June 1, 2014

Working It Right

The past couple of weeks have been the time of year when the TV shows you’ve been watching since the fall are wrapping up their seasons.  The various storylines you’ve been following for several months now are coming to an end.  These days when the competition is high among the various networks to attract and retain viewers in order to get the advertising revenue that is their lifeblood, most television series wrap up a plotline or two at the end of the season, but then they also will leave the viewers with a cliffhanger of some sort in hopes that they’ll come back for another season.  But, all shows must come to an end at some point.  For some, though, the end comes sooner than the writers were expecting.  There is still story left to be told, but the viewers aren’t interested anymore and so they get cancelled.  Now, for most folks, this is no big deal.  After all, the show is getting cancelled because not enough people were watching to make it worthwhile.  But, for the folks who have been actively keeping up with the series, this can be really disappointing.

For instance, I’ve been watching the series Revolution for most of the last two years.  The premise is that these tiny robots called nanites have somehow caused the power to go out all over the world and people have had to readapt to life as it was in the 19th century.  A result of the power outage, though, is that the U. S. government was brought down completely and a variety of factions have risen up in its place which are all battling for dominance.  In this past season we discovered that while all this has been happening, the nanites have actually become sentient and are developing some plans of their own for the world.  This plotline unfolded slowly throughout the season and although it was secondary to the main plot, it brought the promise of a really interesting third season.  Unfortunately, most viewers did not find this nearly as interesting as I did and the series got cancelled a few weeks ago.  For a series put in this kind of a position there are two choices.  You can either record a new episode or two and wrap up all the various plotlines even if not in quite as timely a fashion as you would have liked, or you can just let things go and end the whole series on a cliffhanger.  The first would prove to be more emotionally satisfying to the fans of the show.  But, that costs a lot of money and given that the show is getting cancelled there isn’t any more money coming.  That leaves the second option…which Revolution took.  The whole thing ended with a giant GASP! and then the credits rolled.  I almost cried.

Well, last week, I ended things on a bit of a cliffhanger.  We talked for half an hour about what the assumption of consumption looks like, how it can play itself out in our lives, attitudes on our part that both lead to and reveal it, and then I said that I wasn’t going to tell you what to do instead until next week.  The episode just ended without a resolution.  Thankfully, the series did not get cancelled and this morning we are going to spend the next few minutes talking about the practice that can help keep the assumption of consumption at bay.

In case you have missed any part of the series, though, let me bring us all up to speed.  This is the fifth and final week of our series, How Big Is Your World.  The whole idea here is that while we like the idea of living in a big world, far too often we find ourselves living in worlds that are severely limited by the attitudes and lifestyle choices we have made.  Our miniscule universes may be mobile, but living in a mobile small world and an enormous world with plenty of space to spread out and explore are not the same thing.  If we want to live in a truly big world, the secret is to be generous.  We are to be generous because none of the stuff we would normally count as ours is really.  God is the real owner.  He made it and it belongs to Him.  We are merely the stewards of His stuff.  He gives us a remarkably long leash to do with it just about whatever we want, but eventually we’re going to reach the end of this rope and get all hung up.  Much better is to use the stuff in a manner consistent with His vision for it and enjoy living within His big world rather than trying to carve out a tiny space for ourselves on the side.  If we are going to take up the practice of generosity, the place to start is by giving away the stuff He has given us.  And, if we’re going to be honest, most of us have the most trouble being generous with our money so that’s the thing we need to give first.  But, even as taking up the discipline of giving will set us on a path toward a big world, assuming the stuff we have is ours to consume will throw us off of it.  The assumption of consumption, as we saw last week, leads to small living.  And, this assumption is sneaky sometimes.  It can manifest itself both as stinginess and as generosity if we give with the attitude that it’s really all ours in the first place, we just give because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

What I promised you last week, though, is a practice that can serve as a kind of counter-balance to the assumption of consumption.  This practice is actually similar to the practice of giving, but broader in scope.  Here at the end of the series I want to step back and give us a big picture of what living in a big world looks like.  We know we need to be generous to get there, but what does a lifestyle of generosity look like?

For an answer to this, come back with me to Paul’s first letter to his protégé Timothy.  At the very end of the letter, just before signing off, Paul gives Timothy a penultimate piece of advice.  At first read it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the rest of the letter.  Pretty much everything else Paul wrote to Timothy in this first letter was about how to pastor a church and keep it out of the theological weeds.  It is a marvelous tool in that regard and should be studied by anybody interested in seeing the church work like it is supposed to work.  And indeed, his final instructions are for Timothy to hold tightly to the truth and to stay away from false teachings.  But just before that Paul gives him some instructions to pass on to the rich people in his congregation, to which we want to ask: Paul, why not give some more thematically relevant advice?  Well, take a look at this with me and see for yourselves.

If you haven’t already, get a copy of the Scriptures and find your way to 1 Timothy 6:17 and look at this with me: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them…”  Let me just pause there for a minute.  The word my Bible translates “charge” could perhaps more properly be translated, “command.”  Paul is not giving Timothy some suggestions to offer, but some commands to be followed.  So what is he to charge or command them to do?  Keeping reading: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches…”

So then, how is this on point on Paul’s part?  Well, what is haughtiness?  It is an attitude of arrogance or superiority toward somebody else.  Okay, but why would someone carry this kind of an attitude?  Because they think they’re better than you.  But why?  That’s a tougher question, but I would suggest that it’s because they think they have more of something highly valued by society than you do making them more valuable to society than you are.  All human societies have valued money.  Rich people have more of it than you do and are thus more highly valued by society, or to put that more simply, they are better than you are.  In other words, they are haughty.  This haughtiness reveals something else, though.  It reveals that they have placed their hope in their stuff.  They have to do this because if their value is in their stuff and the stuff goes bye-bye, so does their value.  Absent any real sense of value we wilt.  Thus, their hope is in their wealth, leading to haughtiness.

Stay with me here for just a minute.  If someone’s hope is in their wealth what is their baseline assumption about that wealth likely to be?  Why, that it’s theirs for the consuming, of course.  In other words, rich people like this very naturally make the assumption of consumption.  Come a bit further here: If we understand theology to be the sum total of the things we think about God and Paul’s concern in his letter to Timothy is that he help believers think right things about God, if people are making the assumption of consumption are they thinking right things about God?  Not in the slightest.  In other words, Paul’s near-closing admonition here is not only right on track with what he’s been writing about for the previous six chapters, but it also turns out to be right in line with what we’ve spent the past month and a half talking about.

Okay, well, if Paul’s talking about the assumption of consumption here, what is his alternative to it?  Come back to the text with me and keep reading: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”  Got all that?  Instead of making the assumption of consumption, we are to place our hopes on the God who is certain and who generously shares His stuff with us so that we might enjoy it.  God wants for us to enjoy His stuff.  He wouldn’t give it to us otherwise.

Think about this in terms of your relationship with your kids.  With perhaps an exception of two, you’ve given them everything they have.  And why?  So they can enjoy it.  You take pleasure in their enjoyment of your gift.  In fact, the more excited about it they get and the more they enjoy it, the greater your joy is, right?  The same thing applies here.  God is generous with us so that we can enjoy it.  Stick with the analogy here just a bit further.  If your kids started trusting in the toys you had given them instead of you, that wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it?  You already knew that, though.  How about this: Do you give stuff to your kids so they can enjoy it literally however they want?  Think about that now.  No, you don’t.  You give them stuff so they can enjoy it however you want.  Come on now, I’m right aren’t I?  You may have a pretty broad range of ways you want for them to enjoy it, but if they go outside of that range, you’re going to stop them.  If they start thinking that they are the real owners, you are going to remind them that they’re not.

Come on back out to the bigger picture.  The same thing applies here.  God gives us stuff because He wants for us to enjoy it.  That’s why.  But, He wants for us to enjoy it in the ways He wants for us to enjoy it.  And, He can do this, because just like with your kids’ stuff, He’s the real owner.  But with God it goes one step beyond even this.  Not only is He the owner of the stuff and thus entitled to set some limits on how it is used, but because He is the source of all wisdom, He knows the ways for us to enjoy it that will lead to the most enjoyment.  In other words, if we operate on His terms, we’re going to get more out of it than if we try and use ours.  Our terms will lead to ends that steal our life and make our world small.  That’s why the assumption of consumption is so poisonous to our attempts to live in a big world.

So then, what’s the alternative?  If we are going to enjoy God’s stuff best when we are using like He wants us to use it, if using it like He wants us to use it means being generous, what does that look like?  Look back at the text with me in v. 18: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share…”  Now, it looks like Paul lists three different things here, but really he’s just saying the same thing three times in different ways making it a little stronger each time.  If we want to avoid the assumption of consumption when it comes to our stuff we need to be rich in good works.  Yeah, but how does that work?  Can’t we still assume it’s ours while doing good?  Well, we sure can, but it’s a lot less likely.  Notice, Paul doesn’t stop at simply commanding that we should do good.  We should be rich in good works.  If we are striving to be rich in good works then we are naturally going to be focused on other people and not us and our stuff.  The more into doing good we get, the more we are going to be on the lookout for opportunities to do good.  Doing good like this, though, takes resources.  If we’re the ones seeking to be rich in good works it is going to take our resources.  The richer in good works we get, the more resources it is going to consume.  We’ll start looking for ways to get more resources in order to do more good.  We’ll start looking at the stuff we have as well as the stuff we might one day have, through the lens of how we can use it for the benefit of someone else.  We’ll start thinking of ourselves as merely short-term caretakers of the stuff God intends for other people.  We are only the middlemen in the distribution pathway from God to the people who really need it.  Yes, we need to cover our overhead and be able to take some time off now and then, but when we are seeking to be rich in good works we are going to make sure that overhead is as low as possible.

Paul lays out the result of this in the next verse.  Look at this with me: “…thus storing up treasure for themselves [Which was always the goal, right?  This satisfies the spend twin.] as a good foundation for the future [Again, that’s right on track with our vision for our stuff.  This satisfies the save twin, meaning everybody’s made happy by this approach.], so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”  Isn’t this the whole point?  Laying hold of that which is truly life?  We play at life in our little worlds all the while God is calling us to real life in His big world.  Here’s how we get there.  We make sure our hope is set and our work is right.  When we can do this big living will always be the result.  Big living comes when our hope is set and our work is right.  Indeed, when our hope is set in the God who is good our work won’t be able to help being right meaning our living is going to be big.  Big living comes when our hope is set and our work is right.  If you want to live in a big world, you need to make sure that your hope is set and your work is right.

That sounds nice, but how?  What are some ways we can make this happen?  I’m glad you asked.  I want to close our series by giving you some practical ways to think about this kind of big living.  Let’s think about this in three different categories.  We can practice being rich in good works with our treasure, with our time, and with our talents.  Being rich in good works when it comes to our treasure is by far the simplest category.  As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we need to make sure that we are actively incorporating the spiritual discipline of giving into our lives.  We should practice prioritized, percentage-based, progressively increasing giving.  Big living takes sacrificial giving.  We should give until we feel it.  If we don’t feel it, it’s not doing us any good.  We should give generously, but wisely.  And, we shouldn’t limit our giving to money either.  Even if you don’t have a lot of extra money right now you probably have some extra stuff sitting around because you’re American and that’s kind of a cultural thing.  Being rich in good works means looking for ways to put that to good use as well.  You already knew all that, though.

How about our time?  We should be rich in good works with our time, but what does this mean?  Think about it like this: do you ever make the assumption of consumption with your time?  Is that even possible?  Of course it is!  Have you ever had extra time?  What was your assumption about that time?  That it was there to be used to honor God and do good or for you to use however you please?  Be honest now.  How about your time generally?  Is it yours to schedule however you please (even if you aren’t happy with all the scheduling choices you’ve made) or God’s time that you’ve been loaned for the purposes of advancing His causes through the means He provided you?  I’ll be honest, I make the assumption of consumption here all the time and I get grumpy when one of the other choices I’ve made asserts itself when I was planning on making another one.  Now, I know as well as you do that there are some things you have to do like work and spend time with your family.  Those are valuable things and I’ll be the first to say that you are going to spend the bulk of your time pursuing one or the other (emphasis on the latter).  But, how much extra time does your current financial situation allow you to have.  I can guarantee it’s a lot more than most other folks in the world or in history for that matter.  What are you doing with your extra time?  Spending it on your own interests or actively looking for ways to be rich in good works?  Now, hey, I know you need to rest some.  My batteries get charged when I spend time totally by myself doing what I want to do.  But for me it’s a really easy line to cross between recharging my batteries and making the assumption of consumption.  So let me offer you a suggestion: Think about your time in sacrificial terms that you’re using to think about your money and use the extra time you have along those lines.  Get involved in serving to advance the kingdom if you aren’t already.  For instance, we need a guy to go with the youth to camp.  There’s a powerful service opportunity that some of you have time to do, you only need to step out sacrificially and use it.

This actually leads to a last area to be rich in good works: your talents.  First a truth: this church is full of phenomenally talented people.  How are you using those talents?  As you see fit, making the assumption of consumption?  Or do you think about them sacrificially?  There are some great examples of people here using their talents to serve God through this community.  Let me cite one in particular this morning at the risk of embarrassment.  Right now on the building and grounds committee there are a couple of guys who have the know-how to deal with pretty much anything that comes along as far as the physical building goes.  Together David Bradford and Marvin Bishop not only handle any needs that arise, but they handle them as if they were working on their own houses.  I have seen over and over again how they have given generously from their time and their talents to make sure that our building and grounds are actually a functional tool in and of themselves in the advancement of our mission to create a place where people matter.  This is but a single example out of many and many of you have talents that could be put to use for the sake of the kingdom.  The assumption of consumption can apply here too and being rich in good works with your talents is a great way to combat it.

 

We could keep going here, but I think the point is clear.  If we want to live in a big world, being rich in good works is the way it’s going to happen.  Big living comes when our hope is set and our works are right.  The only thing left to sort out, then, is this: how big is your world?  How big a world do you want to have?  If you are content in your little world, content to enjoy postcards instead of seeing the sites of God’s big world for yourself that’s fine, but you need to know that you are missing out on real life.  You are missing out on the full experience of the life of God.  There’s not another way you will find to experience it.  So then, how much do you want to live?  How big do you want to live?  If you want to live big, it’s time to step out and do it.  Big living comes when our hope is set and our works are right.  If you want to live big, then make sure your hope is set, and get on to right works.  Be rich with the stuff God has given you to manage for Him.  Be rich with your treasure.  Be rich with your time.  Be rich with your talents.  Be rich with your life because it is not your own.  It is a gift from God that was bought with a price, and when you live within His guidelines you’ll live bigger than you’ve ever imagined.  Big living comes when our hope is set and our works are right.  How big is your world?  Why not live in a big one?  You won’t regret it.