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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Massachusetts and Haiti

Massachusetts:

Only four U.S. states (HI, VT, RI, NY) had a greater margin of victory for Obama in the 2010 presidential election than Massachusetts (25.81%). All 10 congressional districts in Massachusetts are represented by democrats. These districts have voted for the democrat in the last 3 presidential elections by an average margin of 27.3 percentage points. The Massachusetts state legislature is overwhelmingly democratic. Undeniably,Massachusetts is as “blue” as the deep blue sea.

A republican victory by Scott Brown in the race for the Senate seat held for nearly 47 years by Ted Kennedy would be shocking, to say the least. It would indeed be the strongest of repudiations against the policies of theObama administration—especially Obamacare. Brown has campaigned against the current health care legislation as “the 41st vote” in the U.S. Senate. This has certainly helped his cause—perhaps more than any other single issue. Brown has also campaigned against the rampant spending currently taking place in Washington. This has also resonated with Massachusetts voters.

On Christmas Eve, as Senate Democrats finally passed a health care bill, 92-year-old Robert Byrd shot his finger into the air to signal his “yes” vote. “This,” the Democrat called out from his wheelchair, “is for my friend Ted Kennedy.” Since Kennedy’s death in August of last year, Democrats have invoked the late Senator’s name multiple times in the push for health care legislation. In late December, Ted Kennedy’s widow Vicki penned an op-ed in the Washington Post urging his colleagues “to finish the work of his life.”

Barney Frank recently said that if Brown wins, health care legislation is dead. How rich would the irony be if, in one of the most liberal states in the U.S., republicans win a seat that was held by the man who made universal health care his “life’s work” and thus, effectively defeat this cause?


Haiti

If you had doubts about the Christian heritage of the United States, the recent tragedy in Haiti again brings to light the influence Jesus Christ has in America. Even before the earthquake struck the small island nation, Christians were very active there. According to the New York Times’ David Brooks (see here), “More than 10,000 organizations perform missions… in Haiti. By some estimates, Haiti has more nongovernmental organizations per capita than any other place on earth.”

A recent publication from a large local church in my area noted that tens of thousands of meals were provided for Haitians from that church alone each month. As I wrote in 2008, Americans are the most generous people on the earth. In July of 2008, WORLD Magazine reported that, “A new study by the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Prosperity says that Americans account for 45 percent of all philanthropic giving worldwide. Not only is that significantly more than any other nation on earth, it's also dramatically more on a per capita basis. One example: The average American gives 14 times more to charity than the average Italian.”

For the most part, this generosity is a by-product of the Christian influence in America. As calls for aid to Haiti continue, I propose that it will be the followers of Christ who will answer the call most emphatically and efficiently.

President Obama recently pledged $100 million for Haiti relief. However, as Brooks points out, the world’s governments have given trillions of dollars in aid to poor nations the world over, to little or no avail. The truth is,Brooks notes, that “we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.” He’s right. Government doesn’t really know what it’s doing when it comes to delivering “aid,” but followers of Jesus do.

As I noted regarding the Tiger Woods saga, the only real hope for Haiti, now or before the quake, lies with Jesus Christ. After the earthquake, Pat Robertson made very controversial statements as to the reasons behind the disaster.

Robertson blamed the tragedy on something that “happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” The Haitians, he said, “were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it's a deal.’”

Robertson, of course, has been skewered in the media since his statements (perhaps somewhat deservedly). Interestingly, Brooks (certainly not someone who would describe himself as “spirit-filled”), in his NY Times column said, “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.”

Whatever the “cause,” certainly what is happening in Haiti is a tragedy that deserves the love and attention of Christians worldwide. Just as certain is that there are spiritual forces at work in Haiti that need the prayer and attention of followers of Jesus Christ.

The book of Genesis records the words of Joseph, the son of Israel (Jacob), who revealed himself to his brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” What the enemy means for evil, God means for good. As I wrote last year, “God Himself never let a crisis ‘go to waste.’ What better opportunity to reveal Himself to so many who seem to have forgotten that He was ever there.” Haiti is no exception.

Copyright 2010, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World

tthomas@trevorgrantthomas.com

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Living Debt Free

Having entered a new year, no doubt many folks have been pondering what resolutions they should take on in order to improve their lives. Given our current economic climate, one excellent resolution for countless American families would be to become debt free.

In today's culture of instant gratification, easy credit, and stifling debt, more and more Americans are finding themselves in financial disasters. Foreclosures have been at record levels, with even the lenders themselves going under. The consequences are staggering: broken homes, broken marriages, bankruptcy, criminal behaviors, stress-related health problems, and so on. Sadly, many Americans are learning the hard way the truth of the Proverb which says, "The borrower is slave to the lender."

When it comes to personal finances, the recent recession has certainly gained the focus of an otherwise ADD-afflicted America. According to the Barna Group, a January 2008 report showed that, "Americans are troubled by a diverse palette of concerns. Three types of issues are of particular concern, perceived as ‘major' problems facing the country." Leading the way, with 78% listing it as a "major problem," was the personal debt of individual Americans.

The personal debt of Americans has reached epic proportions. A few months ago, David Beim, a professor at the Columbia Business School noted that "currently consumers owe $13 trillion [while the] GDP is $13 trillion. That is a ton." In other words, U.S. households have debt that is equal to the total U.S. economy. According to Beim, this happened only once before in U.S. history: 1929.

Our current recession, just as with any other, had many contributing factors. However, most experts agree that this recession, which began in late 2007, was mostly caused by the so-called subprime mortgage crisis. Blame for this crisis has been laid at the feet of various entities.

Whoever is to blame, tens of millions of Americans are suffering as a result. In my state of Georgia, according to the National Bankruptcy Research Center, between January and November of last year, one in 50 Georgia households declared bankruptcy. Nationwide, during the same period, personal bankruptcies were up 32%. As the Wall Street Journal recently put it, "never...underestimate [U.S. consumers'] willingness to spend beyond their means."

For the United States to recover from this financial disaster, one thing is certain: American families, businesses, churches, governments, and so on need a much more cautious attitude toward debt. Given that the family is the foundation of all institutions, this attitude must begin in the family.

What would it mean to you to be totally debt free? How would you feel if your home were completely paid off? What if you had no car payments and no overdue credit card payments? Can you imagine the peace? If you're married, can you imagine never fighting about money?

I'm 40 years old, and for the last 10-plus years of my life my wife Michelle and I have had zero debt. We are not, nor have we ever been, wealthy, at least by secular American standards. I have been a public and private school teacher for the last 17 years. Michelle has worked full and part-time for a Christian ministry throughout our marriage, but for the past eight years she has been mostly a stay-at-home wife and mother.

Michelle and I married in early 1998. Just after our wedding, we began to pay off about $25,000 in consumer debt. Despite having combined annual incomes that were only slightly above the U.S. median, we accomplished our goal in about 14 months. During that 14 month period we committed ourselves never again to go into debt—not for cars, vacations, or even a home. (A video of our personal testimony from Crown Financial Ministries can be seen here.)

Over the last 10 years, after paying off our initial debt, through the "blessing of the Lord," we have been able to: 1.) Build a debt-free, 3500-square-foot home (over about a 4 year period, acting as our own contractors); 2.) Bring four beautiful children into the world (with Michelle being a stay-at-home mom) and all the expenses that go along with them; 3.) Purchase five (used) vehicles with cash (average cost approx. $10k); 4.) Place approx. $25k in emergency savings (not including my retirement); 5.) Begin to fund college saving accounts for each of our children.

I take almost no credit for where we are financially. Michelle has always been more financially disciplined than me. Early in our marriage, through her efforts and the ministry founded by Larry Burkett, Christian Financial Concepts (now Crown Financial Ministries, www.crown.org), I embraced the simple, wise truths put forth in Scripture concerning money and debt. In other words, we are where we are financially by the grace and wisdom of God.

There are two key principles with which I believe everyone who is serious about properly managing his or her money must come to grips: 1.) Budgeting and 2.) Stewardship.

A budget is a tool. All it does is tell you when you've spent what you've agreed to spend in any particular area throughout a given time period. A good budget, one that is formal and written out, is essential in maintaining a healthy bottom line.

A budget can help keep you from overspending in any particular pay period or in any particular area, help you plan for non-regular expenses, such as car repairs, and help you plan for your financial future. Establishing a budget can be a lengthy process. It can take as long as a full year to get a budget working well, but the benefits are certainly worth the hard work involved.

Our budget has played an essential role in helping us weather these difficult financial times. I despise the rise in gas and food prices that we have experienced over the last few years. Being a family of six on a single income, these increases have hit us hard. Our budget is in constant flux, but it helps us see the adjustments in spending that we need to make, and therefore maintain sound financial discipline.

The second principle, stewardship, is the most important one. Only when we understand, as Scripture teaches, that none of us really "owns" anything, can we truly have the right perspective on money and wealth. The Bible says, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." We are merely stewards, or managers, of His property. If you want peace in your life when it comes to your finances, you must first accept your role as a steward.

Our situation was and is a unique one; I certainly would not recommend that anyone do things exactly as we did them. Our path was truly "a calling." However, I hope our story encourages those who are looking for direction in their financial lives. We applied tried and true, simple financial principles by which we are still living. These principles would benefit most anyone.

Copyright 2010, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World
tthomas@trevorgrantthomas.com

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Brit Hume Was Right

On a recent Fox News panel, the trials and tribulations of Tiger Woods was a brief topic. Former Fox anchor Brit Hume had this to say: “He’s said to be a Buddhist; I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be: ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith, and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’”

Of course, Hume’s comments caused liberals in the media (which is like saying “teenagers at the prom”) to go nuts. Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution implied Hume was arrogant and declared him to be “pompous” along with “rude and crass.” Bookman also used the all too familiar liberal line that, “faith is a private matter between that person and God.”

Later, in an interview about his comments, when Hume stated that “It is certainly true in secular America today that the most controversial two words you can ever utter in a public space are ‘Jesus Christ,’” Bookman said that Hume’s conclusion was “absurd.”

MSNBC anchor David Shuster declared that Hume had somehow “denigrated” and “diminished” Christianity. MSNBC business columnist Eve Tahmincioglu, on the Huffington Post, warned us to “Beware the Brit Humesin Your Office.” She added that, “The fact that a journalist -- and I use that term loosely as it pertains to Hume -- would go on a national news show and put down another high-profile individual's faith should tell all of us that religious bigotry, and bigotry as a whole, is a growing problem in this country.”

Tom Shales of the Washington Post said that Hume’s comments were sure to be “one of the most ridiculous” statements of the year and insisted that Hume should apologize. Of course, Keith Olbermann had to chime in, and essentially agreeing with Bookman, stated that we should, “keep religious advocacy out of public life.” Olbermann then went on to compare Hume, and those like him, to terrorists, suggesting that “the worst example” of this kind of “proselytizing” are “jihadists.”

Around this same time last year, when liberals were in a similar tizzy over Obama’s decision to have Rick Warren pray during the presidential inauguration, I wrote (see here) that “Many outside of Christianity, and many who feign to be a part of it, have an especially distorted view about what it means to be a follower of Christ. They seem eager to embrace His message of love and forgiveness, as well they should, but they easily forget His message of repentance and salvation. Also, they fail to notice that He was and is, of all things, a very controversial and divisive figure.”

Consider these words or accounts of Jesus: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:34-39).”

Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent (Matt.11:20).” “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:34-35).” “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out (Mark 9:43).”

Brit Hume was right; it is absolutely true that the two most controversial words anyone can utter are “Jesus Christ.” Christ Himself essentially said the same thing: “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:20).” “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me(Matthew 24:9).” “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11).”

Also, Jesus Christ NEVER claimed that a person’s faith was a private matter. That is frequently-uttered nonsense by many non-Christians, and even by some Christians. Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).”

As I pointed out in my column on Tiger, his only hope for true healing and redemption lies in finding a relationship with God. The only path to this relationship is through Jesus Christ. Of course, this invitation is not only for Tiger, but for all of us, for we have all been in a similar place as Tiger. Those of us who have made a decision for Christ know of the peace, joy, hope, forgiveness, and love we have in Him. It would be “rude and crass” not to reveal this to others.

Copyright 2010, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World
tthomas@trevorgrantthomas.com