Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Friends with Some Turkeys

I am developing a friendship with a flock of wild turkeys as I drive into my office. I have seen them almost daily in a small pasture surrounded by a grove of scrub trees. Oh they probably have not seen me. If they have, I am just another in a series of endless cars that create noise in their silent world. But they don't seem to care. They just continue snapping up those last few bugs that dare to defy the frosty October mornings. The other morning, I was treated to "Tom" strutting his stuff before his lady friends. I think he was trying to impress them, but they seemed to pay no attention. I have to say that I miss my turkey-friends on those morning when my pathway takes me another direction, or they stay hidden among the scrub trees.

Now I know what you are thinking: Where is Max going with this bit on turkeys? Okay, it is a fair question. And maybe I am not sure myself where it is going. But I am reminded that it was Benjamin Franklin who strongly suggested that the national bird for the United States be...yes, you guessed it...the wild turkey. We all know the turkey lost out to the bald eagle. And, maybe it was a deserving loss. But the more I read about wild turkeys the more respect I have for them. Did you know that they are among the most intelligent of birds? I know that seems like a contradiction when you look at them. That head...could God have made anything more ugly than the head of a turkey? When many other species of birds were hunted to extinction...the turkey survived. That is a sure sign of intelligence.

I know there is something majestic about an eagle. Seeing one swoop down upon the waters of a lake and grab a large walleye literally can take one's breath away. And I know that they can soar, almost unimpeded, in the high elevations. Turkeys can't catch fish...I am not even sure they enjoy fish. And turkeys can't fly very far. But a wild turkey has a sense of pride about it. It is quick to defend its territory, almost fearlessly.

So I got to thinking...perhaps old Ben was right in his opinion that America should have a turkey as its symbol. There is a sense of pride we have as Americans. And there is a tenacity we exhibit when our territory is threatened. So, the next time someone says that "I am a turkey," perhaps I will respond with a "thank you."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thoughts on a Gloomy Afternoon

This is one of those rainy, dreary fall days. The temperature is only near 50. The trees are quickly shedding their canopy of leaves today as the blustering wind whips the rain upon them. One can close his eyes and almost begin to see the makings of snowflakes in the air. (Hopefully, it will be several weeks before they actually materialize. But, this is Minnesota!)

The gloomy skies seem to reflect the gloomy attitude many Americans are having right now. Third quarter earnings reports are beginning to come in. Unless you truly enjoy those dollar value menu items at McDonalds, the earnings reports leave you with a less than exhilarated feeling. Houses are still not selling, or if they do sell, prices are often below what is still owed on the mortgage. Small businesses are closing doors because of tight credit and impending fears of an Obama presidency where capital gains taxes will be significantly increased. Major industries are laying off people by the thousands, creating one of the highest unemployment figures seen in recent years. And still the winds continue to blow.

In a couple of weeks, Americans will be making some critical decisions that will impact our country for the next decade or even longer. To me, the clarity between the two candidates could not be more well defined. Yet the majority of people are clamoring for change. As if change will stop the winds from blowing. As if change will suddenly make all their lost money return. As if change will cause their jobs to return. Change will come...but, I believe about all it will do is to change the direction from which the wind blows.

So, on this gloomy afternoon in the Twin Cities, I am reminded of the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ. He is unchanging. His promises are absolutely certain. His Word is infallible. And His plan is invincible. When we are anchored to Him, we are enabled to stand strong when the winds of change overtake us. Now that thought can part the clouds and bring a note of cheer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Whatever Happened to an Old Fashioned Debate?

Tonight marks the last of the three presidential debates. The topics for the dialogue between John McCain and Barack Obama focus upon domestic issues...but you can rest assured that heading the list will be the continued economic uncertainty. We will sit in front of our television screens for ninety minutes listening to "sound byte quality" responses to artificially formatted questions. Then for the next two or three days we will hear political pundits tell us what the two candidates really said. What an insult to my intelligence! I have just heard with my own two ears what has been said...and they are already telling me what I heard? How have they had proper time to really wrestle with the words and with the concepts that were shared? Maybe those people think more quickly than I do. But I certainly don't want their opinions to influence the opinion that I will formulate.

We call what will happen tonight a debate. Actually I am more inclined to call it a scripted dialogue. This past summer I had the privilege of being in Springfield, IL during the first weekend of the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest political dialogues ever in American history...the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Now, my friends, those were true debates. There was no artificial time-element to them. Why, they were just getting started after ninety minutes. Of course people in those days had nothing else to do, so could commit time to listen carefully to the thoughts of each man. And listen they did. From Freeport to Cairo and to places in between, Abraham Lincoln (the challenger) and Stephen Douglas (the incumbent) campaigned for the Senate seat from Illinois. When one reads portions of those debates, the reader becomes impressed with the tenacity of each candidate to the positions being held. They carved into each other's personalities. These were not responses that would garner 20 seconds on the Nightly News. No, they were published word-for-word by leading newspapers of the day.

When election day came, Lincoln lost his campaign for the United States Senate. But, he had begun to win the election for the White House two years later.

I realize that we need some type of time constraint in today's world. But I often wish we could just allow the candidates the opportunity to freely express their positions...not just those words that we want to hear. I do not even see the candidates writing many editorial position papers these days. Perhaps the candidates are motivated by this statement: If I tell the people what they want to hear, then they will vote for me; but if I tell them what they need to hear, then I will lose their vote.

Just a postscript to the Lincoln-Douglas Debate. When Lincoln was elected President in 1860 (by the way his opponent was once again Senator Douglas), Senator Douglas cast aside party animosity and became a strong supporter of Lincoln until his death during the first year of Lincoln's Presidency. So, now you know the rest of the story.

Listen with care this evening...but don't let anyone tell you what you heard. You make that decision for yourself.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tyre and Wall Street: An Interestng Comparison

This fall I have had the privilege of teaching a class titled, "Isaiah: Comfort My People." We are going through the book paragraph by paragraph, trying, as much as possible, to ignore chapter and verse divisions. (I must admit that this is easier said than done. And I have come to appreciate those divisions for normal study).

Last night we entertained thoughts from Isaiah 23. This is the final "burden" or "oracle" Isaiah directs against one of the nations of his day. The target in this chapter is Tyre, a city located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in what is today Lebanon. It was a city established by the Phoenicians, a group of people who became famous for their seafaring trade. One commentator said of Tyre that is was comparable to Wall Street of today. It was the business center of the world. It was the capital of the financial markets of the world. It was the hub for the commercial enterprises that traded around the world.

In this chapter, Isaiah sees the collapse of Tyre, crushed by the invading Assyrians. Isaiah is pretty straight forward when he writes in verse 14: Your fortress is destroyed! The response of the world is one of panic and grief. The grain markets of Egypt suffer because the ships of Tyre sail no more, thus providing no means for the grain to be shipped. Ships, waiting to be unloaded along Tyre's piers, now ponder what to do with their cargoes. All seems so hopeless. All seems so lost.

As our class dialogued through this chapter last night, we were struck with the parallels with our current financial disasters. Wall Street has been the "king of the hill" in the financial world. It has been the hub of the financial world. Other countries had patterned their financial institutions after those of Wall Street. As Wall Street succeeded so did other financial markets around the globe. But, in recent weeks we have seen the collapse of Wall Street. Bankruptcies and bailouts have become synonymous with Wall Street endeavors today. This week we began to see the collapse and panic within the financial sectors of other nations. The Russian financial market even stopped trading. Both Britain and Germany have taken steps to nationalize some of their financial institutions in order to keep them solvent. Quite literally, the economy of the world is teetering on the brink of a chaotic collapse.

Why is this happening? I believe Isaiah gives us an answer. It is found in verse 9: The LORD Almighty planned it, to bring low the pride of all glory and to humble all who are renowned on the earth. God "knocked Tyre off its perch" by having it destroyed. Could this present financial unrest be God's way of awakening us to the errors of our prideful judgments and prideful dependencies upon the government and dollars for our security? Certainly this should be a time for national examination. Upon whom or upon what are we depending? Unfortunately, these are not the questions driving our current election debate.

I invite you to carefully read Isaiah 23. Then ask God how you might be used to testify to your neighborhood that God is in control and that we need to place our confidence in Him.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wow! What a Ride!

Wow! What a roller coaster ride! And I am not talking about the one at the Mall of America or Six Flags or any other amusement park. You get on those coasters expecting to be scared within an inch of your life. (Personally, I avoid them like the plague. I don't like intentional trauma!) No, the roller coaster I am talking about is the wild ride we have experienced the past several weeks on Wall Street. Up 200 points...then down 300 points. Down 700 points...then up 500 points. And so it see-saws back and forth. It really is enough to make one reach for the Dramamine, doesn't it?

There is no question that the financial world is teetering on the brink of a major collapse. Banks that survived the Great Depression of the 30's have closed their doors during the Great Recession (and some economist have even hesitated to use that term) of 2008. The paper value of the losses experienced in just one day this past week totaled nearly $1 trillion. Can you comprehend that figure? I certainly can't. I wrestle to understand what a million dollars would be like. Shoot, I am not certain I even understand what $10,000 really is all about. A trillion dollars is a lot of money to just vaporize into thin air. And all of us contributed to that loss. (I jokingly told a colleague that, because of what happened this past Monday, I will need to add a couple of extra years before I can retire...perhaps you will need to do the same).

Of course the blame game is raging hot and heavy. Washington politicians blame the corrupt practices on Wall Street. Financial experts blame the apathy toward which Washington had anticipated this collapse. Caught in the middle...wondering just what happened...stands you and me. And we don't know who to blame.

I read an interesting verse from Proverbs this past week that I think really speaks to the cause of the collapse of our financial markets. It is Proverbs 15:27, which states: A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live. I believe the ultimate cause is the greed of man. The dictionary defines greed as: excessive desire for acquiring or having; desire for more than one needs or deserves. Wall Street CEO's just wanted a little more. American investors just wanted a little bit more. Politicians just wanted a little bit more. And it was that focus upon the "little bit more" that led to all types of financial instruments being created that people knew could not withstand the eventual storms that would come. But we were willing to take those risks because we wanted a "little bit more."

What does Solomon say happens to the greedy man? He brings trouble to his family. And we have witnessed the veracity of that statement. Mortgages have failed. Families have lost their homes. Jobs have been lost. Food shelves are stretched to the breaking point. Yes, families are in trouble.

Now there is nothing wrong with getting a return on your investment, or receiving fair compensation for your labor. But, really how many millions is a CEO entitled to? Is an athlete worth mega-millions of dollars a year, just to play basketball or baseball or football for a few months out of the year? Should I expect to receive 15-20% return from my 401k every year? I am not sure I have the answers to these questions. But I believe they are the right questions to ask. I think that if...and that seems like a pretty strong if right now...we are to survive this economic and financial storm, then we will have to change the way we have done business in the past.

I don't know about you, but I am ready to get off the roller coaster and head for the calmer waters of the Lazy River.