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?

Silence…

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 fa├žade 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?