Monday, November 29, 2010

Not As Hard As It Seems

I recently read the best selling book about food by journalist, Michael Pollan, called 'Food Rules'. Pollan’s approach to food is simple. In an age of complicated diet and nutritional theories, Pollan’s approach can be summed up in one sentence:

Eat food (by which he generally means simple, non-processed food that your grandmother would recognise), mostly vegetables (meaning less meat and more fresh vegetables and fruit) and not too much (meaning not too much).

His short book includes advice like spending more time on the edges of the supermarket where the fresh food is and less time in the middle where the processed food abounds. This makes common sense but I have found it is easier to read than actually put into practice.

Strangely we often find in life that the theory is much simpler than the practice.

Losing weight (or at least not gaining weight) is really quite simple - we need to exercise more and eat less. Simple yes, in theory, but not so simple in practice.

Likewise if we want our finances to improve, it's also really obvious - spend less than you earn and save and invest what is left over (or at least use that to reduce personal debt). Of course many of us don’t have any left over, so we have only two options – either try to earn more or spend less. Simple yes, but not always so simple to do.

When it comes to knowing God, things are also not that complicated.

Two words explain what we need to do to relate to God: believe and repent. We need to believe that God is God and repent of the view that we are God. We need to believe that God’s ways are best and repent of our foolish and stubborn rebellion. We need to believe that our sins have separated us from the love of God and that our only chance for rescue is the forgiveness offered through Christ. We need to believe that without God we are lost. We need to turn away from our morality of convenience and return to God’s ways that, after all, are for our best. Simple no, but God is even willing to pour out His Holy Spirit into our lives, that we might know His power, even in our weakness.

Simple yes, but somehow a stubbornness exists within the human soul, that thinks we can eat as much as we want, that thinks we can spend as much as we want, and that thinks that we know a lot more than everyone else, including God.

Humility is a very underrated virtue.

“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2: 38

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How The Mighty Have Fallen

While reading the local newspaper back in November 2009, I had a rather nauseating experience. The paper was gushing about the opening of stage one of a new shopping centre at Top Ryde. I was led to write the following letter to the local paper….

"Like most I am delighted to see a replacement for the old Top Ryde shops. However reading last week's Northern District Times, I wondered what was actually being opened in Top Ryde. The over the top praise, the obsequious gushing and the ads and editorials from the local politicians, left me wondering what all the fuss was actually about! Is it a bunch of nice shops or is it something more?

In a society that seems to have lost its moral and spiritual conscience, shopping is our new religion, with shopping centres our new temples of worship. Arguably the whole Global Financial Crisis is ultimately the result of a Western World that believes spending is its greatest virtue. Reading the words of adulation and thanksgiving made me think we were opening something really useful like a hospital, a school, or a true place of spiritual enlightenment.
A little perspective please – it’s just a glitzy market!"

I must admit I had always been a bit of a critic of this development. Word was that the developer and owner, a man named John Breville, was developing this huge new shopping centre with the aid of almost entirely borrowed money. The figure that was talked about locally was a cost of about $1 billion – and most of it was borrowed. We are not exactly short of shops or shopping centres around here and the investment skeptic in me wondered how it could possibly work.

Well, now less than a year since its final stage opening by none other than the Prime Minister of Australia, the centre is on the market at the insistence of Mr Breville’s bankers. As first tier creditors they are most likely to get paid, but at an advertised price now of $700 million the second tier lenders, Valad Property Group, reportedly seem unlikely to recover anything.
The gods of this age appear so impressive – but they are not God, and every so often their nakedness is exposed.

Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold. Exodus 20: 23

Monday, November 15, 2010

Time and Patience

In Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, War and Peace, the old Commander in Chief of the Russian Army, Mikhail Kutuzov, warns his young charges, faced with a seemingly unstoppable French Army led by Napoleon, that sometimes the greatest force is not to fight but to wait. Tolstoy attributes this idea to Kutuzov, that the most powerful allies in any fight are time and patience.

One person who has had to show the most incredible patience has been Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist in Myanmar. Having spent the best part of the last 20 years in either detention or under house arrest, Suu Kyi was released this week to the praise of many of the leaders of the world. President Obama described her as one of his heroes. In radio interviews this week she appeared strong, determined, quietly spoken and surprisingly hopeful for the future of Myanmar. Her personal story is heartbreaking, having been separated from her children (now adults) for decades and having been unable to reunite with her dying husband or even attend his funeral.

We are used to Hollywood fiction where the good guys always win and thus at times we fail to see the persuasive and seemingly impenetrable forces of evil that so often prevail. The military junta of Myanmar is such a force and has dominated, oppressed, brutalised, exploited and mal-administered a great nation, whilst isolating Myanmar from the rest of the world. The junta will continue to claim that they alone have the strength to govern such a diverse, tribal and disparate nation. Yet Suu Kyi’s popular appeal is something that no amount of injustice seems to be able to overcome.

Of course we should not be foolish enough to forget that the dark forces could pounce again and Suu Kyi could find herself back under house arrest or much worse. Often in international, national and even local politics, we are powerless in the face of evil and our only refuge is prayer, with time and patience. In the end evil's greatest weakness is that it does not work. Hitler’s promise of world domination to the Arian race in fact delivered death to over 50 million people and economic hardship for decades. Pol Pot's promise of utopia delivered genocide. Stalin’s determination to complete the revolution for the good of the people of Russia and Mao’s ideological reforms supposedly to benefit China’s poor, probably resulted in more deaths than WW2. The reign of the 'bad guys' can have a longevity that defies cheap optimism. However, ultimately evil fails to produce good.

Ironically, one quietly spoken, reasonable, peace-loving woman remains a threat to a government with vast military, economic and coercive powers. In the tradition of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King and Jesus, one voice for goodness, with time and patience, can sometimes achieve far more than any army.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matthew 5: 5

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why Banks Really Deserve To Be Bashed

Bank bashing is somewhat of a national pastime in a place like Australia. The last few weeks have seen this in somewhat plague proportions, as politicians of all persuasions are falling over each other in an attempt to land blows on the Australian banks. Somehow in the process a number of rather important facts have been lost.

Firstly, we ought to be a little respectful of just how fortunate we are in Australia when it comes to banks. In many parts of the world the poor would dream of access to a safe place to put deposits and a ready and available place to borrow money at what is still, in any historical perspective, quite inexpensive rates. Add to this that our Government currently guarantees our deposits and we should realise how privileged we are. Secondly, unlike many parts of the western world, none of our banks have been in serious financial trouble and thus the Government has not had to waste taxpayers' money in bailing them out. In the UK, in Ireland, in Iceland, in many other places in Europe and in many instances in the USA, banks have faced either insolvency or some form of nationalisation.

Having been nice to our banks, I then wonder why politicians on all sides miss one very important issue in the current dilemma. Over the last 10 to 15 years banks in Australia have been able to grow and grow and grow, as the overall amount of money they have loaned has grown and grown and grown. This credit growth has only been achieved as our banks have increased their borrowings overseas, thus making them (and us) vulnerable to international interest rate markets. Over the last decade banks, who once required a deposit of 25% for a person to buy a home, have often loaned sometimes over 100% of the value of a home. 'Low doc' loans have meant that many people borrowed by simply declaring they could afford to pay it back. Credit card limits have steadily been increased and we have lapped it up. The banks even invented new terms like 'equity mate' as a smooth way of convincing us that we were not really borrowing - we were just 'unlocking our equity'. Bank profits have grown as credit has grown.

But guess what? With the GFC the credit growth party is starting to peter out. Banks addicted to growth now face the prospect of not being able to actually get us as a nation much more in debt. With $140 Billion in personal debt (including $ 45 Billion on credit cards) and over a Trillion Dollars owed on home loans, we are at last starting to lose our appetite for more debt. And so the banks, it seems, now have a new strategy – increase the cost of our current debt and that will ensure their profit growth is maintained.

Of course no politician in her right mind is going to criticise the banks for lending too much, because we gladly received the credit to inflate our standard of living. Home loans at 7.8% are really still cheap if you consider where rates have been over the last 30 years. But when we owe over one trillion dollars, then every 1% increase in interest rates will cost the borrowers across this nation 10 billion dollars more in interest payments, every year.

The Bible warns that the borrower is always the servant of the lender. We might not like banks but maybe we only have ourselves to blame.

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. Proverbs 22: 7

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hot Tip For The Melbourne Cup

For the first time ever Word4Life comes this week with a hot tip for the Melbourne Cup. Here is my tip: walk past the TAB, walk to your bank and place a bet on something sure - reducing your debt!

So you think you can pick a winner? My advice is simple: the only real winners are the bookies and the TAB. So do something Shocking with Profound Beauty, break Precedence and follow your head to the bank to reduce your debts, just like Mr Medici would. With people drowning in a trifecta of personal, credit card and mortgage debt, the hot tip is to watch the race but bet on a sure thing - reducing your debts.

Churches and welfare organisations are reporting increasing numbers of people struggling to pay the bills and feed their families because of debt. In this context, why not consider not wasting your money on a horse race where you are almost sure to lose, when you could take your money and reduce the debt on your credit card, which is charging you up to 20% interest.

Australians currently owe over one trillion dollars in mortgages on their houses and over forty billion dollars on their credit cards. Traditionally in NSW and Victoria alone, almost one hundred million dollars is bet on the Melbourne Cup. The GFC around the world was caused basically by two things: Government debt, that in many countries is out of control; and private and corporate debt, which in many countries is also enormous and crippling. Australia was saved the worst of the GFC because our Government did not have debt, but we as a people sure do. Now the Government has saved us by taking on debt, we are all very vulnerable and the lesson to be learned from overseas is he who has the largest debt is eventually in the most trouble.

A horse race with a large field means most people, most years, lose on the Melbourne Cup. Sure it’s a national obsession and media frenzy, but maybe listening to the prophet is more important than allowing the gambling industry to make a profit. I have no doubt that I will be called un-Australian for this note, but who cares!

The old saying is true that gambling is a tax on the stupid.

It’s about time we wised up and invested in a sure thing - the reduction of our debts.

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. Proverbs 22: 7