Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Supporting our Democracy

My father-in-law Ray Angel is one of those outgoing people who makes friends everywhere he goes. 10 years ago we went to Washington DC for a day of prayer on the Mall that attracted about 1 million men from all over the US. Before the day was over, I swear Ray knew at least half of them. Aside from being a man of God, my father-in-law is also a patriot. He is a veteran, worked in the carpenters union most of his life, and strongly believes in democracy and justice for all citizens. The other day he came up with a great idea which he felt would unite Americans of all political persuasions and show solidarity at a time when America really does need to come together. I think his idea has some merit and so I share it with you in its entirety:

" There are just over seven months until the election, an election that will decide the next President of the United States. The person elected will be the president of all Americans, not just the Democrats or the Republicans. To show our solidarity as Americans, let's all get together and show each other our support for the candidate of our choice. It's time that we all came together, Democrats and Republicans alike. If you support the policies and character of John McCain, please drive with your headlights on during the day. If you support Obama or Hillary, please drive with your headlights off at night. "

Now that's an idea I think many of us can embrace!

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Life by Bill Clinton

The only thing more baffling than people who write 1000 page autobiographies are the people who actually read them! I voted for Bush I in ’92 and Bob “ED” Dole in ’96 but was still curious about the wild popularity of Bill Clinton and hoping to hear his side of the story of what happened during his presidency. In my opinion, My Life is very illuminating when he describes his early years which included his father’s death before his birth, being raised by a young widow who left him with his grandparents while she attended nursing school, and then growing up with a step father whose alcoholism eventually broke up the family. Having known other men who have grown up in similar family systems, they learn to observe, negotiate, and survive. Unfortunately many who grow up in such homes have serious personal struggles we don’t always recognize, but in Bill Clinton’s life these skills were applied to the political life in such a way that the moniker “comeback kid” was quite apropo. There are times when Clinton waxes eloquent about race relations and civil rights for blacks and how these things were part of what he was taught and personally believed as a child. My untamed inner-cynic says this is true in much the same way a lot of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln stories are, but who knows? Maybe he really was socially aware in the south of the 1950’s. The run-down on his years as president were fairly engaging. As an evangelical Christian I was often appalled at his social policies regarding abortion and homosexuals, but I also deeply appreciated others such as family leave to take care of sick parents or to welcome the birth of a child. Clinton was also a strong promoter of religious liberty especially in the public schools which was virtually ignored by his detractors. With regards to Clinton’s economic policies I had no problems. He taxed more, but he cut our deficit down and compared to the idiotic mess we are in today, it sounds downright conservative to insist outgo be related to income in some way. You’ll hear nothing of the lurid details about Monica Lewinsky. Clinton assumes we either know the story all too well or wishes we wouldn’t. You will hear about what happened at his house when he finally confessed to Hillary and Chelsea and the whole nation his misdeeds. Ouch. Can you say “Ice Box”? To his credit, he makes no excuses for his behavior and did get marriage counseling and spiritual growth counseling from several well-known evangelical ministers. He also has some strong opinions about the Al Gore-George Bush election showdown which are compelling in light of setting bad legal precedents for the future. The other side of this is that Gore’s “victory” is at odds with reality. Time Magazine and other media paid Florida for their own recount after the court intervention in 2000 and by every measurement, Bush won the popular vote. While I do consider this book a very celebratory form of history, it did explain his side of policy that was frequently obscured by the many acrimonies that seem to freely float in Washington DC. My Life states quite directly that Bill Clinton truly enjoyed being the president even with its hardships and that comes off as the most believable part of the book.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Characters and Events of Roman History by Guglielmo Ferrero

As a long time student of Roman history I have burned up many hours of my life reading some very interesting and not-so-interesting books on this expansive topic. Ferrero was a Roman historian in the early twentieth century and a professor and author with much acclaim in his day. So much so, that he was invited by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 to come to the United States and deliver a series of lectures which forms the basis of this book. Each chapter is a lecture and retains the style and feel of a public presentation much as I have always imagined Chataqua Lectures must have been like. Kind of “edu-tainment on steroids”. What will certainly not be missed by today’s reader is his almost prophetic comparisons between modern Europe and the Roman Empire. He speaks of how Rome, once it had achieved a certain level of wealth and luxury, went into negative birth rates causing a “famine of men” which made possible the radical reordering and decline of the empire by the barbarian incursions. It isn’t rocket science to note that Europe has had a negative birth rate for decades and the result is a radical demographic, social, and religious shift caused by large numbers of non-European immigrants. Like the “barbarian invasions” of late antiquity, it was far from all bad and perhaps some of the new immigrants will revitalize and renew some aspects of Europe which have grown old and tired with time. Another prescient observation Ferrero made in his day was that Europe was built around the wedding of Christianity and the idea of Empire it inherited from Rome, but seems to be jettisoning its intellectual patrimony and moving more towards the political ideals of Rome. One certainly sees today a Europe which is almost embarrassed about its Christian past and yet unified economically and more and more politically. Ferrero makes an almost startling observation about the tyrannical emperor Nero and St. Paul that still has me scratching my chin. He makes a case that Nero set the stage for a wider and broader acceptance of Christianity because of his importation and popularizing of all things oriental in the arts and letters. As these things became more Roman, Christianity seemed less eastern. This synergy, he suggests, reached its zenith in the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and Renaissance where art and Christian teaching ruled the hearts and minds of most Europeans. Obviously not a book for everyone, but an enjoyable synthesis for those who know even the rudiments of Roman history.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ by John G. Turner

Billy Graham will always be America's greatest preacher, but I have long maintained that his equal in terms of sheer influence was Bill Bright. John G. Turner does an excellent job in Bill Bright and Campus Crusade: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America giving us the context and history of this intriguing man and his ministry. Bill Bright was a young man from Oklahoma who moved out west to Los Angeles to seek his fortune in business. After some moderate successes, Bright was converted to faith in Jesus Christ and for the rest of his life he devoted his considerable energies towards evangelizing the world. But unlike Billy Graham, Bill Bright's greatest influence was not in his preaching, but in his entrepreneurial approach to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1965 Bright wrote the famous Four Spiritual Laws which have been read and used 10's of millions of times in personal evangelism the world over. This was developed to make the gospel message easy to present, easy to understand, and start and end on its positives. Attesting to its effectiveness, it is available now in 150 languages. Another of Bright's accomplishments is the Jesus Film Project. He took a movie that was a painful flop in American theaters and turned it into a worldwide phenomena having resulted in 230 million commitments to follow Christ. Although these ideas clicked, Turner also points out that Bill Bright had many ideas fail and fail miserably. Bright had set the audacious goals of evangelizing the entire United States by 1976 and the rest of the world by 1980. He also had a vision to start a major university which nearly bankrupted the entire ministry before it failed. His Campus Ministry is still going strong and is regarded as one of the largest collegiate campus groups in America and yet has done little to change the tide of secularism in American students. But the larger point is Bill Bright was a man who was willing to dream big and take big risks for the sake of the Kingdom. Another aspect of his life that I found very admirable was that he dealt with millions of dollars and was in every respect a CEO, but lived a very moderate lifestyle and steered away from the scandals that have rocked so many other ministries. Along the way he also ruffled feathers and broken relationships. Once again to his credit, in the last years of his life he purposefully sought out many of these people and made amends. This book is far from a panegyric about Bill Bright. In fact in some places you want to cringe and say "what was he thinking!?" But on the other hand, I found Bill Bright's obvious tenderness and dedication to Jesus Christ quite inspirational and though he had his flaws, he attempted to offer the Lord more than most men ever attempt.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On Economic Indicators and Happiness

Everybody saw it coming. Real Estate values going up so fast that in some markets people were “day trading” meaning they were buying a property in the morning and selling it at a profit in the afternoon. The stock market was heating up to record high numbers along with speculation on barrels of oil for some future shortage that hasn’t seemed to materialize yet. Meanwhile our government wages war using subcontractors who patriotically post record profits all at the expense of the next few generations of Americans. Now awash in national debt, the dollar has tanked and with that the value of our savings evaporates in the inflationary spiral. Whenever people are 'getting rich quick' you can bet the farm that things will go the other way just as fast. Moneywise, the news is bad and quite frankly no one worth listening to on economics thinks things are going to improve for a few years. Like I’m sure you have been doing, the last few months have been a steady series of small adjustments. The $30 fill-up is pushing $50, sit-down restaurant dinners are now at home with “take and bake pizza”, and we won’t be getting a flat screen TV with our economic stimulus package but rather paying off a credit card balance which has been creeping in the wrong direction since last November. But I am particularly happy about two adjustments our economic problems have forced me to make. First, I am realizing how wasteful and consumptive my lifestyle has become. I’m turning off lights that don’t really need to be on. Trips to the store are planned with multiple errands and not just for a gallon of milk and I’m planting less flowers and more vegetables in my yard this year. Second, and more importantly, it has made me realize how much worldthink has penetrated my outlook. If our only index of present and future happiness is the economy doing well, then we are impoverished already. Slowly but surely, I am developing a ‘new index of happiness’ that is less material and more spiritual. Jesus Christ rightly tells us our lives really are much more than we possess and anxiety over this is both faithless and futile (Matthew chapter 6). Perhaps we would all be better served by basing our happiness on having a thriving relationship with the God who loves us, a host of friendships where we give and take, and a lifestyle that is noted for its simplicity rather than extravagance. This kind of wealth is far more certain to produce happiness in the long run and far less prone to disappear when times get hard.