Credit card ≠ emergency fund

The other day I read a really bad article on Forbes by Tim Worstall sensationally titled “It’s Simply Not True That Most Americans Don’t Have $1,000 In Emergency Savings.” His basic argument is summed up in this paragraph:

…credit and savings are economically the same thing. They’re both ways of gaining access to emergency funding. That one is not consuming now so as to be able to consume in an emergency, the other not consuming in the future to be able to consume in an emergency makes no difference economically.

It’s very hard to understand Mr. Worstall’s point of view here, but in the real world saving money versus borrowing money for an emergency are two very different things. If I saved $100 a month over ten months I would at least be earning some interest, and foregoing $25 a week is a minor sacrifice. If I had to pay back a $1000 loan over ten months, I would accrue a good deal of interest depending on the source (credit card, payday loans, mafia).

Another reason why saving is preferable to borrowing is that going into debt exposes you to additional volatility by making you depend on your future actions. Imagine, if you will, that you are in a sense three “selves”—a past self, a present self, and a future self. To save money is to forego consumption in the present in order to benefit future!you. To borrow money is to put a burden on future!you in order to be relieved of a present burden.

If you got into an accident and had to save money, you would be depending on past!you. Past!you is a dependable guy. Maybe he made some mistakes, but you generally know what’s up with him. Depending on future!you is risky. Future!you is an unknown. Maybe good things might happen to future!you, maybe bad things. Depending on future!you will expose you to additional risk of harm from volatility, and what is an emergency but one result of volatility? (For further reading, read the works of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.)

Of course, there are some people who manage to game the system and effectively utilize credit cards. The Planet Money episode The Art of Living at the Poverty Line features a woman who takes advantage of zero-interest credit card deals and managed to fund a weekend vacation for herself and her son despite making only $16,000 a year. These people are outliers, and we should not deduce general principles from them. Rather, to say that it’s okay for people to not have an emergency fund because they can borrow is like throwing gasoline onto the fire of debt burning up the earnings of millions of Americans.

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La fuerza católica

This is the second part of the “Three Baptisms” series. Click here for Part 1.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest said as he poured water over my head from a scoop shaped like a seashell. It was the Easter Vigil of 2003, and I had just become a Roman Catholic.

My interest in Catholicism began when I was around fifteen. My earlier, cruder ideological leanings turned into a more nuanced interest in traditionalist conservatism, and through perusing the traditional conservatism webpage I started reading about the Catholic Church. I was also a big fan of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, that “extreme conservative arch-liberal” who was very prolific at least in the earlier decades of the nascent New Right movement in America.

I briefly considered Eastern Orthodoxy, and even called up the local Greek church and left a message, but did not receive a call back. Come to think of it, I might not have left my number. In the end, I embraced Catholicism because it I thought it was more Western, and the sophisticated theological ideas and hierarchal structure were attractive to me.

It took me a while to reach this conclusion, and in fact I wavered in my religious convictions toward the end of my high school years, to the point of considering myself a deist. At heart, however, I was a believer, and by the time I entered college I decided to take the plunge.

At the local parish I enrolled in RCIA classes. RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, is a formal program developed by the Catholic bishops in America to bring in adult converts. Every Sunday I would go to these classes where the catechists would expound on one or the other aspects of their religion. I don’t remember much of it, to be honest, and found it rather lacking in substance. The two things I do remember is one catechist saying that the Church is not the BUILDING, but the PEOPLE, and another catechist denying the Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God.

I dropped off attending classes but then came back again and decided to enter the Roman Church. Since I considered myself already baptized I expected to be confirmed but the parish secretary requested a baptismal certificate. Since the Protestant church into which I was first baptized did not believe in the sacramental power of baptism, there was no baptismal certificate. I ended up being baptized on the night of Holy Saturday due to a clerical oversight.

After becoming Catholic I became a bit more vocally religious, and started being obnoxious to my secular college friends. I didn’t make any Catholic friends because I hopped around instead of sticking to just one parish. Plus, my interests in Catholic culture, love of reading G. K. Chesterton, and fanatical devotion to the pope did not find much of a response even among Catholics.

I loved the fact that I was in a church with more than a billion people and had such a long and venerable past. Plus, since I have Filipino and Portuguese ancestry, I considered myself to be following the religion of my forefathers. But the actual lived practice of Catholicism in its post-Vatican II form conflicted with my idealized construct of Catholicism. For example, I loved watching the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Vatican and listening to the beautiful Gregorian chant, but when I went to church, this is what I got:

It was at this point that I started becoming interested in Eastern forms of worship and liturgy. My only interaction with the Orthodox had been with them as intellectual opponents online. I perceived them to be stubborn in not realizing that there was no serious difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Why not just submit to the Pope? I did like their music, however, and started listening to Ancient Faith Radio.

In January 2007, I visited a small Ukrainian Catholic parish, St. Sophia’s. It was made up of only one family plus a few visitors, and worship was held in a tiny chapel attached to a Catholic school. I do not think the parish exists anymore. I thought the liturgy there very beautiful, though rather simply sung. Nobody had music, and the congregation just kind of sang whatever melody they knew. That made me wonder what the proper way to do things was. To investigate, I decided to visit the Greek church.

Resources for new deacons

His Grace Bishop Nicholas ordained me a deacon of the Eastern American Diocese (ROCOR) on March 6th of this year, which happened to fall on Meatfare Sunday. I had no vacation days to spend at my job, and there was not much of a chance of me going up to Jordanville for an extended period of time (the best way to learn is serving liturgy there for forty days). So, I had to make do on my own. Here’s what I did:

    1. Consult with more experienced clergy, whether through communicating with them through email or Facebook, or serving with them when I had the chance. Deliberate practice is the best way to learn, and that requires feedback from more experienced people.
    2. Watch YouTube videos. I’m a visual learner, which means that I learn best through watching an actual demonstration. I put together a slowly-growing playlist of videos depicting practical liturgics. The most valuable set of videos is a set of three from a Russian seminary showing the actions of the priest and deacon at liturgy. The videos are in Russian, but if you know the flow of the liturgy you can figure out what is going on. Of course, the issue with this is that liturgics differs according to jurisdiction and region.
    3. Find books online. The most useful book I found online is this handbook for deacons. It has lists of things to cense (again, this differs according to local custom; consult your local professional) and fancy diagrams. The only problem is that it is written in Russian. The closest equivalent in English is the late Fr. Gregory Woolfenden’s Practical Handbook for Divine Services.

 

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Diagram from A Handbook for Newly-Ordained Deacons showing the order of censing during the Sixth Hour.

There are many other resources out there, especially Protodeacon Eugene Kallaur’s site. Digging around a bit (and knowing a little Russian) will yield good results. Of course, if you are not in the Russian Church you may need different resources.

I am just starting out, but what helps is to study, to practice, and of course, to pray.

Learning languages

I will continue the “Three Baptisms” series sometime this week. In the meantime here is a post about my current activities.

Since graduating from seminary, I’ve felt the need to exercise my brain. My job is not mentally challenging and I have a half-hour commute. So, I decided to take up learning Russian and Japanese again.

Русский язык

For Russian, I started using Pimsleur language tapes borrowed from the library. These tapes seemed to be geared toward businessmen who want to hit on women, but all the same there is a good deal of useful information. There are three levels with thirty half-hour lessons in each level; I am in the middle of Level II. The problem with Pimsleur is that it is purely conversational and there is no formal teaching of grammar. I am also a visual learner and do not like not seeing the words I am pronouncing.

Thankfully there is another free resource available from my library called Mango Languages. Mango covers the same conversational ground as Pimsleur but has grammatical notes in each lesson. Plus, I can actually see what I’m saying.

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The color coding quickly helps me pick out the corresponding words.

I took Russian for two years in seminary: my first and last year. In between we had no instruction due to the lack of an instructor. Thus the lack of conversational Russian. I think that it is a good thing for clergymen of the Russian Church (and in fact, laypeople in general) to get at least a knowledge of conversational Russian. Having a reading knowledge of Russian is even better, because it opens up a whole world of Orthodox texts. You can’t find St. John Chrysostom’s works published in full in English, but there are 20-volume sets in Russian. Holy Trinity Bookstore has a basement full of Russian books waiting to be read.

After “graduating” from Pimsleur and Mango I hope to start studying the New Penguin Russian Course again and build up my vocabulary.

日本語

I studied Japanese formally from 2001 to 2006. I lived in Japan for most of 2004. I retain a high-intermediate level of Japanese, but it is frustrating to sort of but not really know a language. Today I tried listening to some Japanese podcasts. Interspersed with things I understood were a whole lot of unknowns. Japanese is not as useful as Russian to me at this point in my life, but I still love the language.

Right now I want to at least be able to read Japanese texts (books, news articles, and yes, manga). To that end I started using this great site called Read the Kanji, which bills itself as “The fun, simple study method designed to help you learn to read Japanese.” Read the Kanji presents the kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) in context, teaching 7000 words in the process.

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The word for “nap” (昼寝) is highlighted in the sentence, and I have to write the correct reading (ひるね, hirune) in the box.

The kanji are arranged according to five levels corresponding to the five levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test—N5 is easy, N1 is hard. There is also a sixth level of yojijukugo or four-character idiomatic compounds (ex. 一石二鳥, lit. “one stone, two birds,” from the English proverb).

Mango also has a Japanese course but it is pretty easy stuff. What is more interesting is the Mango Premiere feature, which allows me to learn Japanese through watching films (there are currently two movies available).

Learning Russian and Japanese is fun and mentally stimulating, and is already bearing some good fruit: sometimes I speak Russian with my wife (and mother-in-law) and I am able to read some Japanese news articles with minimal assistance.

An apocalyptic childhood

“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

I must have said yes because the man asking me took hold of my nose and plunged me backwards into the warm ocean water of Magic Island.

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Magic Island, where I was baptized, is actually a man-made peninsula.

This was me at the age of seven, being baptized into the Evangelical faith. Before that I remember my mother taking me aside and explaining to me that after the age of seven we start to get “dirty” and need a “washing.” For a few days after my baptism I remember counting the days afterward and trying not to sin (too much).

I was baptized at that age because it was the “age of reason”—the church we attended did not accept infant baptism. As a baby I had a “dedication ceremony,” at which my mother promised to raise me up as a good Christian. I think she had done well enough, at least to take me and my brother to church, and to teach us Bible stories. I used to love reading the Picture Bible she gave me, and instead of longing to be a superhero I wanted to be like Moses and Elijah, parting vast bodies of water, running faster than chariots, etc.

Somewhere along the line came a fascination with premillennarian eschatology—the end times. I remember several times when I was deathly afraid that I had been “left behind” in the Rapture. When I was older I remember reading and obsessing over books written by Hal Lindsey. Lindsey interpreted the Scriptures to fit to current events, and once predicted in his book The Late, Great Planet Earth that we would see the End of Days within one generation (forty years) after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

Following Lindsey, I thought that the European Union was the precursor to the renewed Roman Empire (I guess minus the UK now) that would be ruled over by the Antichrist. I also once tried to predict when the end would come. Christ said that no one knows the “day or the hour,” which I in my literalism interpreted to mean that I could predict the year and even the month. By some formula I predicted that the Rapture would come in mid-summer 1996. To my dismay the day and hour did not come (nothing happened at all that summer) and I felt the most disappointed about this while having to run during PE class the next school year

At some point my apocalyptic fervor commingled with a strong certainty that I was one of the Elect. I was overjoyed to be guaranteed a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. My renewed sense of piety inspired some idiosyncratic practices such as going without solid food from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Never mind that no-one ever fasted like that.

Unfortunately, this “Once Saved, Always Saved” mentality came with an antinomianism which turned me into a jerk. My duty was to evangelize the lost at my middle school through preaching and outward displays of piety. I spoke vehemently and tactlessly against Mormons, Catholics, and other heretics as judged by the Gospel According to Jack Chick. I passed out “contracts” which said something like “I, the undersigned, accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” etc. which I thought granted salvation to anyone who signed. My antinomianism took an anti-sacramental turn; at one point I stopped believing that any kind of sacrament or symbolic rite was necessary for Christians today, and adopted other stranger doctrines such as hyper-dispensationalism, which denies the relevance of the Gospels to Christians today and valorizes the epistles of St. Paul. In a word, I was in a weird place. I don’t blame my church or anyone else, really. In fact, the more I took part in youth group activities and made friends at church, the more I acted like a well-adjusted person.

After I entered high school, other worldly preoccupations such as participating in Speech and Debate Team, trying (and failing) to get a girlfriend, and doing poorly at school displaced any passion for Protestantism. Despite this, I still was, fundamentally, a believer, and this became the basis for my continued spiritual evolution.

A kind of prologue

Lately I have been thinking: how did I get here? Ten years ago I was fervent convert to Roman Catholicism (la fuerza católica, one college friend labelled me on his AIM buddy list). Fifteen years ago, I was a sort of spiritual seeker. Twenty years ago, I was a fervent “born-again” Christian who thought that literally signing a contract could grant you eternal salvation. In fact, I have been baptized three times into what people consider the three major “branches” of Christianity: Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.*

“The Three Baptisms of John Martin” is a title that has been echoing within me for some time. Yes, this the beginning of a conversion story. I don’t usually read conversion stories, and the only such narrative which sticks in my mind (and which I unequivocally recommend) is St. Augustine’s Confessions. However, I recognize that the conversion narrative can serve as a powerful witness, and St. Augustine provides both the prototype and potential of the format. I am wary of writing my own story, first because I am reluctant to share to the online public some details of my private life which were instrumental to my conversion(s), and second because of the narrative fallacy. Nevertheless, I will begin my story tomorrow with my apocalyptic childhood.

* Before you cry “heretic!” dear reader, I am not an adherent of the branch theory and am using the term in the conventional sense.