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?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Police-Community Relations

Back on August 5 I published a post concerning the Eric Garner case, the black man who died as a result of a choke hold put on him by a NYC police officer. In that post I talked about race relations. I’d like to expand upon what I said in that post in light of the troubles in Ferguson, Missouri. I believe the following suggestions are good ideas, but I don’t know how you implement them. That’s for somebody else to figure out.

Resisting Arrest

I believe that one of the main causes of police shootings is resisting arrest. In the course of the struggle that is involved when a person is resisting arrest, the suspect is often perceived by the cops as having a weapon (and often he does). I believe we could make significant progress in police-community relations if a person being stopped by a policeman cooperated, didn’t resist, and kept his hands visible at all times. These should be done even if you believe you are being unfairly stopped. Better to stay calm and cooperate than face the possibility of things turning violent.

If you cooperate and don’t mouth off to the police, they have no basis for mistreating you or harming you. But as soon as you resist, become hostile, or don’t keep your hands visible, then you run the risk of bodily harm and arrest.

Mutual Respect

If the police are treated with respect, they will respond with respect. If the person stopped cooperates and keeps his hands visible, the police will not feel it is necessary to use force. Eventually there will be an atmosphere of mutual respect. Community members may say that it is up to the police to show them respect first, and then they will be respected in turn. I would respond to that by saying respect has to start somewhere, and since the police are putting their lives on the line to keep neighborhoods safe, they should be shown respect immediately. Moreover, they should be respected by virtue of their position as police officers.

Needless to say, dangerous suspects will have to be handled differently because they will most likely resist arrest, are often armed, and pose a danger to police and the community.

Police Emotions

We have to remember that police officers are human like the rest of us, subject to emotions such as fear and anger. They see the worst of the worst every day, and it gets to them. They are putting their lives on the line in many neighborhoods where they patrol, often feeling they have a big target on their back. They are trying to protect and serve, yet are treated with distain by many of the people they are trying to keep safe. So of course emotions are going to come to the surface when a suspect resists arrest or insults them.

Change Community’s Attitudes

Most people living in the community want a police presence because the alternative is chaos and anarchy. The community, especially its leaders, must develop a better attitude towards the police. Parents should teach their children to respect authority, especially the police, and not to resist arrest or give the cops a hard time. If parents don’t teach respect for authority to their children and modify their own behavior, then these problems will just perpetuate for generations. The black community must also respect black policemen and not treat them as turncoats or Oreos.

Cameras

I believe police departments should invest in cameras which can be mounted on every police officer dealing with the public, and every police cruiser should have a dash cam as well. Having recordings of what happened protects all parties and allows the truth to come out.

Most Crimes by Black Males

In addition to the above suggestions for improving police-community relations, there is a more fundamental problem. The problem is that a significant percent of crimes are committed by young black males. Why is that? It is because many are drop-outs and don’t even have a high school diploma. They either can’t get a job or don’t want a job, and they have entirely too much time on their hands.

In addition, for some young black males their role model is the local drug pusher. He’s got the fancy car, the jewelry, and the pretty girlfriend. He’s the epitome of success in their eyes. On the other hand, you have those kids who have graduated from high school and went to college and now have a decent job. Sadly, they are often viewed as “too white” and are considered Oreos (black on the outside but white on the inside). These attitudes have to change.

Low Education Means Low Expectations

Along with changing the attitudes of young black males is the need to improve education for inner city kids. If a kid drops out of school, he then has very low expectations for himself and will be more likely to join a gang and lead a life of crime. So slow learners should be given help, learning must be made more relevant to life, and more scholarships should be made available for kids going to trade school. We’ve got to have more black males graduate from high school at a minimum, and preferably go on to a trade school or college.

Drugs

Substance abuse is a problem in all communities in the US. Law enforcement needs to be more effective in arresting pushers and interrupting the supply chain so these drugs become almost impossible to get. Cities should establish more community-based rehab centers and support faith-based and other charitable organizations working with inner city youth and adults to get them off drugs.

Crack Down on Criminals

If the law-abiding community members do what I suggest, then the police will be able to concentrate on getting the criminals off the streets. If the community helps the police to identify the bad guys, the community as a whole will benefit. The police can’t do it alone.

The criminal justice system must do its part to keep these career criminals and gang members off the streets for a long time. There are those in the neighborhood who have a long “rap sheet” who should be behind bars for a long time. In sentencing, judges should consider the person’s criminal history and sentence perpetrators to the maximum if he has a long “rap sheet.” Why keep putting these hard-core criminals back on the street where they commit more crimes?

Community members shouldn’t have to live in fear of a stray bullet hitting them, or being the victim of a crime. Their neighborhoods should be safe. But as I said above, the police can’t do it alone. The community must be committed to doing its part as outlined above.

Monday, August 11, 2014

An open letter to Vladimir Putin

Dear Mr. Putin:

What you have been doing in Ukraine moves Russia further away from The West, which will continue to view you as untrustworthy as long as you interfere in a sovereign nation. I know Russia hasn’t trusted The West for centuries, but whether you like it or not, Russia needs The West and The West needs Russia.

This is not the first time Russia has needed us. During the Great Patriotic War (known as World War II in The West), the Soviet Union needed us in order to push the Nazis out of your land. We sent thousands of trucks (made by Studebaker), some tanks, plus food and other supplies. Together we beat the Nazis.

Who or what is our mutual enemy now? Terrorism, of course. Russia has been hit by terrorist attacks. They even attacked a school full of innocent children in Russia. They have gotten into the heart of Moscow, just as they got into the heart of New York on 9/11.

Had we been divided during World War II, it would have taken a lot longer to defeat the Nazis. Working together, Russia and the West can more effectively battle terrorism and work for peaceful resolution of other conflicts around the world. If you stop your military activities in Ukraine, Russia can once again take its place among the leading nations of the world, and you can stand proud for what you will be doing to defeat terrorism. We can’t go back to the days when nations coveted the land and resources of other countries, resulting in terrible wars, death, and destruction.

Russia already has significant trade with The West. That trade can grow and Russia can prosper once the punitive actions are lifted. So I ask you to give up your military activities in Ukraine. We in The West desire your help and cooperation in the battle against terrorism, solving problems in the Middle East, and resolving issues in other areas. Working together there is much we can accomplish.

I know you take your Orthodox faith seriously, so I ask you to put into action the message of peace that Jesus brought to the world. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9, NRSV) We know that true peace will only come when Jesus returns. But in the meantime, we are called to be peacemakers and to make the world a better place, to God’s glory.

Sincerely,
The Rev. Tony Beck

Friday, August 8, 2014

US Involvement in Iraq

Saddam Hussein was a terrible man, but he was not much of a threat to the US. As a matter of fact, he was a good counter-balance to Iran, both countries keeping each other in check. President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was ill-advised and we will be paying the penalty for that fiasco for a long time.

One thing is for sure: the current invaders of Iraq wouldn’t have gotten very far if Saddam had stayed in power. Sadly, the Iraqi army has not done much to defend the homeland, so these fanatical islamists called ISIS have taken over a good part of the country. Because of what we did to Iraq by our invasion, I believe we owe it to the people of Iraq – and for our own self-interest – to do all we can do to stop and turn back ISIS, short of “boots on the ground.” I include in our actions a vigorous air campaign against ISIS, aggressive intelligence gathering to help the Iraqi army, sending advisors to guide and train the Iraqis, and some black ops against ISIS targets. Once we leave Afghanistan, I believe we should support their government by doing those same things. If we don’t, the Taliban will be back in power before you know it.

If we don’t stop ISIS and push them out of Iraq, they will be able to establish a base of operations in that country, get oil revenue to fund terrorism around the world, disrupt the flow of oil to punish or blackmail the West, and spread their brand of Islam to other countries. They are in the process of establishing a caliphate whereby non-Muslims are forced to either convert or face death.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan were terribly mishandled by the Bush administration. We spend trillions of dollars and lost thousands of American lives, only to make the situation worse and accomplish very little. George W. Bush will go down in history as one of our worst presidents, if not the worst. We should now try to salvage what we can from this mess for our own protection, and for the good of the inhabitants of those countries.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Our Border Dilemma – Part 2

This is the second of a two part series of posts having to do with immigration, especially illegal entries into the US.

So what can we do to stop people, including children, from entering the US illegally, given that we can’t take everybody who wants to live in the US? I don’t know what the answer is, but maybe we should look at some of the root causes of our border problems.

A major cause of the violence in Mexico, Columbia, and Central America is the drug trade. What feeds that trade is demand in the US. Illegal drugs account for much of the violence in the US as well, plus a majority of crimes as addicts steal to pay for their habit. If the US could reduce the demand for these drugs, many problems would be diminished, both in the US and countries south of the border.

As we found out during Prohibition in the 1920s, making something illegal doesn’t necessarily decrease demand. Entrepreneurial criminals will find a way to meet that demand. Even the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws in New York State failed to stem the tide of illegal drugs. There’s just too much money to be made. Yet the social costs of drug trade and use are staggering. Moreover, these substances are highly addictive, so once somebody starts using, they’re hooked. What can we do?

The US must take definitive action to reduce demand and interrupt the supply chain of illegal drugs. Below are a few suggestions:

-Work with the authorities in these countries (including the major heroin producer Afghanistan) to reduce the supply of drugs and the raw materials to make them. This could be done by giving farmers incentives to grow more beneficial crops, defoliate fields still growing the bad stuff, and implement better ways to disrupt the supply of drugs into the US.

-Improve economic conditions in Central America and Colombia, giving some amount of aid (both money and expertise) to disrupt the drug trade, get drug lords in prison, and build up the economy in each country to improve the standard of living.

-To discourage illegals from entering for economic purposes, and we have to crack down on employers who hire illegals. This is easier said than done, but there might be a better way. That better way is to implement a “guest worker” program similar to what Western Europe had in the 1960s and 1970s. It seemed to work well for them, so I would hope we could do something similar.

Keep in mind that our leaders are expected to do what’s best for our country, so the good of the US must always come first when setting policy. Being a compassionate people, Americans try to help others as well. We can only help up to a point, because our resources are finite and our ability to help others is limited by many different factors.

Let’s hope our leaders can come up with some balanced and humane solutions to these problems, both for the sake of the US and for the sake of the immigrants. I can’t imagine what it’s like living under the constant threat of deportation. I also can’t imagine what it’s like living under the constant threat of violence in some of these countries. Something must be done to make life better for these people south of the border, while securing our borders.