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 na├»ve 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.