Friday, November 26, 2004

Is It Just Me?

When I first became a Christian it seemed there was more emphasis in church on... well... God.

We still sing some great songs and hymns that glorify God, but it seems the emphasis has changed a bit; now it seems to be more about people - either what God will do to benefit us or that we ought to be doing something.

I have no objection to either of those topics; Jesus certainly spoke about benefits and responsibilities, and you can find plenty about both these topics throughout the Bible.

But it seems it should all flow from God. My faith is not a cost/benefit analysis and it is not a list of rules (or "principles" or "guidelines" or "steps" or whatever we want to call them), any more than my relationship with my wife is either of these things.

God is the one I love. I long to worship him. I long to connect with him. And when, in church, the benefits or responsibilities of the Christian life are shifted from being the outcome of my love for God to being the centerpiece of the Christian life, I'm disappointed, and I leave feeling I haven't connected with God.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Under Isaiah

Like the books of most of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah strikes me as disjointed, and I think the reason is that it is not a single narrative, but apparently a series of sermons preached at different times. Nevertheless, there seems to be a general theme. Many of these sermons deal with the fate of nations, of Israel and its neighbors. Isaiah speaks of their sins and of God's judgement upon them, and then of his mercy and forgiveness and restoration for a repentant Israel.


In the midst of these themes, you occasionally notice something a bit curious; something in the text that strikes a slightly discordant note - a promise, perhaps, that appears too lavish for the topic at hand. Odd... as if you were on a boat and noticed a curious swelling in the sea. But then the swelling subsides and the sea returns to normal.

And then, at other points, a beautiful transcendent passage flashes out of the narrative - sometimes for just a second - stunningly unrelated to the apparent topic, and then is gone again, like a jumping fish diving back into the ocean.

As you read, it becomes increasingly clear that Isaiah is about something even greater than the rise and fall of nations. There is something mysterious going on beneath the surface that occasionally breaks into the open. Sometimes you see messianic hints which seem, well... doubtful, blended, as they are, with other topics to the point where they are merely suggestive (Was it just a peculiar current? the reader may ask, or was there really something there under the water?). But at other times the messianic promises simply leap out of the water, flashing clearly in the sunlight, often at unexpected moments in the text.

And toward the end of the book the New simply breaks out with wild abandon - with long messianic passages, such as Isaiah 53, wonderful promises, and descriptions of a new world. The fate of nations is almost forgotten in its glory. It reminds me of the Bible as a whole - the hints and explicit prophesies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, followed by the glorious reality of the Messiah in the New Testament.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

What Happened to Thanksgiving?

I'm not a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas, but it annoys me to be confronted with Christmas decorations and songs before Thanksgiving.

I remember I once did a story for a newspaper about a training class for Santas. They began work the day after Thanksgiving, and I remember thinking that was a bit excessive. But lately I've been seeing Christmas decorations before Halloween, and now, before Thanksgiving, they're everywhere.

For example, I was at Starbuck's this morning nursing a cup of coffee and the store was decorated with snowy wreaths, selling Christmas coffees and playing Christmas songs.

One patron suggested to an employee that it was a bit early for all this Christmas stuff, and another echoed, "Yeah!", and the employee kinda sighed, as if he agreed but didn't have any say in the matter.


What's the matter with Thanksgiving? It's a nice low-key holiday that anybody can enjoy. It has Christian roots, but is not really a Christian holiday. Anybody can celebrate for any reason they want. You can be thankful for family or football, or turkey deep fried in peanut oil, a day off of work, or whatever.

Can't you merchants at least notice Thanksgiving before diving into Christmas? You keep starting Christmas earlier and earlier, so by the time it really arrives I'm going to be sick of it.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Polar Express

I just saw the movie, The Polar Express, about a boy who awakens Christmas Eve to a steam train that stops right outside his house. He gets on and it takes him to the North Pole. I really liked the movie. In fact it brought back a strange memory I have barely thought about for decades.

I remember when I was a child I awoke in the early morning and looked out the bedroom window of our little crackerbox house. As I looked I saw a steam train with a light and black smoke from its funnel, silently puffing up the street toward my house. It was a short train, with just a few cars. It wasn't as nice as the Polar Express and it wasn't Christmas Eve, but, like the Polar Express, it was mysterious in an entrancing sort of way.

Later in the morning I told my mom and dad about the train.

They looked confused. They said there was no train on our street. My mom quite sensibly told me there were no tracks. She pointed out that we lived in a canyon that dead-ended into the mountain. There was nowhere for a train to go. She suggested I'd been dreaming. But all her comments seemed absurd to me at the time. Maybe the train was going to a gold mine at the head of the canyon, I thought. And her objection that there were no tracks seemed to me to be pure quibbling. But her logic eventually led me to doubt... somewhat. But to this day I still halfway believe that there is a steam train that goes up Pasadena Glen Road.

And I wonder where it's going.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Fixing Social Security

President Bush has suggested that people be allowed to put part of their Social Security money in their own retirement accounts. Fine, but the problem, as I understand it, is that the Social Security Administration is not putting your money away safe in the bank where it's earning interest (as it should be doing), but rather is using your money to pay current retirees. Therefore, if the gummint lets people put part of their money into their own retirement accounts, that means there's less money to pay current retirees, which means that for a while, there'd be a shortfall.

With that in mind, I want to share my ignorance - for free! - about how to minimize the shortfall to reduce the cost of Social Security.

  • Why not let anybody who is eligible for Social Security work tax free? No federal taxes - at all. If these people were going to retire otherwise, that's no income loss to the government. In return, the government would ask that they delay collecting Social Security for a few years. Nobody would have to do this, but some would, and that would save money. This has the side benefit of helping boost the economy and keeping seniors active and hopefully healthier. Also, I suspect that some of these seniors would be covered by their companies' health plans, which would save money for Medicare.

  • Alternately, working Social Security recipients could be taxed at maybe five percent of the normal rate, and the small amount that is collected from them would help fund Social Security.

  • The Social Security age for people just beginning to work should be raised. Lifespans have been increasing and people can generally work longer. People in the system, however, were promised a retirement date, and we should honor that.

  • Why not let workers put part of their Social Security money in private accounts if they agree to wait until they're older to withdraw their money. The older they are, the less delay they have to accept. If they want no delay, they'd just keep their money in the current system.

  • Why not give workers larger Social Security pensions the longer they delay taking it. I believe this is done to some extent already, and I think the concept should be extended.

  • Why not give people the option to donate their money to the Social Security system. Not many people will do that, but even if some do, it would help.
  • Wednesday, November 03, 2004

    Thoughts on the U.S. Election

    As I reflect on the election, I think it is interesting that a large turnout usually helps the Democrats because there are more Democrats than Republicans, though they aren't as disciplined about voting, so if you can get those Democrats to the polls, you should win. But in this election the turnout was huge, and still the Republicans won.

    Why? Is the electorate becoming more Republican?

    Possibly. James Taranto at OpinionJournal thinks that what he calls the "Roe Effect" is coming into play. His assumption is that people who believe abortion is okay (by which he means Democrats) are more likely to have abortions. This may mean they have fewer children, and if they have fewer children, 18 years later they're going to have fewer voters. Hmm. Maybe so.

    I also think that if the Democrats had to lose, it is too bad for them they didn't lose by a huge margin. An overwhelming loss might have persuaded the vast majority that there is something wrong with their party, rather than letting their radicals weave loopy conspiracy theories to explain the loss. (I think Karl Rove gets far more credit from Democrats than he is due.)

    Something else that strikes me is that the old media went all out for Kerry, and he still lost. CBS is only the most glaring example of this partisanship. I practically gave up reading the LA Times before the election because I could see that almost every political story was slanted to put the Bush administration in a bad light. But, as I said, he still lost, even with the huge power of the media behind him. And I believe he lost because of the Internet and bloggers. They questioned and ripped apart media stories, spread information (and misinformation, though that was quickly corrected) with breathtaking speed. They made the main stream media look ridiculous, and I think that can only have a salutary effect.

    The old media says it has a watchdog role to perform, which is fine. But it is utter hypocrisy for them to then turn around and whine about others watching them. This election others did watch them, despite the whines, and with embarrassing effect on the old media. If this makes the newspapers and broadcast media shape up, great! And even if it doesn't... well, the Internet media is only growing stronger.