Counting

1 … 2 … 3 …

Counting.

It could be a game of hide-and-seek. Perhaps it’s a two-year-old learning her numbers. Maybe we’re dealing cards for a quick family round of Uno.

4 … 5 … 6…

Did you learn to count with giant, colourful flash cards? Picture books? By counting the toys on Playschool? Or maybe Count von Count on Sesame Street was your go-to Educator? (1 … ha ha ha … 2 … ha ha ha …)

It seems that we all, from a very early age, began to count things. Toys, books, pencils, cards, candy, peas (maybe if we told mum how many there were, she would have pity on us and not make us eat them!)

counter

And our obsession with quantifying things continued through our teenage years: albums (or CDs), shoes, tops, days until (insert favourite band here) showed up in our city.

19 … 18 … 17 … 16 …

This talent wasn’t lost in the transfer across to our spiritual life. Many churches still seek to quantify ‘spiritual’ activities, assuming the more we do the better people of faith we will be. It could be Bible verses memorised, Rosaries repeated each day, hours spent in prayer or pages in a journal. Unspoken spiritual hierarchies formed based on the things we think we can count.

And no wonder, because it seemed as we were growing up that ‘bums on seats,’ souls ‘saved,’ or baptisms were the measure of the success of a church and religious organisations were ready to do whatever it took to get the numbers up.

146 … 147 … 148 …

It appears that we humans are addicted to measuring and to formulae that we believe will ‘guarantee success.’ We lie awake at night wondering if we have done enough, worrying that we may not reach the nebulous goal of expectations placed on us by our culture, our church, our family, our peers. Our life is overtaken by what we learn in basic mathematics: quantifying every aspect, measuring our goodness, striving to increase our net worth . . . or at least the size and value of our wardrobe.

Surrounded by such a societal norm, Jesus asked the rhetorical question: ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’ (Matthew 6:27 NIV)

Well, can we?

The obvious answer is ‘No.’ But it’s not even the thought of counting our days (or hours–or cubits as the old version reads). In the context, the Rabbi is addressing the ancient art of worrying, fretting, concerning ourselves with the stuff of life that we can’t–or shouldn’t–count.

Look at the grass.

Look at the birds.

Look at the wildflowers.

Glory surrounds you. And this glorious beauty hasn’t gotten where it is by measuring itself against another, by hoarding its possessions, or striving for a greater quantity of anything.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’ 

We do not need to be wrapped up in measuring, accumulating, primping, counting our possessions and Instagramming our latest look. Rather, we need to rest,  enjoy what we have and be content with who we are. I have value. I am worthy. I am beloved of God.

 

 

 

 

 

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?”

I’m Blessed?

Many might say I’ve been blessed.

I have a good life with my wonderful partner, Vicki. I have two great kids who are becoming balanced, well-adjusted young adults (at least I think they evidence this more often than not these days). They both attend a reputable private school and are doing well academically.  We live comfortably in a quiet suburb in a home that is around halfway paid off. I have a good job that bring great satisfaction, working with caring and talented people. I drive a decent car, eat healthy food, don’t suffer from any major diseases or health problems, belong to a good church and count it a privilege to have some good friends and a loving family. I’m not boasting; things aren’t perfect, but my life is relatively good.

I’m ‘blessed.’

But . . . what about my neighbour who suffers from ill health constantly? What about my friend who lost his wife to cancer? What about my work colleague who isn’t experiencing the same sort of thrill from her job as I am? What about my buddy who lost his job recently and now stands to lose his home? The list that goes on indefinitely, including the people who recently lost all in tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, and epidemics. Some live in third world countries where poverty is a given. Some only have one small meal a day . . . or every other day.

Rather than seeing my life as being one graced with material ‘blessings,’ I would say that I am fortunate. I have the good fortune to have been born in a nation that enjoys a high standard of living, has good hospitals, infrastructure, schools, safe workplaces, and abundant crops. I am fortunate to have been born into a loving family and to have completed, without much struggle, a university education.

But if I say ‘I am blessed’ as evidenced by all these circumstances, relationships and possessions, then that implies there are some who are cursed (evidenced by a lack of what I have) or, at the best, not blessed as I have been.

I cannot believe that God would choose to favour me with all sorts of earthly gifts as a sign of his blessing and leave my neighbour, whom God loves just as much as me, with so little of the same. Certainly if the rain falls on ‘the just and the unjust,’ then God does not show favouritism in blessing one and withholding the blessing from another.

We are surely fortunate. But I dare say this has, if anything, robbed us of the blessings that can only be discovered when we are not distracted by glitz and glamour of things. The blessings of God–love, peace, hope, joy–fall on those whose hands are most ready to receive, those hearts are not listening to the call of ‘more’ and whose eyes are fixed on the Giver of every perfect gift rather than on poor substitutes.

My fortunate life may, in fact, keep me from realising the greatest blessings of all. . . . something which many of those we would not immediately see as ‘blessed’ understand and enjoy better than we.

Who, then, is truly fortunate?

Exposing the Unbobtanium Economy

In the wake of the wild success of the movie Avatar, comes a story about a real-life Pandora, the Unobtanium mines, and corporate greed. It’s set in a remote rainforest in central Africa and you can read all about it in Brian McLaren’s blog.

Relating this to the overall unfolding drama of greed and big money, McLaren points out the way our weekly worship should expose the destructive elements of the world’s narrative (an economy built on the reckless extraction of our own version of Unobtanium) and bring about a transformation, a sacred connection, capturing an Avatar image, to the tree of life.

McLaren writes:

“Novelist Walker Percy suggested that descending into the darkness of a movie theater is like descending into Plato’s cave, as on the wall, shadows trace the story of the world outside. I think he would agree that something similar happens in the sacred drama of worship week by week. Through the stories that unfold on the screen – and in the biblical narrative, we have a chance to see ourselves, come to ourselves, and turn in a new direction.

“Through good art and good religion, our world’s extractive, destructive, and violent economies can be exposed – for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. As the credits roll and as the benediction is pronounced, we must walk out into the world imagining what may seem impossible: the creation of a new kind of economy – an ecologically regenerative, financially sustainable, socially responsible, and morally defensible economy of connection. That kind of economy will steer us away from rather than into Gandhi’s seven deadly sins:

“Wealth without Work
Pleasure without Conscience
Science without Humanity
Knowledge without Character
Politics without Principle
Commerce without Morality
Worship without Sacrifice”

The Capitalism Question

I have a friend in the USA with whom –through the wonder of the Internet–I’ve had several disagreements about various religious beliefs and political issues. She is ultra-conservative, a die-hard Republican and fundamentalist Christian. What strikes me most about her point of view is that she consistently speaks of capitalism as ‘God’s way’ and ‘backed by Scripture,’ and socialism as ‘the devil’s way’ and ‘evil.’ She was none too vocal during the most recent election campaign (and since) proclaiming her good news of the triumph of good (to be read ‘God’) over communist, socialist, fascist liberals (into which camp I, and most of Australia, was dumped).

The recent blog post (you can read it here) by Brian McLaren shows how what many deem to be sacred can actually encourage greed, covetousness, murder, hatred and the worship of other gods above the One. Given the money-centered culture we are part of and often subscribe to, it’s a challenging read.

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In fairness, the principles of the free market can be harnessed compassionately to help those struggling with generational poverty and desperate need. I think of businesses who ‘trade not aid’ or micro-finance organisations such as Kiva.org who help thousands of people help themselves. Then there’s the other end of the charity spectrum: huge multinational corporations sinking millions into charity projects–perhaps, relatively speaking, not as generously as dedicated non-profits, but effective nonetheless. Many books have been written about what has been called ‘compassionate capitalism’ and here is a short article about it on the Suite 101 blog.

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Regardless of what we choose to believe about the 21st Century’s ‘isms,’ the words of Jesus should still command our attention and action:

“Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:9, NIV)