Old Feelings from Newtown

On Newtown Memorialthe morning of Friday, December 14th, I dropped off my 6 year-old daughter at her kindergarten class for the day. Just a little over an hour later, my perception of elementary schools as safe havens would irreparably violated. The tragedy at Newtown cuts deeper and lingers longer than other stories of shootings because of the age of the victims. The idea of terrorizing 6 and 7 year olds is seemingly inconceivable and unforgivable.

On Monday, Fort Lee residents and clergy gathered for a candlelight vigil in Monument Park (video). The passage I shared that night was from Habakkuk 1 and 3.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

~ Habakkuk 1:2-3

The prophet Habakkuk found himself amidst a society that had increasingly become rampant with violence and injustice. He called out to the Lord for salvation but felt that his cries went unanswered. Many hearts of the people in this nation today must be echoing the cry of Habakkuk.

Where are you, God? Why is there so much evil around us?

We have been here before: Columbine, VA Tech, Ft. Hood, Aurora.

And those are only the ones we remember. Even fewer people remember the spa in Georgia (5 killed), the high school in Ohio (3), the psych hospital in Pittsburgh (2), Oikos University in Oakland (7), the racial shootings in Tulsa (3), the coffee shop in Seattle (6), the Sikh temple in Wisconsin (7), the house near Texas A&M (3), the Empire State Building (2), the sign company in Minneapolis (7), the spa in Wisconsin (4), the mall in Oregon (3).

And those are just the shootings in the last 12 months!

How do we deal with the issue of injustice? How can we reconcile what we want to believe about God with the evidence around us in this world? CS Lewis writes is his theodicy work, The Problem of Pain:

If God were good, He would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

"God, we are not happy..." That is at the root of our struggle with events like Newtown. And either you don't want us to be happy or you can't make us happy. Either way, we're hopeless and left to fend for ourselves in this God-forsaken existence that some call Life.

Questioning God in the face of suffering is not a new phenomenon. However, it does place us on a steep slope that eventually leads to a subtle belief that the entire universe orbits around its singular most important object, Me. If we are wont to question God's goodness or power every time something unhappy happens, then guess what? You're already living in that universe.

So what can we believe?

No amount of blame put on gun laws, mental health or bad parenting is going to provide any solace to the problem of pain. Instead, it merely distracts us and masks the real underlying insoluble issue. Placing blame may provide solace, but it doesn't provide answers. No explanation will suffice. Nothing can explain Newtown or 9/11 or cancer or sex trafficking. And on we go living in that pain every day.

Instead, when I am faced with a situation that defies explanation and refuses resolution, I don't use that as a time to doubt God; it is precisely that time that I must have more faith in God. Once I take God out of the equation, then we are left in a world where individual decisions of happiness and justice reign. And nothing distinguishes my views from the views of murderers and terrorists. With a belief in a sovereign authority in the universe, then (and only then) do I have a platform to stand on and outrightly reject the act as wrong.

When the unexplainable occurs, resist the urge to dismiss God's goodness or power, because once we lose God, we lose all sense of justice and we lose any right to punish violators of injustice.

Habakkuk chapter 3 ends with his deepened commitment of faith in God, despite the violence and pain around him. There has been no explanation and there has been no resolution. Rather, there was an acknowledgement that a world of injustice without God was worse that a world of injustice being ruled by a just God.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.

~ Habakkuk 3:17-19

How Christians Should Vote

We have been told from all parts of society that we should not mix politics and religion, the church and the state. However, for Christians, faith is meant to be instructive to them in their relationships, their careers and all aspects of their lives. So, why should we cordon off politics from our faith? The truth of the matter is that many Christians today don’t know how their faith affects their vote. Instead of shying away from the issue. I would like to tell you how I think all Christians should vote. No, I’m not gonna just come out and say vote Republican or vote Democrat. That would be too easy... and too polarizing. Instead, I will outline the principles by which I believe all Christians should vote.

Vote For Citizens

In some ways, Christians have a unique place in our society, because we have dual-citizenship. We are commanded to be ‘aliens and strangers’ in this world because our ‘citizenship is in heaven’ (I Peter 2:11, Philippians 3:20).

However at the same time, we are nevertheless citizens of the towns, states and country in which we reside. Voting for Citizens means that we should not simply be voting for what we think is best for people in the Church, but rather as a citizen of Ft. Lee, or New Jersey, or the United States.

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” ~ Jeremiah 29:7

The other aspect of Voting for Citizens means that we are not trying to usher in a church-state. We are not trying to legislate Christianity. That didn’t work for Constantine nor for the Crusades. And it won’t work today.

Any attempt to moralize society with Christian ethics is not only impractical but also impossible. It may not only be deceitful, but  also destructive. We should not be after people who follow morals without faith. Those are what we call hypocrites. In fact, Jesus’ harshest judgements were reserved for the most morally upright in society (Matthew 23), because their ‘righteousness’ was not based on faith. We don’t want a society full of Pharisees and professional moralists.

It is precisely this acknowledgement that is at the center of our understanding of the Gospel. It is our admission that we are NOT good enough or morally upright enough to be considered righteous that is at the core of our believing the Gospel. It’s not that we live a life ‘good’ enough, it’s precisely that we cannot. And we turn to Jesus for salvation.

Vote With Peace

Have we lost all civility during election season? Everything you read on social media and the news is so polemical and divisive. Politics has become so polarized today that you cannot even buy a cup of coffee without being told to choose who you’re going to vote for. Between all the smear campaigns and negative ads we have lost the ability to have conversations with respect and humility.

People post political views on Facebook and then people complain about other people’s views because they don’t agree. I’m sure thousands of people have been ‘unfriended’ (sometimes literally) because of what they post on Facebook. As Christians, we should remind ourselves to be peaceable and respectful. Be above the rhetoric of rabble-rousing.

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” ~ Titus 3:1-2

Vote With Knowledge

You should know where each candidate stands on a myriad of issues. If you don’t inform yourself then you are merely becoming the type of person that gets swayed by negative ads. You need to develop your own filter so you can evaluate the things you hear in debates and ads.

Part of the problem is that too many Christians have become One-Issue Voters and once they encounter a candidate that doesn’t agree with them on the hot-button issue, then they stop listening and stop learning.

Perhaps your One-Issue is Abortion or Gay Marriage or the Economy or Foreign Policy. It could be anything really. I know of a  woman whose One-Issue is stem cell research. You never know what that issue may be to different people.

The fundamental problem with being a One-Issue Voter is that your president doesn’t just vote on that one issue. If you vote for a candidate because of his stance on Gay Marriage, then you are also voting for his policies on the Economy, Healthcare and the Environment.

I’m not saying to ignore the issues that you feel strongly about. In fact, I would encourage you to continue to feel passionate about them; study them, research them. Christians should pursue what the Bible has to say about these issues like poverty, abortion, etc. Don’t vote ignorantly, vote informed. So, when you cast your vote, understand how your vote is cast along the broad spectrum of issues, not just one.

Vote For Others

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” ~ Proverbs 31:8-9

Throughout Scripture, we are called to be advocates for those that have no advocate. We are called to be a voice for the voiceless, to stand up for those that have no standing. Cast your vote for the benefit of others.

Whether you advocate for an unborn fetus or gays or those in poverty or those at war... or all of them. Don’t simply vote for whoever will give you the best tax break or the best health plan. Rather use your vote to bless others.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” ~ James 1:27

Again, the very foundation of our faith lies in the advocacy of Christ. II Corinthians 8:9 states, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus became our Advocate by taking on our poverty and making us rich. He took on the poverty of our sinfulness and gave us his rich righteousness. For this reason, we are called to advocate for others.

“Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” ~ Zechariah 7:10

Vote With Prayer

Whether you vote for Obama or Romney, one of these men will be the leader of our country. And regardless of how you feel about them, you are called to pray for them.

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior” ~ I Timothy 2:1-3

Pray for who to vote for. Pray for the different issues. Pray for peace among the parties. Pray for those that need a voice. Pray for whoever wins, regardless of who that is!

In fact, if you haven’t been praying for the person or party with which you disagree, then let the first time that you open your mouth be in prayer to God, not in criticism to others.

Vote With(out) Hope

The first election I remember was in 1984, when I was 9. Reagan won 49 of 50 states and garnered 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13. As the incumbent president, I don’t think that election was about hope as much as this one is. I don’t think people were so concerned about their future being better, because they were pretty happy with their present!

This election, however, is about hope. The rhetoric among the parties is about who will raise America out of the recession, who will create new jobs, who will change the trajectory of our nation in the world at large.

But, as Christians, we need to realize that we need to Vote Without Hope. Don’t place your hope in any one person. Ultimately, whoever wins will not deliver on everyone of his promises or plans. Neither candidate will be able to accomplish everything they intend. And in four years, we will be probably be using the rhetoric of hope once again to nominate new Presidential candidates.

However, we can Vote WITH Hope. That is because we believe in a God who is sovereign over the President and Congress and supreme over the Supreme Court.

Proverbs 21:1 reminds that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord”. What a promise! God is in control. In fact, Romans 13:1 tells us that “there is no authority except that which God has established.”

No matter who wins and whether ‘your guy’ wins or loses, you can hope in our God who is the ultimate ruler of nations. So, whether you agree with where we are going as a nation or not, rest assured that you can hope in the literal “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:6).

9/11, OK City & Me

In my mourning, the impulse was to stare at the injustice of it all—What had Andy done to any of these people?—and blame someone. I wanted to climb to the top of the tallest building still standing and shake my fist at God and yell, “How could you do this? How could you let this happen?” And then I remembered something that stopped me dead in my tracks.

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I'm Glad I Didn't Win the Mega Millions

2 4 23 38 46 & 23.

If you're one of the mega millions of people that played the lottery last week, then you're familiar with those numbers.

I was, along with all of you, not one of the winners. But unlike all of you, I couldn't be happier that I didn't win. Of course, I guaranteed my 'success' at not winning because I never bought a ticket.

There are three main reasons that I have never played the lottery and I never will.

1 - A Sociological Reason

The problem with the lottery is that it makes poor people feel poor. Various studies have shown that low-income participants are more likely to play when they believe that they live below an implicit standard. In other words, poor people play the lottery because they feel poor.

This may not be earth shattering news for any of you, but what may come as a surprise is that other studies have shown those making less than $13,000 in annual income spend anywhere from 5%-9% on lottery tickets.

Which is why many people refer to the lottery as a Regressive Tax on the poor. What the government isn't able to take from the poor in taxes, they take in state-sanctioned gambling. Other call it a positive feedback loop, where the poor play the lottery which keeps them poor which keeps them playing the lottery.

Meanwhile the state governments* (and federal governments by taxing the winnings) are making literally tens of billions of dollars ($53 billion in 2010) off of the poor. Plain and simple, the lottery is a state-legalized gambling system that exploits the poor.

* The state of NJ took in nearly $2.5 billion from lottery sales in 2010. [source: census.gov]

2 - A Mathematical Reason

[If you are intimidated by numbers, then feel free to skip this section.]

In order to be informed, you need to recognize some of the mathematical gymnastics that the lottery system plays on us. A few of the tricks they play:

• First of all, it's not $640M you're winning. You're winning a $640M annuity paid out over 26 years. • Based on current interest rates, the actual cash out is $462M • Then in NJ you pay 10.5% income tax (in addition to all of the money NJ made on ticket purchases) so $48.5M goes to NJ in taxes. • Then about 35% goes to the federal government in income tax. (After you deduct your state tax payment) Your federal tax payment would be $144.7M. • So out of the $462M, you pay $193M in taxes and your take home is $269M.

Your odds of picking the winning number are 1 in 176 million.  So, the proper strategy would be to drop $176M and pick every possible number and pocket the $269M. However, that only works if you can assure that no one else plays the Mega Millions. Which is kind of difficult to do. Because estimates are that there were upwards of 680 million tickets purchased. Which means that if I won, I would have to then share that with the three other winners from Maryland, Kansas and Illinois. So, my share after splitting and after sharing would "only" be $67.25M*.

* I get it. It's not a small number, but it certainly is a far cry from $640M that gets published.

So, even though the winners get to take home $269M, think of the ~$680M that the states get in proceeds and taxes (that's double dipping!) and the federal government gets in taxes. They just made $411M off of all of us!

And this happens every day, all over the US (43 states have lotteries): scratch offs, mega millions, powerball, whatever.

By my calculations, you're basically given a 39 cent return on your $1 ticket. Which means for that for every $1 you spend, you get 39c back. Or in other words: bad investment. And yet, according to one study, 21% of people polled believe the lottery to be sound financial planning or actually, worse: "a practical strategy". (Those numbers are worse for lower income who saw the percentage rise to 38%.)

How society sits idly by as this Regressive Tax continues to exploit the lower income, while having governments double dip in proceeds and taxes is unconscionable.

3 - A Spiritual Reason

Perhaps most instructive to me as to why I wouldn't want to win $640M is because I wouldn't be better off. Oh sure, I'd be better off financially, but there's no question in my mind that I would be worse in perhaps every other area of my life. The plain truth is that I am not ready to be $269M richer.

The apostle Paul states in I Timothy 6:6-10 states a warning that should be enlightening to us all.

"But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs."

God doesn’t want you to be happy because you won $640M he wants you to be happy because you’re content with what he's given to you. God's desire for you is not for you to be rich; his plan for you is for you to be forgiven of your sins*. Particularly during this week's celebration of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, God has certainly given us enough to be happy about.

* "[God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." ~ I Timothy 2:4

So, don't be beset by greed, don't feed the system and don't further exploit the poor.

My son opened his fortune cookie during dinner at the Oriental Buffet on Bergen Blvd. and I wish it could become the mantra of all lottery losers.

To be upset with what you do not have is to waste what you do have.

 

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Epilogue: Please enjoy this infographic on the Lottery by Mint.com.

Sandusky: One of Us

Monster. Pedophile. Deviant.

These are the words that are used to describe Jerry Sandusky after allegations of his sexually lewd behavior surfaced. Truly, this story, if corroborated, is troubling on so many levels.

And first let me say, that my heart and prayers go out to all of the children, their parents, their future wives and their future kids.

If the allegations are true (even Penn State's acting president called them 'victims' not 'alleged victims') then the hatred and vitriol that Sandusky faces seems justified. Perhaps the monikers of 'monster, pedophile & deviant' are deserved.

[Disclaimer: In my following comments, I do not mean to trivialize the gravity of these allegations. However, I do want to make a broader point that applies to us all.]

However, we tend to demonize and villainize those that have (what we perceive to be) egregious sins. And preying on a under-privileged minor seems to be near the top bottom of that scale. But I think that tendency seems to belie a veiled comfort that we have in allowing us to focus on the sins of others and not on my own sins. "I am not a pedophile, so I must be far better than Jerry Sandusky," we tell ourselves subconsciously.

By focusing on others, we fall prey to what I call "comparative righteousness". We are holy, because so many other people are much more sinful than I. But, this subtle line of thinking ignores the Biblical teaching of the depravity of sin.

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”  ~ Romans 3:10-12

The truth of the matter is that we all deal with the problem of sin. And just because our sins are not as reprehensible as someone else's, that does not exonerate us from the punishment deserved for our own sins.

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. ~ Habakkuk 1:3

So, as the truth unfolds at Penn State—and I imagine that the worst is yet to surface—and you feel disgust and outrage over the atrocities perpetrated on those poor children...

...remember that God sees our sins with disgust and outrage as well. Reflect on what God must have needed to overcome in order to love us and die for us despite our sins. Respond to the love that he has for us by loving him and trusting him in return.

 

 

 

Steve Jobs: My Thoughts

Okay, I admit. I'm a fanboy.

I'm writing this post on a MacBook Pro and will read it later on my iPhone. Steve Jobs and I have had a "relationship" for nearly 10 years, despite the fact that he probably doesn't know who I am. (Although, come to think of it, he does have my credit card information...)

I'd known about Jobs' health issues for many years: pancreatic cancer in 2004, leave of absence and liver transplant in 2009, leave of absence and resignation in 2011. His death was something that I was not only anticipating, but also expecting. When Steve Jobs died on October 5th, it shouldn't have surprised anyone.

And yet it surprised everyone.

I think it took everyone by surprise because so many people relied upon the products that he produced. It was as if we needed Steve alive. We needed him to continue to make life-changing and industry-forming* products. We weren't ready to see him go.

* the personal computer (Apple II), the graphical user interface & the mouse (Macintosh), the modern day operating system (NeXT, OS X), animation movies (Pixar), all-in-one computers (iMac), music players (iPod), the digital music industry (iTunes), retail stores (Apple Store), smartphones (iPhone), mobile operating systems (iOS), tablet computers (iPad), & advertising (1984 Ad, Think Different Ads, iPod Silhouettes, Mac vs. PC)

When people mourn the death of another, either a loved one or a CEO, we are mourning the loss of that person's impact in our lives. I don't emotionally react to any other company's CEO's death because I don't emotionally connect to that company's products. However, Steve Jobs meant something to me. His products created (and then satisfied) needs in my life. When my aunt passed away last year, it affected me because it created a void in my life that she filled. Death ends life.

Most of us view death as the end. But as a pastor, I teach that we should not view death as the end, but rather as a beginning. It is the beginning of our eternity. Our thoughts on death make us think about life. When we think of Steve Jobs' death, we naturally think of his life and we think of our own lives. What am I doing? Where am I going? What purpose am I serving? 

Even if I revolutionize industry after industry, or even if I give millions of dollars to the poor, or even if I raise my two wonderful children, my death is a beginning, not an end.

So, today, I want to live with my eyes not on the end of my life, but on the beginning of my eternity.

Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.

~ Jude 21 (NIV)