Friday, August 20, 2010

The Relentless God

We've been working through a five-part sermon series on the Five Points of Calvinism.   (Now there's a hot topic for a California audience!!)   Actually, it's been a really intriguing experience, and the theater's been pin-drop quiet through much of the series, except for the time when the theater accidentally started to play their canned music just as I was picking up steam on Limited Atonement.   But, I digress.

Here's what I love about this whole area: it gives us the chance to see the Relentless God who pursues his people even before they start seeking him.   Our "personal relationships" with Jesus Christ are not deals we've brokered after careful comparison shopping in the spiritual version of QVC, they are love stories in which a jilted God turns around and seeks out the very loved ones who'd just hurt him.

It all goes back to Eden, really.   That haunting call echoing across God's freshly-ruined creation:  "Adam--where are you!?"   Now Adam and Eve ultimately had to choose whether to accept the grace that God was offering, but I find it stunning to realize that our whole history of salvation was based on God turning around first.

He's relentless, and that's one of the things I love most about the Reformed faith.

How about you?  Have you ever been pursued by that relentless God?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stupid! (Old Fart on Fixie)

I'm preaching a sermon series on the five points of Calvinism.  It's called "A Big God".  The point being that even though we have free will and ultimately we decide to choose or reject God's grace for us, we still need God far more than we realize we do.  In fact we even need him to help us to be able to choose him.  Furthermore we simply need Him to be involved in every area of our lives, because without him...well who knows what we might do?

Some folks don't like a God who's that big or that involved.  He seems controlling.  They'd rather make their own decisions and deal with their own problems.

Well, I intended to write this blog post about that series.  But I'm going to tell you a little story instead.

Our oldest son John is into fixed gear bicycles.  Fixies, they call them.  Basically they're regular road bikes without special gears or the ability to coast.  Or brakes.  (The no-brakes thing is a key element in this story.)  Because John wouldn't be riding his bike this summer he let me store it in our garage.  Or ride it.

Riding a fixed gear bicycle is a lot different than riding a regular bike.  You never realize how handy it is to coast until you can't.  You swing a leg over the bike and push off and those pedals start going.  If you get your feet situated right you pedal right along with them.  But if you don't, you've got nothing to stand on:  those pedals just kind of push you around until you get settled on the seat or the top bar or whatever part of the bike you land on while you're trying to match your feet to the pedals.

Riding a fixie isn't hard once you get going.  At least on straight roads where there are no cars or other obstacles to avoid.  You just ride straight and steady and when you want to slow down you start resisting the pedals a little bit, and then a little bit more and then finally you slow down enough that you can step off the thing.   However it's a lot harder if you have to stop suddenly.   The really good fixie riders know how to lock up the back wheel into a really cool skid and they stop that way.  Then they go buy a new tire, I guess.  But I'm not a really good fixie rider, so I can't skid.  I just kind of slow down gradually.   Riders like me need to be really careful.   I also made one little change to John's bike:  I took his toe clips off.  As scary as it was to be riding a bike that kept trying to take charge, the last thing I wanted was to have my feet strapped to those pedals.  I'd probably hurt myself, I figured.

I commute by bike a lot, so I took John's fixie to my office.  On the way I worked really hard to resist the pedals at every intersection.  By the time I got to work my legs felt like jelly, but I think I looked really cool.  I mean, how many 40-something pastors ride fixies to work?

There's a big overpass right by our office.  My commute takes me over it, and then back again on my way home.    My mind was pretty absorbed as I left my office that day, probably thinking about deep spiritual things or the emails I hadn't returned.  As my thoughts whirled, my legs churned up and over that overpass, heading down the other side.  I'd ridden that climb so often I could do it without thinking.

Which was exactly what I did.  Shortly after cresting the incline the high-pressure racing tires started rolling faster and faster.   That was usually the place where I squeezed the brakes on my commuter bike. Right about then that must have I started thinking again, as my brain suddenly realized that I had no brakes.  I immediately started doing the resist-the-pedals thing, but after a couple strokes the pedals started going too fast for my feet to keep up with them.

(Right about now in the story my son starts doing the dad thing:  "Oh no...I can't believe you...What were you thinking?"  Just ignore him and listen to the story.)

Apparently those toe clips really serve a purpose on a fixie.  I guess they make it a lot easier to slow a bike down because you can resist all the way around the pedal stroke, both pulling and pushing.   If you don't have toe clips pretty quickly the pedals get a away from your feet and it's darn near impossible to get them back.

I had an idea:  I would lift my feet and let the pedals slap the bottom of them as they spun by.   Picture several people rapidly hitting the bottoms of your feet with golf clubs while you're riding a zip line.  Didn't really work for me either.  And the unnerving thing was that I was still gaining speed.

One little detail I didn't tell you is that there is a traffic light right at the bottom of this downhill.  In fact, it never really occurred to me how stupid of a place that was for an intersection, but there it was.  The street was packed with cars from all directions.  And there comes this pastor flying down the hill with his feet lifted up off the pedals.  I swerved out into the lane and easily kept up with all the cars.  This should be interesting, I figured.

I'm not much of a gambler, but I quickly figured the chances of catching that light on a green were about 50-50.  I feared what might happen if I crashed into a truck or a tree or something.  But what I feared even more was crumpling the gorgeous new frame my son had bought when he built the bike last winter.  As I continued to accelerate I began to brainstorm just what I might do if the light turned red and I was faced with a delivery truck crossing my path.  Try though I might, I really couldn't come up with any good ideas.

And then I saw it.  I've seen a lot of beautiful sights in my life:  sunsets, mountain ranges, rocky coasts--but I don't think I've ever seen something as beautiful as that green traffic light shining over my intersection from hell.  It's viridescent sphere of hope boldly marking the path that I could take as I careened past the other more-conventional commuters.

In a moment it was done.  I'd reached level ground, the pedals slowed and eventually accepted my feet again and my pulse slowed to something a little closer to normal.   It was like waking from a bad dream.

Like I told you, originally I was going to write a blog post about why I find such comfort in the Reformed understand of a sovereign God who manages even mundane events in our universe.  There are those who bristle at the idea of a controlling God who would try to micro-manage the world we live in.   They'd prefer to think that they could do just fine on their own.   We're not stupid, they would insist.

I would beg to differ.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Shooting Straight: What Christians Don't Seem to Get About Prop. 8

Once again, we’ve got Prop 8 back in the news.  For those of you who aren’t from our fair state of California Prop 8 refers to a ballot initiative and constitutional amendment limiting marriage to the traditional 1 man/1 woman format.   This week we had one more step in the continuing trench warfare as activists on each side continue to slug it out. 

I’m not quick to jump on a soap-box to make pronouncements on political issues.   As a Jesus-following pastor, frankly, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.  But at the same time, I cringe as much as anyone else when I see the collateral damage that we continue to inflict on each other in the name of personal rights.  Here are four things I wish we in the church would take more seriously.

1.  Just because the Bible speaks to an issue doesn’t mean that we should make a law to enforce it.    I’ve heard my red-state brethren frequently echo the claim that we’re “A Christian Nation”.  News flash--we aren’t.  As I recall from Civics class, we’re not supposed to have a government endorsed religious perspective.  What we ARE supposed to be is a place where Christians can be Christians without legal recriminations while their Muslim neighbors can be Muslims with the same freedom.   If the Muslims in my community tried to pass an initiative outlawing pork, I’d rightly complain. 

2. Just because a personal belief comes from my religious perspective doesn’t make it politically irrelevant.
For a variety of strange reasons we have become very religio-phobic in our country, perhaps especially here in the Golden State.  OK, I made that word up, but I’m referring to our paranoia about expressing and defending the validity of our spiritual points of view.  Somehow we’ve developed this underlying assumption that our spiritual perspectives are like digestive problems:  ideally people shouldn’t have them, but if they do they ought to at least avoid talking about them in polite company.

The fact is, everyone has a spiritual worldview.  Even the people who claim that we shouldn’t have spiritual worldviews are themselves expressing their particular view on the Bigger Picture of our existence.  The thing that matters is what we do with those perspectives. My devout Muslim friends have strong convictions about right and wrong that are not shared by my devout Mormon friends, who in turn have moral convictions that contrast markedly from the convictions that I hold dear.   While it’d be offensive if one of us tried to pressure the others into adopting our worldview, it’d also seem pretty weird if we tried to pretend that we didn’t really care about these things.  We do.

And following from that, there’s nothing wrong with any of us voting on issues based on what we believe to be true.  Last I checked democracy was supposed to be about people voting based on their personal convictions.   If a lot of Muslims want to speak strongly on a pork-rights issue, they should be able to do that.  And if they get out-voted, they shouldn’t complain about that.  After all, they’ve had their say.  It’s a democracy.  And so if a lot of folks have religious viewpoints that lead to convictions about whether marriage should include same-gender couples, there’s nothing wrong with them voting their conscience. 

3. The Christian church needs to recognize that it has VERY little credibility in the gay rights issue, and that’s a problem.
Here’s an ugly truth.  One of the reasons why the Christian church has such a hard time putting its foot down when it comes to gay rights issues is that that foot seems to be perforated with bullet holes.  When it comes to gay rights we’ve shot ourselves in the foot so often that we’ve got very little appendage left with which to stomp.

Our challenge, of course, is that the Bible simply does have a few passages that make it  pretty clear that homosexual unions are not what God originally had in mind. Based on this handful of verses we have all too often voiced outrage towards anyone from the gay community who shows signs of…well, being from the gay community.  At the same time we quickly breeze over the page after page after page of scriptures that speak about caring for the poor or forgiving those who have hurt us.   Actually the Bible seems to treat gossips with the kind of scandal we assign to gays.   We, on the other hand, typically accept gossiping as normal, even entertaining—after all, some people just seem to be born that way, right?  And as for gays, well…

So here’s an off-the-wall idea:  what would happen if the church quietly agreed to treat gay people the same way as, say, we treat people who have been divorced? After all, both “lifestyles” represent major patterns that are presented in scripture as something less than God’s ideal.  Both seem increasingly common and both generally seem to be life-long irreversible situations that usually prove to bring a lot of trauma into the lives of those involved.   

I have a lot of people in my life whose lives are marked by divorce.  And while I’m not ready to say that those divorces represent God’s best for my loved ones (even if they might not agree), I still cringe with them in their pain and rejoice with them as they move on…still divorced.  I do that not because I’ve decided that divorce is good, but because there’s a sort of biblical rock/paper/scissors by which I need to determine what is and isn’t worth losing relationships over.  It’d be a shame for me to lose really dear friends because of a shadow in their past, just as it’d be a shame for them to reject me on the basis of some other kind of shadow they might find in my past. 

What if the church learned to approach GLBT folks in much the same way? Obviously many who don’t share our perspective on the authority of scripture wouldn’t necessarily agree with our position, but it could allow us to stop having all these rallies at which we chant ugly things about each other.

Well, we  haven’t.  OK…let me be a little more candid than that.  I haven’t.  I, and a lot of others in the church, have been all too willing put GLBT folks into some separate category of people who somehow need to be “fixed” before we who happen to be broken differently can accept them.  The thing I love about the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it allows someone like me to discover the many layers of my brokenness while at the same time being shocked at a God who loves me in ways I didn’t even realize I needed.  Seems to me that there ought to be a lot of room for GLBT friends in that community of broken healing.  Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be happening very much.  And that, I believe, is a problem that extends far beyond this issue.  

4. There are some important underlying questions that few people seem to be asking.
Underlying this whole Prop 8 discussion I see a bigger question that has been getting very little air time.  How DO we figure out how to define marriage?   If “because the Bible says so” isn’t a credible grounds for a nation’s views on marriage, what exactly is? 

Is it simply a matter of passing fashion?  Gay marriages seem much more popular than they were a century ago, so we’re trying to change things so we can do those kinds of marriages.   What if polygamists managed to grow in numbers over the next century—would we someday decide that may having multiple husbands wasn’t so bad after all?  Or what about adults and children?  Cats and dogs? If marriage based strictly on a popular vote then there is no principle that might prevent us from someday embracing any of those aberrations. 

On Wednesday Judge Walker pointed to the lack of a “rational basis” for showing why gay unions shouldn’t be considered genuine marriages.   I believe the problem runs deeper than that.  Beyond simple popularity, I don’t think we have a rational basis for considering any union to be a real marriage.  And so we fight. 

I still have this crazy idea that the followers of Jesus Christ might help our communities develop a “rational basis” for this kind of long-term issue. 

Unfortunately that seems to be the one thing in this issue that the church doesn’t get...uh, straight.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Unfairness of God

I don’t think the Prodigal Son’s older brother gets a fair shake. 

In Luke 15 Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons.  The younger son proves to be a scoundrel, eventually imploding into a scandal that gutted the family’s net worth.   The older brother held his ground, remaining at home, pouring himself into the family business.  It’s safe to say that without him the place would have fallen apart.

If you’ve read the parable you know, of course, that this loser brother comes home, repents and is welcomed back with the family’s best bottle of Dom Perignon. The old father seems to forget all about the disgrace and wasted inheritance and simply throws his arms around the filthy shoulders of his homeless son.  The older brother sees his father cave completely on his boundaries and he stomps outside.  “This jerk has undone everything we’ve worked for and you slaughter the fatted calf!  I’ve slaved for you all these years and you’ve never even offered me a goat to barbecue with my friends!”

He has a point.  What good is it to work your gluteus maximus off when your slacker brother gets a better reward that you do?   Doesn’t all your work even matter? 

I’ve felt that way at times.  I’m dedicated my entire adult life to serving faithfully as a pastor, to being the best husband and dad that I possibly can…surely that’s got to count for something, right?  Certainly God could cut me a break on some of the struggles of life.  Yet there are all too many times when God seems to miss some great opportunities to make my life easier.  

At times like that, I find the older brother’s complaint feels pretty natural:  “Look, I’ve slaved for you all these years, and you’ve never even given me a goat (or break on car repairs, or a sudden surge in church attendance or some other fantasy come to life)!

When it comes right down to it, God has a strange sense of fairness.  The grace that led the father to welcome his runaway son is the same grace that leads him to offer a place in his family to spiritually-confused people like you and me who often have little clue just what He’s done for us.  And it’s the same grace that leads him to stoop to use quirky, sin-tainted folks like me to announce his good news to others who need it as badly as I do.

The point:  I thank God that He’s not fair.  His unfairness is our only chance. 

The issue for me is not really unfairness:  it keeps getting easier for me to see how much I benefit from God’s unfairness.  The issue for me is usually control.   I wish God would exercise his unfairness in a way that would conform more closely to my expectations.   I often wish He would work out his lavish grace in a way that would match what I happen to have on my Christmas list right now.

How about you—what does it take for you to settle into God’s grace?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Good for Nothing

Grace can really mess with your head if you if you take it too seriously.   A little grace is good: it gives a reason why Jesus had to die on the cross and a place to turn for comfort when we fail.  

But if you pursue grace much further than that it can really start to mess with your head.    After all, what good is there from going to church every Sunday if God is going to grant the same salvation to someone who loves Him but loves the Sunday paper even more?  What's the benefit of resisting the urge to cheat on your exams or even on your spouse when God's only going shower the same forgiveness on every repentant liar who comes groveling back to him when the regrets start to hit? 

If you allow too much grace into your life it starts to erode things.  Pretty soon even fine upstanding church-folks (like you and me)  find we don’t have a leg to stand on.  Things start to crumble.

And. from the Bible's point of view, that's probably good.  In the book of Romans the Apostle Paul is pretty clear on the fact that everyone is going to crumble towards something.  He calls it being “slaves” either to sin or slaves to God.  Keeping our distance from grace means keeping our distance from God.  Some of God’s greatest blessings come when He leads us to crumble before Him, whether we want to or not, as the seedlings of His new life begin to shoot through the dirt in our hearts.

If being good is really good for nothing, then most of us probably don't have a leg to stand on.  But then again, maybe we don't need a leg to stand on.  

The gospel of Jesus Christ has always been based on the outrageous idea that God loves us more than we can, uh...stand.  We want to put our best foot forward to make a good impression in heaven's eyes, but God seems to have arranged things so we never really get the chance to get that best foot in the door.  Instead He reaches out to draw us...with a nail-scarred hand.  The church of Jesus Christ has always been a haven of people who limp in without a leg to stand on.  That's why I seem to fit in, for instance.

When was the last time you felt crazy-loved by God?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ever hate your job?

( Living Large: Looking for More in an Age of Less, Part 3)

Success is a critical part of the good life for us.  Everybody knows that, right? 

Granted in a 3rd world, more primitive setting people might not worry about this quite a much.  When you’re living in a hut in some jungle or desert wasteland all you want to do is survive, but most of us educated people living in what we might call developed countries aim for more than that.  We don’t want to merely have lived.  We want to have really lived. 

Our language reflects that:  we want to “live it up”.   We look at wealthy, successful people and marvel:  “wow, they really know how to live”.   “Man, that’s the life,” we may conclude as we watch them enjoy the fruits of their success.  We sum all this up by expressing our desire to “get a life”.

The writer of Ecclesiastes looks at all this “getting a life” and once again pushes back against it.   In Eccl. 2 he describes all he achieved:  “I undertook great projects…I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me…yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;  nothing was gained under the sun.” 

Once again the writer of Ecclesiastes questions the real value of something whose benefit we would generally take to be self-evident.  Of course it’s good to be successful, right?   We might say.  Ecclesiastes challenges that—really?

This leads us, once again, to ask “why?”.   Exactly why do we assume it would be so good to be successful in life?  Is it because the things we accomplish really matter so much in the universe?   Do we really think the world will be a much better place because we sold more widgets than anyone else in our region?

Imagine this:  imagine you’re talking with someone from Haiti who’s about your age.   Let’s say that that person slept in the street last night because their shack was of course destroyed in the earthquake a while back.  Or maybe they’ve been putting out a heroic  effort to carve out a life for themselves in one of the relocation camps.  Now picture yourself trying to explain to that person just why it was so critical that you accomplish whatever ambitions you were pursuing this past week.  Why it was so important that you landed that overtime pay, or nailed this meeting or get this promotion.  Try and explain to someone who’s had to give up a child because he couldn’t scrounge up enough food to feed her just why your career is worth the sleep you lose over it. 

Chances are the stress we have from our careers, or lack of them, isn’t really the point.   The point is usually something bigger, deeper than making or selling more widgets than anyone else in the company.
The underlying point usually has little to do with widgets and more to do with significance.  We want to be remarkable, and we’re afraid we’ll only turn out to be ordinary.
That longing for significance is actually a good thing.  It comes from something very important that God hard-wired into each of us—the innate sense that we were created for a purpose.   God designed us with an ache to accomplish things that haven’t been accomplished yet.  That’s not the problem.
The difficulty, though, comes when we begin to think that our personal career plans will really touch this.  The disappointing reality is that many of our career successes tend to have a pretty short shelf life.  It feels great to finally land a job after you’ve been unemployed, but before you know it that job becomes…a job.  It feels great to get the widget sales award for the month, but then the very next month they turn around and give it to someone else and you have to go back to climbing the ladder.   It feels great to be recognized with a promotion or with some new perk, but before long that promotion becomes the new normal and you find you have to aim still higher in order to really feel like you’re somebody.  You stake out your kingdom in the widget world, only to discover that someone else’s kingdom is being staked out right over top of your boundaries. 

Ecclesiastes puts it this way:   “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.  For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it.  This too is meaningless and a great misfortune (Eccl. 2:20-21).”

In contrast, the Sermon on the Mount talks about pursuing someone else’s dreams.  “Seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33).   A passage like this is based on the underlying story line of the Bible:  a good creation was ruined by human rebellion (Gen 1-3) just as we were warned.  God loved us, however, enough that he was willing to do whatever it took to reclaim not only us but also the entire creation he had designed for us.  To do that he carved out his original people, Israel, and through them he crept into our world to position himself to suffer for us so that we could live with him.  In doing this he would not only be able to provide forgiveness for our sins, but also bring a renewal to our entire creation.  

The Bible refers to this cosmic clean-up as the Kingdom of Christ.   And, more amazing still, he invites you and me to participate in this amazing venture with him.  To have our sins forgiven and our lives healed.  To spread the word of this unfolding wonder, to starts homes that mirror his grace, to create great art and make scientific discoveries and…yes, even to make widgets in a way that can make this world a better place.  Each of us has the opportunity to step into a custom-created role into this marvelous plan. 

When we begin to realize that God may have specifically called us to make our widgets or to teach our students or to serve our customers (or even write our blogs or preach our sermons) we find that this changes everything.  Suddenly the shelf life factor becomes a non-issue.  The work that you and I do, or the dreams that you and I may pursue take on an eternal significance.  These things that we do each day prove to be far more than simply ways to pay bills or to keep busy.  Somehow, in some way, the career dreams that he has planted in our hearts are part of his eternal career dream for his entire creation.
We’re not just selling this month’s widgets or working today’s shift at the plant or teaching this week’s lesson plans.  Somehow, whether we can see it yet or not, the work that God has given us to do will be a part of that eternal Someday when heaven will come down to earth and Christ will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21). 

Our work, then, becomes meaningful.

But why, then, does it still seem so hard to get out of bed in the morning?   Why doesn’t this eternal-significance-thing give us a spring in our step causing us to head off to work with a spring in our step?
More often that not the problem lies with management—who’s in charge?   Not necessarily, who has the corner office, but who’s interests are really at stake in your career or mine?  Typically we’re actually serving ourselves while we pretend to work for someone else.  We agree to show up for work because we anticipate something that will further our purposes:  a paycheck, a chance for recognition or advancement.  In short, we work for our bosses because we think they can help us serve ourselves.  We naively think that our human bosses can provide us with perks that will last only a short time.

Silly, huh?   Like they say, if you work for yourself this way it only means that you have an idiot for a boss.

On the other hand, God has a way of using our job dissatisfaction to lead us to work for someone else.  To put our career aspirations under new management.  Someone who’s strategic plan can assure us that we’ll be part of something eternal.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a strange book.  It questions everything we consider to be self-evident and it proposes ideas that couldn’t seem more foreign to upwardly-mobile people like us.

The book of Ecclesiastes can be irritating.  It has a way of poking in the places where we already hurt.  The steady refrain of “Meaningless!” has a way of echoing around the hallways of our empty dreams and frustrating fantasies.   It can drive you crazy.

Or it can drive you to Him.  To reach out for the one who reaches back with nail-scarred hands, and who offers not only a way to escape death but also to find a life.  To find wholeness and joy and significance.   The chance to pour ourselves into something that will really mean something for a long, long time.

Works for me.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Given the chance, would you choose to become rich?

(Living Large: Looking for More in an Age of Less Part 2)

Our society requires greed.

If it weren’t for greed most ordinary citizens would never dream  of participating in our so-called reality shows.   Without greed no one would pay attention to the ads on TV which pay for those shows, because no one would really care about buying new and improved versions of products they’d already bought the year before.  Without greed most pro athletes would get real jobs when their knees started to give out, because without greed most sane individuals would never allow themselves to get clobbered by an defensive lineman just for money.  You have to really want money to do that kind of stuff.  And without the desire to get rich quick there’d be almost nothing on TV between midnight and 4 a.m.

When it comes right down to it, capitalism is really nothing more than structured greed.  Capitalism is based on the fact that if you can make a little bit better widget than your company made last year people will shell out their hard-earned money to get a new one and show it off to their neighbors.  That, of course, will be good for the widget companies, who will post a nice profit from all those widgets.  That will prompt them to create even more, new-and-improved widgets and to advertise them aggressively to entice people to buy their new ones.  These new widgets 2.0 will only feed the cycle more. 

Consumers will realize, of course, that they will need a lot of money to keep buying each year’s widget upgrades, so they will work hard at their jobs in order to bring home as much money as they can in order to buy more widgets, which will keep the widget companies busy creating even more widgets with even more exciting features. 

If we all decided that we were tired of buying new widgets, it could all grind to a stop.  That, in fact, is what starts to happen in a recession.  That scares the tar out of corporate executives.

Our society runs on greed.  The pursuit of wealth is what keeps it all going.  That fact is, if you or I click on the word “wealth” or maybe “treasure” pictures start to pop up on our screen showing what our idea of treasure might look like.   Maybe it’s a big house, a cool car or a TV screen the size of Connecticut.

The most important thing to realize, though, is that the benefits of wealth are considered self-evident.  It’s not like most people have paused to reflect and eventually concluded that a feverish attempt to accumulate possessions might be the right lifestyle for them.  Instead we just assume that that’s what we need to do.  Once the benefits of wealth seem self-evident our critical thinking grinds to a halt.

That’s why the book of Ecclesiastes stops us in our tracks.   The Old Testament pushes back on some of our assumptions.   What if money didn’t necessarily make us happier?

“I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men:  God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them…This is meaningless.” (Eccl. 6:1,2)

This brings us back to the same question we asked in Part 1.  Why exactly would we want to have a lot of money?    (I know, that’s a silly question because everyone knows that being rich is better than being poor, etc. etc. but I’m the one writing the blog so humor me.)   Is life a game where the one who dies with the most toys wins?   What really is the benefit of having more money than other people we know?   What is the itch that we hope can be scratched with our wealth?   These questions take on an increasing relevance during a time of financial struggles.   Do we want the possessions?   Is the object of the game to have a big of a net worth number as possible?  If not, what does really matter?

Let me ask you a question:  suppose if you could have everything you were aiming for but without actually owning those things?   Let’s say you had a wealthy relative or friend who might loan you his vacation home or private jet, or might take you shopping for that new outfit you’d seen or might make sure that your home entertainment system was state-of-the-art.  Would that do it?    Through his generosity you ended up with everything you might want, but none of it was really yours, and you had no long-term promises that your standard of living would continue. 

I suspect most of us would find this scenario less than satisfying.   While taking the Lear to the South of France would be lovely (don’t get me wrong!) in the long run there’d still be something missing if everything came as a favor.  Part of the appeal of wealth comes from things that can’t necessarily be bought with money, but might seem to come along with the influx of cash.  Self-reliance.  Freedom.  The security from having a substantial margin with which we can face whatever surprises might come our way. 

In short, part of the appeal of money is that we can buy stuff.  But the larger, deeper appeal of money comes from our impressions that with enough money in the bank we could know that we could be OK, no matter what life might bring our way.  Money brings security and freedom.   That seems obvious, doesn’t it?  That’s  what we’re really looking for from our net worth. 

Well, Ecclesiastes would push back on that.  As John Ortberg says, life is a board game and when the game is done all our playing pieces go back in the box.  It all goes back in the box.   In fact, I’m not so sure that having a lot of money guarantees much happiness during this life right now.   A quick glance at the tabloid covers at my local grocery story would suggest that there are a lot of people who have far more money than I do but seem to be having a lot less fun.  I’m not sure I’d trade places with Brad and Angelina, even when their marital struggles seem to be having a calm period.

The fact is we clutch to our money like drowning people clinging to bricks.  Any fool can see that those bricks are really going to help us much, but when we’re feeling frightened and needy we’ll reach for whatever anyone tells us to grab. 

Here the Sermon on the Mount breaks in a completely counter-intuitive direction.   “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in a steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in a steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The point:  Christ is the only treasure that will really satisfy the needs that lurk behind our credit card bills and bank statements. 

(Ding!  Cliché alert goes off.   Of course Christ is our treasure...duh!) 

But wait a minute.  What might we need to rearrange to get to the point where if we clicked on the word “treasure” up would pop a picture of Jesus?   That might take a little doing.  It’s not hard to picture Jesus as the forgiver of our sins, or maybe the personal body-guard in times of risk.  But to think of Jesus as our treasure seems like a bit of a reach, doesn’t it?   Take your pick:  Jesus or a big screen TV?   Which would you relentlessly pursue, your savior or your Lexus?

This raises the question of what Jesus is really good for, anyway, doesn’t it?  Of course he’s the one who gets us RSVP’d for heaven but beyond that does he really make that big of a difference.

Here’s where the Sermon on the Mount starts to really get serious.  Not only does it question the myth that our “treasures on earth” will really do it for us in the long run, it also points towards the ultimate satisfaction that comes from looking to Christ for the things we might want from our wealth.

Think about it:  all the things that we might hope for from our wealth—like security, freedom, a sense of being special, knowing that we’ll be taken care of in the future—those are the things that Jesus promises to provide us beyond whatever we might be able to ask or imagine.  Jesus may or may not provide us with huge houses and fabulous luxury cars, but any fool can see those status symbols aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  Money can buy you a car, put gas in the tank, and bring you back to the garage of your beautiful house, but it can’t get you real friends to visit, or joy as you travel and it certainly can’t give you peace in your heart as you finish the day in your beautiful home.  In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to show that wealth can actually pull you backwards in those categories. 

While Jesus never promises an upper-class lifestyle, he does promise to provide us all the things that we might think and upper-class lifestyle might bring us.  The stuff we really ache for is the stuff he died for:  peace, joy, love and a settled sense of security that can let us sleep like a baby at night.

“Store up for yourselves treasure…”

So what does it take to start investing in that kind of treasure?

First of all, we need to learn to grieve.  We need to grieve the illusions we so easily cling to, the silly ideas we have about how deeply satisfied we’d be if we could pay all our bills on time.   (see Part 1)

Secondly, we need to recognize the reality check that our recession can provide.  The money pressures we feel from a struggling economy can help us discover some basic truths.  The fact is if I think money could solve my problems then I have problems that money could never solve. 

Thirdly, we need to practice imagining real wealth.  I’m working on this one the most in my own life.  I’m developing my ability to imagine myself being fabulously wealthy with the people in my life and the experiences God’s led me to discover.  He’s given me an astonishing windfall with the eternal purpose that He’s woven right into the story of my life.  And He’s grounded all these luxuries on a promise that’s a solid as Romans 8:28, guaranteeing that He’ll be working for good in everything because of His love for me.

Well, there you have it; my get-rich-quick scheme.