Friday, December 26, 2014

Significance of Christmas

We just celebrated Christmas, and for many it is a secular holiday. To them it is about family, shopping, good cheer, Santa Claus, and all that warm and fuzzy stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for those of us who are Christians, the day has a much deeper meaning that often gets lost in the busyness of the season. In addition, political correctness – that harsh taskmaster of linguistic control – dictates that we wish people the insipid “happy holidays” lest we offend someone. Since many non-Christians celebrate some form of Christmas, I don’t think too many people – except for die-hard bigots – would be offended by our good wishes.

I invite you to consider the deeper meaning of Christmas alluded to above. That deeper meaning is summarized in Philippians 2:5-8
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal's death on a cross. (Holy Bible, New Living Translation ®, copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.)

Read the above passage several times to get the full meaning. Just think of it: Jesus left heaven and came to earth in the form of a man to ultimately suffer and die on our behalf. That’s because of God’s love for us.

We read in John 1:14-15:
And the Word [referring to Jesus] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. NRSV

Why did Jesus “become flesh and dwell among us?” There are at least two reasons, the first one being by far the most important as we read in that well-known passage John 3:16-17:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. NRSV

The second reason is spelled out in Hebrews 4:15:
For we do not have a high priest [referring to Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. NIV

There’s a lot more to Christmas than this brief overview provides, but I invite Christians to keep in mind what God did for us in sending Jesus into the world. What did God accomplish? As the Charles Wesley hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” tells us:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

A separation from God exists because of mankind’s sinfulness. Christ’s death on the cross wiped away the stain of sin and reconciled us to God. Those who accept what Jesus did on the cross are back in right relationship with God. We can’t earn our way into that relationship, as we read in Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith [in Jesus and what he did], and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. NRSV

I wish you a blessed (if late) Christmas and all God’s best for you in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Violent Protests against Violence

It’s ironic that those protesting against violence (by police) end up doing violence themselves: looting, burning, hitting cops, setting police cars on fire, etc. You lose credibility when you protest for justice and then commit crimes yourself. I remember back in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago how things turned violent very quickly. Things haven’t improved much since then when you consider Ferguson, NYC, and other cities where violent demonstrations have taken place.

It’s sad that out of this anti-police demonstrating a deranged person killed two NYC police officers execution-style while they sat in their car. Weak minded people hear this rhetoric and then go out and punch or shoot a cop. I think the time for demonstrating is over, and now it’s time to heal. Enough is enough.

Yes, our system of justice is not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got and it’s still better than what many countries have. Rioting in the street won’t improve it. Killing cops won’t improve it. But there are some things that can and should be done to improve the safety and quality of life for the general population.

There is one serious flaw in our justice and health systems that really has to change for the good and safety of the people. Did you notice that the guy who killed the two NYC cops had been arrested 19 times and had a history of mental illness? I believe anybody who is arrested so many times becomes more and more of a threat to society as time goes on, and should be locked up for good because he is up to no good. He is a serious crime just waiting to happen. Similarly, people with a serious mental illness that pose a threat to society should be put in institutions where they can get some level of care and will be off the streets. Right now you have mentally ill people roaming the streets, living in cardboard boxes, committing various crimes, and putting people and themselves at risk.

Don’t Americans deserve to be protected from those who are a danger to them? Some say those with mental illnesses also have rights, yet don’t you and I have a reasonable expectation of safety when standing on a subway platform or walking down a street? In a civilized society, dangerous mentally ill people should not be out there posing a threat to themselves and others. They should be cared for and kept off the streets.

One more thing. More gun control isn’t the answer. Yes, we need to tighten gun control by closing loopholes, but the real problem is that gun owners don’t always secure their weapons. Many teens who have shot up schools (such as in Newtown and Columbine) got a parent’s unsecured gun and ammunition. Also, it isn’t just guns that kill, but knives, clubs and other weapons.

The problem of violence in this country goes much deeper than gun control. Sociopaths, the mentally ill, and others who may pose a danger need to be identified and treated before they commit acts of violence. We can’t go on having our schools shot up, malls and stores attacked, and gang violence resulting in innocent bystanders being shot and killed.

If the protesters want a cause, they should demonstrate against gang violence, which often catches innocent people in the cross-fire. Gangs kill a lot more blacks than cops. Children are hit by stray bullets while watching TV in their living room. Something’s wrong with a society that can’t keep its kids safe.

We have enough enemies and dangers from without (terrorism); we don’t need threats from within.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

We Were Warned about Cyber Attacks

The United States (as well as the rest of the world) has been warned by experts for years of our vulnerability to cyber-attacks. As usual, little was done by companies or the government to protect against inevitable attacks. As a result, sophisticated hackers from North Korea, China, Russia and other countries, groups, and individuals are wreaking havoc with Western computer systems. Personal, corporate, and government data have been compromised. Now we’re forced to play catch-up to defend ourselves against these sophisticated hackers whose goal is to cause damage and embarrassment to its victims.

My fear is that hackers/terrorists will be able to take control of all kinds of systems that would bring us to our knees. Think of what it would mean if hackers got control of:
-our air control system;
-various military systems;
-electrical generating plants (especially nuclear ones);
-credit card and other retail systems;
-financial systems;
-aircraft while in flight;
-other transportation and infrastructure systems.

I believe that someone hacked the Malaysia Airlines flight that was lost over the Indian Ocean. It may have been a test run for bigger hacks to come. Scary thought, isn’t it?

We see in all this the evil, the stupidity, and the greed of humans.

We see the evil in that these hackers/terrorists want to bring down companies and countries, wanting millions of people to suffer and possibly die. For what purpose?

We see the stupidity of humans in that they don’t heed warnings and do the right thing. They don’t plan ahead, knowing the risks they face in this dangerous world but ignoring the warnings.

We see the greed in that companies are more interested in profits than in protecting themselves, their employees, and their customers from harm. Look at the hacks of stores such as Target and Home Depot. They have the money to build better defenses but would rather put their customers’ personal data as risk than spend the money and show lower profits.

It’s always been a dangerous world, full of pitfalls, perils, and evildoers. The threats change as society and technology changes, but we’ll always be at risk in some form or another. Let us pray that our governments and our companies will do the right thing and invest the money to build better protections.

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.