Monday, September 29, 2008

Financial Ruminations

So what is one to think of the current state of the financial markets and the failed 'bailout' by the government today? What does it all mean? And how should we respond to the whole situation, especially as Christians? These are some of the thoughts that have been meandering around the recesses of my mind the past week or so.

Now, there are many 'experts' and media mavens and political opportunists who will gladly answer these questions for us, in an effort to promote some agenda or grind their axe. Which only adds to the lack of clarity and the abundance of confusion. But while I don't claim to be any kind of an economist or financial whiz, I do know that there are a few clear root causes to the current meltdown in the credit markets. The first is the poorly thought through policies of the federal government over the past twenty years, forcing lenders to make loans to unqualified home buyers and in the process taking on more and more risky credit. Which also drove home sales, driving up demand, thereby driving up prices. In short, an unsustainable market condition that was a ticking time bomb. Once again, the problem is not too little government intervention, but too much.

The second root cause is the lack of lack of restraint on the part of those home buyers. They took on much more debt than was advisable, bought bigger and more expensive houses than they needed, financed the whole thing at artificially low adjustable interest rates, and generally got in way over their heads. You can blame the lenders for not advising them better, but it boils down to personal responsibility. They knew what they were signing up for. Again, a ticking time bomb.

So now the whole thing has come crashing down. The housing bubble burst, the artificially inflated values of homes has come down, the balloon payments on those adjustable mortgages have come due and can't be paid, the mortgage default rate has gone through the roof, and the big mortgage banking institutions are holding a huge portfolio of bad loans. And the ripple effects have spilled over into the broader credit market, which is a key part of the world financial markets. The modern global economy runs day to day on credit. When it's limited, there are untold effects across the board. Not the least of which is reflected in the equity markets, as has been seen recently in the behavior of the stock markets. Like today, when the market indexes dropped 7-10% due to the failure of the House to pass the 'rescue' package.

Regarding that package, I have to say that I received the news with mixed emotions. The fiscal conservative, limited government part of my brain did not like the idea of the American taxpayers taking on $700 billion in bad debt. Let the markets correct themselves, and recover from the effects of too much government intrusion, not adding more. But on the other hand, from a personal standpoint I know that my retirement fund (largely invested in stocks) and other investments have taken a large hit over the past 6 months, and will continue to as the market goes down further if the 'bailout' isn't enacted. It's rather unnerving to watch literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of value disappear from your accounts. I might even have to delay retirement. And there are many, many people in this same situation.

And here is where I come to the question of how we should respond as believers in Christ. First and foremost, this situation should be a checkup for each of us on where our sense of security lies. Are we trusting in our stocks, bonds, 401k's and the like for our security, or are we trusting in our sovereign Lord and Savior who has total control over even the Dow and the Nasdaq? It's times like these that call that question. Second, have we fallen prey to the pervading sense of greed and entitlement that has been part of the reason for this current crisis? Have we been among those who made unwise financial decisions in an effort to 'get our piece of the pie', and are now paying for it? If so, we have violated Biblical principles of contentment and stewardship, and may be seeing the Lord's discipline for it. And finally, are we viewing people caught deeply in this crisis with compassion, and praying for their well-being, asking God to show Himself clearly to them as their worldly security fails them?

Let's consider these application points in this time of financial uncertainty. For our good and our growth. And for His glory.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Unintended Consequences

After seeing this news item about the 11 children who have been abandoned by their parents at the local hospital emergency room here in my home state, I am so not proud to be a Nebraskan. Seems that this is perfectly legal under the new "Safe Haven" law that went into effect here recently. And it was championed through the state legislature by none other than the state senator from my own district, the esteemed Arnie Stuthman. In fact, he made it a top priority bill. His intentions, of course, were good. For those unwanted infants that might otherwise get abused or dumped somewhere unsafe, let the parents drop them off at a hospital. With no legal consequences. Let the state take care of them. Of course several other states have similar laws on the books. It all sounds so compassionate and right, doesn't it?

But once again, the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Did anyone think that people would be dropping off their teenage kids to get rid of them, legally? Probably not. But in an effort to not be too restrictive, the language used in the law stated that it applied to "children", which has been interpreted now to mean anyone under the age of 19. So to date there have been 16 kids abandoned by their parents or guardians, aged 1 to 17. Completely legally. In fact the director of the state human services said this: "It was the parents not wanting to continue the journey with their kids." Drop 'em off and walk away. And apparently no legal recourse against the so-called parents. They're free to get on with their lives, to "continue their own journey."

One could argue that these kids are better off, that they obviously weren't wanted in the first place and so at least now they are "safe." Again, sound so compassionate, doesn't it. Except that the state admits that none of these kids were in any danger. So what has this law really accomplished? It has in effect given dysfunctional and struggling parents and guardians a way out, an easy way to be rid of problem kids and be off the hook. It in fact encourages child abandonment, and takes away any remaining restraint that a parent or guardian of a difficult or less than wanted child might have. And it assumes that the state social services and foster care system is a better, "safer" place for these kids than a dysfunctional family. Which might be true in some cases, but certainly not all.

And consider this angle. Say you're a youngster in a family whose parents are, well, less than perfect. Which could include a whole lot of kids. And you hear about this kind of thing, kids your own age getting dumped at hospitals by their parents, scot free. What is this going to do for your sense of security? Not much, I would think. I wouldn't doubt that there are some not-so-gifted parents that might even use this as a threat against their kids. Honestly, is this really, truly in the best interest of the children of Nebraska?

The reality is this: any law that makes it easy and legal to shirk God-ordained responsibilities to the family is a bad thing. It will have all kinds of unintended, but real and damaging, consequences. I can only hope that the spectacle of entire families of children being abandoned legally will cause our state senators to reflect on these facts and make corrections to this fiasco of a law. And the next time I have the opportunity, I will certainly once again cast my vote for anyone running against erstwhile Arnie.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Self Talk

No, I am not Dr. Phil. But in my Sunday School class the other day on the identity of the believer in Christ, I made the statement that a Christian should have no self-esteem. Which I think took some people in the class aback a bit, before I could complete my explanation. So I'm doing so more fully here. But what do you think? Is self-esteem Biblical? Is having high self-esteem to be a mark of the mature Christian? And if not, how should we then view ourselves? In short, how does a Biblical psychology inform our self-image?

Before we go too far, let's define some terms, that often get used somewhat interchangeably, but shouldn't be. Let's start with self-esteem. Which refers to esteeming myself, or holding myself in high regard. Thinking highly of myself, regarding myself as special, worthy of merit. Does this sound like a characteristic of a mature Christian, Biblically speaking? I think not. In fact we find Biblical commands to believers to do just the opposite. For example, Romans 12:3, where Paul says: "For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith." Or again in Philippians 2:3 where he commands: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves." Self-esteem has no place in the heart and mind and life of the follower of Christ. We are to esteem Christ and hold Him in high regard, and esteem others as more important than ourselves. Our problem is not that we love ourselves too little - it's that we love ourselves too much!

But how then are we to understand who we are, our sense of identity? This is where the concept of self-image comes in. Self-image is simply how we see ourselves, who we believe ourselves to be. It's how we answer the "who am I" question. And everyone, Christian or not, has a self-image. Everyone has some way of identifying themselves, and living out that identity day by day. It may be based on all kinds of things, like relationships, career, possessions, position, you name it. But self-image is like a nose - we all have one. And for the Christian, then, the critical thing is to have a self-image or identity based on the truths of God's Word, rather than on the passing and changeable things and relationships of this world. The Christian is to have a proper, a Biblically-informed self-image, not a good self-image. We are to identify ourselves first and foremost with Christ, and understand who He has declared us to be. Such as a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), free from condemnation (Romans 8:1), adopted as children and heirs (Romans 8:16-17), righteous before Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

But there's still one term that's connected to these two that we haven't considered. And that is self-worth. Which is my own sense of value or purpose. See, this is what I think the self-esteem movement is really after. Trying to instill a sense of value in people, by artificially inflating their view of themselves in an attempt to ascribe some intrinsic value to the self. But in doing so they miss the point. Because in and of ourselves, we have no intrinsic value. Yes, we are created in the image of God and endowed with a certain amount of dignity because of that, and as bearers of the imago dei we are separated from and more valuable than the animals. But even this value is not intrinsic, not in and of ourselves. It flows from God, the Creator who imbued man with this value. But more than that, for the Christian, our sense of self-worth should be infinite. Again, not because of any value or worth we have in ourselves, but because we are of value to God the Father. In fact so valuable that He ordained from eternity past that we should be redeemed from our sin by no less a price than the death of His own Son. If someone is looking for a sense of value or worth, I can't think of any better source.

But you see that the self-worth of the believer in Christ is not based on any distinction or merit that we have before God, and certainly not based on any false sens of self-esteem that we might try to build up. It's based on the sovereign grace and eternal purposes and decrees of God in electing and saving and sanctifying us as a people for Himself. For His glory, not for ours.

You know, Dr. Phil is right about one thing when it comes to having a proper self-image and self-worth. It really is all about relationships. At least one relationship - a faith relationship with Jesus Christ. Like they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


So today I finally got to take a real ride on my new bike. The weather was great, I am more or less over my creeping crud from the weekend, and it was time. A sweet ride that I enjoyed immensely, even if it was only 21 miles. I'm kind of outta shape after not riding for three weeks and being sick. But it was still great, the new bike performed better than I ever expected.

OK, so Lance Armstrong I ain't. Nor would I want to be. But as I rode today, I was thanking my Lord and Savior for His grace in allowing me to enjoy the outdoors and the fresh air and exercise and the sheer joy of riding.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sicko Weekend

My less than wonderful week in Las Vegas was capped off upon my return Friday evening by - a nasty case of some kind of head congestion and body aches viral thing. That has lasted all weekend and here late Sunday evening is still causing me to be bound to the Kleenex box. I can't remember when I have felt this rotten for this long. So I missed going to the high school football game Friday night and seeing son Matt perform with the marching band. And I missed taking my sweet new bike out for it's first real ride that I had planned this weekend. And I even missed church this morning, and the first installment of the Sunday Bible School class I am teaching. All in all, a lost weekend. Hopefully a good night's sleep and some more chemicals will at least allow me to go back to work tomorrow. Or at least to do some 'virtual officing' from home to keep from sharing my hacking and mucous with my colleagues in person.

If you were looking for something more theologically or academically challenging, sorry. This is where I am right now...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Vegas - A Testimony to Total Depravity

I'm sitting here this evening in my hotel room at the Venetian in Las Vegas, where I've been since Sunday night attending a techie conference. And I have to say, Vegas has lived up to my expectations. Or should I say lived down to them. Having never spent any time here before other than driving through, I was not excited about the prospect of a week here. They don't call this place 'Sin City' for nothing. You can feel it in the atmosphere. Oh sure, everything here at places like the Venetian are meant to give the illusion of class and upscale luxury. And to be sure, this hotel (more like a city in itself) is over the top swanky and luxurious, with amazing architecture and nothing spared. And for sure things are upscale in price. A walk through the shops along the 'canal' with the gondolas floating by is like walking down 5th avenue in New York. And the glitz and glamour types of people certainly abound here as well.

But behind it all is a sense of, well, sinfulness and sensuality. Interestingly, all week long I've had to walk through the casino several times a day to get from my room to the conference center. A beautiful place, but filled with people throwing down their money, sucking down drinks served by scantily clad women, looking for at best some kind of thrill or distraction, at worst hoping to win big and being sorely disappointed. And they're always there, even at 7:00AM. And of course there's the other kinds of 'business' that goes on here. One of the guys I work with who is here with me has been approached several times by prostitutes this week. Again, all the glitz and glamour can't cover the reality behind the attraction to this bright spot on the desert. It's sin, plain and simple.

And it's also been interesting seeing how the people that I know and work with that are here are affected by the whole ambiance. Several guys that are married, have families, go to church, have great jobs, all the right stuff. But from the moment we arrived have been focused on hitting the casinos and the bars, sometimes until 4 or 5 AM. A great reminder that all of us have only to be put in the right (or should I say wrong) environment for our depraved nature to more fully express itself.

In fact, that's one thing I've been aware of personally, and have tried to immerse myself in learning stuff at the conference (the whole reason I'm here in the first place) rather than be enticed by the wiles of Vegas. I haven't even left the hotel grounds all week, now that I think about it. Even tonight, I'm here in my room catching up on some work and organizing some of the stuff I've learned this week. While most of the other 6000 people at this conference are in a hall downstairs for a Black Crows concert, complete with free booze. And most of the guys I came with are out on the town for one last night of Vegas before we all fly home in the morning.

So this is my assessment of Las Vegas. Can't say I'm impressed, other than by the testimony that this entire city is to the unbridled and total depravity of man. We can erect gorgeous edifices to attempt to glamorize and add respectability to 'gaming' and all that goes with it. But in the end, they are really only shrines to the depth of man's sin and fallenness. And even in this, God is glorified. His righteousness and holiness shines that much brighter against a backdrop such as Vegas. And the depths of His grace and mercy shown to such a sinful race as us in the person and work of Christ in redemption is seen much more fully and deeply.

For after all, there’s no difference between the people living out their depravity here in Vegas and everywhere else, and me, except for one thing. The sovereign grace of God in Christ.

Friday, September 5, 2008

End of a "Hard" Week

For only being a four-day work week, this seemed to me to be extremely long. I've recently been assigned to take over managing a couple of "problem" projects that haven't been making much progress. Yeah, sounds like fun, eh? And the biggest issue I've been dealing with this week is not technical or hardware or software or any of that kind of tangible stuff. It's been dealing with some people who are, well, hard to deal with. People who consume so much of your energy just trying to work with them that you end up spent and wasted and frustrated and... well, you know. The kind that rub you until you get calloused and hardened. That's the way I've been feeling as this week has progressed. Hard. Dull.

So I've been reading Christ is All: The Piety of Horatius Bonar off and on for the past couple weeks. I love Bonar's turn of phrase and his straightforward style. And so the other night before bedtime I pick up the book, feeling hard and frustrated, looking for some distraction. And I come to a short essay titled "The Deceitfulness of Sin." A page and a half that seemed to be directed expressly at me. And I quote it here in it's entirety.

There are many dangers to which Christian men are liable, but the apostle singles out one to which they were specially exposed: hardness of heart, impenitency, obduracy. It is to Christian men he addresses the warning. This hardening implies such things as these:

I. A losing our first love. When iniquity abounds, the love of many waxes cold. The affections get dulled and blunted.

II. Losing the edge of our conscience. The conscience ceases to be sensitive and tender. It does not shrink from sin as it used to do.

III. Callousness as to truth. We get so familiarized with truth, that it ceases to affect us. It loses its power over us.

IV. Insensibility to sin. Our own evils are not felt as they used to be; sin itself is not so hated and shunned as formerly.

Thus our whole man gets hardened; our feelings become dull; and spiritual things no longer tell upon us. Great is our danger of becoming hardened; greater still our danger after we have become hardened. Oh, beware of sliding back and sliding down; beware of coldness and indifference. Keep your whole man ever on edge; let no hardness creep in.

Bonar is referring here to the warning in Hebrews 3:13, " that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." Now, I can blame my hardness of heart and mind and spirit on having to deal with another person who is difficult. But in reality it is my own sinful self will that is causing the hardening response in me. It's the deceitfulness of my own sin. My own self-righteous assumption that I am always right and this other person must be wrong. My insensitivity to my own sinful response to the situation, rationalizing my anger and words.

Truth is that Bonar's words here are spot on. And convicting. At least for me, and I hope for you as well. And I need to keep them in mind as I approach the coming week. I'm spending the week at a conference for my job - in Las Vegas, my least favorite city in the world. A city that thrives on the deceitfulness of sin, and that relies on people who have insensitive consciences. By God's grace I pray that I am not one of them.