Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Great Way to Lose Weight

Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Luke 6:25

I stated in a previous post that I would be cogitating and blogging on real, practical ways to help poor people … and then I stopped blogging for about four months, perhaps leaving my reader (Hi, Mom!) with the impression that I had either lost steam with this blog or I didn’t have any bright ideas on the subject. Well, neither is true. I have been steadily working on this idea of how to really help poor people--it was frequently on my mind as we travelled through Bolivia, one of South America's poorest countries--and I do have some more ideas, like microlending that I blogged about some months ago, but I have not been in a season of blogging. So, just waiting for the season to change.

Meanwhile, the above scripture has been buzzing around in my head for some time, aching to be explored more fully. I quoted it to my daughter one day and she said, "Oh, no!" We both thought that was funny--ha ha, woe to us 'cause we are well-fed now! But wait, is God's word something to be taken so lightly?

Is this scripture one of those instances in which Jesus uses hyperbole, or did he actually mean this literally? Are we really headed for an eternity of hunger if we are well fed on earth? We could surely say, "No, God has provided for us abundantly and if it is God that provides the blessing, then it is meant to be enjoyed without fear of eternal penalty!" And further, how could we, sons and daughters of the Most High, go hungry for eternity, or even for a season in eternity? There is no punishment in Heaven, right?

Maybe this scripture means that if you are well fed now and are stingy toward God, then you will go hungry later. I'm recalling here the parable about the rich man who had a good crop and decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold all the harvest, thinking he would be set for some years and could just take it easy. But then God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you." Of him Jesus said, "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." (Read the whole parable in Luke 12.) Can we apply the teaching of this parable to being well fed? Maybe it is OK to have a bounty on your table everyday as long as you are giving God the credit for it, appreciating it, sharing it through acts of hospitality and not failing to give back to God the first fruits of your time and money. After all, we know there were many rich and faith-filled characters in the Bible: Abraham, Isaac, David, Solomon, Jabez and many more. Surely they were well fed! And if they were, could it be wrong for me to be?

Here's a question for you: Do you think that any of the well-fed faithful of the Bible were also overweight? I'm on a tangent here, but it is something God showed me. If you are not well fed, you cannot be overweight. And if you are not overweight, your "temple" is in better shape to be useful to and bring glory to God. Of course, there are genetic factors… but wait, why is it that there are no genetically fat people in the underfed parts of the world? Even a genetic predisposition, or being "big boned," cannot cause a starving person to look fat. Fatness comes from being too "well fed"--end of argument. So for those of us struggling with weight (count me in), this scripture holds a key to weight loss. Stop feeding yourself so well!

This scripture isn't just an indictment of the rotund, however, in fact, it doesn't mention being fat at all. Woe to you if you are well fed probably means having plenty to eat and eating it, regardless of what size you wear. Jesus also "woed" those who are rich now, because they have already received their comfort. So if you are well fed and rich--double your woe!

Double my woe, then, because I am well fed and, though not rich according to U.S. standards, according to the standards of all history and humanity combined--which are the ones I will be judged against--I am rich. I have net worth, clothes to give away and my own private mode of transportation! Okay, so I need to do something about this because I don’t want a double portion of woe. Let’s see what Jesus suggests: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor." Gulp. He follows this up by saying if we do this thing, we will have rewards in heaven (Matt 19:21). So let's add this up: If I am well fed and rich now, I am going to go hungry later and shouldn't be expecting an eternity of comfort, since I have already had mine. However, if I will just sell my possessions and give to the poor, then I won't be rich anymore and I won't be able to feed myself well anymore, cancelling my double woe, and to boot, I'm promised rewards in heaven!

For a person who really has her bearings set on eternity, this seems like a no-brainer. What are you waiting for—hang out that "for sale" sign today! But for the rest of us who firmly have at least one foot planted on earth, we can find all kinds of reasons why that is just not feasible. "I've got kids!" "I have a job that requires x, y and z electronic toys and fast cars!" "I'm using my computer for God's glory!" Yep, there are all kinds of reasons why we can't sell it all and follow Jesus… and He's heard them all! "I have to bury my father;" "I just bought some new livestock;" and even "I just got married!" There are lots of good reasons why we can't do what Jesus is asking us to do. Spend a minute now and think of your own! Or, in other words, make a list of the things you have not yet trusted to God and the things you would not sacrifice for your faith.

Don’t get mad at me; I’m just blogging, which almost literally means talking to myself in cyberspace. This message is for me too! I have so much crap (a spiritually technical term for my earthly possessions), that I hold on to for nonsense sake. Lord, help me let go.

Let’s be real. I don’t have (and probably you don’t either) the kind of spiritual maturity needed to sell it all and live on daily bread. So what to do! Just ignore that scripture about being well fed, like the entire nation of the United States of America is doing? After all, it’s not like if I eat any less, there will be more food for people in Africa. If I drop down from a half-pound of protein a day to a quarter-pound, will the difference be redirected to the world’s hungry? No. And I can’t send them my leftovers either, so what’s the point? God blessed me and please pass the potatoes! (And meatloaf, green beans, gravy, oh, and give me a roll, would ya? And I can’t wait for dessert! I want to try that layer cake and have a piece of my favorite—pecan pie. Mmm!)

Brother and Sister in Christ, if you contemplate this scripture and receive this message and have gotten just an inkling of the absurdity that is the American diet, in contrast to the malnutrition of the majority of the world, and then do nothing different, you can triple your woe, because for those who know to do right and do it not, it is a sin. Ignore this scripture at your own spiritual risk.

I encourage you to feed on this scripture for one day. Give up food for one day and chew on this text instead. See what God reveals to you. “Oh, I have x, y, or z medical condition, and I can’t fast.” Bologna! (ha! Punny, considering the topic!). You can too fast! Call your doctor and ask if going without food one day will put you in the hospital. I betcha he says it won’t. Do you think God will allow you to die or become deathly ill while in the midst of a spiritual discipline to bring yourself more in line with His will? Oh, you of little faith. Fast, already!

I want you to hear from God on this for yourself, but I will nonetheless let you in on what I got (after three days on liquid only), not so you can shortcut the fast and go with what God gave me, but because I think He wants me to share. And if you do this and you get something different than I got, please, e-mail me or comment to this blog (that would be better, so my mom could see it too, haha) and we’ll spur each other on toward good works in that way.

Here’s my word from God. “Okay, Donna, you lack faith to sell out and follow me, so I will do what I always do and meet you where you are. How about this: You know what you have budgeted for food every month, right?”

“Yes, Lord, $900.” (Family of four with three dogs and includes cleaning supplies, etc.)

“How about you set a goal for yourself to cut the fat out of that budget and give the savings to the poor. Start with 10 percent. Save $90 a month on your food budget and instead of buying clothes with it or sticking in the kids’ college fund, add it to your gifts to me.”

I can do that. I pride myself on being an economizer (emphasis on the MIZER!) and probably just by replacing one meat meal with vegetable protein each week and dropping out some of the fun foods that are bad for my temple anyway, I can save $90 a month. If we eat out one less time a month, we could cut $40 or so and cut our calorie count too.

I could probably save $90 just by using coupons, planning meals better and shopping the sales at various stores, and I should, but that wouldn’t impact my being well fed. I believe one of the spiritual objectives here is to challenge us to do the most good we can with what we’ve got. But there are others. Three I readily see are moderation; “temple management” or good health; and putting food in a proper spiritual perspective (Do not set your heart on what you will eat… Luke 12:29.) I am sure there are others.

Now, what will I do with the extra $90 a month that I have to give to the poor? I’m not sending it to some top-heavy organization that will trickle down a bag of rice to some refugees. I want it to make an impact. That brings me back to the matter of how to really help poor people. So stay tuned… the seasons are changing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Manna Living Myth Busters

Give us this day our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Two things I ask of you, LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. Proverbs 30:7-9

I’ve got a whole new fear of the Lord going on right now. For quite some time, I’ve had a healthy fear of Him as the one who brought me into this world and the one who can take me out. But now, He’s scaring me in new ways. God is doing something with me, to me, in me, and there’s no dismissing it as coincidental or casually observing it as “interesting” any more. No, now it is getting downright scary. In fact, I’m starting to pray that prayer, “No, Lord, please, I don’t wanna!” At the same time, it’s kind of exciting, because I know my Father isn’t going to lead me down a path that He doesn’t make straight.

In this present convergence, I am living in Brazil, where all things economic are more salient to me, and I am reading the books Answers to Prayer by George Mueller, and Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Meanwhile, “coincidentally” an impulsive post I made on Facebook resulted in my getting through email the e-book Economic Conspiracy: Relationality, and learning about the nascent organization RelationalTithe.com. Then last night, again, just “randomly” clicking around on Facebook led me to a Francis Chan YouTube video, a two-minute contemplation on Proverbs 30:7-9. The video was titled “I Dare You to Pray This,” and I went to bed wondering if Chan himself is daring to pray for no more than his daily bread, like the author of that proverb.

This morning, I woke up to this in my reading of Mueller’s book: “Our position now regarding the Orphan work is, praying day by day, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ For a considerable time we have had day by day to look to the Lord for the supply of our daily wants; but God has helped us thus far.”

Lastly, I checked emails and saw that Dave Doc Rogers responded to a thread of mine on Facebook saying, “I understand 'manna' living - just enough, fresh everyday; but I ask that God - our Father - give me all He can so I can do my part to fund or go to all of the world and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to every creature. Amen." I had to click through to see what thread that belonged to, because I couldn’t remember anything I had recently posted about daily bread or manna living. When I got there, I was shocked to see the link to that Chan video on my status! Somehow without realizing it, I had clicked on “share” and added that video to my wall. (Can someone please coin a phrase that means essentially “Freudian slip,” but with holy connotations!)

I was glad Dave Doc Rogers made that remark, because it has led to new understanding about “manna living” or "daily bread living." Asking only for one’s daily provisions by no means requires a person to live in poverty or on meager means. Nor does it limit us to what we can do for the glory of God. That is a myth that has grown up around “manna living” like a thistle bush to make it seem unsavory and impractical, particularly in modern financial times. It does mean that we solely depend on God to provide for all our needs as well as for the desires of our heart. These provisions can be meager or they can be mammoth, depending on His calling on our lives. There is no real relationship between the magnitude of our task and our access to tomorrow’s, next week’s or next year’s manna. Faith in such relationships, for example, believing that the 500K in my retirement fund will keep me from being a burden to my children in the future, is nothing more than misplaced hope.

Let me provide two true examples of how manna living should be confused with meager living. One comes from the life of Michael Cassidy, founder of African Enterprises, who shared it in his book African Harvest. Michael was a student at Fuller Theology School when God gave him a vision to return to his native Africa for the summer and conduct a pan-African evangelistic campaign. Michael was obedient to this leading, and booked tickets for the pan-African tour for himself and a partner in ministry. Just one problem, he had no money to pay for the tickets. That was back in the day when people used travel agents and you didn’t have to pay for tickets within 24 hours of making a reservation. As the semester was coming to a close, prospects for paying for the summer trip were nil, and the travel agent continued to pester Michael about when he was going to pay for those flights he had booked. Until the day before departure, Michael had no idea how God would provide, but he prepared for departure in faith. Then on that last day before the trip, the president of Fuller called him into his office and gave him enough money to pay for the trip! The president was unaware of Michael’s plans and said he was simply being obedient to God’s prompting. Amazing. And totally true. Not urban religion legend, but totally true.

The second example comes from the life and work of George Mueller, a Brit who started orphanages with the primary purpose of showing God’s people that He can be trusted to provide for our needs when we do His work. Manna-living myth-buster that he is, Mueller did big things. In fact, at the time he wrote, “For a considerable time we have had day by day to look to the Lord for the supply of our daily wants,” Mueller had been at this orphanage thing for about 50 years and had 2,100 people under his care.

There are many other examples, both Biblical and contemporary, of this living-by-faith-for-daily-bread—I even have some in my family. It’s not a question of verity. If we fail to believe that our God will supply all our needs according to His riches in glory through Christ Jesus on the single merit that it is the infallible word of God, all we need to do is look around to people who have lived and are living this way to see and experience the truth of that promise.

So what are we all waiting for??? Yea, I know. Me too. I’m not there in my faith yet. This is the faith-building work God is doing in me just now (and scaring the heck out of me with). The important thing at this stage is that I don’t resist the teaching. The important thing is that I don’t believe the lies that the evil one whispers when he says, “That’s not the way God operates anymore. Times have changed.” Yes, they have, but God calls us to live in ancient ways.

“This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” Jer. 6:16.

Friday, December 10, 2010

If You Can Read This… You’ve Got 10 Talents

Today is my birthday! I’m completing 45 years of life. Although only God knows for sure, in all probability, based on how old my grands and great-grandparents lived to be, and taking into consideration lifestyle choices, I’m probably at my half-life. I thought the same thing last year, but it’s mathematically neater this year – 45:90. And now comes reflection. What have I done this first half? Well, I’ll spare you the details; suffice to say I’m satisfied with the first half and I think that if the second half is comparable to the first half, it ought to be a pretty awesome life.

You might think that my awesome life has to do with my world travels – God willing, when this trip ends, I’ll have lived abroad in three countries and visited 27 foreign countries. Or maybe you think I’m referring to my educational and career achievements, or my cute little family. Thank God for all of these things, but my life is awesome in much more basic ways.

Not that I take any credit for this. Almost daily, I pause to think about the grand opportunity that I’ve been given to have this awesome life. If any number of things that are totally out of my control were different, I venture to say my life would not be so awesome. For instance, imagine I were exactly who I am, but I had been born in England in the 1600s. I wouldn’t have been able to go to school and use my God-given intellect. Let’s change another single fact: what if I were exactly who I am but had lingered just a little too long in the womb and, denied of oxygen, been born with a limited capacity for learning. Yea, that would have changed a few things.

It’s not just me though. If you’re reading this, your life is probably just as awesome as mine. Take a quick assessment:

Were you born in the 20th or 21st century?
Were you born in a developed country?
Can you read?
Do you speak the world’s dominant language (hint: you’re reading it right now)?
Do you have the means and intelligence to access the Internet?
Do you live where you can attend a church service without fear of imprisonment or other persecution?
Are you reading this while enjoying decent health, with functional eye sight?
Will you turn off lights before you get into an actual bed tonight?
Will you wake tomorrow morning with a very good probability of having the means to eat three meals?
Added to all these favorable conditions, do you have at least one talent or skill, such as athletic, mechanical, musical or artistic ability, good organizational, interpersonal or communication skills?

If you answered yes to these questions, you have 10 talents by virtue of the time, place, circumstance and natural endowments God gave you at birth! A child turning one year old today could (in theory) say her life is as awesome as mine!

Often, when we take stock of our lives, either on our birthdays, or when some new benchmark comes to our attention (like a friend buys a new car, or a neighbor goes on a cruise to Antarctica), we fail to acknowledge the 10 talents we started out with at birth. Instead, we’re more inclined to identify certain talents we weren’t given, or to completely miss the mark and dwell on stuff and things that have nothing to do with talents at all, evidenced by the fact that money can buy them. Instead of correctly understanding that we, as 10-talent people, have more than about 90 percent of the world’s population, we tend to overlook entirely our 10 talents and compare ourselves to everyone else in the 10-talent group. Compared to this elite group, we don’t rank so high and it leaves us feeling deprived. It’s a very clever optical illusion that distracts us from the truth of our privileged position.

A birthday is a great time to step way back and look at the big picture and see that as 10-talent people, we are truly blessed. Recognizing, and then really letting it sink in are just the first steps. The bigger issue is this: What are we going to do with those talents? This might be a good time for a short story:

There was a man who was “about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them.
"To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey.
"Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents.
"In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more.
"But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
"Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
"The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, 'Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.'
"His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
"Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, 'Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.'
"His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
"And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, 'Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed.
'And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.'
"But his master answered and said to him, 'You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed.
'Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.
'Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.'
"For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.
“Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 25:14-30)

Gads! What a scary ending. Puts the fear of God into ya! Makes me want to be sure to use my talents correctly!

My birthday is also a great time to read the ticker tape and see how my talents are doing. What am I doing to multiple each of my 10 talents? This is an entirely different set of questions that the ones we used to identify our talents. If God has entrusted me with these 10 things, how am I using them to His glory? Another way to ask this might be, What have I stored up for myself in Heaven? How am I putting to work my God-given capital to build stock in His kingdom?

Recall from the story, that as 10-talent people, more is expected of us: we are given our talents according to our ability. If God picked us to be 10-talent people, we can’t worm our way out of being big producers with some measly excuse about our lack of ability. It was according to our ability that we received the talents. Neither, as 10-talent people, can we compare ourselves to five and one talent producers and feel pretty good about what we’re doing.

Just as we are inclined to focus on the wrong scale when estimating our talents, we are also inclined to an errant perspective when we analyze how our talents are yielding. We tend to focus on what we are doing with our talents. We could more accurately assess our yield by asking what we could be doing with our talents. We may feel good about using our organizational skills on the church planning board, but could we also be organizing a city-wide furniture drive for the poor at Christmastime? We may feel good that we’re singing in the choir, but what about that song that God gave us that remains in our head when it could be written, published and enhancing the worship experience of thousands of people?

I’m no Madonna fan, never have been, but there is something pretty amazing about Madonna that we should all take note of: she’s not that talented. I have personally known a hundred church choir singers with talent superior to Madonna’s, as I’m sure you have. No joke, I probably sing better than Madonna. So what does she have that the rest of us singers don’t? Gumption. And, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, am I grieved to say, in general, we lack gumption.

If on your birthday (or any day), you have a nagging feeling that you’ve not quite accomplished all you could or should have by this age, that could be the voice of the Holy Spirit saying gently, “Turn your television off and get to work for me!” Don’t watch TV? Then maybe you’ve allowed yourself to become too busy with things of temporal importance to the neglect of things of eternal importance, and the HS is saying gently, “Stop shopping and get to work for me!” Or “Quite that silly job and come to work for me.” Or “Downsize so you don’t have to spend all weekend keeping up the yard and the boat and then you’ll have more time for me.” Or “Move to the inner city, which will cut your commute by two hours a day, housing costs in half and then I’ll be able to better use you as My witness to hurting people.” That nagging feeling of dissatisfaction could be any number of things the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you. The important thing is to pay attention to it, slow down, figure it out, then act on it so you won’t be all “woe is me” on your next birthday. Careful though, sin is crouching at the door to redirect that God inspired dissatisfaction and shift your focus to your position within the 10-talent people and to rank against temporal benchmarks.

Want more out of your life? Here’s the secret: Be faithful with a few things, and God will put you in charge of many things.

What more could you be doing with your 10 talents?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Righteous* Holiday Gift

In this blog, I have started to examine the question, “How can I help poor people?” and I mean really help poor people. Since "'tis the season," let me just cut to the chase and offer a suggestion that I believe might actually be directly helpful to poor people and, conveniently, can also be achieved with a few clicks of the mouse and make for an excellent Christmas gift!

For the same amount you might spend on buying your mother a new sweater or piece of jewelry, how about giving a gift in her honor that would make a positive impact in the lives of people struggling in poverty? Sounds easy enough, but the problem for me is how to ensure that my gift is actually going to make the impact I'm being led to believe it is. For instance, I sponsor a child, David, through World Help, but I am not at all convinced that my $26-a-month contribution is actually making an impact in the life of the young man whose picture I have taped in my prayer journal.

Supposedly, my gift is enabling David to go to school. But what do you think would happen if I decided not to sponsor him anymore? Would he be called to the office one day during math class and informed by the principal that, regrettably, his sponsor withdrew and he has 10 minutes to clean out his locker and leave the premises? I highly doubt it.

I believe, instead, my $26 is aggregated with other funds to sponsor free education for all the children in that area, one of whom is David. Further, I feel sure that not all of my $26 is reaching that school. Even though, according to their annual report, less than 10 percent of funds collected are used on administration and fundraising, that other 90 percent likely goes to pay for staff, facilities and operating costs in the countries where World Help has program offices. Yes, those are legitimate program expenses that boost local economies, but if I want my $26 to go directly to David? Not happening.

Call me jaded, but I like giving models that are a bit more transparent (though I continue to fund David out of fear that he'll be expelled from school if I stop). I've spent a considerable amount of time in the last couple of days researching organizations I thought had such models, only to find that they simply have more crafty ways of doing the same thing World Help does: taking my gift that I believe is doing one thing and doing something else with it. Even if that something else is all-together good, as a funder, I like to know, really know, what my money is going for. Which is why I am excited to tell you about microlending. There are several notable organizations that do this, and I encourage you to research it further, or just click through to Kiva.

Kiva's mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty. With Kiva, you can actually give a gift that keeps on giving. Rhetoric aside – you can spend $50 on a "gift" through Kiva, and use that same $50 to give another gift next year. So this year, give a $50 microloan in honor of Mom to a 27-year-old woman in Tanzania who wants to open a cafĂ©. When she pays you back, you can use that same $50 to give a microloan in honor of Granddad to a barber in Mali who wants to purchase 5 new clippers, 6 pairs of combs and brushes, 5 containers of bleach, 5 bottles of 90% alcohol, 10 bottles of hair ointment, etc. Truth! These are actual microloan requests from Kiva. Best of all, there's a field partner on the ground who is making sure the money is used correctly and reporting back on the impact the loan made. As for the administrative costs so many other non-profits try to act like don't exist? Kiva suggests a 15% processing fee on each loan, which covers their overhead, but each and every one of your $50 is going to that barber in Mali. If you don't want to pay the processing fee, edit the amount to $0! Right now the Omidyar Network is giving a matching grant to Kiva for each processing fee. So if you're feeling generous, go with the suggested 15% or even higher, and your contribution toward operations will be doubled.

I hope I've said enough to drive you to click through to Kiva and learn more about what they do. It's no secret - the organization issued more than $66 million in microloans last year. That's a lot of $25 and $50 donors! So why haven't I heard of this before? Probably because I haven't been looking for ways to help the world's poor. I've been too busy asking, "What will I eat?" or "What will I drink?" or "What will I wear?" this holiday season (Matthew 6:31).

Kiva offers "gift-giving" possibilities for any budget. There's also the option of giving $25 loan gift cards, so your friend or family member can get the thrill of choosing the borrower. So, stay in your jammies, take the laptop to the sofa with a cup of hot chocolate and finish your holiday "shopping" with gifts that will not only warm the heart of the receiver and the giver, but will also honor God (Prov. 14:31).

P.S. Stay tuned for more insights on how to actually help poor people. I don't really know how to go about covering or exploring the topic, but I have been "tripping" over more ways to actually help poor people, so I guess I'll just present them as I find them.

*Not in the sense of being “holier than thou,” but as a double entendre meaning "cool," "awesome" and "amazing," as well as "ethical," "scriptural" and "virtuous."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Cure for PGD (Post Gifting Depression)

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure… Yet when I surveyed all my hands had done... everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (in part).

When I was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, I took a liking to a six-year-old boy who had run away from home and was staying in an orphanage while officials tried to locate his parents. I wanted to do something special for this boy, so I asked permission to take him home with me for one night. I worked in the social service system, and the powers that were knew me, so they agreed. This happened to correspond to my house-sitting for an American diplomat, so I took the boy to the diplomat's house, which was a lot nicer than my humble Peace Corps abode, and was fully stocked with toys, as the diplomat's family included two children.

The little boy was from a poor family, undoubtedly. And although the orphanage had some playground equipment, I doubted this child had played with very many toys in his life. In contrast, the two American children had a lot of toys -- an entire room dedicated to toys. For one night, the little runaway would get to live like the privileged American children of that household did every day -- quite Prince-and-the-Pauperesque.

When that little boy saw all those toys, his face glowed like a sunrise. Upon my urging, he dug into the toys, fast and furious. He picked up each toy, looked at it, asked me what it was or how it worked, made it do what it was supposed to do, put it down and then moved to another toy. He spent about two hours going through every toy in the room. When he had played with the last toy, he sat down, looked up at me with a sort of spoiled look on his face and said, "Is this all there is? I want more." Amazing. I wish Guinness had been there; I'm sure that I must have set the world record for spoiling a child in the least amount of time.

He was still the sweet kid I picked up from the orphanage that day, but in short order, he had exhausted modern life. In a matter of hours, he completed a cycle that takes many of us half our lives, while many others never come full circle. He had gone from having nothing to having everything he could ever dream of, only to arrive at the absurdist conclusion: Is this all there is?

Fast forward to here and now and you and me, this Christmas. Something similar to this happens to me each year on Christmas morning. I've been anticipating opening gifts for weeks, and then in a colorful frenzy of flying paper and bows, it's all open and laid bare at my feet. As I survey the loot, my internal smile fades as I ask myself, "Is this all I got?" OK, I’m being really honest here, so please don't think I'm a brat. Furthermore, I don't think it's just me. I'm willing to bet a lot of brutally self-aware people would admit to this letdown too. I think it's just part of the process -- all those gifts put us on an artificial high from which we have to come down. On the outside, we may be descending gracefully, as we store our new socks and sweaters, and show off our new jewelry to our Christmas dinner company. But on the inside, we may be pitching a little fit, thinking, I wanted more!

Just like I didn't dare say, "Shame on you!" to that sweet little runaway (OK, I admit, I can't remember his name!), I'm not going to shame you or me either -- well, not for that feeling of wanting more after the last gift is opened, anyway. What we should be ashamed of is that we've made the birth of our Lord and Savior the annual occasion that sets us up to experience the absurdity of materialism. That we are eager and willing participants of it on any date is to our discredit, but on the birthday of Jesus Christ? How very wrong.

As I see it, there are two possible ways out of this conundrum -- and neither is easy to pull off. 1. We could control our experience to ensure that letdown doesn't happen on Christmas morning, by insisting that someone (boyfriend, parents, rich uncle) gets for us the ultimate gift -- that very thing that could not disappoint. For me, this year, it would be a cruise to Antarctica. I can almost guarantee there would be no anticlimax to finding tickets for that under my tree. 2. We can control our experience to ensure that letdown doesn't happen on Christmas morning by making that day about something other than gift-giving. Sounds radical, but it's very doable. We actually have a holiday like that -- it's called Thanksgiving. No one expects gifts on Thanksgiving. It's a wonderfully sacred day for family and appreciating our heritage and our many blessings. No gifts, no letdown, and we generally keep the true purpose of the holiday in focus.

Why couldn't we do this for Christmas? I know exactly what you're thinking: Nobody else is doing it; the whole world would be against it; it would be complete and total nonconformity; and furthermore, I like Christmas the way it is! Ironically, those are also the strongest arguments for ditching our current tradition. As followers of Christ, "everybody’s doing it" cannot justify our actions. Jesus said, "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" Matt. 7:13b-14. And we also know that we are not to conform to the pattern of this world (Roms. 12:2a). We're in this world, but not of it, which requires us to examine all we do under the tough scrutiny of this standard: Would Jesus approve?

Would Jesus approve of $500 of spending per person on Christmas gifts? If not, what amount do you think He might approve of? Maybe the amount doesn't matter if the gift is practical and will be put to good use, like a cappuccino machine or Hickory Farms sausage rolls? (Oops, I'm being sarcastic again.) I'm not going to answer this question, just pose it: How do you think Jesus would like for you to spend your money on His birthday?

My birthday is coming up, and as the keeper of the purse in my house, I care very much about how much is spent on that occasion. I want a homemade cake, a clean house (without any effort on my part) and a pedicure -- $10 at a local beauty college. I approve of this frivolous use of $10 on my birthday! On the other hand, though I would be endeared at the gesture, if my husband were to bring home an emerald ring (I've always wanted an emerald ring), I would wear it on Christmas and then insist he return it and get our money back on December 26. I could not in good conscience enjoy that ring, knowing the power to pay other obligations that it represented. If wearing an emerald ring were a higher priority than publishing my next Christian book or saving for my children's college education, I could keep it and enjoy it. And this, I'm afraid, is why we can enjoy so many of the expensive and not-so-expensive trinkets we give and get at Christmas... because having them is higher on the priority list than some other things.

Smile Train can fix a cleft palate for $250. For the same cost as my emerald ring, I could make a life-changing gift to two children. But who's thinking in these terms as we cruise the mall looking for gifts? Nonetheless, I am not exonerated in choosing an emerald ring simply because I didn't think of giving the money instead for two cleft palate surgeries. I feel certain that "It never even occurred to me," will not work as an excuse when Jesus is separating the sheep and the goats.

Please don't think me a Grinch. I love holy days as much as the next good Christian and I'm deeply sentimental, which is why I want my holidays to mean more. I'm not against gift-giving, but I am for gifts that mean more than fuzzy socks do (although I love me some fuzzy socks!). What rational argument can be made against gift-giving in a way that is consistent with our espoused values and beliefs? Gifts given and received in His spirit will not create a letdown, and are anything but meaningless.

End note: In preparing this article, I came across an interesting Web page entitled Liberal Reasons Not to Celebrate Christmas. If my reasons for nonconformity with current Christmas practices haven’t resonated with you, maybe some of those will.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Easing Into It

This sermon, "Money Matters: God Knows it Matters to You!" is an easy introduction to the truth about money, that when developed and followed to its logical conclusion would rid us of all notion of personal possession. The problem is that most of us are stopping far short of the logical end, and are instead self-satified with using our car to take youth to volunteer for a couple of hours. As long as we're doing as much or more than the next guy, we're doing OK, right?

God does not want us to compare ourselves to each other, but to hold ourselves accountable to His word and His standards. If Jesus were alive today, would He even own a car? Food for thought.