THE RESULTS ARE IN; AND FURY IS THE WINNER

The Nevada caucuses took place yesterday. For those not following the American news, these gatherings of voters across the state of Nevada are the latest stage of the process of choosing candidates for the Presidential Election in November. It seems a foregone conclusion that President Trump will be the Republican candidate running for another four years in office. However, on the Democrat side a candidate is far from clear.

A field that once numbered at least 24 has been whittled down to less than a dozen, among whom there is no obvious front-runner. Mrs. Clinton was the clear party favorite back in 2016, but had to fend off a strong challenge from Mr. Sanders, an independent who has represented the state of Vermont in the US Senate since 2007.

Mr. Sanders is running again and if by chance he should win the nomination and be elected in the fall, he will, at age 79 become the oldest president in US history. He’s an independent who joins the Democrat party at times when it is convenient; namely to run for presidential office on the Democrat ticket. He describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, and his radical policies probably place him to the left of all his Senate colleagues. For this reason he touts his independence.

Mrs. Clinton was the winner in Nevada in 2016; Mr. Sanders won the most support yesterday. Nevada is only the third state to vote in a selection process that will last until a winning candidate is nominated for the Presidency by a convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in July.

Another clear winner in Nevada yesterday was Tyson Fury. The Gypsy King from Manchester, England, who first shocked the boxing world in 2015 by beating long-time Heavyweight World Champion, Vladimir Klitschko. He later surrendered his titles and retired unbeaten from boxing. Two years later he made a comeback and drew a challenge match against American world champion Deontay Wilder in 2018. Fifteen months later Fury was back in the ring for a rematch in Las Vegas against Wilder. He won, while presenting what the media have described as: the most destructive performance of his boxing life.[i]

Fury may have won in the ring; I want to suggest that fury is winning in American politics. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 unleashed streams of vitriolic attacks from both the Democrats and segments of the media. Mr. Trump has not helped his cause with his mastery of Twittering ineptitude. The Mueller Inquiry, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the recent impeachment process have all given the spirit of anger an opportunity to expose itself.

I watched the Democrat candidates debate on stage in Nevada last week. Six of them qualified for the debate including billionaire Michael Bloomberg who is self-funding his campaign, rising in the polls, and has yet to participate in any of the state voting. I was immediately struck by the lack of civility as candidates appeared not to pay attention to the moderator’s rules, spoke over one another and were often harshly critical of their fellow participants. But more than that I regret that I saw little real statesmanship at work. A tired former Vice President, an angry progressive socialist, a strident college professor who wants to levy a wealth tax to provide massive injections of government spending, and a former mayor of a small mid-Western city are among those who join Mr. Bloomberg among the choices. Speaking of former Republican Mr. Bloomberg, and independent Mr. Sanders, noting that neither are long-time democrats, former South Bend, mayor, Mr. Buttigieg observed: Most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks money ought to be the root of all power. He went on to say: Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat. We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out. We can do better. [ii] But that comment was one of the rare moments of civility, albeit highly critical, in an evening filled with what might be regarded as hate-speech if it came from the mouths of others.

I realized that four of the six on stage last Wednesday evening are over 70 years old, and wonder what the chances are they will all still be alive come inauguration day in January next year. Prolonged anger and the associated stress are rarely attributes for longevity.

I also wonder how the headlines will read if Mr. Bloomberg does gain the nomination to challenge Mr. Trump in November’s election. His Wikipedia entry states: Throughout his business career, Bloomberg has made numerous statements which have been considered insulting, derogatory, sexist or misogynistic.[iii] It would be sad if the only person the Democrats could agree upon to challenge an incumbent billionaire New York businessman who has been accused of racism and misogyny was an even wealthier billionaire New York businessman who has been accused of racism and misogyny.

Following the last presidential election, an article entitled The Culture of Nastiness appeared in the New York Times. Teddy Wayne wrote: Despite efforts to curb hate speech, eradicate bullying and extend tolerance, a culture of nastiness has metastasized in which meanness is routinely rewarded, and common decency and civility are brushed aside.[iv] Donald Trump’s reference to That Nasty Woman, and Hilary Clinton’s statement that half of Mr. Trump’s supporters could be placed in a basket of deplorables only emphasize the thesis of the article. Many of the comments last Wednesday evidence a further decline in civility and a departure from true statesmanship.

Last night in Nevada, Fury was the winner. I pray that fury, with all its accompanying anger and rudeness is not the winner in November.

[i] https://www.bbc.com/sport/boxing/51602615 (accessed 2/23/2020)

[ii] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/02/19 (accessed 2/23/2020)

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Bloomberg (accessed 2/23/2020)

[iv] The Culture of Nastiness – Teddy Wayne in the New York Times – February 18,2017

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I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH CHRISTMAS

Christmas has appeared on the Henrico County (Virginia) Calendar. Henrico (Virginia) County School Board recently announced calendar changes for the next school year. They will preserve the two-week Winter Holiday but will rearrange teacher workdays so that they can give school holidays for Hanukkah, Eid and Diwali. According to an email sent to all parents of Henrico students on December 13th, the calendar gives “more opportunities to observe religious holidays in an increasingly diversifying community”. On the 2018-19 and 2019-20 calendars the period of vacation that spans Christmas and New Year is described as “Winter Break” [i] [ii], yet the newly published 2020-21 calendar in addition to referencing the festivals of other religions refers to the same break as “Winter Break (includes Christmas….)” [iii]

Prior to recognizing these other festivals, Christmas was not recognized on the calendar. Now, while other festivals are recognized, Christmas becomes parenthetical. I was one who registered my disapproval of the new calendar stating that if the calendar previously did not recognize a religious holiday there was no reason why suddenly it now should. But we live in an increasingly multi-cultural society, so apparently we should therefore respect the religious sensibilities of others.

As the years go by our public media culture moves farther and farther away from referencing Christmas. More and more so-called Christmas music bears no reference to the real meaning of Christmas and public symbols are marginalized.

I was recently in the United Kingdom. Driving on December 1st listening to the radio a presenter reminded me that it was the first Sunday of Advent. Although the programing was in no way religious, I looked forward to how he would explain the reason for Advent. He proceeded to invite people to call in and share their special experiences of opening a window of an Advent Calendar. I listened as a small child called in to talk of the candy he found in a box behind the door, while an elderly lady spoke of the love letters that her husband had hidden for each day of December. Nowhere was there even a hint of reference to the Advent of a coming King.

During the same visit I stayed in a hotel outside Heathrow airport on my final evening. Walking through the foyer my eyes were caught by the glitter and tinsel of a little star covered model barn. Momentarily I thought I was seeing a traditional nativity scene until I realized that St. Nick was standing outside the barn with a few of his reindeer.

In a world that increasingly wants to write the Christ out of Christmas, I guess I am just going to ignore CHRISTMAS and enjoy celebrating the birth of the King who is transforming the world.

[i] https://henricoschools.us/pdf/Calendar2018-19.pdf

[ii] https://henricoschools.us/wp-content/uploads/2019-2020-FINAL.pdf

[iii] https://henricoschools.us/2020-2021-calendar/

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THE TRIUMPH OF THE CROSS OF CHRIST

A Reflection for Easter of 2019

The West African nation of Niger is a somewhat out-of-the-way place. It is one of the poorest of nations, and, sandwiched between the African powerhouse of Nigeria, and the sparsely populated Sahara desert, it is easily ignored. Yet it is still home to a variety of different tribal peoples, all struggling to make a living in an under-resourced place.

Ekibala conference 2019Some friends of mine have supervised a project over more than a decade that supports Nigeri pastor-evangelists, to establish mission points for the church in remote villages where the name of Jesus Christ is often unheard. The Ekibala project team recently hosted a pastors’ conference in Niamey the capital city. 45 pastors who are supported and mentored through the project came together for several days of worship, prayer and teaching. By now they will have returned to their villages to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that pivotal event in human history which makes the good news of Jesus make sense. In some of the villages the church has provided the only well, the only source of clean water for the community. In others they have provided opportunities for literacy, and in others food assistance during hard times.

An initiative in Niger is testimony to the importance of investing, prayerfully and then practically into the ministry of preaching good news through word and deed to men and women everywhere. It serves to advance the Kingdom of God in one of the world’s remoter places; it serves as testimony to the enduring message of the Cross of Christ.

Over a century ago French missionaries were the foremost missionary presence in Niger, an area that was part of the French Empire in West Africa. But the church in France has gone through a transition over the last century. Many faithful and elderly saints in that nation will have wondered why there has been such a decline in attendance at the Catholic Mass; why so many now identify as Catholic atheists. At the same time there has been renewal in some traditional church communities, and the evangelical presence in France has grown.

Some of the same discouraged may well have been deeply saddened to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame burning last Monday night. Yet, somewhat spontaneously, hymns were being sung in the streets of the capital. Across the nation, the hearts of people who never normally gave a thought to religion, were turned at the thought of losing a symbol of French history, a building that has stood witness to momentous events from the hundred years war through the World Wars of the twentieth century until the recent street protests by the gilets jaunes. Some, I am sure were reminded of the enduring presence of the church, with all its mysteries, in the heart of the French nation. On Tuesday morning, interviewed on American television, Archbishop Timothy Dolan said: I am already praying for revival in France!

And then, emerging from the aftermath of the fire, images of the nave toward the high altar of the church. There for all to see, the cross of Christ, central to everything, enduring and lacking little of its golden lustre despite the smoke blackened and fallen timbers all around.

notre-dame-fire-2019-04-16Throughout two millenia of human history, the Cross of Christ has been a dominant feature of our horizons. Christ continues to gently intrude into the life of a world that wants to ignore and reject him. May all who know and love Him continue to pray for the birth of the church in places where it is not yet physically present. Let us pray that the cross be held up high, and the resurrection power of Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, be known among all peoples…. until He comes!

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SPEAKING OF HOMOPHOBIA: WHEN TO SPEAK AND WHEN NOT TO SPEAK

Social media is getting people into trouble. More than ever before, more people can say more things to a wider audience using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And they are sometimes saying them without thinking of the consequences.

The freedom to express oneself declaring opinion and belief are a fundamental element of western democracy. The attitude: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to

the death your right to say it, ascribed to Voltaire by his biographer Evelyn Hall[i], has for more than two centuries expressed the sentiments of the liberal enlightenment toward freedom of thought and speech.

However, we seem to be experiencing a change in the twenty-first century. Last week, the Australian rugby player Israel Folau shared some statements on Twitter and Instagram. With reference to the decision of the Tasmanian legislature to permit gender optional birth certificates he tweeted the caution: the devil has blindsided so many people in this world, repent and turn away from your evil ways. He followed up on Instagram with the post of an image that proclaimed hell awaits drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. He stated: those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent and concluded: Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.[ii]

Folau has been stepped down from responsibilities with the Australian national rugby team. They stated their intention to sack him: “‘in the absence of compelling mitigating factors’, having previously warned the 30-year-old player against sharing material that ‘condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality’”.[iii]

Folau may have made his comments in an insensitive way, however the heart of what he said comes straight from scripture. Speaking to the Corinthian church and condemning the behavior of the wider community Paul says: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you were.[iv] In addition to expressing scripture Folau underlined his belief in the redemptive love of Christ.

Folau’s words, along with those of many others who have spoken out against homosexuality and the homosexual agenda, have been described as homophobic. Now I always understood a phobia to be a fear of something, whether rational or not. The word comes from the Greek φοβια denoting an irrational anxiety inspiring dread or terror and inspiring flight. The word homophobia was coined by the psychologist George Weinberg who believed the hatred of homosexuals in 1960s America stemmed from that literal fear.[v] Unfortunately, regardless of the accuracy of Weinburg’s thesis, the word became associated with that hatred. Thus, fear becomes inextricably aligned with hatred among some.

I do not hate homosexuals, nor do I personally know any Christians who express hatred of homosexuals. I am however, deeply concerned about the homosexual agenda. Similarly, where the word Islamophobia is concerned, I do not hate Muslims, but I am concerned about the agenda of Islamism and radical Islamic movements toward non-Muslims. I am also not fearful of either of these categories of people. I therefore do not believe that if I speak out regarding these concerns, I should be accused either of homophobia or Islamophobia.

The Israel Folau story does not end with his remarks and censure. English national team rugby player Billy Vunipola liked Folau’s post. He was then asked by several of his friends to unlike the post. He responded on Instagram saying:

So, this morning I got 3 phone calls from people telling me to ‘unlike’ the @izzyfolau post. This is my position on it. I don’t HATE anyone neither do I think I’m perfect. There just comes a point when you insult what I grew up believing in that you just say enough is enough, what he’s saying isn’t that he doesn’t like or love those people. He’s saying how we live our lives needs to be closer to how God intended them to be.

Man was made for woman to procreate that was the goal, no? I’m not perfect I’m at least everything on that list at least at one point in my life. It hurts to know that. But that’s why I believe there’s a God. To guide and protect us and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

According to the Guardian, Vunipola now faces potential disciplinary action, though any action to be taken on the part of the English Rugby Football Union has been further confused by several other squad members liking the post and even posting replies in support of Vunipola’s right to express his opinion.[vi] [It’s also worth noting that the England team are one of the favorites to win this year’s Rugby World Cup]

As I read the remarks of both these men, I admire their courage in graciously speaking up about what they believe. We seem to be living in an age when objective truth, even when spoken in love, is regarded as intolerant. It is sad that some who regard it so often themselves complain of not being tolerated.

Folau, speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald stated: In Ezekiel, chapter 33, verse 11, it says, that ‘God has no pleasure in the person that’s living in sin,’ He’s a loving God and he wants people to turn away from what they’re living in and he’ll give them life. That’s the message I’m trying to share, even though it comes across as harsh. I can’t change what the word of God says. … those that live for Christ will be persecuted for his name. I have love towards everyone that might be saying negative things. I choose to love them because God loves me. [vii]

All of us who claim Christ as our Lord and Savior, need to remember that we should interpret the world around us through the eternal word of God, and not become guilty of interpreting that word through the prevailing whims of our culture.

[i] Hall, Evelyn Beatrice – The Friends of Voltaire, New York Putnam’s Sons, 1907, p.199

[ii] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-10/israel-folau-referred-rugby-integrity-unit-over-instagram-post/10990920 (accessed April 14, 2019)

[iii] The Guardian, April 14,2019

[iv] I Corinthians 6:9-11

[v] Weinberg, George H.- Society and the Healthy Homosexual, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1972, p.10

[vi] The Guardian online April 12, 2019 – http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/apr/12/rfu-will-speak-to-billy-vunipola-social-media-israel-folau-england-saracens (accessed April 14, 2019)

[vii] Sydney Morning Herald online April 14, 2019 – http://www.smh.com.au/sport/rugby-union/i-m-more-than-happy-to-do-what-he-wants-me-to-do-unrepentant-folau-20190414-p51dyw.html (accessed April 14, 2019)

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AND HE WILL BE CALLED … PRINCE OF PEACE

A Christmas Meditation

Most of us want to be left alone to live in peace. Peace, however, is elusive. What, after all, is it? Is it the calm after the storm? Is it that which is gained through a war-ending treaty? Is it simple stillness? Or is true peace, something which is far deeper, and far more life-sustaining?

At the end of worship this morning, Sunday 23rd December, 2018, the church choir, orchestra and any who chose to assemble with them from the congregation, sang the Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel’s Messiah. Passages of scripture, put together with incredible music, present a powerful reminder of the good news that we celebrate. Performances of this 18th century masterpiece have become synonymous with the great festivals of the Christian year. Part one of the libretto contains the words in which the prophet Isaiah assigns names to the savior who was to be born. His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Oppressed Judaeans were looking for a political deliverance when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They were looking for someone who would lead them out of the tyranny of Rome’s oppressive rule. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, it’s possible many expected him to establish a new rulership. And even after his death and resurrection, the disciples asked: Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)

As I have traveled this year I have been to several places where I have met people who are looking for a political deliverance. In Venezuela and Turkey autocracy has gripped the nation, oppressing opposition. The current regime in India is endeavoring to make that nation a Hindu community with the suppression of minorities, much as Muslim nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have long restricted those who do not embrace Islam. Meanwhile, the current leadership of China has frequently been in the news for its endeavors to control the expression of the Muslim communities of Xinjiang, the Buddhists of Tibet, and Christians in many of the places they gather.

The rule of the autocrat is often presented as a means to standardization. The subjugation of the individual to the collective is offered as a way to bring communities together in peace and unity. Yet there is no peace.

Even in our cosy, English-speaking world of the West, so long a beacon to the oppressed, we find ourselves challenged by societal division. Brexit threatens to tear Britain apart as fear is used to manipulate. In the United States the divisive rhetoric of the present administration feeds the partisan conflict of an already divided society. We all need a savior, our knight in shining armor who will ride in and make all things good again.

If that is the case, then we do well to remind ourselves that He already came. A baby in a manger; a teacher riding on a donkey; the Son of God, hanging on a cross. He doesn’t offer us an earthly peace. He offers us the power to become peace-makers in a world of conflict. He offers us a peace which passes all understanding; passing beyond politics into the realm of the deeply personal; passing beyond earthly kingdoms into the eternal.

Political change may be on our horizon. Political change may be part of our personal calling. However, political change will not bring the Prince of Peace into the lives of the people. As we enter 2019, may all of us who claim the name of Jesus, renew our commitment to live the life of the Prince of Peace, bringing unity in place of division, and calm in place of unrest.

 

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ONE HUNDRED – LEST WE SHOULD FORGET

100 is a number with powerful effect upon the imagination. It is the first occasion in ascending order where three numerical digits make sense. From Roman times the century as a description for this number has been applied conceptually in several areas of life. The name belonged to the military realm denoting the number of soldiers under a command, but it has become variously a standard measure of time, a sporting record, and a standard for naming, notably such things as the century egg, a cricketing score century, the Buick Century automobile, and Century City.

Numerically the origin of its significance lies with the decimal numbering system which over time has become the dominant counting system. Probably originating with the numeration of the ten digits shared between a pair of normal human hands, most of the world today counts in groups of ten.

One hundred years ago today Allied forces in Europe signed an armistice with representatives of the German government to end the Great War which became knows as World War I. The commemoration of the signing of the armistice has taken place every year since at the time when it took effect, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. It is remembered as Armistice Day, commemorated in the United States as Veterans Day, and throughout the British Commonwealth as Remembrance Day. As a boy I well remember the two minutes of silence observed at 11am, fifteen minutes after our worship service had begun on the Sunday closest to the 11th November. My mother could remember when road traffic halted for two minutes at that moment of commemoration.

The Great War was first remembered as the War to End all Wars, such were the horrors in collective memory. Its origins lay in residual animosity between France and Germany issuing from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the ensuing emergence of the German State, mingled with statecraft since the 1880s between European powers competing for spheres of influence in Africa and elsewhere. It can also be viewed as a royal family feud, as heads of state, many descended from Britain’s Queen Victoria, allowed their petty differences to overflow in armed conflict.

Along with World War II, memories of wartime suffering were part of the collective memory of my family as I was growing up. So many relatives and neighbors had fought or lost loved ones to the fighting. My father, in his fifties when I was born, had grown up in London. He remembered hearing the massive explosion in 1917 when 50 tons of TNT exploded to destroy the Silvertown munitions factory at the cost of 73 lives. He also recalled being taken to visit his half-brother, twenty-five years his senior, during a hospital stay subsequent to being invalided out of the Western Front.

In the early 1990s I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy in France. This massive twin obelisk limestone monument stands on Vimy Ridge dominating the landscape and records the names of more than 11,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces who died during the war. As I ran my hand along the wall of inscribed names, much as others do with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, I paused. Without realizing where I had stopped I looked at the name under my hand. Walter John Heyburn was the name of my Uncle Jack’s father. Leaving his pregnant wife in England to follow him, he had emigrated to Canada in the Summer of 1914. With the war breaking out in August he had told his wife to stay put and joined the Expeditionary Forces to come back to Europe. He was killed long before the 1917 assault on Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Forces which dislodged the Germans from a rare piece of high ground in Northern France, but that location records his name for posterity.

The Great War took the lives of millions, armed and civilian. It had massive impact on the geopolitical map of Europe indirectly shaping the lives of future generations. It brought down Russian imperialism opening the way to another form of autocratic rule, that of the rise of communism and the suffering of millions of its subjects. The uneasy peace established at Versailles was a significant factor in the rise of Nazi Germany, the Second War and consequent holocaust.

All its surviving combatants are gone now. The last veteran died in 2011 aged 110. But there are still veterans of the Second War among us.

I’ve known Kal Skeirik for over twenty years. He’s a member of a men’s group at a local church where I have been a regular speaker since the 1990s. Six years ago I sat with him over supper before I spoke as he shared with me one of his memories. As he talked of the early morning sunrise over the river Meuse as he assisted the army chaplain with the baptism of several of his fellow soldiers I realized he was a lot older than I had thought. He was already eighty when I met him.

A few days ago, I was again speaking at this men’s fellowship. I sat with Kal and he told me more of his life story. With great humility and warmth, he spoke of his years working in Washington for the Small Business Administration, of his move to Richmond to be near a daughter and of his last fifteen years in a retirement community. Recently his wife of 68 years celebrated her 99th birthday and together they never imagined they would last a decade and a half in the retirement home. Committed to physical fitness he works out three times a week with a routine of walking, jogging, cycling and boxing for two to three hours. He’s published his war time memoir and is writing a memoir of his years in government service. At the age of 101 he is about to feature in a promotional video for his retirement community as the star of the gym.

Looking at him across the supper table it was hard to appreciate that I was looking at a man already alive when the armistice signatures were signed in a railway carriage in the Compiegne Forest of Eastern France. But he reminds me of the many who never came home from the fronts of both World Wars and subsequent conflicts, who laid down lives for the defense of societies that make us who we are today.

One hundred years on, the names, the images, the stories, serve as reminders that so many live on in our collective memory.

 

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SOCIALISTS AND CAPITALISTS – A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

In September I had the strange experience of traveling from a week in Venezuela to a Business as Mission Conference in Philadelphia. The contrast between a nation where an experiment in socialism has gone extremely wrong, and a gathering of joyful, and unashamed, Kingdom of God capitalists, was stark.

I was in Venezuela at the invitation of a Christian community that trains Venezuelans to be cross-cultural missionaries, both to the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and to communities in other parts of the world. I had visited several times before, most recently in March of 2017. On this occasion, however, the evidence of complete mismanagement of the economy was to be seen everywhere.

I was taken to a mall where numerous units were shuttered because the former occupants had gone out of business. I was taken to a supermarket where shelves had been rearranged to close off the empty part of the store, and where the main items for sale appeared to be bottles of soda, beer and other alcohol, dish detergent and ranks of tired looking fruits and vegetables. There was no meat, dairy or baked goods department functioning, dried goods were at a minimal supply, and this was in a middle-class neighborhood of the capital city.

The members of the mission community spend quite a bit of time chasing down food sources, giving testimony to the God who provides for them. On one occasion I was with one of the leaders as he drove to drop off a friend of the community. On the way we stopped in a side-street to collect a pack of twelve kilos of pasta from another friend. Going to the street market is always an adventure. Maybe there will be eggs; but probably not. Maybe there will be vegetables and fruit, if someone has decided to sell despite the restraints of government regulated prices. I ate a lot of corn pancakes (Venezuelan national dishes like arepas and cachapas) and rice and beans.

The Venezuelan currency is in crisis. With inflation running well into five figures, the government recently decided to drop the last five zeroes off every number and issue new Bolivar notes. Today there are 60 Bolivares to the US dollar. That’s 6,000,000 of the old Bolivar compared to an exchange rate of 4.6 old Bolivares to the dollar during my visit in the fall of 2012.

Walking the streets, I passed a bank with a row of ATMs. My companion told me that the average Venezuelan can withdraw just 10 Bolivares ($0.16) per day from the machine, and 50 Bolivares ($0.84) if they go into the bank. Yet a dozen eggs, if you can find them, costs 90 Bolivares. People are encouraged to use their bank cards for their transactions. However, a desire to be paid in cash that can be hidden means a discount of as much as 40% for those transactions.

In an endeavor to stamp out the black market a visitor or returnee can bring no more than $1,000 cash into the country. And they can’t legally change that without paying the proceeds into a bank account. Without dollars businesses can’t import what they need. Consequently, there are chronic shortages of medicines, spare parts, and basic supplies necessary for running the service industries.

Transport infrastructure is breaking down. As many as 90% of the nation’s buses are off the road because operators cannot afford spare parts and new tires. Buses through El Paraiso, where I was staying, used to run from the hillside barrios to the center of the city, providing transport for the working poor. Regulated, fixed-price fares, do not cover the cost of operations so operators have divided routes into sections. For the fixed price now, a commuter can travel a half or one third of his former journey, before having to change bus, pay another fare, and often, waste time waiting.

The lack of buses is moving people on to the metro. In July passengers were carried free of charge for several weeks because the operating authority ran out of paper for tickets. A preloaded electronic card system no longer works properly and so, since the reissue of paper tickets, long lines form as commuters endeavor to purchase no more than ten single tickets at a time.

Beef is rarely found on sale in Venezuela. The regulated price does not enable producers to cover costs. I heard of cattlemen who are herding their cows across the border into Brazil and Colombia. There they can get a far better price for their meat and get paid with the dollars that they need to buy the vaccinations and other imported assistance required to raise the next herd.

Gasoline has been heavily subsidized, and a low domestic price has historically helped sustain economic development. However, the government has now planned for gasoline prices to reach market levels. In July, before the currency change, a dollar, if exchanged in the black market could buy 875,000 gallons of gasoline (with the regulated gas price fixed at one bolivar per liter). Gasoline subsidies have cost the government $10 billion per year since 2012. Venezuela is also dependent on gasoline imports despite hosting the world’s largest oil reserves.[i]

Deregulating gasoline prices now means higher prices; still below international prices. To alleviate this added cost to the average consumer subsidies are available for holders of the ‘fatherland card’. This patriots card has been available to the poor as a means of obtaining subsidized food and medical care. However great concern is being expressed elsewhere that it will be used to control the population and subtly declare the support of subscribing opposition members for the regime. If someone requires the card to be linked to their bank account to receive their pension or their government salary, then how will someone who does not want to register receive any income.

However, the subject of the government salary and the minimum wage raise further concerns. The minimum wage, and therefore government worker salary, was recently raised 3,500%, however the government has no money to pay those wages. They are gradually mortgaging the nation to China, opening the doors to their vast mineral resources. As Venezuelans go without beef, I was not surprised that one of the main topics of social media conversation during my visit concerned an image of President Maduro eating a steak prepared by one of Istanbul’s top chefs, during a stop-over on his way home from China.

With my experience in Venezuela behind me I arrived in Philadelphia for the annual North American Business as Mission Conference organized by BAM Global [ii]. Business as Mission is viable, sustainable and profitable businesses; with a Kingdom of God purpose, perspective, and impact; leading to the transformation of people and societies spiritually, economically, and socially— to the greater glory of God [iii].

It was a wonderful experience to listen to the testimonies of businessmen and women from around the world sharing how their businesses are being used to impact communities for the gospel. Some of the businesses I learned about have direct social engagement as their goal, for example, job opportunities for women coming out of the sex-trade, or for victims of human labor slavery. Others have employment in a Godly environment as their goal, creating opportunities for people to thrive spiritually, socially and economically.

One of the overseas businesses I learned of is providing employment to two hundred people in a previously under-developed community where the major natural resource is coconuts. A factory uses every part of the coconut to produce coconut cream, dessicated coconut, shell pellets as a biodegradable additive to plastics, and a fibrous matting that can be used for erosion protection. Kingdom ethics and the gospel now provide a foundation for human development in this community.

Here in the US a business that manufactures seats for utility vehicles developed a creative approach to its need for a larger labor force. Instead of relocating the business, the directors approached the major local source of the under-employed; a federal penitentiary. A subsidiary plant has been developed inside the prison and employs over a hundred, giving them skills and enabling them to earn a state mandated wage that contributes to family support, alimony and their own prison upkeep. Some inmates have become Christians; some have been released into society equipped to succeed; and the project reports a rate of recidivism less than 8% compared to national averages over 45%.

Business as Mission is creating opportunities for the gospel of Jesus Christ to impact communities in new ways. Business as Mission requires Kingdom-minded capitalists, those who will unashamedly and boldly put their capital, financial and entrepreneurial, to work for God’s purposes in the nations.

Irresponsible Socialism and irresponsible capitalism have both caused massive human suffering throughout their history. While Venezuela suffers socialist and economic disaster it’s a great encouragement to know of those who are responsibly putting their capitalism to work on behalf of the good news of Jesus Christ in community development.

 

[i] Since my visit a colleague informed me he now gets his gas tank filled for free. The gas station attendant cannot be bothered to collect the tiny payment!
[ii] https://bamglobal.org/
[iii] Mats Tunehag
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