“Keeping Stable the Fabric of the World”

everyday-work

The lesson appointed in the Daily Office lectionary for today from the Old Testament, Ecclesiasticus 38: 24-34,  underscores something we all wrestle with from time to time.  Do we continue in our everyday job and life business as usual or do we answer what seems to be a call to do something more.  Is it enough to simply fulfill the requirements of job and family or does God require more in terms of dedicated service to him?  In order to maintain a close relationship to God is it necessary to undertake a virtual second career dedicated to his worship?

When one reads of various clergymen and famous religious sages writing during past ages it strikes us that frequently these persons are at least bi vocational.  They are almost always lawyers, and ordained clergymen, or some such combination.  It is easy to presume that this is a norm and that we should all be this way but Yeshiva bar Sira, author of Ecclesiasticus (also known as the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach) counsels another way.  Of those faithfully following their calling to everyday work he says:

“They do not sit in the judge’s seat, nor do they understand the sentence of judgment; they cannot expound the discipline or judgment, and they are not found using proverbs.  But they keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.  (Emphasis supplied)

While we should always maintain a steady prayer life and commensurate study it is of a comfort to know that in fulfilling our everyday life and work we are also praying and keeping stable the fabric of the world.  Let us not worry about doing more, let us rather worry more about doing what we have been called to do well and with reverence.

 

A reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus [38:24-34]

38:24 The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; and he who has little business may become wise.
38:25 How can he become wise who handles the plow, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls?
38:26 He sets his heart on plowing furrows, and he is careful about fodder for the heifers.
38:27 So too is every craftsman and master workman who labors by night as well as by day; those who cut the signets of seals, each is diligent in making a great variety; he sets his heart on painting a lifelike image, and he is careful to finish his work.
38:28 So too is the smith sitting by the anvil, intent upon his handiwork in iron; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he wastes away in the heat of the furnace; he inclines his ear to the sound of the hammer, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he is careful to complete its decoration.
38:29 So too is the potter sitting at his work and turning the wheel with his feet; he is always deeply concerned over his work, and all his output is by number.
38:30 He moulds the clay with his arm and makes it pliable with his feet; he sets his heart to finish the glazing, and he is careful to clean the furnace.
38:31 All these rely upon their hands, and each is skilful in his own work.
38:32 Without them a city cannot be established, and men can neither sojourn nor live there.
38:33 Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. They do not sit in the judge’s seat, nor do they understand the sentence of judgment; they cannot expound discipline or judgment, and they are not found using proverbs.
38:34 But they keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.

THE PEN (AND THE MOUTH) ARE MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD

whispering-angels
Whispering Angel by Agostino Carracci

A meditation on Ecclesiasticus 28:14-26

In this world of practiced falsehood and deceit on every level what is a Christian to do?  Salesmen habitually make false claims about the nature of their products.  Businessmen habitually misrepresent the terms of business arrangements.  Political candidates habitually use the weapons of falsehood and half-truth to prove their worthiness to be elected and to show how their opponents are unworthy of election.

All too often I catch myself lapsing into these common practices and find myself judging others and relaying assumptions about them in order to either enlarge myself or diminish them in order to achieve a business or social goal.  In the practice of law, and many other professions, this is considered the norm.  But as the lesson from Ecclesiasticus points out this is a dangerous business not only because we hurt others but also because we hurt ourselves. It was once described to me “as akin to taking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy “.  It requires that we step outside our skins and recognize that man (in the broad sense) is more than a simple biological being in need of material comforts but also a being that possesses a immortal soul which also requires nourishment and protection.

In the lesson from Ecclesiasticus our teacher Joshua (or my preference: Yeshiva) ben Sira (Hebrew for Jesus son of Sirach) talks about slander and its immense power to wreck destruction upon ourselves and others.  Slander in legal parlance is a form of tort (a personal wrong) that constitutes spoken language which is false and has the effect of injuring the reputation of another.  Its sister tort is libel which is made up of similar types of statements but written as opposed to spoken. What Yeshiva is talking about, however, may or may not rise to the level of a legal action but still exerts immense destructive effect upon the soul of the one spoken about and also upon the soul of the one doing the speaking.

Yeshiva counsels “Slander has shaken many, scattered them from nation to nation and destroyed strong cities and over turned houses of great men”.  “Whoever pays heed to slander will not find rest, nor will he settle down in peace.  The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.” Yeshiva advises us to protect ourselves and to avoid slander and, speaking metaphorically, he advises to “See that you fence in your property with thorns, lock up your silver and gold, make balances for your words, and make a door and a bolt for your mouth (emphasis added).  He ends the passage with a chilling phrase “Beware lest you err with your tongue, lest you fall before him who lies in wait”.  This phrase is reminiscent of a phrase used in the office of Compline taken from 1 Peter 5:8-9a “Be sober, be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith.”

The eighth commandment of the Decalogue states: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” Exodus 20:16.  John Calvin suggests that behind this proscription is the “assumption that the inability to speak truthfully to one another has everything to do with our inability to speak truthfully of God.” In his institutes Calvin says:

…To sum up, then: let us not malign anyone with slanders or false charges, nor harm his substance by falsehood, in short injure him by unbridled evil speaking and imprudence.  To this prohibition the command is linked that we should faithfully help everyone as much as we can in affirming the truth, in order to protect the integrity of his name and possessions. (Institutes 411).

And, in Chapter 10 of The Imitation of Christ Thomas a Kempis writes that we should avoid “superfluous words “ as the “end result of gossip about things we like or dislike only leaves us with a guilty conscience.”

Therefore next time I find myself passing along information about someone which may, or may not,  be true I am going to take heed and endeavour to practice Yeshiva’s advice and “make a bolt” for my mouth not just for the sake of the person I am speaking about but also for the sake of my soul as well.  This can be hard in 21st century sound bite America but essential to our salvation.

ON THE SACREDNESS OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

blue-bloods
The Family Regan Discuss Police Business and the Catholic Catechism along with the Princples of the Constitution of the United States

Over the past few months my wife, Jana, and I have developed the habit of watching the TV series Blue Bloods.  Now let me say at the outset that TV dramas or comedies are hard for me as I find the superciliousness of them to be absolutely nerve racking.  But, after a series of sessions in which I conditioned myself to watch the family Regan do battle with the issues of our time, through police eyes, I developed a true affection for the dinner table repartee in which the family works its way through the juxtaposition of real life material events and a philosophic panoply consisting  among other things of the principles embodied in the Constitution of the United States and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Id (ala Sigmund Freud) of the group is the Danny character the son of police commissioner Regan, a police detective himself that is street wise and hardened to the reality that most people will do wrong if the opportunity presents itself.  The counter weight to Danny’s gutter philosophy is Erin and Jamie, Erin is the no nonsense ADA (Assistant District Attorney) who combines her no nonsense demeanor with the compassion of a Saint. Jamie is a Harvard educated juris doctor (lawyer) who has decided that his service as a policeman will have a much greater impact than if he joined a Wall Street law firm,   or it could be just fear of the bar exam,  to which I can easily relate.

Each episode contains a family discussion of some issue (like gun control, abortion, or diplomatic immunity) which brings the family into conference over how to reconcile their Catholic faith with what has to be done in the “real world”.  Frank (short for Francis Xavier) , the police commissioner patriarch played by Tom Selleck,  always resolves the issue with an ex cathedra pronouncement which somewhat resembles a cross between the wisdom of Solomon and the prophet Jeremiah.

One recent episode in particular struck a nerve.  It seems a “peace group” had decided to hold a rally protesting a war, or an intervention,  or something,  and the police found out that the leader had decided to burn a United States national flag as a way of impressing upon the public the seriousness of the protest. Now Francis, the commissioner, was worried that such an act would touch off a great deal of violence as many veterans and family of veterans would be deeply offended by an act such as a flag burning.

It turns out Frank’s suspicions were confirmed not by an outbreak of violence in the streets but rather by a member of his own close knit group within One PP ( One Police Place).  Detective Gormley the chief of D’s (detectives) was asked by Frank to infiltrate the protesters to provide needed intel and to make sure that potential violence was eliminated or at least held to a minimum.  Well, Gormley,  in effect,  refused the assignment on the basis that his family had lost any number of its members in defense of the flag and he was not about to be part of witnessing its desecration through a burning.

At this point Frank made it clear to detective Gormley that he was not issuing a “request” but rather an order.  Gormley  with reluctance “stood down” realizing that in the end Frank was the commissioner and his boss.  As it turns out Frank had engaged in a stratagem to prevent any potential violence from occurring as well as preventing the flag burning.  He was able to have the venue of the protest transferred to the very cemetery where the leader’s father, a distinguished war hero, was buried.  It was Frank’s hope that the son would not dishonor his father by burning the very flag the father had died for at the site of his burial.  And it turned out he was right.  There was no flag burning and no violence and all was well as it ended well.

Next day Gormley was in the commissioner’s office with no hesitation in his praise of the commissioner’s strategy. Apologizing for the appearance of any disrespect he was cut short by Frank’s immediate response.  I knew you meant no disrespect and “I know that you and your family had endured more than your share of sacrifice which is a scared thing – but what we do here is no less sacred”.

It is this last line which cuts me to the quick.   As Christians we like to think of “sacred things” as being those things and those people we associate with the “Church”.  We see the work of Bishops, Priests and Deacons as sacred as we see icons, the consecrated host, and the work of the Saints as sacred.  But, what we many times fail to see is the sacredness of our own lives in living out the life to which God has called us though his son Jesus.

We can re-unify the Christian Church and bind together it’s leaders, and its theology but does that really move us closer to our fulfilling our calling as Christian people? I think Frank has hit on something here.  Whatever you may be Pope, Cardinal, Archbishop, Priest, Deacon, Lawyer, Doctor, Police Commissioner, Patrolman, Parent or Plumber you are called by God to fulfill his expectation for you.  So be glad and be heartened that no matter what your occupation or station in life you are in the eyes of God a “sacred creature” performing a “sacred” calling which is as important as any other calling there is.

We thank you Frank (and those who created you) for reminding us that even the “least of us” are worthy of the kingdom of heaven because we are called to fulfill our respective callings in  ways pleasing to God and that these acts are sacred however humble we may think they may be.

 

 

 

Thinking about death

BEFORE I DIE….The Very Reverend Blakley Thompson holds points to a stop sign which brings clarity to all our lives… how would you complete this phrase Before I Die …..

God in the Midst of the City

After a long and wasting sickness, a man lay dying in his bed.  He hadn’t been the best of husbands.  He’d been an inattentive spouse, and his relationship with his wife often had been rocky, but as he lay dying the man suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs.  Smiling faintly, he gathered his strength, lifted himself from bed, and slowly made his way out of the bedroom.  With great effort he climbed downstairs, gripping the railing with both hands.

With labored breath, the man leaned against the door frame and gazed into the kitchen.  He thought he might already be in heaven, for there before him on the kitchen table were dozens upon dozens of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.  Was this heaven, or was this an act of heroic love from a devoted wife, determined to coax her husband back to…

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A LAYMAN’S OPINION CONCERNING THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH

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I have just finished reading a rather remarkable and very interesting interview in CRUX a Roman Catholic Publication the title to which reads “Pope in Sweden Could Break Ground on Intercommunion”.  You can find it here: https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2016/10/21/pope-sweden-break-ground-inter-communion-bishop-says/

The article is  an interview with English Roman Catholic Bishop William Kenney auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham who is one of the key figures in the Roman Catholic Church working on a reunited Christendom and who is co-chair of the international dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The interview centers on the upcoming five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation to be held in Lund, Sweden on All Hallows Eve (The Eve of All Saints Day) October 31, 2017.  His Holiness Pope Francis will be participating in the commemoration and Bishop Kenney is hoping that the Pope will use the opportunity to put forth a gesture concerning church unity in general and inter-communion with Lutherans in particular.

Bishop Kenney after discussing the recent official pronouncements resulting from ecumenical dialogues such as the Joint Declaration on Justification,  Ut Unum Sint, and Evangelii Gaudium  makes, what is to me, an incredible statement:

I think it’s very important that people know that the Reformation was a great misunderstanding, we all got it wrong, on both sides, and we’ve lifted excommunications and condemnations and apologized. So we can all be friends.

To me, an Episcopal layman, it is a hard concept to accept but one I would like to believe is indeed a reality.  And I have always suspected that mutual ignorance, misunderstanding, suspicion and isolation have perpetuated a division which should have ended many years ago.

However, one thing seems very clear to me and that is that this Pope, Francis, is in the words of the interviewer: “famously impatient with theological dialogue”. The question goes on to characterize the Pope as not being against such dialogue but rather “convinced you need to act together to create spaces for the Holy Spirit to act, and that’s what will bring about the unity.”  We saw this belief put into action during the recent meeting of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury in which the Pope and the Archbishop sent out teams of Roman Catholic and Anglican Bishops to perform various missions together. It reminds, somewhat, of the Elizabethan settlement concept of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi meaning the law of prayer is the law of belief.  Of course that was in a completely different context and was enforced by the power of the state.  In the present instance the idea is that working together will promote learning about each other so as to remove the barriers at the bottom which have for the most part been removed at the top.  And, as we all should be aware our prejudices gradually become instruments of comfort, sort of best friends, which we find extremely difficult to relinquish even when we know that is high time we send them away. Dismissing preconceived notions will take more than theological agreement amongst theologians and professional churchmen.  It is at the lay level that the real unification will come through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

This brings me to a personal story and a witness as to how different Christian groups working together can bring about a unity of action, worship and belief. Some years ago, too many to comfortably recount, I was involved with a group called Homeworks.  At the time Homeworks consisted of young people,  generally of high school age,  who volunteered their time to assist low income, aged, and ill persons in the maintenance of their homes. Many people in this category find themselves unable to either financially or physically maintain their homes which then become condemned by municipal authorities resulting in eviction and in many cases homelessness.   In these situations Homeworks steps in and provides repair services to bring the home up to code so that the residents might continue to live there.

During this time the two main groups involved in Homeworks were Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.  It became the custom to begin each work session with common prayer of some kind. Sometimes we read the Morning Office from the Liturgy of the Hours and sometimes from the Book of Common Prayer.   As time went on and we all got to know each other in the most splendid fashion the director became convinced we needed to have a common Mass.  After much negotiation with the authorities in the respective churches a plan was worked out.  The plan involved separate consecrations of communion wafers one by an Episcopal Priest and one by a Roman Catholic Priest.  The wafers were them kept in separate ciboria ( a receptacle shaped like a shrine or a cup with an arched cover, used in the Christian Church for the reservation of the Eucharist) under lock and key to make sure there was no “intermingling”.  When the appointed time arrived joint prayers were said by two lay officiants one Episcopalian and the other Roman Catholic.  I was privileged to be the Episcopal lay officiant with our director being the Roman Catholic lay officiant.

All proceeded smoothly until we came to the distribution of the wafers.  We formed two lines, one for Episcopalians, and one for Roman Catholics.  I feel sure, though I do not remember it, that a very solemn pronouncement was made that should one venture into the “wrong line” something akin to  eternal damnation was sure to ensue.  But this Mass took place about seven thirty a.m. and the attention span of high schoolers, even in the best of conditions and when threatened with hell fire, might not be what it should be.  There were initially five young people in my line and twenty five in my co-officiant’s line and then something happened.  My line began to grow and soon there were over fifteen in my line.  At the time I assumed these young people had awakened enough to realize that they were in the wrong line but even so I tried to gain the attention of my co-officiant in order to place him on notice of the situation, but to no avail. As it turned out I gave communion to a fair number of Roman Catholics that day and my co-officiant may have served several Episcopalians as well.   After all it is to be expected that young people with things to do look for the smallest line to get in and, considerations of “real presence ” and “transubstantiation” to the contrary notwithstanding, a “wafer is a wafer”, Episcopal or Roman Catholic, they all look alike, and taste the same.

Looking back on this now it seems humorous but at the time it was purgatory with a vengeance. The Roman Catholic parents were “not amused” and I am sure both Bishops endured a good deal of heartburn over it.  However, I have always suspected that Bishop Baker and Bishop Henderson had gotten together and had a good laugh about it. After reading the interview with Bishop Kenney in Crux I feel certain that Pope Francis would have heartily approved.

So perhaps the Churches are finally on the road to reunification through a method which has proven effective in practice.  Agreeing on theology is not enough. We must share the burden of service with our brothers and sisters in order to get to know and eventually love them as we do ourselves.  Perhaps the phrase Lex labora, lex credenda describes this method aptly: The rule of our common work shall be the rule of our belief and worship.

We pray Lord that we all may be one and that we do not allow our preconceived notions about our brethren, or our ignorance of them,  keep us from embracing them as our brothers and sisters so that we might truly become a people who share one bread, one cup.  Amen.

CLINTON AND TRUMP TOGETHER ON THE ESTATE TAX?

the-repeal
The Repeal -The authors of the Stamp Act carry the repealed law to its grave.

 I recently attended the Duke University Estate Planning Conference and the future of estate planning and of estate planning professionals was aptly summed up by one of the speakers: Mr. Paul Lee, Esq. of the Northern Trust Company who made the statement that estate planning is no longer a staid and predictable  practice with set and traditional techniques – it is now more complex, and exciting, because it now requires  the practitioner to interrelate a complex web of rules governing the taxation of individuals, partnerships and other business entities, fiduciary income tax dealing with trusts and estates as well as estate and gift taxes themselves.  On top of that a thorough knowledge of state law concerning trusts and estates is absolutely mandatory.

The article reproduced below from the prestigious journal Trusts and Estates was written by Charlie Douglas and discusses the one aspect of the Clinton and Trump tax plans which are strikingly similar, that is:  the elimination of what is referred to as the “step up in basis ” which, under present rules,  has the effect of sheltering vast amounts of untaxed appreciation.  With the elimination of the step up the beneficiaries of large estates will find themselves taxed on all of the appreciation which has built up in assets such as real property and investments without any reduction.  It is somewhat of a cruel joke as the Trump plan promises to eliminate the death tax while at the same time imposing one of the largest increases in income taxation in history.

What is the Death Tax?

 The Internal Revenue Code imposes a transfer tax called respectively an estate tax and a gift tax which imposes a tax on the transfer of wealth.  It is not a tax on inheritances but a tax on the value of the property transferred by someone either during life or at death.  Presently each person receives an exemption of $5.43 million dollars with an unlimited deduction for transfers to a spouse or to a charity.  That means one with a six million dollar estate can transfer the entire estate to a spouse and pay no estate tax.  On the death of the second spouse to die that spouse also receives an equivalent exemption and transfer another 5.43 million dollars tax free.

The opponents of the estate tax like to refer to it as the “death tax” and they argue that having paid tax on the earnings used to accumulate property during life the same property should not be taxed again at death.  However, the problem is that the earnings used to purchase property does not take into account the vast appreciation which occurs after the asset is acquired.  Under present rules the accumulated value (appreciation) in the assets of an estate simply passes untaxed. And, it is that appreciation which both Trump and Clinton seek to tax.  So caveat emptor.

 When It Comes to Estate Tax, Clinton and Trump Surprisingly Agree

Both nominees would do away with step-up in basis on inherited assets

Oct 5, 2016 Charlie Douglas | Trusts & Estates

At first glance, it seems we have two polar opposite estate tax plans. Trump wants to repeal the estate tax and Clinton wants to pointedly increase it from where it is today. But a closer look at each plan reveals one striking commonality.

Clinton: The One-Two Transfer Tax Punch

Clinton joined President Barack Obama and other Democrats in proposing to restore the estate tax to 2009 parameters ($3.5 million exemption). Last month, she borrowed a page from Senator Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) estate tax playbook when she abandoned her previous proposal for a 45 percent top estate tax rate in favor of taxing estates of individuals as follows: over $10 million at 50 percent; over $50 million at 55 percent; and over $500 million at 65 percent.

Like President Obama, Clinton also vows to close the “step-up in basis loophole” that lets accumulated capital gains go untaxed when appreciated assets are passed on to heirs. Instead, her plan will treat bequests as “realization events,” forcing immediate income taxation of any built-in gains. Purportedly, Clinton’s plan will include exemptions to ensure the change only affects high-income families. Moreover, her plan is proffered to contain protections and flexibility for small and closely held businesses, farms and homes, and personal property and family heirlooms.

Still, the one-two transfer tax punch could hit high-income-earning and affluent families hard. In addition to a 65 percent top estate tax rate, consider that Clinton’s top marginal tax rate for capital gains assets held less than two years could be 47.4 percent (39.6 percent marginal tax rate + 3.8 percent net investment income tax + 4 percent surtax on incomes over $5 million). If her proposals were enacted into law, this punitive combination could produce a top marginal transfer tax rate in excess of 80 percent—the highest of any industrialized nation in the world!

Trump: Goodbye, Death Tax! Hello, Carry-Over Basis?

Joining many Republicans before him, Trump has consistently campaigned on ending the unpopular death tax. Until last month, however, he had been mum on the viability of also retaining the step-up in basis for appreciated assets that are inherited.

At this time, Trump plans to repeal the death tax, but capital gains held until death and valued over $10 million would be subject to tax (small businesses and family farms exempted). Furthermore, to prevent abuse, contributions of appreciated assets into a private charity established by the decedent or the decedent’s relatives will be disallowed.

As proposed, the Trump plan, like Clinton’s, is short on a number of important specifics. The plan doesn’t mention whether the $10 million exemption is per individual (likely $5 million) or per married couple. Additionally, one is left to assume that when the death tax is repealed, it likewise repeals the gift and generation-skipping tax too. Last of all, if death taxes are to be repealed in their entirety, then there need be an inferred carry-over basis on inherited appreciated assets that will result in a capital gains tax only upon a future realization event. If that’s not the case, there would be a deemed disposition tax on the asset’s appreciation similar to Clinton’s plan, but at a much reduced capital gains tax rate of 20 percent for assets which have been held for more than one year.

For his part, Trump appears to be following in the footsteps of former presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s estate/capital gains tax tradeoff and away from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady’s (R-Texas), whose bill (H.R. 1105) in 2015 called for a repeal of the estate tax, but kept the stepped-up basis intact.

Is the Stepped-Up Basis Slip-Slidin’ Away? 

Surprisingly, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump agree on doing away with the step-up in basis for inherited assets. However, they may differ on the timing of the realization of gain (Clinton at death; Trump possibly at a future disposition). It’s worth noting that in some cases, and depending upon the then-existing top capital gains tax rate, the loss of the step-up in basis for a highly appreciated asset could be more onerous than the estate transfer tax on the same asset.

Presently, Internal Revenue Code 1014 (Basis of property acquired from a decedent) generally provides that the basis of property in the hands of a person acquiring the property from a decedent shall be the fair market value of the property at the date of the decedent’s death, thereby limiting the amount of capital gains tax due at a future point in time.

For example, let’s assume that a parent leaves a capital asset (such as stock, real estate, etc.) to their children that is valued at $1 million on the date they pass away and the adjusted cost basis of the property is $100,000. The $900,000 of capital gains tax imposed on a disposition during decedent’s life wouldn’t have to be borne by the children upon inheritance. The children will only be responsible for gains that might occur from the point they inherit the asset until the time the asset is sold.

While a carry-over cost basis was codified into law in 1976, it was later repealed in 1980 due to the administrative nightmares in actually determining what the carry-over basis was. Today, however, we may be better equipped to handle the challenge of tracking basis. After all, advancements in modern technology now make it easier for estates to calculate carry-over basis, particularly in the area of investment assets. Computers and quarterly investment statements readily provide clients with cost basis information. Similarly, the Internal Revenue Service already has an individual’s annual taxable gain and/or loss from the sale of marketable securities in its database.

Yes, our administrative world would become more cumbersome if the step-up in basis were no more. But keep in mind, the world didn’t blow up in 2010 when the executor of a decedent could elect to use the modified carry-over of basis rules (inheritors could receive up to $1.3 million in stepped-up basis and the surviving spouses could add an additional $3 million). Moreover, Canada, which has had no estate or gift tax, has not fallen off the fiscal cliff for failing to track the cost basis in deemed dispositions (as though the donor/decedent sold the property for its fair market value) in taxing assets for income tax purposes on transfers to heirs.

Still, weren’t matters surrounding our tax transfer tax system supposed to have largely been put to rest back in 2012?

ATRA’s Provisions—Permanent or Gone With the Wind?

The American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) purportedly established several permanent rules for the estate and gift tax system.

Bold captions in ATRA appear as follows:

PERMANENT EXTENSION AND MODIFICATION OF 2001 TAX RELIEF

MAXIMUM ESTATE TAX RATE EQUAL TO 40 PERCENT

ATRA aspired to permanently establish the exemption amount at $5 million and to index that number for inflation. Importantly, the exemption amount was to continue to apply for both estate and gift tax purposes. Correspondingly, the maximum estate tax rate was permanently set at 40 percent.

While ATRA’s provisions were stated to be “permanent,” perhaps this meant that its provisions would not automatically sunset to the less favorable provisions of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001.

Although the exemption and tax rate were to have been set in permanent tax law, bills like H.R. 1105 have been introduced to eliminate the death tax. Transfer tax plans like Clinton’s and Trump’s seek to further dismantle ATRA’s longevity.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, good tax policy requires predictable tax provisions to allow people to plan their financial/estate affairs properly. When the near-term outlook of any tax law is wildly uncertain, it makes proper planning next to impossible.

Buckle Up!

As we approach the end of the year things could get a bit bumpy. Neither Clinton’s nor Trump’s proposals stand much chance of succeeding in their present form. The Republicans presently control Congress, but the Democrats can block their action in the Senate.

Clinton, who currently leads in the polls, promises to close complex loopholes, including methods that people can now use to make their estates appear to be worth less than they really are. She believes that there’s essentially a “private tax system” for the wealthiest Americans that lets them lower their tax bill by billions, while working families play by the rules and pay their fair share.

Presumably, such complex loopholes might include the Treasury’s proposed regulations under Internal Revenue Code Section 2704, where the Treasury seeks to significantly curtail almost all minority (lack of control) discounts in transferring closely held entity interests, including active businesses owned by a family. But do such “complex loopholes” include a qualified personal residence trust, a technique that the Clinton family availed themselves of for their Chappaqua home back in 2010?

Will the political horse trading ultimately result in the repeal of the death tax in exchange for the loss of the step-up in basis for inherited property? Might a more enduring choice between an estate tax or capital gains tax—mirrored after 2010—be a better compromise for farmers and small business owners rather than forcing them to pay either or both taxes? Perhaps the optionality of an estate tax or a carry-over in basis would be a more prudent plan to encourage capital formation during one’s lifetime.

It appears that planners will be busy in an estate tax world that continues to be divergent and unpredictable. Maybe that’s one more thing that Clinton and Trump might actually agree upon.

14 October The Feast of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, Bishop of Shanghai, 1906.

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The Testimony of the Cross, Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet (1717) see below
O God, in your providence you called Joseph Schereschewsky to the ministry of this Church and upheld him in his infirmity, that he might translate the Holy Scriptures into Chinese languages: Inspire us, by his example and prayers, to commit our talents to your service, confident that you uphold those whom you call; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

For sometime now I have made it a practice to honor, commemorate, and venerate the Saints of the Chruch using the canon of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, or Holy Women, Holy Men both publications of the Episcopal Chruch in the United States.  I like to do this particularly while officiating the Morning and Evening Offices. Last year a young college student came up to me after one of the offices and told me he was particularly impressed with the story about Samuel Issac Joseph Schereschewsky. He was impressed by the fact that he was born into Judaism, was a master of languages particularly Wenli, and by the fact that even in his suffering from severe paralysis in almost his entire body Bishop Schereschewsky (pronounced skĕr-ĕs-kūs’kĭ Chinese: 施約瑟) completed his God given work of translating the Bible into Wenli).

A reprint from Holy Women, Holy Men

The story of Joseph Schereschewsky is unique in the annals of the Church. He was born on May 6, 1831, of Jewish parents, in the Lithuanian town of Tauroggen. His early education was directed toward the rabbinate, but during graduate studies in Germany, he became interested in Christianity through missionaries of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, and through his own reading of a Hebrew translation of the New Testament. In 1854 Schereschewsky immigrated to America and entered the Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh to train for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. After two years, he decided to become an Episcopalian, and to finish his theological studies at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, from which he graduated in 1859. After ordination, and in response to Bishop Boone’s call for helpers in China, Schereschewsky left for Shanghai. Always facile in languages, he learned to write Chinese during the voyage. From 1862 to 1875 he lived in Peking, and translated the Bible and parts of the Prayer Book into Mandarin. After Bishop Williams was transferred to Japan, Schereschewsky was elected Bishop of Shanghai in 1877, and was consecrated in Grace Church, New York City. He established St. John’s University, in Shanghai, and began his translation of the Bible and other works into Wenli. Stricken with paralysis, he resigned his see in 1883. Schereschewsky was determined to continue his translation work, and after many difficulties in finding support, he was able to return to Shanghai in 1895. Two years later, he moved to Tokyo. There he died on October 15, 1906. With heroic perseverance Schereschewsky completed his translation of the Bible, typing some 2,000 pages with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand. Four years before his death, he said, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.” He is buried in the Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo, next to his wife, who supported him constantly during his labors and illness.

Thanks be to God for that young man and his interest as it has inspired me to continue to study the Saints and talk abut them. And thanks be to God for the life of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky which inspires us all.

Art Note:

The painting produced above represents a work created by an artist suffering from severe paralysis.  Like Bishop Schereschewsky Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet did not let his paralysis keep him from  completing his God given tasks. Th above work was completed at a time when he could only use his left hand. More below.

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet (1 May 1644 – 5 April 1717) was a French painter, especially of religious subjects. He was born into an artistic family in Rouen. His first training in art was from his father, Laurent Jouvenet.

Jouvenet early showed remarkable aptitude for his profession, and, on arriving in Paris, attracted the attention of Le Brun, by whom he was employed at Versailles, notably in the Salon de Mars (1671–74), and under whose auspices, in 1675, he became a member of the Académie royale, of which he was elected professor in 1681, and one of the four perpetual rectors in 1707. He also worked under Charles de La Fosse in the Invalides and Trianon.

The great mass of works that he executed, chiefly in Paris, many of which, including his celebrated Miraculous Draught of Fishes are now in the Louvre, show his fertility in invention and execution, and also that he possessed in a high degree that general dignity of arrangement and style which distinguished the school of Le Brun. His compositions are primarily planned as high reliefs, and the movements are in sharp diagonal straight lines rather than in curves.

Jouvenet died on 5 April 1717, having been forced by paralysis during the last four years of his life to work with his left hand.

 

 

The Right Man for The Right Season

turing

A Review of The Imitation Game (2014)

American historical drama thriller film directed by Morten Tyldum, with a screenplay by Graham Moore loosely based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (previously adapted as the stage play and BBC drama Breaking the Code).

 The scene opens in a police interrogation room.  A thin gaunt middle aged man is sitting in a chair behind the interrogation table looking off into the distance as if preoccupied with great thoughts.  The inspector walks in pausing ever so slightly and showing a look of bewilderment at what has come to pass.  He is about to interrogate Alan Turing.  Alan Turing the Cambridge mathematician and professor, who has been arrested on the charge of “public indecency”.  In civilized British parlance that is short for, in this case, solicitation of a prostitute.  But this particular prostitute is a man rather than a woman and a man who has readily confessed his crime.

Having investigated a break-in at professor Turing’s home some days earlier the inspector is very suspicious.  Nothing was stolen from the house and the professor refused to discuss the break-in telling the officers he only needed a good housekeeper and that they should “leave him alone” .  The professor was preoccupied with sweeping up spilled arsenic in a room almost entirely occupied by a giant machine.  Suspicious, suspicious indeed and the flames of suspicion rose higher as the inspector attempted to delve into Turing’s war record only to find his file empty.  Someone, perhaps Turing himself, did not want anyone messing around in his business. To the inspector this fit the pattern of the University Professor/Spy to a tee.  He had heard of many such cases where a highly regarded university professor turned spy and began feeding government secrets to the Soviets. So this interrogation was the inspector’s chance to nail one of these turncoats red handed.

However, the inspector began his inquiry with an odd question:  “Can machines think, Mr. Turing? “  Professor Turing looked up somewhat puzzled and after moving round the subject a bit made it quite clear that yes machines can think but, of course, they think “differently”

We then find ourselves in what is best described as an English Public School setting with young Alan and his best friend, Christopher.  Alan it seems was a bit of the odd ball and was not well liked.  While sorting and counting his peas and carrots during a meal one of his mates dumps a plate of food over his head to the great delight of the other boys.  “They do these things because I am smarter than they are, he tells Christopher.”  “No, Alan”,Christopher responds, they do those things because they “don’t like you.”   It becomes clear that Alan and Christopher are much more than friends.  When Christopher loans Alan a book about ciphers and codes the two boys devise their own code which they later use to pass notes to and from which no one else can understand. And, it is Christopher who facilitates Alan’s first experience with tragedy by dying during a school break leaving Alan alone and bewildered.

Twenty some years pass and it’s 1939.  Great Britain has declared war on Germany.   A younger version of the man we saw in the police station is now sitting in a large paneled office in front of a large mahogany desk.  The door behind him opens and in comes Commander Alastair Denniston of the Royal Navy.   Commander Denniston is a bit flapped by Turing’s presence and inquires “What are you doing in here”.  “Well” says Turing the lady out there told me to wait in here.  The dialogue continues and in the end Turing is hired to work for His Majesty’s Government on something called “Enigma” which is considered to be an unbreakable code through which the German military ties itself together into a cohesive weapon capable of massive destruction.

From here I will leave you to it.  But suffice it to say the Imitation Game is engrossing and thought provoking.  Could it have been a better movie, yes, but it is hard to see how.  Cumberbatch has a knack for portraying brainy eccentric characters that morph into tragic figures who are decidedly unliked and unappreciated.  Turing is no exception.  He  seems to have been doubly cursed by his homosexuality and what must have been a form of Asperger Syndrome.  Unable to recognize social cues he is socially isolated.  He displays his  deepest feelings not for the woman (played by Keira Knightley) who obviously desperately loves him, but rather for the machine he created to break Enigma upon which he bestows the name of his first true love: Christopher.  Despite his pathetique Alan Turing was the right man, for the right job, at the right time.  His work and that of his team shortened world war two by at least two years saving thousands of lives and bringing an end to a true reign of terror.

One last thought.  While not to derogate the contribution of sailors, soldiers and airmen and women everywhere this motion picture presents a different aspect to the typical war movie in that it shows us that even absent minded, slightly odd. professor types can also be warriors who are called upon to display great courage and endure hardship and suffering for their country as well.

I think the operative phrase here is “two thumbs up”!

Can these bones live?

Inwardly Digest

Few things elicit an eye-roll and an internal groan from me more readily than hearing a clergyperson use the word “prophetic.” It is a particularly obnoxious term when used in relation to one’s own ministry. It is usually meant to imply that someone or something is forward thinking or visionary, but part of the problem with this is that the only sure-fire tool to separate the visionary from the delusional is the perspective of time. I was just at a conference with New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson who quipped in his presentation: “You are a prophet after you are dead, while you are still alive you are just an asshole.” It’s a fine line in any event I’m sure.

My biggest problem with the word “prophetic” though is that by constantly using it to describe someone who can foresee the future, we set ourselves up to misread the central…

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SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY HURRICANE

hurrcane-matthew

I can readily image what it must have been like on that Friday – dark foreboding clouds, periodic rain mists, lighting randomly striking, and wind, wind so strong and haunting that it felt like the voice of something immensely powerful and terrifying which was about the gobble up anything in its path.  It must have felt like the kind of something from which there is absolutely no escape and to which resistance is truly futile. But there on the hill stood three narrow poles with figures on them.  The one in the middle seems to have been exuding some special force pulling one’s attention to it like a magnet.  Why? What’s so special about this one, it’s just a man that the Romans have nailed to a cross, some thief perhaps, or worse some murderous rascal finally caught and given his just desserts?

As we South Carolinians prepare once again to face the wrath of another hurricane, this time one aptly named Matthew, we are once again reminded of the terrible power and force of nature.  It is a power capable of massive destruction and a power against which we find ourselves totally helpless.  It is now that we are reminded of the power of an omnipotent God who does in fact have control of the world he created and does at times very much exercise that control.  And, for me, it is times like this when I see images: images like the destroyer silently snaking through the Egyptian streets killing as it goes, of the “Glory of the Lord” in which God appeared to the ancient Hebrews lest they be consumed by fire at the sight of his face,  and of Aaron’s sons who through negligence or misstep failed to properly honor God with their incense and were consumed by fire in an instant.

However, tonight reading an article in the Living Church[1] about a dying wife and the redemptive power of Christ I see other images:  I see the image of an empty tomb, of appearances on the road, and of a doubter who with his hand felt the presence of the living God as he touched his resurrected Son.  As I read this article about Susan these words were particularly striking:

Regardless of lifespan, every human being experiences suffering at one point or another. But there is one important character in that universal story, one that is always there with us, and that character is God. Suffering, at times, causes us to forget or even doubt his presence. It even causes some, unfortunately, to deny his very existence. But the great truth is that God is there with us in the midst of suffering, for he is relational, not aloof or detached, but active in the world and amid the creatures he has made.

The Deists would argue that God is indeed aloof and detached, but I think not.  The evidence overwhelmingly mitigates [2] against such a conclusion.

As we prepare for the worst let us also prepare in our hearts and minds for the best.  From out of the darkness let the light shine and give thanks that through the raw, powerful, forces of nature we experience the omniscient power of our God.  Yes, it is the power to destroy but also the power to create.  With such a friend such as this who, or what, shall we fear?

[1] Montgomery,Christ’s Presence in Suffering A review of Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away by Victor Austin (Brazos, 2016), The Living Church, October 6, 2016

[2] Some would hold that militates should be used here.  But I prefer the Faulknerian mitigates having been raised in the Mississippi County upon which Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County was based. Such use is referred to by some as an “American idiom”.