Saturday, March 28, 2015

There’s No Such Thing as Private Property

As the title suggests, I am calling for the demise of “private property” as we generally define it.  But you can relax.  I haven’t joined those who are singing the praises of socialism.  Instead, I am offering a biblical definition of private property; one that is essential for a free market, capitalist economy to operate in a just and moral fashion.  But first, let’s consider some context.

Western culture is steadily evolving; or perhaps more accurately, devolving.  At the heart of this devolution is the crumbling moral foundation of institutions that have supported civilization for several millennia.  The institutions of marriage, family, and citizenship are all being redefined based on moral relativism in place of objective truth claims from the Bible.  For purposes of this article, allow me to suggest that the definition of private property has also changed.  And I contend that this change in how we view “private property” explains why many have become disgruntled and critical of capitalism.

Replacing Capitalism with Socialism

During the past decade, the call for social justice has focused attention upon the plight of the poor, the ethnic minorities, and other groups who are considered disenfranchised.  Meanwhile, there has been a growing sense that social justice cannot be complete without major changes in two aspects that form the context of the injustices. 

First, there is the perceived need to change how material wealth is distributed.  Liberal scholars and leaders call for a shift away from free market capitalism toward some form of socialism to assure that each person gets their “fair share.”  Second, there is a perceived need to change the way in which humans interact with the environment of planet Earth.  According to this view, the Earth’s limited natural resources are too overtaxed to support the growing human population.  What’s more, natural resources are being consumed disproportionately by the rich and powerful.  To remedy these perceived duel injustices, one against the disenfranchised and the other against the Earth, the social planners have a solution which is summarized by Ralph Chaplin,
(1887–1961), American writer, artist and labor activist:

It seems the most logical thing in the world to believe that the natural resources of the Earth, upon which the race depends for food, clothing and shelter, should be owned collectively by the race instead of being the private property of a few social parasites.  

Chaplin speaks for many today who believe the answer to injustice toward people, animals, and the Earth is to move from individual to collective ownership of property—i.e. to “spread the wealth evenly.”  Never mind that to bring about this massive transition and then to maintain the collective in a just manner would be a difficult task, even with strong coercion and tyranny.  Furthermore, based on the history of socialism, how can we assume that those placed in charge of managing the collective would be any more just and fair toward people, animals, and the Earth than the so-called “social parasites” they now condemn?   Ben Shapiro points out that socialism has its own moral flaws:

Socialism violates at least three of the Ten Commandments: It turns government into God, it legalizes thievery and it elevates covetousness. Discussions of income inequality, after all, aren't about prosperity but about petty spite. Why should you care how much money I make, so long as you are happy?

On the other hand, capitalism offers the promise of freedom, but also a two-edged sword.  It depends upon individuals owning private property which in turn motivates a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit which often paves the road to prosperity.  But there is also the temptation toward greed and unjust practices that earn some capitalists the name “social parasites.”   As Shirley Chisholm states, “When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”

Although capitalism invites injustice, it is also true that greed and injustice thrive in both the private and public sectors.  It doesn’t matter whether the material resources of Earth are privately or collectively held; corruption has no favorites.  The source of trouble is not the material resources or the sector of the economy in which they are managed.  We must go deeper to find the cause.  The trouble comes from the depraved human heart.  Two writers, one a prophet of God and the other a Russian novelist and historian, expose the truth about the nature of the human heart:

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?  -- The Prophet Jeremiah (17: 9)

the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. -- Alexander Solzhenitzyn

Reviving Our Concept of Private Property

Because moral depravity is rooted deep within the heart of man, if free market capitalism is to be moral, I believe we must also dig deep to identify and extract the cause of injustice; and then, revive the heart with a biblical concept of private property.  In Scripture, we discover the basis for the title of this article.  According to Scripture, “There is no such thing as private property.”  Although it is possible in America and some other countries to hold legal title to property, Scripture teaches that we do not own anything.  “The Earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24: 1) and He has given humans dominion over creation (Genesis 1: 26-28) to manage it on His behalf as His servants or stewards (Genesis 2: 15).  We are stewards but not owners of “private property.”  Therefore, biblically speaking, private property is any portion of the Earth over which an individual has responsibility to God to manage for His glory.  In this definition, “private” refers to our individual responsibility.  And although we may hold temporary legal title, the property belongs to God.

The “stewardship view” of private property is a key by which humans can open the door and allow intimate relationship with God.  We can see this truth throughout Scripture from Adam and Eve all the way to the Apostle John in Revelation.  For example, Abel’s offering was a pleasing aroma to God, but Cain’s wasn’t (Genesis 4: 3-5).  This distinction rested at least partly on how these two men submitted themselves and their “property” in their worship of God.  Later, Noah worshipped and obeyed God; and God gave him dominion over the living creatures resulting in their salvation from the flood by means of the ark he had built (Genesis 6-9).  Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was a nomad.  Although he had great wealth, Abraham’s grasp upon it, even upon his beloved son Isaac, was very loose compared to his tenacious pursuit of God (Genesis 12-25). 

Remembering God Is Our Provider

Four centuries after Abraham, King David typified the same stewardship view that he learned from the patriarchs, but adds an additional principle.  King David not only understood that his kingship or dominion was a stewardship granted by God, but he also understood that even his ability to acquire material wealth was from God.  Listen as David prays before the people at the dedication of the material resources for the temple that Solomon would later build (1 Chronicles 29: 11b-14):

Yours is the dominion, O LORD,
and You exalt Yourself as head over all.
Both riches and honor come from You,
and You rule over all, and in Your hand is power and might;
and it lies in Your hand to make great and to strengthen everyone.
Now therefore, our God, we thank You, and praise Your glorious name.
But who am I and who are my people that we should be able
to offer as generously as this?
For all things come from You,
and from Your hand we have given You.

King David wanted his worship of God to be a picture of how all God’s people ought to exercise stewardship of the material resources of Earth day in and day out—managing “property” as that which comes from God’s hand and which, by God’s grace, He enables us to give back to Him or to our neighbor.  The Apostle Paul reiterates this principle in 1 Corinthians 4: 7:

For who regards you as superior?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it,
why do you boast as if you had not received it?

The Scriptural view of private property means we view the “property” as God’s, the “private” as our individual responsibility to work and manage it as unto Him, seasoned with an attitude of humility that recognizes all we have is ultimately a gift from God.   Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31, Paul teaches us that having a continual awareness of the eminence of Christ’s return will help us to “possess property as though we didn’t possess it” (emphasis mine):

But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none;  and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess;  and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.

Notice Paul cites the relationship of husbands to wives, and the relationship of humans toward material property (ultimately the Earth) in a similar sense.  Husbands are responsible to love and nurture their wives as unto the Lord; likewise, those who buy are responsible as stewards to act as “husbandmen” to care for their property as unto the Lord.  Here, Paul teaches that God’s people are to undertake both responsibilities with a “stewardship view”—a view that aims to glorify God as Christ’s return draws near, rather than an “ownership view” that aims to multiply wealth without regard to moral and ethical responsibilities toward God and our neighbor.

Realizing Even Our Bodies Are Not Private Property

But there is a third principle that deepens the biblical meaning of private property even further.  God’s redeemed not only do not own their spouses, cars, houses, and land; they don’t even own their bodies.  The redeemed are bought by Christ’s blood from the slave block of sin.  Paul wrote,” …you are not your own?  For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20).  Paul summarizes the biblical responsibility of the Christian toward God in a comprehensive manner in Colossians 3: 17:

Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

But how do we know whether we are actually “possessing as though we do not possess?”  Thankfully, God has instituted two routine tests by which we can check our attitudes and priorities when it comes to our “property”—our regular responsibility to give back to God our tithes and extra offerings; and, our weekly responsibility to set aside a day in which we celebrate God through our worship and rest from routine labor.  These observances provide a routine check on the tightness of how unselfish we are with material resources and time.

Renewed Hope for the “Free Market?”

I have provided a brief sketch of a biblical definition of private property. Now, if free market capitalists were to adopt this definition of private property, do you think they would still be considered “social parasites” by many who are disgruntled with capitalism?   The second question is, does this “stewardship view” of private property address the accusation by many that capitalism and its biblical roots are to blame for our insensitivity to disenfranchised people and to the deterioration of planet Earth?  I believe the answer to both questions is “yes” based on the account of the early church in Acts 4: 31-35 (emphasis mine):

And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.   And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.   And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.  For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

Although some who advocate social justice and socialism interpret the sharing of property in common by the early church as an advocacy of socialism by Christianity, the passage does not support that notion.  Instead, notice first that these folks were born-again believers on the basis of having trusted in Christ’s redemption from their sins through His death and resurrection.  As “new creatures” in Christ, they submitted their wills in obedience to His Word under the power of the Holy Spirit.  The resultant unity of Spirit enabled them to view their material possessions as “common property to them.”  From their perspective of “possessing as though not possessing,” they were able to see with eyes of compassion the physical needs among their number and therefore to voluntarily share generously.   Many acted upon their concerns by selling their “private property” and making the moneys available to the leadership to distribute funds to those in need.

At the time of the events recorded in Acts, persecution and ostracism often severely impoverished Christian converts and their families.  Therefore, the outpouring of generous sharing among these people of faith was nothing less than an essential, voluntary expression of the compassion of the Risen Christ toward those in need.  The expression of charity (agape love) by the 1st century church has been reproduced in countless congregations throughout the world, often going unnoticed except by the recipients.  Note also that this “voluntary sharing” distinguishes this biblical economy from a socialist model.

Yet, the Christian church is not immune from selfishness and greed as we have noted previously in “Greed, Charity, and Capitalism.”  Therefore, one of the challenges of today’s evangelical church is to provide the setting in which God’s Word is taught under the direction of His Holy Spirit to believers who are Spirit-filled and receptive to Christ’s example as One Who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9: 58).   Christ lived as an example of “possessing as though He did not possess” and cautioned against attitudes that would oppose this “stewardship view” of private property.  For example, he warned against the love of money (e.g. Matthew 19: 16-25) and contrasted those who give out of their surplus with the poor widow who freely gave all she had (Mark 12: 38-44). 

Revival by Church and Civic Institutions

The evangelical church must function as a counterculture in which individuals and families learn to implement biblical stewardship of private property.   Local schools and the local community have historically contributed to this lifestyle as I have explained in Environmental Stewards Are ‘Grown’ within a Moral Community.” Historian Thomas Woods comments on the importance of individual responsibility and other virtues in a free market economy:

One of the market's virtues, and the reason it enables so much peaceful interaction and cooperation among such a great variety of peoples, is that it demands of its participants only that they observe a relatively few basic principles, among them honesty, the sanctity of contracts, and respect for private property. 

Arthur Brooks noted, “what America needs is not less capitalism but better capitalists.”  In my view, better capitalists are those that adopt a “stewardship view” of material possessions, one that is taught in the context of family, church, and community.  But as explained in “Dominion 101 - Spheres of Responsibility” government has the important role of maintaining the rule of law.  Rep. Paul Ryan makes this point well:

We believe that the government has an important role to create the conditions that promote entrepreneurship, upward mobility, and individual responsibility.

Our Founding Fathers understood the depravity of mankind and the danger of power in the hands of one or a few.  Therefore, the U.S. Constitution calls for a system of checks and balances, and includes a justice system to maintain accountability and rule of law.  Today, greed and corruption are common at every level of both public and private sectors.   Many are asking, “Is capitalism moral”?   Arthur Brooks answers, “Of course not. Only people can be moral.  We're not asking the right questions."  Instead, we should ask, “What economic system will most likely encourage moral behavior in us?”  For me, that system is capitalism in which individuals have a “stewardship view” that sees private property as a temporary trust to which God holds title.   As temporary title-holder, the “owner” is responsible to use it for the glory of God and for the benefit of his or her neighbor.  A free market economy in the hands of such responsible stewards will address both of the concerns of social justice advocates—provision of assistance to the poor and disenfranchised that respects the dignity of human beings, and good stewardship of the environment of planet Earth.

I welcome your comments.  The following questions may stimulate your thinking further:

1.   How would the “Rich Young Ruler” in Matthew 19: 16-25 define private property? 
2.   Does Jesus’ condemnation of the “Barn Builder” in Luke 12: 16-21 suggest that it is immoral to be rich?
3.   What does the following quote from Lewis Black tell you about Christianity versus socialism? 
Socialism appeals to me.  It's like imposed Christianity. You've got to share.
4.   In what sense do advocates of socialism express a different view of humankind than advocates of capitalism?
5.   Is a free market economy really a better system to address the needs of the poor and disenfranchised than socialism?   Which one better addresses environmental problems?
6.   How would you grade your attitude toward your “property” based on your material giving and your observance of “Sabbath rest?”

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Lessons in Helping the Poor

Have you read the short story known as “A $50 Lesson” which has circulated on the internet for several years?  In this story, a young girl explains to her neighbor in the hearing her liberal progressive parents how she, if elected President of the United States, would give top priority to helping the homeless.   As we learn from reading the “original version of ‘A $50 Dollar Lesson’,” the girl’s parents are encouraged by her commitment to social justice on behalf of the homeless.  However, when the girl’s neighbor suggested a fiscally conservative solution to helping the homeless—one that could end his dependence on government aid and reinforce his dignity as a human being, her liberal parents essentially “go away mad.”  While the ending to the story may bring glee to fiscal conservatives and exasperation to liberal progressives, I believe the account falls far short of a higher purpose.


Jubilee Leadership Academy:  Restoration of the Whole Person
What if I were to tweak the “Lesson” to illustrate how a conservative approach would deliver true social justice by addressing the "whole person?"  And what's more, my altered scenario is not only possible but demonstrable.  Today, there are numerous well run assistance programs helping people financially as well as emotionally and spiritually. 

For example, Jubilee Leadership Academy*, Prescott, WA uses a farm operation, as a setting in which to transform the lives of young men.  After all, God is calling His people to help restore the poor not only materially but also in terms of personal responsibility and dignity.   And, all the while, to achieve these ends while also building bridges of understanding among people of all political persuasions, and ultimately between Creator and human kind.  With that thought in mind, please read my modified version of “A $50 Dollar Lesson.”  Hopefully, you'll find that this version replaces the barbs between liberals and conservatives with a bridge of understanding that could bring diverse political philosophies together for a common purpose:

A $50 DOLLAR LESSON*

Recently, while I was working in the flower beds
in the front yard, my neighbors stopped to chat as they
returned home from walking their dog.
During our friendly conversation, I asked their little girl
what she wanted to be when she grew up.  She said she
wanted to be President someday.

Her parents who were both liberal progressives
were standing there so I asked her, "If you were President
what would be the first thing you would do?”

She replied, "I'd give food and houses to all the homeless
people." Her parents beamed with pride!

"Wow...what a worthy goal!" I said.  "But you don't have to
wait until you're President to do that!" "What do you mean?"
she replied.  So I told her, "You can come over to my house
and mow the lawn, pull weeds, and trim my hedge, and I'll pay
you $50.  Then you can go over to the grocery store where
the homeless guy hangs out, and you can give him the $50
to use toward food and a new house."

She thought that over for a few seconds, then she looked me
straight in the eye and asked, "Why doesn't the homeless guy come
over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?

I said, "Great!  Now you’re thinking like a conservative.” 
Sometime, if you and your family would like to come with me
I’ll show you around my farm** outside of town.
I pay a staff to run the farm which provides jobs for homeless men.
In turn, the men earn an income from the sale
of fruits, vegetables, and poultry.
Many earn their way back into responsible living,
and some even stay on to work on my staff.

Her parents were both scratching their chins.

Modifying the “Original $50 Dollar Lesson” by removing the political barbs and adding an example of practical solutions to lead the homeless from dependence to independence seems pertinent to the current debate over how to address our failing welfare system and its fruit of spiraling human dependence.  As Mindy Belz writes in her article, “Greek Tragedy” [WORLD, Feb. 21, 2015], with reference to the failing economy in Greece,

… now is the time for Americans to flee our own country’s growing dependence on government entitlements.  Such “anti-poverty” benefits are a staggering growth industry that’s changing the character of our nation and its standing in the world.

Perhaps the “$50 Dollar Lesson” if properly taught, could save us billions and, more importantly, save many souls for eternity.  Who might be headed your way looking for an opportunity to rise to a challenge?
_______________
* NOTE:  I modified this original "50. Dollar Lesson" scenario to the form as presented here.
** If you are not a WORLD Magazine subscriber but wish to read about Jubilee Leadership Academy*, Prescott, WA, just contact me at silviusj@gmail.com and I’ll see that you get the complete article.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Life Report: How Would Yours Read?

I posted my first web log article in Oikonomia, on August 1, 2008, entitled “God: The Greatest “Subject?” My purpose in starting a blog at that time was to focus attention on our Creator God, “The Greatest Subject.” And upon humans and God’s creation as “The Great Objects” of His love, adoration, and ultimately, redemption.  The title, Oikonomia, represents what I believe is “The Great Responsibility” of humans—stewardship, or managing what belongs to God in such a way as to show our reverent love and awe of Him.

Can you think of any other concept from Scripture that is more all-encompassing of human responsibility than stewardship?   Biblical stewardship invites us to adopt the mindset of a servant (not an owner) who uses all of God’s gifts (time, talents, treasures) to honor and glorify Him for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ and His kingdom.   The biblical command in Colossians 3: 17 supports the notion that stewardship encompasses everything we do:

And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution in January?  Resolutions are a way of helping us to set goals to better our lives, or the lives of others.  But, how often do we look back and give ourselves a frank evaluation—or, biblically speaking, evaluate our stewardship.  Again, the Bible gives us a good motivation for evaluating our stewardship.  The Apostle Paul, in Romans 14:12 writes, So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

In his October 27, 2011 New York Times op-ed column, David Brooks gave some of his readers an “assignment.”  Here it is.

If you are over 70, I’d like to ask for a gift. I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way. You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories — career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge — and give yourself a grade in each area.

Several of Brooks’ readers responded by submitting their “Life Reports.”  One was especially meaningful to me as an example of one who is giving serious account of his stewardship.  Brooks published this essay, written in the form of a letter from a father to his two sons, on December 16, 2011.  Here is “The Life Report:  Frank H. Wheeler,” followed by my closing thoughts:

 
The Life Report: Frank H. Wheeler
December 16, 2011 6:52 pm

Dear Todd and Brian,
As my three score and ten years come to a close, it seems a good time to muse a bit about my life. Deep in the mire of active alcoholism in my late 30’s, not many people would have bet I would have passed 40, much less 70. But miracles happen in the strangest of ways and I have been given a life far beyond any I could have dreamed: I am married to the girl of my dreams, coming up on 50 years now. You two, your wives and kids put yourself in my presence, seemingly with pleasure. I have a relationship with, and a healthy dependence upon, a loving God. Both your mom and I have sufficient health, financial resources, mental acuity and interests to embrace and enjoy a robust, diverse life. I had a varied, remunerative, fascinating career in three industries. We seem to have balanced our own interests with responsibilities to our broader societies reasonably well. We, individually and as a couple, have a set of reliable, caring, fun friends different enough to provide spice and perspective, congruent enough to relate. At last count we have visited some 60 countries and seem to be at home in the middle of London or the backwoods of West Virginia. Were we perfect? Nope! Did we make mistakes along the way? Yup! Was it on balance pretty darn good? Absolutely!

Not much of this was predictable to anyone seeing a boy born in modest circumstances in West Virginia in 1940. Higher education was not a norm, a world war was starting, a depression was fresh in everyone’s mind, the average life span for a male in that state was around fifty, people stayed put and guys went to work in the mines, chemical companies or the state road. But my parents, both from humble backgrounds, were different. They had a vision for education, although they had little. They knew how to work hard, live within their means, save for the future, and delay gratification. They knew how to be a neighbor, in the pioneer style, and how to respect family. They had core values and lived by them. They knew God and tried to act as He would want them to act, as best they knew. They educated two boys. They mortgaged their house to found a church. They saved mom’s family farm from foreclosure. Were they perfect? Nope! Did they make mistakes along the way? Yup! Did they provide the foundation for me to build upon? Absolutely!

Now, did I use that foundation? Not for decades. At some point I concluded money and power were the source of happiness. I ran away from the God of my youth. I developed sharp elbows and the ability to “conveniently reinvent facts.” My values, to the extent I had any, were flexible and tailored to any current situations. I ignored obvious and compelling evidence of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and embraced the magic of Jim Beam. But I did some things right. I worked hard to obtain a useful undergraduate and graduate degree. I had the amazing good sense to marry your mom and she had the poor judgment to stick around. We both shared a sense of adventure that led us enthusiastically to embrace work and other opportunities. I sensed ways to build an asset base by working for fast-growing, small companies and trading short term income for equity. I seemed to be able to do the best job I could at any given time and let the future unfold. We consistently, and to this day, lived below our means. We were able to take prudent risks.

Most fortunate of all, during my alcohol-induced wilderness years, and your early ones, your mom was the steel bands, wrapped in velvet, which held our lives together. As my life spiraled out of control, somehow we survived. I came face to face with the reality of my life, first in jail in Selma, Alabama, and then a moment of clarity in a Nashville coffee shop, Easter Sunday, 1980. Shortly thereafter I prayed, “God, if you are there and you care, I need your help.” God was there, God cared and I got help.

Over time, I did build on the foundation my parents had put in place. I was able to partner more effectively with your mom, expressing my deep and growing love, and joining to mitigate our individual weaknesses and to make the most of our respective strengths. All aspects of life improved and I began to participate in family, community and work in new, enjoyable and largely effective ways. Somehow out of disaster came a confluence of factors that have led to a life I could not have dreamed. I learned not to fear mistakes too much; they were the greatest source of effective learning. I learned to focus my physical, emotional and spiritual energy on things I could change and accept those I could not. I finally discovered that doing the “right” things, in the “right” way and for the “right” motives lead to a general level of contentment even in the face of sadness, uncertainty and legitimate fear. Perfect? Nope! Still much progress to be made? Yup! Largely good and acceptable at 71? Absolutely! Entering the twilight years reasonably at peace? Most of the time!

So, to wrap this up, are there some things I would change? You bet and here are some of them:

  1. I would never have used alcohol or other mind-altering substances.
  2. I would have become much more open to spirituality much earlier. Nowhere else has “contempt prior to investigation” served me more poorly. I looked at God, institutional churches and believers of all ilks with contempt, anger or amusement. I sought and found, only evidence that supported that view, ignoring evidence to the contrary. And my late blooming spirituality deprived you two of a fuller sense of God in your early years. That I regret deeply.
  3. I would have been much more conscious of my footprint on earth. It is amazing how blind I was, and to a large extent still am, to the most sensible of environmental concerns in all aspects of my life. I have not been a good steward of the earth you and your children have inherited.
  4. I would have been much more deliberate and thoughtful about how I spent my physical, emotional and spiritual energy, especially in regards my vocations, thinking more precisely about how my decisions affected those around me.
  5. I would have been much more open, much sooner, to different people, their perspectives, their beliefs and their life styles. I love the diversity of many of my friends…their variety adds richness, openness, texture and interest to my life. Buddies range from 8th grade education to GEDs to Ph. D’s to MD’s, from dedicated socialist to a guy to the right of Attila the Hun, from atheist to Hindu to Muslim to Hassidic Jew to Christians of all stripes, from a murderer to a semi-saint, from multi-millionaire to a guy whose net worth is a dog, from about age 25 to me and the list goes on. I treasure the diversity and work very hard to ignore areas of core disagreements, focusing on what I can learn and share. Dialogue not debate.
  6. I would have become engaged with the political process, especially at the local level. At least be an informed, engaged voter.
So, how to end this? I look forward to musing about four score years!
Love, Dad
                         *   *    *

My thanks to David Brooks for the idea of writing a “Life Report,”  And, to Frank H. Wheeler for providing a good example that has inspired me to begin writing.  Who knows, perhaps if you and I have opportunity, maybe we can share our “Life Reports.”  I’d be honored to read yours.   And while writing, may God give us the attitude of a humble steward--humility that helps us reflect and write so that our focus may be on what God “The Greatest Subject” has done for us, or in spite of us, “His Greatest Objects.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Test for the West: Our Moral Response to Evil

Today, I am deeply concerned about the present direction of the world.  Although situations are complex, I'm noticing a troubling pattern.  First, the United States is withdrawing from the position of respected leadership and moral clarity which it had occupied for at least a century.  This American retreat, characterized by an ambiguous and often apologetic stance in foreign policy, seems to reflect ignorance or  misunderstanding of the role of the United States in world history.  Consequently, world axes of evil once restrained by a healthy respect for American moral and military might, are now raising their evil heads on the world scene.  For example, Islamic extremist groups are using the spotlight afforded by international news media to showcase their evil actions that seem like eruptions from the very pit of hell.

Abdullah (right) identified with a vengeful Eastwood character.
But perhaps the most disturbing of all to me are the growing reactions of many of us in the Western World.  Some react to beheadings, burnings, and crucifixions with cheers as if they have been mesmerized by this demonic contagion of evil.  Others are so enraged at the perpetrators of barbarism that they, like King Abdullah of Jordan, respond to the terrorists by promising swift acts of reprisal.  According to a New York Post article, an angry King Abdullah responded to ISIS’s barbarous act of burning a Jordanian citizen alive by quoting Clint Eastwood’s enraged, vengeful character, William Munny, in the movie, Unforgiven.  

It is here, the nexus of evil barbarism and morally restrained civilization, where my greatest concern lies, for it is here that civilized peoples must decide how they will react in the face of evil.  The choice is between reacting to execute justice against evil governed by a sense of moral indignation; or, reacting “in kind” with a zealous anger fueled by hatred and vengeance.  The Western World has plenty of its own unrighteousness to go around; and, the need for repentance ought to be obvious to us.  However, it seems to me that it is precisely the awareness of our own individual and collective depravity as a nation in the face of God’s standards of righteousness that ought to remind us that perfect judgment and vengeance is not ours, but the L
ORD’s (Romans 12:19).

If Western Civilization reacts out of a spirit of hatred and vengeance it will be pulled downward toward the very pit of hatred and despair that gives rise to this march of evil.  Therefore, the only hope for America and the West is rejection of moral relativism in favor of moral clarity based on the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.  The Scriptures clearly and repeatedly remind us that humans are fallen creatures with no hope apart from humble submission to the saving grace of God that brings redemption and reconciliation (Romans 3: 10, 23; 6: 23).  Those who confess their depravity and complete dependence justification by faith in God’s righteousness are equipped to love God, love their neighbor, and steward their time, talents, and treasures for God’s glory.   God’s redeemed stewards value all of human life and support safeguards against violation of the basic rights to free speech, freedom of worship, and access to protection afforded by just rule of law.  These objective standards for life and liberty based on Scripture are what today’s leaders have in mind when they call for America to respond to evil with moral clarity and righteous indignation. 

Having stated the basis for justifiable moral indignation, my question is, “Can America now exercise moral courage and unified leadership in the face of the lawless hoards on the world scene?”  I’m afraid because of the current moral climate in America, the answer may be, “No.”  How can America speak with one voice against evil when we are so deeply divided on moral issues such as the importance of religious faith in American culture?  How can America stand for the dignity of human life when her courts continue to violate the sanctity of human life, trivialize sexuality and the sanctity of marriage, castigate those of a different ethnic background, and disrespect America’s historic role in relieving human suffering and fostering world peace?

Today, I am remembering the birthday of President Ronald Reagan whose leadership rallied our nation so effectively because of his deep faith in God and respect for others regardless of their politics.  Reagan believed that America would not long survive if she didn’t hold to the moral standards and moral clarity that had made her “good” as well as “great.”  Reagan’s words to the nation in his presidential farewell, in 1989, demonstrated the qualities of his leadership that had revived America’s faith, restored America’s spirit, and made the world safer against the threat of Communism:

Reagan and Gorbachev: Leadership with firm moral resolve.
… we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children.  And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise.  And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection.  So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important:  Why the Pilgrims came here….

The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.

As I reflect on President Reagan’s leadership, I ask again, “Can America now exercise moral courage and unified leadership in the face of lawless hoards on the world scene?”  The lack of moral clarity and resolve in our current leadership make me doubtful.   The longer America and its allies continue with a policy of token resistance, the greater will be the spread of this evil infection; and, the less likely America will respond out of moral indignation and not out of anger and vengeance –if America responds at all.  

Allow me to conclude with a current contrast in leadership that I believe justifies my concern. On the one hand are the leaders of two of America’s Middle East allies:  Abdullah II, King of Jordan, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel.  Both men have clearly expressed their frustration and concern about the growing threat posed by terror groups and hostile nations such as Iran.  Netanyahu in particular has demonstrated much patience, a voice of reason, and a willingness to negotiate peace with neighbors who despise his nation.  On the other hand, President Obama seems unable or unwilling to stand in the tradition of previous American presidents as a voice for moral clarity.   Instead, he appears apologetic for the nation he leads perhaps because he sees America as an unjust intruder on the world scene; a nation that has attained her leadership dishonestly at the expense of other nations.  This line of reason, typical of many secular progressives, suggests that America must leave the stage as leader of the free world and blend into the landscape with other nations she has oppressed. 

We must admit that America’s history has many blemishes because Americans are, in God’s view, depraved people.  However, because of his unwillingness or inability to exercise decisive leadership, President Obama is creating frustration among Americans, confusion within our armed services, and doubt among our allies. 

King Abdullah’s angry reaction to the violent death of a Jordanian citizen this week illustrates what I have stated as perhaps the greatest challenge or test for Western civilization.  The test has one multiple-choice question:  “How will the West react to the current onslaught of evil that emerges from ISIS, Iran, Russia, and numerous terror groups on different continents?   Will the West react with (a) a resolve to confront evil with just retribution based on moral indignation ; or will the West react (b) “in kind” by committing more atrocities out of anger and vengeance? 

As I stated at the beginning, I am concerned about the direction of the world.  I am concerned for America, and for our children and grandchildren.  There is not much we can do as individuals.  But we can pray for our own leadership responsibilities and for our leaders.   I pray that President Obama will communicate in words and in actions the spirit conveyed by Ronald Reagan as he bid farewell to America as her president, in 1989: 

But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation--from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries.

Both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan are known as “great communicators.”   I pray that President Obama will take up the mantel of moral leadership and offer a clear message of hope and encouragement to the America he serves.  May he also send a clear message to the enemies of law and order that America is back and ready to lead its allies in defense of life, liberty, and justice.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Charles Townes: Steward of Science & Faith

Men and women of science who profess Christ are often seen as hopelessly handicapped by their outmoded ideas.  Consequently, they are often sent to the corner with “Flat-Earth crowd.”   However, those who have this view of Christians in science would be shocked at how much of our knowledge and how many of the conveniences we now enjoy actually originated from scientists and engineers who were devout Christians.  Consider a case in point.

Blu-ray laser; Charles Townes, discoverer of laser technology
According to NPR News, Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, died Tuesday at the age of 99.  Townes is best known for “thinking up the basic principles of the laser while sitting on a park bench. Later in life he advised the U.S. government and helped uncover the secrets of our Milky Way galaxy.”  Perhaps few would expect a man of such intelligence and creativity to be “hung up with religion,” but let’s look closer at Townes’ biography.

Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, was a partner with Charles Townes in studying the Milky Way galaxy for many years.  In 1985, these men discovered the black hole in the center of the Milky Way.   Genzel says of his beloved partner in astronomy,

He was such a wonderful person, always optimistic, and always curious…He really was one of these rare people who could be a deeply thinking research scientist and yet, at the same time, be a deeply devout Christian.

According to NPR, “Through all these scientific adventures, Townes maintained a deep faith in the existence of God. He saw his faith as intertwined with his science.”  In 2005, he told NPR (emphasis mine):
Charles Townes (1915-2015) in his laboratory.
Consider what religion is. Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science?  It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works, so those two must be related."

Think about it!  Scientists strive to know how the universe (creation) works.  Is it possible that “good science” is advanced by scientists like Charles Townes who understand that there is a connection between the how (process) and the why (purpose) of the universe?  The Spirit-inspired writer of Hebrews 11: 1-3 states:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.
For by it the elders obtained a good report.
Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed
by the word of God, so that things which are seen
were not made of things which do appear.

Max Planck, one of the world’s greatest physicists, and for whom the institute noted above was named, expressed his belief in the importance of religious faith in science when he said,

There can never be any real opposition between religion and science; for the one is the complement of the other. Every serious and reflective person realizes, I think, that the religious element in his nature must be recognized and cultivated if all the powers of the human soul are to act together in perfect balance and harmony. And indeed it was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls. – Planck (1932), Where Is Science Going?

Charles Townes now belongs in the honor role along with Max Planck and earlier men of faith who studied physics and astronomy, men such as Galileo, Newton, and Kepler. These men had modeled for Townes that science and faith are not at odds; rather, the scientific mind is enlightened by the Truth of the Scriptures which reveal the existence of a purposeful Creator God.  And these scientific heroes could testify of their own “park bench meditations” made possible by “the God Who is there” and Who conceals the mysteries of His creation while also honoring with extraordinary insights those who seek Him (Proverbs 25:2). 

The Scriptures reveal this God of purpose in action when He created Adam and gave him purpose for living.  According to Genesis 2: 15, He took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it.  But, in order to accomplish the cultivation and conserving of the Garden, Adam had some learning to do.   Genesis 2: 19-20 teaches us that God formed the various kinds of animals and then invited Adam to “label” them; and, also to give names that speak of their “significance” or “role” in relation to the rest of creation including himself—the beginning of the sciences of taxonomy and ecology.  Of course, we, like our father Adam, learn from his first science exercise that none of these “kinds” were suitable for him.  Hence, Adam was prepared for God’s wonderful, special creation of Eve, especially created from the flesh of Adam.  What a blessed purpose for Adam—and for our scientific endeavors down through the centuries!


Charles Townes and wife (Frances) of 73 years at his memorial.
As I finish this writing, I am enjoying in the sound of the piano music of Paul Cardall wafting from our compact disk player, I am thankful for the laser technology discovered by Charles Townes.  So, I offer this “Oikonomia tribute” to him as an example of one who exercised stewardship of the gifts and the faith which God had given him—yet with the grace and humility of Christ.  According to Elsa Garmire, a physicist at Dartmouth, “He was a Southern gentleman. He was just a very nice person.

May the tribe of Charles Townes increase.  And may the world recognize that, as a man of great faith and of science, his tribe is already large—and worthy of respect for its contributions to “good science.”

Related Articles:
“Good Stewardship is About God, Not Us”  Oct. 31, 2011 
“Character Qualities of a Steward-Leader”  May 31, 2012
“Climate Change Debate Demands ‘Good Science’” Nov. 30, 2009
“Max Planck on God” Nov. 28, 2010, Prayson Daniel, “With All I Am” Blog

Monday, January 19, 2015

Thinking About Harmony and Discord on Martin Luther King Day

Moody Bible Institute Symphonic Band at West Hill Baptist
Yesterday, the eve of Martin Luther King Day, our church, West Hill Baptist Church, hosted the Moody Bible Institute Symphonic Band under the direction of David Gauger II.  We were treated to 45 minutes of classical music from a variety of composers including Bach, Strauss, Haydn, and Wagner.  Early in the performance, the conductor introduced the audience to the unique musical quality of each instrument by having one student musician for each instrument play a few familiar bars.  Although it was a treat to listen as each artist highlighted their particular instrument, the beautiful symphonies we heard later in the evening were only possible because each artist and instrument within the various categories--strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion—contributed in harmony toward the whole.  Sister Joan Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, explains this relationship between the uniqueness of each individual artist and the beauty of the symphony that is produced when each artist is faithfully committed to the whole score.

Each instrument of the orchestra has its own voice but plays in harmony with the whole. Despite the size or power of an instrumental section, no one group lords it over the others. Each needs the other because no one group incarnates the full meaning of the composition.

As we listened to Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048, by Johann Sebastian Bach, the contribution of each instrument in seemingly perfect harmony touched the depths of my soul as if spiraling down from heaven itself.  I imagined how it might be if the Perfection and Glory of heaven were to descend to Earth and sweep away all of the present disharmony, disunity, and strife. Then, I was reminded that as an expression of Bach’s profession of faith, his aim was to give “Glory to God Alone” as signified by his practice of writing Soli Deo Gloria on his finished manuscripts.  My faith was renewed in God Who has gifted men like Bach and Handel to make it their purpose to bring glory to Him by their beautiful and moving musical compositions.

Steven Spielberg & Liam Neeson on set of "Schindler's List"
After completing the classical music portion of their concert, the Moody Symphonic Band provided another 45 minutes or so of sacred hymns and “contemporary hymns” including “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend.  However, the performance that spoke to me the most out of this second part of the concert was “Three Pieces from ‘Schindler’s List.”  As I listened, the sad beauty of the music reminded me of having watched the movie, Schindler’s List, the true story of Oskar Schindler who rescued over 1,000 Jews from Adolf Hitler’s gas chambers at Auschwitz.  As I thought of this horrible tragedy, born out of the sinful and deceitful heart of humankind, I wondered how men could take such divergent paths—some like Bach and Hayden who used their time, energy, and talent to bless our ears and hearts with heavens harmonies; whereas, others like Hitler and Stalin used their power to compose the dreadful discordant sound of feet marching to mass executions.

As I listened to the conclusion of “Three Pieces from ‘Schindler’s List,” I remembered the many parallels between the Nazi holocaust and the current “American holocaust” which has taken the lives of over 57 million unborn human beings since the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling in 1973.  Truly, the abortion of these innocent lives is one of the greatest tragedies of human history.  However, I was encouraged by an experience I had had earlier on this Lord’s Day. 

A few hours earlier I had honored an earlier invitation of the Wayne-Holmes Right to Life (WHRTL) Chapter to attend an afternoon worship service in celebration of God’s gift of life as part of their annual Sanctity of Human Life Sunday program.  I was encouraged to hear Ohio Right to Life Trustee, Scott Wiggham relate the progress of the Pro-Life Movement in Ohio, and then to join with these folks in praying.   We prayed (in part) as follows:

Lord, have mercy!  We ask You, God, to hold these little ones in your arms.  Bless and protect them.  May they know love and contentment in Your presence.  Bless mothers who are with child; may they never resort to abortion.  Forgive those who have had, performed, or encouraged abortions.  Turn their hearts away from sin and help them to see the sanctity of ALL life that is created in your image.

Alone this morning, I reflected once again on the heavenly harmonies that were provided by the Moody Symphonic Band yesterday evening, and the harmony of Christian brothers and sisters who gathered yesterday afternoon to praise our Creator for the gift of life.  As has been my habit, I read the Psalm appointed for today, January 19, which was Psalm 139.  In it, David reflects on God’s omniscience, even to the point of knowing all about David while he was as yet unborn:

My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.  – Psalm  139: 15-16

My frame was not hidden from You, God
What an amazing revelation from Scripture: God sees us and knows us as a person even before we are fully formed by the expression of genes we obtained from our parents at conception.  Biology reveals to us what David didn’t know, but God knew because He designed the whole process; namely, soon after conception and as the tiny embryo of a new generation is implanted in the uterine lining, he or she produces and sends into the mother’s bloodstream a message in the form of a hormone (Chorionic Gonadotropin, or CG). 

The hormone, CG, is the tiny embryo’s way of making his or her first “cry” to mom, saying, “Mother, I am here.  I hope you won’t have your monthly period.  Instead, I want you to protect and nourish me while God’s wonderful plan works in harmony between us like a symphony to unfold in proper order each of my bodily systems.  Soon, my nervous system, and before a month is passed, then my heart will be beating.  Before you know it, you will feel me moving inside of you and I will begin to hear your voice and become acquainted with your movements.”

Do you see the Earth-shattering contrast between the harmony of God’s creation and the discord introduced by the fall of man in the Garden and the subsequent rebellion, pride, and violent acts?  The harmony, or Shalom, of God’s creation includes the development of a human life beginning at conception and leading through a seamless path forward toward birth like a symphony performed without flaw by an orchestra.  Yet, the sinful discord of abortion continues to interrupt this harmony in all too many instances like a meteor blast into an auditorium during symphony orchestra performance.

Marchers in Support of Sanctity of Human Life
Many of us deeply regret the Nazi holocaust while others find it hard to believe it could have even come about in a civilized world.  Likewise, many of us regret the American holocaust, and many are active in bringing it to an end.  But I wonder how many human tragedies like this it will take before we are humbled before God to realize that there is no hope for us without confession of our sins and surrendering to God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of His sinless Son, Jesus Christ.  We have absolutely no reason to trust human reason apart from the searching light of God’s Word.  As Psalm 139, quoted above ends, David realizes his need for God to search his heart, try his thoughts, and lead him in the everlasting way.

M.L. King Jr. & niece, Alveda King, civil & Pro-Life leader
After meditating on Psalm 139 this morning, we were blessed to awaken our granddaughters Kiara Maetta and Della Rose who had spent the night in our home because their schools were closed to observe Martin Luther King Day.  After breakfast, Kiara and I watched a YouTube video recording of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”  Once again, I was reminded of the contrast between the symphonic harmony and the discordant outcomes from sinful mankind.  Through His grace and mercy, God had provided a man with a vision to see past the discord of hate and racial discrimination to a day when God’s love and harmony would characterize life in America:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.  – Martin Luther King, Jr.  (1963)

Prayer:   Father in Heaven, thank you for Your encouragement through the heavenly harmonies of a symphonic band and the blessed fellowship of fellow Christians praying on Sanctity of Life Sunday; and then today, to reflect on the efforts of Dr. King and the peaceful protests He led on behalf of human rights which contributed much to the progress in reconciliation among racial groups in America.  Remind me continually of my own double-mindedness.  You’ve made me walk with You in peace and to enjoy harmony all around me; but, my heart is deceitful and tends to promote discord.   Remind me of my constant need of repentance from sin and refilling with your Holy Spirit.  And would you also bring revival to America, a nation so capable of great accomplishments for good; but, like me, so prone to deception and discord.  Renew within me a commitment to do my part in sharing the Gospel of repentance, reconciliation and revival in an America—for her only hope lies in whether individuals and families will respond to Your call through your people full of the love of Christ and His Holy Spirit—the very Source of truth, justice, mercy—and harmony.   Amen.