Monday, December 20, 2010

Manna Living Myth Busters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more could you be doing with your 10 talents?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Righteous* Holiday Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Cure for PGD (Post Gifting Depression)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

Easing Into It

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

Modern Lamentations

Modern Lamentations

My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms.
Lamentations 2:11-12

“Sometimes I think, ‘If I die, I won’t have to see my children suffering as they are.’ Sometimes I even think of killing myself. So often I see them crying, hungry; and there I am, without a cent to buy them some bread. I think, ‘My God, I can’t face it! I’ll end my life. I don’t want to look any more’”
Iracema da Silva, slum resident, Brazil, from Christian Century, 12 Nov ’75, p.1030.

It’s been a long time – more than 35 years, since Iracema uttered those modern lamentations that, despite a difference in continents, cultures and more than 20 centuries, sound alarmingly like the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. I wonder how she’s fairing now? Finding Iracema today, if she’s still alive, would be like finding a needle in a haystack in the favelas of Saõ Pablo – which are as alive and unwell today as they were when Iracema made that statement. In fact, from 1980 to 1999 the number of people living in poverty in Latin America rose from 63 million to 130 million.*

“I like Saõ Pablo,” my local Brazilian pastor said, “but I don’t like the slums.” Today, in addition to housing the poorest of Brazil’s poor, they are also breeding grounds of violence and drug trade. Favelas, projects, shanty towns… yep, Jesus was right, the poor are still with us. But whereas some pie-in-the-sky think tanks and politicians continue to strategize about eradicating poverty, I just want to know, “What can I do that would really make a difference.”

This is the question that I am going to be blogging about for the next months. I’m in Brazil – it’s a great place to be contemplating this question for a number of reasons. First of all, the income gap between the average rich and the average poor is much greater than in the United States – with the country’s richest five percent of the population possessing 25 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), while 30 percent of the nation’s poorest scampers for 7.6 percent. This is actually not as bad as the gap between rich and poor in the US – the number three country in the world with the biggest gap between rich and poor. Nonetheless, the project poor still live in standard housing with indoor plumbing and electricity and many have cell phones (though they aren’t always working) and can afford to buy new clothes and eat out. Favelas poor live in substandard housing without modern amenities, and on their average earnings of $2 a day*, you can bet they’re not buying minutes for a cell phone.

Secondly, I am learning through personal experience what constitutes necessity and comparing it to my previous lifestyle in the United States. Before we left the country, we packed up our entire household and put everything in storage (because we are hoping our house will sell while we’re gone). We rented a 10’ x 30’ storage unit as well as borrowing a storage shed from a friend and storing our car at my sister’s house. We had a lot of stuff and it was never more evident than after we made what we thought was the last trip to storage. The house was so empty it echoed. The only furniture left was a desk, chair and mattress, yet on the last morning in the States, we had trouble fitting all of our remaining possessions in an SUV to take them to storage. Wow! I remember when I moved to Savannah, Ga., in 1995 with so few belongings that they fit in a Mazda Protégé plus a car-top U-haul carrier. Now I am part of a family of four, but still, that was a whole lot of stuff! I’ve been a busy little consumer, haven’t I?

In contrast, we moved to Brazil with a baggage limitation of 70 pounds each. Since we’re only going to be in our home here for seven months, we don’t want to go hog wild setting up house just to have to break it all down again. So our house is much more sparsely furnished than it was in the US and we have resisted buying things that we relied on in the US but have found we can do without here in Brazil. For example: I really want a garbage can under my desk, but I guess I’ll do without one. As my daughter told me while I was contemplating purchasing one: “You don’t need a garbage can under your desk. It’s good exercise to walk to the kitchen.” And so we don’t have an electric mixer or loaf pans or more than one towel per person or an ottoman to rest our feet on, but after three weeks of being in our house, I have to admit, we have everything we need, in fact more than we need, and it ain’t much!

Thirdly (and though there are other good reasons, I’ll end here with #3), I’m already trying to decide what to do with our stuff when we leave. The furniture we can sell back to the used furniture store we bought it from and many other things have been borrowed from the church, so they’ll go back there. That still leaves a bunch of stuff: toys, linens, kitchen appurtenances, a stroller. Like that last load to storage, it will be more than we thought.

I am reading Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and as I was reflecting on it yesterday, I started to look forward to the day I could give away all my remaining things when it’s time to go back to the States. I imagined myself pulling up to the local favelas in a truck, putting the tailgate down and then knocking on some doors to tell people I have some things to give away. As these random lucky recipients began to understand what was going on, they would rush the truck and start to indiscriminately grab things until just moments later, nothing remained. Now, before you go thinking that is some sort of unfair depiction of what might happen, I should tell you (briefly) about what happened when my roommate Karen and I decided to have a garage sale in San Golquí, Ecuador, as we were finishing our Peace Corps service. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We did no advertising, just early one morning started setting up a couple of tables in front of our apartment and starting bringing our things out to sale. People looked but said nothing, and we wanted it that way until we got set up, since it was just the two of us to haul out a lot of stuff. Finally, when we had everything out, we began to announce in loud voice that things were for sale – cheap. It started out slowly, with a few people cautiously approaching the tables in curiosity and confirming what we were saying: “These things are for sale? And how much do you want for this?” When word got out that we were selling our stuff cheap (typical garage sale prices), people mobbed us. We’re pretty sure we lost a good bit to theft – we couldn’t keep up! It was commerce madness! And it was over in no time.** So, my favela fantasy is based on that experience.

In my imagination, I then followed a random lucky favela resident home with her new possession – let’s say it was some plastic food storage containers in a pleasant lime green color. Now she has someplace to store her sugar, flour, rice and beans. All this time, she’s had to suffer storing her dry goods in the plastic bags they came in, but now, she has color coordinated storage containers that will keep food fresher for longer! What joy! What enhanced quality of life! She’ll be the envy of her neighbors and she’ll wonder how she ever got by without them. When they finally wear out, she’ll have to cut corners for a month to save up money to replace them, because going back to life without plastic food storage containers is just not an option.

See my point through the heavy sarcasm? How can we (and I, specifically) help poor people? If giving my stuff to them doesn’t do it, what will? In a matter of a minute or two, I ran through the gamut of known avenues of assisting the poor and all of them came up with similarly absurd endings. The fact is that nothing seems to be working. Poverty is so wide-spread and systemic; what can I do about it? Let me cut to the chase and say, I DON’T KNOW! But that is the question I’m going to explore in these next months. Stay tuned.

*Pobreza e Desigualidade no Brasil, a UNESCO publication, 2003

**This is too funny so I have to share it, but I didn’t want to detract from my line of thought up there: Throughout the afternoon after the garage sale, people kept knocking on our door asking us if we had anything else to sell. I’m pretty sure we told them “no,” but people kept coming. Early the next morning, another knock on the door. I answered in my night clothes.
The woman said, “Do you have anything else to sell?”
“No, I’m sorry, we sold everything we had to sell yesterday.”
“You don’t have anything left?”
“No, nothing.”
“What about that nightshirt you’re wearing?”
The woman wanted to buy the clothes off my back! She nudged her way in the door and started looking through the house for anything else that might not be nailed down. She found a piece of fabric – very pretty – that I intended to take home with me.
“What about this?”
“That’s not for sale. I’m taking that home with me.”
She picked it up anyway and started to negotiate a price. I tried to gently take it from her, reiterating that I wasn’t going to sell it. And before I knew it, we were in a literal tug of war over this piece of material! I forget just how we finessed it – maybe I sold her my nightshirt as a consolation – but with some imploring and insistence, we finally got her out of the house – and locked the door behind her!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Mennonite and the Diva

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:25, 26, 28-33.

I saw something in WalMart the other day that caused me to evaluate my value system. I saw a Mennonite family that had adopted a Chinese baby girl.

It is rather ironical that Mennonites dress plainly so as not to call attention to self (among other things), and yet their style of dress is quite attention-grabbing. The purpose is defeated whenever they leave their own circles. And so I notice them, but not just notice, I ogle them. I cannot explain my fascination with Mennonites - I just love to look at them (though try not to be caught doing so). But on this day in WalMart, I was staring at something more than their bonnets. I was so stunned by the site of a little Chinese girl dressed in calico that I just walked right up to the older sister who was holding her and asked the obvious, "Did your family adopt her?" (She could have been a foster child, I guess.)

Yes, they had.

The baby, who had a beautiful name I can't recall, had been in the U.S. about three months. She looked to be about 18 months old. I said a few words to her and then put my foot in my mouth again, saying, "Oh, I guess she hasn't been in the country long enough to learn English." Then I recalled that many Mennonites speak German in the home. We had a nice little conversation between two families who have adopted. They also inquired of my son; we exchanged well wishes and went on through the checkout.

On the ride home, I told my daughter, "I feel sorry for that Chinese baby." We chuckled thinking of the day she finally realizes she had been brought to the land of opportunity by Mennonites. As the humorous thoughts were forming in my head, I simultaneously recognized there was a problem with my thinking. So I began to explore mentally why I thought the Chinese baby was less fortunate than if she had been adopted by a mainstream American family. What do we have that Mennonites don't? Certainly not money. The Mennonites in this area are well-off - simple, but not lacking for anything. They use electricity, drive cars and have cell phones, so they don't lack for modern conveniences. They shop at the same grocery store, and I've been to their bake sales - food is certainly in their favor. I finally concluded that what we have that they don't is a huge variety of fashion accoutrements and entertainment choices.

Wow. So I felt sorry for that little Chinese girl because some day she would realize she can't wear paisley, and that she would miss out on things like "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Hannah Montana" and when she’s grown, "Desperate Housewives." How could a stable family*, and a strong, moral community make up for this little girl being denied pop culture?

Even as I was reflecting on how much I apparently value fashion and entertainment choices, I received in the mail a review copy of Divanomics: How to be Fabulous When You're Broke by Michelle McKinney Hammond. Normally, it would take me up to six months to review a book, but on that same day, I just happened to have a two-hour window with nothing else to do but read. I was intrigued to learn that the well-known diva had come on hard times - books not selling and all that - and now had major financial problems such as needing to dump an overpriced condo, staving off creditors before they repossessed her wig collection, and the like.

Having always lived modestly - and not by choice - I found it hard to muster sympathy for Hammond as she is forced to deconstruct her empire. I would not be so bold as to say that God brought her to this financial trial as a way of setting things straight, but it is quite obvious that in this trial, He is drawing her closer to Him. I was touched by her final reflections about the things that truly matter. The book is packed with decent advice about how to live frugally, but nothing ground-breaking. It might be useful if, like Hammond, one had never in her life given a thought to being frugal and now suddenly needed to become just that. However, for those of us who have been living it all our lives, this book reads like Dick and Jane. I did learn a new trick about house-sitting a McMansion in the chapter "How to Live in a House That's beyond Your Means."

Let's just take that trick, for example, and dissect it. The advice is that there are agencies (she lists a Web site), that represent people who are out of the country, have more than one home, are trying to sell their home, or for some other reason, have a huge, hunking house that is sitting vacant, and would be agreeable to someone living it in for free, in exchange for them maintaining the lawn and deterring thieves and vandals. Sounds pretty good until you consider that the utility bills would probably be more than rent on a two-bedroom apartment, and maintaining the home and grounds of a McMansion is like a part-time job. And for what? So you can impress your friends with 4,000 square feet more space than any single person needs? And forget about watching any scary movies while living in that big house all alone!

The fact that Hammond would guide women into unnecessarily getting into a huge house just for the look and feel of it gets to the heart of a basic assumption that we need to challenge - and it's the same assumption that led me to feel sorry for that adopted Mennonite child: Variety, luxury and brand names are hallmarks of a good life. Divanomics reflects the confusion in Christian thinking on the matter of prosperity and luxury. This is also a topic I am exploring in this blog.

On the one hand, we have the Proverbs 31 woman, dressed in fine linen and purple, bringing her food from afar, with kids clothed in scarlet. On the other hand, we have Jesus telling us that if we want to be perfect, we need to sell our possessions and give to the poor. These are seemingly contradictory, and since there are so many more scriptural references to prosperity (albeit, mostly in the Old Testament) than extreme generosity, a lot of Christians are claiming the prosperity promises with only the occasional nod to gospel generosity. I don't have all the answers, but I do know this: If both of these concepts are recurring in God's one Word, there must be a way to reconcile them.

Oh, what's that? Look what Jesus said at the beginning of this article (and in Matt 6:28-33). Don't worry about clothes, food and the wine list, instead occupy your mind and energies with seeking God's will for your life and He will add all these things to your life. So He wants His children to dress in fine linen, but not to put the appetite or pursuit of it above Him. That was simple enough.

Does Divanomics promote worrying about food, drink and clothes? Well, it is an entire book dedicated to seeking these things out. Beyond that statement, I am ordering my jury to remain silent and leave the final judgment to the reader. The case is somewhat complex, with Hammond mixing in personal testimony, instructions on tithing, and teaching some basic survive-on-the-cheap skills.

I did arrive at a verdict about the Chinese baby, however. I decided that my thinking has been distorted by materialism, and that child is, in fact, blessed.

*In 1982 (last reported stats I could find), when U.S. divorce rates were at a high of near 50%, only 3.5% of active Mennonites had ever divorced or even separated.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Quitting Time

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Matthew 6:25-26

In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat - for while they sleep he provides for those he loves. Psalm 127:2

Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Proverbs 23:4

For overachievers, hell on earth must be an hourly-wage job. A company policy against overtime keeps them from their obsession do more and better. There probably are some misplaced overachievers here and there in the hourly workforce, but I bet that most often, if an overachiever is in an hourly-wage job, it is stepping stone to something less restrictive. I think of overachievers as typically being in salaried or commissioned positions, or self-employed - a work arrangement from which they can reap some positive reinforcement for their obsession.

Maybe I'm being harsh on overachievers to say they are obsessed. I do believe there are seasons in a person's life that are prime for high productivity and if we have the God fortune to find ourselves in such a time and engaged in an activity for which we are well-suited, we should go for it! Produce, produce produce! However, many an overachiever cannot discern when they are in such a season - they think any season is prime for production. Consequently, there are those who neglect sleep, their health, finding a spouse, or if they found one, neglect the spouse and their children, God, family and even the dog just to get in one more sales call or finish one more chapter or check the balance sheet one more time. Being busy fulfills them. Perhaps they think they are living out Solomon's best case scenario: eat, drink and find satisfaction in work for the few days God has given us (Ecclesiastes 5:18). But look what else Solomon said: "In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat," and "Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint." When we juxtapose these scriptures to a 16-hour work day, overachieving does seem to be a mental ill - an obsession.

Solomon wasn't addressing everyone in these verses, because not everyone has this problem. Many have the opposite problem and to those, he said things like, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man" (Proverbs 6:10-11). And then there are those who have found the middle way - balance. I venture to say that working an hourly-wage job is conducive to having balance in your life. When the "whistle blows," it is quitting time and off you go to enjoy life outside of work, which usually bears no resemblance to work.

So this entry goes out to all my self-employed, salaried or commissioned homies who aren't calling it a day at the blow of a whistle: Show some restraint. Set yourself a work schedule and, against every fiber of your obsessed being, stop working when quitting time comes. Turn the phone off. Take the wife to dinner. Make every soccer and t-ball game - the season is short. Take a Sabbath (that's once a week, BTW). Take a vacation. Celebrate the holiday, all day.

Easy for me to say, right? Actually, no, it isn't. I struggle almost every night to make dinner while there are still people at the table. I work at night, making it particularly hard for me to call it quits and go to bed on time. I've made great strides in this regard, however. Some years ago, I would work until the wee hours of the morning, now I rarely work past 11 p.m. But my bedtime is 10 p.m. (to get eight hours of sleep), so I have a ways to go.

Jesus (kind of) said life is more important than being able to sport Rolex and Armani and eat at five-star establishments. Yes, but for many an overachiever, Rolex and Armani aren't even on the radar. We're just overachieving for the heck of it - not even really seeing any wealth or prosperity as a result. How much more vain is that! Then there's the overachieving minister. This is the hardest nut to crack because he feels his obsession is sanctioned by God Himself. He's doing the Lord's work, so it is OK to abandon all restraint. After all, the fields are ripe for harvest and the laborers are few. We've got to make hay while the sun still shines! If we go to bed now, a soul could remain lost as a result.

Newsflash: We are expendable; God can call a lost soul to Himself in some other way if we take the day off. And we are no exceptionl; the commandment to rest on the Sabbath was meant even for the men and women in God's service. Just because we're in the family business does not mean the policy manual does not apply to us. Even Jesus observed the Sabbath and holidays, and every once in a while, He just got away from it all to refresh and renew. He had only three years to minister to all of humanity. Surely our deadlines and sales goals pale in comparison.

Contemplate this: Have I allowed work to overstep its rightful role in my life?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Tax Collector in Me

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"
"Don't collect any more than you are required to."
Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"
He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely - be content with your pay."
Luke 3:12-14

You gotta love John the Baptist. He pulls no punches. There's no beating around the bush when he's asked by these notorious lots, "What are we doing wrong?" In one sentence, he pierces the heart of the matter. We're not tax collectors and soldiers, but these words are penetrating for us as well, if we will just reflect for a moment on how this spirit of extortion creeps into our daily life and existence.

From the hourly employee all the way to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, there is room for extortion at our workplace. The devil has made sure of it. The hourly burger flipper can do time clock tricks that gain him 15 minutes here or there, he can spend time on the clock in the bathroom, contemplating his navel, he can stuff fries in his mouth when no one is looking and who's going to notice if he slips a Happy Meal toy out for his nephew? For a list of possible CEO and upper management abuses, just review the history of the fallen Enron executives, among many others.

Corporate greed happens in small businesses too. I'm self-employed, so I have no boss or stockholders to cheat, but I can sure jip my clients if I wanted to. I can do substandard work that I know will be enough for them, but not to my best ability. I can fudge on the time a task took me if I am working for hourly pay. Even if my contracts are watertight, I can always find some way to make a business expense out of a personal expense. Going to visit Mom the next state over? I'll just stop into a bookstore while I'm there and drop off a business card. Now the whole trip is a "legitimate" business expense.

I don't consider either of my parents to be the kind of people who are always looking to make a buck any way possible. In fact, they are both generous to a fault. So where does this propensity in me com from, to always be thinking of ways to weasel money? It is culturally pervasive, either overtly or as evidenced by the many controls to keep this money-weaseling nature in check, and moreover, it is just human nature.

Those who have had the experience of traveling off the tourist track in just about any Latin American country can tell you that bribery and extortion are practically institutionalized. There's no minor infraction of the law that can't be settled by slipping the officer a 20. Big trouble costs more. When I first saw this in action while I was in the Peace Corps, I was appalled. I quickly concluded that the whole system was corrupt and their justice was no justice at all if supported by bribery and extortion. It is so easy to see the splinter in the Ecuadorean's eye! If I turn my scrutinizing eye to my own countrymen, however, I have to hang my head in shame for Americans too. Whereas dishonest gain is outlawed and frowned upon, it certainly is as strong a nature in our culture, as evidenced by the many prohibitions, policies and procedures and technologies - everything from the time clock to the retina scanner - that we have in place to deal with it.

And if I look inward... shame on me. Not everyone struggles equally with every kind of sin. You may well be the kind of person who is always on the up and up and never trying to better yourself with office freebies, legitimized business expenses and extended bathroom breaks. The only way to know for sure is to pay some attention to yourself in this matter. Keep a watchful inward eye for the propensity to get more than is rightfully coming to you and you might be surprised at how natural an inclination this is.

What should we do? Be content with our pay.

Contemplate this: Am I justifying my sin nature to claim more than is due me?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thanks a Million

David took the gold shields that belonged to the officers of Hadadezer and brought them to Jerusalem. From Tebah and Berothai, towns that belonged to Hadadezer, King David took a great quantity of bronze.
When Tou king of Hamath heard that David had defeated the entire army of Hadadezer, he sent his son Joram to King David to greet him and congratulate him on his victory in battle over Hadadezer, who had been at war with Tou. Joram brought with him articles of silver and gold and bronze.
King David dedicated these articles to the LORD, as he had done with the silver and gold from all the nations he had subdued: Edom and Moab, the Ammonites and the Philistines, and Amalek. He also dedicated the plunder taken from Hadadezer son of Rehob, king of Zobah.
And David became famous after he returned from striking down eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.
He put garrisons throughout Edom, and all the Edomites became subject to David. The LORD gave David victory wherever he went.
II Samuel 8:7-14

I have to confess something: However good a Christian I may be, I don't pray before I eat. Shame on me. Though it was modeled for me, more or less, in my childhood, it's not something that carried over into adulthood. I can't say I'm fully convicted to begin the practice, even though I recognize on an intellectual level that I probably should be. It would be a great heritage for my children, if done right.

This doesn't have anything to do with my own omission of thanks before eating, but all too often, I observe what I consider to be ungrateful thanks – rote, hasty, and insincere compliance with a ritual that is standing between us and eating. "Dear Father, thank you for this day; bless this food and the hands that prepared it. Amen." Done in less than five seconds! I just wonder what God thinks of such thanks. Is something better than nothing? Or would He rather us do nothing at all than to do something insincere? Something to ponder.

Whereas I'm not particularly convicted about pre-meal prayer, I have felt quite convicted about ingratitude in other areas. One such example happened just yesterday. In my morning prayer, I asked God for a small sign of encouragement. Later that day, I received it and when I did, the acknowledgement of it just skipped over my conscious thought like a smooth stone crossing a pond: Touch, touch, touch and then plop, sunken into my unconscious thought. Gone - without a word of thanks. Fortunately, God sent an angel with a scuba mask down into that pond to find that stone and bring it back up, raise it above the water and call out to me, "Hey! Did you see this? This was that small sign of encouragement you asked for earlier. I'm thinking you must not have seen it, because you didn't say anything about it."

"Thanks, Angel. I saw it and just completely ignored it. Thanks for bringing it back for me to contemplate."

And then I offered thanks.

What if I had ignored the angel in the scuba mask (however difficult a thing that might be to do!)? Well, our Heavenly Father is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35) and does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalms 103:10), so probably He would continue to give, give, give. That's just the way He is - a giving God! But why would I want to grieve God like that?

What if I rightly acknowledge God's gifts to me? Psalms 50:23 (ESV) says, "The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me." And the passage above from II Samuel is a good case study of what happens when we make it a practice to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving for every good gift: "God gave David victory wherever he went."

I love that last verse and I have personalized it: God gave Donna victory wherever she went. But I also have largely ignored the preceding verses that detail what David was doing that was so favorable to God.

Every gift should prompt a sacrifice of thanksgiving from me - whether a small sign of encouragement, or a large sum or money. And this should be just the beginning of my gratitude toward the Father. A right attitude is to give thanks for all that I have (James 1:17) and in all that I do (Col. 3:17).

Wait! If I did this, I would be muttering thanks under my breath all day long. I would be praying continually. What a concept.

Contemplate this: How often do I sincerely offer thanks to God?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The American Delusion

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? Luke 16:10-12

Are you hiding something in your closet? I am. My closet is downright junky looking - shoes strewn all over the floor, clothes stuffed on the top shelf almost up to the ceiling. Other shoes crammed precariously in shelves, and the dirty clothes hamper on the floor, in an almost constant state of overflow. If there were something precious in my closet, no one could ever guess by looking. But there is something precious in there, lots of things - at least I thought so at the moment I parted with my hard-earned cash to purchase them. Or even more extreme, when I indebted myself with up to 20 percent interest to have them immediately when I really couldn't afford them.

But now look at those things - all crammed in together and hardly ever seen, let alone put into use. My closet reveals an unflattering truth about my house-keeping skills, but the real skeletons in it are the sins of ingratitude and greed. The truth is that I no longer appreciate many of my clothes and shoes, but at the same time, I'm not ready to part with them so someone else can appreciate them.

In 1995, I moved to Savannah, Ga., in a Mazda Protégé with a car-top U-Haul container. Everything I owned fit in or on top of a compact car! Five years later, when I moved to Corpus Christi, I needed a 17' U-haul truck. Four years after that, when we moved to Arkansas, we needed a 24' U-Haul with a car trailer behind, the car in tow was completely stuffed, and our Ford Ranger was overloaded, towing a 5'x 8' U-haul trailer behind it!

Clearly, over the last 15 years, I have been a rabid consumer. It is certainly no coincidence that in these same 15 years, I've struggled with credit card debt. How much of these things did I really need? Very few. Furthermore, I probably wouldn’t miss about 90 percent of it if tomorrow I gave it away. Quite often, I go through the house filling boxes and bags to take to the local thrift store. After the things are gone, not only do I never miss them, I can't even tell by looking that I gave anything away. In a hard analysis, I have to admit that I have been entrusted with more than a little and have not handled it very well.

Surely you can relate, if not personally, through the experience of a family member or friend. It's OK to have some things in reserve for special occasions, but most American families have much too much of more of the same. More CDs, more DVDs, more books, more clothes, shoes, picture frames, trinkets, wall hangings... This is, at very least, poor stewardship, and at worst, a mild form of mental illness - pakratitis.

I know, you think you need these things. This is typical American thinking, but when our thinking doesn't correspond with reality, it is a delusion. And in the last 60 years, Americans have become terribly delusional when it comes to their stuff. I count myself in this lot. I am becoming aware of my delusional thinking and behavior, but I haven't progressed to the point of behaving differently.

I am a big advocate of foreign travel, the kind that allows you to enter homes and see how people live. I've done a great deal of this kind of travel and have been privileged to be hosted in homes in France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Morocco. From the richest to the poorest, from the comfort of a Parisian flat, to a cane shack in the Amazon rain forest, each of these diverse homes and families had something in common: they operated with far fewer, and I mean far, far fewer material goods than the average American home. Clearly, our belief that we need our stuff does not correspond with reality.

Americans are so incredibly blessed, but I'm sad to say we've not been trustworthy in handling our worldly wealth. We've used our excess to fill curio shelves and closets. When our houses overflow, we buy sheds and rent storage units. And if that isn't crazy enough, we’re constantly moving from one house to the next and carting all that crap with us!

I am moving out of the country this summer, and it's going to present an opportunity for me to behave differently. Will I choose to pay to store away things I don't need? Or will I part with them, hopefully never to fill my closets with such nonsense again?

Our verse certainly gives me encouragement to do the right thing and give away the things I no longer value - and restrain from obtaining replacement trinkets. But it's countercultural to do so, and it seems to run in my family.

When my grandfather died, all the family that came to the funeral went through his garage and took something to remember him by, or anything they wanted or could use. When the garage was thoroughly picked over, it still held enough to stock a hardware store. What was the point of accumulating all that junk? If you're under the influence of another delusion, thinking that you're saving stuff for your kids: Newsflash! Your heirs don't want it.

I pray that God will continue to open my eyes to the truth about stuff and things and lead me to a better understanding of how earthly possessions affect me spiritually. I pray that He will cure me of my delusional perspectives, open my eyes to the reality of what I really need, help me to value the things I have, or let them go, and teach me to be a better steward of worldly wealth. I pray all of this, because I want to be able to be trusted with true riches.

Contemplate this: Do I value the things God has allowed me to have?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Going the Way of the Biltmore

"Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, 'I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.' So he makes large windows in it, panel it with cedar and decorates it in red. Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the Lord. "But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding of innocent blood and on oppression and extortion." Jeremiah 22:13-17

The prophet Jeremiah spoke these words of the Lord "about Shallum, son of Josiah, who succeeded his father as king of Judah," but it could have very well applied to a number of Judah and Israel's kings, and yep, to you and me as well.

Do you come from a God-fearing family of humble means? Did your parents work hard to provide you with a good, but simple home and put you through college? Maybe it was something they didn’t achieve, or Dad did, but Mom didn't. Or maybe both parents went to college and your family was financially secure, but even so, the bar is now higher for you. Whatever the starting point, it seems there is always the expectation that a child should do better than his parents did - more education, a better job, a nicer home.

When you live in a country of pioneer heritage, it's not so hard to improve on the last generation. We still live in such a country, with today's pioneers being immigrants. I have some dear friends whose parents were all immigrants. His mom and dad came from Croatia, and her mom and dad from Mexico. Both sets of parents are so incredibly hard-working, even to this day! Their reward has been to see their kids not have to work so hard to have a nice home, money in the bank and leisure time.

I'm not an immigrant’s kid and my parents weren't pioneers either (please! I'm not that old!), but I have a similar story. My mother never went to college and although my dad got a degree, he supported the family through blue collar labor. I count it both a privilege and my duty to have gone to college and grad school and be working in a field where only my fingers actually have to physically work (clickety-clack on the keyboard).

Is there anything wrong with this - wanting our kids to do better, and as kids, expecting to do better than our parents? I don't think so. Joseph did better than Jacob, who did better than Isaac, who did better than Abraham, who did better than Terah. Psalms 112: 2 says, "His children will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed." Clearly God is good with this sort of upward mobility. That’s not what the prophet Jeremiah is condemning - it's the means by which Shallum moved up: oppression and extortion.

I note that the prophet decries against using one's countrymen as unpaid labor, but I think it's not too much of a stretch for us to apply this principle to underpaid labor, and stretch a little more and we can apply it to foreign, underpaid labor. Do you see where I'm going with this? Straight to WalMart, and let me just make this quick and dirty. No need to belabor underpaid labor. WalMart's slogan is, or used to be, "Always Low Prices." That describes the wares they sell, the wages they pay their store employees (not corporate and distribution, necessarily, but store employees) and it also describes the wages paid the people who make the wares WalMart sells.

However unlike other WalMart bashers, I'm going to shoulder some of the responsibility here, because I shop at WalMart. Even if you don't, I can guarantee you have something in your closet made in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. Even those fastidious "buy American" consumers are driving around in cars made with parts manufactured in China. It is hypocrisy for any American to criticize WalMart, since the corporation only supplies our demands. WalMart is an easy target because of how big they are (makes them harder to miss, you see), but honestly, there is hardly a business or household in the United States that isn't in some way benefitting from underpaid labor. 21st century Americans, who has built your house?

So many Americans are simply not willing to accept this reality, and I believe it's because we feel powerless to do anything about it. Really, what can I do about it? Buying American is not a solution in our global economy - there is no such thing as an American product any more. Buy local? Sure, that works. How about we all buy local from here on out and turn the clock of progress back to before trade routes began. Sorry, not realistic. And even if it were, if all of the sudden the U.S. stopped trading - ships stood still in our harbors - it might free us of the guilt of building our house on underpaid labor, but it would cause a global economic crisis of unprecedented proportions.

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (cute subtitle), author Thomas L. Friedman makes it clear that as China, India and other countries serve and produce more and more things that Europeans and Americans used to do and make for ourselves, the disparity between the economies (and wages) of these developing countries and our own is flattening. It's far from flat at present, but instead of a Himalayan global economic landscape like we might have had in the 1980s, with the measures of economic prosperity in the world's most prosperous countries towering into the stratosphere above underdeveloped countries, we've got more of a Rocky Mountain landscape at present, and can expect a Smokey Mountain landscape by mid century.

Will we ever find ourselves in a Sahara Dessert global economic landscape? Herein lays the greatest, unspoken fear of opponents of globalization. We're no dummies, we can see what's going on here, the underpaid labor is starting to get smart and that worries us. Let's be transparent with ourselves - it scares us because it threatens our hope of a more prosperous future than our parents had. Yes, it's very scary stuff if we care more about wealth and prosperity for ourselves than for our fellow man.

In the early 1900s, George Vanderbilt constructed America's largest private residence, Biltmore, in Asheville, N.C. So massive was this construction project that he actually formed a village, Biltmore Village, just off the property to sustain the workers. From all I can ascertain from the history (which I know must be heavily skewed in Vanderbilt's favor), George seemed like a decent fellow who did not underpay his workers and, in fact, raised their standard of living. Long story short, George builds this most incredible house, lives in it about 10 years then dies, leaving it to his wife and daughter. They lived in it for about 20 years more, and then, ut oh, the Great Depression hit. You know, it's so hard to maintain a monster home in a bad economy, isn't it? The Vanderbilt ladies did the only thing they could to keep it in the family, they opened it up for touring to the public. From that day to this, it has never again been a single-family dwelling; it has been open for the public to enjoy. It's still privately owned, unlike its West Coast counterpart, the lavish Hearst Castle, which is now a state park, but its purpose is public enjoyment.

Maybe we're not planning a construction on the scale of Biltmore or Hearst Castle, but in a quickly changing global economic landscape, will our children be able to maintain the McMansion we're living in today, or planning to build tomorrow? The bigger question is: Why are we living in, or planning to build, such a monster home? Did not our parents have food and drink? They did what was right and just, and all went well with them. They defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know God?

Contemplate this: Is having more and better than my parents had more important to me than doing what's right and just?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

In My Own Best Interest

Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. Deuteronomy 23:19

Oh to be an only child! Then we’d have no brothers to borrow from us - and if we're not married, we might want to look for a spouse who has a small family too!

It's not that easy to escape the command in this verse when we stop to consider how big our family really is. In Matthew 12, Jesus asks, "Who is my brother?" and then explains that anyone who does the will of the Father is His brother, mother or sister. So if I am Jesus' sister and you're his brother, that makes us brother and sister, right? Whoa! That’s one big family. A person could go broke lending to all of them without earning any interest. Better consider carefully who we lend to, right?

Well, there are some pretty clear instructions on that too: "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" Matthew 5:42. In a word: Anyone! Hold on, because it gets deeper. Jesus goes on to say that not only are we to loan to anyone who asks of us, but that if anyone takes what belongs to us, we're not to demand it back (Luke 6:30) and that we’re to lend without expecting to be repaid (Luke 6:35).

Do I have this straight? The Bible commands us to loan to our brothers without interest, loan to anyone who wants to borrow from us and, finally, we're not to expect repayment or demand it back. What's at stake here? If we take these verses literally, we could end up loaning every spare cent we have to our brothers and never earning a penny of interest on it or seeing anything come back to us.

I could just stop right here and let you contemplate that, couldn't I? I need to time to think it over as well. For the person who lives tightly within his or her means, these verses don't so much as prickle – in fact, they may be somewhat liberating: Cool! There’s a Biblical basis for me to borrow money and not pay it back! (We'll tackle that in a later post, but for the quick answer, see Romans 13:7-8.) However, before we determine we don't have anything to lend, we need to examine how we are defining "means." Does "means" include our savings and retirement? Perhaps we think that just because our money is tied up in an IRA, we don't have anything to loan. Is stuffing all our extra income into a sock a legitimate way to get out of having to loan money to those who need it? What's the motive behind that thinking? We may have convinced ourselves that it's prudence - we're planning for our future when we will have outlived our ability to work. Maybe. Examine yourself, however, to see if there might be some other motive that's not so prudent. Greed can make a person stuff their money in a sock drawer too. So can fear - it's a lack of faith and trust in God’s promises to provide for our needs.

Here, friends, is where our faith needs to grow. There is a Biblical basis for saving money for a long winter (Proverbs 13:11 and 10:4,5), but have you ever noticed that there aren't any references to that in the New Testament and that the ones in the Old Testament aren’t exactly hard core? The New Testament takes the principles of money management presented in the Old Testament to a higher imperative. The Old Testament says don't charge your brother interest on a loan and the New Testament ups the ante (if I can apply a poker term to scripture) by commanding that we give to anyone who asks without expecting repayment. (BTW, money management is just one of the very many teachings that the New Testament takes to a higher imperative –see the rest of the Sermon on the Mount for more.)

Greedy buggers that we are, however, we want to conveniently regress to Old Testament imperatives and claim our right to amass wealth for the heck of it - because we like it! Not only that, it makes us feel secure. If I have three months operating reserve in a checking account, I am assured of being at least three months away from the street - from being homeless should disaster strike. If I have half a million dollars saved up by the time I retire, I can be assured that I will have a comfortable retirement and my kids might have an inheritance.

When we put our faith in our three months reserve and our IRA, in effect, we make money a god. The New Testament, out of the mouth of Jesus himself, tells us we should put our faith for financial provision in God. We are not to store up treasure. Countercultural? You bet! Not even Dave Ramsey is advising you throw away your 401K! But I ask you - where is the Biblical basis for a 401K? Someone in Internet land, please answer me that.

Please know I'm not bashing wealth. I not only believe it is possible to be wealthy and a Christian, I actually hope to be wealthy some day! The Bible clearly supports the idea of prosperity. But for what purpose? Seek the scriptures for yourself, but here's the bottom line: "You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God."

If God has given us much in the way of earthly riches, it's so that we can be generous. We are to let this light shine and produce good deeds to the glory of God (Matt 5:16). Loaning without interest is a good deed. Loaning without expecting repayment is a good deed too.

Contemplate this: Am I saving so much money each month that I don't have anything to loan?

For Further Contemplation
He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor. Proverbs 28:8

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. Exodus 22:25

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. Leviticus 25:34-37

You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess. Deuteronomy 23:20

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Friday, January 29, 2010

Only 330 Shopping Days Left till Christmas!

He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich – both come to poverty. Proverbs 22:16

The Christmas season is so wonderful, but when it’s over, we often have a feeling of “Good riddance!” Consider the violent reaction you might have if you tuned into a radio station in mid January that was playing Christmas carols: “What is this? Christmas is over!” Or the agitation you feel with the neighbor who by now still has not taken down the Christmas yard art. Don’t you just want to go over there and take it down yourself? If you can relate, you’ll have to pardon me because I’m about to dip back into the Christmas season for an application of Proverbs 22:16. When I read this verse I thought, My timing must be off. I should have been at this point six weeks ago, now Christmas is over. Then I realized that what I’m about to share was something I learned through the Christmas season. As December 25 was nearing, it was coming more into focus. I probably couldn’t have written this with such clarity while under the influence of eggnog, with a belly full of turkey and gingerbread.

About four years ago, I started growing discontent with Christmas shopping. I’m not a Scrooge, I actually love to shop (time to confess!) and I love to be surprised on Christmas Day just as much as the next person. Even more, I love to plan a surprise for my loved ones on Christmas Day. It is a great Christmas morning joy for me to see someone tear up as they open my gift to them. (This Christmas I did it twice! I surprised both my daughter and my husband with concert tickets to their favorite artists – both were completely blown away with surprise – and the tickets didn’t even cost that much: $16 to see Owl City. George Strait was a little more expensive at $75 – still, not much to pay to make my husband cry!)

Generally speaking, we are a family who doesn’t need anything – praise God, He has supplied our needs! Nonetheless, it’s not too hard to think of something special and not too expensive that someone in my family would be thrilled to have. So, OK, I can get into shopping for them. But there are a couple of people on my list who also don’t need anything and I don’t have the foggiest notion of what might make them shed a tear on Christmas morning. So I spend an inordinate amount of time surfing gift idea Web pages, cruising the mall and flipping through catalogs to usually just end up sending them a gift card. That’s a nice gesture and I certainly love to get gift cards, so I imagine they do too. But what did I just do? I spent $50 to give someone who doesn’t need anything something more they don’t need or even particularly want. Now multiply this times the number of people like this on my list and there’s a lot of money spent on fulfilling some nonsensical gift-giving obligation. Round about Christmas Eve, I was sick to my stomach with this nonsense and still had one more gift to buy – my best friend – another one of those people who doesn’t need anything. After hours of pouring through stupid gift recommendations online, I decided to get her something that would benefit her favorite cause – pet rescue.

Earlier in the season, I got an email from my mother saying she had given a gift to Heifer International on behalf of our family. I greatly appreciated that – actually, it was probably my favorite Christmas gift this year. I know I’m not introducing you to any new concept to give money to a charitable cause in lieu of giving a mug full of candy or fuzzy socks. You may get several of these charity “gift catalogs” in the mail each year. I threw all of mine away in the garbage can at the post office (another confession!). I love the idea, but I had my mind set already on giving stuff and things.

Reflecting on this past Christmas, I see that if I want to give wisely, that is, according to the principles in the Word of God, I have to put myself in that frame of mind well before the Christmas season begins. Now, in fact, is an excellent time to start – even more so because I have children (two plus my husband) who look to Christmas to make all their dreams come true. This is, of course, the true meaning of Christmas – all of our dreams come true in the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life. And yet you know as well as I do that salvation is hard to fit under a tree. If I want to honor God more in my gift-giving on Christmas, I need to begin now to prepare my children to be happy on Christmas morning with less under the tree.

About four years ago, my husband and I decided to put a limit on Christmas spending – each person gets $100 to buy gifts. We have never once stuck to it, but we’ve come much closer than we ever would have without the limit. When we pool that money, that’s $400 our family of four spends on Christmas gifts. That doesn’t include what we spend to make treats and wrap them for our neighbors or in donations through Toys for Tots and other Christmas initiatives we always participate in (I’m good with that spending; it’s the kind I want to do more of). Do you have any notion what $400 can do in other places in the world? Well, a family of four could live off of it for more than a month in these countries: Burkina Faso (where is that?), Benin (I think that’s in Africa), Eritrea (never heard of it!), Chad, Central African Republic (now I know that’s in Africa), Mozambique (sounds like a cool place to live), Tajikistan, Kenya, Mali (not Malawi), Nigeria (not Niger), Zambia, Niger (not Nigeria), Rep. of Yemen, Madagascar (apparently the movie hasn’t done much for them), Rep. of Congo, Ethiopia (still starving after all these years), Guinea-Bissau, the Democratic Rep. of Congo (another Congo?), Burundi (again, sounds African), Tanzania, Malawi (not Mali) and Sierra Leone. That’s a lot of countries and a lot of people too – approximately 580 million! That’s like everybody in the United States – almost twice!

Oh, but I don’t know any of those people, so how can I send them a Christmas gift? And what difference would my gift make anyway?
Let me be frank: if you don’t know anyone in Africa by name, you just haven’t tried very hard. I know a young man named David who lives in Nigeria. He can go to school each month because we send $25 to World Vision. I know evangelists in South Africa who just concluded an campaign in Liberia that saw 2,200 people accept the gift of salvation. And I haven’t even really tried that hard to come to know these people and their efforts. Mostly, I’ve just paid attention to the mail I opened (unlike the treatment I gave those gift catalogs).

Now let’s do some simple math to figure what difference our gift could make anyway. My family spends less on Christmas than the average American family. Last year 307 million Americans (I thought there were more of us, but this is what U.S. Census Bureau, International Database, and The World Factbook, 2009 reports) planned to spend $743 per person on Christmas, according to Gallop. That’s just over $228 billion. Impressive! What if each person made just a modest effort to redirect some of their inane giving – let’s say $50 a person? Multiply by U.S. population and that’s $15,350,000,000! Do you mean to say that if everyone redirected the funds for one decent gift, next Christmas Americans could give the gift of clean drinking water to the entire developing world ($10 billion) and have enough left over to inoculate all the children in India against childhood disease ($40 million)??? Wait – we still have money leftover –$4.5 billion. Hmm. How about we prolong life for a year for more than 4 million mothers with AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa? That would put a smile on a child’s face on Christmas morning, wouldn’t it?

To all my friends and family: You can take the $50 you were going to spend on me and purchase immunizations for 12 Indian children next year. I can promise you that opening a box with a note inside that says, “12 kids in India were immunized in your honor” will bring a tear to my eye – and joy to my heart.

Contemplate this: At Christmas and throughout the year, am I giving gifts to the rich like the fool in Proverbs 22:16?