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