Baseball, Bonding, and the Beltway

It’s no secret that I love going to baseball games. Since 2011, I’ve attended over 100 Major League games in 5 different ballparks and seen 26 of the 30 MLB teams (the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, and Phillies just don’t make it to Texas enough). Baseball can often serve as a metaphor for life, and it can be a place to bring all sorts of people together. When I go to a game, I am regularly surrounded by people who are different from me, but we are united by the love of the game. For three hours, our differences are set aside (unless the Yankees are in town), and we find joy in watching the American pastime.

Today’s print edition of the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the role of baseball to bridge the political divide in Washington, D.C. The Washington Nationals are hosting this week’s All-Star Game festivities, and the team provides an interesting outlet for political leaders on both sides of the aisle to come together in unity. Here are a few interesting excerpts:

Each spring, conservative columnist George Will hosts a large, convivial party at his house to mark the launch of another season for the local Major League Baseball team, the Washington Nationals.

In this year of exceptional divisiveness in Washington, it turns out his gathering provided one of the capital’s rare moments of bipartisan comity. “I think our preseason party is one of the few places you will see Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi socializing,” says Mr. Will.

If you watch the news, McConnell and Pelosi are sworn enemies working towards each other’s destruction. But for a couple hours, they can socialize cordially around baseball.

Here’s another good story from the article:

Amid the capital’s tensions, who can you find at Nationals Park in Southeast Washington? “Who haven’t I seen?” replies Tom Davis, a former Virginian congressman and Nationals Park regular.

He recalls a recent game when, sitting in his usual seats down the first-base line, a foul ball came his way. He was lucky enough to grab it—at which point another fan sitting just behind him tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out that a youngster nearby had been scrambling for the same ball. “Tom, give him the ball,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat. The Republican, Mr. Davis, promptly complied.

George Will even notes that baseball is the right sport for democracy:

In recent years, the Nationals’ bipartisan fan base could unite around success. The Nats have the second-best record in baseball over the last six years, and they won the National League East title in four of those years. This year, angst and anxiety are the forces bonding fans. The team’s record entering the All Star break is an even .500, and its star hitter, Bryce Harper, scrapes along with a batting average of .214.

Even such suffering may be oddly beneficial for loyalists who, in their day jobs, toil with similar frustration at the game of governance. “I always thought baseball was the right sport for democracy because there is so much losing,” says Mr. Will. “Democracy is the system of the half loaf. Nobody gets all they want. The same is true in baseball…It’s good for the soul of democracy.”

I think there’s a lot of truth in what these stories illustrate. People from all perspectives can unite around a simple game of throwing, catching, and hitting. I’ve had countless conversations with James and Jackie, the couple who sits next to us in our regular seats at Globe Life Park to watch the Rangers. Our paths would never have crossed otherwise. In some respects, they are still strangers. In other ways, they are old friends. What I can tell you is that we bond over baseball and then go our separate ways. When we meet again at another game, we pick up where we left off.

We live in a deeply divided society, but we need something to unite us on occasion. Baseball can’t fix everything, but it can help us slow down, relax, and talk things out. Perhaps we should take to heart the words of the column:

The need for such a refuge has only grown in a summer of raw emotions over immigration, Supreme Court vacancies and Russian election meddling. So, as baseball’s mid-summer classic, the All-Star Game, takes place in Washington on Tuesday, this is a good time to pause and reflect on the role—perhaps small, yet undeniable—that baseball and the Nationals play in bridging the increasingly stark divides in Washington.

This is just one more reason why I love this game.

________________________

Gerald F. Seib, “Baseball Bridges the Political Divide in Washington,” The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2018.

A First Step for the First Freedom: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

300px-supreme_court_front_duskThe Supreme Court of the United States released its decision on the highly anticipated Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case on June 4. In a 7-2 decision, the high court sided with Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, noting that his First Amendment right to freedom of religious exercise was violated.

While the split among the justices was a wide margin of 7-2, the opinion of the Court is being described as a narrow due to the scope of the decision. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted:

Phillips was entitled to the neutral and respectful consideration of his claims in all the circumstances of the case. . . . The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here, however. The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.

In essence, commissioners on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission expressed animus regarding the religious beliefs of Jack Phillips and were unable to adjudicate the merits of his claim due to such animus. Thus, Phillips’ rights were violated because his deeply held religious beliefs were judged unfairly by the commission.

Kennedy also noted that the commission had treated other similar cases differently. On three separate occasions, the commission ruled in favor of bakers who refused to produce cakes with messages that disapproved of same-sex marriage while also bearing religious texts. The commission allowed those bakers to refuse service but still compelled Phillips to produce cakes in support of same-sex marriage.

Kennedy concludes his opinion by emphasizing the narrow scope of the opinion. He writes:

The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided. In this case the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above. However later cases raising these or similar concerns are resolved in the future, for these reasons the ruling of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated.

What does this Supreme Court decision mean for religious liberty? On one hand, it is a victory for Jack Phillips and others whose religious liberty has been violated because government officials disagreed with their religious beliefs. On the other hand, this case does not set a clear precedent moving forward for religious liberty on a wider scale.

Those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds have increasingly found themselves on the outside looking in. The general attitude toward same-sex marriage in the United States has rapidly become more favorable since the Obergefell decision in 2015. As a result, it is likely that many business owners who refuse to promote same-sex marriage with their goods and services will face similar ridicule and animosity on the part of those adjudicating their cases in the courts. In such circumstances, this case sets a helpful precedent because religious beliefs must be considered with neutrality in the courts and commissions. Thus, anyone who faces such animosity can immediately use this Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion to find remedy.

What this case does not do is set a precedent for all business owners to refuse service in matters of same-sex marriage. Kennedy notes this limitation in his opinion, and Justice Thomas makes it even clearer. Thomas writes:

In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would “inevitabl[y] . . . come into conflict” with religious liberty, “as individuals . . . are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to “stamp out every vestige of dissent” and “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” If that freedom is to maintain its vitality, reasoning like the Colorado Court of Appeals’ must be rejected.

This case gives a temporary and limited victory to proponents of traditional marriage. For the time being, the “new orthodoxy” of same-sex marriage has not overrun those who believe that God created marriage to be a union between one man and one woman. However, this case does not give blanket protection in the future. It is a first step in the protection of our first freedom in the United States, but further steps are still necessary.

_________________________

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018). Full text of the opinion is available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-111_new_d1of.pdf.

A Prayer for Our Nation

May 3 is the National Day of Prayer. This is a moment for us to stop and ask for God’s guidance for those who lead our nation. This is not a time to hash out political disagreements; rather, it is an opportunity to unite around the biblical admonition to pray for those in leadership over us. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we read, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”

The theme of this year’s National Day of Prayer is “Unity.” There is no doubt that we live in a nation that is divided. We are divided over politics, race, economics, etc. We often look to our leaders to solve these problems, but they persist. As an encouragement, here are a few ways we can pray for our leaders as they face the challenges of governing this diverse nation.

  1. Pray for their hearts. Most of us probably do not know the spiritual status of our government officials. There are certainly outspoken Christians in office, but there are also those who do not know God. It will do us good to move our focus away from political disagreements and unite in praying for the hearts of our leaders. In Psalm 2:10-11 we read, “Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling.” We see this warning from the psalmist that kings and judges should worship the Lord. We need to pray that God would draw the hearts of our government officials to himself, and that their lives would be an expression of worship.
  2. Give thanks to God for our government officials. It is often hard to give thanks for people with whom we disagree. As noted above, Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Specifically, he tells us to give thanksgiving for those who rule over us. They have been placed in offices of authority, and God has ordained government authority (Romans 13:1). As we give thanks to God for our leaders, we should also live as good citizens. The result of this combination is that we would be able to lead peaceful lives.
  3. Pray for peace and welfare. There is no doubt that their days in exile were the lowest point for the people of Judah. In the midst of that exile, Jeremiah sent the exiles a letter with an interesting statement from the Lord. He wrote, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). The Lord instructed the exiles to seek the welfare of the land of their exile because it would result in their own welfare. We should also pray for the welfare of our nation under the leadership of our government officials because it will result in our own welfare.

These points of prayer are not a magic formula to bring about unity to a divided nation, but they will refocus our own hearts to recognize the part we can play in bringing unity to the nation in which we live. True unity can only be found in Christ; therefore, it is also imperative for us to proclaim the truth of the gospel to a lost and dying world.

Would you join me in praying for our nation, particularly our government officials, on this National Day of Prayer?

Dear Father, I come to you today, on the National Day of Prayer in my country, to pray for our leaders as you have instructed us. First, I pray for a submissive spirit on my own part to those you have placed in authority. May I be a good citizen of my country who submits to the ordinances of government in keeping with the ordinances of God. May I honor those to whom honor is due. Second, I pray for the hearts of our government officials. I do not know their spiritual condition, but I ask you to draw them to yourself. For those who do not know you personally, I pray for their salvation and that they would worship you in spirit and in truth. Third, I give you thanks for the leaders of our country, states, and cities. You have granted authority to our government, and these are the leaders you have ordained for this time. Finally, may their leadership result in the peace and welfare of our nation so that we may also find welfare and live tranquilly in godliness and dignity. Lord, thank you for hearing my prayer, and help me to bring these leaders before you in prayer regularly. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Challenging the Culture of Death: Gerber’s 2018 Spokesbaby

For nearly a decade Gerber has conducted an annual search for their Gerber baby. This fresh face every year complements the iconic Gerber baby logo that adorns their product lines. This past Wednesday on the “Today Show” Gerber announced that Lucas Warren, a 1-year-old boy from Dalton, Georgia is the 2018 Gerber baby, and he has Down syndrome. This is the first time in the contest’s history that a child with Down syndrome was selected to represent the company.

Bill Partyka, President and CEO of Gerber, stated, “Lucas’ winning smile and joyful expression won our hearts this year, and we are all thrilled to name him our 2018 Spokesbaby. Every year, we choose the baby who best exemplifies Gerber’s longstanding heritage of recognizing that every baby is a Gerber baby, and this year, Lucas is the perfect fit.” As the winner of the contest, Lucas’ family receives $50,000 and he will be front and center on the company’s social media platforms.

What makes this announcement so interesting is the fact that Down syndrome births have been steadily decreasing through the years. This is not due to the fact that medical technology has found a cure for Down syndrome. Instead, a higher percentage of children diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome are being aborted. CBS News reports that the estimated abortion rate of Down syndrome children in the United States is 67%. In France the rate is 77%, 98% in Denmark, and Iceland is almost 100%.

The situation in Iceland is particularly disturbing. Even though the population in that country is small compared the United States, they have effectively eliminated the birth of Down syndrome babies through prenatal testing. Kari Stefansson, the founder of the company that has studied the Icelandic population is not comfortable with the results. CBS News further reports:

Geneticist Kari Stefansson is the founder of deCODE Genetics, a company that has studied nearly the entire Icelandic population’s genomes. He has a unique perspective on the advancement of medical technology. “My understanding is that we have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society—that there is hardly ever a child with Down syndrome in Iceland anymore,” he said.

Quijano asked Stefansson, “What does the 100 percent termination rate, you think, reflect about Icelandic society?”

“It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling,” he said. “And I don’t think that heavy-handed genetic counseling is desirable. . . . You’re having impact on decisions that are not medical, in a way.”

Stefansson noted, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring to have healthy children, but how far we should go in seeking those goals is a fairly complicated decision.”

The situation in Iceland (and other parts of the world) reflects the reality that society does not value life, especially when that life appears to depart from ordinary expectations. While children with Down syndrome and other genetic abnormalities may face some difficult medical and developmental challenges, they are still people made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 tells us, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” All human beings bear inherent worth before God because they are made in his image; therefore, they also deserve the right to live as image bearers in the world God has created. Aborting a child with Down syndrome denies this inherent value.

Gerber should be commended for naming Lucas as their 2018 spokesbaby. They are pushing back against the culture of death in society. Lucas’ mother, Cortney Warren, states, “This is such a proud moment for us as parents knowing that Lucas has a platform to spread joy, not only to those he interacts with every day, but to people all over the country. We hope this opportunity sheds light on the special needs community and educates people that with acceptance and support, individuals with special needs have the potential to change the world—just like our Lucas!” May we come alongside them and affirm that all humans are valuable, and every child deserves the right to life.

 

To Save or Not to Save?

chicklet-currencyDue to my role as the Eklund Chair of Stewardship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, students regularly ask me about financial stewardship. Some of the basic advice I always give relates to budgeting, paying off debt, and saving. I am happy to report that many students take my advice and begin the journey of taking control of their finances. This is not just an economic issue, but I believe it is a spiritual one as well.

Unfortunately, the culture often teaches the opposite of what I try to pass along to my students, particularly at a time when many people believe the economy is surging ahead with no end in sight.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the rate of savings among Americans has dropped to a 12-year low. The article states, “Soaring stock prices and improving job prospects have set Americans off on a spending splurge that is cutting into how much they sock away for retirement and rainy days.” As net worth has risen over the last decade, people are spending more of their lifetime savings. This could mean drawing money out of retirement accounts or tapping into their home equity to make purchases.

The net result is that savings has decreased. The WSJ article continues, “The saving rate was 2.4% of disposable household income in December [2017], the Commerce Department said Monday. That was the lowest rate since September 2005, not long after then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan began warning about froth in housing markets. The saving rate had risen to 6.6% when the recession ended in June 2009.”

In my Family and Church Financial Stewardship class last week, we focused on a number of passages from Proverbs that speak about how a wise person should view money. Proverbs 6:6-11 gives us a lesson from the world of insects related to the topic of saving for the future. These verses read:

Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise,
Which, having no chief,
Officer or ruler,
Prepares her food in the summer
And gathers her provision in the harvest.
How long will you lie down, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
“A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest”—
Your poverty will come in like a vagabond
And your need like an armed man.

The ant recognizes the need to save for the future when the present is bountiful. We are in a historic time of increase in the stock market, and for many the economic boom holds great promise for the future. However, we have seen booms before and they are typically followed by busts. The question for us is whether we are storing up like the ant or sleeping away these bountiful days like the sluggard. Notice that the sluggard does not see his poverty coming. It hits him like an armed man seeking to steal all he has.

At the same time, we must be careful not to put our trust in the financial resources we may amass during our lives. Jesus tells a parable about a rich fool who trusted his riches rather than the Lord (Luke 12:16-21). Jesus says:

The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

There is a balance to be struck between preparation and abundance. The sluggard of Proverbs 6 did not prepare for the future, but the rich fool of Luke 12 trusted in the abundance of his riches. We must pursue wisdom in discovering where the balance is between these two examples. Both refusing to save for the future storing up treasures on earth are foolish. I pray we pursue contentment between these two extremes.

_________________________

Harriet Torry, “With Stocks Surging, Americans Are Saving at 12-Year Low,” The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2018.

Preparing for a Financial Emergency

chicklet-currencyToday is the first day of classes for the spring semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is my twenty-third convocation and the start of my twelfth year at SWBTS. For the last few years I have taught Family and Church Financial Stewardship each spring semester. This class has quickly become one of my favorites because I get to see the lives of my students impacted almost every week. This is not my typical seminary class. There is no research paper. I use a number of guest speakers. The newspaper is one of my textbooks. However, it is probably the most practical course I teach.

One of the assignments I require for Family and Church Financial Stewardship is a quick review of a couple news articles each week that address financial issues. This requires my students to stay up to date on the news beyond yesterday’s basketball scores or any recent developments at the White House. I want them to be aware of the financial side of the news. We even talk about some of these articles on a regular basis.

In order to practice what I preach, I just came across an article from CNN Money this morning that states most Americans would be unable to cover an emergency expense of $1,000. Kathryn Vasel reports, “Only 39% of Americans say they would be able to pay for a $1,000 unplanned expense, according to new report from Bankrate.”

The article goes on to report how often American households have these emergency expenses. Vasel writes, “Unexpected bills aren’t uncommon. More than one-third of households had a major unplanned expense last year, the survey showed, with half of those costing at least $2,500.” Unfortunately, the typical American household is unprepared for such an expense and places it on the credit card. Such an approach only complicates matters because high interest rates on credit cards mean you pay even more for this unexpected expense.

The article suggests a few practical tips for building your savings in order to cover an emergency expense.

  1. Set aside money to save before you start spending your paycheck.
  2. Start the habit of saving early in life.
  3. Separate your emergency fund from the money you spend in your checking account.
  4. Find a good savings account.

Seminary students are not immune to these same problems.We joke around the seminary that students are as poor as Job’s turkey (I’m not sure how poor Job’s trukey was, but after the events of Job 1-2, it must have been rough). I surmise that the figure is actually worse among seminary students regarding their ability to cover a $1,000 expense in an emergency. And then students begin a cycle of debt that can cripple their future ministries.

My goal in the stewardship class is to give students hope for their financial future and tools to help them be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to them. This is not a class about getting rich. It is a class about serving God with our financial resources. God owns it all anyway, so we are simply managers of his resources.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.
Psalm 24:1

Family and Church Financial Stewardship

Stewardship Class PromoEven though I have spent most of my academic career teaching courses on ethics, one of my favorite courses that I teach is actually in the realm of stewardship. STWLD 3603: Family and Church Financial Stewardship is a fun class to teach because I get to see my students implement the concepts they are learning on a weekly basis.

As you can tell by the title, the course covers two major areas of financial stewardship–the family and the church. In the first half of the class, we consider what the Bible says about financial stewardship and how to apply those truths to our lives. We also handle some of the unique components of financial management for ministers including housing allowance and ministerial taxes.

The most practical assignment for this section of the class is the family budget analysis. Students are required to track every expense for two months, categorize those expenses, and then analyze their expenses. This is the first step to building a workable budget. Many of my students have never tracked and analyzed their expenses, so this is the first time they get a clear picture of how they use their money. Students are regularly surprised by what they find and begin making changes immediately.

When we transition to the part of the class on church financial stewardship, the focus is on how to build a church budget and how to protect the church’s money. New seminary graduates often do not have the luxury of going to churches with multiple staff members where someone takes care of the finances. In most cases, the new pastor also has responsibility of managing the budget with the assistance of a volunteer committee. For that reason, it is imperative that they learn how to budget for the church.

In addition, protecting the church’s money is also a crucial element. I once heard a friend of mine who is a church administrator say, “If you serve at a church that collects money, someone is trying to steal it.” The longer I have been around churches, the more I realize he is correct. Whether it is someone taking coins out of the soda machine or a staff member embezzling millions of dollars, the reality is that our churches’ money is vulnerable. Therefore, we need policies in place to help protect money and promote integrity in the handling of money.

As you can see, this class covers a wide range of topics related to financial stewardship. My students are also thankful that they do not have to listen to just me for the semester. This semester’s guests include John Cortines, co-author of God and Money (one of our textbooks), Stephen Osborne, senior relationship manager at Guidestone Financial Resources, and David Hain, executive pastor at Birchman Baptist Church.

I encourage as many students as possible at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to take this class. The class is offered on Tuesday/Thursday at 1:00-2:15 this semester. I also just received approval to offer it in our flexible access format so that students can take it without being on campus. If you are interested in the class, please contact the Registrar’s Office.