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.