Friday, July 27, 2012

How to Joyfully Survive an ‘Economic Down-Turn’ (or Recession, Depression, etc.)

This idea has been swirling around inside my mind for almost two years, so I guess it’s time to put it on paper.  Now, some will say, “Why’d wait TWO years if you have the answer for us!?!?”  I don’t know.  I guess I’m busy…and perhaps a bit lazy…but more than anything,  I really wanted to turn my thoughts over and over in my mind to make sure I wasn’t telling you something misleading or incorrect.  Two years later, I believe this is a big part of the answer.

The secret to joyfully surviving a recession or to living it through it basically unscathed is this: 
Decide to live beneath your means.

Now, the first part of that statement is SUPER important.  You (and I) must make the mental decision, must take that intellectual step.  If it’s forced on us—which is what a recession or depression may really do, then there is no joy in the living.  We find ourselves bitter, jealous, on a long-term ‘pity-pot’…if not in debt, homeless or worse.  That is not living joyfully.  That is nothing more than acquiescing to and accepting the situation thrust upon us.  So, step one is to make a decision.

And, that decision has to be this—we live beneath our means.  What does that mean?  Well, let’s say I bring in $1000/month.  Most Americans will spend all of that…and charge a little more on the credit card.  That is living beyond ones means—spending more than one actually has or earns.  When we live like that, we are always just one small step from a personal economic disaster!  Others will budget in such a way that they spend ONLY what they bring in…and not a penny more.  They will pat themselves on the back…and believe they are doing well.  They are doing BETTER than those who live beyond their means, but they are still going to get ‘smacked’ when the down-turn, recession, depression comes along.

Living beneath ones means is living on less that 100% of the income.

In our family, we live on 80% of what we make.  We’ve done that for over 20 years now…and we’ll keep on doing that.  My parents gave me very sound financial advice when I was just a teenager.  In fact, I can hear the mantra even now: “10% to the future, 10% to God, and the rest with joy and thanksgiving.”  So, that’s what we do.


We put 10% of the income in our annuity—untouchable savings for the future, for that day when retirement comes.  Then, we give 10% to God—through the church, to charities, to those in need, to good causes.  That leaves 80% of the income for us to spend with joy and thanksgiving.  Of that 80%, we decided to take 10% of it and put in what we call our “holiday/house fund.”  The holiday/house fund is just that—when we take holiday or when we need to do something big to the house, we pull a little cash out of that account (yes, it’s a separate account at the bank).  Then, we live on what’s left. 

Now, that does NOT mean that we spend every bit of what’s left.  In fact, we strive to make spending a kind of game—how cheap can we eat out (this week, my wife, my son and I had lunch at Chinese restaurant here in McAllen…and we all ate for $9.48!!  That’s the total bill…not per person), how little can we spend on energy (thermostat set on 83F during the day…clothes hung outside to dry), how can we eat cheaper at home (no red meat, chicken once or twice a week, and lots of fruit and veggies…and this is cutting our healthcare costs as well!), where can we get the best clothes for the least (my wife and daughters bring home designer clothes from our local thrift store—usually $3/item or less.)  So, playing this ‘game’ is a way to make sure we live beneath our means…and STILL have some left over.

We do have a budget, and we know how much we need each month to pay the house payment, the utility bills, buy food, etc.  So, when I get paid, we leave the necessary amount in the checking account…and move any ‘left-overs’ to the holiday/house fund!  So, it grows…and we joyfully survive the economic issues of life.

The catch:  People really need to arrive at this decision to live beneath their means long before the bottom falls out.  I guess this is why I was reluctant to write and post this piece—it’s arriving a little late.  Or, it may be arriving right on time.  As people struggle to make ends meet, maybe they are open to thinking in new directions.  And, no time like the present to prepare for an uncertain future!

Why do we spend it all anyway??  Mainly, it’s nothing more than a result of successful advertising.  We taught our own children when they were small that advertising is basically “people trying to sell you stuff you don’t need.”  Still, there is a LOT of cultural pressure to ‘climb’ on up to the next step—bigger house, newer car, bigger TV, latest “iThing.”  We buy used cars—always—and pay cash or only finance a fraction.  We look for “quality” used cars on Consumer Reports list.  And, we drive fuel –efficient Ford Focus (2008) and a Toyota Matrix (2005)…and I ride a Suzuki 250 motorcycle to work (80+ mpg!!!)  Our house that we bought last year is 13 years old…and 1250 sq.ft.  Our children are all hitting that age where they’re home less…and leaving for college and life in the next few years.  Besides, who wants to heat and cool and clean a 3000 sq.ft. home?!?  (More unnecessary expenses!)  We have cell-phones made for talking and texting…and our computers surf the web just fine, thank you!  My family bought me our first flat screen TV two years ago for Fathers’ Day…and they researched and found the best for the least.  My 32” Samsung (only TV in the house, by the way…intentionally!) will do us just fine for years to come.  And, if not…there’s money in the bank!

So, this on ended up a little longer than usual…but wanted to help you see that by intentionally living beneath your means, you can avoid many of the stresses of economic crises…you will be better prepared for any future crashes or bumps…and you can do so joyfully!  We laugh a lot at our cheap selves.  We explain why we live as we do to our children.  And, when we go on holiday, we come home debt free! 

Decide…to…live…beneath…your…means—while the decision is yours to make!

Jon ~ July 2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

To Live by the Sword…?

“Gun control” can be a very divisive topic. Just mention it in a group of 15 or more, and you’re likely to find passionate people of various perspectives. If someone says they favor gun control, most folks jump to the conclusion that one wants to make every kind of firearm illegal…and if someone says they are against gun control, folks imagine that one is fine if you want to park an M-40 tank in your drive and sell AK-47’s out of your trunk on weekends. Yes, the issue is usually one of extremes.

Opinions grow out of how one interprets or applies the second amendment of the US Constitution as found in the Bill of Rights. One problem is that there were at least two versions floated at the time the bill was ratified…Congress ratifying one version and States a slightly different one:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. (Congress)

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. (States)

The difference is in the way the sentence is punctuated and how things are capitalized—small but perhaps significant differences. So, part of the problem grows out of how one interprets this amendment.

However, a deeper problem for those of us who profess the Christian faith begins our inadvertent tendency to confuse Constitution with Scripture. They are not one and the same (obviously). While the Constitution does and should guide our nation, the Scriptures should guide our personal lives if we claim to be Christians.

So, what does Scripture say about this issue? Well, Jesus speaks to it clearly in Matthew 26:32 where He says to his disciple, “…Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (NRSV). If Peter had had a Glock or an AR-15, I think Jesus would say something similar.

Jesus and His 1st Century followers lived in a violent age. Some historians estimate that the average life-span of a male in the Roman Empire at this time was around 26 years. They weren’t all dying of head-colds and athlete’s foot—this was a dangerous and deadly time to live. When Jesus related the parable of the Good Samaritan, the people didn’t respond, “Oh my!! That’s terrible!! Someone beaten and robbed on the Jericho road?!?” They KNEW that this was a common, occurrence…something that happened all the time. And, of course, Jesus missed his great opportunity here—He could have said, “So, since these things happen, I want all my followers to arm themselves…get knives, swords and all kinds of things to keep you safe.” Nope, He really missed the chance to arm His followers.

In fact, when we look at the story of the early Church, we find that they are constantly abused, arrested, beaten, killed…and they don’t fight back. In the Old Testament, we see wars a plenty, but we are New Testament people and followers of Jesus—not followers of Joshua or David. It’s not until Emperor Constantine marries the church to the state (a ‘shotgun wedding,’ no less) that we find Christians arming and literally fighting for the faith. Nowhere in the NT do we find Paul fighting back, pulling swords and practicing any kind of ‘stand your ground.’

Our US Constitution allows us as Americans to “bear arms” (I prefer to do so at the beach…by wearing a tank-top). Personally, I feel we may have been a little broad in our interpretation (Do I or my neighbors really need to be able to buy AR-15 assault rifles when there is not state of war in our land? Should anyone be able to purchase 6000 rounds of ammo on-line?) While I have ‘rights’ as a citizen of this land that I was born into by chance, as a conscientious, self-decided Christian I must decide--do I really want to “live by the sword”…and teach my children to do the same?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gathering and Remembering

My wife and I head to the coast to celebrate her birthday. As always, it doesn’t take long for our conversation to turn to our children. As we drive, we talk of their many experiences in life as part of a parsonage family…as MK’s (missionary kids) in Venezuela and Mexico…and now living along the US/Mexican border. As is the way of children, they are growing up and leaving home….

Jeanne, my wonderful wife of 22 years, remarks, “I hope they don’t forget all their experiences….”

My brothers, Timothy and Jeph, and I are PK’s (pastor’s kids) and MK’s (having grown up in Guyana, South America and Grenada, West Indies). Whenever we get together—even though we now have our own lives, our careers and our families—we always, ALWAYS, remember our lives and talk about our experiences as PKs and MKs.

We remember the Christmas in Guyana when we left all our toys to the side to have crapo (frog) races in the ‘bottom house.’ We remember Dad sneaking up behind Mom in the lobby of the Polynesian Resort Hotel at Disney World with the “old man” mask on…and kissing her…as she screamed! (Dad was like that…ha,ha.) We remember times around the house, in the jungle, in the Rupununi, on the beaches, at the waterfalls, with visiting mission teams, and on special holidays.

So, I doubt very seriously if our children will forget. They will remember. And, as we ride along, it suddenly becomes very clear to me: we gather to remember. Gathering IS remembering. Whether it’s three MKs, a family reunion…or a Sunday morning worship service, gathering is remembering.

We see the cross at the front of the sanctuary, and we remember what God did for us in Christ Jesus. We see the baptismal font or pool, and we remember that important step of faithfulness. The bread and the cup remind us that God loves us so, so much and has given us life through Jesus (“Do this in remembrance of me…”). A song carries us back to a VBS, a SS class, a revival or a youth-meeting campfire…or just to a difficult time of life that God brought us through. If we have lived well within the community, if we’ve invested our lives in the lives of others, just seeing the faces of others reminds us….

I only have to see Samuel’s face, I am transported back to mission teams and meals shared. Just a glance over at Andres and I’m back at that silly but passionate debate we had three years ago. We laugh about it now. I hear a baby cry, look over, and there is Carolina with little Felipe, and I’m back to the struggles that she and Jose suffered early on in their marriage…and the joy of their coming through it all.

With great wisdom, the author of the book of Hebrews calls and cautions us, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to [gather] together…” (Heb.10:24,25 NRSV). To gather is to remember…and those memories are the glue that holds us together. In fact, no one person holds all the memories. At home and at church, one person starts to tell the story, and everyone jumps in with a detail, something overlooked or forgotten by another. The whole family, the whole community, carries the memories…and the memories carry the community. The only way we forget who we are, how we got here, Whose we are, what we have, and what we have to look forward to is if we don’t gather. If we gather, we remember….

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ode to Espresso...

Tiny cup, demitasse sits, steams…
      Aroma wafts across empty space…
            Dark, bitter life stings my nose.

I reach out—confidently, willing…
      Handle pinched between thumb and forefinger…
            Lifting life to lips.

Black, sweet, steaming elixir…
      Bites my lips, rolls thickly over tongue…
            Slides smoothly into me.

Morning sun ignites the sky…
      Morning espresso ignites my mind…
            ~ So the day begins…!

                               Jon ~ July 2012

Day Breaking

Day breaking during a morning walk,

     Wandering thoughts nudge me towards the islands—

Morning breezes, bringing hints of my own nearby sea

     Enveloping , embracing , carrying me away.

Healing winds setting me gently on white sands;

     A great bay opening before me, calm seas—

Sea grape trees rustling in the caressing breezes;

    Coconut trees rattling softly high overhead—

Whispering waves of crystal waters beckoning me,

    Promising refreshing, cleansing and renewal—

Hot sand massaging tired feet as I’m stepping out

     Moving slowly toward the sea—

Standing now at the edge of wholeness and youth, cool waters rushing to meet me—

     Opening my eyes to my own reality…

          Waiting for the winds to transport me again…

                to my island paradise.

                                                 Jon ~ July 2012