Sunday, October 26, 2003

choosing masters

Check out this transcript of Bill Moyers' conversation last night with theologian Joe Hugh.

I think he's (mostly) dead-on, and his message in this case is a (mostly) prophetic one. The Bible is full of invective against those who make themselves wealthy at the expense of others, and I think here in America we've got a culture of runaway greed and materialism.

My own work place is a good example. I'll go with it because I'm more familiar with it than I am with others. I have to work between 40 and 50 hours a week to make $35,000 a year, before taxes. That's with a college education and eight years of experience in this field, plus two years' experience as a teacher, and a second language. I'm a managing editor, but to save money, I'm also required to do the work of a reporter and produce enough news copy to fill at least the front page. I take this money and use it to pay my mortgage, buy our groceries, and perform the other necessities of life. We live fairly simply, we don't carry credit card debt over from one month to the next, and so on. It's still tight, and we really don't have any money to put away for retirement or even for much of savings. I have two children, and they're growing.

The sad thing is, I'm actually one of the better-paid employees. Most managing editors -- that's my title -- at Worrall Newspapers make about $26,000 before taxes. Reporters make $20,000. This is more or less what those positions paid 10 years ago. A co-worker of mine who has more job responsibilities, a higher rank and more experience with the company makes only $28,000. He's 40 years old, has two kids who are older than mine, and has been losing weight because he can't afford to feed both himself and his kids.

The production department is in the process of being phased out because we've finally switched to computerized layout instead of paste-up, and pagination duties are being given to the editors, who will not receive any extra pay for this. Additionally, two of the branch offices were consolidated recently, as another cost-savings measure.

There are no raises in this company, not even cost-of-living adjustments, and even though the company is doing better this year than last, they recently eliminated two positions to reduce expenses. I recently was denied a promotion I had been told I likely would be getting because I had the gall to say that I would like more money for more responsibilities. The guy they gave it to will make only $28,000 (as compared to the $35,000 I make), and he will be replaced with someone else they can pay $26,000.

In the meantime, the owners are amazingly well off. They drive expensive cars, take off for trips to posh vacation spots and, while they might not be multimillionaires, don't seem to be hurting nearly as much as their employees.

Do I think they'll have to answer for this to God? Yeah, I do. I also pray that they'll get a little less penny-pinching and start showing more compassion to the people who are making them their money, and if the opportunity arises, I'm probably going to say something about why morale is so low and everyone is itching to leave.

The scene in the corporate world is even worse. Corporate executives get paid millions, receive millions more in stock options, and as recent history has shown, seem to feel little guilt over plundering the business, even if it destroys the company. Shareholders often are concerned more with stock dividends and earnings reports than they are with the quality or affordability of the product, which is one of the reasons health care has become so expensive.

Increasingly, it's virtually impossible to graduate from college without crippling college loans, and even as those loans are increasing, the amount of high-paying jobs in the U.S. is declining as more and more technical jobs move overseas to cut costs. That's good for those other countries, but it's a bad combination here.

Jesus said that we can't serve both God and Mammon. If you look around at America today, it's pretty obvious which of the two we as a culture have chosen to serve.

We don't hear this much in church, which is alarming, because it doesn't seem like James is mincing his words in a letter to Christians: "Now listen, you rich people. weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you."

Where I disagree with Joe Hough (surprise, surprise) is that I don't think the answer to our solution is a political one. (I do have to admit that it drives me crazy to hear Christians defending tax cuts that favor the wealthy and powerful, though.) In the final analysis, what we need in America is a change of heart, not of administrations. That change needs to begin in the church, and it needs to begin in me.

Practically speaking, it means:

* Never mind making sandwiches for the homeless. Church groups need to go out to the soup kitchens, meet the homeless and become personally involved with them. Let their needs become our needs, and meet them.

* Christians in business need to run those businesses not on a profit-driven basis, but on a basis that serves Christ and that leads them to a deeper relationship and understanding of his character. A developer can still make a good amount of money but sell properties at a much lower profit, making housing more affordable. Other business owners can find ways to reduce not costs but profits, and still live comfortably. As Marley told Scrooge, mankind, not moneymaking, is meant to be our business. When we do that, we're keeping what Christ called the two greatest commandments.

* Give more. I don't believe Christ calls us to a 10 percent tithe. What he calls us to is to give generously. That enables us to help those who are in need, and it drives us to greater dependence on God to meet our own needs.

* Get engaged with people around you. I mentioned a co-worker who outranks me but makes less than I do. Yesterday, on the way home from work, I stopped by his house and gave him several bags of groceries with the admonition that he needs to feed himself as well as kids, or he'll do them a disservice. I don't say this to boast; I say this because it's the only way I've been able to help him with this problem, and it's the only way we'll really start to change the direction of our country, our church or ourselves. The Kingdom of God is about people, and it grows like a mustard seed until it becoems a tree that provides shelter for birds, animals and people alike.

* Churches need to start doing more. Many churches are retreats for the righteous. There are Sunday morning and Sunday evening services, Wednesday night Bible studies, and maybe even Christian schools. Great stuff for the Christian community. Lousy service for the world around. We're not meant to be a retreat for the saved; we're supposed to be a haven for the lost. The Trinity Foundation in Dallas, Texas, some time ago instituted the Dallas Project. Their goal is to get churches and synagogues to take the homeless problem seriously, by having members of the church "adopt" the homeless and help them to get back on their feet. That won't help those with mental illness, but many homeless people are homeless for reasons that have nothing to do with mental illness, especially these days. I'd argue the same approach to crisis pregnancies will do more to end abortion than all the lobbying and screeching we can muster, ever will accomplish.

Not that I'm opinionated or something. It's just that the more I read the gospels, the more I realize that the disenfranchised of society are the people on God's heart the most.

"Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

You know what pisses me off? I can't find any churches that actually believe this anymore.

Friday, October 24, 2003

politics and faith

What concerns me about the American church's efforts in politics is that we've essentially got it all ass-backward. We're trying to get people to be righteous by telling them where their sin is, where they fail to measure up to God's standards and so on. We're trying through political might to make America a Christian nation.

It's something I've given a lot of thought to lately, as I've struggled to understand what the Cross means to me personally, and what it should mean to the church as a whole.

Might is the opposite of the approach Christ took. He could have been born to Caesar, or he could have reclaimed the throne of David, but instead he took the route of a morally questionable birth in the podunk town of Nazreth, and made his ministry out of giving selflessly to other people. When Satan offered him the crown of Caesar, Jesus refused. He didn't seek power, or glory, or anything of the sort. What he sought was our hearts, and by seeking those, he made a revolution more profound than anything else I can think of.

That's no exaggeration either. The gospel literally has found its way to cultures so utterly removed from first-century Israel that there would appear to be no points of commonality, and yet it has found those points, established itself as a native religion, and transformed those cultures toward the likeness of Christ.

I've said before and I'll say again that there is nothing wrong with Christians being politically active. But the gospel is not political, and when political or legal changes become the thrust of our ministries and start taking priority in our attention and energies, we've stopped serving God and started serving ourselves. The power to transform society, to renew the mind and to reconcile men to God is just not found in a political program. Those things are found ONLY in Christ.

I suppose that's one of the reasons I find it annoying when the Religious Right acts as though God is on the side of the Republican Party, or tries to take ownership of Christ as a conservative based on the values we believe he had. The truth is that God is not on our side, he is on his own side, and we need to be with him. As for Christ, I'm convinced more and more that he isn't conservative or liberal. He's a social radical who worked outside the system more often than not.

spirituality and public morality

"America is not a Christian nation -- but I would argue that it's our job as Christians to encourage it to accept Biblical principles and values as true, because it'll be happier that way. Live closer to the way the Author prescribed, live happy; the more we diverge from that, the more miserable we're going to be."
- RBP

Isn't that missing the point of what we're called to do? We're not called to teach people the Rules for Right Living, and we're certainly not called upon to present some works-based initiative where if we behave in accordance to the designs of God, our lives will be better.

That reasoning essentially is works-driven, and it's what Paul rejects in Romans and Galatians as incapable of bringing us life. His thesis is that if any Law or prescribed behavior could bring us life and righteousness, then the Torah was the Law that could do it. But that's a false offer, because it's impossible for us to follow the Law even in part, because any violation of a part of the Law is a violation of its entirety.

Follow the Law, and encourage others to follow the Law, and you might see the results you're describing. But everyone will be further from God as a result. What God desires is that we live by the spirit, not seeking ways to experience his blessings (including a more righteous-seeming nation) but seeking new ways to experience *him.* That's done by interacting with other people and discovering God's image as it is stamped upon them, meeting their needs and loving them as Christ desires us to.

I don't see homosexuality as an issue worth even a fraction of the attention it's received from the church. Again, assuming for the sake of argument that what you say is true, consider that the places Paul condemns homosexuality in Romans and 1 Corinthians are actually rather lengthy and all-encompassing lists of human behavior, including greed, fits of rage, gossip, slander and boasting. His point is that sin is universal and none of us has hope on our own merits, not that any particular group is guilty of an especially horrible sin. The language in the Torah is harsh -- toe'bah is only used to describe two sexual practices in the Torah, although the death penalty also is prescribed for adultery -- but even there, the injunctions against homosexual behavior are contained in a list of many other sins. The point, again, is that apart from Christ, none of us possesses righteousness.

Going a step further, when Paul addresses the issue of incest in the church -- a practice he calls so hideous that even unbelievers are disgusted by it -- he says, point-blank, "You know, if this were going on outside the church, I would say it's none of our business." So if a man sleeping with his father's wife is none of our business when they're not Christians, why would we have the right to dictate the sexual morality of the world at large?

Jesus wasn't a moralist. He didn't campaign against prostitution, against homosexuality, or fornication, or other such behaviors. What he did was react with compassion to everyone. He ate with Pharisees when he was asked, and with low-lifes when they asked. He treated everyone with respect, and in the gospels at least, the sins he really went off on dealt with the legalists who made pleasing God a works-related business, religious hypocrisy, and denying justice. The lifestyle he had was one of inclusion and warm welcome to everyone who needed him.

So I agree with your statement that Christ calls us to encourage others to follow him and act as he would -- but I believe that's done by the example of selfless living, dying to ourselves daily, and an in a thoroughly personal way, not a political one.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

telemarketing

I recently made a shocking discovery: It is now possible for me to eat an entire meal without the phone ringing even once.

It doesn't matter if I eat dinner at 5, 6 or 7 p.m. The phone stays blissfully silent, and when it does ring, I know I can pick it up without running into the living room and checking our caller ID to see who's calling. And to think I owe it all to the Federal Trade Commission and its do-not-call list.

Mixed with my immense relief is a twinge of sadness. Now that I have the FTC's muscle backing up my wish to be left alone, I've lost the opportunity to practice one of my favorite sports. It's called "Bait the Telemarketer."

This is a game where you do your best to throw the telemarketer off stride. AT&
T asks you to switch long-distance carriers, you tell them you don't have a phone. A contractor tries to convince you to renovate your home, explain that you have a deep-seated phobia of straight lines and flat surfaces, and ask if they can redo the house so it doesn't have them any more.

For a while I told telemarketers that I bill my time at $200 an hour, and if they wanted to continue the discussion under those terms, I would be happy to talk for as long as they wanted. Oddly, not one ever took me up on it.

My piece-de-resistance came a few months ago, when I received a call from a woman I'll call Sharon. I was at the point where I normally would just hang up, but for some reason I was feeling whimsical and decided to have fun.

"Doesn't this job get to you?" I asked after she had introduced herself and only just started her pitch. "I'm guessing that a lot of people hang up on you or just get really rude, don't they?"

"Well, yeah," Sharon admitted. Her voice had been lively and animated when she had started her pitch, but now it was more plaintive, what you would find from co-workers commiserating about an awful workplace.

"And I'm willing to bet you don't even like what you do," I added. "Most people can't stand to get telemarketing calls, and I'm willing to bet you don't either."

"Well," she admitted. "Not really."

"Do they pay you enough?"

The silence told me everything, even before she said, "No, they don't."

"So what you're telling me," I said, "is that you have a job where you're unhappy, you're doing something you don't like, and you get grief all the time from the people you call, and they don't pay you well enough to put up with it." I paused, and went for the throat. "Sharon, I think you and your co-workers should form a union and fight for better working conditions."

Sharon thanked me for listening to her problems, said she would have to consider it, and hung up.

I never did find out what she was selling.

Despite great moments like that one, I don't miss telemarketing calls enough to ask that my name be returned to the roster. Given its misuse of the First Amendment to annoy me at home four, five and six times a day, I doubt I'll shed a tear if I never hear from a telemarketer again, even if the product they're promoting really is as revolutionary as they say.

What troubles me is that a number of companies apparently are using telemarketing agencies from outside the United States. Labor is cheaper, and the FTC regulations apparently don't affect calls from abroad, even on behalf of a domestic company.

If that happens again, I already have the perfect solution. My 4-year-old daughter is at an age where she loves to talk on the phone.

I can only imagine the conversations she'll have.



Copyright © 2003 by David Learn. Used with permission.


megan's law registry

If you live in Iowa and have small children like I do, you probably spent at least a little time recently on the computer checking the state's new online registry of sex offenders, at www.iosp.org.

For a parent, it's a dream come true. I have two daughters, one almost 4 years old, and the other almost 1. With a few clicks of the mouse, I was able to find the names, addresses and other pertinent information about all six sex offenders who live in the same town as I. One lives only two blocks from me.

Let me focus on him. He was convicted Aug. 15, 1997, of sexual assault involving a preteen girl, criminal sexual assault against a woman and aggravated criminal sexual assault against a preteen girl. The site doesn't provide any more information than that about the crimes.

I guarantee you that not only will I keep my children away from this man, but whenever I see him, I'm going to be filled with revulsion for what he's done. If I were to meet him on the street while I'm walking my dog, it would be next to impossible for me to interact with him without words like pedophile, pervert and rapist running through my mind.

I find that troubling.

Whether it's intended to or not, this registry automatically has become an added punishment to men and women -- usually men -- who already have paid their debt to society through a jail term.

As a result of this scarlet-letter treatment, this man has now been given the 21st-century version of the stocks. I know where he lives. I know how tall he is, what color his eyes and hair are, and with a little digging, I could find out all sorts of other personal information about him. If there's one thing a reporter's good at, it's digging up public information that other people like to think is private.

What's worse is that if anyone molests a child in the neighborhood, I know exactly who I'm going to suspect right from the get-go.

I'd like to think that if someone hurt one of my daughters, my wife and I would have the self-restraint not to take matters into our own hands, but I don't know. It's too easy to imagine making a beeline for the man's door in such a situation. Our passions run deep where our children are concerned.

Despite the gravity of the arguments I'm making now -- arguments that have been made ever since Megan Kanka was killed nine years ago and the law that bears her name was first proposed -- a U.S. Court of Appeals last month overturned a U.S. District court judge's decision that the registry violates privacy rights.

Essentially, the appellate court ruled that the protection of citizens outweighs an offender's privacy rights.

I can't fault parents who check the Web site -- I've done it myself -- but I do think the appellate court was dead wrong in its decision. Information about sex offenders and their records should be public information, but it shouldn't be so easily accessible.

The state has taken a tremendous risk in presenting the sex offender information in this format and especially on the Internet. This just doesn't make sense for someone who's not considered a high risk for repeat offenses, and if people are considered high risks, they don't belong on the Internet -- they belong in an institution, getting treatment.

To its credit, the Web site reminds users on almost every page that they can't misuse the information in the manner I've described. Anyone who uses the registry's information to commit a criminal offense faces three to five years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000.

That's well and good, but it assumes that people are going to be rational about a volatile subject. That is not always a safe assumption, particularly after an assault has occurred.

Stiffer penalties, some offered by other states, are not the answer. That Web site has to come down, and the state needs to find a better way to disseminate the information, if it is to be disseminated like this at all.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

tongues of men and angels

Wasn't the original purpose of tongues to make things more comprehensible to the listeners?

It's what Paul seems to suggest is the use of tongues when he writes to the church in Corinth. The idea is that if people come into church and hear you worshiping in a language they don't know, it means nothing, but if they hear you worshiping in their own language -- which you don't know -- they stand convicted that God is in the church (1 Corinthians 14:22). That certainly was the impact of the crowd who heard Peter's sermon early in Acts.

I still have no idea what the scriptural basis is for a "prayer language," though I know many Pentecostals and charismatics who swear by it.

Paul does say, "If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a tinkling cymbal or resounding brass." But since that's the ONLY place in the entire Bible that Pentecostals have found to justify the notion of speaking in a heavenly prayer language, I consider that shaky reasoning. That would be like arguing that because the Torah refers to locusts as creatures that move "on all fours" that locusts really are four-legged and have two arms, or like saying that Job really did have skin on his teeth.

Every language has idiomatic expressions, and I'm inclined to consider "the tongues of men and angels" to be one of those until I hear a convincing argument otherwise. I'm also dubious because heretics like Montanus spoke in ecstatic tongues, as modern-day frauds like Robert Tilton do, and ecstatic utterances are found in other religionsm, from voodoo to Islam. That's by no means an unshakeable indictment of ecstatic utterances, but you have to admit that it's a stronger sign of God's presence if the utterance is in an authentic language unknown to the speaker, and not just random "Untie my bowtie" noises.

Remember, when the glossolalia first was manifest in the book of Acts, it had the express effect of Jews from all over the world hearing the gospel proclaimed in their own native languages -- even though the speakers were virtually all from Judea and Galilee.

Back when I was in the Assemblies of God, my pastor interpreted it as an indication that glossolalia was meant to be a normal experience, since every time the Holy Spirit came to a new group of people -- Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles -- it was manifest outwardly in the speaking of unknown tongues.

Friday, October 03, 2003

the pressure's off

A book a friend of mine recently rurned me onto is Larry Crabb's "The Pressure's Off." It's a rather interesting and rather compelling book about the legalism that often ensnares us because we fall into the trap of means to an end, like "seven rules for a successful marriage" or "thirteen ways to raise godly children."

Crabb's point -- and I think it's an excellent one -- is that when we do this, we're going back to the Law, the very thing Christ freed us from and doing exactly what Paul warns us not to do. We don't improve anything by following the Law; we instead place ourselves under a burden we can't possibly carry.