Monday, May 21, 2018

30,000-Foot View

Due to a trip being cancelled in May, I have been able to really go after some of my classes for my PhD.  I am currently in the middle of an International Law class, and while reading about law is not exactly exciting for me, I have had a few "aha" moments.

Talking about politics at this time is difficult (maybe it is always difficult?) and we get so mired down in the issues of today and the fears of tomorrow that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees.  This class has given me a view of the forest from a 30,000-foot level and it really is beautiful. Now please don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying everything is perfect or going well.  But we do have a lot to be grateful for and if we don't take a few steps back every now and then to see a much bigger perspective, we can get lost in negativity and be filled with complaints.  So this might be helpful for one or two of you as well.

A lot of good has happened globally in the last seventy years (1948-2018), at the end of World War II when the UN Charter was signed.  Up until this time there had only been failures at recognizing an international community, international laws, and fundamental values that are universal.  There were four main freedoms being called for in 1948:
  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear
[How amazing would it have been to sit in a room and discuss the main freedoms that could be common to all people!]  

From these freedoms the universal declaration of human rights was born, written at the lowest common denominator to be able to get all states to agree, but it ultimately led to the right to self-determination of all peoples, which led to the end of colonization worldwide within the next three decades.  Listen to this quote from one of my textbooks:  "The human rights doctrine has operated as a potent leaven, contributing to shift the world community from reciprocity-based bundle of legal relations, geared to the 'private' pursuit of self-interest, and ultimately blind to collective needs, to a community hinging on a core of fundamental values, strengthened by the emergence of community obligations and community rights and the gradual shaping of public interests (Cassese, International Law).

Not only that, but the birth of the UN has led to the suppression of the use of force between states and has also defined, by an accepted international authority, what is legal and what is not as it relates to force.  Prior to this, there was an unfettered freedom of states to use force on each other, with no-one declaring what was right or wrong.  To have this happen in seventy years, with most of the 200 states in the world accepting these key principles and accepting this "authority," in part because of peer pressure, is pretty astounding.

Isn't that exciting?  Doesn't this seem to be the right direction for us to be moving in this world?  To be community minded and have fundamental values that are almost universally accepted sounds like a movement towards being a global family.  Additionally, there have been more prohibitions on certain weapons, there has been banning of torture and genocide, there has been unity on the need to protect the environment, there are international courts that have accepted authority to try individuals and state officials on war crimes and human rights violations, and there are joint efforts on working against terrorism.  Not all of this has been done perfectly, and there continues to be needed work on finding ways to monitor compliance while still respecting state sovereignty, but what progress!

One objective of the original UN Charter of 1948 had to do with the freedom of want.  As someone who has been doing business development in West and East Africa since 2005, this was of particular interest to me.  There is open acknowledgement that this has not gone as well as the movements in human rights or in banning the use of force.  There are, of course, many complex reasons for this, not the least of which was that many of the major powers had colonized many developing nations and were using their natural resources for exports without building any infrastructure in those countries.  It took three decades for colonization to end, and those nations then realized how much further behind they were due to the lack of infrastructure, including roads, water, electricity, education and health.  As these nations joined the General Assembly of the United Nations, they began to have a louder voice, requesting more favorable trade positions given their current conditions. 

Many developing countries have agriculture as their dominant economic activity.  There can be a section of the economy that still exports raw materials for manufacturing in industrialized countries, as well as some local industry producing textiles and foodstuffs.  But for the most part, these are family size businesses and the equipment is often very basic.  What developing nations need, according to my textbook and what I affirm after working in this context for thirteen years, is trade preferences, foreign investment to promote economic activities, transfer of modern technology, and training of skilled workers.

The good news is that most "developed" or "industrialized" nations, who caused a lot of the problems and didn't want to see themselves lose power, have now come to agree that it is in the best interest of everyone for to have opportunities to work, to grow, to create, to network, to trade, and to develop.  This too is encouraging and I continue to be thankful for the work that we are doing in Discipling Marketplace Leaders.

Seventy years is really a short amount of time.  It is a lifetime for some but in terms of history, it is short.  Many of us don't remember or know the situation in the world one hundred years ago, when everyone did what was right in their own eyes.  My parents emigrated from the Netherlands after the Second World War and tell some stories about what they endured, but they were young as well.  Let's be encouraged that the bar can be raised.  People and states CAN change. Who knows where we might be in another seventy years?

If you find yourself wanting to send me a bunch of "Yeah but..." messages, I encourage you to take a deep breath, read these words again, and let them wash over you.  Every day has enough "Yeah buts..." from the ground level, but sometimes we need to take a 30,000-foot view. 

This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! (Psalm 118:24)

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Billionaire Who Wasn't

As money is a frequent topic in my travels and teachings, it has come up more and more that the greater question that can be asked in terms of giving back to God is not "how much do you give" but rather "how much do you keep." 

I often tell the story of a day when Hannah and Noah were just 9 and 7 years old and were discussing what they would do if they won a lottery of 10 million dollars.  As I walked in the room and overhead this discussion, Hannah looked at me with a big smile and said, "Mommy, if I won 10 million dollars, I would give 9 million to the poor!"  I should have hugged her and thanked her for her generous heart.  I should have recognized her desire to please me, as she know how her parents were striving to serve the poor.  But, in not my finest hour as a parent, I said, "Why do you need one million dollars?"  

My point (which went over the head of a 9 year old) is that we can feel good about giving away 10% or even 20% of our income in our tithe and offerings but that doesn't mean that we are living a sacrificial life.  

A story that comes from The Irish Times and helps to illustrate the point:
Chuck Feeney today is a man of no property. He and his wife Helga live in a modest rented apartment in San Francisco. He has no car or luxuries of any kind. Actually, come to think of it, he has a very nice watch. It is plastic and cost about $15. There are no trophies or vanity photographs in the apartment to show that he has devoted his $8 billion fortune to making the world a better place.
It was always so with Feeney, a brilliant entrepreneur who became a billionaire through the company he co-founded, Duty Free Shoppers, back in the 1960s. The frugal globe-trotting philanthropist routinely flew economy class, stayed in small flats, and ordered the second-cheapest white wine in restaurants. 
The key moment in Chuck’s giving career, one that was to enhance the lives of millions of people, came on November 23rd, 1984. On that day Feeney, his then wife, Danielle, and his lawyer Harvey Dale, flew to the Bahamas, a location chosen to avoid huge legal penalties for what they were about to do. They gathered in a rented conference room. At 4pm Chuck began signing a series of documents. Then they left for the airport. 
While millions of Americans expressed gratitude that Thanksgiving weekend for their material blessings, Chuck Feeney felt a profound sense of relief. He had just divested himself of all that he owned, cash, businesses and shares, and placed them into a foundation he created, known today as Atlantic Philanthropies.  It was done in the utmost secrecy. Feeney continued to manage the businesses, and buy and sell properties around the world, so everyone thought he was still a billionaire, even Forbes magazine. 
‘The right thing to do’ 
I asked Chuck more than once why he decided to give it all away. Never one for introspection he replied simply: “It was the right thing to do.” 
I believe the reasons included an innately generous personality, discomfort with the trappings of wealth as a product of an Irish-American neighbourhood in New Jersey where “nobody blows their horn”, and the example set by his mother, a nurse who was always helping others.  He was also influenced by Andrew Carnegie’s essay The Gospel of Wealth, with its famous declaration that “the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor”.  After that day in Nassau, Feeney began a lifelong quest to do good things with his wealth, while growing the businesses and property portfolio to provide more funds for his foundation’s giving... 
...A critical moment came in New York on March 3rd, 2003, when Feeney signed off on a decision to spend everything in his lifetime. “Giving while living,” he called it. Foundations usually dole out 5 per cent annually to maintain perpetuity. Chuck wanted to do big things, especially with bricks and mortar.  “If I have $10 in my pocket and I do something with it today, it’s already producing 10 dollars’ worth of good,” he explained to me one day in his New York office, wearing a cardigan with a hole in the sleeve. “Giving 5 per cent doesn’t do so much good.” 
Now aged 86, Feeney’s travelling days are over, but as he tucks into his favourite dish – chicken – in his Bayside restaurant he can reflect how his example has exploded in philanthropy. He got a letter one day from Amit Chandra in which the Indian billionaire confided he was so inspired by Feeney’s story he has devoted much of his own wealth to creating schools, hospitals and universities. He thanked Chuck for the “joyous journey” this entailed. 
Conor O’Clery is the author of the biography of Chuck Feeney, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t (
I love the declaration that the "millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor."  That completely flips the world of consumption upside down.  HOWEVER, the work of generous giving needs to be coupled with competence.  How we give also matters.  The majority of the poor don't need a trustee, as they are fully capable if given opportunities and access to networks.  But they do need opportunities, a hand up, restoration of their dignity, and an affirmation of their potential to fulfill their calling of being made in the image of a creative, working God.

One idea that someone gave me years ago (I can't remember who) is that for every year of marriage, they increase their tithe by one percent.  I have tried to live this way and found that the incremental increases were doable.

The question of how much money I keep for myself is one that needs to be wrestled with individually before God.  May God give us the courage to have open hands before Him.