Sunday, December 28, 2008

“Best Buy” Called Me On Christmas Morning

Christmas at our house is a pretty special time. My wife is the ultimate traditionalist, and she keeps us on track to celebrate and remember in several special ways. I sometimes wish we could leave it at that, as I often feel that the abundance of gifts that we exchange on Christmas morning borders on embarrassing. But I’m reminded of Matthew 7:11, which says, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Giving gifts to my children is my desire and duty as a father, and I believe that they have caught the desire to give to others rather than receive. It’s easy to be generous to them when I see how much they want to give to others.

Our Christmas morning always starts with the family gathered to read a passage of the birth of Jesus, lit by the flickering flame from our Advent wreath (the candles on it, not the wreath!). The kids never mention gifts before this occurs – they truly celebrate the day as the birth of our Savior. After reading and praying, we open the stockings one at a time, with everyone in the family watching the others and with no sense of hurry. After the stockings, we start in on the gifts under the tree. Again, we open every gift one at a time, and often rotate the person who selects the gift to be opened. No one ever picks their own gift to open. It makes me proud to watch.

I wasn’t surprised when the phone rang late in the morning, because our extended families tend to call and wish each other a merry Christmas throughout the day. But imagine my amazement when I watched my daughter Molly answer the phone and then listen to it without speaking for a full minute. When she finally hung up, without speaking a word after the initial greeting, I asked her who it was. She turned to me and said, “It was a pre-recorded message from Best Buy calling to remind you that you have a ten-dollar coupon that you must redeem before January 24.”

Can you insert one of those record-scratching noises here?

Okay, it’s bad enough that I’m constantly inundated with advertisements and flyers from the electronics stores. And I shake my head when they try to sell me a one-year warranty on nearly every item that I buy from them. I guess I shouldn’t assume that quality is still an expectation. But it goes beyond the pale that they must call me on the morning of Christmas day with a pre-recorded message about a ten-dollar coupon. I could say a lot more about rampant commercialism here, but I’m not sure it’s really necessary. We all recognize it, don’t we?

So, as I sit here three days before the New Year, and as I get ready to finalize and perhaps reveal my resolutions to you, I’m going to start by announcing the first one. With one exception, I resolve not to step into a Best Buy store in 2009. And that one exception will be to redeem my coupon – for something that doesn’t cost more than ten-dollars. I know it may sound extreme but I feel that I should make a point, even if it’s only to myself. And I can’t help but think that there may be a positive financial impact to this decision, too…

So if you see me in 2009, you are free to ask if I’ve been to the BB store lately. I’ll let you know if I stayed faithful to my promise.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Six-Word Memoir

An interesting article appeared in USA Today on December 3, 2008 reviewing the book Not Quite What I Was Planning by HarperCollins Publishers. The book is a compilation of dozens of “six word memoirs”, where various people (some famous, some not) try to sum up their lives in only six words (punctuation is free). It’s an interesting exercise in prioritization and reflection.

Here are some thoughtful samples:

“Followed yellow brick road. Disappointment ensued.” – Kelsey Ochs

“On the playground, alone. 1970, today.” –
Charles Warren

“I wrote it all down somewhere.” – Ben Greenman

There are also some humorous attempts:

“Well, I thought it was funny.” – Stephen Colbert

“Maybe you had to be there.” – Roy Blount, Jr.

“Never really finished anything, except cake.” – Carletta Perkins

And some optimistic viewpoints:

“Many risky mistakes, very few regrets.” – Richard Schnedl

“Secret of life: Marry an Italian.” – Nora Ephron

“Outcast. Picked last. Surprised them all.” – Rachel Pine

The whole exercise got me to thinking – what instructions or observations would I leave to my children if I knew that I would be passing on tomorrow? If it were my last breath and I only had a short phrase to leave them, what would it be?

First, (and this is really against the grain of my personality), I would have to forego any attempt to write a humorous epitaph. While humor would be a temptation, the gravity of the situation demands that I use the moment to educate and edify my children. Second, the message needs to be pretty simple, but important. Six words are not enough to fully describe any single topic, so it pays to be economical and direct with the phrasing.

And third, the memoir should have lasting impact on their lives – in fact, I believe it should have an eternal effect. These would be my last words, after all, and they should count for as much as possible. What’s more important than advice about the best way to spend eternity?

Since it’s my blog, I’m allowing myself eighteen words – three six-word epitaphs. I’m hopeful that I’ll have some time left to choose between them, but if I don’t, I trust my lovely wife Wendy to pick the best one. Here goes – if I had to leave a meaningful memoir for my children, it might be:

“God holds truth. Don’t get distracted.”

Or maybe: “Seek Jesus first. All else follows.”

Or perhaps the ultimate parting words are: “Go to heaven. See you there.”

Give it a try. For anyone reading this, please post a comment with your own six-word memoir.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Harvard or Heaven?

Our family is in our fifth year of homeschooling. It has been the best decision that we ever made since having children, and the blessings that have proceeded from the decision are countless. Sometimes, it is hard for me to refrain from telling people about the wonders that we have experienced. I recognize that people are not always open to the idea, and have often formed a preliminary opinion about homeschoolers. Just to set the record straight, my wife doesn’t like wearing denim jumpers, and we don’t bake our own bread (very often).

On the occasion where I do get to share our experience, I might tend to ramble. There are so many reasons that we have found to support our decision to educate in the home. For details, check out the Further Topical Reading section of this blog – titled “(At Least) Ten Reasons Why We Homeschool” (in the column at the side). I’m enjoying one of the advantages even as I write this chapter – our family is enjoying the warmth of a California vacation in the month of October, at a time when there are very few people competing for pool time or to form lines at the theme park (we started school a week early in August so we could take this week off in the middle of the fall). Of course, if everyone were to turn to homeschooling, I would probably have to give up this advantage, but I think I could live with that.

If you read this blog very often, you’ll see that our family’s true reason for homeschooling has evolved over the last few years. I recently came across a quote from the Home School Legal Defense Association that perfectly sums up our number-one reason. “Homeschooling is not about getting your kids into Harvard; it’s about getting them into heaven.” This doesn’t mean that publicly-schooled children can’t go to heaven – but we believe we have vastly improved our chances with our own children by doing so. Is that a bold statement? Yes. Is it true for every single family? No, there is no doubt that homeschooling is not practical in every situation. Heaven and Harvard are not mutually exclusive choices that pivot on your choice of schooling. However, to better understand my position, a demonstration using gambling techniques and statistics might be appropriate.

Suppose you were asked to play one game of dice. The stakes are these – if you win, you can count on having enough money in your bank account to retire more comfortably than you have ever imagined. But if you lose, your account will go to zero. The game is simple. By rolling two six-sided dice just one time (just like in Monopoly), your win or loss will be determined. There are two tables to play on, with rules differing at each table. The rules at the first table are these: if you roll anything except a double-one or a double-two, you will win. But if you roll a double-one or double-two, you will lose. If you are looking for statistical calculations, your chances of winning under this scenario are 94.4% (there are 34 winning combinations out of a potential 36).

Things are a little more restrictive at the second table, though the reward or loss is exactly the same. At this table, your roll must contain a six on at least one of the dice to win. If the roll doesn’t contain a six, you will lose. Again, for the statistically-minded, there are 11 winning combinations out of 36 possibilities – a 30.6% chance of winning.

It may seem silly to ask the question, “Which table would you choose to play?” But these odds are exactly what statistics tell us about children remaining faithful when they enter the university system. A study conducted by the National Home Education Research Institute and often presented by Pastor Voddie Baucham shows that 70-88% of professing Christian teens fall away from their faith at the end of their freshman year in college, while only 6% of homeschooled professing teens fall away in that time frame. Consider those statistics again…there is at least a seven out of ten chance that a publicly-schooled child will reject God after their first year of college. Less than one out of ten will do so if they are homeschooled.

This study may be tough for some to accept, especially when so few of us believe that such a prognosis could possibly occur in our own family. And we should understand very clearly, the study does not explicitly prove that schooling is the only factor that determines a child’s grasp on God’s grace. It stands to reason that a homeschooled child will have more parental involvement in his or her life, and this is a big contributor to the Christian walk. I believe further study would conclude that public-schooled children who enjoy a devoted father and mother, and a family who prays and worships together regularly will improve on the 70-88% odds greatly. But once again, any study that concludes with such a diverse result – 70-88% versus 6% - is either flawed, or else it has uncovered a fundamental issue to be considered.

Please bear with me for a moment on this. I recognize that there are some families for whom homeschooling is not possible. Single parents raising children, or parents in family situations that don’t allow the time or monetary investment required for quality homeschooling will struggle under the demand. But for those of you who are considering the pros and cons of home education, don’t neglect to consider the eternal, spiritual perspective because statistics show that the benefits are very real.

I have spoken with many parents who are often shocked at what is being taught to their children in public school. Mere theories such as evolution and global warming are taught as fact. More importantly, the idea that there is a God who created our universe and us, and who wants to have a personal relationship with us is suppressed, and often ridiculed. I know, because it happened to me in multiple instances in public school almost thirty years ago.

Unlike the dice game, the state of our children’s souls is not a random event. Thankfully, God’s grace is the ultimate determining factor in that outcome. But when our children reach the age where the schooling venue decision must be made, do we put as much thought into it as we would our investments and retirement asset distribution? To a degree, we are forced to play the game and choose which table we will play. I understand that there are far more pieces to the puzzle than we deal with in these few paragraphs. High-quality parental involvement and influence takes many forms. But I am personally unwilling to take the additional risk, and gamble away my children’s eternal salvation. I cannot control every detail in the lives of my children, but I can limit their exposure to the godless mindset that has infiltrated our public schools. My children’s eternal destination is far more important to me than my retirement account, and I spend far more time working with them on their A-B-C’s than I do manipulating my 401(k).

For those interested in a very clear opinion on home education versus public schooling, check out Fair warning – prepare to be challenged by Pastor Baucham’s writings.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What Really Caused The Financial Crisis

I don’t get it. I read the papers and the news articles on the web services, supposedly full of wisdom from the financial experts who tell us what we must do to fix the financial crisis. The talking heads on television ramble about how we need to revive lending and free up the credit market. These so-called experts are presented as the unquestioned authority on finances and what is required to get us out of the mess that we are in.

Look, I didn’t get my MBA. I finished college with a simple (!!!) Engineering degree, and enough credits for a minor in Mathematics. The math I waded through didn’t really count toward traditional financial understanding, but I did take classes in macroeconomics and microeconomics, so I’m not a complete dunce on the subject. But more importantly, twenty years after leaving college, I spend less money than I make, and our family is essentially debt-free (discounting a very reasonable amount remaining on our mortgage). I think I have a pretty good practical sense of financial wisdom, even if stock derivatives and short-selling are not topics that I can readily explain. But let me try to detail what I see going on around us at this moment in the financial world.

We are currently in a crisis created primarily due to a number of risky mortgage loans which were made to people who can no longer pay them back. You could blame the “evil predatory lender” for offering the loans in the first place. You could blame the government for mandating that the lender offer loans to people who were not qualified to pay them back. Or you could blame the individuals themselves, who wanted a house they couldn’t afford or a car they really didn’t need. Maybe all three are to blame, but one simple financial rule should overshadow it all. If money is to be borrowed, it should be given to people who demonstrate the ability to repay the loan. It’s that simple. It’s biblical, too. Romans 13:7 - ”Give everyone what you owe him.”

Good lending practice is pretty straightforward. A lender gives money with the expectation that it is returned over time with interest. They will plan for a certain percentage of borrowers to default on their loans, but this is never the most desirable end. To make the whole system work together, the lender will develop complex models that measure the ability of the applicant to repay the loan. And when the numbers don’t add up, the lender should refuse the individual’s application. It’s painful, but necessary for sound business practice.

Designing rules for the borrower is much more difficult. Many people fail to “count the cost” before applying for a loan. Instead, they are often blinded by the prospect of a new car or a larger house, assuming that their financial situation will improve enough over time to allow them some financial flexibility. How many people wish they had never taken on the loans that they possess, choosing instead to wait for some of the things that they desired? I’ve been there in the past.

The bottom line is this – a sound financial environment relies on good financial stewardship -- not on risky loans made to financially strapped individuals who will eventually default on their debts and leave the burden to other taxpayers. So, here is where I get to the part that I don’t understand.

Several weeks ago, our government approved over $700 billion of “bailout” money to give to financial institutions, wishing them to lend this money to people. These institutions were suddenly hesitant to loan money to people under risky circumstances. Imagine that… And recently, I read that the government desires to give an additional $800 billion to the lenders to encourage them to loan even more money to people. These actions beg several questions. Should we continue to make loans to people who shouldn’t be applying for them? Is it wise to float so much credit into the market instead of encouraging personal savings? And finally, is the government simply perpetuating the crisis by loaning even more money to people who will likely default on their obligation in the future?

It seems to me that loaning more money does not solve the problem – it only makes it worse. We have reached a point in our beloved America where we need to take a step back from the wealth and affluence which crowds out the system that God designed. The Bible is full of references to economic principles, most of which discourage excessive borrowing and living beyond our means. God does not promise that we will enjoy wealth or a life free from worry if we follow Him. However, He does promise an eternity with Him and the benefit of other non-financial blessings in this life. But God wants us to follow Him first and foremost, and His principles revolve around that relationship. God knows more about economics than any man, committee, or political system. If we design a financial system that forgets this basic principle, then we are doomed to fail. And, sadly, it appears that we are doing just that.

Luke 16:11-12 gives us Jesus’ view on the proper handling of money and debt – “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?” Many of us have made financial mistakes in the past, me included. Let’s not allow our government to make the financial problems even worse. Tell them to keep their loan money away from bad borrowers. Or better yet, give it back to the place where they got the money in the first place. Where did they get an extra $700 billion anyway? Hmmmmmm…

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Deconstructing “The Shack”

“The Shack” has been on the Christian fiction book charts for some time now. I’ll admit that I have only read random portions of the book, choosing instead to rely on a synopsis given to me by my wife. She read the book on the recommendation of others, but she became disturbed by it within the first hundred pages.

Without giving away the details, the book can be summarized as an attempt to bring God closer to man in a rather unique way. The main character in the book wanders away from God due to a set of terrible circumstances, but receives an invitation from God one day to meet at “the shack”. The remainder of the book has the character being drawn back to God through a series of informal discussions and experiences as God is “brought down to earth” for us.

This sounds good on the surface, and is indeed a valuable lesson for us to learn. God did come to earth in the form of His Son, who took on human form in order to experience a life on earth, without sin. His life was put to an end at the hands of cruel men, and we find that this earthly form was necessary for Him to become our sin substitute. Without this earthly form, and the shedding of His blood, we would not be able to be found faultless before God, avoiding our deserved condemnation for all eternity. “The Shack”, however, goes well beyond the Biblical account in its portrayal of the Holy three-in-one.

The book portrays God as a motherly old black woman, who sometimes can be found in the middle of ordinary tasks such as baking a cake, and often talking in phrases and contractions reminiscent of “Mammy” from Gone With The Wind. At least, that is the picture that I get in my mind. Jesus is portrayed as a young man, sometimes clumsy like an adolescent, with a degree of wisdom and a somewhat carefree nature. The Holy Spirit is revealed as a more ethereal being, less like a human form than the others and sometimes characterized like a riddle-speaking mystic.

As the main character interfaces with these individuals, the conversation often takes on a sort of careless banter, as if they are in some way equal to each other. God has the task of convincing the man that he should return to a right relationship with Him, but it is done in a very relaxed and irreverent fashion.

This is not how I picture God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And it’s not the character of the Trinity that I read about in the Bible.

In the book of Jude, the author speaks of godless men who have crept into their community. In verses eight through ten, he says, “In the very same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, "The Lord rebuke you!" Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them.” I must say that I have spoken out loud to Satan in rebuke before. But this act takes on a new look when approached in the context of this verse. If Michael would not speak directly to Satan to rebuke him, shouldn’t I take care in how I regard spirits, both good and evil? It seems as if there is a much greater gulf between us and the realm of angels and demons than we can fully understand. And if such reverence is shown to Satan by the angels, how then should we humans revere God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

The Bible contains many references of God revealing Himself to men, and in each case man is on his knees and face in awe of God. God’s glory is so powerful that it made Moses’ face shine just to be exposed to it. Time after time, the appearance of angels to men in the Bible is accompanied by the request to “Fear not!” This is an accurate representation of the God that I serve. His power and holiness is so perfect and inspiring that we will not even be able to stand in His presence.

While I can appreciate certain lessons put forth in “The Shack”, such as reconciliation with God, I am disturbed at the cheapening of His awesome glory put forth in the book. One could make the point that I have not read the entire book, and should not be so quick to draw a conclusion. That concern has some validity. But I am choosing not to read the remainder of the book for the very reason that I want nothing to dispel the awesome majesty of the God that I read about in the Bible. This is the image of God that I want in my mind’s eye, as set forth by His word, not a popular work of fiction. “Oh be careful little eyes what you read…”

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The $2 Wal-Mart Challenge

Something happened to me the other day that’s never happened to me before. I lost my credit card. Oh, it’s somewhere in my car, because I threw it on the seat when I couldn’t get it to work in the $3 automated drive-up car wash that has become one of my new favorite places. But by the time I got home, it was nowhere to be found. All five members of my family took turns looking for it, but all that they were successful in doing was messing up the driver seat position. I’m still not sure I have it back where I like it…

Anyway, we called the credit card company right away and cancelled the card. They promised to send a new one within a week. We only have one credit card, so we did without one in the interim. It wasn’t a big deal, but I must admit I never realized how many places our credit card number is entered on-line. And we had to change all of them.

We pay our credit card bill in full each month. We haven’t carried a balance in many years. Since we have stopped writing checks for almost everything (having switched to on-line bill pay), the credit card bill has become one of the larger outgoing expenses we have each month. So, I sat up and took notice when I saw that our next credit card bill was about half of what it typically totals. Was this just a coincidence or was it a direct result of not having the card for a week?

This reminds me of the “$2 Wal-Mart challenge” I sometimes like to play. You should try it sometime. First, take your wallet or purse with you to a Super Wal-mart, – complete with credit cards, checkbook and cash. Set a time limit of a half-hour to wander the aisles. The goal is to leave the store after spending less than $2. Can you do it?

Sometime later, try the experiment again, but this time leave all forms of buying power at home, except for $2 in cash in your pocket. Naturally, you can stick to the budget this way. And temptation is minimized because you are operating under a hard limit. But the way you walk through the store may be just a little different.

Why take the challenge? The first half of the challenge requires self-control. The second-half builds austerity. I believe we need to revisit the ability to buy only what we need. I can tell you that I have a tendency to add unplanned items to my basket whenever I go to a superstore. It’s not hard to walk the aisles and find things that you might need – a twenty-pack of medium-sized wood screws, ten pair of athletic socks, or an extra coffee-maker for the downstairs office. Hey, I can put all of these things to use someday. But do I really need them right now? And should I add them to stack of stuff that I already own at home? We live in a world where we can get almost anything that we desire within a few miles of where we live, or even have it delivered to our door after ordering it on-line. So why wait?

Waiting might be a good thing, considering the economic conditions that may be headed our way. Our lifestyle of wealth and overabundance may actually be reversed for some time, if not permanently. I’m willing to go without the convenience of those wood screws taking up space in my toolbox if it means I have a little more security in the years ahead. Oh, and I’m also thinking about losing my credit card every couple of months.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Legacy of Ignoring God

As I watched the presidential election cycle this year, I was saddened more than ever at how far our nation is moving from God the Father. As they do every four years, candidates promise more wealth to the average American, even though it is the government that takes a large portion of it away in taxes, which are then inefficiently used and ill-spent. And except for the occasional flash of godly awareness (like McCain’s response to the abortion question at the Saddleback interviews), most of the responses are couched in politically correct, vapid, and meaningless phrases.

As I was reading through the book of Jeremiah, I saw another leader who had the same attitude toward God, and who acted upon God’s warnings with a very deliberate response. In chapters 35 and 36, we see God instructing Jeremiah to write words on a scroll which will warn the people of their coming captivity if they don’t turn from their godless ways. God arranges to have these words read in the presence of King Jehoiakim, ruler of Judah. His response to God’s words was to use a knife on every few sentences in the scroll, cut them off, and cast them into the fire. I have read this passage many dozens of times before, but the bold disregard for God acted out by Jehoiakim has never struck me fully. Can you imagine burning a letter sent to you from the Creator, sentence by sentence, in the presence of witnesses? Add to this his attitude during the process – Jeremiah 36:23, 24 says “Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe's knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes.”

While their act is stunning to a believing Christian, I can’t help but think that our own leaders are not far from this. I believe that God has protected this nation for the last 250 years, and has blessed it beyond measure precisely because we started as a God-fearing people. But as we move away from that gradually over the years, history shows that God will remove His blessing as well. When the United States Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade by a vote of seven-to-two in 1973, a piece of God’s blessing was removed. As same-sex-couple laws are entered into the books at the state level, God removes even more. We may already be past the tipping point, with no possible return short of a complete repeal of these laws. And in today’s political climate, that seems very unlikely.

How long does it take before God abandons our nation altogether? Looking at the example in Jeremiah, we see that God threatened them with captivity during the reign of Jehoiakim. The scroll-burning incident likely took place around 600 B.C., while the Babylonian siege began about eleven years later. A year-and-a-half after this, the siege was successful and the people of Judah were taken into captivity. So, in all, the time between God’s warning and the fall of Jerusalem was less than fifteen years. The act of Jehoiakim, who burned God’s words, demonstrates that he was not worried about the immediacy of God’s response. But he should have been, because Babylon began moving against the nation of Judah right away.

One more interesting thing to note is that God does not always award victory to the most God-fearing nation. The Babylonian empire did not follow Him, but they were allowed to take God’s people captive. This tells me that God could deliver our nation into the hands of another nation that is even less godly than ours. God repeatedly does this to His people in the Old Testament, with the purpose of leading them back to Him after a time of suffering. I can’t help but wonder if He is doing the same thing to us.

I don’t want my children to grow up in a world ruled by Communist China, or godless Russia. If our nation’s leaders continue to ignore God’s warnings and proceed on their path toward a politically correct but godless rule of law, then I fear that this reality may come to pass. It is for this reason that I am educating my son and daughters to be strong leaders who uphold God’s words first. If they ever have the chance to enter political office, I want them to be like King Josiah, who heard God’s words for the first time, tore his robes, and said "Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us" (2 Kings 22:13). Josiah pledged to obey God’s covenant and the Bible tell us in 2 Kings 23:25 that “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.” That is a legacy worth pursuing. I pray that our nation can rediscover it before it’s too late.