Despite cash infusion, PERS ship keeps sinking

Here we go again at PERS, the state employee retirement system.

Despite last year’s promise to legislators that a boost in employer contributions would right the ship, the ship sank again in FY 2019. The latest Actuarial Valuation Report (delayed until after the election) showed PERS’ unfunded pension liability jumped up $1 billion, from $16.9 billion to $18 billion. 

The funded ratio also dropped from 61.8% to 60.9%. The extra $100 million annually from increased employer contributions was supposed to reduce the shortfall and move the funded ratio upward, hitting 100% in 30 years.

While some changes to actuarial assumptions impacted calculations, PERS’ big problem remains growing numbers of retirees but decreasing numbers of employees. Over the past 10 years the number of retirees jumped 42% while the number of employees fell 9%.  

Significantly, the payout to retirees since 2010 jumped from $1.4 billion to $2.6 billion, up 89%; annual payouts for 13th checks (accumulated cost of living adjustments) more than doubled from $330 million to $683 million, up 107%; and the unfunded liability increased 59% from $11.3 billion.

PERS actuaries regularly tell the board that if their measured assumptions come true, things will become shipshape over time. Unfortunately, as results show over the past 10 years, their liberal assumptions often miss the mark.

Should the downturn continue through this year, PERS will have to increase employer contributions again, estimated by the actuary at 18.97%. Remember, much of any employer rate increase gets pushed out to cities, counties and other locally funded governmental entities.

Gov. Haley Barbour spotlighted PERS’ financial problems back in 2011 when he appointed a special commission to recommend changes “to ensure the solvency of the fund.” A key Barbour goal was to reduce the employer contribution rate which was 12% headed to 12.9% at the time. Instead it keeps going up and up.

The commission recommended a number of changes to turn PERS around. Key among them were:

1) Freeze 13th checks at current levels for three years and tie future increases to the Consumer Price Index with a cap of 3%.

2) Balance membership on the PERS board currently dominated (10 of 12) by plan participants.

3) Make participants eligible to draw full retirement at age 62, or at age 55 with 30 years of service or more, but with no COLA adjustments until age 62.

4) Base final average compensation of a PERS retiree on four consecutive years of service based on the employee’s base pay.  And study whether or not it is appropriate to include unused leave, overtime pay, special pay, and per diem and travel (in the case of legislators) as part of an individual’s final average compensation.

5) Revise all statutes related to PERS that allow for “spiking,” stacking of salaries, or other abuses within the PERS plan.

6) Form permanent legislative committees to oversee PERS with professional staff knowledgeable of actuarial science and retirement plan requirements and resources to hire independent actuaries.

Virtually none were pursued or adopted by the Legislature or the PERS board. Since then, political pressure from retirees has forced candidates for both to pledge there will be no changes at all to their benefits.

So the PERS ship keeps sinking.

For a comprehensive report on PERS see the Jackson Jambalaya blog (http://kingfish1935.blogspot.com).

“False weights and measures – the Lord detests them both” – Proverbs 13:22.

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Will there really be a “coming together” in Jackson this year?

In his inauguration speech new Gov. Tate Reeves promised, “This will be an administration for all Mississippi,” as reported by the Clarion-Ledger. “Governing is about coming together,” he said and proclaimed a new motto for his first term, “For. All. Mississippi.

Faced with his first crisis as governor – prison rioting, deaths, and deplorable conditions – Reeves appeared to be on track with his promise. He appointed a bipartisan committee to lead a national search for the next prison commissioner with the Mayor of Vicksburg, former state Rep. George Flaggs, as chairman. He also included a former attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens. Both are Democrats and African-Americans.

Other members include retired Leake County Sheriff Greg Waggoner, Harrison County District Attorney Joel Smith, former Parole Board member Kathy Henry, Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing, and Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Sean Tindell. All are Republicans and white.

Meanwhile, new Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann also exhibited some bipartisanship in his appointment of Senate committee chairs, naming Democrats to chair 13 of the Senate’s 42 committees. Notably, longtime Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan will head the Public Health Committee and Democratic Sen. Juan Barnett, former longtime African-American mayor of Heidelberg, will chair the Corrections Committee. Republicans will head all other major committees including the money, education, and transportation committees. Hosemann has also touted a bipartisan approach to teacher pay and Medicaid reform.

Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn was less bipartisan, appointing two Democrats turned Independent and one Democrat to chair three of the House’s 46 committees. Gunn, who sees himself primarily as the lead Republican in the House, appointed Democratic Rep. Cedric Burnett of Tunica as chair of the Youth and Family Affairs Committee. He also appointed Independent Rep. Angela Cockerham of Magnolia (a Democrat until 2019) as chair of the Judiciary A Committee and Independent Rep. Kevin Horan of Grenada (a Democrat until this month) as chair of the Corrections Committee. Cockerham and Burnett are African-American. All other committees are headed by Republicans.

It will be interesting to see if this kumbaya approach lasts in the face of difficult spending decisions.

The prison crisis will require significant money infusion as well as new leadership. Hosemann’s plan to fund teacher pay raises early will require lots of money. Reeves’ plan to spend more on workforce training and take better care of foster kids will take money.

That comes as pressure mounts for more funding from pent up demand from community colleges, universities, mental health, health, economic development, emergency management … the list goes on and on.

Oh, and don’t overlook the never-ending request for more money to catch up on critical repairs to highways and bridges.

(Here’s an interesting side note. An analysis showed today’s vehicles to be far more efficient gas burners than vehicles in 1986. Factoring in both modern fuel efficiency and annual inflation, the analysis suggests the gas tax burden on consumers today is about one-third of that back in 1987 when today’s 18.4 cent a gallon fuel tax was enacted. But no Republican leaders appear willing to up it any to fix roads and bridges.)

How will this this varied outreach to non-Republicans by leaders of state government totally controlled by Republicans play out? Sit back and watch.

“Live in harmony with one another” – Romans 12:16.

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Republican strategist questions what GOP now stands for

Longtime Mississippi Republicans will remember political consultant Stuart Stevens for his work on early campaigns for the late Sen. Thad Cochran. Since those early races he has become a highly successful media strategist and has helped elect numerous Republican governors and senators.

His client list sounds like a who’s who of Republican leaders – President George W. Bush, Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Bob Dole, Sen. John McCain, Gov. Haley Barbour, Gov. Tom Ridge, Cochran, Sen. Dick Lugar, Sen. Mel Martinez, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Roger Wicker, Sen. Jon Kyl, Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. Dan Coats, Gov. Paul Cellucci, Gov. Bob Riley, Gov. Larry Hogan, and congressmen.

Through all these associations, Stevens has been immersed in what Republicanism in America is all about.

Or was, according to his recent op-ed column in The Washington Post.

“Wake up, Republicans. Your party stands for all the wrong things now,” was the headline. Here are some key excerpts.

“As you are out and about marking the new year, it is likely you will come across a Republican to whom you can pose the question, preferably after a drink or two, as that tends to work as truth serum: ‘Look, I was just wondering: What’s the Republican Party all about these days? What does it, well, stand for?’

“I’m betting the answer is going to involve a noun, a verb and either ‘socialism’ or ‘Democrats.’ Republicans now partly define their party simply as an alternative to that other party, as in ‘I’m a Republican because I’m not a Democrat.’

“In a long-forgotten era — say, four years ago — such a question would have elicited a very different answer. Though there was disagreement over specific issues, most Republicans would have said the party stood for some basic principles: fiscal sanity, free trade, strong on Russia, and that character and personal responsibility count. Today it’s not that the Republican Party has forgotten these issues and values; instead, it actively opposes all of them.

“Republicans are now officially the character-doesn’t-count party, the personal-responsibility-just-proves-you-have-failed-to-blame-the-other-guy party, the deficit-doesn’t-matter party, the Russia-is-our-ally party, and the I’m-right-and-you-are-human-scum party. Yes, it’s President Trump’s party now, but it stands only for what he has just tweeted.

“This is a sad fall. In Ronald Reagan’s America, being born an American was to win life’s lottery; in Donald Trump’s America, it makes you a victim, a patsy, a chump.”

“This impeachment moment and all that has led to it should signal a day of reckoning. A party that has as its sole purpose the protection and promotion of its leader, whatever he thinks, is not on a sustainable path. Can anyone force a change? I’m not optimistic. Trump won with 46.1 percent of the vote in 2016, while Mitt Romney lost with 47.2 percent in 2012; no wonder Republicans have convinced themselves that the path to victory and power lies with angry division.”

Stevens concludes his piece saying, “I’d like to say that I believe the party I spent so many years fighting for could rise to the challenge of this moment. But there have been too many lies for too long.”

A little context.

Stevens is currently serving as general consultant to the William Weld presidential campaign.

Still and all, his is a sad commentary to say the least.

“Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character” – 1 Corinthians 15:33.

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Ignored problems don’t disappear, they become crises

Mississippi’s prison crisis is about to teach new legislators a hard lesson.

“Prison brass warned of dangerous conditions a year ago, but lawmakers did not act,” read the headline in Mississippi Today following gang violence and deaths in Mississippi prisons. That was just the latest warning. In 2012, then Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Commissioner Christopher Epps, now in prison for bribery, pleaded with legislators for more prison guards and higher pay. As reported by the Associated Press, he told legislators that lowest in the nation salaries for his undermanned workforce would only work “as long as we don’t have an uprising.”

In 2015, then MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher told the governor’s Task Force on Contracting and Procurement in the Mississippi Department of Corrections his top priority would be to transform MDOC’s low-paid, poorly trained, correctional officers into a highly trained, professional force. He took his transformation plan to the Legislature, asking that his appropriation be increased by $11 million. What did they do?  They cut his appropriation by $12 million.

Last year outgoing MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall told legislators her department couldn’t adequately staff the state’s prisons and guarantee the safety of more 19,000 inmates or prison workers unless funding was increased. Again, legislators did little to address the problem.

“The uprising arrived last week when five inmates died at the hands of fellow prisoners and two of the state’s largest prisons were rocked by what corrections officials called ‘major disturbances’ between gangs,” said the AP report. “Some observers call them riots.” Mississippi Today reported over 100 sheriffs’ deputies were sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County to help stop the outbreak of violence.

The AP reported severe stress at the three prisons directly run by the state. Only about half of security posts were filled in the budget year ending June 30, 2019, at the main prison at Parchman, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, and the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville. More than 1,000 times, prison employees had to work a double shift because there was no one to take their place.

Hall told legislators MDOC now needs a budget bump of $67 million to hire more than 800 guards. To get those guards, starting salaries would have to be raised. To retain good ones, salaries for existing guards needs to be raised.

These are all issues stressed by Fisher in 2015 and Epps in 2012, but ignored by legislators.

Some background.

Mississippi’s prison system was under federal court orders to improve deplorable conditions from 1972 to 2011. In 2011 sufficient improvements had been made for the court to end its oversight. That was the same year Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves took office. Ignoring prison needs began and continued through their terms of office.

Reeves chaired the Joint Legislative Budget Committee last year. Notably, in December it recommended cutting MDOC’s budget again this year. Funding prisons, of course, is not as popular as tax cuts, tax breaks for major industries, or nifty new but non-essential programs.

New legislators will now learn that ignored problems don’t disappear, they become crises. Today the crisis is prisons, tomorrow it will be PERS, health care, the plight of rural communities, roads and bridges, or higher education.

“They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand,” – Isiah 44:18.

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Can civic education save democracy from social media?

As two of the three branches of government become more and more politicized, the posture of the third will play a crucial role in how our federal government works.

The two politicized branches, of course, are the executive and legislative. The third, and supposed to always rise above politics, is the judicial branch.

Last week, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts spoke on behalf of the judicial branch.

“We have come to take democracy for granted,” he wrote in his year-end report, “and civic education has fallen by the wayside.

“In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

Many among the highly politicized deemed Roberts’ comments a swipe at President Donald Trump and other highly visible politicians and blatantly biased media.

Maybe, but what Roberts appeared to truly mean is we as a nation are not preparing citizens with the proper knowledge and orientation to decipher truth from political propaganda.

“Civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation,” he wrote. “Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.”

In plain terms, he means social media is not an honest source for civic education.

The intended source is public education – schools, colleges, and universities. Indeed, that is why free public education was promoted by our founding fathers.

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

(Personal note: the late Mary Brooks of Jackson taught me this in high school. As one who believed passionately in civic education and responsibility, she would be aghast at today’s civic illiteracy.)

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels believes universities hold the key to civic education in modern times.

“Alarming numbers of young people struggle to distinguish reliable information from misinformation online,” he wrote last week, “and the public’s faith in core democratic institutions — and fellow citizens — is eroding more by the day.”

Calling for higher education to provide a “truly robust civic education,” he said such must include “a grasp of the history and theory of democracy to bring a nuanced understanding of the past to public life, and critical reasoning skills that help to distinguish true information from false.” He also included, “a commitment to values such as tolerance and equality that provide standards against which to hold policymakers and policies to account, and a disposition directed toward cooperation and action.”

Roberts and Daniels, like Jefferson, propound a clarion call to reason in the face of growing unreason. Amidst today’s politicized cacophony, who will hear their call, much less heed it?

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” – 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

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Sticking with Trump risky for conservative, moral Republicans

Just before Christmas, a moral dilemma faced by many Republicans was exposed by Christianity Today. While they like many of President Donald Trump’s policies, they object to his shameful behavior.

“None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character,” wrote the respected evangelical magazine.

“This president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone – with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders – is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

“Trump Should Be Removed from Office” was the startling headline and conclusion of the article.

This growing dilemma has political risks for Republicans, particularly those who are conservative, moral Christians. Over the coming months if Trump sticks to his capricious and self-serving ways, increased voter dissatisfaction could result in a pro-choice Democrat winning the presidency.

So what is the alternative?

Also the week before Christmas, the Republican controlled Senate approved massive spending bills at Trump’s urging – “Go for it Republicans” – that suspended the debt ceiling for two years and adds $1.7 trillion to forecast deficits.

“These spending bills are a fiscal dumpster fire,” conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah told Fox News. “This is embarrassing.”

“Washington continues to swipe the national credit card and stick future generations with the bill,” said Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James. “This is another dark day for fiscal conservatism,” said Jason Pye of FreedomWorks.

This spending deal comes as the national debt has surged past $23 trillion with an annual budget deficit already projected to exceed $1 trillion. An “unsustainable” path said the Congressional Budget Office.

And a path totally opposite conservative Republicans’ goal to eliminate deficits and balance the budget.

You see, this massive spending deal, not budget tightening, was politically necessary to keep the economy humming. Touted by Trump as the strongest economy ever, this expansion actually depends on a rickety foundation – ever-growing government spending and Federal Reserve monetary stimulus normally reserved for recessions.

Liberal government spending plus stimulative Federal Reserve policies, pushed by Trump, to keep interest rates artificially low and liquidity high are the sugar fueling this economic high, not real, sustainable economic strength.

Nothing conservative about this either.

That’s why 23 conservative Republican senators voted against the deficit busting spending bills.

That reveals the sole alternative. Twenty conservative, moral Republicans serving in the U.S. Senate would have to find the fortitude to join with Democratic senators to convict Trump in the upcoming Senate impeachment trial, thereby replacing this not really conservative, not very moral president with Vice President Mike Pence.

Contrary to Trump, Pence is a true balance-the-budget conservative and practicing Christian with a moral compass. He could return the nation to a sane Reagan-like uplifting path and save us from Trump’s destructive path.

“For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14.

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What will shine brightest this Christmas season?

For those Americans who celebrate the real reason for Christmas, joy at this time of year comes from much more than sparkling trees and glittery presents. It is a joy like no other for  souls who have been ignited by the coming of the Light of the World.

It is also a time for those joyous souls to shine for all to see.

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 5:14). “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

The late Rev. Billy Graham taught that “throughout the New Testament, the followers of Jesus are called to be lights in the darkness,” citing in particular Philippians 2:14-16: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”

If the light of such souls seems diminished to you this season, it is likely because your eyes have become more focused on worldly things. How could they not with the message of Christmas overwhelmed by ads, politics, sports, movies, fashion, entertainment, and more graphic venues. Few to none employ notions of worship, charity, or love.

Quick, name 10 advertisements, politicians, movies, fashionistas, entertainers, or cultural idols that captured your attention recently through a display of the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Hard to do.

Graham’s teaching calls for believers to do three things to shine. First, be counter-cultural – while others chase after physical pleasures and selfish gain, “put on the armour of light” (Romans 13:12) and live a different way.

Second, put yourself out there – you are called to be a light to the people around you for Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:16).

And third, always point back to the light source. “Our goal should never be to bring recognition to ourselves, but to bring glory to God,” Graham said. “There’s a fine line between being a light and putting on a show to get attention.”

Think about that next to last sentence, “Our goal should never be to bring recognition to ourselves, but to bring glory to God.”

Okay, list five popular personalities you know of who exemplify this statement.

Yes, there are some, but if anything is the opposite of our culture today, this would be it. Hyping self is the thing to do. After all, that’s what “selfies” are all about.

In an article entitled The Culture of Self Promotion, brand advisor Walter Lopez notes the rapid rise of personal brands. “Gone are the days of traditional marketing and in its place are a new found power in self-promotion.”

Indeed, personal brands are the self-promotion in thing.

We are warned in James 3:13-16 that “selfish ambition” is not heavenly wisdom, but is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”

Hmmm.

As we celebrate the coming into the world of “the true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9), nothing would better expose the dim, impious sheen of the self-promoters for what it is than joyous souls letting their gifted light shine bright and true.

Merry Christmas.

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New Year’s hope for government transparency and efficiency

Conservatives regularly cite transparency and efficiency as goals to make government smaller and better. Too often, though, said conservatives do not deliver on these goals.

New conservative leadership in Mississippi may be about to change that.

In an op-ed piece, incoming Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said he is taking steps to deliver on a campaign promise to increase transparency at the state capitol.

“In partnership with the Legislative Budget Office and Mississippi Public Broadcasting, we are working on piloting a program on the Senate side to webcast committee meetings in addition to floor debate,” Hosemann wrote.

Hmmm.

One might hope that committee chairmen, knowing their meetings will be televised, will hold real committee meetings on important bills rather than the farcical gatherings under the outgoing administration. That’s when committee chairmen would walk in, say here’s the bill, and call for a vote with no amendments or serious discussion.

You see transparency only works to improve government when citizens are able to see government at work, not when all is decided in the backroom in advance.

Kudos to Hosemann for his leadership on this.

In another op-ed piece, State Auditor Shad White and Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration executive director Laura Jackson said it is time to consolidate backroom functions in government.

They want an Office of Shared Services to become law next year and focus on consolidating backroom functions for many of the smaller state agencies.

“The problem is that it can be inefficient for many of these entities to have their own independent, backroom offices,” they wrote saying many of the state’s 204 agencies, boards, and commissions house their own accounting departments, human resource services, information technology departments, payroll and travel services, and a host of other “backroom” subdivisions.

White and Jackson said that implementing a shared services would save taxpayers money, improve services, and lower the likelihood of fraud and theft. “Implementing a shared services arrangement would mean added oversight for these smaller boards since their administrative functions would all be housed under the same roof. Instead of monitoring 80 different boards or commissions, we might now only need to monitor 20.”

Hmmm.

One might hope that recommendations from the state’s top two financial control officials would move the needle on government efficiency. Yet, as we have learned from past efforts, many small agencies operate as little fiefdoms and have powerful godfathers to protect them in the legislature. Even Gov. Phil Bryant admitted he underestimated these agencies’ “political support system.”

That came after his call to terminate or consolidate many of these same boards and commissions was ignored. As was his call to consolidate “non-educational duties” in school districts. As was Gov. Haley Barbour’s call to consolidate backroom functions for community and junior colleges. And so on.

You see, it’s much easier to strangle government as a whole through budget cuts than it is to prune government through thoughtful reorganization. The problem with that, of course, is that you strangle the good and necessary along with the bad and unnecessary.

Kudos to White and Jackson for their leadership on this. As the Greenwood Commonwealth commented, “It just makes good business sense.”

A New Year’s hope is that other government officials and key legislators will get on board with Hosemann, White, and Jackson and finally deliver on transparency and prudent efficiency.

“Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square” — Proverbs 1:20.

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Will the light of Christmas reveal our leaders to be naughty or nice?

As we adults bumble into this Christmas season (Advent started December 1st), some of our attention should turn toward our behavior and that of our favorite leaders.

When “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” written in 1934 by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, gets to “Oh, he’s making a list and checking it twice; He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice” that’s not just a funny message for children.

Think St. Peter at the Pearly gates looking up names in God’s book to determine who may enter heaven, a story derived from Revelation 21:21, Matthew 16:18-19, Exodus 32:33, et al.

“The twelve gates (to the Holy city) were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl” – Revelation 21:21.

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” – Matthew 16:18-19.

“The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” – Exodus 32:33.

The coming of the light on Christmas day to disperse sin’s darkness called out to men and women of good will to live as children of the light. “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord” – Ephesians 5:8; for “No immoral, impure or greedy person…has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” – Ephesians 5:5.  

Yes, behavior matters.

For better or worse, we tend to model our behavior after that of our favorite leaders.

So, leaders’ behavior matters.

Regrettably, more and more of us these days are influenced by personalities deemed leaders by social and political media rather than godly men and women in our communities.

A study Bible entitled “The Leadership Bible: Leadership Principles from God’s Word” highlights what should be expected from our leaders. These highlights include traits such as character, courage, humility, integrity, self-discipline, wisdom, and obedience to God; skills such as accountability, communication, conflict management, empowerment, planning, problem solving, stewardship, team building, and systems thinking; and attributes such as healthy alliances, servant leadership, and encouragement.

Hmmm.

How do your favorite leaders stack up to these traits, skills and attributes?

One chapter in the book particularly caught my attention vis a vis what’s happening in our country today. Entitled “Systems Thinking” it relies on 1 Corinthians 12:12-29 which speaks of one body with many parts working in harmony. The lesson says, “Effective leaders have discovered that tasks are best accomplished and goals best achieved by organizing and implementing systems. In doing so, we are really imitating God, who has a passion for order and harmony.”

Many popular leaders nowadays seem to care little for order and harmony but work, instead, to disrupt and tear down important systems. 

Sadly, as our resultant leader influenced behavior further disrupts the body of our democracy, studies suggest our jangling behavior is also disrupting the body of Christ.

During this Christmas season, let us heed the book’s guiding verse, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” – Psalm 119:105.

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Is Black Friday shopping ruining family-friendly Thanksgiving?

Happy Black Friday, er, I mean Thanksgiving.

Yes, super shopping day Black Friday seems to be more top of the mind these days than family-friendly holiday Thanksgiving. Guess that’s just another example of how our lives have become much more transactional than relational.

“With maxims like ‘what’s in it for me’, ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’, and ‘quid pro quo’, our society is becoming more and more transactional” says an article by lifestyle entity Victorious Living. “We did not stumble into this society. For generations, the American way has been about open market consumerism. Which as an economic exercise has certain values and benefits that do not translate well when we take the same approach to matters in other arenas.”

Hmmm.

Traditionally, this time of year has been mostly relational with large family gatherings at grandma’s for turkey and dressing. It’s been a time for hugs, sharing family joys and griefs, and letting children play with rarely seen cousins. The most transactional aspect of this I can remember was maneuvering to get the drumstick, the best after dinner seat for football, or the recliner for a nap.

Now we are coaxed to shop early for Black Friday on the afternoon of Thanksgiving. And the long lines poised to stampede into stores when the magic time arrives are seldom family-friendly relational events. A website called BlackFridayDeathCount.com says since 2006 there have been 12 deaths and 117 injuries from Black Friday shopping.

Of course, Thanksgiving has always been a transactional event for turkeys. Even more so this year.

A story at TheConversation.com says we Americans will eat about 210 million turkeys this year. That’s up from 125 million in the 1970s. But due to innovation in turkey growing, that number won’t be 342 million this year. It seems 132 million turkeys won’t be slaughtered because modern techniques yield 25 pounds of meat per turkey versus 15 pounds in the ’70s.

Ironically, as our surging transactional behavior devalues relationships and erodes our emotional and mental health, our bodies benefit from eating healthier turkeys. You see today’s modern turkeys are barn-raised, growth hormone free, and free of antibiotic residues.

Hmmm.

This suggests we can be thankful this year for the many benefits science has brought to our lives. More and healthier food. New life saving medicines, treatments, and medical procedures. Safer cars and trucks. And so on.

Or not.

You see much of our shift toward transactional behavior is driven by new and titillating gadgets and targeted sales methods made possible by modern science.

Here’s the ultimate buy now, buy more example – my cell phone knows and can tell me what wow gadgets I’m likely to crave and where to buy them. Whether it’s Facebook or Google ads or uninvited texts and emails, neat stuff selected just for me will appear on my phone whether I want it to or not. (Yeah, you can block some of it but it comes right back.)

You can see where all this is heading.

Unless we each purposefully keep Thanksgiving focused on giving thanks for blessings, family, and yummy food, the real turkeys on Thanksgiving will soon be us.

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” – Thessalonians 5:18.

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