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DEFLATION AND DISCOURAGEMENT | PRAGMATIC CAPITALISM

Read to the bottom of the article and you will find a great parable on how the devil uses discouragement. It fits well with my month-long theme on increasing our faith.
~bloomingcactus~

Most economists ignore the behavioral side of finance.  They tend to stick to their models, equations and textbooks.  This is, in large part, what makes economics such a frustrating endeavor for so many people.  They tend to ignore the simple fact that there is an unquantifiable variable in the equation – human emotion.  And no matter how much we evolve and advance technologically this variable will always be the most important piece of the puzzle.

via pragcap.com



Luke 17: 5-10 "Increase Our Faith!"

(Wednesday morning - I have been down with a stomach bug this week, but finally have a first full draft.  Blessings to all of you on World Communion Sunday.  May your faith be increased!)

I am an enormous fan of any Robin Hood movie.  I have watched everyone from Errol Flynn to Russell Crow portray the dashing, noble outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.  (Though I don’t think I finished “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.)  My latest fascination has been stirred by a BBC weekly TV show entitled “Robin Hood” which I watch on Netflix or BBC America.  What interests me is how each remake of the legend is trying to work out contemporary issues.  In the latest BBC version, Robin Hood’s band of merry men includes a Turkish woman who was taken as a slave by a crusader and freed by Robin Hood.  She has great scientific knowledge in medicine and chemistry and serves as a reminder that the Muslim world is not just full of barbarians, but was probably more scientifically advanced than Europe at the time.  Robin and his faithful servant, named “Much,” often reflect on the terrible atrocities they saw and enacted as crusaders and struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.  The Sheriff of Nottingham is suitably venal for the role, and a master at propaganda.  He constantly unleashes stories of Robin Hood’s men raping women, being filled with devil and desecrating holy relics and about every other episode the sheriff catches one of Robin’s followers and is going to hang them for aiding and abetting “terrorists.” 

 

Beyond the high adventure in each episode, there is a major focus on the nature of faith.  What happens to a society when the people and institutions that are meant to uphold faith in God are off Crusading and fighting a brutal and pointless war?  The result in England was terrible poverty because while thousands of able men were off fighting, everyone else was taxed to starvation to support the war effort.  With King Richard tied down in the Crusades, less scrupulous leaders profiteered on the war and by keeping the tax money for themselves and their cronies.  People loss faith in their leaders, because they sensed that the social contract was dead, they were sheep to be sheared of their income, and even the provider of order, the Sheriff of Nottingham, was corrupt.  When people lose faith in what is dear to them, they stop acting in noble ways, and focus on doing what they have to do to survive. 

 

Robin Hood becomes the keeper of the faith in the old, nobler values.  When society is so unjust he has to be an outlaw to be good.  He keeps the faith in Richard, whom he still believes to be a good king, who will make peace and come home to restore justice.  He keeps his faith in Marian, whom he loves, yet he must trust her as she acts as his spy in Nottingham Castle, and must carefully fend off the affections of Sir Guy of Gisbone.  He keeps his faith in the people, believing that at some point he can stir enough people to believe in what is right, that they will rise up with him and throw of injustice.  In almost every episode, Robin confronts a difficult situation where he needs the help of someone who has to make a hard choice.  Whose side are they on?  Will they do what is right even though it’s risky to them, or will they keep their head down and let injustice reign?  There is a realism in the show because sometimes Robin Hood inspires others to great courage while others will betray him for a few pieces of silver.  This is what I like about the show, for each episode confronts the audience with the choice, will you act in faith in what you know is right, or will you succumb to the low standards of the age?

 

Robin Hood is a messianic figure, who, like Jesus, reminds us that what we need to live is not merely wealth, or possessions, or knowledge or the right connections.  What we truly need is faith. “Increase our faith!” is what the disciples cry out in Luke this morning.  It is hard to tell from the context exactly why they felt this great need at this point in the Gospel.  In the preceding verses Jesus warns the disciples against leading other people astray through their own sins and challenges them to forgive, but this teaching doesn’t directly connect to their plea.  Perhaps Luke is just quickly moving to the next subject.  Having a strong faith is a perpetual issue in all times.  Seeking greater faith becomes a priority when we go through times of discouragement. 

 

I was recently reading an article on the economy which noted that economic deflation, when the value of our currency, our savings and our homes decreases while our salary stays the same, creates a self-perpetuating discouragement in people that leads to more economic deflation.  The blogger, who goes by the name Pragmatic Capitalist, then shared this parable:

Once upon a time it was announced that the devil was going out of business and would sell all his equipment to those who were willing to pay the price. On the big day of the sale, all his tools were attractively displayed. There were Envy, Jealousy, Hatred, Malice, Deceit, Sensuality, Pride, Idolatry, and other implements of evil display. Each of the tools was marked with its own price tag.

Over in the corner by itself was a harmless looking, wedge-shaped tool very much worn, but still it bore a higher price than any of the others. Someone asked the devil what it was, and he answered, “That is Discouragement.” The next question came quickly, “And why is it priced so high even though it is plain to see that it is worn more than these others?”

Because replied the devil, “It is more useful to me than all these others. I can pry open and get into a person’s heart with that when I cannot get near with any other tool. Once I get inside, I can use him in whatever way suits me best. It is worn well because I use it on everybody I can, and few people even know it belongs to me.” This tool was priced so high that no one could buy it, and to this day it has never been sold. It still belongs to the devil as his most powerful tool.

 Faith is the opposite of discouragement.  So how do we increase our faith, as the disciples pleaded?  Jesus first notes the great power of having even a little faith.  He compares the tiny mustard seed over against a solid tree.  I wondered if there was an importance to Jesus talking about mulberry trees.  Why would he want to throw it into the sea?  After a little digging, I discovered the tree was probably a form of wild fig tree which was quite common in Israel and known for being hardy and having very deep roots.   So it would be quite hard to eradicate it, as Jesus proposes in his parable.  A small seed of faith, and mustard seeds are among the smallest of seeds, has tremendous potency.  The question is how do we unlock this potency.  What do we need to do in our daily lives that will plant and nourish this small seed so that we may have a deeply rooted faith?

 

I think this parable about the role of a servant gives us direction.  Faith grows by action.  It grows by doing the daily duties that God sets before us.  The parable contains a bit of a rebuke.  I interperate Jesus to be saying, “Beware of focusing on getting a reward from God for having faith or doing the right thing.  Don’t think of God as your sugar daddy.  Rather do your duties and you will have your reward, which is a strong faith.”  Faith is much like a muscle.  If you exercise it, it will go stronger; and if you ignore your faith, it will atrophy.  God gives us the potential, plants the mustard seed within us, but it only grows as we act.  There are no shortcuts, no implants, facelifts, special easy diets, pills or genetic splices that will increase your faith.  The only prescription is a daily dose of being God’s willing servant and following through.  If you want more faith, be faithful.

 

This may not be exactly what we or the disciples want to hear, but I see it as hopeful.  Jesus is clearly saying that our faith can grow, and if we keep at it we can do remarkable things.  I often tell my clients at Hillcrest House to pick one hard thing every day, one thing they don’t’ want to do, and do it.  Each time you keep your commitment to yourself and act, it gets easier to do the next hard thing.  One day you wake up and you find that most things are not hard, because you have built a faith, a faith not of words but of deeds and achievements.  Grow your mustard seed as you do whatever God puts before you, and you will find that you will one day uproot any obstacle which is now the source of your discouragement. 


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Jeremiah 32:1-15 "Are You Ready to Buy the Farm?"

 

Jeremiah has delivered dire warnings, desperate weeping, and discouraging words for the last three weeks in the lectionary.  Now that the Babylonian siege is an immanent reality he is ready to offer hope.  This small section in chapters 30-33 is called the Little Book of Consolation.  It certainly is small compared to his words of doom, but this section would have profound impact on the future of prophecy in exile.  Jeremiah is now in jail, probably because the last thing King Zedekiah wants is to have the prophet running around telling the defenders of the city, “I told you so,” and demoralizing everyone.   But Jeremiah, being a true contrarian is through with all that.  Now he is ready to buy the farm. 

 

Jeremiah now seems to be getting investment advice from God (wouldn’t that be great!)  True to a vision from God, his cousin Hanamel comes and offers to sell a field in Anathoth to Jeremiah.  So Jeremiah goes through all the appropriate legal deeds and buys the field for 17 shekels of silver.  It looks like Jeremiah is following the investment advice famously quoted from Baron Rothschild, “Buy when blood is flowing in the streets.”  Human emotions often get in the way when we invest, which is why most people lose money in the stock market.  People get excited about the stock market when it is peaking and buy in, full of greed, or as Alan Greenspan called it “irrational exuberance,” just before the market becomes a bursting bubble and takes your money.  Then people hold their investments all the way down to the darkest days and finally give up and sell out at the bottom of the market.  Then a few weeks later the market shoots up again as people watch in utter frustration and vow to never invest again.  Until the market peaks and they change their mind and lose money all over again.  Contrarian investors, like Warren Buffett, sell their stocks when taxi cab drivers and shoe shine boys start giving stock tips and they buy when everyone says investing is nothing buy gambling. 

 

I doubt Jeremiah was interested in investment philosophy, but he understood the same flaw in human emotion.  People often ignore potential disaster in good times and don’t prepare for the lean times, and when things are bad, they can’t see the hopeful signs of change.  We are often stuck in our temporary emotions and can’t see the bigger picture from a historical perspective.  We forget the lessons of the past and fail to adequately prepare for the future.  Jeremiah was a contrarian in the same vein as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who said that the job of the preacher was “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” 

 

Jeremiah had a practical and a theological purpose in buying this field form his cousin. How much was Jeremiah paying for this field?  Based on Talmud measures of conversion, this may have been three to four months of an average salary, which means Jeremiah paid foreclosure prices for the field.  And why not, since Nebuchadnezzar was about to ravage suburban property values around all of Jerusalem?  Who buys real estate that is about to become worthless?  In essence what Jeremiah was probably doing for his cousin was giving him enough money to escape and go to Egypt and start over.  The passage notes he carefully weighed the pure silver he was paying which would hold value in any foreign land.

 

You have probably heard the phrase “buy the farm” before, in the context that someone has died.  According to answers.com:

 

The phrase originated during WWI. If a soldier was killed the death benefit was sufficient for the surviving family members to purchase a farm. Hence, a soldier who was killed, "bought the farm."  It also might refer to the play and movie "Of Mice and Men". At the end of the story when George has to kill Lenny, George assures Lenny that he (George) has indeed bought the farm where they will both live happily together.

 

Depending on the origin, the meaning is different.  In one case it means that from one person’s sacrifice comes another person’s hope.  Or it can mean offering a false sense of security to someone who is about to die.

 

Jeremiah’s message is akin to the first meaning, though people may have thought he was not giving them the kind of hope they wanted.  Clearly Jeremiah did not expect to benefit himself from the farm he bought.  Jeremiah had a larger theological purpose in mind.  At the end of the passage he makes this pronouncement:

 

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 

This is meant to be a hopeful message, though I’m not sure everyone took it that way at first.  Jeremiah’s listeners probably wept at the thought for it meant their doom was sealed.  Few would escape the impending disaster of the Babylonian armies.  The options were death or exile.  They were hoping for God to stop the disaster.  While it is too late for that, Jeremiah is trying to reassure people that God is with them even in disaster and God will bring a hopeful future, but it may not be in our human timing.  There are times when we reap the wonderful promises of God, and times when we must endure and keep hope alive, even if it is holding firm for another generation. 

 

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, “The arm of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”  King knew he would not see his dream of equality realized in his lifetime.  He knew that the struggle of black Americans had been going on for centuries since landing on these shores in slave ships.  There had been progress along the way, with the Civil War ending slavery, but it would take 99 years before the Civil Rights Act would be signed into law.  It has taken several decades of bitter struggle to enact this law with measurable progress, but there is always more work to do. Forty years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, we have elected a black President of the United States.  That was inconceivable in 1964, the year I was born. Most of the people who struggled and sacrificed for the greater but imperfect equality we have today never lived to see the dream.

 

The main point here I take from Jeremiah buying the farm is that we can have faith in God’s providence, even when disaster is upon us, for that will not be the final word in God’s story.  It is a reminder that all the treasurers of faith that we have are an inheritance of sacrifice from saints of previous generations.  Who we are today has been passed from Jeremiah, to Jesus of Nazereth, to Martin Luther, to Martin Luther King, Jr, to a church on Mill Street here in Poughkeepsie built by German immigrants seeking a new life, to you today.  We are the current generation entrusted with the great treasure once buried in a field outside Jerusalem.  We are the living community of the saints, seeking to love God and have compassion for our neighbors.   It is our responsibility to keep hope as a living reality, not merely a past legacy. 

 

There are days when I get bogged down with my own problems and wonder if my struggle is worth it.  I find courage in knowing that my struggle is part of the wider human struggle, and the ongoing work of Christ to redeem humanity.  The challenge I put before myself and you today is this: what is the concrete work you need to do this day to extend Christ’s work and pass it forward.  How will your life help “buy the farm?”