Never Tire of Doing Good

 

Today we woke up to news that several tornadoes touched down near Dayton.

Sunday, we talked about flooding in Oklahoma and I asked our congregation to consider donating toward the construction and operation of a new high school in Harrisburg, Liberia.  Before that, there was flooding in Iowa and Nebraska and we were raising money for a Habitat for Humanity house here in Alliance, Ohio.  Before that, it was something else, and there was something else before that, and so on.

There seems to be a never-ending stream of need.

There is always someone, or some organization, asking for our money or our time.  And, after a while, we can be tempted to shut it all out, to numb ourselves to the needs of the people around us, and just live quietly in our own world while we pretend that the rest of the world will be okay without our help or participation.  This is not uncommon.  In fact, there’s even a scientific name for it.

It’s called “compassion fatigue.”

The constant demand for our attention, for our money, for our time, and for our effort can wear us down.  We get tired of helping and we grow weary of even being asked.

But this isn’t new to the twenty first century.

In Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica, he writes about people, inside the church, who won’t do their share of the work but still show up to get food and other help from the rest of the church.  It was bad enough that they even instituted an official policy, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”  But even so, some of the idle non-workers were spending their time gossiping about everyone else and it was disrupting the entire church.  People were frustrated.  They were tired.  They felt as if they were being taken advantage of.

They had compassion fatigue.

But after Paul calls out the busybodies and urges them to earn the food that they were eating, he sends this message to the rest of the church who were already doing more than their fair share:

And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Never tire of doing good.

I know that someone always seems to be asking for something.  I know that sometimes it feels like someone is trying to take advantage of us.  I know that the pleas for disasters and calls to alleviate poverty and suffering from across the country and around the world seem to be almost constant and never-ending.

But it has always been that way and it will almost certainly continue as long as we draw breath.

Three out of the four gospel writers record Jesus words, “You will always have the poor among you…”  (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8).  And these words remind us that until the world is remade at the end of time, there will always be people in need.

But, as the followers of Jesus Christ we have been called to do something about it.  We can’t do everything, but we can do something.  John Wesley put it this way:

Do all the good you can.

By all the means you can.

In all the ways you can.

In all the places you can.

At all the times you can.

To all the people you can.

As long as ever you can.

 

We have been both blessed and called by God to be his agents in the world.  We are the only Jesus that most people will ever see.  We are his hands and his feet in a hurting, suffering, hungry world.

May we never tire of doing good.

 

Blessings,

Pastor John

Pain: Now or Later?


    A number of years ago there was a television commercial that encouraged regular oil changes.  In it, a mechanic pointed to a car behind him that was having the engine overhauled and noted that failing to get regular oil changes can cause serious engine damage.  At the end of the commercial the mechanic said, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

    With the Administration and Congress once again at odds over raising our nation’s debt ceiling I keep wondering why no one in Washington seems to understand why doing so only makes the problem worse.  I understand that we can’t just suddenly stop doing everything that we’re doing.  Calling an abrupt halt to projects that are already in progress would do great damage to the economy.  I understand that.  But Congress isn’t just continuing projects they’ve already started; they are creating new ones and expanding others so that our debt problem gets worse instead of better.
    Whenever anyone suggests making cuts to existing spending, particularly to welfare, Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security, there is an outcry because it is easy to see how people will be hurt when cuts are made to these programs.  A similar claim is made whenever cuts are suggested to our spending on national defense.  No matter what cuts are suggested, we are told that those cuts will cause someone pain. 
    The problem with pain, as it relates to our spending, is that it is very much like that oil change commercial.  A little pain now will almost certainly save us from much greater pain later.  Why?  Because right now our nation spends about $3.5 trillion per year but takes in only $2.5 trillion in taxes.  Obviously, you can’t, in the long-term, spend more than you earn, everyone who has ever balanced a checkbook knows that, but Washington has been doing it (more or less continuously) for more than sixty years.   So far we’ve accumulated a national debt of $17 trillion dollars… and, as bad as that sounds, that’s the good news.
    We hear that our national debt is $17 trillion dollars but we are not told that this does not include the money that we “borrowed” from Social Security and Medicaid.  Every one of us has paid into Social Security for our retirement.  While all of the Baby Boomers were working, the surpluses from these deposits were immense… but they were never saved in any kind of “savings account” or “lockbox.”  Instead, to cover the growing deficits our elected representatives… spent them.  Because we borrowed the money from ourselves, this spending isn’t really considered part of the national debt, but when the Baby Boomers retire they will, naturally, expect to collect from the system they paid into.  How much do we owe them?  At present, our borrowing from Social Security and Medicare amounts to an additional $85 to 95 trillion and our expected payments for the national prescription drug benefit add another $20 trillion.  All together that comes to an astounding $125 trillion in debt.  (That works out to over a million dollars in debt for every U.S. household!)
    Here is where things get ugly.  If we assume that over the next forty years, everyone who is currently working will retire, then we will have to repay most, if not all, of that debt over that same forty year period.  I know the math is more complicated than that, but this oversimplification will get us close enough to see the problem.  If we think of this as paying down a mortgage, we have forty years to pay back $125 trillion in debt with an annual “income” of $3 trillion. 
Do you see the problem?
In order to repay $125 trillion in 40 years, our annual payments will exceed our current income.
    If we start right now, and we could somehow stretch those payments out for a hundred years, we would still have to repay $1.25 trillion per year.  That would seem reasonable, but if we first balance the budget (so as to stop borrowing even more money while we were paying off our debt), we would still have to cut our current spending by fifty percent!
    Worse, none of this is theoretical.  This is money that we have already spent and which must be repaid.  Because we borrowed most of it from retirement plan, failing to pay it back will mean that Social Security checks don’t go out and retirees’ medical bills don’t get paid.  We complain that making small cuts causes pain, but how much pain will there be if we default and those checks don’t go out at all?
As the man said in the commercial, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” 
Either way, there will be pain.  The longer we put it off, the worse it will be.
Our only choice is whether we want to experience pain now or worse pain later.

Why the Russian Adoption Ban is a Disaster in Slow Motion

    By now most of you have heard about the adoption ban put into law in Russia.  It all began with an attempt by our United States government to rein in human rights violations in Russia.  President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which provides sanctions against Russian citizens deemed by the US to have violated human rights.  Prior to this, the Russian government was concerned about the abuse some Russian children have received at the hands of their adoptive parents in the United States but had only recently, in November, 2012, signed a new treaty designed to provide greater access for Russian officials who desired to review the treatment of adopted children.  This new agreement was only in place for eight weeks before the adoption ban was signed by President Putin.

    The Russian government claims that the adoption ban was necessary because they were not getting access to the documents that the new treaty was supposed to give them and the American government claims that the whole thing is just retaliation for passing the Magnitsky Act.  Whichever is true, it is neither the American nor the Russian government that is the big loser.  The big losers remain the children who will remain in Russian orphanages instead of in loving homes.
    I know something about this.  Our family includes two children who were adopted from a Russian orphanage.  The trauma that they suffered in their first year of life has been a real education.  Before we witnessed it firsthand, I never would have believed that children could be so damaged in their first year of life.  We were always told that “Love heals all wounds,” and “Love conquers all,” and things like that.  We genuinely believed it when people told us that all we had to do was take them home and love them.  But sometimes love isn’t enough.  Thankfully, the problems that our children have, though not insignificant, are not nearly what other parents, whom we’ve met, live with every day.  Some of the neurological, emotional and psychological problems that grow out of living in an orphanage, even for a few months, are frightening. 
 
    While I could not ever condone abuse, I have seen enough to understand how parents of some of these children could reach a point where they simply don’t know what else to do.  Many parents do not abuse these damaged children but recognize that they cannot cope with the behaviors of their children and choose to dissolve or disrupt the adoption.  That means what it sounds like; they go in front of a judge and declare that they are no longer the parents.  This frees them, but makes the children orphans yet again and turns their care over to the state in which they live, or to yet another set of adoptive parent and cause still more emotional and psychological damage.
    Children from former Eastern bloc countries (primarily Russia and Ukraine) bear a higher risk for behavioral problems and eventual adoption disruption.  We don’t completely know why, but although similar problems are seen in children from other nations, these children see higher rates of disruption than any others.  I cannot quote any particular sources but I have heard estimates as high as 10-20 percent.  That means that even with the resources of wealthier American parents, even with parents who love them, even with access to modern medical and psychological care, between one in ten and one in five of these kids have real, serious problems.   Do the Russians have a right to be concerned about what is happening to their children?  Certainly.  But what happens if they don’t come here, don’t have parents, and don’t have access to care?  Russia does not have a history of adoption.  Adoption is not a part of their culture.  While adoption does happen, fewer Russian children are adopted by Russians than by Americans, and we are just one country among many who has, until now, been able to adopt from Russia.  Children who remain in Russian orphanages are likely to stay there until they “age out,” until they are old enough that the Russian government turns them loose on the streets with no support whatsoever.  The majority of children who age out of Russian orphanages will end up dead or in prison within two years.
    Yes, these children can be scarred and damaged by even a few months in an orphanage.  Yes, we should strive with all that is within us to do a better job than we are doing.  No.  No child should suffer abuse at the hands of their parents regardless of their behavior.  But the Russian government needs to look in the mirror as well.  Our system may not be perfect, but an adoption ban that prohibits these children from coming home to loving parents doesn’t fix the problem and in reality only makes it worse.

As usual, when grown-ups fight, the ones who lose… are the children.

Who Can We Blame?

It seems that every day there is more to read about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I understand that this is a huge news story that affects millions of people along the southern coast of the United States and I am really not too concerned that the media is (typically) overplaying the story. What concerns me is the way that local residents, and politicians of all stripes (local, state, and federal) are turning a horrible accident into a bizarre circus of finger pointing in the extreme. Legally, I understand that the cost to clean up the mess will be enough to bankrupt several major corporations and that BP may not survive to pay for it all. I understand that BP will want to shift some or all of this financial burden onto whichever other corporate entities may have had a role in allowing this accident to happen. What I have a problem with, is the tendency that people have for wanting to make this tragedy personal.

Folks are pointing a finger at the CEO of British Petroleum and saying that it is, personally, his fault that this happened. They point fingers variously at President George Bush and President Obama and the commander of the Coast Guard and anyone else that seems even remotely convenient and somehow construe the facts of history to make it that persons fault. Yes, mistakes were made. No, things happened that shouldn’t have happened. Shortcuts were taken that shouldn’t have been. All that can be true and still, it doesn’t have to be any single person’s “fault.” That’s why they call them accidents.

Many of the policies in place were enacted by the Bush administration but they were likely voted on by many members of the opposing party. Many of these policies were changed by the Obama administration and the enforcement of these regulations fall to that administration as well. In either case, I doubt very much that either President Bush or President Obama had any specific knowledge of what was happening on this one particular drilling rig. Likewise, I doubt that the president of BP, who is (or at least was) not an American and who does not live in the United States (BP stands for British Petroleum, remember?) knew anything about the specifics of what was happening on one of the hundreds of drilling operations his company was conduction around the globe. Certainly none of this was intentional. The spill alone is horrible. The environmental damage is unimaginable. Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and eleven men lost their lives aboard the Deepwater Horizon. No sane person would have intentionally caused this to happen or even allowed it to happen. It was an accident.

Psychologists tell us that when people are under stress they look for a place to focus that stress. It happens in churches that are undergoing significant change. When people are under stress they want someone to be responsible for the stress they feel and will often reach out to any convenient authority figure. I have been the focus of such stress. All sorts of elaborate stories can be created to direct that stress, or blame, upon these convenient figures regardless of the facts or the truth. Reality just isn’t that tidy.

The reality is that churches that are undergoing change have often come upon that change in a process that spanned many years and involved many more people. The reality of the accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon is that its causes were undoubtedly many and involved persons from the drilling rig, its owners, BP, regulators and members of state and federal government. Even worse, pressures were put on all these players by market forces by which each and every one of us played a part. Face it, when I get off the freeway to buy gasoline I really don’t give a rip about who has the best environmental record, I just want the cheapest gas. The pressure to produce fuel cheaply and to develop an abundant domestic supply while abiding by the various restrictions placed upon them undoubtedly played upon some of the poor decisions that were made and which led up to the accident. Besides that, accidents happen despite the best intentions or preparations of any of human being. That’s why we call them accidents.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a complete and thorough investigation, there should and if criminal acts were committed then those acts should be punished. Neither am I saying that BP and its subsidiaries and subcontractors should not pay for the damages caused and the cleanup that is required, they should. What I am saying is that I doubt that we will ever find a smoking gun. I doubt that anyone will ever be able to say that any one person or that any specific group of people are, personally, responsible for this accident.

As people of faith, especially as people of faith, we need to be clearer about that. Instead of becoming belligerent and argumentative, instead of busying ourselves pointing fingers at people who were far removed from actual events, we need to have a different focus. As people of faith, we need to let the justice system do its job and conduct its investigation without our interference. As people of faith, we need to focus our attention on the least and the lost, to try to help those who have been harmed by this disaster and who have no safety net to catch them. As people of faith, instead of looking for people to blame, we need to show a little grace.