Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt Ceiling - An UnGodly Mess

He paid a debt he did not owe, because we owe a debt we cannot pay. That's often the description of the debt Jesus paid on our behalf to atone for our sins. It may seem strange to talk about debt in the theological sense when all we hear is debt in a political context on every news outlet. There is a deadline (August 2) when calamity presumably will befall the world financial order if America's debt limit is not increased. The debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since March 1962, usually with little fanfare or notice. This time it is different. This time there is a fundamental battle about the purpose and role of government under girding this debate. The philosophical differences are deep seated and show little signs of being resolved - even with only 6 days remaining at this writing.

Debt by definition is a specific agreed upon amount or commodity that is promised to be paid back in the future, usually with interest, in consideration for some immediate gain or favor. An obvious example is the use of credit cards. We promise to pay the purchase amount plus any accrued interest to the credit card issuer in exchange for obtaining an item or service immediately. 'Immediately' is the problematic word here. We have become people who are willing to promise almost anything to get what we want NOW. We don't want to save for it, and we don't want to deprive ourselves. We want it now! And we are willing to do what it takes to get it NOW.

In many ways our government is reflective of its people. I know. Your initial reaction is, "No way!" Yes, way. Most of those 74 raises in the debt limit were the result of wars and various social programs designed to improve the quality of life for those who lacked the advantages of full participation in society. Even the Social Security Trust Fund was used in addition to these debt limit raises. Real money in the Social Security Trust Fund was replaced with government securities promising to pay that money back. Yes, we borrowed from ourselves in that way and many others and have never paid it back.

We deplore the scene being played out in Washington these days between those who believe that government is the answer to our economic problems and those who believe we have too much government already. Those who think government is the answer truly believe we can spend our way to prosperity. I know we tried that in 2009 with the Stimulus Bill, but these proponents would argue that it was not enough. Another spending measure like that one would turn things around by putting more money in the economy. Those who believe we already have too much government argue that cutting the size of government and government spending does two things: (1) It allows people to keep more of the money they earn thereby creating new jobs, more commerce, and as a result, more revenue, and (2) It cuts down on government intrusion into people's lives through regulations that often have unintended adverse consequences. The debate we are seeing is not about just a debt ceiling, but it is a struggle for the soul of America. What do we believe, and how will we govern ourselves going forward?

God's word is not kind on the subject of debt. Jesus' own words tell us that, if we focus too much on money, we will lose site of the Kingdom of God. The love of possessions and the love of the means to obtain more stuff is at the root of all evil according to scripture. That sounds like we are out of focus as a nation. Money begets power, and power corrupts our very souls, if we do not guard them. The rich should not be hated. I know some very affluent people who are both humble and generous in the good they do with the treasure God has entrusted to them. But when we love the money and the power rather than the good things that can be done with both, we are toying with destruction as individuals and as a nation.

One more observation: Financial chaos creates almost unbearable uncertainty. We don't know what to do, because we don't know what will happen. So we do nothing. We are a stressed out people being led by a stressed out government. That's no way to live according to Jesus. His told us not to worry but rather to cast our burdens upon him. I've heard a lot of ideas from people in Washington - some of whom were once friends and colleagues. But I have heard no one call us to prayer for the nation. I have heard no one talk about the morality of allowing debt to accumulate that we may never be able to repay. The financial mess we are witnessing must have practical and apolitical minds working on it. But it also needs the wisdom and power of God brought to bear. "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land." 2 Chronicles 7:14. Maybe that's the deal we all need to be working on.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Important Stuff!

Almost every week, I receive a piece or two of unsolicited mail from companies who have found secret caches of silver or gold that went down in some ship from the 1700s or a stash of uncirculated money that is suddenly available to the general public. The appeal is that you can own a part of this "unique" piece of history, but hurry, because time is running out. I get a chuckle out of that kind of urgent appeal when the coins have been "lost" for 300 years. But I know the appeal is to the nature of humankind that we want what others do not have; we want more of it than anyone else has; and we are willing to spend our treasure to achieve the desire of our hearts. Maybe I should say that we are willing to spend our treasure on what we perceive to be a greater treasure. The glitter of those ads and the lure of owning something so unique can easily cause us to pull out a credit card. (Don't worry. My collection budget prohibits participation in these promotions.)

Why do I care whether people buy rare coins or spend their treasure on dust collectors for the already crowded home? Because it is a spiritual problem. We are a society with 9.1 percent unemployment, yet we have more stuff than we can use or find places for. If you question that, count the number of self-storage facilities that have popped up in our area in recent years. I even have people seeking financial assistance from the church to store their belongings. While that is not a good use of our limited resources, it probably is a better reason than some of us have. Think about it: You store things you don't use and don't have room for so you can go out an buy more stuff you won't use and don't have room for that you will put in the new, larger storage unit next year. And we think our leaders are making bad decisions?!

The answer to the world's economic - indeed all of our problems is in the condition of the heart. In our scripture for this Sunday, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. (Luke 12:34). That sounds so wrong! My heart is not in those old coins nor is it in stored away goods that I never see and therefore never use! But that's what Jesus said. Ouch. How many hungry people could be fed with what we spend on the false desires of our hearts? How many mosquito nets could be bought at $10 or less each to save the children of Africa from Malaria if we did not spend so much so foolishly on ourselves?

We remember the alleged words of Queen Marie Antoinette who reputedly said, "Let them eat cake." A telling reminder that the royals in France had no clue how the common people lived nor did they care to find out. We never put ourselves in the same sentence with those who are so arrogant, unconcerned, and so unfeeling, but I must ask, "How are we different?" I'm not talking about formal outreach programs where everyone gives a token amount or product; our conscience is eased; and we go back to our habits of spending far more than we should to give glory to ourselves, our homes, our yards - while families who have really tried go to bed hungry every night with no way to explain to their hungry children why no one cares.

My heart hurts at the pain we inflict on others by our indifference. Now, you are about to get me a crying towel and shake me back to reality. Right? Jim, there are those who are just trying to abuse our good nature and generous spirit. Sometimes, without a doubt that is true, and nothing makes me more angry. But that is also the dark side of our nature giving us a convenient excuse for disobeying the words of Jesus. I'm talking about the real suffering of the world that we won't look at on the way to work; The real depravity in our community that we are content to lock the front door and ignore. Our response reveals the condition of the heart. Sometimes I worry that the hearts of those calling themselves Christian is as bankrupt as the US Treasury. The interest rate in our hearts is not high enough to change lives, and it needs to be.

Old coins or new, they must not be hoarded. The treasures in the Kingdom of God are the people. People are precious. They are precious to God and should be precious to us. We need a heart for God's people and a desire to use the treasures and riches God uses to bless us to enrich the lives of others in substantial ways. Dear Lord, let it be so.