Sunday, November 23, 2008

Survival instinct

by John D Ramsey

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According to The Wall Street Journal, the US stock market has lost seven trillion dollars in value since its peak. To put that in perspective, the US public debt is somewhere around six trillion dollars according to the US Treasury. What was first described as a “mortgage crisis” became a “liquidity crisis” and is now a “global economic crisis.”

Nevertheless, it is not all bad news. I paid $1.649 per gallon of gasoline the other day. I filled the tank even though I suspected the price would drop before I needed to fill again. It did drop – three times. I filled again Friday for $1.499 per gallon. I do not remember whom I told, but I predicted that crude oil would drop to $60 per barrel. I based my estimate upon the valuation of the dollar remaining stable. Since the dollar is increasing in value, the cost of oil seems to be decreasing even below my prediction. I am not a genius; I just know that the value of oil has not changed; only the supply relative to demand has decreased in recent years. I do not know how long gasoline will be this inexpensive, but I am relieved when I spend $27 instead of $72 on a tank full.

Since the election, politicians’ panic related to the “global economic crisis” appears to be waning even as the market bounces along the floor. Thursday, the Democrat congressional leadership reneged on a promise to bailout Detroit after the CEO’s of the “big three” automakers flew in corporate jets to Washington to beg for their government handout. Apparently, beggars need to observe appropriate decorum. Groveling is still groveling whether the object of interest is twenty-five cents or twenty-five billion dollars.

Likewise, Paulson, so benevolent to bailout his Wall Street cronies, is now suddenly a tightwad. Cash is suddenly king as economists and politicians realize that we cannot beg, borrow, and bail our way back to boomtown.

Speaking of cash, Steve Ballmer must be dancing another jig celebrating Jerry Yang who gave Microsoft freely what Ballmer was willing to pay billions to buy—namely Yahoo’s demise. Why buy a company when they will dry up all by themselves?

Southwest Airlines is attempting to extend its reach to LaGuardia. Southwest recorded its first quarterly loss ever – ironically because of dropping fuel prices and their fuel hedging strategies. Nevertheless, Southwest Airlines remains a healthy company compared to other airlines. Some companies with cash are quietly thriving even as their heavily leveraged competitors spin towards bankruptcy.

If strong companies are surviving or thriving even in the midst of the current economic turmoil, then whatever the root cause, the landscape appears more natural rather than catastrophic. Nevertheless, the victims of their own excesses are screaming, “Crisis!”

This week, Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, appealed to the nation saying,
Nearly a half-century ago President Kennedy declared that his generation of Americans was living in extraordinary times and facing extraordinary challenges. Our times are no less challenging.

The Wall Street Journal, “Why GM Deserves Support”, November 19, 2008
I am not certain why Wagoner would invoke the name of Kennedy in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Assuming the Journal’s readership is history-savvy enough to remember Kennedy, they probably know about Truman, and Roosevelt, too. Perhaps they even recall Lincoln.

Were the 60’s more extraordinary than both world wars and the Great Depression? Were the 1960’s more extraordinary than the 1860’s. Even if the challenges our country faces today are equivalent to the challenges of the 1960’s, Wagoner, betrays his own argument when he says today’s challenges are extraordinary. Perhaps today’s challenges are ordinary, but beyond Wagoner’s capacity to manage. Perhaps GM’s challenges are beyond any man’s capacity to manage. Firms confronted with this reality ordinarily seek bankruptcy protection, as GM’s board is considering.

While people scream “helter skelter” and lurch to and fro to the alarms of network news, we should pause to look with an objective eye. The truth transcends any “global economic crisis.”

Thousands of years ago, King Solomon wrote,

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.

The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

Ecclesiastes 1:5-11 (NIV)

Solomon wrote from his own historical perspective, but we would be wise to take notice of his words. Throughout history, there have been trying times. However, current challenges pale in comparison to the World Wars, the Great Depression, or the Civil War, for instance. These events are relatively recent history.

Moreover, the way of all men remains the same – at the end of our life, we die. Yes, that statement is tautological, but claiming that current challenges are extraordinary is myopic. Billions have lived, and billions have died. Some have lived long lives luxuriously, and some have lived short lives in poverty. Some have died peacefully; others have died violent or excruciating deaths. Some have journeyed from poverty to riches; others have retraced the path from riches to poverty. Whatever our challenges, our circumstances are only extraordinary relative to our own experience.

Still as challenges confront us, we should also pause to evaluate our priorities. While the world panics, we consider, how should we live in these times of difficulty?

Recently, Retired Marine Col. John Ripley passed away. In 1972, Ripley and 600 South Vietnamese soldiers under his command were ordered to “hold and die” in the face of an overwhelming force. Ripley survived despite orders and later said, “When you know you're not going to make it, a wonderful thing happens: You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you're going to save your butt.”

That is the point: “You’re not going to make it.” There is nothing extraordinary or even morose about this fact. Whether the world economy is boom or bust, our lives produce no long-term benefits. The writer of Hebrews states, and no one yet has successfully refuted, “It is appointed for men to die once.” Because we know the certainty of our own mortality, we should set aside our survival instinct and focus upon the breaths we have remaining.

I cannot save my life. Rather, I must spend my life on something. I can squander it, or I can invest it. Either way I cannot keep it. What are my options? Jesus said,
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 will find it.

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.

Matthew 16:24-27 (NIV)
Investing my life is to lose my life for Jesus’ sake. Squandering it is to do anything else. Financial investors use hedging strategies to mitigate risk. Likewise, many Christians use faith as a hedging strategy while they pursue saving their mortal life. Yet faith in Jesus Christ is not a hedging strategy, it is total commitment. We should approach our faith in Christ with abandonment, not as an insurance policy or plan B. We cannot save our lives; consequently, we should choose to lose our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Gospel does not make us better citizens of this world; it makes us sons of God and citizens of a greater country.

Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, believes that the decline of religion in American society has caused, in part, the current global economic crisis. He writes,
Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

The Wall Street Journal, “Mad Max and the Meltdown”, November 20, 2008
Of course, Henninger’s perspective is strictly business and his editorial bemoans the lack of conscience within the culture. While Henninger’s appreciation of Judeo-Christian ethics is magnanimous, Jesus did not command his disciples to live their lives “inside the chalk lines,” nor do followers of Christ exhibit obnoxious political opinions – at least not if they are obeying John 18:36, 1 Peter 2:13-17, Romans 13:1-6, and Titus 3:1-2.

Because we are followers of Jesus Christ, he calls us to be different from the world, and different in ways that Daniel Henninger may not realize. Jesus told his disciples to deny self, take up crosses, and follow him. Taking up a cross has become a euphemism for enduring anything difficult, but that was not Jesus’ intent. While Jesus spoke figuratively, his meaning was not far from the literal. Taking up a cross means to become obedient unto death! The Apostle Paul says,
. . . don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6:3-4 (NIV)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (NIV)
We have died with Christ, our new life exists in him. This changes our perspective on the world: its glories and its troubles. The Apostle John writes,
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17 (NIV)
The media tells us we live in troubling or even extraordinary times. History and Scripture present a different story. History tells us that every generation faces its own challenges. Whether men struggle for glory or survival, they arrive at the same place – the grave.

Scripture enlightens history explaining that mankind lives under the curse of sin. Because Adam rebelled against God, his descendants are born into hopelessness. The end of man is death because the wages of sin is death. Between birth and death, men experience the same choices as those who came before them. Some men behave according to their innate knowledge of a God who will judge unrighteousness. However, before God’s righteous judgment no man will stand. The cycle of grief begins with birth and ends in judgment. The world will see troubling times; the world will recognize trouble because it has also seen peaceful and prosperous times. Neither is extraordinary; they are just divergent paths to the same end.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet in the midst of human frailty, God offers man one extraordinary opportunity: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Acts 16:31 (NIV)

Accepting Christ means that we die to ourselves, to our sin, and to the world system. Earthly interests pale in comparison to possessing new life in Jesus Christ. The eternal exceeds the temporal.

When we as believers in Jesus Christ see our world in turmoil, for what do we hope? Do we hope for the day when God will alleviate the trouble so that our lives can continue in comfort? Do we love the world so much that we want to fix or have God fix what we think is broken? Do we just want to survive in peace?

Or do we hope for the day of Jesus’ appearing?
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Have we denied ourselves, taken up our crosses, and followed him? Are we obedient unto death? Or have we squandered our lives?

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