Saturday, March 28, 2009

Personal Disciplines Update

Sometimes I think I just blog to keep up with Pete and Becky. They always comment, at least. Recently, Pete posted a comment asking how my resolutions to keep up with daily Bible reading and exercising were going. So here's the answer: OK, and not so good.

On the spiritual front, I have managed to stay "caught up" with my regimen of reading, but I go in fits and starts. I'll skip a day, and then double up. I also have pushed my reading time to the evenings before bed, which explains the spottiness; the nights I get to bed relatively early and less tired, I'll catch up. The nights (like last night) when I'm totally fried, I collapse into bed and put off the reading until later. I'd really like to have a standing "appointment" to read first thing every morning, but this time of year (more on that in a minute) makes that more difficult.

Before turning attention to running (or NOT running), I also want to mention Bible study (separate from just reading daily) and also prayer. Our congregation has begun an 11-week focus on prayer which includes all the sermons and all the adult Sunday school classes. I am one of the teachers, so I have a good "external" motivation to both study and pray (although, as an aside, just because I can teach on the subject of prayer doesn't mean I still don't struggle with it personally... probably more than some of my so-called students).

As for the running, I'm almost completely off the wagon. I've run twice in the last 30 days, and both of those runs were less than 20 minutes (and painful to do, on account of my loss of fitness). I keep telling myself I need to start back up again (and to start from the very beginning, like a raw rookie). But this time of year is the meat of my coaching season, and it seems like every minute is consumed by other responsibilities. Every day I pack a bag with shorts and shoes so that I can sneak in a run between the end of school and the start of practice, and every day I find myself using that time to manage my roster, write workouts, correspond with constituents (from my AD to team moms to assistant coaches to athletes). That shouldn't be an excuse, but it's a lot easier to say "I'll do it when things let up."

All that said, I'm relatively pleased with what "out of shape" looks like (except for when I try to run and realize how slow and aerobically weak I am). My weight is holding steady at 138 lbs, my resting pulse rate remains below 60, my cholesterol is under 200, my "good" cholesterol is over 40, and all of that is without running a step or paying any attention at all to my diet. If I were getting fat (even though "fat" for a Salley is like "tall" for a midget), it might light a fire under me to hit the roads. But for now, the cost (in time, discomfort, and fatigue) of running is outweighing the consequences of not.

So, to summarize: I'm not really being "the me I want to be" at this time. But I'm also very aware of the seasonal nature of my life (some folks have winter, spring, summer and fall, I have cross-country, basketball, track, and summer vacation). I know the seasons will change very soon, and I'll have a great deal more control over my time and my priorities. Until then, I'm content to muddle through.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

More Theology: Drinking and Debt

In writing a day or so ago about fellowship, my mental wheels began to spin on some of the different applications of scripture by folks who all believe the same Bible is true. One of the ones that popped to mind was on the issue of drinking alcohol. Mormons, as I alluded to earlier, are teetotalers. Most evangelicals (including my own Church of Christ) frown on drinking. Most mainline protestants imbibe, or at least have no problem with those who do. And Catholics have traditionally been known as drinkers (remember the old line from the 1920 election that Democrats were the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion?"). Of course, these are denominational stances, and within those denominations are individuals of all sorts, including wet Baptists and dry Catholics and everything in between. (insert old joke here: Jews don't recognize Jesus as messiah. Protestants don't recognize the Pope as head of the church. And Southern Baptists don't recognize each other at the liquor store.)

My intention here is not to rehash the well-worn arguments on either side of this issue, nor to cause any friction. To summarize, when it comes to alcohol, we know that drinking is not condemned as sin scripturally (and Jesus famously made wine in His first miracle), but drunkenness is. And those who frown on the use of alcohol say, "better safe than sorry." One of my dearest friends who is a serious teetotaler puts it this way: "I just don't see how any good comes of it (meaning drinking)."

But here's a new wrinkle. Why don't we do the same darned thing with debt? The scripture is almost identical in tone. Debt is never condemned outright as sin, but it is called a snare, a punishment, folly--almost the exact same language that is used to describe drunkenness. Indeed, there is not a single reference to debt as a blessing in all of the Bible; it's always associated with bad results (perhaps the one counter-example is the Parable of the Talents, where the poor steward is told that he should have deposited his talent with the bankers and earned interest... but even then he is the lender, not the borrower). You could even plausibly argue that drinking is treated better scripturally than debt, as there are zero examples of Jesus ever borrowing, nor a single positive reference to the practice.

There was a time when Christendom did frown on debt. The medieval church called usury (charging interest) a sin. This led to a large number of Jews (who themselves would not borrow from each other) getting into the business of lending to Christians as capitalism began to develop (and contributed to some of our long-standing stereotypes of Jewish bankers). But society's views gradually changed, and we hammered our theology into shape to match the culture. The same thing happened in reverse with drinking--in Jesus' day, wine was common on every table. But our pilgrim/puritan forebears had other options and saw drunkenness as something to be fought. It is their theological heirs who carry the banner of the old prohibitionists, most of them unaware of the history that informs their conviction. (As an aside, this is one of my favorite observations about the Restoration movement churches: we decided back in the 1830's to unify around sola scriptura and not the "traditions of men," yet didn't notice that most of those who were unifying were coming out of Calvinist backgrounds, with all those hundreds of years of intellectual baggage informing their interpretation of scripture. No wonder we look like Baptists without an organ!)

But I digress. It just makes me think--which is potentially more harmful? Lives and families are destroyed at the extreme ends of both practices. But if you compare what our society would call "reponsible" use of both alcohol and debt, I'm not sure that I wouldn't trade a hangover that fades for a credit card balance that lingers for years. (And of course, there is the other, milder, end of the equation as well, where having a single glass of wine with dinner probably compares to a conventional home mortgage or a beer while watching a ball game is like paying off your balance in full every month). Wouldn't it be neat if in this present economy, Christians were to begin a new "temperance" movement, this time focused on consumer debt. The same teetotaler friend I quoted earlier had an opportunity to spend some time at an all-inclusive island resort recently, and he and his wife befriended another evangelical couple there. They know the couple had similar values because they were the only ones not availing themselves of the "free" drinks. I'd love to see a day when we'll be equally conspicuous for not swiping the VISA card.

Official old-school CofC disclaimer: Obviously, if I had a big problem with my church's views on drinking, I would find another church. I'm not suggesting that we become Episcopalians on the issue, I'm just thinking out loud. So if your first inclination on reading this post is to attack the "alcohol question," relax.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Who is My Brother?

I was talking to my lovely wife this morning as we "read the news," which for us means both of us surfing the net (one on the desktop, one on the laptop). Our "news" includes several blogs we follow, and her blogroll includes several ladies who photo-blog about their families like she does. Many of these women are Mormons. This got us to talking about what some good friends who were Mormon said about us many years ago--we would make excellent Mormons (they intended it as a compliment, and we took it as such). Leaving aside the fact that I could neither swallow the theological differences nor would I give up coffee (in excess) and alcohol (in moderation), that got me to thinking about Christian fellowship.

Several years ago, I read a book by F. Lagard Smith called Who Is My Brother? which dealt very well with this topic. What Professor Smith said was that we tend to extend fellowship to our theological "right," but not to our "left." So, someone who is as strict as me or more so on theological issues is within my circle of fellowship, but someone who falls short of my (or my denomination's) standards is suspect. As an example--someone who has been baptized by sprinkling has no problem extending fellowship to a full-immersion guy like me, as I got even wetter. But for those of us who believe in all-over dunking, the fellow who just got a drop or two on the head as an infant may fall short of full fellowship. And at the extremely strict end, you reach groups (which includes not just some Churches of Christ, but also Roman Catholics, and even the Mormons) who may go so far as to say (or think to themselves) that the only "real" Christians are found only among their own group.

Smith approaches this from the perspective of the Churches of Christ, but anyone can do the same exercise. He sees fellowship as a series of concentric circles, all of which represent closer and closer levels of "brotherhood." The outermost circle is all human beings, made by God in His image. They are my brothers by virtue of being sons of Adam. A smaller circle inside that one is the circle of "seekers," that accept at least the possibility of a "higher power" or "universal values." They are closer to me than the moral relativists and atheists. Inside that circle is the theists. Inside that one is the monotheists. Even smaller is the "People of the Book" (Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians) who accept (in some fashion) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Inside that circle are those who in some way call themselves Christians (including Mormons and others whose theology is not orthodox). An even smaller circle is orthodox Christians. Smaller than that is the circle of protestants, then fully-immersed "restoration movement" Christians, then the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, and then, finally, at the very center of the circle is my own personal "church family," my congregation with whom I choose to break bread. Smith calls that "table fellowship."

Obviously, different groups might name their circles differently--I can imagine a circle labled "Synod" or "Presbytery" or "Diocese" or "Parish." But it seems a really good system. My closest brothers are the members of my own congregation, under the discipline and leadership of my own elders, listening to the instruction of my preacher. And there may be (and are) other congregations of "my" church right across town that I recognize as being fully in the body of Christ, but which I couldn't attend as a member without chafing.

That brings me back to my Mormon cyber-friends. What about those who are a circle or two (or more) removed from what I am prepared to say unequivocally are on theological solid ground? We may each draw that line somewhere different (and I'm pretty "liberal" by CofC standards), but almost all of us who value orthodoxy would agree that there as some point where a line is crossed and one becomes a heretic. (Yes, "heretic" is a naughty word, connoting inquistions and burnings and crusades, but it also has a genuine dictionary definition, which is what I'm trying to use here.) As someone who counts Mormons, and Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and many others among those I love, what is the proper attitude to take toward our fellowship?

I think the best attitude I've been able to noodle out comes from St. Paul, in Romans 10:1-2. He writes: " Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. (NASB)" Paul is writing specifically about Jews here, but I think the principle applies across the board. If I arrive in heaven and see someone there that I wouldn't expect based on my limited theological understanding, I should be happy that God's grace worked it out better than I could have. And I have faith in God that he'll be perfectly just as well as perfectly merciful. However, that does not remove my responsibility to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, and doesn't give me an "anything goes" attitude. I can recognize that these "brothers" are in different circles without compromising either charity or orthodoxy.

But there's one more thing, and that's common cause in our lost world. Our culture is in the grips of a life-and-death struggle, and some of my staunchest allies in that fight are folks who may be in the outer circles of my fellowship. I recall what Winston Churchill said about his alliance with Stalin: "If Adolf Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find myself forced to ally with Satan." Likewise, if Satan and the forces of this world which he controls are on the march, I find myself quite willing to ally myself with those whose theology is outside my inner circle. So whether it is making common cause with my Catholic brothers on the issue of life, my Mormon brothers on traditional marriage and "family values," with South Carolina Episcopalians as they fight a rearguard effort against an assault on scripture from their own national denomination, or with Jews in Israel resisting radical Islam, I can gladly extend the hand of fellowship outside my immediate circle of table fellowship.

Anyway, that's my thinking this morning. Haven't posted anything too thought-provoking in a while. I wonder what my "brothers" (of all sorts) think?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Forgotten Man

Back at Valentine's Day, I wanted to buy Ann something romantic. Candy, jewelry, flowers, something like that. She told me she would prefer a George Foreman grill and a day of shopping at thrift stores with no kids. That's what passes for romantic after 23 years. Then she said, "While I'm out, can I get anything for you?" (translation--I haven't gotten you anything.) Not to be outdone in our race to the ultimate levels of boring gifts, I gave her two titles to pick up at Barnes and Noble--both history books. She dropped them back off before the big shopping trip got fully underway, so I was reading within the hour. The two books were Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (which is AWESOME), and a new book on the Great Depression called The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes. This week, while on the bus ride to and from Orlando for our class trip, I got a chance to get into The Forgotten Man. (Yes, this is the kind of thing I read for fun.)

The main thesis of the book is that there have been two competing myths about FDR and the Great Depression, each of which is at least partially untrue. The myth of the left is that Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire, "do-nothing" Republican who sat on his hands from the great crash of 1929 until FDR came along in 1932. Then FDR boldly created the New Deal and saved us from the ravages of the depression, which is why he was so convincingly re-elected in 1936 (and again in 140 and 44). The myth of the right is that FDR didn't really do anything to help with the depression--that his interference actually prolonged it--and that his policies put America on a glide path to a socialistic welfare state. In this view, the real engine that fueled the economic recovery was WWII.

According to this new book, there's plenty of credit and plenty of blame to go around. Hoover was never one to "do nothing." He actually was considered a "progressive" within the Republican party of his time. Sadly, a lot of what he did (like a huge income tax hike and the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff) made things worse. But it is true that countries in Europe that tinkered LESS with their economies emerged from the depression long before we did. That said, FDR did both good and harm. His banking and financial regulations (the FDIC, the SEC, the bank holiday) were extremely helpful in stopping some of the immediate bleeding. And Social Security was a good idea (although the current mathematics of the program need some attention, but that's a post for a different day). However, FDR did not win his landslide victory in 1936 because he had returned prosperity to America (indeed, unemployment remained high throughout his first two terms, and the stock market didn't fully recover until the 1950s). He won because he created modern interest-group politics and gave lots of groups a reason to vote for him--not the least of which was the fact that every American got a letter from the new Social Security administration in the months before the 1936 election telling them of the new benefit which would send them a check for life. Hard to compete with that! Some of the other stuff he did was actually counterproductive--the centerpiece of the New Deal was the NRA for industry and the AAA for agriculture, both of which were eventually ruled unconstitutional. And one can argue that FDR's assault on capitalists was also an attack on capital itself... which therefore stayed on the sidelines rather than re-join the market and fuel a recovery.

Anyway, it's very interesting to watch the current economic news with an eye on the past. FDR's "brain trusters" saw the depression as a great opportunity to put a bold new program in place--reforms they had dreamed about for years. In some cases those reforms had their origins in Stalin's USSR or Mussolini's Italy (and in their defense, they did not yet have the information which later would prove those experiments to be bankrupt). It was striving after all these goals that took the focus off of recovery and quite possibly prolonged the depression. Now I see the Obama administration looking at our current financial crisis and seeing the opportunity to reform health care, education, and energy/enviromental issues. Those might all be nice ideas (I won't bother dealing with those arguments now), but nobody really thinks the reason the stock market is down 50% or unemployment is up right now has anything to do with our lack of a national health care plan. I'd rather see our priorities focus on things like the financial sector and housing. Those grand reforms could wait until the economy is stronger. But it worked for FDR--he managed to win elections long enough to preside over a recovery, and then he got credit not only for shepherding the country through the depression, but also for the bold new plans. Now he is widely seen as the third-best President, after Lincoln and Washington (of course, presiding over voctory in WWII contributes a lot to that ranking, as well). Maybe Obama's gamble will pay off for him in the history books. But that ignores the "Forgotten Man" who bears the brunt of a longer-than-necessary recession.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Going Negative on Obama-nomics

I have tried and tried to stay above the fray and not join in on the daily drumbeat of shooting down President Obama's every thought. After all, he won, elections have consequences, and I'm pulling for the country, regardless of who's in power. But I've got some serious heartburn over the Obama Economic Plan. We'll leave aside for a minute my philosophical disagreements over whether it is actually based on sound theory; we can just stipulate that as a conservative with a bias toward supply-side economics, I'm going to have issues. But there's no need to be dishonest, and that's what has me mad--both the administration's dishonesty and the seeming inability or unwillingness on the part of our media watchdogs to point it out.

Let's start with the sales job for the stimulus a couple of weeks ago and the budget now. Less than a month ago, Obama sold the stimulus (all $800 billion of it) based on the idea that our current crisis was the worst since 1932, and that we were on the verge of utter economic collapse unless we passed a 1000+ page bill before anybody even read it. This week, we get his budget, which projects a decent growth in the economy next year and pretty robust growth thereafter, which will thereby fund all of his (HUGE) budget priorities. So which one was it? An unprecedented crisis, or a regular recession that's near-over already? Seems like that definition changes depending upon what we're being sold at the moment.

Then there's the deficit. We were told for 8 years that Bush's deficits in the $300-400 billion range were going to be the death of the country. This past year, Bush ended his presidency by signing the $700 billion TARP bill on top of that (and on a side note--for him to do so rather than kick the can into Obama's term was something he'll never get credit for), so we got a hugely inflated deficit of over a trillion dollars. Obama follows up with his stimulus and budget package and a deficit of something like $1.75 trillion. But, he announces that he's going to "cut the deficit in HALF" by the end of his first term--and the news applauds him! Hey--a math genius I may not be, but even I can see that getting the deficit DOWN to near-double what Bush did for 7 of his 8 years is not a good thing. Oh, and if the economy recovers at anything close to the pace he projects, we can grow to that point without even doing much of anything. At which time Newsweek will probably run a cover piece on how Obama kept his bold promise, and is a "true fiscal conservative."

Then there's the budget itself. Remember how, on the campaign trail, then-candidate Obama said he would go line-by-line through the budget and find tons of savings? Well, his budget gets "savings" from two main places: raising taxes on high earners and ending the Iraq War. Well, in my house, if I get a raise, I don't count it as "savings." And to estimate you're going to "save" billions of dollars by not spending on Iraq for the next ten years is just crazy--even if Bush had a third term, those troops were coming home by the end of 2012 anyway. Obama will save maybe 18 months of Iraq expenses if he sticks to his mid-2010 exit date. I should use that same math on my family budget. I'll just assume I would have taken a $5000 cruise every summer until my kids are all out of school. Then I'll write a budget without those cruises I was never going to take in it. Voila! I just saved $40,000! That will almost get my retirement plan out of the toilet!

OK. Politicians play numbers games. I'm more-or-less OK with that. But unless you read National Review, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or watch Fox News, NOBODY in the mainstream media is calling him on these fuzzy numbers. And let's be honest here--is there anybody with three brain cells out there who believes that if McCain had won and the stock market was 2000+ points down since his election, he wouldn't be getting just crucified? What set me off to write this was making the mistake of watching NBC news tonight. Honest--you can't make stuff up this good--they followed the news of the DOW dropping below 6800 (for the first time since 1997, a drop of over 50% from a little over a year ago) with a feel-good story about how much confidence Obama was inspiring, and even compared Michelle Obama to Eleanor Roosevelt! If people have so much doggone confidence, how come my net worth is down almost a third??

I guess I'm still reasonably happy he won the election. I can imagine if McCain had won and the economy had done anything like it has so far the last month (and the first month of Obama's presidency has been the worst of any president since 1932, so it may not have even been this bad), the drumbeat of negativity from the media would have probably driven us completely off the cliff. At least with Obama in the White House, we don't have to worry about the media talking down a recovery (unless, of course, it's necessary to sell a huge spending bill, but then they can turn on a dime). And at least now I can say I didn't vote for this phony. (Full disclosure--I think McCain would have screwed me over economically, too, and then I'd only have myself to blame... but at least my tax dollars wouldn't be funding abortions and we wouldn't be climbing all over ourselves to kowtow to the Russians, but that's another post.) I survived the first Jimmy Carter presidency, so I can do another one.