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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Is Coronavirus signaling the end of the world?


My home lot is small. My neighbors are very close by. This time of year, people are in their yards or have their windows open. Their conversation on a recent afternoon went like this: 

“This is the end, no question. We’re at the apocalypse. They aren’t going to fix this, I don’t care what they promise,” one of them said. 

The others agreed. No one argued. No one said, ‘Oh, we’ve seen worse.’ No one said, ‘It won’t come in my lifetime.’  

Are they right? Is Coronavirus the end? Is this a punishment from God, a biblical plague, to be followed in short order by darkness, hail, locusts, and the oceans turning to blood? The short answer is, No. 

But does that mean the Coronavirus pandemic has no biblical significance? Not at all. It would be very unwise to ignore it.  

Coronavirus is absolutely not a punishment from God, as a born-again man tried to tell me a couple months ago, being visited on those heathen Chinese for destroying ‘Christian’ churches. God simply doesn’t work that way. Long ago, Abraham said to God: 
  • “It is unthinkable that you would act in this manner by putting the righteous man to death with the wicked one so that the outcome for the righteous man and the wicked is the same! It is unthinkable of you. Will the Judge of all the earth not do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25)
It was a rhetorical question; of course the Judge of all the earth will always do what is right. 

So if the Bible does not teach that the pandemic is a punishment from God, does it explain why random people are dying while others are surviving unscathed? Yes it does: 
  •  “The swift do not always win the race, nor do the mighty win the battle, nor do the wise always have the food, nor do the intelligent always have the riches, nor do those with knowledge always have success, because time and unexpected events overtake them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

“Unexpected events.” There is no fate; no one is destined to die because of Coronavirus. It is more likely to kill those with weakened immune systems. But it isn’t a death sentence. Millions of people have survived it so far, and millions more will come in contact with it and survive while others die. The ‘mighty don’t always win the battle.’ 
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There are, in fact, things you can do to improve your chances of survival.

Adam’s and Eve’s bodies were wonderfully made by their creator with multiple lines of defense against disease. But with each generation we get further and further from that perfect start. On top of that, within one century we went from virtually everyone eating farm-fresh organic food, breathing clean air, drinking clean water, and staying physically active all day; to a generation that sits in front of a computer all day and thinks mac-n-cheese and ‘Impossible burger’ is food. 

If you’re a health nut who buys organic food, filters your water, filters the air in your house and walks two miles a day, you still won’t live forever. We all inherited death from Adam. But whose chances of warding off Coronavirus rank higher: the health nut, or an overweight smoker living on diet soda and pop-tarts? 

We’ve come, in one century, from a generation that took responsibility for their own health, to a ‘herd mentality’ that thinks we’re all going to die if science doesn’t come up with a solution.

If the ‘health service’, so called, was really interested in saving as many as possible, it seems like their message should be: 'Build your immune system! Get more sunshine, keep moving, get plenty of rest, take vitamins C and D and E, eat fresh food, and don’t stress!' If everyone did some or most of these things, everyone’s immune system would improve, and far fewer people overall would be in danger from the virus.

Instead, the message is, ‘You won’t be safe until WE develop a vaccine! Stay home, don’t move, binge on Netflix, wear a mask, and use plenty of hand sanitizer. '

Is the pandemic the end of the world? No. There have been many plagues down through history. But that is not the point. Jesus said the last days would be marked by wars, “great earthquakes, and in one place after another food shortages and pestilences.” (Luke 21:10, 11)

In the war between Napoleon and Wellington – called the Peninsular War, between England and France in the early 1800s – many wondered if it was the end. All those signs were being seen: War, food shortage, pestilence, even great earthquakes. Serious Bible scholars, however, knew it wasn’t the end. How? Because Jesus added, “And this good news of the kingdom will be preached in ALL the inhabited earth, for a witness to ALL nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14) Matthew Poole, for example, pointed out that in his day, the 1700s, the gospel had barely reached America, let alone India or Australia, and certainly couldn’t be said to have been preached in every nation. (See Matthew Poole for Mark 13:10)

Today, however, all the pieces of Jesus’ warning sign are in place. Since World War I broke out, the world has been constantly at war; has been bouncing from the Spanish flu to polio to heart disease to ebola to cancer to AIDS; the world has seen food shortages all over Africa and Asia and even in more affluent lands; has endured a barrage of earthquakes in one place after another; and, most significantly, has witnessed the Good News of the Kingdom being preached in literally every nation and language. The most widely translated website on the internet, by a huge margin, is not Google or Facebook; it is JW.org, in over 1,000 languages.


Coronavirus may not be the end of the world. But the end is certainly not waiting for some other sign to be fulfilled.


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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, consultant, photographer and author of three bible-friendly novels available in either ebook or paper at Amazon.com.






Friday, April 17, 2020

Is Food Shortage Next?



Perhaps you’ve seen some of these stories of dairy farmers dumping milk down the sewer, or vegetable farmers plowing their crops under. What’s going on? 

Storage is expensive. Cold storage is especially expensive. Over the past few decades, with the help of the almighty computer, supply chains have cut margins to a razor-thin edge. A crop goes from its source to its consumer with as short a wait as possible.  

Before the current mess began, the average American ate out at a restaurant six times a month. 6 meals out of 90 = about 7%. Just because I hate math, let’s round it 5%. So 5% of the food produced in this country is no longer being consumed. “Wait!” I can hear you saying. “People are still eating the same amount." True. But the farmers who are part of the supply chain for restaurants can't just turn around and sell their food to grocery stores.  

The food at most restaurants wasn’t coming from farmers. It was coming from large restaurant supply corporations, such as Sysco. It came in restaurant-sized packaging that simply doesn’t have a space on grocery store shelves. When restaurants closed and stopped accepting deliveries from Sysco, Sysco told their farmers, Stop, we don’t have any place to put your crops. What was the farmer supposed to do with it? They operate on tight margins as it is, because Sysco wasn’t paying them much. Redirecting their crop to grocery store suppliers would have cost them more than the crop was worth. Some of them couldn't even afford to deliver it to food banks. So they dumped it. 

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. That 5-7% number mentioned earlier; that doesn’t represent every person eating out 6 times a month. Some households were eating out nearly every meal. So those households are first going to pivot to eating pre-cooked meals – things like Swanson TV dinners. 

Couldn’t the Swansons of the world take the restaurant’s excess off the hands of the farmers? Eventually, yes. But not immediately. The Swanson-type companies already have their own supply chain, and it doesn’t include potatoes prepared to be Red Robin’s steak fries. 
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So the first thing that may happen could be the pre-made meal market seeing shortages. When masked shoppers go to Safeway to stock up on Hungry Man dinners, and that particular case is empty, what are they going to do? They’ll buy their second choice. And very likely they'll buy more than they need, just in case. Hopefully not a panic, such as happened with the toilet paper, but perhaps a pinch more.

A larger section of the population will also try to dust off their cooking skills. When was the last time you baked bread? Early on, when toilet paper was being hoarded, bread was also in short supply in some stores. So people started stocking up on flour and Googling how to bake their own bread. Now the flour is getting scarce, as is yeast, and prices are rising. There's been a hamburger shortage in the meat department of some stores; all these new experimental cookers are more confident in their ability to cook a burger than a roast.

The shortages may not get to starvation levels. Perhaps rice, with its connection to China, will fall out of favor and you’ll have to switch to potatoes. Or your favorite brand of coffee or sugar will be out of stock and you’ll have to switch to another. Or you'll learn to drink your coffee black because of a cream shortage.

Isn’t it interesting that this type of food shortage is exactly what the Bible predicted? Revelation 6:6, in describing the ‘end times’ or last days, said: 
  • “I heard a voice out of the midst of the four living creatures say, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wage, three quarts of barley for a day’s wage, and do not harm the olive oil or the wine.’”

In Bible times, as today, wheat was preferable to barley. A quart of wheat would not have been enough for a small family to subsist on, certainly not something you'd want to spend your whole day's wage on. So that heavenly voice was predicting, not necessarily starvation, but at the very least price gouging, and having to make do with what may not be your preference. Olive oil and wine were staples as well. Olive oil was used for everything from lamplight to lotions. The admonition to not harm them would indicate having to take special care to preserve what you have. 

Food shortages alone, or even food shortages accompanying a pandemic, are not proof that we are living in the last days. That’s why Jesus gave a multi-part sign. But they should be enough to make a reasonable person investigate further. If you haven’t done so in a while, re-read Matthew 24 & 25, Luke 21, Mark 13, 2 Timothy 3, and Revelation chapter 6.


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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, consultant, photographer and author of three bible-friendly novels available in either ebook or paper at Amazon.com.

 

Monday, January 13, 2020

10 years after Haiti's massive earthquake, what has been learned?


Posted 1-13-20 by Bill K. Underwood
 
Looking back at Haiti on the ten-year anniversary of the massive earthquake, no one is really surprised at the lack of progress. I first posted the column below on Examiner in 2010. Within a month, it became the most-read column of my entire writing career. Much of the information is still relevant.

Unless you’re a robot, the tragedy in Haiti can’t help but pull at your heartstrings. Unfortunately, there are people out there who are as soulless as robots, who will use your emotions to rip you off. Here are some recommendations from various watchdog organizations on giving. There are lessons to be learned from the Haiti tragedy that, sadly, will continue to have relevance. 
  • Avoid giving food, clothing or other in-kind gifts unless they are specifically requested, and you know the group has a way to quickly and efficiently distribute them.
  • Find out if the group you're planning to donate to already has an on-the-ground presence in the afflicted area. Transportation in and out is limited, so if a group doesn’t already have a significant presence there, your contribution may be diverted elsewhere.
  • Giving online is dangerous. Make sure you know who is operating the site. Spammers have created what look very much like legitimate sites.
  • Be highly suspicious of claims that '100 percent of your donation will go to victims.' Every legitimate charity involves some operating costs. A claim of 60% to 85% of money raised reaching Haiti is considered reasonable. Costs they deem legitimate are salaries for workers and executives, advertising the charity, etc. The problem is that since charities are non-profits, they are mostly unaccountable for what they take in and how they spend it. Do your homework. Google the officers of the charity, see if you can find out how high on the hog they are living. For example: according to Snopes.com, the CEO of Red Cross, Gail J. McGovern, was paid about $1,037,000 in 2010.
  • Don’t text your donation! I know, it’s convenient, but the money won’t likely get to the charity right away.  Why not? (I know you would never do this but) some of your friends may have called a 900 number at some time. Does “1-900-meet-asian-chicks” get the money right away? No. First, your phone company has to bill you, I mean your friend. Then the bill has to be paid. Then the phone company has to forward the portion collected to the 900 company. Same thing is true of texting money to a charity. It could be a few months before your money is doing any good in Haiti or wherever it's needed, and in the meantime, the phone company is making money off the billing fees and the interest.
What about donating through your church?
Last week, I selected 30 churches at random from the Phoenix phone book, and emailed them some questions about Haiti donations. Not surprisingly, most churches are reluctant to talk about the tons of loot they are raking in. Below is the text of my email:

 "I write a column for examiner.com. I’m currently working on a column about donations for Haiti. I’m sending this email to about a dozen churches in the Phoenix area. I would like your answers to the following questions. If you can supply the answers, great! If you choose not to answer, that’s fine, but my column will state that I got no reply from your church, or that you chose not to comment on a particular question.
  • How many different services do you have in a week?
  • What is your average attendance?
  • Do you pass a collection plate at each service?
  • Do you pass it more than once?
  • Do you suggest/require a donation amount? How much?
  • Do you communicate by letter, email, or phone call with your members regarding amounts they are suggested/required to donate?
  • Besides the upkeep of your facility, what are the donations used for?
  • Do you have salaried ministers or other local employees of the church?
  • Are you asking your members to give something extra for Haiti?
  • If so, are you taking that money from the regular donations, or do you have some special arrangement? (Passing a collection plate again, sending out request letters, etc.)
  • If you are making special donation arrangements for Haiti, do you have a target figure?
  • What percentage of the funds earmarked for Haiti do you expect to reach Haiti? (For example, charitynavigator.org reports on many reputable charities that have a less-than-stellar record - some as low as 10-15%.)
  • Where are you sending the Haiti funds? (your organization’s upper management, CARE, United Way, etc.)
  • What arrangement do you have for informing members of what they are contributing and how their money is being used?
I look forward to hearing from you.

Here are the replies I got: 

A Baptist church replied: 

“We have 3 Sunday Worship Celebrations. And then a Wednesday evening Service that is a little different than Sunday's. Our total Sunday worship attendance is slightly more than 200, and we have Sunday small groups for all ages with attendance of about 150. Yes, we pass a collection plate at each service. No, we do not pass it more than once. We do not require a donation amount.” However, he followed that up with, “We do believe that a Christ Follower will be generous in giving and that the biblical minimum standard goal is the tithe, which is 10 percent of their income.” 
For the record, tithing was a Jewish arrangement to support the Levites, who were not allowed to own land. It was never a Christian requirement. If it were, Jesus certainly would not have died with nothing but the clothes on his back. 
The Baptist church hedged a bit on the question about sending collection letters. “To date 'no' to the suggested donations, and we do not 'require' donations.” His reply to how the money is used was also a bit vague: “Ministry, Missions, Personnel.” As to salaries, “1 full time pastor, and other part time staff.” Yes to the question of asking for something extra for Haiti. As to the question of special collections for Haiti:Last Sunday all of our undesignated offerings (normal offerings not marked for a specific purpose) went to the Haitian Disaster Relief efforts. And now we will encourage our people to give if they wish to give more. We will have information in the Sunday bulletin and on our website (which I suppose that you have seen) that direct people to a trusted site for supporting the work.” On the question of what percentage of funds earmarked for Haiti actually get to Haiti, he replied, “100%.” But the next question, Where are you sending the funds, he answered, “It is going through our Arizona Southern Baptist Convention or through the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
But he already acknowledged that “pastors” and “staff” collect salaries, so how could “100%” be reaching Haiti? On the question of advising members about how the money is used: “We keep confidential records of all contributions that come through [our] Church, and give a report back to individuals who contribute. Regarding the Haitian Relief efforts the agencies through which we contribute will have various measures of reporting.”

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Next reply was from a Lutheran church:

“This time of year we average 3000, average weekly for the whole year 1350. We pass the plate once each service. We do not suggest or require a donation amount. No requirements, all strictly voluntary.” 
His reply to how the money is used was also a bit vague. “Salaries of staff, program costs, mission trips and outreach, community service.” He also acknowledged that the ministers receive a salary. (I keep mentioning that because, as previously noted, Jesus died poor, Paul made tents to support himself, and Jesus told his followers, ‘You received free, give free.’ Since none of us have paid Jesus for our biblical education, how can anyone justify charging parishioners for ministry?) 
To the question of asking members to give something extra for Haiti he answered, “Absolutely.” The next question about how they were collecting the ‘something extra’ for Haiti he answered vaguely, “special donations.” How? He already said they only pass the plate once, and that they don’t send dunning letters. As to a target figure, he said they have no target, but that when the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, they raised over $30,000. As to the percent of the funds for Haiti he expected to reach Haiti, he too replied, “100%.” 
On the question of where the funds are going he answered, “We send them through our national church office, to a related organization set up to handle disaster relief around the world:  Lutheran Disaster Relief.  No overhead, all to direct aid.” That sounds great! However, I searched for “Lutheran Disaster Relief” and found no such organization. I did find an organization called Lutheran Disaster Response. When I clicked on that, it took me to the website of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, where asking for money for Haiti is clearly their top agenda at the moment. At the bottom of the page, in really tiny letters was this caveat: “Any funds not needed for this relief effort will be used for other disaster purposes as determined by LCMS World Relief and Human Care.” As with the Baptists, if their ministers and staff are salaried, they are not sending 100% to Haiti.

The next reply I got was also from a Lutheran church:
 
"We have 3 services per week with an average attendance of a little under 500.  We do pass collection plates in each service and that offering supports the overall ministry of [our church.]  We have some staff people including myself (Senior Pastor), an office staff, and we operate a pre-school.”  (Wait a minute, I’m just guessing here, but isn’t it likely that parents who make use of the preschool are required to pay for that service, rather than it being supported by the collection plate? Hmmm.) “We continue to encourage our members to contribute financially for the aid of the people of Haiti by supporting LCMS World Relief and Human Care. This organization has had workers on the ground in Haiti from very early on after the disaster helping with food, water and medical needs, emergency housing and spiritual needs in many ways.”  
I finally got an honest answer regarding the percentage of donations that would actually reach Haiti. “I don’t know the exact percentage of administrative costs verses dollars directly to services and resources but you can likely find such information through their website.” No, actually, you can’t. What I did find, in addition to the warning already noted about how they can use your funds however they see fit, was some salary information.
As of 2006, the President of the LCMS received a salary of $158,870. The First Vice President, $129,160. The Secretary:  $147,263. Vice President/Treasurer:  $147,263. Chief Administrative Officer:  $129,160. Executive officers of major legal entities (Corporate Synod, CPH, CHI, Church Extension Fund, Foundation) received an average annual salary of $133,864. Executive directors of Corporate Synod, WBP, other boards, commissions and departments including LCEF and LCMS Foundation) and CPH VP and other officers received an average salary of $122,350. 
The Lutheran minister continued: “We have published [the website] information for our members and encouraged them to give personal donations in addition to what we do collectively as a congregation.” (You might want to be careful about that… if they start poking around like I did and discover where their money is going your donations might dry up.) “We do not require specific amounts of donations but we do know many of our members are quite generous in giving for a number of needs.” Let’s do some math, shall we? 1500 visitors a week. Since I’m not a church-goer per se I have no idea what a ‘generous’ contribution is, but If each one drops a $5 in the collection plate, that’s $18,000 a month, $216,000 a year! 

The next reply I got was from the executive assistant to the pastor of City of Grace Church:

 She declined to answer the questions herself, and advised me that the pastor was unable to do so as he was in Haiti with the City of Grace Disaster relief team. 

The last reply I got was from an elder at a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall:

  He wrote:Our kingdom hall is used by four congregations to avoid crowding and to allow us to get to know each other better. Each congregation meets twice a week, attendance averages 110 per meeting. No collections are ever taken in any kingdom hall anywhere in the world. No plate is passed, no dunning letters are sent out. We do not tithe. We have no paid ministers or staff. Each congregation is presided over by a body of elders, none superior to any other. We have a box at the back of the hall with a slot in the top where people can anonymously contribute what they can, if they wish, to pay for the utilities and maintenance of the building. We keep costs down by all of us – elders and publishers – jointly working together on cleaning and maintenance projects. We have another box where people can drop a contribution, if they wish, to the worldwide work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That money supports the printing of millions of copies of The Watchtower and Awake! magazine, Bibles, and other study aids. These publications are not sold; they are given freely to any who agree to read them. The brothers and sisters who live and work at the world headquarters in New York and in branch offices around the world are all volunteers. None – from the newest laborer to the members of the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses – receive a salary.  The funds sent in for the worldwide work also support thousands of missionaries in other lands. Our missionaries are not school teachers or social workers. They devote their full time to teaching people the Bible. As all our meetings are about studying the Bible, money is not mentioned. Occasionally a letter is read thanking the congregation for contributions received. Every penny contributed is scrupulously accounted for, and any member of the congregation is free to ask any of the elders for an accounting of what the money was spent on. There is no special collection for Haiti; there is no need for that. (What? Why not?) Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide consider ourselves a brotherhood, and the problems of our brothers in Haiti are the same as if they happened to our literal family members, so there is no need to urge anyone to contribute. (Oh.)  Jehovah’s Witnesses in Dominican Republic were on the road to Haiti with relief supplies within hours after the quake hit. Several Witness doctors from Dominican Republic and elsewhere have been working almost nonstop since the quake. Money and other supplies from the Watchtower Society headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, were sent immediately to Haiti and Dominican Republic, and supplies and money are still pouring in. Of course, no repayment will ever be asked for or expected… we know they would do the same for us.”
Well, that was refreshing. I went to jw.org and searched it for references to money, donations, charity. All I found were Watchtower articles such as “Is money your master or your servant?” and “Is pursuit of money making you sick?” There was no way to donate any money to Haiti. The only mention of money I found, in connection with Haiti, was in a public news release entitled “Witnesses’ relief efforts well under way for victims of earthquake in Haiti.” A single line at the bottom read, “The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is caring for these expenses by utilizing funds donated to the Witnesses’ worldwide work.”

Follow-ups:
  1. Since many people do now like to be able to do their banking online, jw.org does now have a way for a person to contribute. But you still have to look for it. You can browse their site for hours and never notice any request for funds.
  2. One Haitian customs official, while approving the importation of the construction materials, commented: “Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first ones who came across the border to get help for people. They don’t just talk about helping, they really do it.” In the first six months following the quake, 1,700 homes had already been built by the Witnesses for those who had lost theirs.
  3. The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti: six.
  4. The Red Cross’ initial plan said the focus would be building homes — an internal proposal put the number at 700. Each would have finished floors, toilets, showers, even rainwater collection systems. The houses were supposed to be finished in January 2013. None of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project’s manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because the Red Cross “didn’t have the know-how.”
  5.  Another signature project, known in Creole as “A More Resilient Great North,” is supposed to rehabilitate roads in poor, rural communities and to help them get clean water and sanitation. But two years after it started, the $13 million effort has faltered badly. An internal evaluation found residents were upset because nothing had been done to improve water access or infrastructure or to make “contributions of any sort to the well being of households,” the report said.
  6. When a cholera epidemic raged through Haiti nine months after the quake, the biggest part of the Red Cross’ response — a plan to distribute soap and oral rehydration salts — was crippled by “internal issues that go unaddressed,” wrote the director of the Haiti program in her May 2011 memo.
  7. "Brittany Koper, a granddaughter of Paul Crouch Sr., [founder of Trinity Broadcast Network] alleged in a lawsuit... that top bosses in the organization threatened her life with a gun and fired her and her husband Michael after she refused to illegally funnel some $100 million of charitable assets to their personal accounts." 

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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, consultant, photographer and author of three bible-friendly novels available in either ebook or paper at Amazon.com.