Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tough Times

My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. (James 1:2-4)

I don't know about you, but I really don't consider it "nothing but joy" when I'm going through some struggle. There are a couple of things however that I have learned along the way.

Notice that James does not say "if you fall into all sorts of trials", but when you fall into all sorts of trials. I've learned like many of you that you need not seek after adversity, it has a way of finding us.

As people that try to walk-the-walk as well as talk-the-talk, we are not exempt from having trials and difficulties. I know what it is like to have health problems. While God has blessed me with a good marriage and a good career, he has not kept me from being stupid from time to time. Secondly, as James informs us, I have found that these trials will come in many different forms (all sorts of trials-verse 2). In my short time serving on Pastoral staff, I have experienced and observed many different forms of adversity. I have seen those who have suffered extreme financial losses. At the same time, I have seen those who were wealthy financially stricken with grief over illness and death that no amount of money can solve.

As a nation, we now witness hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. As of tonight the death toll is still short of 100 but has been estimated to grow to well over 1,000 souls. My wife was watching a report on the news of a husband who had died while his wife looked on, unable to provide assistance. To our horror as a civilized society, the only advice and comfort the wife was later given by the authorities was to "move the body away, so you are not bothered by the smell".

I think that part of the difficulty in reading and really appreciating the words of James is we find no joy in this type of adversity. I don't have a theology that lays the blame of natural disasters like hurricane Katrina at God's feet. We live in a broken world, full of sin and shame. We also live on an earth that can be a very dangerous place to live.

My heart goes out to the people that have lost their property, the lives of their children, neighbors, friends and family. I am sad that this entire region will be economically stunted for years by the billions of dollars of damage caused by the wind and the rain.

One of the things I can glean from James is that perhaps God allows adversity in our lives to show us our deficiencies and our hardness of heart. As we see these deficiencies, we realize that we must cry out to God to supply that which we lack. If this is the case, then we need to cry out loudly. We however, can rejoice in the fact that we do have One who can hear us and heal us.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Home Sweet Home

So just how big is your house?

Have you noticed how big some houses have gotten? My wife and I were looking at some new houses in the area last week and it seems like each house is a wee bit bigger than the last one.

Amazing how blessed we are here in the US.

You can't tell it sometimes listening to the media. From their biased perspective any increase in the Prime rate will burst the housing bubble, send realtors scurrying for cover and lock an entire generation out of the housing market. They predict that more 20's and 30's plus kids will be ending up with mom and dad because they can't afford the price of a new house.

Fortunately, these people have it all wrong. More people are living in homes that they themselves own then ever before. Almost 70% of all families in the United States own their own home. Not only that, homes are getting bigger. Now, I know that bigger isn't necessarily better but houses are bigger because the average home buyer can afford it.

One of the reasons people like owning their own home is it has become an amazing way to save. By the time a person retires, his or her home can be a very significant portion of retirement savings. The reason this happens is because of what is called leverage. A down payment of say 20% on a new home that appreciates 10% a year for the next few years is actually returning a 50% return on the investment (call me if you want me to walk through the math).

One of my good friends, Paul, moved to Boston in the early 1980's. Our boss assured him that it was a promotion despite the differences in cost of living. One piece of advice that he gave him was to "buy as big a house as you can possibly afford". I remember thinking that I may have not given Paul the same advice.

Remarkably, our boss was right. Within two years, Paul was asked to return to headquarters with his family. The company helped him sell his house and the $75,000 in equity and gained another $110,000 in appreciation. I'm a finance guy and that looks like about a 150% return, all at a tax preferred status and with company subsidized moving and closing costs.

Our government bureaucrats are funny. Did you know that the US Government DOES NOT include the asset appreciation on your house NOR your 401K plan or even your taxable savings plans in what they report as the "savings rate". Here are some comments from Bear Stearns Economist David Malpass:

"Some say that a flaw may exist not in our national character but in the way the government calculates savings: because the bureau's method of tallying income and consumption doesn't take into account structural changes in the finances of Americans, it may systematically understate income and overstate consumption. For example, income includes wages and salaries, interest on bonds, and stock dividends. But it doesn't include capital gains on stocks, profits from selling a house, or withdrawals from 401(k) plans. Nearly 70 percent of families own homes, nearly half of all households own stocks and mutual funds, and an increasing number of baby boomers are turning to 401(k)'s for income. Those trends, some say, can make a big difference. "The structure of the household portfolio has changed over time,"
I really don't know why people want to believe that somehow, without the Government providing for us, we would all be destitute. Federal Reserve statistics show that the net worth of all household - their total assets minus what they owe - was up 9.6% in 2004 over 2003. A 9.6% increase in total net worth is significant. Not only is it significantly higher than the anemic "savings rates" that have been typically reported but it is considerably greater than the 2.5% inflation rate reported in the United States in 2004.

So go ahead, if you think you can afford it, pull the down payment together for that new home. The goal of home ownership is typically not necessarily monetary but while the IRS is willing to make the home the "mother of all tax shelters", I say take advantage of what is typically a conservative investment. Recent IRS rules allow a couple to ignore the first $500,000 (yes, that is a half-million dollars) in appreciation. You don't have to be a day-trader or have an advanced degree in investments to enjoy some great appreciation while enjoying "home sweet home".

Saturday, August 13, 2005

A Quiet and Peaceable Life

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." - 1 Timothy 2:1-2

Had any peace and quiet lately? I don't know exactly what the Apostle Paul meant when he encouraged us to pray so that we may "lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty", but I guess that not only are we typically not doing it, but we probably don't plan on doing it at any time in the future. There seems to be two issues here. The first is that we typically aren't praying for "kings and for all that are in authority" and secondly we don't seek after the "quiet and peaceable life". Let's look at both of these briefly and see if we can get a better understanding of this exhortation.

In the First Century, when Paul was writing to Timothy, in fact, in most centuries, it was very important to look to the king and others in authority as being critical in leading a peaceful life. Wars, pestilences, famines, floods, riots, civil unrest, invading armies, roaming bands of thieves and other dangers were part of everyday life. Without peace, there was no "peacefulness" and no prosperity. You could plant, build, and hope but more than likely, your efforts would ultimately come to ruin by the edge of a sword or through the anger of your king. If a kingdom could have a period of relative peace and quiet for a generation or so, it was truly unique and blessed. This was not only true in Europe and in Asia but even an African proverb says, "peace is prosperity".

This was not the way God intended life. Fortunately, in the United States and even for most of the developed Western nations, we have democratic governments that have found the way to largely bring us peace and the prosperity. Wars, while some claim to be ever increasing are actually actually fewer in these fortunate areas. It's a truism that democracies tend not to go to war with each other.

What do we do with this peace and prosperity? We become anxious and fearful. In fact, we end up having anything but and peace and quiet but more like hectic and busy which means we miss also the target of godliness and honesty. Do you doubt this? Have you watched the evening news lately?

The second verse the 23rd Psalm is one of my favorite scriptures. "He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters." Those words speak peace, don't they. They mean that God's best for you should likely include a much slower pace. He wants our first priority in life to be worshipping and praising Him. God desires that we spend sufficient time with our families too. He wants us to lead others to the truth and grow spiritually. Then, all our needs will be provided by His riches in glory.

So, this is too bad. It's kind of like George Bush (41) missing the "peace dividend". Here in the United States, we have the opportunity of a peaceable life but we not only miss it but we also don't have the godliness and honesty that it is to bring. Being godly is to knowledge that God is the one that is in control of our tomorrows. He is the one that brings order out of chaos. He is the one who raises up and He is the one who brings low. To be godly is to acknowledge that God's rule for our lives is absolute. His rules and order and chosen conduct for living is to be embraced and held in the highest regard.

Honesty is a closely related virtue. It speaks of truth. The bible says that God is truth. Jesus tells us he is "telling the truth" 119 times in the New Testament. Jesus held a high regard for the truth and knew that unless He pointed it out, we may miss it. Today however, many don't believe the truth. They would rather believe a lie if it fits better with their viewpoint.

Here is my action plan to lead the "quiet and peaceable life". First, remember to pray. Our leaders need prayer and the relative harmony of our world can easily be shaken by poor decisions and ungodly leadership. Secondly, slow down. We fuss and become anxious over relatively minor things. We have much to be thankful for today and we need to understand how to live within our present prosperity rather than to mortgage it for more stuff.

Third, remember to be Godly. That's right, bring out the old capital "G" on "godly" as we have one God who has given us his rule book for our life. We will find success and happiness when we live within the guidelines that God has established. Finally, embrace the truth. Opinions are one thing, the truth however is still the truth. There is an ultimate truth and it can be found. Pray to find the truth while you are praying for our leaders and those in authority.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Half the Story: the other Stats

I'm biased.

It is true, so I want you to know. I have a predetermined bias when it comes to thinking, writing, teaching and lecturing about most topics.

I believe that the United States is a favored nation, blessed by Almighty God and home to the very best economic engine and political system in the world. I am also convinced that it is Biblical and prudent to be supportive and prayerful of our President, our elected representatives and even our courts.

Now that you know where I'm coming from, let me get into what I consider to be the "other statistics".

We get a daily dose of economic hardship news, the latest disappointing financial trends regarding supposedly growing unemployment, the burden of fair trade agreements which have exported all the jobs, etc., etc. As a result, we have become a nation informed but at the same time grossly uninformed. We are uninformed because we only get half-the-stats.

I'll bet that you believe that we've lost all of our good jobs to foreign countries. It's understandable that you would think that based on the information that is typically delivered to us from supposedly "unbiased" sources. The problem is that the source of the information, is always biased.

Their bias influences their view of the world. I told you before I know I'm biased. Here's another one of my biases: as a believer, I have what is often called a "Christian World View". My viewpoint isn't any more balanced, it's just sometimes the other viewpoint.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not equating my economic perspective to some correct Biblical understanding. You may have a Christian Worldview and think differently than I do about this nation, our political system and the relative health of our economy. I do hope you would read on however.

The following is just some of the "good news". You already know what the bad news is supposedly. I'll try to not repeat what you already hear on a daily basis.

So, there is good news. The chart on the right is employment trends in Pennsylvania. Looks pretty good doesn't it? We'll talk about that in a minute. Let's start off first talking about homes. Did you know that presently, over half of our minority families own their own home? That's pretty good don't you think? A record by the way. Overall home ownership is also at a near record of about 70%.

You wouldn't think that home ownership would be so high when there has been much discussion of the outsourcing of all of the good jobs. Well, here is the other stats on outsourcing. Outsourcing is not as bad as you think and in fact, we are growing more jobs at a faster rate than we can export the jobs to other countries. I checked the US Department of Labor (you can check this out if you like) and found that in my home state of Pennsylvania, total non-farm employment has increased in the last ten years (about the same time that we had NAFTA) by 467,000 jobs or about 8.9%.

8.9% sounds like a good number but when you compare it to the increase in total population in PA, it's even a better number. You see, the total number of people in PA grew by about 356,000 people in the same time period or only 2.9%. It means that we actually added more jobs than the total growth of new State residents.

I know what you may be thinking, "hey, what good is a job if it doesn't pay very well? Maybe all these people are just working at McDonald's". You are entitled to that thought after all, all the good jobs are now oversees correct? We'll, I've had good jobs and I've had bad jobs. I guess one way we can determine a good job from a bad job is how much it pays. So, let's take a look at the stats on median income.

The US Census department is a good place to get some information. The chart here on the right is US Median Family income from the 1990 and 2000 Census. As you can see, the median family income increased during this period 41% Not bad when you consider that more money means typically a better lifestyle. Oh yes, probably better jobs as well.

Going back to my home state of Pennsylvania, I looked up the stats from the US Census department on median income in the Keystone Commonwealth. The information said that median income increased from 1984 (the oldest year I found) to 2003 (the most recent year I found) form $20,346 to $42,933. More than a 50% increase in PA but a slightly longer time period. OK, let's look a little closer. I know what some skeptics may think. Hey, Professor, that is just the raw numbers but when you consider inflation, well, that's another story.

Yes, inflation is a factor. I spent some time in Latin America where inflation often runs 25% or more annually, much higher than we have ever had in the US. OK, let's look at the same numbers again for the State of Pennsyvania. The US Census department did the inflation adjusted comparison, using 2003 dollars and found that median family income in PA from 1983 to 2003 rose from $34,281 to over $42,000, an increase of 29% which means people have more money today than before on an inflation adjusted basis.

So, I told you I'm biased. I went looking for the numbers that I thought I would find but have reported them accurately. You also now know the other stats. Regardless of what we have heard about the poor economic conditions, we know that US home ownership is at an all time high. We know that more poeple are working than ever before; we know that the growth of jobs in PA (typically, not considered one of the better performing States) was actually higher than the total population growth. And finally, real family income also has improved by about 29% in the past 20 years.

Don't you think that the whole story is better than just half the story?

Monday, August 08, 2005

For Those Who Fear

This post is a little different, but I had to post this. Too many of my friends, my brothers and sisters are having difficulties. God however provides...

Isaiah 41:10
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isa 41:10 - Fear not, for I am with you; What a great way to start off! God promises His people, that not merely by his being omnipresent (He who is everywhere), nor by His general works of providence by ruling all things in the universe but here, with a new measure of His grace, God will guard and protect His people, His children. He will be their support and their supply so we need not fear. He provides comfort for their hearts. As a result, we are told, “fear not”. Don't you remember? This was the greetings of His angels as well. In addition, Psalm 95 gives us assurances as we are not to fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day.

be not dismayed, for I am your God; God has always had a people and we have a history of how his people have been able to depend on His love, have confidence in His power, and be expectant of His provision. The phrase here for “do not dismay” is also translated “be not broken”.

I will strengthen you; The Lord provides us with strength for the day. Strength to do what they need to do, to perform their jobs, be with their families and to resist temptation. In addition, He provides strength for our souls so that internally we have the will to continue and to carry on.

I will help you; God’s provision always includes help in the time of need. Hebrews, 4:15 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need”. What a great promise that God hears us and He wills to help us. The Lord tells us that His burden is light and when we take on other burdens, the Lord is gracious with His Help. We are never without means, without hope and without opportunity because our God is a God who personally calls us by name, understands our needs and promises to provide the help

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand; Upholding is something like what a lifeguard will do for someone that is drowning. Along with the assistance and the assurance that a person is not going under the water, the Lifeguard says, ‘relax, I’ve got you, I won’t let you drown. God allows us to be lifted up, to persevere to the end, and best of all, to feel His touch.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Feeling Out of Control?

One of the ministries that I work with is Priority Two, a ministry that works with people in job transition...people out of work. It's called Priority Two because one of the first things that we would like these people, more often then not middle-aged men, to understand, is that there are more important things in life than a job.

I find that when we get together and talk, what they often talk about is not priorities, but feeling out-of-control. They are in the midst of a huge crisis. The feeling of despair is typical and it's easy to see why. They have entered the "free-fall" zone and are they are struggling to find another job that pays something close to what their other job paid. One of the men in my small group actually described his feelings as similar to that dream when you are falling. Being completely disoriented like that is extremely difficult for those that have worked hard their entire life typically at a career where they made have had just one employer that made them feel secure and completely in control. They struggle to regain perspective on their life and their future.

Of course one of the questions that we have to deal with is "why God?". This may be a truly personal question like, "why after being faithful in giving and going to church do I find myself out of a job? Sometimes, it's more theological as in, "why does God allow bad things to happen if He is truly in control of these matters?

Now is a good time to tell you that I don't try to give answers. I know there are books out there that try to tell us that God often allows failure in our lives in order to help us grow and that our insufficiency can make us depend on Him. But I try to not go there....I find that the wisdom that is gained by the lesson is typically that which is enjoyed as a "dessert", after the meal is over, rather than as a "main entree".

I can tell you that I use this verse a lot. In 2 Cor. 4:17,18 the Apostle Paul says, "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." In this verse, Paul is certainly not talking about "light and momentary troubles" but he is trying to put things into perspective.

Maintaining the proper perspective allows us to understand that yeah, the situation I'm presently in may be lousy--my job is gone, my finances are now all negative instead of positive, I've got bill collectors calling and my family is wondering why! At the same time, I have a God who has promised to ultimately care for me and in Christ, I am a new creation that will have an opportunity to spend eternity with God. The proper perspective helps us understand that family, our loved ones and our neighbors and our relationship with God are all more important than things.

"Fix your eyes on the unseen". That's pretty good advice from the Apostle Paul. He knew all about that feeling of being "out-of-control". He also knew what it meant to have the correct perspective in life.

The Real Virus Is Fear

There is a virus that is attacking and ravaging this country but it is not Covid-19.   It is fear.  This fear is being spread by people ...