Wednesday, December 23, 2009

1001 Ecuadorean Lies and Other Tales

Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
Deuteronomy 25:13-16

If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, then guess what – He still detests anyone who deals dishonestly. This is such a strong statement that even though I have the Bible backing me, it’s hard to make. God detests certain people. In this day of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” it just doesn’t seem right to say God detests certain people. And especially for something as common as dishonesty!

While I was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, I learned a good deal about honesty and its polar opposite, dishonesty. When I arrived there, I had the notion that a person was either honest or dishonest and never the two qualities could mix – like oil and water. Either you are an honest person or you are not, and therefore, you are a dishonest person. What I came to understand over some months was that though honesty and dishonesty are polar opposites, the distance between them is bridged by a continuum, and depending where on this spectrum a person “resides,” he or she has some measure of honesty and some measure of dishonesty. Only extremely extraordinary individuals are devoid of one or the other.

This explained a lot, like how families could open their homes to a Peace Corps volunteers in training for three months, make them part of the families, safeguard them and their possessions, and then on the last day of their stay, steal their cameras. This happened to more than one in our group of volunteers. It was like, “Oh, you’re leaving now, time for me to take what I want from your stuff.” Of course, it wasn’t like that. They didn’t come out and say it – if they had, it would have been weird, but at least understandable. Instead, the families denied any wrong doing. But it had to have been them – they were the only ones with knowledge of where the goods were and access to them. I encountered dozens more of situations in Ecuador in which people who one would swear were honest became dishonest given the right opportunity. Their honesty was situational and their dishonesty opportunistic. It happened so frequently, that I couldn’t help but think on the subject extensively. I needed to reconcile what I was seeing. It was so different from what I knew as an American. Or so it seemed.

Stealing is a big dishonest “no-no” for Americans. We’re really sensitive about it. I can remember feeling a lot of guilt for stealing a piece of five-cent candy from an ice cream parlor when I was about nine years old. I don’t think I ever told anyone I did it, but I knew it was wrong because of our strong cultural value that stealing is wrong. In Ecuador, the values on stealing are different. Stealing is probably still wrong, but it can be justified, particularly in the face of economic injustice. This will make sense to you if you think of a poor urchin child stealing a piece of bread to have something to eat. It’s wrong; but who of us would not pay for the bread to exonerate the child and let him eat it anyway? That same kernel of compassion we feel that justifies a child eating wrongly acquired bread has been cultivated in the psyche of many a person in developing countries. (Ooo. Big statement. Seems like it should be footnoted with some scholarly sources.)

That same justification for dishonesty is at work in me and you when we tell a white lie so we don’t hurt someone’s feelings. In God’s eyes, what’s the difference between a white lie and stealing a camera? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself a similar question and concluded that in God’s eyes, it’s all dishonesty – sin, the wages of which are death.

And yet, God can work through dishonesty – and has. In Exodus 1, we find the account of Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah lying about how many babies they deliver, and God seems pleased with them. In Joshua, Rahab lies to cover up for the Israelite spys, and the Bible says she was “considered righteous for what she did.” (James 2:25). Then, we see in the Bible that God can work with people who lie, even if He isn’t working through them: Abraham lied twice about Sarah being his wife. Jacob – what a liar – enough said! And even fair King David – a man after God’s own heart – was dishonest. (Do you see how the English lexicon works? David was “dishonest,” meaning he wasn’t an honest man? That hardly seems right.)

Fast forward to 2010 and there are thousands of ways for each of us to have “two sets of measures.” There are probably just as many ways to cheat the company we work for as there are to cheat our customers if we own a business. And what about cheating the government or large corporations with which we do business? And guess what? It’s our nature to think up more ways to cheat and steal.

The truth of the matter (no pun intended) is that there is no person, no not one, who is honest if honesty is the complete and total lack of dishonesty. Just like we’re all sinners, we are all liars and thieves. It’s our nature. If you have had the blessing of being a parent of a toddler, you have probably witnessed that first deception and realized (or hoped) that this was not something you taught your child. That’s right, it’s not. That’s the nature with which we’re born. Does that mean God detests us all?

With the power of Christ we can rise above our sin nature, and we must. “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” Romans 8:12-14.

Contemplate this: Honestly, where do I currently reside on the continuum of honesty/dishonesty?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The General Welfare

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
Ephesians 4:28

Here’s one on which most of us honest working folk get a reprieve. Whew! At least I don’t steal … unless we’re going to get nit-picky about office supplies and tax deductions…

Na, you can have the reprieve – I need it too!

After all, if the majority of us weren’t fulfilling this mandate to do something useful with our own hands, how would society hold together?

What I cannot offer a reprieve on, however, is the reiteration –it appears elsewhere in Paul’s writing – of what the purpose of work is: so that we may have something … to share with those in need. That’s what it says. Now notice what is doesn’t say (which my local pastor says is almost as important as what does say). The scripture doesn’t say, “Work so you can have all the things you desire without dishonesty.” It doesn’t say, “Work so you can take care of yourself.” Nor it does say, “Work so you won’t be a burden on anyone else.” In fact, what it does say implies that there are going to be people who are a burden on others – and that’s not only OK, but our purpose in working hard should be to take care of those people in their time of need.

Whoa! Am I advocating for welfare? You better believe I am – the general welfare. In this age of the nation-states, it’s doesn’t seem realistic to pine away for days of yore when institutionalized welfare didn’t exist. It’s a utopian ideal for families and communities to be able to pitch to take care of those in need, but I doubt that’s even possible on such a large population scale and the way we define “community” today. Nonetheless, it seems a shame that a “Christian nation” even needs welfare.

I’ll stop here because I’m no student of history or politics and I know that there were a number of major factors of which I’m ignorant about how our welfare system was conceptualized, and further, how it got to be in the shape it is today. So let me just fast forward to the present. In my opinion, there seem to be two schools on welfare among Christians. In gross generalization: Christian liberals favor institutionalized welfare. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they favor this out of godly compassion for the poor rather than some hidden agenda to move the country toward socialism. They believe everyone should have a basic standard of living. It’s not right that children should starve, people should freeze to death and the elderly should eat dog food when the Jones’ are throwing leftover ribeye in the garbage. On the other end of the political spectrum, Christian conservatives may not be opposed to a system of institutionalized welfare per se – they also can’t stand the idea of starving children – but they think welfare should be a safety net for only the legitimate hard cases rather than to ensure a basic standard of living and give ongoing aid to people who can but don’t work.

Neither of these positions is antichrist. Christ was extremely liberal in his giving – he fed 4,000 people who should have known better than to leave home without a picnic lunch. And worse, they had all been playing hooky from their jobs – for three days! – to hang out and listen to Him. Why should this type of behavior be condoned? What a bunch of loafers! But Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people … I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

On the other hand, the scripture we’re exploring right now (Ephesians 4: 28) is a solid basis for the conservative Christian stance that we shouldn’t allow abuse of the system by able-bodied people.

Both views are Biblical, and therefore, not at odds. And both hold the basic Biblical tenant that we need to share with people in need. Conveniently, in America today, we fulfill this mandate to share whether we like it or not. The government figures our level of support and takes it out of our paychecks, before we ever even see it. We’ve done something useful with our hands, and as a result, we’ve been able to share with others in need. So, does that take care of things? Is our Christian obligation to share with those in need fulfilled by paying taxes?

You can wrestle with that question in your quiet time with God, but I know this: the amount I am obligated to give from my paycheck is not meeting the needs of everyone in this country and certainly not everyone around the world. I can say this in all certainty because I know people with needs that aren’t being met through welfare. And I bet you know some too. The liberals and conservatives can duke it out about welfare all they want; two things don’t change: I still have to pay as much in taxes as always (if they make cuts to welfare, it will be to fund another program) and there are still people with need in my sphere of influence.

It seems to me that if God has placed someone in need in my path and simultaneously provided me with an income that meets and exceeds my need (even after taxes), it would please God for me to use that excess to share with those in need. And I do want to please God.

Contemplate this: Have I fulfilled God’s will to share with those in need by being in a certain tax bracket or paying a certain percentage to charity?

Monday, November 2, 2009

For All My Efforts

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.
Deuteronomy 8:11-14a, 17-18

Do you recall the story of how Jacob, who later became Israel, father of the nation, became wealthy? Remember after cheating his brother out of the birthright and then lying to his father to get the blessing of the first born, he took off to his uncle Laban’s house. A lot of good the birthright and blessing did him. Because of the way he went about getting them, he had to get out of Dodge and quick, for fear of the wrath of his brother. So he arrives at Uncle Laban’s with nothing and that dear fellow gave him a place to live and a dose of his own medicine.

Laban agreed to give Jacob his daughter Rachel in marriage in exchange for seven years of labor. The morning after the wedding night, Jacob realizes Uncle Laban is a cad and has given him the wrong girl, the ugly older sister, Leah. Well, too late to give her back now! So he agrees to work yet another seven years for Rachel, the one he really wanted.

During this time, Jacob realizes he’s got to get smart with Uncle Laban if he ever wants to get ahead. So he makes a deal with him: “I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them. Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages,” (Gen. 30:32). From then on, Jacob was to get all the spotted and speckled among the flocks and herds.
Now Jacob had a strategy: he took “fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted,” (Gen. 30:37-38) because as anyone in animal husbandry can tell you, if you want spotted, speckled or streaked livestock, you have to expose them to this kind of environment when they’re drinking and mating, right? He further bettered his livestock by selecting only the stronger females to expose to these gene-influencing branches. “In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservents, and camels and donkeys,” (Gen. 30:43).

So that was the secret of his success – striped braches in the watering trough. I wonder how many Israelite shepherds throughout history tried to replicate this strategy and ended up wondering why it wasn’t working for them. I suppose that it is possible that being in a certain type of environment could encourage genetic selection in favor of that environment in one generation, but any way you look at it from the perspective of our current understanding of genetics, it’s clear that what Jacob was doing had little to no bearing on the result he was getting.

And yet God certainly knew that when you and I would read this story thousands of years later, we would understand that poor Jacob was clueless and really just grasping at straws. On the other hand, he was doing something, anything, the only thing he could think of to try to become more prosperous. He was making an effort. But it was God who gave the increase because of the plan that he had for Jacob.

We might think Jacob was pretty naïve, but not so. He knew the score. He told his wives: “God has not allowed [Laban] to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.”

If he had made this connection, that his success was God’s doing, why would he bother peeling almond branches? I’m gonna say he did it because it was all he knew to do. Whereas he attributed God with the increase, Jacob contributed all he could as well, even it if was sheer nonsense by today’s standards.

What about your success thus far? Have your flocks and herds increased by your own efforts, or did God come along and miraculously cause the increase? Careful how you answer.

Who can explain why certain things succeed so and others do not. It’s not all about marketing – some companies spend millions of dollars on a campaign that produces no results. It’s not about talent, if that were the ticket wouldn’t ever Denzel Washington movie have been a box office hit? Perseverance? Don’t you know a starving artist who has been starving for decades? There’s something very mysterious about success, and whereas I don’t think all of it is God’s will, he’s certainly allowing every success. God is enabling our health, intelligence, relative peace so we can work, and an environment in which we can be successful – capitalist United States of America. These things are much more tenuous than we believe. From one day to the next any of it could change at God’s command. But God allows these favorable conditions so that we can produce wealth.

If anyone has their doubts about whether God disapproves of fine houses, having some silver and gold on hand, and a big successful family business, let this scripture put that question to rest. God says in his word that enabling this ability to produce wealth is how he confirms his covenant with Israel. I’m no theologian, but I think this somehow applies to us gentiles to as. Like Paul said in Galatians 3:29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

So good! But wait, there’s a flipside to this. “If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God,” Deut. 8:19-20.

With great privilege comes great responsibility. And the privilege of wealth carries with it the responsibility of gratitude and recognition of the one Force that made it possible, at a minimum.

Contemplate this: In what ways have I seen the hand of God enabling my success in the past and present?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Conversation about Expecting Nothing in Return

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” lend to “sinners,” expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say?

Luke 6: 32-36, 46

In the words of Archie Bunker, “Oh Gees!” People who ask for money – what a burden! I’m just going to be so very honest with you, Father, and tell you that these are problem people for me. I get so frustrated with them! I can loan them whatever I will and it will never be enough to get them on their feet. Months if not weeks later, they are in trouble again. Do they never learn? And once one of them finds me, my best bet to be free of them is to just pick up and move! Even when they haven’t paid me back from the last time, they are back with their hand out again – they seem to have no shame. Short of moving, what am I supposed to do? Introduce them to someone kinder and richer than me in hopes they’ll start to bug them?

Thanks for letting me unabashedly rant about how a mooch makes me feel. Now, what do you have to say to that?

“Do good to them.”

What? Heavenly Father, you have got to be kidding!

“Lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”

Now I know you’re kidding. What am I, Bank of America? I can’t take this guy to court to get a dime on my dollar back. Money I loan is basically thrown down the drain!

“Your reward will be great.”

Reward? Oh, I didn’t know there was something in it for me.

“You will be [a child] of the Most High.”

Oh, right. I forget I’m a child of the King and all that that entails.

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

(Heavy sigh) OK, blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. So next time I see that same homeless dude on the corner, I’ll slip him a buck. I know with a dollar he can feed himself – he parks himself right outside of Dodge’s gas station which advertises “5 Meals for under $1.” He can even get some variety on what I’m giving him every day. I’ll just budget an extra $30 a month for him and think of it as an investment. He has always been appreciative when I have given him money in the past. Not like that one dude who tries to wash my windows, and when I tell him not to and he does it anyway and then all I give him is a quarter because I told him not to – I really don’t owe him anything – he has the audacity to hit me up for more! And to boot, half the time he smells so thick of hangover, I could get drunk off the fumes.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

OK, but isn’t that kind of just directed toward my Christian brothers and sisters as a way to get along better in church?

“If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.”
What are you trying to say? Why did you put “sinners” in quotes like that?

“Give to everyone who asks of you.”

But people are constantly asking of me! In just my route to work and back, I pass three “homeless stations,” and then there are my needy relatives and random other people who have learned I’m a softy when it comes to loaning. Where’s all this money supposed to come from?

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
Hmm. $30 a month doesn’t seem like much under those terms.

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

OK, now, no need to get angry. I’m just trying to come to terms with this. But I see now that you’re suggesting, you’re commanding. It’s not like that time on Mount when you said “Blessed are the merciful…,” hinting that I might want to be merciful. Now you’re putting this in command form. “Be merciful.” “Give to everyone who asks of you.” “Lend without expecting to get anything back.”

I’ll be real honest with you Father, I can do this, but my motivation at the get-go is probably going to be that great reward you’re promising and that good measure poured out into my lap.
“Lend … without expecting to get anything back.”

Oh, c’mon. Why did you dangle the carrot if you don’t want me to bite at it?


Father, be patient with me, and keep talking to me and teaching me how to bring my motivations for giving in line with your will, which is for me to be like you.

Contemplate this: Am I predisposed to say “yes” when someone asks to borrow money from me?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have You Enjoyed Your Toilet Seat Today?

I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.

A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man - even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity.
Ecclesiastes 6:1-6a

I love to grow herbs. It makes me feel rich to have a pot of basil that has enough leaves on it to divvy up into a dozen bunches such as I would buy at the supermarket for $3 each. That makes that bush worth $36! Add rosemary, oregano and dill and I've got more than $100 sitting on my patio. Just as much as I like to grow them, I also like to share them. I had been in the good habit of snipping herbs on Sunday and taking them in plastic baggies in a basket to church, sitting them in the foyer with a sign that says "Free." That was a great pleasure to me and one I looked forward to all spring as my herbs were growing to full foliage. But then something happened that I can't fully explain and all of the sudden summer is over, the herbs are dying and I never shared them even once. I just now sat looking out my window at a second dill plant that seeded itself, noting how it's big enough to start snipping and I felt regret at not having shared my herbs at all this year. It is my greatest joy in growing herbs and I didn't get it experience it this year because I've been too… busy, I guess.

I have every expectation that next year will be different, more like years past, but what if it weren't? What if year after year, and not just with the herbs but with all my prized possessions, I had good intentions of enjoying them that life crowded out. It's like the person who lives on the ocean and never sets foot in the sand. What is the use of this? Indeed, this is the condition of futility that Solomon observes above, and it is more powerful than I might have imagined from my small experience with unshared herbs. Solomon says that if a person can't enjoy all the desires of his heart, things he has in his grasp already, but lacks wherewithal to enjoy them, it is such a desperate condition that that person would actually be better off never having been born at all. Wow. I contemplate lives that I think may have been better off not happening - like children in sex trade or slavery – but I don't think I've ever lumped a filthy rich person who has everything they could ever want in that category. I'll have to trust Solomon on this one though because he should know. The Bible says he was the richest man who ever lived (stand back Bill Gates!), and the wisest, and whereas I don't think he was talking about himself in this passage, if any human could know such a thing, he could.

What I find most interesting in this passage is that God is credited with both giving the man all the desires of his heart and keeping him from enjoying them. Why would God do such a thing? Justice? Couldn't that be achieved by just not letting him have all the desires of his heart, but rather just some, a fair amount? God has made everything for His own purpose, some to glorify Him, the wicked for a day of disaster and some miserable yet filthy rich dude as an example to the rest of us of why we shouldn't envy the person who has everything money can buy. Seems like there are worse things in life than to be filthy rich and unable to enjoy it, but no! There aren't! Solomon says live two, thousand-years lives this way if you could and you're still better off never having been born. Let that sink in. This is the worst kind of miserable. Can money really do this to a person?

I trust you are not this miserable, praise God, but here's a tough question: Are you enjoying the desires of your heart that God has given you? Take a moment to think about what some of those things are: a boat, a nice car, a yard with grass, a special ring, a plasma TV, the perfect coffee mug, a summer vacation? Are you enjoying these things, really enjoying them? Or are you taking them for granted? Now let's go a little more basic and think about things you might be taking for granted because you wouldn't even recognize them as being desires of your heart until you didn’t have them: a hot shower daily, a toilet to sit on (versus, say, a hole to squat over), vision (even if it has to be corrected), hearing (ditto), climate-controlled housing... When was the last time you enjoyed a hot shower? You may have had one this morning, but did you enjoy it? The miserable rich man surely had a hot shower daily too - it's not the having of the thing that matters, it's the enjoyment of it. When did you last enjoy your vision and hearing? When did they last give you real joy? When did you last consciously appreciate them?

You think I've made my point, but I haven't. The point is that life for a follower of Christ is supposed to be abundant and that means enjoyment. We can experience that abundance any day of the week at any moment by turning our attention to the desires of our heart that God has given us. Any given day, I can walk out on my patio and snip some herbs to take to a neighbor - my greatest herbal joy. So, what's stopping me?

Contemplate this: What is keeping me from fully enjoying the good things in my life right now?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Can't Get No Satisfaction

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

And again in the Living Bible

He who loves money shall never have enough. The foolishness of thinking that wealth brings happiness! The more you have, the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income, so what is the advantage of wealth - except perhaps to watch it as it runs through your finger! The man who works hard sleeps well whether he eats little or much, but the rich must worry and suffer insomnia.

Everyone has made a crack about a starving child in Africa as we toss a plate full of food in the garbage, but I wonder, do you ever truly contemplate life in a developing country? I've travelled a lot in Latin America and I was Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. So whereas I can't speak for those starving African children, I can tell you a thing or two about peasant life in Latin America. Not that I ever was one, but I did live on an average person's wage while I was in the Peace Corps - $120 a month at that time.

When I think of people in Latin America, I don't think of misery and poverty. Yes, there is poverty of a kind we know nothing about in the United States. There are entire towns that don't have electricity in Latin America. Many still do their laundry in the river, the vast majority of people don't own a care and even if they have a car, the roads are terrible! The countries are incredibly poor in infrastructure and the people live on next to nothing. In July 2009, I took a mission trip to Peru to help build a missions school. We worked beside Peruvian hired laborers who were earning $10 a day - a typical construction worker's wage. In the United States, a construction worker wouldn't be satisfied with that as compensation for an hour's work! And these laborers were not properly outfitted either. They had no gloves and they wore flip-flops. They asked if we would buy them some rubber boots (about $4 a pair) for while they were working with cement. Our heavy equipment was a wheelbarrow and we did everything by hand (without electricity!).

Poverty, yes, but misery? Far from it. It seems that humans are a pretty adaptable species! And just as Americans have become accustomed to electricity and running water in climate-controlled dwellings, Peruvians are used to working without gloves, walking long distances with bundles of alfalfa on their backs and showering just every so often and usually in cold water. Sounds awful, but I can tell you with certainty that there are a good many happy people who live in that kind of poverty. Want to give it a try? You can get used to it, I promise!

The problem is that once we've become accustomed to a certain level of comfort, it's hard to give up those comforts. This human adaptability thing works best if it is put into play in childhood. It's sort of a one-way process - once we've adapted to a certain comfort, there's no u-turning. If you understand this to be true, you can see why is it vital in my life and yours to stop ourselves where we are right now, at our present comfort level.

What? I can't get any more comfortable than I am now? Why not?

Let's take this to its logical conclusion... decadence. (OK, that was easy.) As we climb the financial ladder, paying off those student loans, getting better paying jobs, even getting the kids out of college, and our income-to-expense margin widens, what will happen to that extra income? Some people have that extra income spent 20 years in advance: I'm going to travel; I'm going to buy that dream car; I'm going to move into a larger home; I'm going to buy an emerald ring… If our plans for that extra income include increasing our standard of living in some way, we are moving ahead in that one-way process, and there's no turning back, which means we will now have to sustain that improvement in our life. And if at our next raise or cash windfall, we better ourselves again, we've moved a little farther. If our capacity to better ourselves never decreases, we end up in the lap of luxury - decadence. (Hey, that doesn't sound too bad!)

What if that capacity doesn't increase? Well, then we're stuck at the point to wherever we last progressed, and if you're an American who owns a home and a car, that's not a bad spot to be stuck in. But what happens if our capacity to better ourselves not only doesn't increase, it doesn't even keep pace with the level of luxury we're accustomed to? That's when we start doing desperate things like using charge cards. And financially speaking, that's skating on thin ice. Some people do it and never fall through, for others, charge cards are the end of their good credit and peace of mind.

Do you know what's so hard about putting a halt to progression to seek more and more comfort? It's the fact that the Jones are more comfortable than we are. If we lived in a communist country where we were all dirt poor, it wouldn't be so hard to be happy with status quo. Or if we lived in a country like Peru where poverty is so wide-spread it's normal, we'd be in good company as we sat at night in conversation around one generator-powered bare light bulb. But here, in the Unites States, a very large contingent is wealthy, or at least displays a façade of wealth, and they are very well publicized, and it leaves the rest of us wanting what they have.

Friend, look closely at what the Bible says those who love wealth have: never enough and no satisfaction. How would you like that in your fortune cookie: You will never be satisfied. (Waiter, can I have another cookie?)

I think the laborer to which Solomon contrasts the wealthy is iconic of the salt-of-the-earth factory worker, construction worker, school teacher, secretary and any other number of people who, despite the consumer-is-king culture in which we live, have managed to be content in their jobs, content in living in that same home for thirty years, content driving that Honda Civic until the engine drops out of it, content with double-knit polyester, elastic-waist pants that were purchased in 1980something and still look pristine (because that's just the way polyester rolls), content to eat a bowl of shredded wheat morning after morning, content to push-mow the lawn and conversely unshaken by the neighbor who's adding a deck with hot tub, dining on Don Schwann, dawning this year's Dockers, before he pulls out in his hybrid Accord, to head off to his new management position, which helped him afford the house next door.

We don't have to shop second-hand stores for a pair of stretch-waist pants to be more like the laborer. Wherever we are today, we can begin to be more like the laborer by just being content.What if it were God's will for me to never advance from my current station in life? Could I be happy with that? To be able to answer "yes" reflects a correct attitude toward wealth, a gratitude for what we do have (which if we're American or European, is a heck of a lot) and an ability to be content, like Paul, whatever the circumstances (Phil 4:11). This is a great skill to master and it has a pretty nice payoff too - sweet sleep.

Contemplate this: Can I learn to be happy with my current means?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Sock Drawer and Other Ethical Investment Tools

Dishonest money dwindles away, buy he who gathers money little by little makes it grow. Proverbs 13:11

Have you been wondering when I would get around to actually saying you should throw away your 401K? This could well be the time. What’s in that 401K anyway? Who are you enriching as you gather money toward your golden years? While I’ve got one finger pointed at you, four are coming back at me. To be honest, I have investment products – several in fact, about which I’m rather clueless. I know what they’re called and my balance on them in any given quarter, I know the company through which the investment is held is on the up and up, but I really don’t have a good idea of how my dollar breaks down into nano-units and travels across the globe to impact some poor rice farmer in China. It is conceivable that the negative impact of my invested money could be outweighing the positive impact of my tithes and offerings. In the big balance sheet in the sky, I might be in the red!

It’s the darned global economy, right? How can a person be expected to understand the impact of her money in such a labyrinth? Investing today can be done in such a way that it truly is impossible to know who you’re impacting. We assume it’s all for good – money into the market can’t be hurting anyone can it? The investment company is making a profit – good for them. The financial advisor assigned to my account is getting some kickback – good for him. In a strong economy, I’m making a profit – good for me. The company in which the money is ultimately invested is making a profit – good for its shareholders and employees. Just in the direct investment stream alone I’ve positively impacted thousands of people!

You know what’s coming though, don’t you… How are the companies in which my dollar is being invested impacting the world? Are they selling smut? Are they polluting rivers? Are they using child labor? Are they abusing their adult workers – like the diamond industry is renowned for doing? Or maybe they are a fairly reputable company just going about their business, like Coca Cola Company, for instance, but in the final analysis, not doing the world any favors by being in business. Think of the rotten teeth, malnutrition, obesity, diabetes and other health issues to which consumption of Coca Cola can contribute. Sure, it is consumers’ responsibility to brush their teeth and limit their intake, but on judgment day would you want to be the CEO of a company that produced liquid junk and made it cool?

There is no chance of that for me (even if Coca Cola did have my name on a short list of candidates to next take their helm, I’m sure they have scratched me now!), but there might be a chance that on judgment day I will be held responsible for financially supporting and personally profiting off of a company that produces liquid junk and made it cool. If ignorance of the law is no excuse from the law when I am unknowingly speeding through a school zone, how will I be excused from having invested and profited off of immoral and unethical businesses to make my golden years more comfortable?

Just as my investing practices can be making a negative global impact of which I’m unaware, and yet accountable, my consumption practices are equally perilous in this global economy. That is a whole other sticky wicket, but just thought I would throw that in there to think about and bolster the point that when it comes to buying, selling and even investing, thinking locally has its advantages, foremost of which is I know what I am supporting.

You might think that sticking your money in a bank and letting it gain a pittance of interest is an easy answer to ethical investing, but not only is the return about as good as stuffing your money in a sock drawer, it is not any more ethical than investing in mutual funds. Banks turn right around and use your capital to invest too – and no telling what all they are in to. Another option might be to invest in things that are easy enough to track, like real estate or municipal bonds, but for investors who have small amounts to save each month, this is not feasible. What we need is a way to invest only the good, profitable companies, not the bad, profitable companies. That is not as improbable as it sounds.

There are a number of companies that have investment options that have gone through ethics filters. For example, the Timothy Plan has all the regular investment options, just screened for practices that do not line up with Judeo-Christian principles. And yet, as one of their blogging critics has pointed out, The Timothy Plan does not filter out manufacturers of weapons and ammunitions. War may line up with Judeo principles, but some Christians oppose it as strongly as tobacco and pornography. Another such company, Christian Brothers Investment Services, screens companies with objectionable products and practices and further engages the companies they invest in to become better corporate citizens. Or perhaps if it is good for the environment, it is good enough for you. In that case, you have more choices among the many “green” funds that have sprouted in the last decade. A good starting place to learn more is

If after a thorough study of the scriptures on the matter of money, you feel God leading you to continue to save money and invest it in stocks, it is not going so far out of your way to seek out ethical investments. If you don’t, despite that nagging voice (darn conscience!), don’t be surprised to see your hard-earned money dwindle away, maybe when you need it most. Obviously, this won’t happen to everyone who invests haphazardly, the history of the stock is evidence that many who deal in ugly companies profit handsomely. However, if the Holy Spirit is telling you to get out, there is a good reason. Ignore that voice at your own peril.

Contemplate this: Maybe I should move my money to ethical investments.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Patience, Grasshopper

Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. Proverbs 10:4
The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied. Proverbs 13:4

OK, I sought the Kingdom of God first, now what? I’m still not a huge success – I’m ready for this to happen already!

Even a fool-proof formula for success needs time to work its “magic.” The time spent in earnest seeking God’s Kingdom daily, day after day, is a practical expression of a good character trait that is behind every true success story: diligence.

In our society which likes everything to be fast and disposable, diligence is underrated. You might think it’s non-existent, but the advances in medicine, science, technology, computers and more are evidence of diligence. I work with an organization that funds research on hearing and balance. Each year they give out 20 or more grants to scientists working on tiny little pieces of the huge puzzle “hearing and balance for everyone.” To the average person, some of these studies seem terribly insignificant. For instance, one that was funded this year seeks to quantify the mitochondrial DNA common deletion level and total deletion load in the cochlea of people with and without age-related hearing loss. (Yawn.) And this is just one of the many, many studies in progress right now that will someday complete the puzzle and yield a headline: Cure Found for Age-Related Hearing Loss! There are so many diligent researchers out there working on so many problems and we’ve seen so much measurable progress and so many remarkable breakthroughs that we now expect them and wonder why the heck more aren’t happening. Why isn’t there a cure for Alzhiemer’s yet? Can’t we get this Parkinson’s thing figured out before it’s too late for Michael J. Fox? What’s the hold up?

We want this same overnight success in our lives too, don’t we? I do, I’ll admit it. Daily I am dreaming up new ways in which I could be a huge success by this time tomorrow – a serendipitous meeting with just the right corporate buyer, one of Rachel Ray’s producers Stumble(s) Upon my Reba Ray page, an Oprah producer’s daughter receives On My Own Now for graduation. These are just the type of catalyst that make for big breaks. And yet, unless I have something for someone out there to discover, how could anything like that ever happen to me? Even Joe the Plumber had spent years building up a plumbing business before John McCain pulled his name out of obscurity. Think of any “overnight” success or fame and you will be able to trace it back to years – if not decades – of diligent preparation for that one moment that made the difference. Scientists, celebrities and Joe the Plumber make success look so easy, but diligence is their common denominator.

Instead of wallowing in despair about our future not getting here fast enough, we need to hunker down, put our noses to the grindstone and take care of the business, however small and tedious, that God has given us to do today. That might include cleaning toilets, washing dishes, writing a boring report, making someone else’s coffee or changing dirty diapers. If we do with diligence and a positive attitude, as unto the Lord, the task God has given us to do today, all these things will be added unto us in God’s perfect timing, which usually allots for sufficient development of our character so that when we do get “all these things,” we know how to put them to use for God’s glory and our good.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Yipee! God Sanctions Success

Praise the Lord.
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who finds great delight in his commands.
2 His children will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches are in his house,
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for the gracious and compassionate and righteous man.
5 Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
6 Surely he will never be shaken;
a righteous man will be remembered forever.
7 He will have no fear of bad news;
his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.
8 His heart is secure, he will have no fear;
in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.
9 He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor,
his righteousness endures forever;
his horn will be lifted high in honor.
10 The wicked man will see and be vexed,
he will gnash his teeth and waste away;
the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.
Psalms 112

The hardest part about writing this blog for me is accepting what it says. Just because I’m blogging about throwing away your 401K doesn’t mean I want to throw mine away. Guess what. I also want a big house and I’d like to drive a Buick Eight in mint condition, have a massage in my home at least once a week and never have to do my own nails (hands or feet!) ever again! Frankly, it’s as painful to me to learn what the Bible says about money.

But then we come on a scripture like this and I can finally breathe. If you’ve been waiting to exhale too, here’s your chance. Yes, Praise the Lord! I love the picture we have here of a truly successful man. Wealthy, fearless, stable, triumphant, influential, honored and envied: Sounds like a universal wish list – it’s what we all want. Add love in there and we’re golden! What a relief that God actually sanctions successful people like this guy, which means I can be in God’s will and have all these things too!

Psalms 112 not only paints us a picture of ultimate success, it gives specific direction on how achieve it. Let’s look at the adjectives used to describe that direction: reverent, joyful, obedient, gracious, compassionate, righteous, generous, just and worry-free. This is quite a different recipe for success than the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, which are (in sum): be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first things first (this comes third?); think win/win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; and build your production capability. Sounds like a lot of work. For starters, I need to learn how to synergize.

You can spend a good deal of time and resource to chasing and implement The Secret of success – there are hundreds of books on the subject, not to mention seminars, conferences and retreats. But why would you waste your precious resources on such nonsense. Are you a Christian? Do you believe the Bible? Then stop messing with all that garbage and set your feet on the road to success today with this one simple instruction: Seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness.

That means stop right now trying to learn to synergize and get back to the basics: pray morning and night, meditate on the Word day and night (that would require memorizing some of it), focus your attention on living like Christ, getting that tongue under control, loving the unlovable, helping people in need, that sort of thing that you don’t need to read a book to know how to do because the Holy Spirit is right there at every turn telling you “This is the way, walk in it!” (punctuation added ).

Following this one simple “habit” (seeking God’s Kingdom first), you will begin to notice (and others will too) that you’re become more and more like the man in this psalm : reverent, joyful, obedient, gracious, compassionate, righteous, generous, just and worry-free. When you arrive, Praise the Lord! And don’t be surprised to look around and realize you’re also in the house of your dreams, with beautiful kids who bring you joy, doing something you love to do that provides a comfortable life for your family and plenty left over with which to lend freely and scatter abroad.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Who Says Money Can't Buy You Love?

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Luke 16:9

There are plenty of instructions about how to relate to money and what to do with it in the Bible, but they are so well dispersed throughout the scriptures that unless we’re doing a concentrated study on Biblical money management, we could almost get the sense that what we do with our money is up to our own discretion. Sure, money management should fall under all those other guiding Biblical principles, but how that happens can be up to my discretion, right? And some of the clear instructions that do exist, we want to dismiss as being “Old Testament.” Jesus never commanded a tithe, did He?

Friends, your bank account would be better off with that Old Testament law of tithes and offerings than to defer to Jesus’ instructions on money. The new commandments on money that Jesus gives us are radical compared to a meager tithe. Maybe His words weren’t carved in stone and placed in the Ark of the Covenant, but when Jesus tells us something, it’s every bit a command as if it were written in stone. And just to be clear that He’s not making a suggestion here, He says, “I tell you…” Note He didn’t say, “It would be nice if…” or “Don’t you think you ought to…” or “Why don’t you think about…”
So what’s the command in this scripture? Use worldly wealth (money) to make friends. And thank you, Jesus, for explaining what the benefit of that will be: friends in heaven. Hmm.

Why would friends in heaven be important? Well, you didn’t think it was going to be just you up there, did you? I didn’t, but I guess I assumed that everyone would be my friend in Heaven. Won’t everyone like me when we live in a perfect world? All my irritating qualities will be gone, won’t they? I’m not one to speculate a lot about what Heaven will be like. I tend to rest on what the Scriptures say about it, and Jesus referred several times to an order in the Kingdom of Heaven: greatest to least (Matt. 5:19, 11:11, 19:30). If we could see now who falls where on that spectrum, it probably wouldn’t make sense to us, it’s all turned around – the last are first and the first are last (Matt. 10:31). Additionally, there will be rewards in Heaven (Mark 10:29-30, among many other verses). It’s simply not Biblical to envision an eternity that’s equalitarian in all ways.

So what can we do to come out ahead in the next life? There are some instructions in God’s word, but It’s complicated, because we can go along doing everything we think we need to do to get a big reward in Heaven and then on the day of judgment, we get disqualified for our Heavenly prize (I Cor. 9:27) because of some technicality, such as having been proud about our works (you know, showy, boastful). And so we get into Heaven by the skin of our teeth and become the eternal janitor! OK, I don’t have scripture to support celestial janitors, but in some way or another, there’s going to be a least in Heaven – just don’t let it be me, right?

And if it is me? Well, it would be nice to have some friends in high places – to every once in a while be invited into some nice eternal dwellings for dinner. Our verse tells me that I can ensure that for myself by using my money today to make friends for the long tomorrow. Let’s not get all shallow and go right to the absurd conclusion that Jesus is recommending bribing people to be our friends. There are some very simple practical and accessible ways to use our wealth to create eternal friends. I’m willing to bet you’ve had this very opportunity multiple times even this year (unless you’re reading this in January).

I don’t want to point any fingers, so let’s look at this practical application through a parable, shall we? Remember Lazarus, (Luke 16:19-31), the beggar who sat outside the rich man’s gate and begged every day? He would have been happy to have a crumb from the rich man’s table, but to be honest, he was disgusting to look at – he had these gross sores that he let dogs lick – eck! Why couldn’t he sit somewhere else to beg? His very presence affected the rich man’s property value! And why doesn’t he go to the free clinic and get those sores taken care of or go to the free meal they offer at the shelter?

But really, what would have it cost the rich man to carry out an extra piece of bread and some figs each morning to Lazarus. He was going past him anyway – such a minimal effort and expense. Instead, he probably thought, “He’ll just use it to buy beer” or “I don’t want to reward his lack of work” or “If I give him bread and figs, he’ll become dependent on me and expect it every day.” Sound familiar?

Could you ever believe that a disgusting, lazy beggar would end up as Father Abraham’s bosom buddy? Is this the kind of earthly loser that’s going to end up first in Heaven? Dang. Maybe I should start tossing a quarter to that guy on the corner who claims he’ll work for food. I just might need a heavenly friend in high places.

Contemplate this: Am I avoiding an opportunity today to make a friend for the long tomorrow?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Count the Cost

26"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'
31"Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:26-33

There are many considerations that go through a person’s mind before accepting the gift of salvation from God. We may have done a quick summation –– My life + Christ = eternal life; My life - Christ = eternal damnation –– and decided it was definitely worthwhile to add Christ to our equation. Others of us received Christ as Savior at a young age – even if in our teens – probably too young to even consider the cost of following Him. There is no disputing it, that quick summation is correct, but it doesn’t take into account the complicated math that has to happen on a day-to-day basis to be a disciple of Christ.

In these scriptures, Jesus uses two common examples that the people of His day could relate to – and one of them we can relate to as well, the building project. Even if you haven’t built a tower, you have probably built something or set about to do something that takes a while to complete and costs a lot – like obtain higher education, buy a house, etc. Even embarking on smaller endeavors, like going on vacation or signing up for a two-year cell phone contract, require some forethought of the kind Jesus is talking about. So first, a sound financial principle: Calculate before you take action. This is so basic that Jesus used it as a story the masses could relate to – he assumes it to be common sense. And yet how many of us do this as a practice?

I’m guilty as charged – time and time again in my youth, but even recently as well. A couple of years ago my car started misbehaving so I began a tortuous process of trying to decide what to buy next. My top priorities were to keep the price tag under $22,000 and to get good gas mileage. My husband and I test drove a lot of cars and were really nowhere near a decision when one day on a used car lot, we spotted a Honda Element – one of those weird boxy SUV types. We were seduced by the space – it’s one expansive vehicle on the inside. And we bought it that very day, despite a very uneasy feeling on my part. The price was within my budget, but when I sat down to work out the financing, I asked for three-year financing, to reduce the total interest due. I was handed a car payment of $572 a month. I signed off and went merrily on my way without having counted the cost. Later when I sat down to do my budget, I discovered that a $572 car payment was going to require a sacrifice I hadn’t anticipated. I had my eye on that big number – $22,000 – but, I failed to calculate how that would break down into little numbers each month.

Those who accepted Christ with the big picture in mind may similarly be in for a surprise as we realize how that major decision impacts our daily, monthly, weekly and yearly “budget.” To be a follower of Christ does require financial acts of obedience, beginning with giving back to the Lord a tenth of all He has given to us. As we come to cheerfully obey in tithing, God will lead us to realize that He likes to receive voluntary offerings as well – gifts to people in need, gifts for special projects that advance His Kingdom and gifts of our time (that we could be using to make money) to take care of His business. But that’s not all folks, read it and weep (or rejoice if you’re an extremely mature Christian – personally, I’m kind of teary-eyed as I read it): “…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Ouch – especially if you have a lot – ouch.

Moving back up to verses 26 and 27, Jesus gives some concrete examples of what he expects us to give up: any relationship that keeps us from following Him, any personal desire that takes precedence over His will and our very lives if called for (“carry your cross and follow me”). Does that leave anything out? Stymied! Boxed in on all sides! Yes, that’s the cost to follow Christ. Your quick math wasn’t wrong though – we still come out on the winning end of things.

You know, a lot of people can read that last paragraph and still comfortably sip a cappuccino, so let me just hit home right now. Better put that hot beverage down. Are you willing to give up your financial security to follow Jesus? Are you willing to sell your possessions and give them to the poor and follow him (Luke 12:33)? Are you willing to live a day to day existence, completely dependent on Him (Matthew 6: 19, 34)? We may believe that it’s OK if we have one or two bastions of worldly security to which we cling – we can still follow Christ and hold on to a few things for ourselves. But note Christ says that if we are not giving it our all, if we are not carrying (in the present tense) that cross, we cannot be His disciple. He doesn’t say: Anyone who is not willing to give up everything cannot be my disciple. Be willing all you want, but what Christ wants is calculated action.

Contemplate this: Is my need for financial security standing between me and Christ?

Friday, September 4, 2009

What would you do with $10 million?

"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." 16And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' 18"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." ' 20"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?' 21"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
Luke 12:15b-21

Remember the two camps I said most elderly fall into? They either live in poverty, not having enough to take care of themselves or they have a great excess that ends up going to someone else on their death. The guy in this parable is clearly the latter, but do note that he didn’t make it to “elderly.” This man’s life was demanded of him in his prime. He had it all going on – top of the world – building new barns to fit his best-ever harvest. It was that magical moment that we all wait for, where we can put our feet up with a cold beverage, assess our fortune and determine, “I can retire in style!” He had worked hard, time to reap what he had sown.

Yes, it was, in more ways than one. Along the road to success, this man had been stingy with God. So the very night after his magical moment, he lost it all – everything he had worked so hard for – and worse, he lost his soul to an eternal hell. Heed the warning, friend: This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God. This verse doesn’t say, “this could happen to you if…” or “careful that you might go the same way.” It says “This is how it will be with anyone [meaning every single person] who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

Yikes. Better start being rich toward God. And how exactly do I go about that?

Well, for starters, we shouldn’t do what the guy in the parable did. When he had a good harvest, all he thought about was himself: I’ll have plenty for years to come; I can take life easy, eat drink and be merry. But this wasn’t his first mistake – back up to where he asks himself the question, “What shall I do?” I bet the story would have ended differently for this guy if he had answered the question in a “rich toward God” way. Instead of tearing down his barns were probably perfectly functional, he could have filled them to brimming and then given the excess to his extended family and neighbors, as a thank-you to God for the bountiful harvest.

What would you do if you suddenly came upon $10 million dollars? Maybe your first impulse is to say something like “buy a jaguar” or “pay off my house,” but then by number three or four on your wish list, you start to get generous and give a big gift to your favorite charity or pay off your mother-in-law’s house. Good for you, hypothetically, you are rich toward God.

Now, let me ask, what did you do the last time you came upon a little extra cash? Maybe $50 or $500?. In such past experiences, have you been rich toward God? Did you use it all for yourself? Or did you tithe on it and maybe even give some of it to someone else with a need, since you didn’t expect to get it anyway? Did you thank God for it? Or did you think it was your lucky day?

Let’s not make the same mistake as the farmer in the parable. When we get a chance to ask ourselves that cherished question – What shall I do with this extra money that I wasn’t expecting – let’s take a prudent pause before we store it away so we can live fat and happy later in life. First, we should thank God for the unexpected harvest and then ask Him how He would have us use it.

Contemplate this: Maybe God is blessing me so that I can bless someone else.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sow and Reap, Sow and Reap

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks and give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations. When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field. You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed you and your family and to nourish your servant girls.
Proverbs 27:23-27

“Riches do not endure forever.” Now there’s a sentiment we can relate to as we have recently watched our IRAs, 401Ks and other investments dwindle to almost half of what they were just two years ago. For those of us who have another decade or two or three until retirement, we’re smiling like the Cheshire Cat, because as long as we’re in the continual process of adding to our investments, we know – or at least we think we know – that these market lows will soon enough turn themselves around and we’ll be sitting pretty again. But what about those who were slated to retire this year and were counting on that 401K to fund a new RVing habit? What about those who are already retired and see that what they thought was going to last them through some 30 golden years, will be lucky to fund 20 bronze years?

These are unique problems to a modern market economy. Old Jewish men of the 6th century didn’t have this sort of problem, did they? And yet this scripture – it’s like it was written for today!

There’s a concept buried in this verse that challenges the way of American thinking. I’ll give you three guesses as to what it is: (OK, I’m tired of waiting, I’ll guess for you)

1. Give careful attention to your flocks and herds – no, not that. We budget, we reconcile our books monthly, we review our quarterly investment reports, make changes as needed. We’ve got that principle down, though we may not always practice it.

2. Diversify! We need goats, lambs, hay and grasses and each of those should be used in as many ways as possible: goats for milk and meat, lambs for wool and meet, and when we cash in on them, we should invest in real estate (“…the price of a field.”). Wrong again. We already know all about diversifying our portfolio, though we may not always practice it.

3. Hmm, let’s see – have servant girls? Lame!

Give up? The buried concept that challenges our American way is this: retirement is not advisable. It might be the American dream now, but it’s not one of the practices on which this nation was founded – or any other nation for that matter (although it might be a foundation of the State of Florida, thinking Ponce de Leon here… and old geezers in black socks and tennies). Smarter people than I could tell you when exactly the concept of retiring from work came in vogue, but I do know that it’s a relatively new idea. For most of humankind, elderly people just kept on doing whatever they could do until they kicked off. And that’s the way it still works in most of the world. Of course, they are not able to continue the level of productivity of their midlife years, and they may not even be engaged in activities that have a direct monetary payout, but they contribute by watching grand or great grandchildren, taking the flocks out to pasture, stirring the soup – whatever – they work! Only in Western Civilization do you find the elderly person whose purpose in life is to play golf, shop and see the world.

Now, if you want to know the truth, given my druthers, I would far prefer to play golf, shop and see the world from age 65 on, rather than continue to labor. And for many people, working past a certain age at the profession they have held throughout life is simply not an option. If they don’t chose to retire, they are forced to retire. Our society makes it fairly problematic not to retire – a strange and quick turn of events from the days of yore.

Let’s step outside our societal norm for a second and consider this: Is it God’s will that we retire? This is a huge question with lots to consider, prime among them: what is it we’ll be doing with all our spare time? Do you think it’s God’s will for us to RV around the country or watch three hours more of TV each day? Some folks retire from their day job to pursue a ministry – like going into missions. For that person, God probably sped retirement.

The not-so-obvious sage advice in these verses is to keep the income coming in – don’t be so naïve to think that what you have will provide for the number of years you have planned for it to last. This rarely seems to work out. Think of the elderly people you know – they seem to fall in two camps: either their money didn’t last them long enough and they are living in poverty or they die with a ton of money in the bank. Both are big rip-offs and there is much scripture to support that neither is God’s will for our finances (we’ll be looking at these in future posts). Perhaps God’s will is “sow and reap, sow and reap.” Of course, we’re always doing that anyway. But my question to you is this: If you sow 18 holes, followed by a massage and a few hours of prime-time TV, what do you reap?

Contemplate this: Maybe the only sure plan for not outliving my harvest is to keep sowing for as long as I’m physically able.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dangerous to Play it Safe

14"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15To one he gave five talents* of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.' 21"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!' 22"The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.' 23"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!' 24"Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.' 26"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. 28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
Matthew 25:14-30 (NIV)

Obviously, the talents in the parable do not refer to money, but to general abilities and spiritual gifts that God expects us to grow and use wisely, not bury. And yet He has cloaked this lesson in some practical advice about managing finances. Let’s just list what we can learn from the story:
• Each person is given in life according to his or her ability.
• God will call us to account for how we have used what He has given us.
• If He’s pleased with how we’ve grown the initial investment, He’ll put us in charge of more. (This probably has applications for both this life and the next.)
• When we use our resources wisely, we are invited to share in our Master’s happiness – that abundant life thing. (Again, may have applications for this life, and certainly for the next.)
• God harvests where He has not sown and gathers where He has not scattered seed. (You got me?!?)
• God does not reward fear.
• A very minimum of what we can do with our resources is to put them in the bank and let them earn interest.
• Those who grow their initial investment, get more – even unto abundance. Those who don’t will have even what they had taken away from them.
• The person who does not grow the initial investment God has granted is a “worthless servant.”

This is a power parable – so much to be gleaned from it, but let’s zoom in on the lessons of financial stewardship. The foundation of this parable is a gift from God – God’s initial investment in each of us according to our ability. This is not “playground fair” by any means, but the hard truth is that we are not all capable of the same level of success in life. God has given all of us something, but Scripture clearly supports that to some, He gives more, both in material resource (think Solomon with the silver spoon in hi s mouth from birth) intellect and spiritual gifts. Bummer! Get over it, life’s not fair.

What we each do get, however, is a chance to build on what God has given us. And it seems from this parable that what we make of that chance is where our will impacts our destiny. Are we going to stick our necks out, take every opportunity in our radar and stretch and grow our resources through much effort, and yes, even some risky investments? Or are we satisfied with living from a public entitlement or perhaps an inheritance and burying the resource God gave us to improve our own lot?

God does not reward fear or laziness. If we are afraid to try for that promotion or if we let college pass us by because we don’t think we can make the grade, our lack of faith will have a consequence in our lives. Even the rock bottom minimum of what God expects from us is an investment: “You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers.” It’s clear that standing still in life is not God’s will for us. If we want to share in our Master’s happiness, we need some upward mobility in life – in career, education, skill level, civic involvement – use those talents, Servant!

This does not mean we need to accumulate more stuff and things. I see this clearly in the parable when the Master comes to settle accounts. What happened to all the talents at the end of the story? Did the servants get to keep them? No. They all went back to the Master and then the Master said He would give them more. The point of reaping a good harvest is to return it to the Master – to use the harvest for His Glory. Do you think the story would have ended differently for the top servant if the Master had come back to find that the servant used his five talents, plus the five he earned, to purchase a nice plot of land and build a huge home on it?
God promises an abundance for those who grow their talents, but we must give back to the Master what is His. We must remain ever-cognizant of the fact that we only have what the Master has given us.

Contemplate this: Am I playing it too safe with my money, career or education? Will God be pleased with what I have added to the resources He invested in me? Am I giving back to the Master from the harvest of my God-given talents?

* A talent was worth more than a thousand dollars.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Can I Borrow 20 Bucks?

23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[a] was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. 28He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. 29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' 30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
Matthew 18:23-35

The obvious meaning of this parable is that God wants us to forgive each other as He forgives our sins. There is even an admonition, which has been highly debated, that if we do not forgive our transgressors, God may show us no mercy at the judgment seat, despite how secure we might “feel” in our salvation here and now. And of even greater controversy is the hint that perhaps the consequences of the sins of a head of household can also fall on those under his or her spiritual umbrella. There is no dearth of commentaries on these meanings (except maybe that last one), but I wonder, does this parable also say something to us about how to manage our debtors?

In the Old Testament, once every 49 or 50 (debated) years there was a year of Jubilee in which debts were to be forgiven (Leviticus 25:13-17). Oh how I wish this weren’t an old Jewish custom! Wouldn’t it be great if Citibank and Discover would declare a year of Jubilee? I’m sure that would be problematic, as even otherwise highly scrupulous persons would max out their credit cards on Jubilee Year’s Eve! So it’s not happening at a corporate level, but what about at a Christian level? It was commanded by God – does this not mean anything to us today?

Have you loaned anyone $20 that you’re still waiting to see returned? If you’re like me, it was a lot more than $20, and when I loaned it, I half-way didn’t expect to see it back. Doesn’t it seem like the folks asking for loans are the always the very ones who aren’t likely to pay it back? That’s no coincidence – it speaks to their ability to manage money.

If a person is so desperate that she doesn’t have $20 worth of good credit with Citibank, she is either at the end of a long series of financial devastations, or she can’t manage her money.

But here’s a thought: Who has the harder time managing money? The person living hand to mouth whose financial problems are solved for a time (albeit brief) by a $20 bill, or the person who is floating $5,000 of debt with Citicard? It may be more socially acceptable to be thousands of dollars in debt while having a functioning car, a nice house and cool clothes, but in a hard financial analysis, we’d be better off needing $20 to finish paying the electric bill, owning no other financial institution. That gal really doesn’t have as many problems as it seems.

Yet the sad reality for many of those folks who need to borrow $20 is that they have already used up all their credit and are so far behind in trying to pay back the debt that they don’t even try anymore. They don’t care that the wheels of justice are slowly churning to eventually garnish their wages or tax returns – they just need $20 to solve a problem today. Tomorrow will hold its own $20-problem.

Perhaps in this parable we should focus on how the master had pity on the servant who couldn’t pay. I’m not waiting for an evil corporation to have pity on me, but I am suggesting that as a follower of Christ, it might be appropriate for me to have pity on the person so humbled in life that they needed to ask me for a loan.

Wouldn’t I just be giddy beyond belief if God saw fit to enact a year of Jubilee in my life and granted me miraculous debt relief? What’s it to God, anyway? He owns the cattle on a… on every hill and there’s more where that came from!

Relatively speaking, what’s that $20 worth to me? If I had some inkling I might not get it back when I loaned it out, I must have been able to live without it. And if I can live without it, why not forgive it entirely?

I can hear the reply from those “bootstrap theory” subscribers: It will create a pattern of borrowing and never paying back – you give an inch and they’ll take a mile.

Yes, well, what if God applied this rationale to the forgiveness of our sins?

Contemplate this: Maybe I should forgive the debt of the people who have borrowed from me.