Pages

Monday, November 28, 2011

Is it Time to "De-Occupy" Wall Street?

Regardless of our feelings about the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement, most of us are deeply invested in Wall Street traded companies. We have all become increasingly attached to an economic system heavily dependent on promoting self-indulgence and on amassing wealth through producing lots of products we don’t need and are often better off without. The level of consumption required to keep this kind of economy going is simply unsustainable for our planet.

The majority of Americans also do most of their investing for retirement in this Mammon-driven system.

In recent years Alma Jean and I have felt led to move more and more of our modest retirement funds out of Wall Street traded corporations and into microlending programs that benefit people in need by offering them a hand up rather than simply a handout. Glen Kauffman, financial consultant with Everence here in Harrisonburg, helped us do this.

Here are several of our reasons:

1) We believe such investments are more profitable. Even though the actual interest earned is a mere 1-3% (one can choose the rate), investments in microlending seem far more productive in terms of faith-based values. Since Alma Jean and I want our money to really “work for us” in ways that reflect Jesus’ priorities, we are no longer satisfied with just “socially responsible” investments (no alcohol, tobacco or military industries) that still largely subsidize and promote consumerism rather than being about meeting basic needs. We may not be able to be perfectly “pure” in our investment choices, but since we actually have a choice between becoming stakeholders in, say, some water bottling company somewhere versus in a food production coop that can help lift the poor out of poverty, the latter is our obvious preference.

2) Trading in stocks represents a form of speculation not unlike a legal form of gambling. Of course the odds are generally better, and we agree that all business investments involve risk, but business profits are normally made by at least producing actual goods or services. Trading in market holdings represents an attempt to create “wealth without work,” something Ghandi referred to as one of “seven deadly social sins,” in that no products or services are created in such trades, and no actual value is added. I can understand the concept of being paid a reasonable "rent" for capital used to grow businesses, and I realize there are shades of gray between simply being fellow investors (and sharing risk), on the one hand, and the other extreme of people engaging in speculative on-line or other trading that does seem like gambling to me (only with better odds--the house doesn't always win), and/or who are constantly checking their portfolios in hopes of fate or good fortune earning them record-breaking returns. And let's be honest, most of us haven't the slightest sense of actually being a stakeholder in the many companies that are using our retirement money, nor any real interest in affecting their policies. We primarily want one thing, optimal returns for our investment, as long as no obvious harm is being done.

3) We believe microlending programs are actually safer investments. When the economy tanked in 2008, none of our microlending investments were affected. While no investments are 100% safe, the default rate on these loans has been proven to be very low, while we see ominous signs of worsening national and international debt crises that threaten the security of our entire financial system. And when this Babylon falls, most current plans for retirement will collapse with it.

So we are left with the question of whether we will trust our fortunes with the already rich who are bent on becoming ever richer (and who are consistently condemned by Jesus and the prophets) or with the poor who are working hard to support themselves and their families.

For followers of Jesus, the answer should not be that hard to come by.

I welcome your comments.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Living From the Grateful Side of the Ledger

Thanksgiving Day somehow brings to mind one of one of my late uncles, Moses Nisly.

Mose, one of my mom's older brothers, lived at our house for an extended period of time as I was growing up. Never married, he spent most of his life in the homes of various of his siblings, and when he could no longer support himself, some of his ten living brothers and sisters took turns taking him in and taking care of him.

Uncle Mose was somewhat mentally challenged, the result of a high fever he experienced with a case of meningitis in his childhood, we were told. Actually, no one talked much about his childhood in our family, but there were numerous stories told about his eccentric traits as an adult.

For instance, Mose was incredibly tight with his money. He even resisted having his everyday work clothes washed regularly, fearing they would wear out sooner as a result. Then there was the story about how he lamented the cost of shipping his favorite rocking chair by rail from Iowa to Virginia when he came to live with us. He was outraged by the railroad company charging him what they did since, as he reasoned, “the train was making the trip here anyway!”

Another of Moses’ traits was absentmindedness. He was constantly forgetting where he had put things, then blaming others for having misplaced or taken them. All of this added to his generally unhappy and negative outlook on life, and to seeing himself as a victim.

In spite of his general forgetfulness, though, there was one category of memories Mose could recall in the greatest of detail. He could cite with ease example after example of people who had mistreated him throughout his life. When I heard Garrison Keillor once describing some people as having “Irish Alzheimer's,” a condition that results in people “forgetting everything but their grievances,” I immediately thought of my uncle.

But we can learn from people like that, realize how important it is to wrap lots of gratitude around us every day of our lives. Unlike Mose, we can practice living from the assets side of our memory ledger rather than the debit side.

To a great extent, our emotional and spiritual health depends on how we do our mental bookkeeping, whether we make generous deposits in our inner savings account, and whether we then live out of a sense of abundance rather than in a constant state of victimhood and scarcity.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Truth Never Changes

A week ago I attended a breakfast meeting in which an 85-year-old Mennonite bishop, Martin Lehman, shared some of his experiences as a lifelong servant of the church. One comment he made especially grabbed my attention: "Truth never changes. Our understanding of truth may certainly change, but not the truth itself."

I know this flies in the face of postmodern doubts about whether any such thing as truth actually exists, but I've been reflecting a lot on what Lehman went on to say, that our search for truth is something like journeying toward a distant mountain. We first see our destination from afar, and from what appears to be a simple, one-dimensional perspective. As we get closer, it not only appears larger but also more intricate and intriguing. We see so many nuances and details we could only imagine from farther away.

Maybe this is the way it is as we pursue truth about God and about ultimate reality. We can at first only "see through a glass, dimly," as from a distance. Only at some later day can we hope to see more of ultimate truth "face to face," up close and personal.

That resonates with me. At least for myself, the nearer I get to the end of my journey, at 72, the more I realize how limited my perspective is, and how much more there is to know. As someone has observed, the larger our island of knowledge, the longer our shoreline of wonder.

And not only does the mystery of the divine seem ever greater to me, so does my sense of God's mercy. I see myself with ever more of my fragile and broken fellow human beings as in the welcoming embrace of God's grace, as in the words of Frederick William Faber:

There's a wideness in God's mercy

Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in his justice
Which is more than liberty.

While we will never fully understand all truth, I believe truth itself is a trusted friend we can follow safely wherever it takes us. Truth, along with amazing grace, has the power to set us free.

And that's the truth.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Of Marriages and Weddings

Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, an Episcopal priest and certified life coach, in commenting on recent headlines over the infamously expensive and short-lived marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, observes that even most non-celebrity couples invest a lot more in flowers and entertainment for the reception than they do in careful plans for how to make their marriage last.

The wedding day should be about the marriage, she says, not the marriage about the wedding.

The cost of weddings, Tumminio observes, has dramatically increased over the past decades, largely because we Americans are so much in love with the romanticism and the magic of the day. Having some 5 million people tune in to see the Kardashian-Humphries wedding on television also says a lot about our fascination with fairy tale fantasies that have almost nothing to do with contributing to happily ever after.  

Perhaps, the really big party should be celebrated at a 25th anniversary, she notes, rather than at the moment of commitment. So with tongue in cheek, she proposes that couples receive wedding gifts only after they have earned them by enduring tough problems over time. So no gifts at the wedding, some small ones for a first year anniversary, then more substantial ones after the fifth-year or so.

We're tempted to scoff at Kris and Kim’s downfall, but the reality is that their marriage failed at least in part because of our society’s views of nuptial bliss, Tumminio believes. We should all feel responsible to do a better job of loving our neighbors not just on their wedding day but on all the days that follow.

(Here's the link to check out my book on the subject: http://store.mpn.net/productdetails.cfm?PC=106)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembering Dad

My father died on this day in 1985, after a long bout with emphysema and bronchiactis. I had spent my last memorable twelve hours with him two nights earlier, taking my turn being by his bed at the Waynesboro, Virginia, hospital.

At age 80, dad was down to a fraction of his normal weight and strength. Sometimes disoriented, he couldn’t understand why I had to restrain him from getting out of bed or removing his oxygen tubes. In a strange reversal of roles, I was now the parent wishing I could somehow hold and comfort him in his pain and distress.

I don’t cry easily, but I couldn’t help losing it during my 45-minute ride home. Not only was I grieving the loss of my one and only dad--gentle, hospitable and generous to a fault--I was also mourning the father with whom I had never fully connected as I wished.

Financial struggles as I was growing up limited my father’s energy and time for us nine children, especially us younger ones. I realized in a new way on that long ride home how much I ached for more memories of fishing, playing ball or going for walks with my dad. I also wished I had been able to share with him more of my feelings, struggles and dreams as I was growing up. I also realized that any lack of closeness between us as adults was as much my fault as his.

Yet I was very much aware that he had given me much more as a parent than he had ever received from his own father. That truth had come to me in a new way a year earlier, when he and I had a 1 1/2 hour conversation in which I recorded many of his childhood memories. While I already knew much of the story, to have a recording of it in his own words was priceless. 

A defining point in my father’s life was his losing his mother when he was three. And this was my grandfather Dan’s third time of becoming a widower. His first wife Lucy had died of measles at 23 after only four years of marriage, leaving him with a two-year-old son and nine-month-old daughter. On the day of Lucy’s funeral, daughter Anna also died of measles.

A decade later Dan’s second wife Rebecca died of tuberculosis at age 30, leaving him with five more children. Later that year their youngest daughter Mary died of the same disease, also at nine months of age. 

Two years later Dan married Elizabeth, my grandmother, and had three more children, the youngest being my father, Ben. Then at 35 Elizabeth died of complications from her fourth pregnancy, leaving Dan, at 44, with nine living children.

My father has few memories of his next five years except of sometimes crying at night wishing he had a mother like other children he knew. He also wished for a warmer, more nurturing father instead of one he aptly described as a “man of sorrows.”  Surely he was "acquainted with grief."

As if this weren’t enough family drama, five years later Dan married Miriam, a widow with nine children of her own. While eight-year-old Ben was glad to have a real mother again (and some new siblings) their blended family didn’t blend well, and the rest of my father’s childhood was marked by constant family tension and friction. 

I’ve sometimes wondered what kind of dad should have come out of this troubled story, this mysfunctional family. But instead of his becoming a highly depressed or bitter man, Ben became one of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever known--even though he had never learned how to hug us as children or to lavish us with praise (we did teach him to hug in his later years!).

On his deathbed he breathed the words of his favorite song, “Blessed Assurance,” the title of which appears on his tombstone, set right next to my mother’s, who had died of cancer fourteen years earlier. With her he had learned to live a new life, celebrate a new lyric, as in, “This is my story, This is my song, praising my Savior  all the day long.”

He left no estate to divide among us, and barely enough savings to pay for his funeral. But we all received a much more valuable legacy, that of a sturdy faith and a graciously lived life.

Today I wish I could tell my father one more time how grateful I am for the way he turned his grief into an amazing grace. As I reflect on his life story, I am better able to embrace my own.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Twinspeak

Near the end of a recent eight-hour return trip to their Rochester, NY, home, our daughter had the following conversation with their six-year-old son about his younger twin siblings. At four months of age, they were doing their usual "talking" and making baby sounds to each other.

“What do you think they're saying?” daughter asked.

“Let me listen,” the first grader offered. After taking some time to do this, he reported, “Mom, they’re saying they’re really tired of being in their car seats and want to be held.”

“Well, tell them we’re almost home, and we'll have them out of their seats real soon.”

“But, Mom, there’s a problem. I understand their language, but I can't speak it!”

A little later, though, John did try to address them in their "twinspeak" language. At which point they became completely silent, as if to say, “How dare you break into our private conversation?”

So much of what infants know and feel remains a mystery, but all of us wish we could understand more of what’s going on in their rapidly developing minds. I’m sure they are absorbing far more from us than we realize.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Christmas Economics--How Both Pentateuch and Pentecost Promote Wealth Redistribution

 “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; each of you is to return to his family property... It (accumulated property) will be returned in the Jubilee.” Leviticus 25:10, 28b

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel your debts...there should be no poor among you...be openhanded toward your brothers (and sisters) and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15: 1, 4a, 11b

“There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the money from the sales...and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” Acts 4:34-35

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply your need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He that gathered much did not have too much, and he that gathered little did not have too little.’” II Corinthians 8:13-15


     From Thanksgiving to the end-of-year deadline for charitable deductions, many North Americans become extra generous in their giving. Christmas gift giving alone provides the kind of boost to the economy that many retailers depend on for their survival. So like the Leviticus 25 Jubilee, the season moves us well beyond our usual charity.

How could this Jubilee-like mindset, this holiday season thinking, transform our stewardship?

At a recent session of our Virginia Conference assembly we had an extended discussion of a plan to provide affordable health insurance for needy pastors. Delegates voiced their approval, but in light of leaner economic times, wondered whether the required number of congregations could afford to fund it, especially in light of growing concerns about meeting existing mission and conference budgets.

But I couldn’t help wondering why a church as well-to-do as ours should ever have even one needy pastor among us, or have a single outreach programs that is underfunded? And why should our church agencies have to increasingly depend on salaried fund raisers to help them meet their annual budgets?

One answer may be that we have been focusing on only half of what the Bible teaches about stewardship. We have taught well the half that has to do with contributing generously of our tithes and offerings, but have said or done little about the other Biblical mandate, that of radically and regularly redistributing our wealth in the spirit of Christmas and in celebration of a Jesus-inspired Jubilee.

Unfortunately, far from regularly redistributing our wealth, most us aren’t very generous in even contributing from it, according to sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell, authors of a book called "Passing the Plate, Why Christians Don’t Give Away More of Their Money" (Oxford University Press, 2008). Their study finds that one in four US Protestants doesn’t give at all, and that the median rate of annual giving for that group is only $200, or less than half a percent of their taxable income. According to a 2005 study commissioned by MCUSA, the “typical” Mennonite member gives just less than 10 percent of income to some kind of charity.

According to the Passing the Plate authors, what makes churchgoing US Christians look especially miserly is that together they earn a staggering $2.5 trillion dollars a year. That would be enough wealth, they claim, to qualify for membership in the G7, a group representing the world’s seven largest economies. A modest ten percent of that sum, they point out, could do wonders to alleviate poverty and promote missions around the world.

Few of us would expect the unemployed and financially destitute to tithe. But the rest of us who live in one of the wealthiest economies in the world should be able to give far more. Regular giving, after all, is like paying rent for the privilege of enjoying life on a truly great planet.

But can simply giving from our surplus, without any regular redistribution of wealth that narrows the gap between rich and poor, be seen as an adequate expression of Biblical economics?

Ched Myers, author of "The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics," doesn’t think so. He argues that both the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early church support a more radical stewardship, one grounded in Old Testament practices meant to periodically reboot and re-level the economic playing field.

Myers points out that in Jesus’s first recorded message (Luke 4:16-30), he highlights the prophet Isaiah’s announcement of good news to the poor and the release of prisoners, and reminds us that prisoners in those days were usually impoverished people who were unable to repay money they borrowed in bad years to keep their families alive. The Isaiah 61 text that Jesus uses appears to be linked to two passages in the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomy 15 teaching on canceling debts every seven years, and the Leviticus 25 Jubilee text, one that mandates that no profit be made from the land every seventh year, and that repossessed land be restored to the original owners every 50th year, a "year of the Lord’s favor.”

Today we hear almost nothing about regularly forgiving others their monetary debts or about restoring property taken in foreclosure. But Jesus promises salvation to Zaccheus when he commits himself to redistributing his wealth, and later asks the so-called “rich young ruler” to do the same. And in each of the first three gospels, the latter story is accompanied by Jesus teaching us to become like owner-less children in order to become a part of the Jubilee-based God-Movement.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Spirit-led early church went well beyond simply sharing contributions from their surplus. The book of Acts describes how believers joyfully practiced Jesus’s form of Jubilee justice by selling property and distributing the proceeds among those in need.

 In the same spirit, the apostle Paul appealed to the church at Corinth to practice a Jubilee-style sharing of their wealth with needy believers abroad. And the apostle had harsh words for those who ate and drank to excess at their community agape meals while refusing to share their abundance with poorer members of the congregation.

All of this makes it clear that followers of Jesus are not to gain ever more wealth for themselves while the Lazarus-like poor in the world become ever more destitute. In order for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” periodic redistribution is called for. Regarding the Lord's Prayer, John Howard Yoder, in "The Politics of Jesus" writes, “Jesus... tells us purely and simply to erase the debts of those who owe us money; which is to say, practice the jubilee.”

Claude Rosenberg and Tim Stone, in a December, 2006, article in the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, make the case for giving based on our assets, and not simply on our incomes, a principle they believe is clearly taught in the Torah and amplified in the New Testament. Our common practice of a tithe- and offering- based stewardship, they say, provides false justification for believers becoming as wealthy as they can as long as they give regularly and generously from their surplus.

A current illustration of this is the case of Dave Ramsey, considered one of the nation’s leading advisers on Christian money management. Over a million people in 5,600 churches recently tuned in to his 90-minute televised infomercial-style “Town Hall for Hope” broadcast. His DVD-based “Financial Peace University” courses are offered in churches everywhere, including Mennonite congregations. Profits from his book and DVD sales and from his many seminars have made Ramsey a multimillionaire, and he has just built a lavish home on a $1 million lot in a gated community overlooking Tennessee's richest county.

One of our problems is that we find it hard to make the case that this is even a problem. After all, Ramsey earned his money legally, saved it carefully, and no doubt has given much of it generously, just as we are all taught to do.
What is missing is a theology of stewardship that deals with the other half of the Biblical teaching on wealth, that of periodically and systematically redistributing and reinvesting it in ways that give a hand up to the underclass. We have overlooked the fact that the Pentateuch actually commands this, and that the church of Pentecost and of the apostle Paul clearly promotes it.
Here are some modest examples of how congregations and individuals might celebrate seasons of Jubilee:

1. Create a congregational Jubilee Fund to support an urgent local or international need, and invite members to sell something of significant value to them--or to draw substantially from their savings or investment accounts--to invest generously in such a fund.

2. Freeze or reduce congregational and conference staff salaries and benefits for a chosen year and contribute the savings to a Jubilee Fund, and urge each member to make similar investments.

3. Place a moratorium on church building or remodeling projects for a year (or longer), focusing instead on meeting direct people needs in the community and abroad.

4. Adopt a third world, inner city, or other needy congregation or community with whom to exchange information and/or work and study teams.

5. Promote members making gifts of some of their current IRA holdings and other investments and/or to transfer them to interest-free or low interest micro-loan funds.

6. Engage in serious Bible study and worship on the theme of redistribution stewardship.

7. Match our spending for Christmas and other gift giving each year with equal investments in missions, relief and other means of outreach, and on every seventh year, dispense with Christmas and other gift giving to the non-needy altogether, then double what we redistribute to the poor.

8. Invite members of third world congregations to become honorary members of the governing boards of our congregations and church institutions, regularly consulting with them by phone or e-mail about our spending and investment decisions.

9. Rewrite our wills so that they represent a more just form of Jubilee redistribution of our accumulated assets.

In order to be faithful to Jesus, we need to think and act in the spirit of Christmas rather than of capitalism, investing less in our own comfort and security and more in what delights the heart of God.

In this way we will joyfully trumpet liberty throughout the earth.

(this was first published in the December, 2009, issue of The Mennonite)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Rachel at 86

To celebrate her 86th birthday, Rachel Stolzfus, the oldest member of our house church, invited some of us to her house last night for a simple meal prepared by her daughter and one of her granddaughters.

She had insisted there be no cards or gifts. “I have way too many things already,” she said. All she wanted was to have family and friends around her table, followed by a time of singing together. Yes, singing some of her favorite hymns, with no accompaniment and in simple four-part harmony. Some of the songs brought tears to her eyes, eliciting memories of how they have impacted her faith and shaped her gracious and impactful life.

Rachel and her husband Robert spent many years as missionaries in the hills and hollows of Kentucky, where they had learned to live contentedly and simply among their Appalachian neighbors. When they moved to Harrisonburg in the 70’s, they made a ministry of offering hospitality to international students at EMU, and after her Robert died and their two children were grown, Rachel usually had one or more of them live with her for an incredibly meager sum. She still has friends from around the world who stay in touch with her and love her like a mother.

A modest, pint-size woman who always managed to be both very frugal and very generous, she is, in my estimation, a true candidate for sainthood. In her quiet and unimposing way, she is all about what it means to be a child of God and a follower of Jesus. When you remind her of any her good deeds, she typically raises her hand toward heaven and says, "I just give God all the credit."

I wish I could be more like that.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Wealthy 1% and 5%

What's the first thing you do after buying a $43.5 million, 6,000-square-foot oceanfront estate on 6.5 acres in Sagaponack, Long Island, the country's most expensive zip code?

According to a June 2, 2010 post on the AOL homepage, if you're hedge fund billionaire David Tepper, you tear it down -- along with its guesthouse, swimming pool and tennis court -- to build an even bigger mega-mansion.

According to the Southampton Patch, Tepper bought the home in 2009 from ex-wife of former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, in the area's most expensive transaction of 2010. In April, he got a permit for the demolition, and two months later the site was completely cleared.

The new house is about twice the size of the original, with ocean views from every room, "a sunken tennis court, a three-car garage, a widow's walk, second-floor decks, including one with a Jacuzzi, and a covered porch," according to the minutes of a recent town board meeting at which the construction was reviewed.

From Wikkipedia, we learn that in 2009, Tepper's hedge-fund firm earned about $7 billion by buying distressed financial stocks (including acquiring Bank of America common stock at $3 per share) in February and March of that year, then profiting from recovery of those stocks. $4 billion of these profits added to Tepper's personal wealth, and in March 2010, the New York Times reported that Tepper's success made him the top-earning hedge fund manager in the world in 2009. In 2010 he was ranked by Forbes as the 258th richest person in the world, clearly in the top 1% of America's privileged.

Before we point our fingers at others, though, we middle-class Americans should realize that we are all in the top 5% of the world's wealthiest people.

So we all need to reflect on the story Jesus once told of a well-to-do farmer who had an exceptionally good harvest one year, then said to himself, “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink and be merry.’”

God labeled him a fool, one whose life was about to come to an abrupt end.

And as with all of us, he left it all behind. Every bit of it.