Saturday, September 20, 2014

"The Hurricane Effect"

The speaker was trying to explain his investment advice by drawing an illustration from the aftermath of a hurricane.  He said that after a hurricane rips through a neighborhood a typical reaction might be that you come out of the basement and look at your own home. You see it has been hardly damaged, say thanks, and look around the street.  You see other houses standing, and the homeowners likewise thankful their houses are standing.  But then everyone looks to the house at the end of the block and see that it is destroyed. You see the homeowners family standing there in shock, staring at the rubble which was their home. You go to comfort them and offer assistance.  As time goes by, the destroyed home gets rebuilt and it is now as hurricane-proof as you can make a house.  All of the “lucky” neighbors thought about doing something to “hurricane-proof” their own homes but didn’t follow through.  So, he asked, if you were buying a house on that block which one would you buy?

His point related to investments: buy stock in funds which weathered the post-2008 financial “storms”. They are more “hurricane-proof” when another financial storm hits. All of the other sectors thought about taking steps to protect themselves, but in the end they stayed as they were, just as susceptible to major losses.  I don’t know about that, but it sounded to me very much like the talk I hear about other parts of life.  We have all heard of someone who dies “too young” leaving a young family behind.  The typical response is, “I am going to start spending more time with my family” or “I am going to start taking better care of my health.”  But, what do most of us do? Nothing different.  That’s the “hurricane effect” I see so often.  We see the devastating effects of life and death and we vow to build defenses against those effects, but, then, pretty soon, we are living our lives again as if there never was a “hurricane.”  “The hurricane may affect the guy on the end of the block, but it won’t affect me.”

I see this in spiritual and religious life as well.  How many people do we know, including ourselves, who say that “I know I need God in my life”; or, “I know I am better off when I am surrounded by a faith community”; or, “I need to devote more time to religious practices”,  after some life-changing event which makes us aware of what a spiritually weak foundation we have in our lives.  But, in no time at all we forget that promise to re-build our house on rock instead of sand, and we remain vulnerable to the very same storms of life that we were before. For centuries humans have heard the story of the wise and foolish builders, only to conclude it applied to someone else.  So, today, why not read Matthew 8:24-27 and this time, really start re-building your life. Don’t fall victim to the hurricane effect.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

It's (sort of) Free!

We were staying at a (sort of) motel with our grandsons. In the morning they proudly displayed to me their cup of (sort of) free donut holes, exclaiming, “Grandpa Bill, you get to eat all of the donuts you wants for free!”  I proceeded to explain that the donuts were just (sort of) free because they were included in the cost of the room, but they were too busy wiping white sugar from their faces to listen. And, anyway, they didn’t pay for their room, so I guess for da Boyz (as I call them), the donuts really were free.

That’s pretty much true about all the (sort of) free stuff in life.  Your buddy gives you tickets to the game. They cost your buddy money, but to you they really are free.  Nothing is free in the first place, right? I mean, everything cost something to someone before it became free to you.  So, I figure free things are just (sort of) free.  We should think about the cost of the free stuff. And we do.  When we get free tickets to our favorite team’s big game from our friend we offer to pay; we say thank you; we try think of ways we can repay the gift, taking them out for a meal, etc.  But, the friend says, “No, take them. I am happy for you to have them. Enjoy!”  To you they are really free!

Like churches and synagogues.  In Germany church most churches aren’t even (sort of) free.  If you want a church in which to be “married and buried” then you pay a tax of 8% to 9% of your income to support the churches.  About 60% of the nearly 81 million Germans pay a total of $13.2 billion to finance most of the churches and synagogues.  Recently, the Germans expanded their collection efforts to collect a tax on retirement income.  This year 500,000   “church members” are expected to quit the church to avoid the tax.  There is a “free church” (no tax required) movement in Germany, but the churches are much smaller.  Why doesn’t everyone just go to the “free” churches?

That’s the thing about houses of worship in the United States.  They are really free. In fact, the tax system gives incentives to support religion because we really don’t want the government involved in our religion.  Think about it though.  Are churches really free, or just (sort of) free?  Churches and synagogues exist because some people freely give some percentage of their income or assets to keep the doors open and the staff employed.  Some people give nothing because they cannot or because they figure, like the donuts, church is (sort of )free.  They are wrong.  Church is really free because salvation is really free. Everyone loves free donuts. Why don’t we love free church?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Better Than Baboons

Who’s more successful? Who’s richer? Who’s happier? Who’s kids are smarter?  The list of comparison questions goes on for quite a while, questions we consciously or subconsciously ask ourselves as we try to figure out who’s more important than us.  One evening we were visiting some friends who were explaining to us about the neighbors new, expensive car and their one car garage. It seemed that the man who owned the new “status” car always used the one car garage while the woman, who had a  kid-toting car, was thus always required to park outside.  Why, our friends wondered, would you buy a car like that in the first place, and why would the man always get to park in the garage?  It’s all about status.  We are all interested in evaluating our status relative to others and, on occasion, doing something to display our superior status.

But, as it turns out, this process of establishing and evaluating status is not unique to humans. Ravens do it, and so do baboons.  Baboons spend a good deal of their time mastering calls which display their dominance over others. (“Humans Aren’t The Only Animals Stuck on Status.” Robert M. Sapolsky, WSJ May 24-25, 2014)   The status of a baboon can be determined by their call. You can figure out not only which baboon is number one, but which one is number three or ten.  As I was explaining all of this to our friend who asked about the status car, she suddenly started mimicking baboon sounds: “Hoo-hoo; Wha-wha; hoo-hoo-hoo!”  Well, she was clearly the best baboon imitator I had ever heard!  I invite you to right now do your best imitation, out loud, and see who is the dominant baboon in your house.  (Warning: this should not be done while others are sleeping.)

Jesus teaches us to always place others ahead of ourselves; to go the extra mile; to be servants of everyone, washing each other’s feet.  This is not only counter-cultural. If Mr. Sapolsky is correct, it goes against our human instincts to seek superior status.  When you see a menial task that needs to be done in your faith community, are you more likely to say “that’s someone else’s job” or “let me do that service so someone else doesn’t need to.”  Serving the poor; housing the homeless; serving in the nursery; mentoring children; visiting the lonely.  Our society and our human nature do not put these tasks high on the status list. And that is the nature of serving our God. The member with the biggest voice and the best call is not the most important.  The challenge of the church is to teach that it is better to be a lowly servant in human eyes because we will be and are exalted in God’s eyes as we submit to and serve others.  Baboons may not be buying this distinction. But we are better than baboons, rights?