Sunday, December 21, 2014

Give Thanks in All Circumstances – Part 2

When we retired in the middle of 2013, we decided to downsize and live in an apartment if we could find a suitable one. We were fortunate to find a beautiful apartment in the Rivercrest complex off Brockway Blvd., near Dutchess Stadium. It was relatively new construction, spacious enough for the two of us, had a fireplace, loft, central air, a one-car garage, and a river view. It was ideal for us, and we planned to live there for the foreseeable future.

Things don’t always turn out as planned. The Jehovah’s Witnesses bought the entire apartment complex in November or December 2014, presumably to house their own people. No leases are being renewed and no new leases are being signed. So we have to vacate by no later than April 30, when our lease is up. That means we are back to looking for either an apartment rental or possibly a condo purchase.

What’s annoying about this, aside from the disruption and inconvenience, is the fact that there has been minimal communication from the new owner, ROSM Housing Management (owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses). There are residents who don’t realize their leases aren’t going to be renewed. I just told one of our neighbors and she was shocked – didn’t have a clue. The new owner will give 60 days notice, but that isn’t enough time for some people. This has been handled very poorly.

In addition, there’s been nothing about this in the local media that I’ve seen. This is news that should have been covered.

Once we realized what was going on, we immediately started looking for a new apartment or townhouse. In the midst of all this, I happened to be speaking with a friend and mentioned our housing situation. He suggested my wife and I come over take a look at his townhouse and the development to see what we think. So we went over to his development (still under construction). We were favorably impressed by his unit, and he suggested we talk with the sales office to see what might be available in our timeframe. As it turned out there is a unit becoming available that we really like. So we are going to buy it.

We thank God for keeping us calm during this stressful time, and for directing us to this new house. Trusting that God has a plan for us gives us peace and comfort. Since change is inevitable and often unexpected, “In God We Trust” should be our motto. May God bless you and guide in whatever circumstances you are finding yourself in.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

It seems that every time I watch the news, there are wars, atrocities, terrorism, kidnappings, natural disasters, diseases (such as ebola), violent crimes, riots, and other forms of mayhem. The earthquake, drought, wildfires, and flooding in California in 2014 are reminders of how vulnerable we are to natural disasters. Why do these bad things happen?

The earth is fallen, meaning it is imperfect as a result of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Likewise, humans are fallen, meaning we have a strong propensity to do wrong. Examples of such evil-doing are:
-ISIS fanatics invading Iraq and killing many innocent people;
-Putin’s land grab from Ukraine;
-Hamas targeting Israeli civilians with ongoing rocket attacks, and using Palestinian civilians as human shields;
-Syria’s Assad’s lack of caring about his own people;
-The repressive North Korean regime.

ISIS is barbaric and should be destroyed, but such barbarism is can be seen throughout history. One would hope we have moved on to a more civilized existence, yet we see terrible acts still occurring. In addition to the list above, just in the 20th Century we’ve seen huge numbers of people killed by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mao Zedong, and other dictators. So much for evolution of humanity to ever higher levels.

Sadly, groups have raided or invaded land belonging to other groups on a regular basis as long as humans have been on the earth. Look at the history of Russia. Hoards from the East (Mongols, Tatars, Alans, and other groups) regularly invaded peaceful peasants in what is now Russia and Ukraine. European nations have been either fighting each other or battling outside invaders (such as Huns and Ottomans) for many centuries. It seems that the natural state of humankind is war.

I think history clearly demonstrates the sinful nature of humanity. Those who say humans are intrinsically good and became evil due to a corrupt society are wrong. Humanity has a hereditary flaw: the strong propensity to sin. In Calvinist theology that propensity to sin is called “The Total Depravity of Man.” This “depravity” resulted from The Fall and is passed down from generation to generation. We are saved from that “depravity” only by the grace of God.

What our job should be is to do whatever we can to make the earth a better place in which to live. We can’t prevent these bad things from happening, but we should be helping victims of natural disasters, caring for the needy, and being peacemakers within our own sphere of influence. Don’t give in to temptation but do good rather than evil. Live according to biblical principles.

Until Christ comes again in glory, the hope Christians have is a new earth in the End Times in which evil will no longer have a place for 1,000 years. Now that’s something to look forward to!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

No Accountability for Colleges

With a grandson going to college, I became acquainted with the high cost of higher education. I knew tuition, room, and board were expensive, but I never saw it up close and personal. With the cost of an education at a private university in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year, the student and his or her parents must enter the world of student loans and other types of financial aid. I can’t imagine somebody coming out of college with over $100,000 in debt, but a lot do. I don’t know how they do it!

What annoys me about this whole thing is that the cost of college has gone up much faster than the CPI, a common measure of inflation. I don’t know why the cost has risen 1,120% over the past 30 years, but I think a lot is due to the fact that there’s no accountability. Colleges have a guaranteed customer base (students) because most high school graduates know they need either a college degree or technical training to get a decent job and live the American dream. So colleges can charge what they want – and they do.

I don’t know all the reasons for these obscene increases, but I would recommend that colleges do some serious cost-cutting to bring down the cost to the student. To continue to burden their graduates with such a load of debt just isn’t right, especially since salaries haven’t increased very much in the past 10 years.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Justice for All?

Recently two grand juries in different parts of the country decided not to indict police officers who killed young black men. The first grand jury was concerned with the killing in Ferguson, Missouri, and the second involved the “choke-hold” killing on Staten Island in New York City. Several points:

First, we have a system of justice that isn’t perfect but works reasonably well. We have to accept whatever verdicts or decisions come out of that system, even if we disagree. We can’t take the law into our own hands.

Second, even if a grand jury determines no crime was committed, the officers involved could still face police department discipline (including loss of job) or civil lawsuits. No matter what happens, their lives are changed forever for the worse.

Third, we have to understand how some killings can occur. In some neighborhoods, police are at nearly constant risk of being confronted, injured or killed. Blacks who complain about the police should realize the risks police are taking to protect their neighborhoods.

Fourth, in the case of Michael Brown, he was not quite the good kid the press and protestors make him out to be. He and a buddy had robbed a convenience store earlier, and he may have been high on marijuana. He was walking down the middle of the street when officer Wilson told him to get off the street. Apparently Brown went after officer Wilson and tried to get his gun. Wilson feared for his life because he was struggling with a 280 pound aggressive man. I believe the grand jury concluded that officer Wilson fired in self-defense, which most likely was the right call. Sadly, Brown was killed, not because he was black, but because he struggled with a cop for his gun.

Fifth, physical size may have been a factor with Eric Garner. The cops surrounding Garner may have been intimidated and over-reacted. Officer Pantaleo put him in a choke hold. Almost immediately there were three or four cops all over Garner, pinning him to the ground and trying to handcuff him. Nobody paid attention to Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe!”

Sixth, I believe officer Pantaleo and the other cops involved were out of line. Garner may have been involved in a petty crime, selling loose cigarettes, and he appeared in the video to be arguing with the cops, claiming he wasn’t doing anything wrong. The reaction of those police officers was excessive given the pettiness of the crime, if there was even a crime to begin with. With all of the crime in New York City, it was ridiculous for these cops to even bother with Garner. Go after the rapists, muggers, gang-bangers, and other criminals.

Seventh, as I mentioned above, there are other remedies available to punish Pantaleo since he can’t be tried in criminal court, and I believe they should be pursued. He used a choke hold against departmental policy and definitely used excessive force. I don’t believe these actions were motivated by race, but rather by over-zealous cops trying to stop a petty crime. Garner’s arguing with them didn’t help, but I also believe his arguing didn’t constitute resisting arrest. The actions of Pantaleo and the other cops on the scene were abuse of power, poor judgment, and bullying more than anything else. Unfortunately these resulted in the death of Garner. For that Pantaleo (and perhaps the other cops involved) should be removed from the force at a minimum.

Moral of the story:

*Whether you’re white or black, don’t do a crime, and you shouldn’t have much to worry about (no guarantees but your odds of having a run-in with the police are diminished);

*Don’t resist arrest, mouth off at the cops, or give them a hard time if confronted (let the justice system do its job to free you if you are innocent);

*Whatever you do, don’t physically struggle with the police (they’ve got the tasers, guns, and skills to restrain you);

*Lastly, how you present yourself affects people’s perception of you, so dress for success.

What do I mean by this? Let me give an example: Let’s say I’m walking down the street of a city and I see three clean-cut teen-age black guys wearing nice clothes approaching me. What’s my reaction? I continue walking, because they are well-dressed and look like good kids so I don’t feel at risk. Now let’s say I’m walking down the street of a city and I see three scruffy teen-age white guys in shabby clothes wearing low-riding pants approaching me. What’s my reaction? I’m nervous because they don’t look like all-American boys but hoodlums. I duck into the nearest store until they pass.

In my example, racism isn’t a factor, but appearance and perception are. Now let’s say those scruffy white guys are carrying Bibles. What happens now? My perception changes, and I assume they are coming from a Bible study. I am now much more comfortable being on the same sidewalk with them.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

Thanksgiving is when we pause to think about our many blessings and thank God for them. We shouldn’t just thank God when everything is going well, but we are to be thankful all the time, as we read in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. NIV

“In all circumstances” can be difficult – we occasionally find ourselves in some circumstances where we might not feel particularly thankful.

My wife and I had the opportunity to put that principle into practice recently. In October we went on a cruise in the Mediterranean. The cruise originated in Lisbon, Portugal, so we flew there from New York.

1. The Bad News

After arriving in Lisbon, we had some free time, so we did a little sight-seeing on our own, walking around a section of the city near our hotel. As we were walking down a cobblestone street I routinely felt for my wallet as I have the habit of doing. This time it wasn’t there! My wallet was gone! I immediately knew what had happened, because many European cities are loaded with pickpockets. What a sinking feeling, knowing you’ve been robbed, and all the contents of your wallet are gone:
money, medical cards
driver’s license, medical information,
credit cards, bank card (for ATM).

Moreover we were in foreign city where we didn’t know the language, feeling very vulnerable as well as violated. Thoughts of identity theft crossed my mind, since my driver’s license and Medicare card were in the wallet. Plus we didn’t know whether the thief was busy buying all kinds of stuff with our credit cards. But in the midst of this God sent us some angels. Right down the street from where we were standing was an open-air café. We walked over and went up to the guy who runs it and I said to him: “Policia. I need the policia!”

2. God-Sent Help

Fortunately the café owner spoke some English, and asked me what happened. A woman working in a shop across the street came out to see what all the commotion was about, and the café owner told her to call the police. When the policia got there, they said we had to go to the special tourist police station and file a report. When we got there, we saw a line of people. After speaking with them, we realized we weren’t the only victims of these thieves.

So while waiting at the police station I called our credit card companies and canceled the cards that were in my wallet. Thankfully there had been no activity on any of our cards, which led me to believe they took the cash and tossed the wallet in a nearby garbage can. We spent over an hour in the police station with the other victims of pick-pockets, sharing our stories as we waited. The policeman was very understanding and didn’t treat us like a number. When we were finished at the police station we were given a copy of the police report (in Portuguese) and went back to the hotel.

3. The Good News

After being robbed in a strange city, you may ask if there was anything for us to be thankful for. Amazingly, there were quite a few things we could be thankful for, despite the robbery and the trauma associated with it.

*We could be thankful for our safety: we weren’t physically hurt.

*We could be thankful they didn’t get as much money as they might have because we split the cash between us, plus kept some cash in our suitcase.

*We could be thankful we split our credit cards between us so that we still had Sue’s cards available to use. Because I had the credit card companies’ telephone numbers on a piece of paper that I keep in a different pocket, I could immediately call and cancel the cards that were stolen.

*We could be thankful they didn’t get our passports, which would have been a nightmare to get replaced.

*We could be thankful this didn’t ruin our vacation.

*We could be thankful God sent us the café owner and shop-keeper who were helpful and sympathetic, angels in disguise.

*We could be thankful God sent the people in line at the police station to comfort us and one another, and trade stories. One of the people in line was a guy from Australia, but originally from Sri Lanka. He put these thefts into an interesting perspective by saying, “Well, at least someone has something to eat tonight.” For the money they took from all of us, they could have a mighty fine meal!

*Lastly, we could be thankful that God kept us amazingly calm so we could carry on and not become immobilized by anger, resentment, or self-pity. If this had happened when my wife was younger, she would have been crying and very upset. If this had happened in my younger days, I would have been angry, full of self-pity, with a good deal of ranting and raving. Instead both of us were surprisingly calm – only God could do that. I should mention that even though we didn’t immediately say a prayer, our faith in God kept us calm and confident that everything would be all right. But the story doesn’t end there – God had a pleasant surprise in store for us.

4. The Canadians to the Rescue

The next day I got a text message from a Canadian couple telling me they had found the contents of my wallet and were going to mail them to us when they got home. The thief had taken the cash, of course, and the wallet itself, but had neatly placed the contents in that gutter. It’s almost as if the thief wanted the contents to be found and returned.

5. The Urge to Check It Out

When we got home we spoke with the Canadian woman, who told us that she and her husband were walking along a cobblestone street the next day. She was keeping her eyes to the ground so she wouldn’t trip and fall on the uneven surface. As they were walking, she happened to spot something suspicious-looking under a parked car, and she felt a strong urge to check it out. Something told her this was important, so she stopped, got down, and retrieved my wallet’s contents from under the car. Because it had lightly rained, the contents were stuck together, so as far as I can tell, nothing blew away or was washed away. God’s grace, us taking precautions, and a kind Canadian woman who listened to the Spirit’s urging prevented this from ruining our vacation.

6. Another Test of Faith

Our faith was further tested when the envelope from the Canadians wasn’t in our accumulated mail when we returned home. I spoke with the woman and she said it would be mailed in a few days. Ultimately it took two weeks to reach us – all that time we were anxiously wondering what happened – but we kept calm and carried on, trusting God.

7. Lessons from this Experience

So what did we learn from this experience?

*First we learned that we should put our wallets and valuables in a very safe place when we travel, like maybe a money belt.

*We learned it pays to be prepared and equipped to handle possible problems– you never know.

*We learned that God may allow bad things to happen, but also sends help to us in times of distress. Before we even knew it, God was at work in this situation in a number of ways.

*We learned it is better for all concerned to keep calm, which means don’t panic, lose your temper, or go to pieces. The policeman told us some tourists rant and rave at the police when they’ve been robbed, making the situation worse.

*We learned that we must carry on: there are things that need to be done – we must focus on those and not waste time and energy in self-pity or anger.

*Another thing we learned is that God can change a person over time. In particular God has changed me over the years, so that my reaction to a bad thing happening is quite different from what it used to be. I now realize that there’s nothing to be gained by getting angry. God also changed my wife as I mentioned earlier, so she remained calm, didn’t cry or panic as she might have done years earlier.

So when things aren’t going your way, try to keep in mind that God is with you and will help you get through whatever your affliction is.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Religion vs. Relationship Part 2

Continuing from an earlier post, I’d like to provide some additional insight into the “Religion vs. Relationship” aspect of faith. In my earlier post I focused on Christianity and how it is more relationship than religion. We see this aspect of a relationship with God through Jesus in many places in the New Testament. However, the concept of a relationship with God did not originate with Christianity.

We see it in biblical Judaism out of which Christianity came. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) we also see a relationship between the nation of Israel and God as illustrated by the following two verses.

Deuteronomy 9:29
“For they are the people of your very own possession, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.” NRSV

Ezekiel 36:28
“Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” NRSV

So the relationship between God and the people he chose for his own (the nation of Israel) is clearly evident. God gave the Israelites rules, practices, and observances as reminders of that relationship. The religious practices served other functions as well:
-reminders of God’s deliverance of his people,
-acts of worship, and
-ways of atoning for their sins.

Of course Christianity has its own observances such as Holy Communion, Baptism, and corporate worship. But in Christianity the emphasis is on salvation by grace through faith, and the individual’s relationship with God. Religious practices and observances are secondary, being outward signs of inward convictions as well as means of grace.

If you have the right relationship with God, then at least two things should happen. First, you will become a transformed person, wanting to be in God’s will. Second, your relationships with other people will be significantly better.

I hope this has helped you to understand how relationship is the heart of Christianity.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Religion vs. Relationship Part 1

What makes Christianity different from other faiths and belief systems? Quite a few things, but one major difference is that Christianity is more than just a religion. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

When you hear the word “religion”, what do you think of? Most people think of a list of do’s and don’ts. Some might think of rules, rituals, dogmas, or good works. Most likely, you’re not going to connect the word “religion” with the word “relationship.” Yet true Christian faith is not “religion.” Instead the Christian faith is first and foremost a relationship with God. Everything else should be secondary to that relationship.

Yes, Christianity has moral codes, liturgies, promotes good works, and has a belief system, all based on the Bible. But all of those flow out of the relationship we have with God. Unfortunately some churches put moral codes, liturgies, traditions, and practices ahead of the relationship, erroneously believing that the only way to God is through these acts. Our main priority in life should be building up that relationship with God through regular worship, Bible study, daily prayer, and service.

Because many of us were brought up in a “religion” we had never been told about the “relationship” aspect of our faith. Sadly many believe that good deeds or being “a good person” will get us into heaven. Wrong! You don’t earn your way to heaven through works or religious practices. The Bible is very clear about that. Of course out of that relationship with God should come better behavior, meaning you will live your life according to biblical principles.

How do we illustrate religion versus relationship for the Christian? “Relationship” is Jesus, reaching down to us with his nail-scarred hands, saying to us: “Look what I have done for you.” “Religion” is us, holding up our pitiful works, saying to Jesus: “Look what I’m doing for you.”

Which would you rather have: religion or relationship?