Poor Talk…

poorPoor Talk; a very important issue for us to consider because of the present economic condition of our country and of the world. Many of you are unemployed or working ‘below your skill level,” and many of you have just graduated and are facing a job market that is less than friendly. Others are retired or facing retirement with shrinking resources and facing the prospect of getting a part-time job or of working longer before you can think of retirement. It is a perfect storm for Poor Talk; blaming those Greeks, Spaniards, and Italians for not getting their economic act together and bringing down the value of my Facebook stock; angry at those in the futures market who artificially drive up oil prices to fill their pockets while I struggle to fill my gas tank every week; disgust with the 1% who are so filthy rich while we in the Middle Class are sacrificing our slice of the American Dream.

Some very significant research was done by Psychologists Thomas Ludwig and David Myers during the economic crisis of the late 1970’s when Jimmy Carter was president. Some of you may remember the Iran Hostage issue and the oil crisis with long gas lines and the distribution of gas based upon odd or even license plate numbers. The research was written up in a magazine called the Saturday Review and the article was called Poor Talk. It presented several principles that helped to explain the emotions that accompany economic fluctuations as well as why we are rarely content with what we have, even in good times.

The first principle is the adaptation-level phenomenon. “The basic point is that success and failure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are relative to our prior experience. We use our past to calibrate our present experience and to form expectations for the future.”

I remember experiencing this when I was a paper boy. This was back when newspapers were .25 and I was earning a grand total of $4 or $5 a week. To me that was huge- I felt wealthy. Then Christmas came, the Nirvana of very paper boy or girl, and I started getting tips. I remember that my income shot up to about $15 for a few weeks and I re-calibrated my expectations; it became the new normal. Then after Christmas, when I went back to making 4-5 stinking bucks a week, I wanted to quit.

The second insight from this psychological research is the relative-deprivation principle. “Whereas the adaptation-level phenomenon is rooted in changes in our own experience across time, the relative—deprivation principle is based primarily on comparison with other people.” And we usually compare ourselves with those who are better off than we are to the extent that we can actually feel poor if we do not have what they have. Plato was right when he said, “Poverty consists not in the decrease of one’s possessions, but in the increase of one’s greed.” Ouch!

A third principle is one of the self-orientation mentality; “the fact that it is a very real human tendency to view oneself as better and more deserving than others.” One of the dangers that those in Christian ministry fall into is not only comparing what we make with those in the secular world, but also feeling that we deserve more than the average person because of the sacrifices we make for the Lord. We feel deprived not on the basis of what we have but on the basis of comparison with what others have. And do you know what? Once again, we usually compare ourselves with those who are doing better than we are and not the other way around. You can see how this can blind us to the very real need of the real poor.

Next week…what we can do to overcome Poor Talk?

The Heart-shaped Tongue

heart shaped tongueI have been following the situation surrounding the contentious decision by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to rescind a job offer to a tenure-track scholar. Dr. Steven Salaita had resigned his job at a university in Virginia and was waiting his final approval by the Board of Trustees at U of I. Chancellor Phyllis Wise pulled the job offer after learning of Mr. Salaita vitriolic tweets about Israel. For many, this is a free speech issue and apparently a lawsuit is pending.

It is unfortunate that Salaita had already quit his job and had begun to move his family from Virginia. However, his appointment was not yet confirmed by the Trustees, and therefore, he had not yet been officially hired. Thus the issue was a hire not a fire. I also question whether the issue was one of free speech. Salaita had the freedom to say (tweet) whatever he wanted without prosecution. However, our culture needs to learn that free speech is never speech without consequences.

Could Salaita’s comments be considered hate speech as some have indicated? Hate speech is that which incites violence against a protected racial, ethnic, religious, gender minority. I don’t believe that was his intent even though it was passionate speech filled with animus.

I have been reading through the biblical book of Proverbs, which has a lot to say about speech. This morning I read: “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feed on folly”; “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked points out evil things” (15:14, 28). The Bible points out the direct relationship between the mouth and the heart. Jesus said that “a good man brings good things of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45).  Also James indicates in his chapter 3 that the use of the tongue reflects our very nature.

I am not sitting in judgment of Mr. Salaita and will defend his right to free speech. But my take-away from this situation is to ask why would an institution want to hire a person whose vitriolic mouth may just be manifesting something deeper? We do not often know ahead of time the nature of an employee’s character, which is usually revealed on the job. However, when you get a sneak preview like this, why would you take a risk and offer them a job? You will not be doing the rest of your staff or your students any favors.

A New Baby Girl!

photo(1)My baby girl, Joy, just had a baby girl, Davy Joy. Davy was born this morning around 6 am and I am exhausted. Just kidding. I was home sleeping, but Gloria was in the delivery room. My congratulations to Joy and Seth (and to the grandparents Rumsey) on this life-changing event. Our lives will never be the same.

There is a fresh sense of excitement when each of your grandchildren are born (this is number six for us). There is also a growing sense of responsibility about being a grandparent. This responsibility goes beyond annoying your kids by spoiling theirs and setting up a 529 savings plan for the grand-kids college. Our greatest responsibility is to remind and embody God’s love and faithfulness; that it goes beyond their parents and has come down to them from generations before.

The Psalms are filled with what could be called a job description for grandparents:

“He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God…” (Psalm 78:7).

“But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (Psalm 79:13).

“So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, and your power to all those to come” (Psalm 71:18).

“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4).

Praying for our grandchildren is essential, but the Psalmist also implores us to teach, to recount God’s praise, to proclaim His power, and to proclaim His mighty acts to them. We can do this in stories from the Bible and in stories about God’s faithfulness in our lives. We grandparents can add depth and authenticity to the voice of mom and dad because we’ve just been around longer and we don’t really care about being cool.

We are there to make sure that in the busy-ness of life with all of its distractions, no one in the tribe forgets God. We form the bridge that connects what mom and dad are saying about God to what the generations before have said. We can also be an encouragement to our children in prayer and by reminding them that the baton will soon be passed to them as the next generation of ancients “who set their hope in God.”

Rise up, O grandparents! There is no retirement from the responsibility of making a difference in the generations to come, for the glory of God.

A Kiss Changes Everything…

Grand Inquisitor“The Grand Inquisitor” is a chapter in the book The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It is a story or poem made up by Ivan Karamazov to explain his unbelief in God to his younger brother Alyosha who is a monk. The basic plot is simple: Jesus returns to earth, in sixteenth-century Seville during the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus is on the streets ministering to the poor and needy, and healing the sick. An old cardinal known as the Grand Inquisitor orders his guards to seize the Savior, intent on having him burnt the next day in the public square as “the vilest of heretics.”

The old man visits Jesus’ prison cell to accuse him of placing the intolerable burden of absolute freedom on poor, feeble, depraved humanity. It is better to offer people what they want most—the bread of the earth—rather than what they need most, bread from heaven. The terrible truth is that human beings cannot bear the burden of freedom. “There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience,” the Inquisitor explains to Jesus, “but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength.” Thus it is the nature of humanity to surrender liberty to gain security. (Wow, lots of implications here!)

Thus the Inquisitor suggests that it is the Church with its “mystery, miracle, and authority” which can do this best. “Better that you enslave us, but feed us,” is the people’s cry. The Grand Inquisitor understands, as he is sure God does not, just how weak and wretched human beings are and wants to protect them. When the old man finishes his diatribe, Jesus says nothing but leans forward and kisses the old man on the lips. The kiss changes everything. The Inquisitor releases Jesus demanding he never return.

As Ivan finishes his story, he worries that Alyosha will be disturbed by the idea that if there is no God, there are no moral limitations on man’s behavior. But Alyosha leans forward and kisses Ivan on the lips. Ivan, moved, replies that Alyosha has stolen that action from his poem. Ivan and Alyosha leave the restaurant and go their separate ways.

The kiss changes everything. As Terry Eagleton has written in Lamphams Quarterly, “Recalling Zosima’s bow before Dmitri at the monastery in Book 1, the kiss represents an overriding act of love and forgiveness so innate that it can only be expressed wordlessly. On its deepest level, it defies explanation. The power of faith and love, Dostoevsky implies, is rooted in mystery—not simply in the empty and easily digestible idea that God’s will is too complex for people to understand, but in a resonant, active, unanswerable profundity. The kiss cannot overcome a logical argument, but at the same time there is no logical argument that can overcome the kiss. It represents the triumph of love and faith, on their own terms, over rational skepticism. In having Ivan end his poem on a note of such deep and moving ambiguity, Dostoevsky has his major opponent of religion acknowledge the power of faith, just as Dostoevsky himself, a proponent of faith, has used Ivan to acknowledge the power of doubt. Alyosha’s kiss for Ivan indicates how well the young Alyosha understands the problems of faith and doubt in a world characterized by free will, and just how committed his own will is to the positive goodness of faith.”

For Russians, as for many Eastern Europeans, kissing on the lips (same sex) is more significant than shaking hands. It indicates deep friendship and love. (I remember when a young Russian pastor, whom I was visiting outside of Moscow, kissed me on the lips and my contact lenses nearly popped out.) We are called to give a reason for the hope that is in us, but many people will remain unconvinced by our rational arguments. However, to show the love of Christ is our greatest apologetic in this angry world of confrontation and brokenness. May God be with us as we pass the kiss of Christ on to others today.