Power Corrupts

MarcosI have just finished reading a brilliant volume on the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have always had an interest in Philippine history and was pleased to see that the author, expert in Southeast Asian modern history, Sterling Seagrave, took great pains to present at the very start the context and place in time of the nation: its struggles under colonial rule of Spain then the United States, its national heroes, politics and civil and foreign battles, and its strategic importance in Asia and the Pacific.

What presented an intriguing aside throughout the book was the ongoing interactions between the Filipino Leadership and American Presidents, Generals, Diplomats and Secret Service agents, especially surrounding the Japanese invasion and the aftermath of World War II. Truly, as one critic praises it, this book reads like “a fast-paced thriller” and displays “an underlay of thorough investigative work.”

Very few come out looking good.

In fact, Seagrave challenges the popular history that was largely written by the powerful figures at play in this drama and paints a picture of the corruption of the power structures of both the Philippines and the United States, and the stealth by which the CIA and its agents were involved in a multitude of critical political and business decisions in the region during the course of the 20th century. Men who were thought to be heroes, great military leaders and global freedom advocates turn out to be weak, indecisive, and abusers themselves.

The adage is true: Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Time and time again, the opportunity presents itself to govern wisely and compassionately, and personal gain is chosen over national interest.

  • Billions of dollars was divested from Government accounts into Swiss accounts in the name of Ferdinand, Imelda or any of the Marcos children or companies.
  • Bribes were paid by companies seeking to do business in the Philippines and this money went not to the nation but into the hands of its leaders.
  • Lucrative and over-priced government contracts were awarded to the President’s family, friends, or those who could afford to pay the necessary ‘taxes’ into the Marcos’s personal accounts. Corporations with family ties were given exclusive rights to mining, oil drilling, sugar cane and pineapple plantations and logging.
  • Family members were given plush positions of authority from ambassadorships to provincial governorships, with all the salaries and perks appropriate to such offices.
  • Extravagance was king. From Imelda’s bulletproof bras and huge shoe collection to private jumbo jets with gold fittings and personally-owned hotels, highways, casinos and clubs, no expense was spared.

But this all started as an honest attempt at being a compassionate and patriotic Filipino and having a desire to not only see the nation gain its independence from its colonial rulers but to also grow to be a world leader and influencer in the region.

*  *  *  *  *

I am reminded how this follows the same pattern that many have chosen—or fallen into, not often intentionally but over time, in many small steps, and often with the best motivations.

In Government, a politician will perhaps start off as a local council member. She will delight in helping her community grow, her constituents succeed, and the residents prosper. All her time will be spent working for the people who elected her. Until she starts moving up the ladder of success to state level. Suddenly, so it seems, she is in Federal Parliament/Congress and has a large staff, huge budget and allowances, and spends little, if any, time in her constituency. Rather, lobbyists wine and dine her. Corporations start courting her vote by depositing large amounts into her election campaign. She takes extravagant first-class trips overseas (or ‘study tours’ as they are called). She starts using the nations funds to pay for private parties, flights and holidays for her family. Corporate bodies court her vote on legislation. She ends up betraying the trust of those she represents and selling out so enlarge her own profits and prospects of employment post-politics—if she makes it that far without a corruption scandal.

A young man decides to attend seminary because he is so passionate about Christian community and wants to invest his life in helping folks just like him to grow spirituality and as a community of faith, making a positive impact in their city. He graduates and secures a Youth Pastor position in a small church (often considered the first step in any ministerial career). He loves his job and the kids more than anything and sinks hours of time and immense portions of his life into nurturing and supporting them through all the ups and downs of teenage life. He marries and has a few children. By now he has accepted a call to a larger church as an Associate Pastor and, what seems like such a short time, becomes Senior Pastor. The Church starts growing in numbers and assets. He hires his friends because ‘why not?’ if they are good for the job. He slowly gets rid of the naysayers in the organisation and, before long, the board is populated with those who agree with his ‘vision’ for the church and who will rubber-stamp anything he puts forward. He starts writing books that become bestsellers. His church expands which results in a new multi-million-dollar high tech campus—or two or three. By now he is much in demand as a speaker at conferences around the world. He is at his own church perhaps half of the Sundays in a year. He buys a bigger house, better cars, spends much of his time on expensive holidays none of his parishioners could afford and, eventually justifies a private jet and commands large ‘love offerings’ wherever he speaks. He looks forward to the time he can retire—if he can keep that indiscretion quiet or that affair on the hush-hush long enough.

* *  *  *  *

In the end, the Marcos Dynasty ended in shame when, after the blatant murder of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Marcos’s foremost critic) by Marcos’s henchmen, and the final corrupted election (1986) where Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, was overwhelmingly swept into power. Ferdinand, Imelda and their children were forced to flee Malacañang Palace and the Philippines under allegations of immense corruption and scandal. They took with them an estimated $5-$10 billion that rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. Corruption that occurred during the Marcos’s era of dictatorship is still evident in the nation and will continue to have a ripple effect in the region for years to come.

Whether a position of power is ‘earned’ or ‘granted,’ we must be very cautious in using it. It can just as easily turn into abuse and manipulation, a distrust of everyone as a possible usurper of our rightful authority, and a beast that will end up destroying our soul. And the question we must always remember is this: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and  lose his own soul?”

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Cleaning Up

I’m into minimalism.

I can’t say I practice it well. I mean, I come from a long line of respected Michigan hoarders. Not in the Hoarders TV show sense, but in the “Let’s buy this / keep this because we never know when we might need it” way of collecting.

hoarders

So, while I continue to evaluate the things I own using the questions–

  • Is it used regularly?
  • Will it be used in the next month?
  • Does it bring me joy?

–I don’t go overboard like some Scandinavian hygge fanatic (although I believe strongly in these principles of living Danishly).

I’ve followed The Minimalists for years: read their books, listened to their podcast, watched their documentary. They were the catalyst that prevented me from joining my ancestors in their hoarding habits.

But . . . when Joshua and Ryan came to Australia earlier this year, and had a ‘show’ at a popular concert venue in my city, I didn’t attend. Not only were the tickets a little higher-priced than expected, but I was surprised to see a ‘meet-and-greet’ ticket for an additional hefty sum. It seemed to me that things were going a little too far and this was becoming a money-making enterprise beyond what had begun as a grassroots ‘live with less’ movement. Then they announced their move to L.A. and the setup of their own recording studio . . . The lure of celebrity for all intents and purposes, had found its prey.

I share this story to say this: sometimes things start off well and show a lot of promise. People are attracted to the potential of a simple idea. Then, before too long, the idea takes on a life of its own and starts expanding. People who originally had led a ‘back to basics’ movement start advertising, building, marketing, promoting and going on speaking tours.

It’s not simple any more.

‘How difficult is it to be simple?’ Vincent Van Gogh is claimed to have asked. It’s not hard at all, really. That is until you start buying into that rhetoric that tells you that this–what you hold in your hands right now–is not enough.

Churches, schools, charities and ministries–even well-intentioned business owners–start with simple core ideas surrounded by some amazing people and end up down the track as very large and complex structures, selling out their values, buying into the dominant popular culture or latest trend. At what cost?

‘For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and loses his own soul?’ the Teacher asks.

When the soul–in this case a symbol of that amazingly simple core value–is lost, it doesn’t matter how attractive you look, how many books you write, how many venues you fill, how awesome your brand is, how much money you bring in, what celebrity status you might have, or what great buildings you build.

It’s time to clean up. To get rid of some of that junk you’ve hoarded. To ditch some (all?) of the labels you’ve accumulated. No, you really don’t need it all. In the long run, it’s not worth the cost. Maybe it’s time for a ‘packing party’ and a sell-donate-or-dump run. Hygge really does have its rewards. Perhaps, it’s time for you to take the advice of a wise old bear and get back to . . .

. . . The bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That’s why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

 *  *  *  *  *

By the way, this is our 400th blog post! There has been a lot of water under the bridge since I started blogging several years ago! If you read through what I’ve posted, you’ll see some subtle changes in my life and way of thinking and some that are more far removed from where I began. I hopefully get around to telling you about these in the next hundred or so posts.

Peace.

Jon

Untitled

Sometimes life is rather plain, ordinary, characterised by keeping the status quo.

We wish it were exciting, full of adventure, high-energy, high-octane, a brilliant grand endeavour lived in full colour, Ultra HD, with cinema sound and Lucasfilm FX.

It’s not.

Even the most awesome lives lived can’t seem to measure up to what we wish for ourselves.

  • We wish for beauty, but find our cheekbones are too high, our nose too long, or our hair fast thinning.
  • We wish for adventure but, instead, find our lives an endless replay of sleeping, working, taking the kids to sports, dance or parties.
  • We wish for meaning, but end up spending 30 years in an average, repetitious job, stuck without promotion or further prospects beyond our cubicle in an office of 100 such spaces on the 13th floor.

In a library containing books of all genres, nations and ages, the story of our life seems to have fallen off the shelf, perhaps into the recycle bin, or (worse) still in the temperamental circuits of computer memory in a file called ‘Untitled.’

SarahPPatricia MacLachlan penned a story in 1985 called Sarah Plain and Tall about a woman who finds her way from East Coast Maine to the hard life of frontier America. She had answered a newspaper ad to be the wife of a farmer who wants nothing more from her than someone to do the cooking, cleaning and chores and be a mother to his two children. While not initially interested in love, having loved and lost once already, the farmer slides (inevitably–a classic novelist’s plot) into a romance that exceeds Sarah’s wildest imaginings.

While there is nothing unique about this story, it struck a chord with its audience so strongly that it developed into a five-book series (‘Saga’ is the bookseller’s term). Winning many awards, and achieving the ultimate reward of a movie deal, this story aims straight at the heart of all those who see themselves as, also, ‘plain and tall’–ordinary, unadorned and simple individuals whose own dreams were most often those of a handsome stranger finding in them that spark of delight and inner beauty.

But this is just a story. Or is this just a story?

It was written with a classic plot line that is known to sell books. Why? Because we all have a deep longing to be loved, valued and hear someone say, “You are mine.”

There is no elixir of love, no life-changing mantra, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But, as taught by minimalists for centuries, there is more to be found in less.

This is our story.

It’s untitled. It’s raw. It’s evolving, growing, developing all the time.

Sometimes–no, make that much of the time–we need to disconnect from the world of celebrity headlines, news broadcasts, and the mindless stimulation of ads to become aware of the beauty that is found in a simple story, an unadorned life, in detachment from the need to have a label, or a title, on our Self.

We must learn, again, how to embrace the ordinary and be exactly who we are knowing that, despite how we look, feel or how our own story is playing out today, we are loved, valued and welcomed by a God who promises to be with us–us plain, ordinary, average people–always.

Stories

Oldthings

I just bought myself a typewriter.

“Seriously? Aren’t you the gadget guy?” you might ask. “Is this replacing your iPad?” (Ha ha. Very funny.)

When I recently visited my parents, I got into a conversation with my mum about her computer. She seems to have never-ending struggles with technology and it so happens I am her resident IT guy.

“I wish I had kept my old typewriter,” she told me, after another troubleshooting session on her seemingly-invalid PC.

I asked her why, with all the features of her new computer, she would want to go back to an old, cumbersome, temperamental beast like a typewriter.

So begun the litany of reasons.

In the end, it wasn’t so much about the computer, nor about its tech-unfriendly operator. It was about what the typewriter represented: a simpler, more straightforward time when no new operating system needed to be learned, no ‘shortcuts’ had to be memorised, and to ‘save’ something you typed it with carbon paper and filed the copy away in the beat-up steel filing cabinet next to your desk.

And the stories!

SctypeHer Smith Corona (similar to the one pictured) had years of history. She had bought it in the States in 1971 and it had travelled with us to Australia. On it she had recorded years of conversations to and from grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and extended family. No doubt every milestone in the life of our growing family had found its way through the keys to be clunk-clunked on to ‘onionskin’ paper (This translucent paper was apparently lighter in weight than standard bond paper and so she could include many more pages in the letter and still pay standard postage.)

Dad used it to type out his sermons and the occasional letter to his brother. I never asked him why he used a typewriter because it was obvious: nobody–not even himself, I think–could read his handwritten scrawl!

The familiar ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ of the typewriter, the ‘ding’ from the little bell that signified the end of a line and the ‘z-i-i-i-p’ sound the carriage made as you flicked the carriage return lever to start a new line echoed through our house every day, providing a semi-rhythmical soundtrack to our family’s life.

When the Smith Corona’s keys had become so misaligned and its carriage started being cantankerous in its desire to let go of the paper at inopportune times, mum invested in an electric typewriter. Later, that was replaced with a Brother ‘Word Processor,’ and, finally, with a computer and printer.

The old things were thrown out, sold, or given to Goodwill to make way for the new, high-tech machines and the accompanying angst in learning new ways of doing stuff.

I reckon it’s amusing to see how we don’t seem to attach the same value to the new things as we did the old things.

They don’t seem to invoke in us the same feelings of nostalgia, the yearning for the days when life was simpler and when things were manufactured to do one job and to last for years. They don’t seem to tell the same stories we hear recited from the memory of things like manual typewriters, inky ribbons and rows of life stamped out on see-through paper.

Typewriters, books, LP records, mum’s ‘special’ china, keepsakes and even fragrances bring back to us a myriad of tales–myths and legends, epics and anecdotes alike–cascading through our minds about who we were and, ultimately, who we became who we are now.

I think about this as I type on my eBay trophy short, thought-provoking sayings–the kind of which can be found on the Instagram pages of most hipsters these days. I recall with fondness a life that was less complicated (I say this as I figure out–ironically using a YouTube video–how to insert a new $10 ribbon, which I had to source from the UK and get ink all over everything.)

And I think I’ve found the answer why older folks tend to hang on to the stuff from their life a lot longer than the next generation believes to be practical: It’s the stories they hold. And I’m finding, as I get older, my memory needs all the help it can get.

 

2017 Advent Reflection

My friend, Stephen Spence, posted this on his blog today. May his words and the imagery he uses bless you and bring you a sense of the place and purpose of the Advent season as a time to reflect, wait and hope.

Rev Dr Stephen Spence's Blog

Advent, the season before Christmas, is a time of waiting. We wait because that which is promised has not yet come in its fullness. It draws its theological strength from, among other things, Luke 1 and the song/prayer of Mary. Advent joins today’s Church with Mary’s longing for the coming Messiah and the early’s Church’s prayer (in the language of Jesus) maranatha – our Lord come!

Waiting in darkness. Troubled by evil – both the Great Horrors and the petty personal pains. Hopeful that this is not all there is; that this is not the way it ought to be. Uncertain whether this hope is built upon a divine promise or upon personal dreams.

Waiting in darkness. Awed by star-lights burning holes of divine promise into a despairing sky: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Daily evidence of a divine presence active within our stories. These…

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What Your Church (Probably) Doesn’t Want You to Know about Giving

It’s the giving season.giving

If you haven’t noticed, you soon will. As Christmas approaches, we will soon be bombarded from all sides by messages urging us to buy expensive gifts for our family and friends. Charities will use this time to raise money for their programs. If you live in the northern hemisphere, Autumn is upon you and many churches and organisations use this season to run pledge drives to underwrite their budgets for the following year (This works so well with back-to-school ‘Homecoming’ or seasonal ‘Thanksgiving’ themes).

Churches rely on gifts from their membership to sustain the many programs they run and to employ staff. Today it seems we must have some sort of structure and this requires finances to maintain.

I am in no way against supporting my local church. If I align myself to a congregation in my community and receive nurturing in that context, it’s only right for me to give to keep the church doors open and support-providing programs running.

What I cannot support, however, is the growing number of pastors, evangelists, and Christian churches and ministries who keep the subject of giving in front of their congregation, constantly reminding and reprimanding them with commands from the Old Testament in order to keep giving to the church/ministry, and promising them God’s blessing if they do so.

Following are four observations I have made about this from my own experience.

Giving to your Church is not the same as giving to your community.

In most cases, over 95% of your community does not have anything to do with your church. While the argument is often made that the church facilitates ‘the work of God’ in the community, statistics fail to support this.

Then there’s the question of what actually is ‘the work of God’? Is it running programs on Sunday to benefit the children of those who attend the church? Is it facilitating a seniors’ ministry on a weekday morning for the elderly church members and their friends? Is it putting on special events to draw in the community in an effort to ‘share the gospel’ with them in exchange for entertainment, food and/or fireworks?

Or is ‘the work of God’ that which Jesus time and time again exemplified in stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Lost Sheep and in such sayings such as found in Matthew 25:35-36–

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

It has been my experience that, whenever churches in the Evangelical tradition speak about ‘Giving,’ they are referring to giving your money to The Church to enable it to run its programs and pay its staff, or giving your time to be on any number of church ministry rosters—from music to making coffee; from cleaning the church to teaching Sunday School.

And, while this is often called ‘giving to the community,’ is more likely has absolutely  nothing to do with the wider community and everything to do with meeting budget and providing programs for the initiated ones.

Giving to your church is not a Biblical requirement.

I had a friend who visited a growing evangelical church in our area a few years ago and I asked him what he thought of it (he is Catholic). He said the service was uplifting, the people were friendly and the sermon was very helpful and practical. Then he shared how, as he entered the door, he saw tables set up and people sitting at either side of them filling in forms and exchanging money. When he asked about this, he was told it was for the purpose of tithing. On one side of the table sat the church elders who were questioning the church’s members about their income the previous week and then taking 10% as a tithe for the work of the church.

Like me, he found that very strange a practice.

But it is common—maybe not so blatantly, but still a popular notion in Christian circles that members are asked (required?) to give at least 10% (the ‘tithe’ is stated as 10% and ‘offerings’ are anything above that).

Others have written extensively about this practice on both sides of the debate. One of the most thorough treatments I have seen has been this one by L. Ray Smith.

In summary, the tithe is an Old Testament ‘tax’ on God’s people to pay for the upkeep of the temple and its priesthood. There are other tithes in Scripture as well—of produce, of stock, and a ‘poor tax.’ Some have estimated that, if we are to be ‘Biblical’ about tithing, we would be giving around 20% of our income, not just one-tenth.

That said, St Paul writes about those who ‘labour in the gospel’ (which we would understand to be those whose only job is full-time service in the Church) to be deserving of payment for their labour (1 Corinthians 9:14), yet he himself didn’t do this just in case people thought he was profiting from his preaching. How unlike many of today’s money-grabbing televangelists.

Giving to your Church is not a measure of faithfulness to Christ.

I am convinced that, many times, church ministries become the conscience-salve we use when we want to stay in a safe, protected environment. It’s the love of the familiar, for those who were raised within its doors. It’s easy because all you need to do is sign up and show up. We won’t be subject to constant swearing, the mentally ill, addicts and we won’t have to give our time to those who we may deem to be ‘unworthy.’ Apart from one morning a week and the occasional evening, we’re not really put out that much at all. And the added benefit is that we will been seen by all our fellow churchgoers to be faithful to Christ. (Should we choose not to be involved, we can still give our money and that will be enough to keep the pastor from calling us, maybe…)

I remember a funeral I attended once where a rather ordinary man in his 60s was being farewelled after a brief battle with cancer.* He wasn’t actively involved in his church, though he was respected by all who knew him. The funeral was simple—a few hymns, a eulogy from his eldest child, and a slide show. Then . . . then the testimonies started. “He regularly volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for those in need.” “He showed up every Thursday at the homeless shelter to serve lunch.” “He visited the local school and helped kids with their reading.” “His neighbours could depend on him any time to help them out.” “His work colleagues were amazed by his positive attitude and caring words.” “He was a blood donor.” “He sponsored three children in Kenya.” “He volunteered with the State Emergency Service.”

What an inspiration! He followed the example of Jesus in giving over and over again and, in his giving, influenced more people than those who sacrificed every cent and every moment of their life to church ministries. His faithfulness to the calling of God in his life was evident inside and outside of the confines of his church circles.

Giving is a lifestyle choice.

Generosity is a choice we make every day when we plan our time, our spending and our priorities. We decide to be generous when we decide to smile and give our co-workers encouragement. We follow the example of Christ when we give to those in need without being asked, begged, or solicited by a door-knocker. We contribute to our community in meaningful ways—not simply as an armchair activist or opinionist. We know the truth of the saying attributed to Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and so we cheerfully dig deep, bring a plate, buy the next round, open our home, give our time and talents to our larger community, not just to those who think the same way we do.

In doing this, we truly show ourselves not only to be people of integrity and purpose, but people who love, following in the generous path of the One who loved humanity and showed it in the generous grace of giving.

_______

*Details have been altered so as not to identify the man or his family.

What did Jesus do?

wwjdThe Christian™ marketplace is flooded with a huge range of memorabilia, gadgets, gizmos, plaques with cute sayings, and symbolic creations meant to entice the Christian’s hard-earned cash away from them and into the pockets of Christian™ entrepreneurs.

And nothing has been such a smashing success as the WWJD brand.

Based on the poignant question ‘What would Jesus do?’ asked in the classic Christian™ novel (before the Christian™ novel became a sanitised Harlequin Romance), In His Steps, this question has been a consistent top-seller in Christian™ book stores, church shops, Christian™ cafes and Christian™ online sellers and market stalls.

Yet, I don’t think the average person who calls themselves by the name of the Christ ever actually stops to think about what Jesus actually did.

Here’s just one of the many things he did–toted as Jesus’s ‘first miracle’–in a little town called Cana and a wedding the details of which have been lost to anonymity.

So what did Jesus do?

John Shore, in his excellent little book I’m OK and You’re Not tells it this way:

What Jesus did that afternoon at that wedding was, to my mind, as powerful a testament to how much he loves people as was his very sacrifice on the cross*. I believe that his choosing to make his first miracle turning all that good water into all that good wine says everything any of us will ever need to know about what Jesus wants our attitude to be toward not just fellow believers, but toward virtually everyone.

It’s a pretty safe bet that Jesus fully understands the power of first impressions, don’t you think? He knew blessing that wedding with more wine than any of its guests could drink would be recorded as his opening miracle. He knew that for as long as people told his story, they’d remember that that was how he first chose to conclusively prove his divinity.

Pretty clearly, he was meaning to tell us something with that choice. And I believe that something was love people just us you find them.

He didn’t lecture the people at that wedding. He didn’t frighten them. He didn’t try to convince them of the error of their ways. He didn’t start dividing them into groups of good and bad. He didn’t in any way interfere with what they were doing. He quietly and without fanfare enhanced what they were doing and that was all.

And what were they doing? Dancing, singing, hugging, whooping it up, crying, and in every way acting like people usually do at wedding receptions: Like they’re celebrating all the tilings about being human that deserve to be celebrated. In a real way that we all understand, there’s nothing more gloriously human than a wedding reception.

And that’s where Jesus decided to launch his ministry.

And that’s how: By doing nothing more dramatic than making sure the lovely couple and all their lovely guests didn’t run out of wine.

And not that cheap, comes-in-a-gallon-jug wine, either. He gave them good wine. He gave them great wine.

Because he wanted them to just keep doing what they were doing

when

he

got

there.

I don’t see how Jesus could have made any clearer what he intended to be his first Big Message to anyone who would ever follow him: Accept and love people exactly as they are when you first meet them.

Go and do likewise.