Friday, September 26, 2008

Panicked Yet?

"The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" cried Chicken Little.

"Wolf! Wolf!" yelled the shepherd boy in Aesop's fable.

Both tales are cautionary and highly applicable to America and the world right now. Believing that the nation's economy will cave if it does nothing, the U.S. government is about to commit $700 billion dollars, at last estimate, to a bailout scheme for quasi-governmental mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. At the moment of this writing, the details of the plan are sketchy—in fact, in flux, as nothing has been agreed upon—but among the speculated results are a massive governmental takeover of America's financial sector, or at least the housing market; limited oversight of the Treasury Secretary, who will ramrod the effort; and very little blame for the political and financial actors who caused this mess in the first place. When the sky is falling, who cares about free markets, oversight, and responsibility?

We should beware when our leaders urge us that some action must be taken "immediately" to fend off some looming crisis. Every blue moon, there is an actual crisis that must be handled expediently, but most of the time, the crisis is either not as dire as advertised or entirely contrived. Such is the case with our health care "crisis." Candidates for office wring their hands and tell us how terrible it is that some forty million Americans do not have health insurance and that government should step in and give it to them for free.

While the U.S. Census Bureau reports that there may be forty million among us without health insurance, at least twelve million of them are illegal aliens, another ten million or so are young and healthy people who have voluntarily chosen not to buy health insurance, another few million are in some way self-insured, and a significant number are between jobs and only temporarily uninsured. In actuality, it is estimated that only 29% of this forty million figure are involuntarily uninsured, thus about twelve million people, a number that is in no way critical.

As mentioned above, the politicians say this government health insurance would be free. Free to whom? There are no free lunches. Someone must pay for the care given by hospitals, doctors, nurses, and other caregivers. That "someone" is the American taxpayer. Politicians often point to Canadian, British, or Nordic national health systems as models, but they never tell the voter how much the citizens of those nations pay in taxes for their "free" medical care. According to a March 2005 CBS News article, the average Canadian family spends about 48% of its income in taxes, and in Ontario, for instance, about 40% of that is used to fund health care. If an American "free" health care system followed Canada's lead, the taxpayer could see what he pays in taxes jump by as much as 20%. Suddenly, "free" health care is quite expensive!

This is not to mention the horror stories about long waiting lists, even for what might be considered critical care. Certainly, many of these are isolated anecdotes, but it has been shown that both service and quality of care diminish after a government takes over a health care system. Care becomes rationed, and even more than by HMOs, procedures are frequently denied on the basis of age, weight, or some other supposedly disqualifying factor such as alcohol, nicotine, or drug use. In addition, care is often sacrificed to pay for the huge bureaucracy needed to handle the new system. Beyond that, public sector agencies are notorious for creating an environment of conformity and lethargy, discouraging quality service and innovation (just go to the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles to see this at "work").

Now, we need to think about the current economic crisis in these same terms. Is it truly a crisis? What is hiding behind the statistics that the media are throwing at us? What are the politicians not telling us? What are the hidden costs? Will lawmakers load the bill with political "extras," adding yet more debt and overregulation? Can the government really provide better oversight than the market? Will this bailout create another monster bureaucracy run by unelected and essentially untouchable executives? Do the American people really have any say in the matter?

Let us assume that this particular "crisis" is all about sub-prime mortgages and nothing else. What is the best way to solve this problem? Long-time mortgage expert Roger Schlesinger, in a recent column titled "What Am I Missing?" makes the case that this is actually a banner opportunity for moneyed investors to buy up foreclosed homes on the cheap. The fly in the ointment, however, is that both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have restricted investors to a small number of loans, required large down payments, and tacked on punitive points, all of which discourages those with money from coming to the rescue of the housing market. In the end, Fannie and Freddie are actually extending the housing crisis rather than helping to solve it. This is government at its finest.

Time will tell if this financial mess is a true crisis or a manufactured calamity designed to amass governmental power, benefit a particular Presidential candidate, sell out the nation to the international system, shield the responsible parties from prosecution, or all of them combined. What is evident is the stirring of fear among the populace that could build to a fever-pitch—from concern to worry to alarm and finally to hysteria and panic. The rhetoric of fear is increasing with each news cycle.

While Franklin Roosevelt's famous dictum resonates in these unsettling times just as it did during the Great Depression ("[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance"), perhaps we really need to fear, not the illness, but the cure. If the politicians and the media are so eager to sell Americans this bailout, we should be worried about what is in store for us on the other side. As the saying goes, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know."

The resurrected Christ tells the church of Smyrna, "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer" (Revelation 2:10). If we are faithful and fear God rather than the distressing circumstances swirling about us, He will see us through them (Ecclesiastes 8:12).

Friday, September 12, 2008

At the Father's Right Hand

Down through the centuries since the lifetime of Jesus Christ, despite the Bible's injunction against making images of God, artists have depicted probably every scene from the gospels. However, many of them have chosen to portray one of two vignettes from His life: Jesus as a baby in His mother's arms or as crucified Savior. In each case, they depict Him as needy and powerless—either dependent on His mother or dying or dead.

Much of modern Christianity follows the same dual-themed template in its preaching and worship. Each year we are barraged by the imagery of the baby Jesus in the iconography of the interminable Christmas season. While it is certainly wonderful to realize that God came in the flesh to dwell among men (John 1:14), this world's Christianity and its prolonged emphasis on Christmas tends to "freeze" Him in the position of a cute little baby for all time, ignoring His greater purposes and works.

In addition, the constant refrain, especially of the evangelical set, is "Have you been saved?" Again, their question is undoubtedly sincere, and it is hard to fault their missionary zeal. Yet, it seems that their only goal is to call as many people forward as they can to pray the prayer of salvation, accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. "Jesus Christ died to save you from your sins" is a true statement—and thank God that He did!—but He did not remain on the cross any more than He stayed in the manger. With those wonderful works accomplished, He has moved on to even better things.

The apostle Paul is eager to point this out in Romans 5:10: "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (emphasis ours). Certainly, the Easter holiday—as paganized as it is with its use of fertility symbols like bunnies and eggs—proclaims the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but its impact on society and nominal Christians is feeble. About the most that those who call themselves Christians get from it—and even this is only partly true—is that Christ's resurrection opens the way for them to get to heaven and enjoy eternal life. So much for the meek "shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5)!

But notice carefully what Paul writes: "We shall be saved by His life." Most people seem to think that we are saved by His death, but that is a false concept! We are justified by His death; our sins are forgiven and we are proclaimed righteous once covered by the blood of Christ. Our salvation, however, hangs on the fact that Jesus Christ is now alive forever!

Imagine that Jesus, sinless and perfect, had paid for our sins through the sacrifice of Himself in our stead, yet He did not rise from the dead. What would have been the result? We would still have payment for our past sins once we accepted Him as our Savior, but that would be all. There would be no hope of a resurrection, no chance of eternal life, because, in this scenario, Christ never opened the way, never having become "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). He would never have conquered death and never have been crowned with glory and honor to share with other sons and daughters of God (see Hebrews 2:10-16).

Further, had Jesus remained dead in the tomb, never having risen to spiritual life or ascending to heaven to take His place at the Father's right hand (Hebrews 1:2-4; 10:12), mankind would still be cut off from God. We would have no opportunity to enjoy a relationship with the Father. Why? Because the living Jesus Christ is the Mediator between man and God (I Timothy 2:5). The author of Hebrews writes:

But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens. . . . (Hebrews 7:24-26)

Later, he urges us to enter the Father's throne room with boldness and "in full assurance of faith" by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22) for the purpose of strengthening our relationship with the Father. Paul explains, "It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us" (Romans 8:34).

On the night of His arrest, Jesus tells His disciples, "It is to your advantage that I go away [to the Father]; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send [it] to you" (John 16:7). Among His many duties, Christ is responsible for dispensing the Holy Spirit to God's people, giving them the power to understand God's will and to put it into practice. Hand in hand with this is His position as "head of the body, the church" (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 5:23). He directs and controls all the works of the church, raising up servants to further God's purpose and prepare a people as "firstfruits of His creatures" (James 1:18; Revelation 14:4).

As Head of the church and our sinless Savior, He is also the perfect Judge of all men (John 5:27; II Timothy 4:8; I Peter 4:5), and now "the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God" (I Peter 4:17). In the book of Revelation, Christ writes letters of evaluation to seven churches, representative of all His people down through the ages (Revelation 2-3). These letters are His judgment of the major attitudes of God's people, especially those in the time of the end, for He makes frequent allusions to His return (Revelation 2:5, 16, 25; 3:3, 11, 20).

He begins the body of each letter with the words, "I know your works." Being alive and in power at God's right hand, He is intimately aware of what we are doing. Since He desires greatly that we attain eternal life in His Kingdom, He warns us through these letters to make the changes necessary to please God. His primary job is to bring each of us into the Family of God to share endless years of loving companionship and creativity with Him and His Father. So we will be saved by His life—because He lives, we will be given salvation. Jesus assures us, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-28).

Now that is good news!