November 3

Are You Watching the Scores?

Are you watching the scores? I’m not talking about the West Virginia vs Texas game. I’m talking about atmospheric CO2. The numbers are frightening. CO2 has once again hit the highest level on record, and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the rate of increase is accelerating.

According to the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we passed the 400 ppm threshold in 2016. That was big news. 400 ppm was considered by many scientists to be the “tipping point,” the point at which catastrophic change became inevitable. But it’s gotten worse: in October 2018, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured CO2 at 409 ppm– and rising.

Let’s put that in perspective. According to Yale University, atmospheric CO2 was 280 ppm at the beginning of the industrial revolution (1760). When direct measurements started at Mauna Loa in 1958, that had risen to 316 ppm, an average increase of 0.2 ppm per year. By 1980, CO2 had risen to 340 ppm, an average increase of 1.1 ppm per year. The 400 ppm level of 2016 represents an average increase of 1.7 ppm per year.  See the pattern there? Average CO2 figures aren’t available yet for 2018 because the year isn’t over, but the unusually-high reading of 409 ppm is an increase of 4.5 ppm over the past two years.

That’s staggering.

What does it mean? In the interest of fairness, I’m going to refer to an article in Forbes by Earl J. Ritchie, a University of Houston Energy Fellow and former energy company executive who is “skeptical” about the human contribution to climate change. He argues that we don’t know for sure that 400 ppm was a tipping point, meaning a point of no return– but he does insist that we have reached a point where the world is going to change in very difficult ways.

“Regardless of whether we have passed the tipping point, continued warming, rainfall pattern changes, significant sea level rise and continued northward and vertical migration of plant and animal species in the Northern Hemisphere seem certain. We are looking at a changed world and must adapt to it.”

As I said, Ritchie is a skeptic. Yet even he sees the gravity of this situation:

“One should not view the possibility that we have passed a significant tipping point as a reason for inaction. Although I remain somewhat skeptical of the degree of human contribution to climate change, it is prudent to take reasonable actions that may reduce the problem. In addition, there are multiple possible tipping points with different thresholds. Exceeding one does not mean you cannot avoid another.”

97% of scientists agree that human activity contributes to climate change. Every effort to debunk this statistic has failed. You may disagree with them, but what if they’re right?

Already, millions of acres of ponderosa pine stand dead in the American Southwest, victims of the bark beetle, because winters are no longer cold enough to kill the beetle. Already, our children are getting sick because the Lone Star tick is no longer confined to the Deep South, and now ranges as far north as the Canadian border. It brings with it several nasty diseases and an allergy to mammal meat (beef, pork, lamb, venison, and more). Already, sea levels are rising due to melting ice and thermal expansion (matter expands as it warms). Parts of several island nations and Bangladesh are already under water. Storm tides and flooding are becoming more damaging even here in the U.S.

The Lone Star Tick

No matter what we do, it’s going to get worse. The climate is more like a ship than a car: it responds slowly to stimuli. Even if we dropped our CO2 emissions to zero today it would take a decade or two for the current CO2 levels to show their full impact.

The question is, how much worse are we going to make it? What kind of world do we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in? We’re not talking about distant generations here. I have a four-year-old who will have to live with the effects of what we do now.

Of course, we can’t drop our CO2 emissions to zero today, or tomorrow, or this year. Our whole economy is based on fossil fuels, and our food supply is based on CAFOs and industrial farming. We’re not talking about a little “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.” We need a total remake of our economy.

And we don’t know how.

Those who have the power to change it don’t seem to be interested. They’re still focused on short-term profits. Sure, the old men who hold power will be dead before it gets really bad. But I have to wonder, don’t they have children and grandchildren? Are they that self-centered that they don’t care about their own kids?

I acknowledge, too, that no one wants to believe that what puts food on their table is bad. Challenge someone’s livelihood and you’ve got a fight on your hands. There are 6.4 million people employed in the fossil fuel industries in this country, and 6 million more in trucking. That’s a lot of jobs. The climate change industries are feeding a lot of mouths. It’s no wonder neither political party wants to talk about this. That’s a lot of voters!

We need real solutions. And we need them fast. I think we’ve reached the point at which climate change is the biggest problem we face. And we’re not going to get them by waiting silently for our fossil-fuel-funded leaders (right and left) to create them for us.

WE need to start talking. We need to start planning. We need to start looking for answers.

Or we need to start preparing our kids to live in an inhospitable world.

December 7

Minister’s Housing Allowance Under Fire

Pastor Matthew Bucher stands outside Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. This small, socially conscious church is one of thousands that faces hardships if the housing allowance for ministers is eliminated. (News Leader photo.)

It’s not often that my past career as a tax accountant intersects with my future career as a minister, but the recent 7th Circuit Court decision does exactly that. An anti-religious group challenged the minister’s housing allowance, and won. That won’t be the end of the story. The decision will be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. In the mean time, while ministers will suffer in the 7th Circuit, which covers IL, IN and WI, it’s unlikely the IRS will change the rules for the rest of the country until the matter is resolved by the courts.

The problem is, there’s a world of misunderstanding behind the suit and the decision. As one opponent of the decision said,

“This tax provision ensures that faith leaders like South Side, Chicago-based pastor Chris Butler receive the same tax treatment as other employees who must live in the communities they serve-like military service members, teachers, and overseas workers.”

And there’s the rub: secular employees who are required to be on-call, on-site are entitled to tax-free housing allowances. This includes not only teachers and emergency workers, but dairy farmers, factory specialists, and others. The key is the requirement is that they are on-call on-site, 24 hours a day.

The clergy housing allowance actually applies not only to “ministers of the Gospel,” as indicated in the original law, but to clergy of any religion. Why do they require a special law? Because their’s is a special case. Unlike most employees, IRS regulations specify that most ministers are to be paid as self-employed workers–sort of. They receive a W-2 from their church (not a 1099), but the church does not withhold taxes (including social security) from the minister’s check. The minister pays these taxes on Schedule C, just like a self-employed person. Presumably this is because IRS knows the part-time, probably volunteer church treasurer has no idea how to figure payroll taxes, and hiring a professional can be burdensome.

Like a self-employed person, a minister gets to deduct his or her business expenses. Oddly, though, if a minister makes extra money from performing weddings and funerals, for example, these must be reported on a separate Schedule C, along with their related expenses. Yet this extra income and expense is combined with their primary Schedule C to calculate the tax.

Unlike most self-employed people, but like an employee, a minister is allowed a housing allowance that is exempt from income tax (but not FICA taxes) if they are on-site on-call. And on their Schedule C, they are required to reduce their business expenses by the proportion of their income that comes from the housing allowance (so long as that housing allowance was actually used for housing)– but only for income tax purposes, since the housing allowance is taxed for social security.

For example, let’s say a minister earns $10,000 in a year, and she gets an additional $5,000 for housing. She has $750 of expenses. For self-employment (FICA) tax purposes, she earned $15,000 and gets to deduct $750. Her taxable income is $14,250. But for income tax purposes, 33.3% of her income came from housing allowance which is exempt from income tax, so she has to reduce her expenses by 33% and can only deduct $500 in expenses. Her taxable income is $9,500.

If this sounds complicated, it is. This is one of the most difficult calculations I’ve encountered in the arena of individual and small business taxes. And it gets worse once the minister is semi-retired and has pensions and other sources of income.

Moreover, it’s up to the church (or other employer) to determine whether the minister will even get a housing allowance. This differs from an employee, in which circumstances (i.e. on-call on-site) dictate whether a housing allowance is involved.

So, are ministers getting a benefit denied to secular employees–or are they burdened in a way secular employees aren’t for the same benefit? It’s hard to tell. There are some benefits to clergy, such as deducting their business expenses without having them subject to the 2% haircut on Schedule A. On the other hand, they pay both parts of their FICA (social security) taxes, twice as much as an employee. And they’re going to pay as much as 3 times more to have their tax return prepared!

The judge in this case recommended simplifying the law so that employees of any 501(c) organization are subject to the same laws. I concur. They will still have to address the status of ministers as statutory employees taxed as self-employed persons. But at least the system would be consistent.

Back to the original argument: The issue here is not that secular employees are denied this benefit–it’s that ministers by their nature are a special case.

 

Further reading: “5 Takeaways from the Clergy Housing Allowance Ruling

May 2

Fusion, the Future, and Us

Tokamak Energy in the UK has reportedly successfully tested a fusion reactor. That puts it on schedule to provide electricity generated from fusion to the grid by 2030, 13 years from now.

For those who don’t know, fusion is a clean source of energy that works (much like the sun) by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium. It produces no radiation or pollution, and requires only hydrogen, the most abundant element, as a fuel. No mining, no drilling, no dumping.

How abundant is hydrogen?

The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity. (Harlan Ellison)

Which brings up my next point:

We live in a world in which Scotland gets almost all its electricity from wind, in which Germany (hardly a sunny locale) produces so much renewable energy that some days it pays its customers to use electricity, and in which traditionally-conservative China is installing one wind turbine and a soccer-field-sized area of solar panels every hour. Renewable energy is the future, and fusion will eventually lead the way.

Where is the United States in this race to the future?

Unfortunately, we’re stuck in the past, building pipelines, drilling new oil wells, and lifting restrictions on coal companies.

What do you suppose will happen when the global fossil fuel industry collapses due to lack of demand? Economies that rely on oil will collapse with them. Those who work in oil will find themselves suddenly (but predictably) unemployed. Civil unrest will likely result. The Middle East will lose most of its income.

And, barring a future-oriented approach, we’ll be in trouble.

We don’t have a future-oriented approach. We have a short-term, profit-maximizing approach. But don’t worry: the invisible hand of the market will correct that in time. The market abhors outdated technology. And it’s merciless in its judgment. The market will correct us, but that doesn’t mean it will be pretty. How many companies still exist that failed to keep up with emerging technology? Not many.

The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way.

Back in the early 1980s, I was a dispatcher at an industrial gas company. We delivered liquid helium, used to supercool other materials, to a secret lab at a local government-funded facility. Our truck driver said they had some crazy idea that they could turn liquid hydrogen into helium and generate electricity doing it. They worked on it for several years. Then they started using enormous amounts of liquid helium. One day, the driver told us that whatever they were building, they had it working. (He had no idea what fusion was.) Two weeks later, the Reagan administration cut the funding and the project was closed down, never to be heard from again.

Why would our government shut down a project that produced cheap, clean energy? The more elucidating question is, who benefited from shutting it down? Instead of fusion, we got 30 years of fossil fuel domination, 30 years of CO2 emissions, 30 years of drilling, mining, spills, and pollution– and 30 years that included record oil company profits, heavily subsidized by tax breaks that shift the burden of paying for our government to us, the taxpayers.

Now England is developing fusion, and it looks like we’ll be left behind.

When will we start running our government with the future in mind?

I’m not holding my breath.

February 28

John Winthrop, American Prophet

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“Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.

Therefore let us choose life,

that we and our seed may live,

by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,

for He is our life and our prosperity..

John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote these prophetic words in 1630. We may not know who he is, but we feel his influence in our culture every day. He’s the one who wrote (in the same document):

“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

It was Winthrop who instilled in us the idea that we are God’s chosen people.

But as his words above indicate, he also recognized that we faced the same dangers as the Israelites. Just because we were (in his view) chosen did not mean we were automatically good. He warned of worshiping and serving other gods, namely pleasure and profits.

Here we are in the 21st century, nearly 400 years after Winthrop wrote. Our national religion is capitalism. We rank ourselves by our income and our wealth. We shame the poor for not working hard enough. Our heroes are not martyrs or saints, but wealthy people: politicians, businesspeople, movie stars, and sports figures. Yet, at the same time, real economic advancement is more difficult than ever, and the percentage of people living in poverty is greater than at any time since 1965. Some 32% of those living in poverty have jobs. Yet we continue to cut taxes and complain about the burden of the poor, while the tax revenue we do collect goes overwhelmingly to the military.

I don’t think that’s what Winthrop had in mind. Take, for example, this except:

Question: What rule shall a man observe in giving in respect of the measure?

Answer: If the time and occasion be ordinary he is to give out of his abundance. Let him lay aside as God hath blessed him. If the time and occasion be extraordinary, he must be ruled by them; taking this withal, that then a man cannot likely do too much, especially if he may leave himself and his family under probable means of comfortable subsistence.

In other words, in ordinary times, we are to share our abundance freely with others, but not to the extent that he jeopardizes his family’s “comfortable subsistence.” In extraordinary times, we must do more, ruled by the need of others and not by our own needs. “A man cannot likely do too much.”

Winthrop’s position was based in the Bible, but his emphasis on charity stemmed from very pragmatic concerns: he saw that extreme divisions in wealth caused a destructive division in society. Those who were wealthy tended to look down on the poor, and the poor tended to resent the rich.

Fast forward to today: That’s pretty much what has happened.

In Winthrop’s day, and for the next 200 years, towns gave fuel, food, and money to their poor. It wasn’t until the 1850s that hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Potato Famine in Ireland overwhelmed this system, and states became more involved. And yes, the Irish were hated just as much then as Muslims are today. Yet few would look back now and argue that we shouldn’t have helped them.

Now we live in a world in which half the population lives on $8 a day or less. Compare that to the median income of $75 per day per person for Americans. (Yes, this is adjusted to reflect pricing differences between countries, giving an “apples-to-apples” comparison.) No longer do the poor in America look like the poor everywhere else, in eorther numbers of quality of life, as they did in Winthrop’s day. We are the wealthy. What are we going to do about it?

If Winthrop was right, we have a covenant that calls for charity. Otherwise, we will lose this land.

July 12

Two Masters

As I continue to seek my path to serve God, I am faced with this question: How do I balance the needs of the world with service to God?  Can I serve two masters?

So far as I can tell by my reading of the Gospels, Jesus had no worldly occupation.  Tradition suggests that he’d been trained as a carpenter by Joseph, his step-father.  But the Gospels don’t say he traveled across the Holy Land building houses.  It appears that he relied for sustenance on his followers and on friendly strangers.

I suspect that was easier in those days and in that culture.  There was no health insurance, no car payment, and no mortgage.  You had what you owned.  There was little debt.  Winters were mild.  People were more likely to feed a traveling stranger on the road.  (I remember my first mother-in-law, who was Jewish, frequently citing the maxim, “Feed a cold, feed a fever.”  The Jews were and are all about feeding people.)

I met an old woman in Sri Lanka who earned about $15 each month, and gave half of it away to those in need.  But her housing was free, her food was supplied, and free health insurance was provided to all residents by the government.  (Yes, even some third world nations have national health care.  Yet we’re told it’s not practical in the U.S.)

My culture taught me to believe that you grow up to get a good job, buy a house on credit, get some credit cards, and live the “good life” while working extra hours to try to pay down debts that rise more quickly than they can be paid. You pay for home insurance and car insurance to protect against any accidents or “acts of God.”  You pay for health insurance to cover any medical bills.  Although these days, you’re more likely to pay for health insurance that doesn’t cover most of your medical bills.

There’s a reason for this cultural teaching, just as there was a reason for the cultural teaching in the time of Jesus.  In those days, cultural survival depended on feeding each other.  Our cultural survival depends on an economy that requires us to spend more than we make.  Non-participation is not just discouraged, it’s been made nearly impossible.

It’s an insidious economic doctrine.  It makes the rich richer while keeping the poor at a minimum level and slowly draining the middle class.  It works to get us to think in terms of money and success, not betterment of society.  And for many people, it crowds out all other concerns.  We become empty, depressed, and angry.  Violence increases, yet we think only about controlling the weapons of violence and not its causes– if we think about it at all.  Drug addiction and suicide increase, and we think about controlling the means, if we think about it at all.  The people of our nation are suffering.  But we don’t think about it, because we’re suffering, too.  Our reason for existing is to pay the bills of an unfulfilling life, and that’s not much of a reason.

With so much suffering, if ever there was a time to serve God, it is now.  But how does a person serve God and not the economy?  To follow Jesus, must one give up everything and live on the streets, as He did?

There are people situated such that they can work a 30 or 40 hour week, earn enough money to pay their bills, and have time left over for both family and service to others.  But in today’s economy, these are a tiny minority.  More often, both one- and two-parent families have at least two jobs just to squeak by.

Of course, there are levels of “squeaking by.”  Do we really need a new(ish) car, cable TV, internet, a health club membership, new clothes, a microwave oven, and all the other trappings of American life we’re told we should have?  How many toys does my two-year-old need?  In my own case, I have jettisoned TV and the health club.  I drive a beat-up, 11-year-old Hyundai with over 170,000 miles on it.  I generally do not buy new clothes until I’m forced to.  And my internet costs $15 per month.  My recent move cut fuel expenses for my car from $500 a month to $80.  But rent is expensive, and at the moment I can’t afford health insurance.  I have a stack of medical bills totaling well over $20,000.

What is a God-seeking person to do?

If you were expecting an answer, I don’t have one.  But I do have the question, and it’s worth pondering.  In an environment of economic and cultural despair, how does one serve God?  Is it possible to serve two masters?

As I said, I don’t have the answer.  But I haven’t given up trying to find one.

July 9

We Are Babylon

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives. (Revelation 18:11-13)

Babylon.  The most luxurious nation on earth.  Every one of us benefits from the free market juggernaut, the control of oil fields by friendly dictators, and the expansion of American franchises into nearly every corner of the globe, sending a steady stream of money to our economy here at home.

Do I want to live in a less privileged nation?  I do not.  No matter my protests, no matter my awareness, I am of Babylon and I shall suffer its eventual fate.

No one expects that fate to come too quickly.  Yes, the financial system almost crashed a few years ago.  Yes, the value of the dollar has plummeted thanks to inflation caused by deficit spending.  Yes, droughts, fires, and floods have ravaged farms and communities across the country.  Yes, climate change has dried out lakes and even eliminated winter for some people, making me wonder if the prophecies of Joel aren’t already upon us.

But we’re still okay for a while, right? (Ordinary World)

I wrote these words four years ago.  After Ordinary World was published, I wondered whether I’d been too dramatic, comparing the U.S. with Revelation’s land of idolatry, corruption, and conspicuous wealth.  I no longer have these doubts.  Our nation is run by the wealthiest people in the world, the heads of mega-corporations who purchase influence in our supposed republic.  Christian values of helping the poor, welcoming the refugee, and loving our neighbor have been replaced with self-centeredness, xenophobia, and the worship of wealth.  Trye community has been replaced with FaceBook and false dialog that does little if anything to promote understanding.  When confronted with mass violence, we no longer ask, “What could make people do this and what can we do about it?”  Instead, we dismiss their suffering and talk about controlling their access to weapons.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that we’ve had five neo-liberal presidents, beginning with Ronald Reagan, which seem to correspond with the five fallen kings of Revelation 17:10.  And that the presumptive favorite, Hillary Clinton, is yet another neo-liberal, and one who supports military action all over the world.  Revelation predicts one more “king” after this one, and then the Beast.  And it predicts that Babylon will burn.

But it’s not speculation to observe that we have sold our well-being for the short-term gain of a few.  Our spending on prisons has grown three times faster than our spending on schools.  The wealthiest Americans now have a greater share of this nation’s wealth than at any time since the Great Depression.  “Soft money” campaign contributions to presidential candidates ballooned from $105 million in 1992 to $2 billion in 2012.  That’s a 20-fold increase!  Meanwhile, our national debt now stands at more than six times our national income from taxes.  That’s like earning $50,000 a year and having to make payments on $300,000 in credit card debt.

We have ransomed our future.  And we’ve done it at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

Does this warrant a religious judgement?  Consider the words of Isaiah:

Ah, you who join house to house,
    who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
    and you are left to live alone
    in the midst of the land!
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
    large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. (Isaiah 5:8-9)

Or Deuteronomy 23:15-16:

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.

Or Matthew 25:35:

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in…

Or, more frighteningly, Matthew 25:45-46:

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

As a nation, we have turned our back on our values.  We are destroying ourselves.  And we are making plenty of enemies in the process, both within and without.

For those who see this, is there an alternative?  Can we be more than a voice in the wilderness?

Because, let’s face it: most of us are not leaving.  We are of Babylon, and we will suffer its fate.

December 3

The Food We Take for Granted

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How much do you know about your food?  If you’re like most people, you might not even be aware of the price at the grocery store, much less where it came from and how it was created.  I do much of the shopping in our family, so I know what food costs.  I try to be aware of where it comes from, and make intelligent choices accordingly.  For example, I can’t being myself to eat summer fruits produced in South America, because they are air-shipped to the U.S. (unlike bananas, which come by boat).  It’s the only way they can get the fruit here fresh enough.  And it seems wrong to me to buy a peach, for example, that’s taken a plane ride most people in the world will never be able to afford.

Still, I am often surprised.  For example, today while researching selenium deficiency, I read that “the amount of selenium in common sources has decreased in recent decades.”  Selenium, an important trace mineral, is present in grains and leafy vegetables based on the selenium content of the soil it’s grown in.  As modern agricultural practices have tended to ignore soil health, many crops now contain fewer micronutrients than they used to.  According to one study, the decreases

occurred in different countries that share very similar historical farming management strategies, based mainly on the adoption of modern genetic varieties of crops and agronomic practices related to the acceleration of the growth rates of plants.

It’s worth noting that much of the Western United States has soils naturally low in selenium.  This includes Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, and large portions of California including the Imperial Valley.  Thus, our reliance of California vegetables may make us more susceptible to selenium deficiency, as may our reliance on mega-farms for much of our food.

We wouldn’t know that, because the USDA in its infinite wisdom tells us, for example, that beef steak contains 33 mcg of selenium per serving.  Actual analysis suggests ranges from about 20 to 70 mcg, depending on where the cows are raised.  In fruits and vegetables, content can vary by a factor of ten.  Rice has been sampled as high as 1.0 mcg/g and as low as .02 mcg/g, depending on geographic origin.  USDA says rice contains .11 mcg/g, so you could be getting ten times more… or 82% less.

We take our food for granted.  It’s supposed to be healthy and nutritious.  But it isn’t as clear cut as we like to think.  Global economics and mega-farming have put even our expected nutritional content in danger.

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