authority.

Yet, we cannot escape Jesus’ constant picture that possessions, power, and prestige are stumbling blocks to the Kingdom. I think the answer to this seeming paradox lies in Jesus’ message that he comes not to hang out with the healthy, but to comfort and heal the sick. A wealthy, powerful, or prestigious person is several steps down the road to being someone is need of salvation (healing). In other words, Jesus came to heal the lame and the blind and to comfort the orphans; but he also came to heal the rich and the powerful of their stumbling blocks from wordly diversion. Sometimes the wealthy and wordly are broken because of the diversionary demands of their life: many academics know how it is easy to obsess over the latest ridiculous referee report. Similarly, the powerful, prestigious and wealthy suffer in spite of their position. Neither poverty nor wealth are vaccines against loneliness, isolation, or rejection. I remember being shocked by how many otherwise reasonable people seemed surprised, even appalled, that Kurt Cobain could suffer, given that he was wealthy and famous. To take such a point of view is to argue that wealth and fame ought to bring happiness, a position that Jesus completely rejects. Kurt Cobain needed salvation as much as the lame and the blind.

Thus, it should be no surprise, after all, that even in his own ministry Jesus touched both the fishermen and the Pharisee, the tax collector and the prostitute and the wealthy in Jerusalem. We always think of the ending of the story of the rich young ruler as being sad. But we don’t really know what that rich young man did after he went away. Jesus said that with God anything is possible. Who are we to judge whether or not the Holy Spirit called the young man? Would we be shocked if the rich young man turned out to be the owner of the Upper Room? In my next post, I want to take a closer look at one of the verses in the story of the rich young ruler.

** As a side note on a special case of the elite, John The Baptist, Jesus, the witness of the Gospel of Mark (John Mark?), Peter and Paul --- all of them encounter Roman soldiers or Centurions, yet there is no record of any of them chastising the soldiers or centurions for their profession, or making any general command for them to lay down their arms. In fact, there is considerable recording that this did not occur, and that soldiers were participants in the Great Banquet [Luke 2:14, Matthew 8:5-13; Mark 15:39, Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10, Acts 27, Acts 28:16, II Timothy:2]. I believe that this substantially argues for the case that Jesus did not intend for his teachings to prohibit lawful, organized, forceful resistance to evil: the police and armed forces.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Life has Purpose

Recently I read a book titled "Economic Gangsters". Within the book there is a line that simply reads, "There is more to life than GDP." Let me say, I couldn't agree more. There is more to life than the desire to accumulate possessions and a greater value of assets. Recently I had some moments of reflection when I thought so many things in life were meaningless, take economics as an example, meaningless. Relationships, what did they mean? What was the point? When Soloman wrote Ecclesiastes the word meaningless popped up an astonishing number of times. Searching on Bible Gateway for "meaningless" you would find there are 36 references to the word throughout the whole Bible. 33 of those references occur in Ecclesiastes. For example,

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!" (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

But, then there is an Ah-Ha! moment.

"Now all has been heard; Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. God will bring everything into judgment, including every hidden thing whether it is good or evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

So, everything would be meaningless except that God exists. Why are we here on this planet? The chief end of man is to enjoy and glorify God. This colored my foray into meaninglessness with neon-glow-in-the-dark paint, not really, but, life is far more exciting. There is so much to hope for, so much to expect in a life that wraps itself around God.

This is key. What you think about God is the most important thing. This is because it paints everything. Knowing we are absolutely loved gives us courage. Also, the more we are loved, the greater the capacity we have to love others.