Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Time of Your Life

As delivered Feb. 18, 2018

One Saturday in July a few years ago, Cathy and Elizabeth and I were returning from North Carolina. They wanted to stop at Black Mountain, a small but thriving town in the foothills of the Appalachians, just north of I-40. The ladies wanted to relieve me of my hard-earned coin at the Doncaster outlet store there. I argued not. I wanted to go to the town also. Not to shop for clothing but to buy some more time. 

There is a place there called Pellom's Time Shop. My friend Gerard Vanderleun wrote about it a few years ago on his web site.
It's the oldest shop in Black Mountain, North Carolina. None of the other shop keepers can remember a time when it wasn't here. Nobody in town can remember a time when Pellom himself wasn't here. The Time Shop and Pellom may well have been here before the town was here; before even the Cherokee were here. Nobody can say. ...
Most people look into the cluttered and dust-layered window of the Time Shop and walk on by. … After all, most … are retired and have, they think, all the time in the world.
Pellom doesn't mind. He knows what time it is. He also knows what can happen to time. How it can come unsprung. How it can run slow and still run fast. How time runs down. How time goes by. How time runs out. That's why he's careful, when he can, to save time.
You can, if he decides he likes you, buy some time at the Time Shop. All you have to do is to step through the seldom used door of the Time Shop and say "Good afternoon, Mr. Pellom." Then you need to look around the shop carefully and slowly. You need, most of all, to take your time. 
In time, if the time is right, Pellom will glance up at you from behind his bench, his green eyeshade shadowing his eyes, and say, "What can I get you?" Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?"
You'd be well advised to take him at his word and say, "I'd like to buy some more time."
Then, if your request is timely, Pellom will nod and fetch a small loud-blue glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of you with a sharp, satisfying clack on the glass of the counter. Looking into it all you will see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars.
"Very good, sir," Pellom will say. "How much time would you like?"
I'd advise you to buy as much time as you can afford, as often as you can afford it, time after time.
Just because Pellom has some extra time today doesn't mean he won't be out of time tomorrow. Most of the time, time is always in short supply. Tonight, while you sleep, your government will be awake printing more money. Nobody is printing more time.
Which is why you should be careful how you spend time in the first place. Just ask Pellom down at the Time Shop.
"Nobody is printing more time."
One day in seminary we pulled our desks into a circle and took sixteen squares of paper the instructor passed out. She'd been years a chaplain at a large Catholic hospital. On four squares, she said, write the names of the four people you love most. On another four, the names of the four places you enjoy most to go to. The third, your four favorite ways to spend leisure time. The fourth, your four favorite restaurants. We complied.

"Now listen," she said. "You have recently had exploratory surgery and the doctor has the lab tests back. You are in his office. 'It's cancer,' he says. (Pause) Now, select any one of the sixteen pieces of paper, crumple it into a ball and throw it into the middle of the room."

My piece of paper marked "Six Flags" went sailing. I don't get there all that often and anyway, I can’t take the roller coasters any more.

She said, "You will begin chemotherapy this coming Monday. Toss another piece of paper."

This time I crumpled up a restaurant and pitched it into the pile. 

"The chemotherapy did not work. Next is radiation therapy, but the oncologist has already told you that its chances are less than the chemo. Throw one more piece." 

And so it went. You throw away a piece of your life one at a time. At first, it's not hard because for each of the four categories for which you have written four items, there is always one item that does not mean that much to you and so is quickly tossed. 

Until about the ninth or tenth throw when you realize that you have kept every piece of paper with the names of the people you love most. Almost every restaurant is gone and all but one favorite place to go. Before long she says, "The cancer is in stage four and is inoperable. The doctor prescribes hospice care." 

And your papers mock you like a two-high hand with a missing card, because all that are left are the names of the four people you love most - for me they were my wife and three children.

"Throw away a piece of paper," she says.

I stare. Who shall I throw away? And the answer is no one. Game over. I fold my hand by laying the papers down and leaning back in my chair.

"Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care about time?"

So, I went to find Pellom's Time Shop, not really believing that Pellom will fetch a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of me with a sharp clack on the glass on the counter. And even if he did such a thing, I did not think that looking into it that all I would see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars.

It was not easy to find the Time Shop because it is so small. I almost went into the shop next door but corrected myself. A gray-headed man was standing near the door facing the right wall, passing time when I walked in. He turned slightly toward me and said hello. 

"Hello," I answered. I awaited the question I knew had to come: "What can I get you?" Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?"

"Pretty cool day today," he said. 

"Yes," I answered, "it is." Chit chat was not what I expected. I asked, "Are you Mr. Pellom?" It 
seemed a foolish question, for who else would be in here?

"John Pellom," he said. "Indeed." He put his right hand out. 

I took at and shook it gently. "My name is Don Sensing." 

There were clocks scattered around the whole shop, some in pieces. One thing John Pellom has plenty of is time. Time is everywhere in the Time Shop. (It is a real place, you know.) 

"Ah, well, Mr. Don Sensing, I am glad to meet you,” John said. “What brings you here today?" 

"My wife and daughter are presently bankrupting me over at Doncasters, and I don't want to be there for that bloodletting. So I searched for your Time Shop."

"How did you know I was here?"

"I read about your shop on the Internet." I pulled out my smartphone and opened Gerard's essay and showed it to him. He scanned it quietly. He read about the small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle and the mist of stars. 

"Well," he said, "that would really be something." 

We made small talk for a few moments. I gave him my card and briefly explained what we had done on vacation. He told me that he kept busy repairing globe clocks and putting antique wristwatches back into service. His father opened the Time Shop in 1929. "Not before the Cherokee?" I quizzed.

John chuckled. "Well, I don't think so."

My phone buzzed. I knew it was the deadly shopping duo texting me that the MasterCard was now maxed out and would I please go to a bank and bring them a wheelbarrow full of ben franklins. A look at my phone showed I was right. I nodded at Mr. Pellom. "John, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you are open for a long time." I turned toward the door.

"Reverend Sensing," John said. I glanced back. He peered kindly at me a moment. "One more thing I have to ask you." I felt his pale blue eyes looking right through mine to the infinity beyond the Time Shop. 

"What can I get you?" 

I said nothing for two heartbeats, then spoke slowly. "I'd like to buy some more time."

There was no shelf behind him. He reached into his pocket and produced a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle. "Take this," he said, "and look inside." 

There was, just as Gerard had written, a faint mist of a color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars. 

At that time, time stood still. Traffic outside ceased, birdsongs stopped, the dust mites in the sunbeam froze in the air. The ticking of the clocks in the Time Shop stopped. 

The bottle drew me in so that I barely had time to think, then I was surrounded by timelessness. There were scenes. Sometimes just still shots and sometimes short clips of short seconds - except there were no seconds, or minutes, or hours, because those things are all time. Inside the cloud-blue bottle there was no time.

There I was as a small boy learning to ride a bike. There I was with neighborhood kids playing kick the can after dark. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, unjustly punishing me for another kid's spill of paint, but I didn't fink. A home run in a backyard game. Walking Valerie home from school. My first job at Woodlawn Market and owner Pappy's fondness for the bottle, but he was always a jolly drunk.

My grandfather teaching me to milk cows and my grandmother rocking me when I was small. Creeks I stomped in, Boy Scout hikes and merit badges. First girl I kissed. Hunting and golfing with my dad. First day of college. First parachute jump. A pretty girl who told me she liked my beard. Learning to fly. Wedding day. Births of children. Honors and awards. Ordination service. This was the highlight reel and it felt good. 

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The lies I told. The kids I treated badly because they were different. The lessons I would not learn. The defiance to my parents. The anger at my brothers. The blows I landed. The push I gave a child when I got home and all he wanted to do was hug me. The prideful stands and the cruel words said. The barriers I put up. The books I didn't read to my children. Contemptuous words uttered. Affections neither accepted nor given. Arguments started. The cursory treatments. The tantrums. The self-centeredness, the caring never rendered, the people dismissed, the love-worthy ignored. This was the low-light reel. It burned white hot.

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The kindnesses given. Taking Mrs. Adams’ paper to her in the winter because she couldn’t walk in the snow. The elderly befriended. The mother's hand held at her son's last breath. The prayers for the grieving, the bereaved consoled. The shoulder to cry on. The blessings invoked. The needy assisted. The children cared for. The life I saved. The celebrations blessed, the dying anointed. The Word spoken truly, the sacraments offered duly. The friendships offered and the hands extended. The prisoners visited, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the strangers welcomed, the sick cared for. The counsels offered. The listening ear.

The scenes ended. Time returned. I looked up. John Pellom was there as before. I dared to ask, "Did I get more time?"

He shook his head. "Son, no mortal can give you more time."

"But the blue bottle ..."

He raised his hand. "All it can do is show you the time of your life, so far."

My phone buzzed. I ignored it. "Is there a lesson here?"

John glanced at my card. "Reverend, you know the lesson."

I did, but I needed to hear it. "Tell me."

He locked his eyes on mine. "There is only one question you will have to answer before the Lord when that time comes: ‘How did you spend the time of your life?’."

A gentle smile crossed John's face. "Now what do you think the right answer is?"

My phone buzzed again. "It's time for you to go," John said.

"Thank you for your time, John," I answered. We shook hands. "Anytime," he said.

I left the Time Shop and walked back to the car. The damage that a pair of human females can do working as a team would put a pride of lionesses to shame, allegorically speaking, but this was no time to worry about that. Plenty of time to do that later.

We sat in the car for a short time. "Where did you go?" Cathy asked.

I told her of the Time Shop and showed her the two photos I had taken. I tried to read her Gerard's explanation of the Time Shop but could not make it to the end. Time was out of joint. The fabric of time had been ripped and had not yet been woven back together. Rain was falling, closing the world off from us. We were silent for a time, then she said, "It's time to go." 

I started the car and we drove home.
It is Lent. We confront our mortality and lay our sins at the foot of the cross. We are on the Jerusalem road with Jesus, preparing ourselves to remember his suffering and death. But we already know the rest of the story, that He is Risen, He is Risen indeed! Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – and his coming again will be in judgment. No matter how it is phrased, the Lord will really ask each of us only one question: How did you spend the time of your life?

What do you think the right answer is?

When the Lord  returns in his glory, he will say to those at his right hand, 
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” 
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. 
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"

No one is printing more time. The time of your life is measured only by the love you give away, so make sure you always have time enough for love.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mass shootings: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans"

First of a series

If things proceed according to pattern, there will be energetic debate after the Parkland high school massacre about stopping such a horror from happening again, then the news media will move on to other topics. And the American people, who have generally been trained over the last 50-plus years not to think something is important unless it's on TV, will move on also.

And in a few months or next year, when it happens again, lather, rinse, repeat.

This inability to take meaningful action is due to several factors, one of which is the existing (and strengthening) political divide in the country. But the main reasons, I think, are pretty simple:
  • both sides firmly believe that the other side alone is responsible for the deadlock, 
  • both sides' most prominent voices insist that there is a "silver bullet" solution that by itself will completely resolve the issue, and
  • neither side will admit that its own broader political core beliefs are already part of the cause for these shootings. As I said, all of the surrendering must be done by the other side.
So I proceed on the basis of this post's title: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." I learned this very well when I was assigned to the Army Operations Center in the early 1990s at the Pentagon. The Army's chief of staff was Gen. Carl Vuono. He sometimes found occasion during our briefings to him about current and planned operations to hammer home a point: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." 

Don't tell me what you hope will happen, don't tell me what you wish you could do, he repeated. "Give me a plan that makes it happen."

Stop offering "Bell the cat" solutions

... concerns a group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are warned of its approach. The plan is applauded by the others, until one mouse asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat. All of them make excuses. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan.
Anyone who thinks that there is one thing that, if done, will stop mass shootings (whether at schools or elsewhere) is actually not thinking at all. They are making political statements, not relevant statements, and are so convinced of the moral purity of their own side that they think that a wish is a plan and that their wish, if fulfilled, will automatically result in zeroing out mass shootings. 

Here are two examples, one from each side. On the Left: 
  • "We must ban AR-15s and similar weapons."
In fact, we cannot ban these weapons. I am not saying we should not ban them, or must not ban them. I am saying we cannot ban them. It is impossible. The same with "high-capacity" magazines. 

Yes, we could legislate that they may not be manufactured or imported into the country. So? There are still tens of millions already here (no one knows how many). Will you ban them also? If so, as The Beatles sang long ago, "We'd all love to see the plan." 

Don't even utter the word, "Australia." Their 1996 ban was mandatory, requiring residents to hand over their firearms to the government, but the government paid for them, which would be mandatory here (that pesky Constitution's "takings clause"). Where will the the US government get $30 billion (at minimum) to do that? Do not even dare to suggest cutting only spending beloved by the Right, such as defense. If you are not willing to pare Left-loved spending, then you are not serious about stopping school shootings at all. You're just trying to score political points. 

Are you willing to zero out payouts and tax-money support, for example, of Planned Parenthood, the NEA, NPR, etc. to diminish the number of AR weapons in America? No? Then you will understand why I am completely ignoring you. 

That said, in Australia's ban, only 20 percent of Australian gun owners complied. One out of five. The ban, btw, had little effect on crime rates or suicides there, but it did create a thriving black market in firearms, including black-market importation. See here and here, for example. 

Ban AR-type weapons? Well, show me your plan. If in your plan no one's ox gets gored but your political opponents', you have not got a plan to save kids' lives, you have a platform for fund raising and campaigning. 

On the Right:
  • "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." 
If I hear that one more time I will not know whether to throw up or just laugh out loud. Okay, good guys with guns do stop bad guys with guns countless times per year (that's why we arm police, after all),  and yes, schools by law are "gun free zones," and yes, "gun free zone" really is a euphemism for "defenseless people here."

Fine. But then your advocates post stupid stuff like this:

This meme has been around since at least 2012 and is simply false. False as in "untrue," as Israelis on social media have attempted to refute. Here is Israel Today:
There is a picture going around the Internet that I have seen about a dozen times today that claims that Israeli teachers are packing heat. Well, are they? The answer is “NO.” There may be some exceptions in dangerous areas like the West Bank (where five percent of Israelis live), but in general, Israeli teachers are not walking around like it’s the Wild Wild West, strapped with a six shooter. No, our teachers are not focused on shooting, but educating. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t protect young students.

In the picture, the students are on an outing. While it appears that the teacher is holding a rifle, I have never seen such a thing in ten years of living here. Rest assured however, they are under armed protection. In most cases it is an armed guard or a soldier that will accompany a class, not the teacher. And my guess is that the woman with the gun is a security guard, not a teacher.

Secondly, they are not armed in the classroom. Is that really the image you want to imprint on the minds of six-year-olds? (That would be Hamas.)
Even so, suppose that it was made legal for faculty and staff to volunteer to go armed in schools. What's your plan to implement? Just let them get a carry license and go for it? Will they be required also to take shoot-or-no-shoot training, repeated at intervals? Will they be paid extra for carrying? Will they wear distinctive identifying clothing so they don't shoot each other by mistake? Will their local governments accept the financial liability for using their weapons when the shooter, if he lives, or his family, if he doesn't, sue the teacher who shoots him and the rest of the district? (and they will sue.) All of these factors also apply to other categories of potential guards, such as veterans or retired police.

In the wake of the Aurora, Colo., mass murder in a movie theater, I wrote elsewhere about the ignore-reality advocates of the "good guy with a gun" argument as applying to crowded venues of panicked people, which is what Parkland's high school became when the shooting started.
But let's assume you do unmistakably locate the shooter and decide to engage him. You have a 9mm compact-sized, semi-auto pistol with the typical 7-10 round magazine (though the Beretta PX4 compact holds up to 15). The killer is firing madly, apparently about 25 feet away. You shoot at him.

You will miss. Your heart rate is through the roof. So is your respiration rate. You are sweating like a marathon runner. Your hands are shaking. These are involuntary physiological responses and you can do pretty much nothing about them. They badly affect shooting accuracy. Also, you are being jostled by panicked people trying to get away. And firearms trainers know that even on a range, firing under stress makes people fire high unless they are collected enough to correct for it intentionally. However, being a typical permit holder, the only actual pistol training you ever got was when you went to the class to certify the permit application. When you shoot again, you will miss then, too. And the next time.

But now you have identified yourself as a threat to the killer, assuming his state of mind lets him notice your fire (which he might not, to be fair). So he turns his semi-auto AR-15 on you and starts pulling the trigger. Now you are dead or badly wounded. The shooter is unharmed and still shooting.
In 2011, not even the very pro-gun site, The Truth About Guns could endorse the idea that more people going armed would do anything to stop public-venue mass shootings. Even so, as I have said, show me your comprehensive plan and I will listen. Not until then. See here, too. (However, it is probably appropriate here for me to explain why I am an armed pastor.) 

Stop proposing to bell the cat, all of you. There are zero steps to end school shootings or make them much more difficult that are not going to press hard on what all of us hold dear.

What can we do now?

Let's start with what can be done fairly quickly, which is make carrying out such a shooting more difficult, perhaps so difficult that that fact alone will deter an attempt.

The Saturday after Parkland, Nashville's Tennessean newspaper printed an article about such measures. Online it is only on video.

URL here. Not everything he says translates cleanly to civilian schools. For example, just getting onto a military installation is highly restricted and requires vetting at the entrance gate. But we can and should start with physical security measures for three reasons.

  1. First, they will be effective.
  2. Second, they don't tread on either sides' core values.
  3. Third, they are local-government initiatives, hence do not depend on the federal behemoth to rouse itself, and these initiatives would be poor federal ones anyway. 
The basic principal is simple: Make school shootings hard to do

Making school shootings difficult to carry out consists of two main things: First, it must become very difficult for a shooter to enter a school or its ground with weapons. Second, the schools' designs must inhibit successfully carrying out attempts.

The same Israeli site that refuted the notion that Israeli teachers go armed also says this:
On the other hand. I have never seen a school in Israel that was not fenced in. You must go through a locked gate that is guarded by an armed shomer, a security guard. He or she, on the other hand, is not concerned with educating, but protecting. He or she will ask you why you are there? “What is your child’s name?” “Show me your I.D. card.” And he or she would not let you bring a weapon inside.
Entry security and simple access to school grounds must become more arduous than now, all the time. Every active doorway into a school must become guarded, and not by teachers or staff. Metal detectors and backpack inspections, all intrusive, yes, must become the routine. Arrival times for grades, not just for schools, must become staggered to avoid large clusters of students standing outside the school, presenting mass targets, and to avoid large numbers enduring bad weather awaiting entry. End-of-day exits must likewise be staggered.

Interior reinforcements must be made - bullet-resistant glass in all windows, for example, and strong locks with backups on doors. Classrooms in newly-built schools should have very quick and easy exits to the outside (I believe this has actually been designed in for a number of years).

Shooter drills need to be rehearsed by all, teachers and students alike. They can be age appropriate, but trust me, high-school students already know what's happening in America, and will not be traumatized by rehearsing what to do in case of gunfire.

We will have to "do school" differently to reduce the likelihood of shooters attempting the deed or succeeding if they do. It will not look like what we are doing now.

TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

None of this will happen overnight - nothing can - but they are all doable and can happen relatively quickly compared to the federal leviathan. And yes, they will cost money, but that can be raised far more quickly at local levels than federal.

So to the Right side of this issue, are you willing to pay higher taxes to implement such measures to protect the children? If not, then you don't have a student-safety agenda, you have a low-tax political agenda. But I would hope that the fact that new taxes will stay local, and not disappear into the black hole of the US Treasury, would make this more palatable.

Besides, there is no reason that significant federal funds cannot be reallocated to states for this purpose without raising expenditures or the deficit. As I have said, anyone who is not willing to take unpalatable actions, or who in convinced that all the pain must be borne on only the other side, is not serious about this. Federal expenditures dear to both the Left and Right need to be identified for deletion and reassignment.


Don't talk about the "gun culture" unless you also want to talk about the general culture

Are school shootings really a mental-health matter?

Is gun fetishization in America real? Yes, on both Right and Left

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

God or "Great Politics"?

A long essay by Edward T. Oakes, "Atheism and Violence," discusses and refutes the recent books of Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchen, et. al., that if all humanity would only renounce religious belief,
Friedrich Nietzsche
then violence would cease and permanent peace would result. 

Curiously enough, the rant-filled Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that "God is dead" and originated the Germanic idea of the Superman, offers the best argument against these arguments, claims Oakes. 
The point, rather, is that Nietzsche saw. However much he (usually) advocated what ought to be most abhorred, he at least recognized that true morality and Christian belief are siblings. Moreover, in tones redolent of Jeremiah he saw the consequences to civilization as a whole when its citizens lose their faith in God. For what will take the place of God will be only a passionate—and largely empty—politics:
For when truth enters the lists against the lies of millennia, we shall have convulsions, a spasm of earthquakes . . . the likes of which have never been dreamed. Then the concept of politics will be completely dissolved in a war between spirits, all authority structures of the old order will be blown into the air—one and all, they rest upon a lie; there will be wars the likes of which have never existed on earth. From my time forward earth will see Great Politics.
Such are the contradictions of atheism. With hope in progress gone, with the lessons of the twentieth century still unlearned in the twenty-first, with technology progressing, in Adorno’s words, from the slingshot to the atom bomb (a remark cited in Spe Salvi), with a resurgence of religiously motivated violence filling the headlines, all that the new atheists can manage is to hearken back to an Enlightenment-based critique of religion. But they find their way blocked, not so much by Nietzsche (whom, as we saw, they largely ignore) but by the ineluctable realities he so ruthlessly exposed. Not Nietzsche, but the history of the twentieth century has shown that godless culture is incapable of making men happier. All Nietzsche did was to point out that no civilization, however “progressive,” can dispel the terrifying character of nature; and once progress is called into question, the human condition appears in all its forsaken nakedness.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Retirement planning for long living

Are retirees living too long?

Well, no. But are they planning to live as long as they are living? Also no. More and more, late-middle-age men and women like me, and financial planners, are realizing that the old rules for financial retirement planning don't work any more. We need to do retirement planning for long living after retirement.

Click image for large, clear view
My grandfathers were both born in 1900. They both died of natural causes, the first in 1971 and the other in 1972. No one, including their wives and children, thought that they had died prematurely. I was a senior in high school for the latter's death and I remember one of his friends observing, "Well, he got his three score and ten," a reference to Psalm 19.10, which says in the King James, "The days of our years are threescore years and ten... ."

My maternal grandfather, Harry Burkitt,
1900-1972 -- a good, long life back then.
One grandfather had been retired no more than 18 months, the other less than seven years.

Saving or investing for retirement was fairly simple then. You had a pension plan, you had Social Security. You saved money in a bank account. Maybe you invested on your own in one of the relatively few mutual funds that existed then. IRAs did not exist and almost all company pension plans were defined benefit.

But no one planned to retire at 65 and fund retirement until age 90 or longer. Extremely few men or women lived that long (although one of my great-grandfathers did live to 96, 1870-1966).

Today, however, if you hear someone died at age 71 or 72, you ask, "What happened?" That is nowadays barely out of middle age. So retirement planning has to change so that people can afford to live decently well for 20 years or more of retirement.

Just two months ago, Business Insider explained

America's next retirement crisis could be that baby boomers are living too long

Therefore, a short reading list:

If you're expecting a long life, take time to adjust your financial plan on, which states:
"About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and one out of 10 will live past age 95," according to the Social Security Administration.

43 percent of retirees underestimate by at least five years, the life expectancy for someone of their age and gender, the Society of Actuaries reports.

Planning for longevity might include working longer, adjusting investment strategies, and planning for incapacitating health problems.
How long will you live? See the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator, which, to be fair, offers a very basic calculation, but can be eye opening nonetheless.

And from Seeking Alpha, How To Retire At 62 On A Meager Million. Believe it or not, $1,000,000 on hand at the first day of retirement is not a lot if it provides your only income stream, even added to Social Security. Number one priority no matter your age: get to zero credit card debt as fast as you can. Zero, as in $0.00 balance.

If you are married or will have financial dependents after you retire, remember that funding your retirement means also funding your spouse or dependents after you die. 

How to estimate how long you will live? Family history is a big part. My wife's family, for example, has darn near achieved immortality on earth. Her father is nearing 99. His cousin is going on 105. His mother lived until 96 (his father died young from surgery complications in 1927). My wife's mother lived until 86. Many of my father-in-law's family lived to advanced ages. My own mother died at 87 and my dad is 90. 

The actuary site linked above does not take family history into account but even absent that, it tells me that I have a greater-than-50-percent chance to live to 85 and a one-in-three chance to make it to 90. My wife, though, has more than a 50 percent chance to make 90; her age-expectancy does not drop to one-third until age 95 and she has a 15 percent chance of living to triple digits. That's what I have to plan for.

What this all means is this: the question of whether we can afford to live at our same standard if we retire at age 65, only year after next for me, is less important than whether we still afford to live about as well 25 years from now, and for my wife 10 years after that. If inflation averages only 2.5 percent per year (below historical average!), a $100,000 income today will have purchasing power of only $53,100 in 25 years. Which means that to retire today on, say, 100 large per year means that you'd have to bring in $185,400 in 2043 just to stay even

That is a complex problem but one that we boomers have to face.

An online estimator for how long your retirement funds and savings will last is at The  Motley Fool.

End note: Even worse, "Many older Americans are living a desperate, nomadic life" -- They live in RVs and drive from one low-wage job to another. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"Why the UMC Needs its Donald Trump"

Trump–and his avid disciples–are barbarians. They are not politicians. They don’t understand or honor the slow process of making policies. The “way we’ve always done things” cry is irrelevant to them. They are here to destroy and to rebuild the US in their image out of the ashes. And that is precisely why the UMC needs its Donald Trump.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Seven days out: Why is there Christmas?

 “Why is there Christmas at all?”
This question makes it clear that we are not speaking of a holiday or the layers of secular commercialism that lie atop it. It is to ask, Why was God born into flesh and blood and all that those things entail? It is what we call Jesus’ Incarnation – the deity of God being born as human.
We can say what this did rather easily: it brought the sacred and eternal being of God into the carnal and temporal sphere of human life. God had done this before, though not in flesh and blood. He did so in Sinai in the giving of his Law to the chosen of Israel and in bringing them to the Promised Land. The Jews understood that God was made personally present in every aspect of their lives by the giving of his commandments even when they did not understand all of them.
The Jews call the commandments specifically and the Scriptures generally the Torah, the Word of God. Torah is the main way that Jews understand God to be present with them. The great Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod explained the meaning of the Torah. Instead of becoming present in the Word, wrote Wyschogrod,
    God could have played a godly role, interested in certain features of human existence, the spiritual, but not in others, the material. He could even have assigned [to] man the task of wrenching himself out of the material so as to assume his spiritual identity, which is just what so many [religions] believe he did. Instead, the God of Israel confirms man as he created him to live in the material cosmos ... There is a requirement for the sanctification of human existence in all of its aspects. And that is why God's election is of a carnal people. By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence.[1]
Of course, we Christians have a different understanding of what forms the greatest manifestation and revelation of God on earth. We agree with the Jews that God’s Word is the purest manifestation and revelation of God that we have on earth. However, we don’t say “what” is God’s actual presence with us, we say, “who.” John’s Gospel tells us:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
The Word of God, the Torah of God, the revelation of God, the Word become flesh – and so Christmas, of which Charles Wesley wrote:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
The Jews are exactly right: “that God and the Torah are one.” Because Jesus is the Word made flesh, the actual, living embodiment of the Torah, when Jesus said, “I and my Father are One,” his Jewish hearers understood him more deeply than the typical Christian hearing those words today.
 Jesus of Nazareth is God’s proof that we can become what we should most desire: to be holy in our own flesh, in this life. God sanctifies us in this life, for he took on this life in his own person. We cannot be gods. But we can be godly. The birth of the Son of God into humanity shows us that.
Our daily headlines show us a world not much different from the one Jesus was born into. It was and remains a world of death, of tragedy, of evil, of pain and of suffering, though thankfully leavened with beauty and joy and goodness. God wages war against everything that resists or opposes God’s intentions for his creation. But God does not war against flesh and blood. Instead, God sanctifies flesh and blood. Paul knew this, so he wrote,
For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.[2]
Yet why does this godly battle require God’s presence in human form? John’s most famous passage explains it quite simply: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ... .” And John later also quotes Jesus, “There is no greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”
We see on our nightly news the horrors visited by terrorists and other random violent acts of no apparent purpose. There are other sufferings we can hardly imagine. Evil is powerful in our world. Father Dwight Longenecker, a pastor in Greenville, South Carolina, wrote,[3]
   The true answer to the absurdity of evil is the supernatural rationality of love, for love is the outgoing goodness that counters evil. By "love," I do not mean merely sentimental or erotic love. I mean a power that is positive and creative and dynamic and pro-active in the world—the power which Dante said, "moved the Sun and the other stars." … Love is the light in the darkness ... .
All who are baptized into the body of Christ cease to be subject to the powers of this world and are transformed and transferred to a new and different kind of life, with different powers and possibilities for life, with new eyes to see the world, with a new family and a new Lord.
That is why to celebrate Advent and Christmas are not simply acts of worship. They are acts of defiance, for in singing carols and reading of relevant passages we announce that we do not submit to the principalities and powers of darkness or the spiritual forces of evil at loose in the world. To sing, “What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” is to speak more importantly than all the other voices in the world and to proclaim that we, God’s people,
... do not lose heart because we are being renewed every day. The promises of God far outweigh all the terrors of this world. We live not according to the fallen standards of this world because we are only here temporarily. We live in Christ’s Kingdom because it is eternal.[4]
The Reverend Nadia Bolz Weber put it this way, [5]
   Amongst the sounds of sirens and fear and isolation and uncertainty and loss we hear a sound that muffles all the rest: that still, small voice of Christ speaking our names.  … the very reason we can do these things is not because we happen to be the people with the best set of skills for this work.  Trust me, we are not. ...  – the reason we can stand and we can weep and we can listen is because finally we are bearers of resurrection. We do not need to be afraid. Because to sing to God amidst all of this is to defiantly proclaim ... that death is simply not the final word. To defiantly say that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it.
Consider this painting, not a contemporary work. Look immediately to the right of Joseph, at the wall behind him. What do you see? 

When we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the birth of someone who was born to die, as this artist recognized. To consider the life and death of Jesus, what possible expectation could we mortals have that the God who created the universe could be required, much less expected, to put on flesh and blood, be born as we are and die as we do, to take upon himself the sin of the whole world? Faced with this fact, what do we do in return?
That is the central question for us who celebrate the birth of Jesus because he put his own body between us and eternal destruction. Jesus died to bring us into everlasting life. The mystery of the Incarnation is conjoined by the shock of crucifixion. Both are resolved by Resurrection. "God With Us" did not start in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, nor was it ended at Calvary. God With Us happens today among those who follow the One who had “no crib for a bed,” the One who died on a cross and then ascended to the right hand of God.
 To celebrate Christmas, therefore, is not simply to sing carols in December in a church garlanded in greens. It is to become holy in this life each day of the year, to emerge victorious over sin, evil and death, to do the work of Christ in the world, to live knowing that Jesus is God with Us, and so we can, and must, be with God.

Every Thanksgiving my family and I join my parents at the home of my younger brother, Will, and his wife, Janice. Usually there are 17-20 there, but this year there were only nine gathered around the table. My older brother and his wife came a long distance to be there, but only one of their children could come. Our eldest child was not able to be here, nor child two or his wife. My brothers and I have a running joke one of us always announces whenever we gather for such celebrations. Sometime during Thanksgiving one of us will say to Dad, “Of course, you know that everyone who truly loves you came home for Thanksgiving.” And Dad responds, “Oh, sure, I know that.” We all laugh because we know it's just a joke.
But if you had been there this year, you would have seen fleeting sorrow flicker across our faces and a wisp of wistfulness in our eyes. For the breath of a sentence, our hearts were in Delaware or Wisconsin or Ohio or Florida because while the table was crowded, it was not full. Not everyone was there who belongs there.
That moment came to my mind when I read something author Bob Benson wrote in Come Share the Being. He and his wife had three children and he told of how they grew up and went away to college and then got married and made their own homes. They were proud of their children, he wrote, but after their youngest son moved away, “our minds were filled with memories from tricycles to commencements [and] deep down inside we just ached with loneliness and pain.
“And I was thinking about God,” Benson wrote. “He sure has plenty of children – plenty of artists, plenty of singers, and carpenters and candlestick makers, and preachers, plenty of everybody . . . except he only has one of you, and all rest together can never take your place. And there will always be an empty spot in his heart and a vacant chair at his table when you’re not home.
“And if once in a while it seems he’s crowding you a bit, try to forgive him. It may be one of those nights when he misses you so much he can hardly stand it.”
Maybe that is why Christ was born, lived, died and was raised from the tomb – because that’s what God does when he just can’t stand it anymore, when he just can’t stand the gulf of separation between us.
In Jesus’ day there was no occasion more festive or joyous than weddings. The best parties were wedding parties and feasts. The New Testament says that when Christ returns he will be reunited with his church in a celebration so magnificent that the Scriptures describe it as the grandest wedding celebration ever held. 
Are we preparing ourselves spiritually for this banquet? Do we understand how the reward of eternal life with God places a burden on us today? Methodist professor David Watson wrote,
When even a cursory thought is given to the countless millions in the world who are hungry, who are suffering, who languish under injustice, or are ravaged by war, the prospect of anyone celebrating personal salvation . . . borders on the obscene. There are still too many of Christ’s little ones who are hungry, too many who lack clothes, too many who are sick or in prison. There are too many empty places [at God’s banquet table]. The appropriate attitude for guests who have already arrived is to nibble on the appetizers and anticipate the feast which is to come. To sit down and begin to [feast] would be unpardonable . . . especially since the host is out looking for the missing guests, and could certainly use some help.
When we deeply consider what Christmas really means and what it obligates us to be and to do, we can only admit that we have surrendered all our rights to everything except humility.

Why is there Christmas? Because there is a place for every person at God’s table, but not everyone has come. Because God cannot stand the separation between himself and his children.
This day of celebration should also evoke is us an equally unbearable sorrow that we are not doing all we are able to do to close the separation. The best way to celebrate Christmas is to carry out the commandments of Christ all the year long.

[1]Quoted by David Goldman, “Banning circumcision is dangerous to your health,”
[2]Ephesians 6.12
[4]See 2 Cor 4.16-18
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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Pope Francis and changing the Lord's Prayer

Pope Francis has announced to the Roman Catholic Church that they have been praying the Lord's Prayer wrong. (Catholics call the prayer the "Our Father," after the first two words of the prayer.)

Francis wants to re-word the phrase, "And lead us not into temptation," because it implies that God might lead us into temptation if God wanted. And as we all know, temptation is bad. Francis suggests that Catholics pray instead, "Do not let us enter into temptation".

Actually, both the traditional phrasing and Francis' rewording miss the point.

Matthew and Luke to do not agree exactly on the words of the prayer. In Matthew 6, the prayer is thus (New Revised Standard Version):
9  Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12     And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13   And do not bring us to the time of trial,[d]
        but rescue us from the evil one.[e]
The brackets are footnotes:
c. Or our bread for tomorrow 
d. Or us into temptation
e. Or from evil. Other ancient authorities add, in some form, For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.
Luke puts it this way, a somewhat shorter prayer:
Father,[a] hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.[b]
3     Give us each day our daily bread.[c]
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”[d]
The footnotes are:
a. Other ancient authorities read Our Father in heaven 
b. A few ancient authorities read Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us. Other ancient authorities add Your will be done, on earth as in heaven 
c Or our bread for tomorrow 
d. Or us into temptation. Other ancient authorities add but rescue us from the evil one (or from evil)
Note that the NRSV, a very recent translation (as translations go) does not use "temptation" at all. Why?

In Greek, the expression is καὶ mē μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς εἰς πειρασμόν, pronounced kye mē eisenenkēs hēmas eis peirasmon. The last word, peirasmon, does mean temptation and is used to mean that elsewhere in the Gospels. But the NRSV is correct not to use it here. 

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is teaching his disciples what to expect for the rest of their lives as they follow his will: opposition, including lethal opposition. Jesus has already used peirasmon to mean "trial" in the prarable of the sower who went out to sow in Luke 8: the seeds that fall on the rock are those who “have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing (peirasmou) fall away.”

In teaching the disciples the Lord's prayer, Jesus is instructing them what to rely on as the build the Kingdom of God from its inception:

  • God is as close as a father. God is a person, not an impersonal influence.
  • God will provide for their essential needs
  • God will forgive their missteps and sins along the way, but they must be forgiving of others, too.
  • Pray for your work to be done before the time of trial.
  • But trust God to protect them from the demonic powers opposing them.
What is the time of trial?

Luke 4 relates that just after Jesus was baptized by John, he "was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil." There, for "tempted," is that pesky word peirasmon again. This time in the desert was a defining time for Jesus, for the nrtemptations show that at stake was whether Jesus would be faithful to his identity, which Luke has just explained was announced by God, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3.22). 

In the desert, Jesus cannot both affirm his co-identity with God and yield to Satan's three lures, to care for himself, Jesus, first; to worship him, not God; and to test God's ability to save. These are not mere temptations. They are very serious trials for a famished and fatigued Jesus to endure. At stake here is whether Jesus will stay the course, or not.

This is probably the kind of forecast Jesus is warning his disciples about. True, Jesus may be referring in saying "the time of trial" to the end of the age, when he will return to place everything under his feet. But I don't think so. I think Jesus is saying, if I may paraphrase, "Pray that the work God places before you will be done before you face the ultimate temptation, which will be a great trial for you: whether to denounce me and leave the calling I will place before you, to go into the world and make disciples." 

This is not a certain reading, of course. But it's worth noting that Jesus also told his disciples that while they were accepting even death for following him ("Take up your cross and follow me"), even death was not the ultimate trial. Persecution, torture, execution are not trials in themselves, they are admittedly-horrific potential consequences of following Christ. No, the trial in the Our Father prayer is that which leads to abandonment of the Way, to exit the path that Jesus has already trod. The trial is spiritual, not physical-temporal, and Jesus promises elsewhere (i.e., Matt. 24.9-14; Mk. 13.9-13) that those who endure the time of trial without falling away will be saved. 

The apostle James reinforced this point, writing "Blessed are those who remain steadfast under trial (peirasmon), for when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him." Peter wrote, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial (peirasmon) when it comes upon you to test you…. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings ..." (James 1.12, 1 Peter 12.13). 

So how to render this troublesome phrase, "lead us not into temptation"? By folding it into the greater theme of the whole prayer. If I were Pope, I'd offer this:

Our Father in heaven,
    your name is holy always. 
Bring forth your kingdom.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us each day what we need. 
And forgive us our sins,
    as we also have forgiven those have sinned against us.
And do not bring us to the time of defining trial,
    but rescue us from those who oppose you.

This is more paraphrased than I would like. The challenge in translating biblical texts (or any foreign-language texts) is always to translate as succinctly as possible, to stay as true to the original text as one can. But that does risk losing nuance and context, which the author simply assumed the readers would already know. 

By the way, Holy Father, I am available for consultation for a very reasonable fee!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Four Veterans

Today I recognize and give thanks for the service of four special veterans in my life. My father, Thurman Sensing, now 90, was a Seabee sailor in and after World War 2 aboard the battleship USS Texas and the escort carrier USS Bougainville, both in the Pacific.

Today, Cathy and  I will take Dad to lunch, an annual tradition for us.

Below is my father-in-law, Col. (ret.) George D. Stephens, now 98, who entered the US Army as a private six months before Pearl Harbor. He fought throughout the Pacific campaigns and served during the Korean War as well.

This is our eldest, Lance Cpl. S. M. Sensing, USMC, who deployed to Iraq on the date shown in the photo, shown at Camp Lejeune, NC, with Cathy.

Dr. (Capt.) Thomas Sensing is in surgical residency at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, in the US Air Force Medical Corps. As a retired officer, I administered his oath of commissioning upon his graduation from medical school in 2016, one of the most memorable and fulfilling things in my life.

This is Thomas with his wonderful wife, Dr. Wendy Sensing.

God bless them and all our veterans and their families.

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