Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Go With Throttle Up

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics.”
- Franklin D Roosevelt

The terms being tossed about in this global crisis are mind boggling – mark to market, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, teaser rates, ARM’s, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, sub-prime, derivatives, Sarbanes-Oxley, Gramm-Leach-Biley, negative feedback loops, mortgage backed securities. With each passing day come new terms and increasingly frightening news about financial exposure. A month ago, the Fed began injecting billions of dollars into the “system.” A while after that regulators hoped that $85 billion to prop up A.I.G. might solve the problem. A few weeks ago public exposure was about $700 billion. Shortly after that, in testimony before the House, we learned that exposure in credit default swaps is somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 trillion, more than the entire world’s annual G.D.P!

While the exposure numbers reach into the stratosphere, the stock market is flirting with a crash. In the past month the Dow has lost between fifteen to twenty percent of its value. In some parts of California entire communities have been foreclosed on and abandoned. Here in Lyon County, Kansas, foreclosures for the first nine months of this year have increased by 57% from the previous year. Credit markets appear to be seizing up. Inventory needed for production hangs in the balance. The well of credit desperately needed to meet payroll is running dry. As business leaders meet in board rooms to slowly hammer out solutions and our Congress holds hearings, the crisis spirals downward, moving at the speed of the internet.

Is it any wonder, then, that we’re every bit as angry as we are confused? A Pew survey taken a few days ago revealed that 54% of us are paying a lot of attention to this crisis, yet 43% of us are confused by it. In fact, the more information we get, the more confusing and conflicting it seems to be.

The strange mixture of interest and confusion is becoming every bit as toxic as many of the sub-prime mortgages entwined in this crisis. The only avenue many of us feel we have left is to express our outrage. Democrats blame Republicans; Republicans blame Democrats. Proponents of regulation blame laissez-faire capitalists and vice versa. The cycle of blame seems to stretch to infinity, but it may only be the tip of the iceberg. As the anger mounts it’s becoming more personal, more visceral. As author/futurist Francis Fukuyama noted this past Sunday, “The quality of political debate has been coarsened by partisans who question not just the ideas but the motives of their opponents. All this makes it harder to adjust to the new and difficult reality we face.”

One of the constants in this crisis has been our uncanny ability to hold ourselves guiltless. We assume that we had nothing to do with this mess. Yet, many of us took second mortgages on our homes to fund that dream vacation we just couldn’t live without. We bought meals at Applebee’s and trendy bistros, Hummers and SUV’s, or designer clothes and shoes using plastic, to the collective tune of $2.4 trillion!

Warren Buffet, the sage of Omaha, once observed “it is only when the tide goes out that you find out who’s been swimming naked.” Well, the tide has gone out on the global economy and we’re finding out that there an awful lot of naked people flopping around in the driftwood and seaweed that’s been left behind.

There’s a sad truth at the heart of this mess - lies. In 2006, author/risk consultant Satyajit Das described it as a hierarchy:

“There are salespeople – they lie to clients. Traders lie to sales and risk managers. Risk managers? They lie to the people who run the place – correction, think they run the place. The people who run the place lie to shareholders and regulators. I remembered the quantitative colleagues. ‘I forgot the quants – our fabulous rocket scientists! When last heard from, they we trying to develop a model for lying.’”

While it would be easy to blame it all on a chain of skilled liars, the truth is we’ve also lied to ourselves. We’ve bought into the naïve notion that consumption built on a mountain of debt and bull markets were inalienable rights.

It all sounds eerily familiar in the light of history. Many in the 17th century mortgaged their homes so they could buy a single tulip bulb for $75,000, betting that their investment would reap huge rewards. During the “roaring twenties,” millions bought stock “on the cuff,” certain the only direction was up. On January 28, 1986, after days of delay, internal wrangling, and public impatience, NASA mission STS 51L lifted off from Cape Canaveral. About a minute into the flight mission control issued the command, “Challenger, go with throttle up.” At 73 seconds, Challenger disintegrated.

Since the early nineties it has been, economically speaking, “Go with throttle up.” In the wake the economic disintegration we’re confused, angry, trying to make sense of it all. We’re groping in the dark, hoping that there is a Churchill, an F.D.R., or a Reagan who will help us navigate the troubled waters. We hope, but no one seems big enough to answer the call. John McCain was clearly no match for the problem. And, I suspect time will tell that this crisis is well above Barack Obama’s pay grade.

In the face of crisis and recriminations I think back to stops made at mile marker 109 on the Kansas Turnpike a few years ago, gazing out along the tallgrass, keenly aware of my smallness and vulnerability, yearning for the consolation of the ages, realizing there are places where “moth and rust don’t corrupt.” In this age of Fukuyama’s “new reality” I find myself once more crying “Maranatha,” clinging to the age old hope of the eastern sky being split at dawn by the Parousia.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Persecution Complex

“While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door.
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say.
Oh, hard times come again no more.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door.
Oh, hard times, come again no more.”
- Bob Dylan – “Hard Times” (Stephen Foster) - 1992

The election is over. In keeping with American tradition, rampant speculation has become the order of the day. Will President Obama govern from the left? The center? Will America become a socialist state? Will the Democrats start sending out the goon squads to squelch any signs of dissent? What will Obama’s agenda be? Not to be outdone, some Evangelicals are speculating far into the future. In a letter that’s making the internet rounds, a Christian, circa 2012, laments the impact Barack Obama’s presidency has had on people of faith, particularly Evangelical Christians. A few samples follow”

“I can hardly sing “The Star Spangled Banner” any more. When I hear the words,

“O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

I get tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Now in October of 2012, after seeing what has happened in the last four years, I don’t think I can still answer, “Yes,” to that question. We are not “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Many of our freedoms have been taken away by a liberal Supreme Court and a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, and hardly any brave citizen dares to resist the new government policies any more.”

“Personally, I don’t know how we are going to get through tomorrow, for these are difficult times. But my faith in the Lord remains strong.”

Heart wrenching, wouldn’t you say? Well, be strong my brother…be strong!

I don’t know whether the author of the letter was prompted by some special prophetic insight or was projecting his/her fears for the future. I profess no special insight into the future, nor do I harbor an overwhelming sense of dread. I can say that as I walked the dogs this morning the sun still rose in the east. I can also say that my wife, Nancy, still loves me. She even told me so before she left for Topeka at 6:30. It’s now about 11:00 A.M. and no one from the thought police has descended on my home to confiscate my Bible. I’d even read from it a couple of hours ago, from Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth, in which the apostle provides some valuable insight into what one of his average days looked like.

“Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger? If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.”

Who really had the tougher road to hoe, the first century apostle or our hypothetical Christian in 2012?

Do we really believe we’re being persecuted? Can we really convince ourselves that a three percent hike in taxes rises to the level of being beaten with rods? If our hypothetical Christian is be believed, apparently so.

Well, I guess if our future Christian can engage in flights of fancy, I can to.

I wonder what things might look like in an imaginary meeting room for martyrs in heaven designed so that new arrivals can get a taste of what things are like just beyond the pearly gates. The year is 2009, a short time after the election of Barack Obama, liberal Democrat. Several new American arrivals have been ushered into the meeting room. There, seated before them, are men and women dressed in garb from the first century all the way to the 21st. They are an amalgamation of nations, ethnicities, races, and ages. There are even children.

Once the new arrivals are seated, a short, balding man comes to the podium. He clears his throat and announces, “It’s good to meet you new arrivals. Make yourselves at home. I’m Paul. I’m told I’ve been here a couple of thousand years now, but, to be honest with you, I’ve lost all track of time.” After a moment or two of polite laughter, Paul goes on. “I’m going to begin by telling you how I got here, then letting a few others describe their entry. Once they’re done, we’ll open the floor to you new arrivals to acquaint us with the circumstances surrounding their arrivals. Does that seem good to you all?” Everyone nods in agreement. “Good, then. I’m Paul. I spent a good part of my life getting whacked around like a piñata for professing my faith in Jesus. Why, once I got thrown on a pile of garbage and left for dead. The Romans finally got me and lopped off my head.” The new arrivals begin to feel lumps forming in their throats. Paul goes on. “I’m going to ask young Mary to describe her circumstances for you.” A young woman, circa fifteenth century, stands. “Hi, I’m Mary. I lived a quiet life of faith and contemplation in Spain until Torquemada got a hold of me and thousands of others like me. He had me ripped from limb to limb and here I am.” The new arrivals feel the lumps in their throats getting bigger. Paul then introduces a couple of young children, a boy and a girl. “We were thrown to wild beasts.” The lumps in the throats now seem to inhibit the breathing of the new arrivals. But, on and on it goes. One martyr recalls being covered with grease and lit up as a torch to light the Appian Way for Nero. Another describes being burned at the stake for reading an unauthorized translation of the Bible in the 16th century. A recent arrival, a 20th century North Korean woman, recounts how she and hundreds of her fellow Christian villagers were run over and flattened by tanks and bulldozers. Paul caps it all off by reminding the new arrivals that there is Someone with nail pierced hands in heaven who’s suffered more than all those assembled.

By now the new arrivals can hardly breathe. Paul encourages them to calm down so that they can tell their tales of woe. It takes a few minutes, but the testimonies begin. A fortyish man, dressed in an Armani suit, describes, in lurid detail, being taxed to death. “Early in 2008 my marginal rate was 36%. By 2009 it was 39%. The minute the first deduction hit my paycheck I had a heart attack and keeled over, dead.” The testimony is greeted with stunned silence. Next, a man dressed in bib overalls, apparently a farmer, defiantly declares, “I tried my best to live life under “librull” rule, but I could only hold out for a few months thinking of life without a gun before I blew my brains out. Yup, the librulls got me.” Icy silence follows. A woman, dressed to the nines, Ann Taylor, I think, tearfully describes how the interruption in her life of conspicuous consumption led to her untimely death. “Why, money was so tight I could only shop at Bloomingdale’s three or four times a week. I died of a broken heart.” By now, Paul and the others have heard enough. “Do you mean to tell me that you believe that a three percent jump in taxes, a liberal Democrat, and a shortage of money for high-end consumer goods got you here?” Knowing now that they have no good reason to be in a room full of martyrs, the lumps in the throats of the new arrivals now appear to be the size of softballs. They are gasping for breath. All they have to say, in muffled tones, at this point is, “Get us outta’ here, things are feeling very uncomfortable.”

I don’t know what things are going to be like in this country four years from now, but I can’t work myself into a state of hysteria because of a change in political administrations. I just can’t do it. I don’t believe that Barack Obama is the end of the world. I’m no candidate for martyrdom, but neither am I in any frame of mind to embrace a persecution complex for what seem to me to be trivial reasons. History has shown that we Christians can be a pretty hardy lot if we put our minds and hearts to it. Why, on our collective paths to heaven we’ve been burned at the stake, bludgeoned, torn into pieces, flattened like pancakes, sawn in two, thrown to wild beasts, drowned, beheaded, hanged by the neck, drawn and quartered, cooked in boiling oil, suffocated, and stretched on the rack. Knowing this, I find it less than amusing to think that having a liberal Democrat and his family occupying the White House will undo our faith in Jesus Christ. I’d like to think our faith is made of better stuff than that.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Winds of Change

“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
- Ephesians 4:29-32 (New Living Translation)

There’s a stiff breeze coming up from the south this morning. I hear the occasional rattle of my windows and the rustle of the few remaining sycamore and mulberry leaves as they’re blown from their respective branches. Seasons come, seasons go, and another season is changing. Summer has passed. Fall is slowly giving way. The winter snows will soon follow, to then be trailed by the blessed relief of spring in March. The sycamore and the mulberry will once more come to life. The crocuses will break through the sleepy ground. The sights and sounds of life will be everywhere.

As it is with nature, so it is with nations. The winds of change have swept over America. Barack Obama is our President-elect. The poet has won the day.

Change always strains at the status quo. This election cycle has had its share of vitriol. For months the internet and the airwaves have buzzed with slander, rumors, and lies, reflecting the deep sense of bitterness and anger that has descended upon us like a death shroud. For far too long we’ve embraced the bitter and refused the cup of brotherhood. We have gone beyond division; we have begun to tear ourselves asunder.

But change has come and with it, I believe, hope. The man of my choosing did not win this election, but the man who won is now my President-elect. It is time for the season of bitterness and hate to end. It is time for the balm of healing to be poured out on this wounded land.

Shortly after the electoral milestone was passed, Senator John McCain graciously accepted the will of the people. He seemed to understand the historic nature of what had happened and he rose to the moment. His words overflowed with grace, seeds for the grace we will all need in the months and years ahead:

“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

In victory Barack Obama was equally gracious. Echoing the words of Dr. King he called us to embrace a difficult, yet promising future. “The climb will be steep,” he said. “We may not get there in one year, or one term, but I promise you as a people we will get there.” He reminded us of Lincoln’s words – “We are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection”

While the road ahead has become overgrown with the weeds of bitterness, hate, and self-indulgence, it is clear that our task now is to pluck them up by the roots and make straight in the wilderness a highway of brotherhood and common grace.

It has taken us a long time to get to where we are, and it will take time to undo what we have done. We who profess faith must now set our hands to the plow. For far too long we’ve sown the seeds of discord rather than plant words of healing. We’ve used our freedom to speak as a license to slander rather than as an avenue of blessing. As the apostle James observed:

“But no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water?”

The winds of seasonal change are still rattling my windows. The leaves of the sycamore and the mulberry continue to fall. Change is coming. We cannot fight its inevitability, any more than we can hold the winds in the palms of our hands. We must embrace them as part of God’s righteous plan. And so it is with these winds of political change in America. We must now shed the outdated notion that we, as people of faith, are this nation’s sole arbiters of what is right and wrong and clothe ourselves anew with humility and grace. Only in walking that path can we become the people of faith and servants we have been called to be.