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A Perfect Storm

In some ways, this week has been the perfect storm. For me the perfect storm is where my religious and secular views collide. The biggest issue with the perfect storm is the tendency for it to illuminate how “compartmentalized” I am. I suspect I am not alone. We are able to hold two, often diametrically opposed views depending upon: a) whether an issue rattles my religious or secular world view, and b) how invested I am in the current issue. My current Perfect Storm is the President’s plan to forgive a portion of student loan debt for those earning less than $125k annually. How did we get here? First, I need to acknowledge an old saying we had in business, “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” That is by way of saying that the numbers I am about to quote come from a Washington think tank. However, in that there are competing and disparate realities at work in our culture, you can probably find a set of statistics to completely debunk what I’m about to say. Except, see “A” above. In the decade 2008-2018, the State of Missouri cut funding for Higher Education by a total of 27.7%. Nationally, the cost of a four-year education went up by 24%. The percentage of tuition used to fund college operation increased from 22% to 48%. As a guide, the percentage of yearly college expense in Missouri has risen to 25% of the median household income. The number is much higher for persons of color. How does a family and/or student cover the increased cost of higher education? Of course, by assuming student loan debt. This begs the question, if states had kept their funding levels and if institutions had watched their expenses, would we even be having this conversation? As credit card debt has helped maintain the illusion of financial security, student loan debt has maintained the illusion of college affordability. But, when the word debt is included in any formula, there must be a reckoning. I don’t have a financial stake in the loan forgiveness issue. I went to college when one could work one’s way through school. My parents footed most of the bill and I worked part-time for the rest of it. Even as I went to Seminary in the early 90’s, there was enough grant and scholarship funding available that I had very little student debt when I graduated. Like all debt, we “paid as agreed” and moved on with life. Where I do have a stake in this newly minted controversy is the compartmentalization of values, depending upon whether they can be assigned religious or secular labels. The fallacy here is that for people of faith, there is no difference. If it sounds right in the pew on Sunday morning, then it is right on the street Monday. Period. I know the downside to student loan debt forgiveness. Can we now take on debt expecting the Federal government to forgive it? Can colleges continue their ever upward hike in cost, knowing that student loans can cover it? How does this plan impact those who have dutifully paid their loans off? Do we actually address the root cause of this issue, or do we simply huddle with our tribe and predictably throw rocks at the other side? As a person of faith there are at least three things that come into play here. First, the Christian faith is all about our owing an enormous debt to God that simply cannot be paid. On our behalf, Jesus Christ pays that debt for us. Cancelling debt…hmmm. Second, all throughout Scripture in both the Old Testament and New, there are the twin foci of shalom and community at work. We are responsible to one another for creating situations in which people can live in peace, security, and safety. We have let student loan debt, which is well over one trillion dollars become a debilitating issue in our culture. Not surprisingly, it has become yet another weapon in the ongoing culture war. The conversation should be about how we fix the problem and keep it fixed rather than assigning blame. Finally, as we read the gospel of Luke, we see Jesus preach his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth (4.16ff). The text he chooses is the Jubilee text from Isaiah 61.1-2. The jubilee is the time when prisoners are set free and debt is cancelled. Cancelling debt…hmmm. As people of faith, we can ill afford to childishly ask the question, “Is this fair?” and let the fight begin. Life is not fair, and I thank God daily that God has chosen not to be fair. What is God calling us to? How can we square our value system as it pertains to our religious and secular life? How can we be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? How can we be peacemakers? How can we be part of the solution instead of the problem? If we learned nothing from our four-week dive into the letter of “Hebrews,” it’s that sometimes faith is difficult and it calls us to places we would not ordinarily go. Welcome to the student loan debt issue. Cancelling debt…hmmm. This week we listen to Paul as he writes the letter we know as “Philemon.” It is one of my favorite letters because of the humanity and tenderness in it. We would do well to practice the same. Ironically, in the midst of the brouhaha regarding “fairness,” we are going to come to the table of the Lord. One would do well not to be too bullish on fairness. See you Sunday, Paul To respond directly to Pastor Paul, email him at, or contact him at 816-724-0080

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