Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mental Muscle

Hard to believe that I am starting my second month of regular and intense exercise. Don't get me wrong. I am never really very far out of shape. I just tend to get disgusted at myself for overeating and overindulging myself during the holidays (or the summer Bar-b-q season, or the summer vacations with family---you see I don't need many excuses) and set out to lose weight and improve my conditioning. I usually go hard for 3 weeks. I lose enough weight to make my clothes fit again and then slack off. I have come to lower my expectations. I accept a higher weight "range."
Regular disciplined exercise that becomes a lifestyle has always eluded me. I would much rather read in my spare time then hit the treadmill and do sit ups at the gym. The morning newspaper is more stimulating then 30 minutes on the exercycle. So it is hit and miss for me.

The reasons for my continued commitment to exercise and watching my diet are many. First, my wife is really working out hard. She has a personal trainer and gets going some mornings before I even get up. Since she has a long daily commute to DC and back and still gets to the gym four times a week I have to keep at it just to be supportive. Secondly, I really believe that SWEATING MAKES YOU SMARTER.
I found support for this in AARP magazine. Yes, that is the American Association of Retired People. I am 15 years (or longer) from retirement but the AARP is one of the most progressive organizations in America. Their magazine is free to members (you can join at aged 50). In an article in the March 2008 issue they reported on evidence that exercise improves memory, concentration and abstract reasoning among older adults, and may even delay the onset of Alzheimers. It works like this:aerobic exercise increases the blood flow to the brain, which nourishes brain cells and allows them to function more effectively. Brain cells, they have discovered, can be regenerated. Exercise promotes this growth.
I'll have to talk to Linda about this: there is a yoga move that is getting attention for boasting brainpower. The movement is called Superbrain Yoga and is being practiced around the country as an antidote to brain drain. To learn more google Superbrain Yoga by master Choa Kok.

The new testament talks about the need to train the body and the brain in order to make us into stronger followers of Christ. Discipline is required to be effective long term. I don't think discipline always requires rigid rules (i.e. you must exercise 4 times a week for 30 minutes each time and double your heart rate) but it does require focused INTENTION. These intentions need to produce regular actions.
We have to train our thoughts because they lead to actions that become habits (good and bad ones) that produce behaviors that create our character. I don't believe we can neglect the interconnectedness between our minds and our bodies. We cannot be mentally fit and physically inactive. We are fools to think we can let our bodies go and think our minds can remain sharp.

Proverbs talks about a folly common to young people. Because their minds are more nimble and their bodies are more flexible, they can come to think that discipline and structure are not needed to perform at a high level. Young people often get by just on talent alone. However, as you age you cannot overcome sloth with raw talent and energy. Disciplined attention to your job or calling usually beats superior talent that is not harnessed. Lessor talent that practices usually beats talent that doesn't practice.
Well, I would right more and welcome your comments. It is after 4pm and i have to get to the gym.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Market meltdowns and herd mentality

I had an atheist friend who taught philosophy at the university in the town I was serving. We occasionally had lunch together while our kids were participating in one of the numerous birthday parties common of 6 year old kids. He was always trying to convince me into becoming a existentialist and I would try to get him to give theism a break. We disagreed on almost everything except politics. He was well read and bright and very outspoken, a rare and welcome combination in that small town. So we tolerated each other.
I will always remember one comment he made. His daughter had attended the community summer Vacation Bible School and came back with a lesson sheet talking about Jesus as the great shepherd of the sheep. He showed the paper to me and said, " see,this is what makes religious people so mindless and pathetic. You Christians think everyone should be like little sheep all following your great shepherd Jesus. You don't teach people how to think for themselves and follow their own free will. Christianity is such an outlandish fraud."
Strangely I thought of that as I watched the stock market plunge on Tuesday morning. Since we had a holiday to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr our markets were closed Monday. Meanwhile the Asian and European markets plunged Monday and so there was plenty of anxiety about what would happen here on Tuesday. I knew that the new Fed chairman would have to act to avoid another dramatic drop in asset prices. I also knew he didn't have many tools at his disposal. We are in for some tough sledding as the housing bubble deflates and the credit de-leveraging works its way out. There are no magic tricks to pull out of his hat.
Sure enough the Fed dropped rates . But 3/4 of a point reduction and before a regular meeting! Then the White House (which until recently has said everything is wonderful in the economy) suddenly agrees with a Democratic type stimulus package (i.e. short term money in the hands of people who would spend it) instead of long term tax breaks that produce no short term advantage (but feed his political base and grow our deficits) In other words---to forestall a panic of investors (who act like sheep although they are called by more carnivorous titles--Bulls and Bears) the top government officials panicked by throwing caution to the wind and in effect saying, "it's worse then we thought---just do something, anything, NOW."

I called my son who works as an economist for Prudentials international investment center.
"What's going on here?" I asked. "The markets are taking what should be good news (dramatically lower rates and a promise to throw $150 billion dollars of cash into the economy) and seeing it as bad news. "
"Well," he answered quietly (apparently not wanting to be overheard). The unspoken word on the street is that the overall bad behavior of the American economy (we are broke, we have unsustainable trade and budget deficits, we are fighting an incredibly costly and endless war, using 4 times as much energy per person as our European friends) has finally caught up with us. The question is how do you slow down the inevitable judgment day and keep the financial markets sound"

"But it must be more then that," i replied. The Asian and European investors are expressing deep distrust and a huge lack of confidence in our country and its leadership. The plunge around the world says they expect things that are already bad (some major US banks are technically insolvent) and assume it is really much worse."
"Well you are close to what we are hearing from our international partners. It is sort of that and then something more fundamental," he said.
"Well, can you state it simply for me," I pleaded.
"Try this," my son responded, " the rest of the world markets look at America to lead. When the Fed and the President suddenly change their well established principals they sense that no one over here knows what they are doing. (Apparently it took them this long to figure it out) Like frightened sheep, they are running for their lives."

So, what should followers of Jesus do as the wealth of Americans continues to drop (housings 20% decline is now matched by financial assets 20% decline) and we will probably see deeper loses? What would Jesus say?

I don't know. In my anxiety (I was wondering how many more years I would have to work to recoup my retirement savings that declined precipitously) I turned to read the Bible. I was reading ahead for the Lenten lessons and i came to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-10).
Here Jesus takes his four top disciples up the mountain with him. While they are there suddenly Jesus is transfigured before them (he becomes translucent and dazzling white before them).
A voice from heaven tell them, "Listen to him (Jesus)."

This story has lots of symbolism. It serves to show the disciples that Jesus is the Messiah--even greater then Moses and Elijah, the two holiest figures from the Old Testament. It gives the disciples a glimpse of the glory that they will see when he is resurrected. Peter initially gets this right saying, "It is good that we are here."
Peter like anyone else needs affirmation that he is following the right course in life. Seeing the authority of Jesus affirmed in such a dramatic moment was not only inspiring to him but it would effectively eliminate any doubts he might have. Powerful spiritual experiences, from this story we have always called them "Mountaintop experiences," serve to give us confident in our faith and reassure us that god is alive and real in our lives.

Reflecting on the Transfiguration I immediately calmed my anxiety. I realized once again that the things of this world are really transient. I have lived through far tougher and panic stricken economic times . Remember the 25% drop in the markets on one day in 1987? You certainly recall the panic following 9/11. How about the Savings and Loan crisis of the early 90's when the banks lost so much money due to housing foreclosures following the bursting of that housing bubble. Same song different verse!

Our faith is supposed to give us the courage to handle the anxious moments in life. If we trust that Jesus is God's chosen one and we believe that participate in his glory as his followers, then nothing should cause us to panic. Change our habits: yes. Panic : no.

January and February are tough months. The gloomy weather. The post Christmas letdown. More people die in January then any other month of the year. Why? maybe they don't want to face February either. The scriptures have several verses that all essentially say the same thing.
"The Kings and kingdoms of this world may wax and wane, but the word of God is unchanging. god's steadfast love endures forever and his faithfulness extends to all generations."

Or it that doesn't work for you. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 3 weeks. and this is going to be the year. Cubs and Orioles in the World Series!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Democracies many faces

I got a sad New Years greeting from the man who pastors a small Kenyan immigrant church that worships in my former congregation in Wayne, New Jersey. Rev. Paul is quite alarmed by the violence that followed the Dec 27th Presidentail elections in his native Kenya. It was a very controversial and competitive race. The incumbant President, a member of the most affluent and numerous tribe, the Kikuyu (20% of 35 million Kenyans) , was declared the winner in a tight race over the popular challenger, a member of a smaller tribe. The exit polls showed the challenger with a comfortable victory but due to obvious election fraud the incumbant was declared the winner and hurriedly sworn into office.
Violence erupted and so far over 300 have been killed and 100,000 displaced. The violence is scary--Tv reports showed a mother being attached by machete wielding men who then grabbed her 3 year old child and threw her into the fire. Some Kikuyu sought refuge in churches which were then set a fire. Rev. Paul asked for prayers and for sanity to be restored.
What is alarming is that Kenya is probably Africa's strongest democracy. The country has high literacy rates and vibrant political parties. There is however a history of dissent has often been crushed when the ruling party started to lose popular support.

This sad news of corrupted political and rigged elections was also on display in Pakistan when a former Prime Minister was assasinated and the government quickly claimed the killing was done by an outside terrorist organization. In Pakistan, like many other demcoracies of long standing, leadership of parties and movment is aristocratic--father passes legacy to son or daughter and then it keeps going down through the generations. You don't throw the bums out because the replacement regime includes members of the same bum ruling families.

What a difference it is in the United States this year. Record turnouts in Iowa. The establishment party candidates didn't fare so well. Both Ms Clinton and Mr. Romney were defeated by outsiders without connections to the party apparatus. When I was in Kenya 4 years ago our hosts asked me if I knew anything about a Kenyan who was running for the Senate in Illinois. I didn't. I do now. His name is Barak Obama. I would hope the news of his stunning victory in a rural state that is 94% white will speak volumes to the rioting Kenyans about how democracies are supposed to elect a new President.
Jim Wallis in his magazine, Sojourners, commented on how dramatically the religious landscape of the 2008 political year differs from 2004. The issue of faith and politics (which really gots its start with Eisenhower and Billy Graham) has witnessed a fundamental shift.
First, in what TIME magazine called a "leveling of the praying field" the Democras now speak as much about faith and values as the Republicans do (except perhaps for Gov Hucklebee). Both parites now have "faith forums" in primary states and all their newsletters talk about faith and values. Edwards, Clinton and Obama speak of their history as lay leaders in their churches. Obama actually speaks like a seminary trained theologian. He even understand Neibuhr and Tillich. The democratic candidates have connected faith to a broad range of issues like poverty and health care, criminal justice, HIV/AIDS, and war and peace.

In striking contrast, Wallis notes, the Republicans who had the corner on religious voters in 2004, now have a "God and marriage" problem. Several of the Republican frontrunners are very awkward talking about religion. Guiliani, Thompson and McCain have learned to avoid it after previous stumblings. They have had their good moments. For example, in the midst of a GOP debate both Hucklebee and McCain defended the humanity of undocumented people in the midst of a blistering attack on "illegal aliens" by the other candidates. John McCain asked his colleagues to remember that the people they are condeming were also "the children of God." Huckelebee later defended his states scholarship program that included the children of undocumented by saying "the US was not the kind of nation that punished children for the mistakes of their parents." I believe that Hucklebee and McCain are rising because of the "character" they have shown in debates. Did you see McCain tell Iowa farmers he thinks corn based ethenol is bad policy? Guiliani is dropping partially because of his support for abortion and gay rights and his serious "marriage problems" but also because the public is tired of candidates trying to scare them all the time. With improvements in Iraq, the candidate Joe Biden called "a noun , a verb and 9/11" is let without a viable platform to run.
Moral values will indeed be a key criteria in this election season. Marylander might even get a chance this year to affect the primary outcomes. I applaud the genuine moral discourse we are getting. I celebrate our nations history of open debate and peaceful transitions of power.