May 6, 2012

A Rich Life

Well, good morning.  This morning we are continuing our series: What to Do with God’s Money.  The idea here is that all the stuff we so typically call “ours” is really God’s, from our money to the wadded up Kleenex in your pocket. He created it all and therefore He is the final arbiter on whether or not it is being used properly.  For the past couple of weeks, I have sought to make this point as clear for you as I could.  Through Jesus’ parable of the crooked manager two weeks ago we were faced with the fact that we are merely stewards of the stuff we call our own.  If we are going to steward God’s stuff effectively, though, we have to know Him, because being a good steward means knowing the owner.  Then last week as we reflected on a wise man named Agur’s top two list of things to get from God before we die, we learned that the secret to living a life that honors God with our use of His stuff is found in desiring neither poverty nor wealth, but in living honestly and simply.  There’s no offense to honest and simple living.  This morning, with the help of some words Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy, we are going to start to give shape and structure to some of the more generalized statements I’ve made in the past couple of weeks.  We’ll start this part of our conversation about God’s stuff this morning and finish it off in two weeks because I have some other fun stuff planned for next week.  Today we are going to try and wrap our minds around how rich people like ourselves can lay hold of real life, as opposed to the illusory one promised by our stuff.

As Noah has started becoming more aware of the world around him and how it works he has become aware of money.  In particular, he has become aware of pocket change.  I mean, if you think about it, for a three-year-old, pocket change is way more exciting than paper money.  It makes a much better sound.  Noah has this change radar that clicks on any time he thinks there might be some nearby.  It’s almost uncanny.  Some of you have experienced his attempts to raid your change cups at home.  Anyway, because he has doting grandparents (who in his mind work to make money for him), he always manages to have lots of change.  Well, wanting to teach him good habits with his money starting as early as we can, Lisa had a great idea.  Whenever he gets some change, we’ll sit down with him with three containers in front of him.  One container is his.  One container is for him to share some of his change with Josiah since it was technically given to them.  The third container is for the change he’s going to give to God.  We’ll pour all the change he’s received—which again, is often a lot thanks to his grandparents—on the table and leave it mostly to him to sort it out how he wants.  It’s really fun watching him go through the process of deciding which change to put in which container.  Often he’ll start with the 1+1+1 approach: one for me, one for Josiah, one for God. Then he’ll switch to the few at a time approach because 1+1+1 was taking too long.  Finally he’ll just grab handfuls and dump the rest in pretty quickly.  Do you know which container usually ends up with the most change in it?  His.  But not always.  And even when it does, the final tab in each container is a pretty even split of the original number of coins.

Can you imagine doing this with your money?  Can you imagine cashing your paycheck into dollar bills and then splitting it up into the various containers you happen you currently have in your life?  What if you just used three containers: one for you to live on, one for you to save for later, and one for you to give to God.  Can you imagine putting a roughly equal amount in all three of them?  It’s certainly not practical and would be viewed by some as terrible financial management, but I think there are a couple of rather poignant perspective changes we could pick up from Noah.  First, do you know what Noah will usually exclaim when he’s finished sorting his money?  “Wow!  That’s a lot of change.”  He’s not talking about the total amount.  He’s just talking about whatever is remaining in his container.  Now, there’s not really all that much change in his container.  But his perspective on what counts as a lot starts quite a bit lower than yours or mine does.  Second, when he puts all this money in God’s container—because, again, he doesn’t have any concept of how much money it is—the thought of whether or not this might impact his ability to eat or get some new toy at another time doesn’t even enter his consciousness.  What a remarkable thing—to give without thought of the consequences.  Now, yes, again, he doesn’t have any clue about the value of money.  He’s three.  What were you expecting?  But maybe we sometimes have too much of a clue.  All he knows is that he has a lot of change in front of him, mom and dad said to give some of it away, and he is free to enjoy the rest.  He’s free to enjoy it because he knows that how much money he has there isn’t connected to having his needs met.

In an age-appropriate manner, he’s sort of embodying some of the words Paul wrote to Timothy near the end of his first letter.  First Timothy is a book full of advice on how to lead a church and keep it on the straight and narrow path.  It acknowledges all kinds of people in the church.  Near the end of the letter, Paul gives Timothy some advice on how to minister to a particular group in the church: the rich people.  If you have your Bibles handy, open them to 1 Timothy 6.  I’ll starting reading at v. 17. “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.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

Now, Paul’s focus here is the rich.  And lest we try to excuse ourselves, let’s go ahead and establish something.  He’s talking to us.  We’re rich.  I know, I know: some of you don’t feel very rich.  I don’t always feel terribly rich.  But we are rich.  I don’t know about you, but my personal property tax bill came the other day.  Uncle Sam is always good to remind me of just how rich I am.  But if you still don’t feel rich let’s try this.  How many people in here own your own home?  You are among the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population.  And if your home consists of more than a single large room with mud or cinderblock walls you move on up to the top 5% or so.  Everyone didn’t raise their hand at that one, though, so how about this: how many people in here own your own vehicle?  How many own more than one?  More than two?  I won’t even ask beyond that.  Well, let’s put it this way: there are roughly 600 million cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs in the world.  The world’s population is about 7 billion people.  And a bunch of those 600 million vehicles are not owned by individuals.  That’s some tricky math, but it probably puts all of us in a group of 6-7% of the world’s population, and for those who own more than one, you sneak up a few percentage points.  Let’s just go one step further: who owns at least one computer?  Yeah, that’s roughly 3-4% of the world’s population.  Okay, moment of truth: who raised your hand for at least two categories?  You are in the top 1-2% of wealth in the world.  And here you thought you weren’t rich. Let’s face it folks: Paul’s talking to us here.  He’s talking about people with a lot of stuff.  We have a lot of stuff.  The fellowship hall was filled over the weekend for the sixth time and most of that stuff came from folks in this church…again. Jesus said that people with a lot of stuff like us can have a really hard time getting into the kingdom because of the tendency to let our stuff get in our way.  Missing out on the kingdom means missing out on real, eternal life.  Here Paul is offering us some advice on how we can be sure not to miss this.  He’s offering us some advice on how to handle being rich well.

So then, what’s he saying?  Well, some of it we’ve already covered.  We shouldn’t be haughty or proud about the stuff God’s given us as if it were our stuff.  Usually we fall into that trap when we forget whose stuff it is.  We shouldn’t make getting stuff our chief desire.  Check.  Instead, we are to do good with it, Paul says.  He tells Timothy that for those who are rich, a rich life is found in rich works.  Yes, but how do we do that?  The answer to this can be summed up in a single, simple, terrifying word: give.  Come on, you knew we were coming to this eventually.  The best way to handle being rich is to develop the disciplined practice of giving away as much as we can to as many people as we can as often as we can in as many ways as we can for as long as we can.  A rich life is found in rich works.  And while rich works are certainly not limited to currency exchanges, much of the most meaningful giving we do is going to be tied to our stuff.  Indeed, a rich life is found in rich works.

The problematic truth, though, is that most of us don’t live like this.  We know we should.  But knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean doing something.  Yes, the tough reality is that not everyone gives like they probably should.  One author offers a rather chilling statistic on this: “In the United States, just one third to one half of all church members give any financial support to their churches.  Any.  And of the people who do give something, only 3 to 5 percent give a tenth of their incomes.”[1] Take that in for a minute and then try this one on: Americans gave just over $100 billion to churches and parachurch ministries in 2010, with somewhere between 30% and 50% giving an average of just over 3% of their income.  Now, there was a lot of great ministry done around the world with that money.  But take just a minute and try to wrap your minds around what would be possible for the kingdom (because ministry takes money) if you had 100% of church members giving that much; what could be possible if you had even that 30-50% engaging in real sacrificial giving (because for pretty much all of us, 3% doesn’t represent anything resembling a sacrifice).  What all this means in a practical sense is that for millions of believers around the country, let alone the rest of the world, we are not engaging as fully in kingdom investing with our resources as we could be.  Spiritually speaking, this means we are missing out on experiencing as much of the kingdom life as would otherwise be available to us in this life.  We are missing out on real life for what?  For chasing the pleasures of this life which aren’t going to last anyway and will very likely in the end prove to be a huge waste of God’s stuff?  That doesn’t sound like such a smart trade off, such a smart investment.  That sounds like a poor life.  But a rich life is found in rich works.

So why don’t we?  Why don’t we give with the enthusiasm and disciplined sacrifice the Bible seems to command for followers of Christ?  Well, I think there are two main reasons.  The first reason is that we love our stuff.  On occasion I have a little bit of money in my wallet.  Sometimes I even have what might be considered a reasonable amount of money in my wallet.  When this happens, for some folks the natural inclination might be to use that cash for various purchases.  After all, why carry the cash if there’s no intention to use it?  And yet, in those few cases where I have a little bit of cash in my wallet, I am more apt to use a credit card even for small purchases that might make more sense to be completed with cash.  Why is this?  Because I like the feeling of having money in my wallet and if I use it up it won’t be there anymore.  Perhaps some of you have engaged in this twisted exercise of reasoning?  We love our stuff and we don’t want to part with it.  The danger here is that when we want to hold on to our stuff, we’ll find ourselves needing to get more stuff to protect the stuff we do have which means needing even more stuff to protect that stuff and so on and so forth.  In loving our stuff we throw contentment to the wind and set ourselves on a dangerous path.  Paul addresses this a few verses earlier in the same chapter.  Pick up with me back at v. 6: “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.  But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.  It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

But then, you already knew this.  You’ve been in the church long enough to know that loving our stuff isn’t the way to go.  I don’t need to tell you about this.  I don’t need to tell you that loving your stuff is idolatry.  I don’t need to tell you that it gets things backwards because the stuff can’t do nearly as much for you as the one who created the stuff.  I don’t need to tell you that when we love our stuff we have to get more stuff so that the original stuff doesn’t get lonely.  And if we can’t afford more stuff outright we’ll be willing to take all kinds of senseless and harmful risks in order to get it.  This is because we are slaves to whatever we love most in life and stuff is a tough master.  It is capricious and not able to be satisfied.  The only way to ease its demands for stuff is to starve it to death.  Because as long as you are serving your stuff you can’t live a rich life because you can’t follow Paul’s advice for handling a lot of stuff.  Because a rich life is found in rich works.  And when you love your stuff you can’t have rich works.  But then, you already knew that.

So what’s the other reason we don’t give like we should?  What’s the other reason we don’t pursue the rich works that lead to a rich life?  The reason is: we’re afraid.  When I was in grade school, I went a couple of summers to a Christian sports-themed camp called Kanakuk.  It was a fabulous experience.  The campers get exposed to all kinds of sports and other outdoor activities.  Well one of the days during the two-week stay involves taking a boat out on the lake to a small bluff standing alone in the middle of the water.  There is a well-worn path to climb up to the top of the monolith at which point you can jump from a fairly high distance into the water.  For campers who have been before this is one of the highlights of their stay.  My first year, though, I didn’t know this was coming and wasn’t too excited to find out about it.  You see, much of my life then was ruled by fear.  I was a good kid then mostly because I was too afraid to do much of anything that might possibly get me into trouble or hurt.  Well, jumping off a twenty foot cliff into the cold, murky water of Table Rock Lake fit into the category of things that could get me hurt.  Because I didn’t want to seem like too much of a chicken with the other guys I dutifully climbed to the top of the monolith, but I didn’t jump.  I stood there and looked over the edge with me knees knocking.  Finally, when it was time to head back to the boat, after I’d been standing in the way of other kids who were having a great time, my counselor (who was about as good as they come) helped me climb back down so I could get back in the boat.  I never jumped.  I knew it was safe.  I saw all the other guys jumping and having a great time.  If I was honest I knew I was capable of doing it.  But I didn’t.  Because I was afraid.  The thing I needed to do in order to experience the rush of life all the other guys were experiencing went directly against my self-preservation instinct and so I stood and watched.

In much the same way, the reason most of us don’t give with the disciplined sacrifice the Bible calls us to—particularly if we’ve been in the church for very long and have heard our fair share of “stewardship” sermons—is because we’re afraid to give like that.  Think about it.  We don’t not give like we should because we’re not financially capable of it.  For most of us even a bit of simplifying would enable us to invest a substantial amount more in kingdom ventures than we currently do.  Dropping this or that hobby or redirecting a small amount from worldly investing (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) to kingdom investing would very likely enable us to pursue the disciplined sacrifice necessary to experience more kingdom life than we currently do.  No our reason isn’t practical at all.  There aren’t very many practical reasons I can think of to avoid making more secure investments for our long term future in favor of less secure short term ones…unless we don’t really believe the long term future investments are more secure as our short term ones and thus are afraid to do so.  We’re afraid because we imagine that if we put our money in that kind of an investment, we’re not going to see it again and what happens if we should encounter a situation in which we need it.  After all, when we invest in short term ventures (for our life in this world does even begin to compare in length with the eternity we have awaiting us), if we need to, we can always get our money back.  But money given away is gone as far as we’re concerned.  Indeed, as pastor and author Andy Stanley observes: “By nature the concept of generosity is in direct conflict with the concept of self-preservation.  There’s a point at which your own generosity will pose a direct threat to your well-being.”[2] A rich life may be found in rich works, but rich works are, for many of us, fearful waters in which to wade very deeply.

Do you know how we get past this?  Jump.  My second year at Kanakuk we went back to the same rock on our lake day.  I had spent the entire past year ruing my fearful decision to not jump.  I had wondered over and over again what it would have been like to be flying through the air and landing with a tight splash in the cold, refreshing water.  So that second year, I climbed up the path to the top, stood for a minute, took a deep breath, and then jumped out as far as my little legs would propel me.  I soared through the air like a rock and with all the grace of an elephant in a glass factory.  I hit the water like a ton of bricks and felt stung by its cement-like surface in places where I should not have felt any sting.  I didn’t weigh enough to pull my life vest under water with me and so it choked me until my great buoyancy took me back to the surface of the water.  I bobbed for a minute, coughed, sputtered out the water that tried to sample the living space in my lungs, and made my way back up the path to the top as fast as my arms and legs would carry me because it was the biggest thrill and most fun I remembered having in my then short life.  Jumping off the cliff of wise, generous, sacrificial, kingdom investing (which is what giving is) is scary.  It is.  Again: we will likely never see that money again in this life.  We will receive few, if any, guarantees that it will accomplish its stated purposes.  When I finally jumped from that cliff, a log could have suddenly floated into the jump zone and I could have impaled myself on it.  I could have hit the water funnier than I did and broken my leg.  A detailed analytical investigation of the problem wasn’t going to help.  I had no guarantees…except for the people who had jumped before me and could attest with great confidence to the joy they found in jumping.  When we give we have no guarantees…except for the people who have practiced genuine biblical giving and can attest with great confidence to the joy they have found in giving.  They can attest to the fact that they have not only found joy, but also a life permeated by a richness they have not discovered anywhere else.  This is because a rich life is found in rich works.

Well if all of that is why we don’t give, why should we?  The answer should already be clear.  Paul made it fairly explicit in the text.  We give, we pursue a life of rich works, in order to store up treasures in heaven.  We’ll spend more time with this idea in a few weeks, but for now, a major part of the driving force behind our giving is the rewards we have been promised when we have been faithful in this regard.  We give in order to lay a good foundation for ourselves for the future, Paul said.  What future do you think he was talking about?  It certainly wasn’t retirement.  Retirement didn’t even exist back then.  You simply worked until you weren’t physically capable and then you died.  Paul was looking further down the road than that.  He was looking forward to the kingdom of God—heaven.  He was looking forward to the life that is truly life.  He was looking forward to a life of riches that go beyond anything capable of being produced in this world.  All of this comes when we are rich in good works.  A rich life is found in rich works.  And for most of us, the primary source of these rich works will be found in giving generously out of the abundance God has given us.  It is found in making sure that when we divide our wealth into the three major containers of our life, we are conscious and glad to make sure that we are eagerly putting money back in God’s container even if that comes at the expense of the other two.  For a rich life is found in rich works.

Now does this mean the fear will go away?  No.  Not entirely anyway.  But, if we are striving to live sacrificially (meaning we’re giving away more than makes any sense when evaluated from a worldly frame of reference), we’re going to be living on the edge.  When we put money into God’s container that really could have and arguably should have gone in one of the others, we don’t know how or when or from where God is going to provide for us to have enough to give more.  This is very naturally a fearful place to be.  But, the longer we live there, the more opportunities we give God to be involved in our finances and come through for us in ways only He could have done, the more life and joy we’ll find such that these override the fear.  Just like when I finally jumped, the desire for life overcame the fear of living.  Drawing one more time from Stanley: “At some point, giving must move from the ‘have to’ column to the ‘want to’ column of our lives.  That won’t happen until we wrestle our fears to the ground.”[3] Do you know how you wrestle a fear to the ground?  You face; engage in it; and overcome it.  In other words, in this context: you give.  You give consistently.  You give sacrificially.  You give until you’re not sure if you can give anymore and then you give just a little bit more, all the while daring God to give to you faster than you can give to Him; all the while storing up treasures, that is, making investments in the kingdom that cannot and will not be touched.  And then: you live.  Because a rich life is found in rich works.  Live richly, my friends.

[1]Andy Stanley, Field of Gold (Carol Streams, Ill.: Tyndale, 2004), 14.

[2]Ibid., 30

[3]Ibid., 122-23.