Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Consume vs. Invest

I struggle with being labeled a “consumer.” I understand our capitalist economy is driven by consuming – we have to desire and take in more and more and more to make the wheels of our vast engine continue to turn. We have to gobble up goods and services like our lives depend on it because, as the great recession of recent memory taught us, some people’s lives truly do depend on this conspicuous consumption.

This endless cycle of never-enough, must-have-more bothers me at a deep level. It reminds me of the Monty Python bit from The Meaning of Life, in which we see a very obese man, Mr. Creosote, food spilled down his chin and clothes, sitting in front of a table heaped with empty, dirty dishes. The waiter approaches to offer him “a wafer thin mint.” Initially, the eater refuses, he says he is stuffed! But the waiter insists, after all, it’s just a “tiny little thin one.”

Finally, the eater relents, and the waiter puts the mint in his mouth, then runs for cover as the dramatic music begins. The eater begins to swell beyond his already bloated proportions, overturning his table and sending dishes crashing to the floor. Finally, his stomach explodes, flinging the disgusting contents all over the restaurant. We see the eater still seated, his innards laid bare, as the other diners and staff run away, gagging. Nevertheless, the waiter still delivers him his bill – after all, consumption has its price beyond the one already paid! 

This image is what I see when I’m called a “consumer.” Someone never satisfied, always hungry, no matter how much I have already glutted my need for necessities. And, like the Monty Python bit, it is disgusting.

By the grace of God and by following some sound financial principles, my family was able to become debt-free in 2014. It has consolidated my determination not to get trapped in consumer culture! So what if our cars are a little older or our clothes are not the latest fashion? Our family is sheltered, clothed, fed, and, above all, loved – we are rich beyond measure. This new freedom has given me the opportunity to think about my money as a way to invest.

God’s economy is about investing over consuming. God pours into creation, investing God’s own endless energy into making, redeeming, and sustaining all that is. Nowhere do we see more clearly than in the cross of Christ. God, who needs nothing, who consumes nothing, invests everything for our sake.

Investing is like good gardening. The gardener puts in time, resources, and lots of energy to tending the soil, planting the seeds, pulling weeds, watering, and much more to ensure a good harvest. What is eaten is then the fruit of investment, not just mindless consumption.

Each time a child is baptized, a colleague of mine says, “Who you are is God’s gift to you. Who you become is your gift to God.” It’s a profound truth to be put so simply. God invests each of us with a variety of gifts. What we do with those gifts is our choice and our opportunity to honor God. This is one way to read the parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

When I hear people say that they don’t go to church because they aren’t “fed,” my first question is to ask what they have been doing to feed others. Coming to see a “show” and expecting to be “fed” without feeding others are hallmarks of a consumer. Good stewards will receive the talents God gives them and act! It may be singing or teaching or praying or giving financial resources – the form may vary, but the Giver is the same.

And where we invest matters. There are a lot of good helping agencies out there that I admire. But above all of these, I believe in the kingdom of God and the one of a kind mission that the church has in the world. So I put my money where my mouth is and we give to our church so that lives can continue to be transformed by the good news of God in Jesus Christ.

My hope for each of us is that we resist gorging ourselves such that others hunger or digging a hole to hide our gifts in and find a God-glorifying way to invest ourselves, pouring ourselves out for one another. It just may be that you are God’s handpicked gift for a broken, hurting corner of creation.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Losing my Voice for Lent

In the weeks leading up to Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday – February 18 this year – I heard lots of excited chatter in my church. The children and youth were asking each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

For young disciples, the disciplines that are meant to draw us closer to God during this holy season are often boiled down to these 7 simple words. And for most of them, like most Americans, and perhaps like most Christians in general, the discipline doesn't go too deep. We often choose things that we’ll miss – like chocolate – but that aren't central to our being. And the food fasts often serve as a sneaky “holy” way of dieting.

It’s not the best way to honor God. The tradition of laying something aside for Lent was intended to remove a habit in order to give ourselves time to pray, study scripture, and give the money we would usually spend on ourselves to those in greater need.

And these disciplines were definitely not meant to be ways to brag. That’s why I usually resist sharing my Lenten discipline except in hindsight. While I hold myself to the high ideals of the Christian life that all of us, but especially church leaders are called to, I am reluctant to toot my own horn too much. As we read in Matthew, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1).

I will say I usually take something up rather than give something up. I’m terribly fond of eating regularly, so fasting has always been my least favorite discipline. But, ask me sometime, and I can tell you funny stories about the time I was in New Orleans on vacation on my fast day. Suffice to say those beignets from Café Du Monde don’t quite taste the same after they've sat on the kitchen counter overnight…

So, during Lent, I usually commit myself to more – more Bible study (not just sermon preparation!), more prayer (not just in worship!), more time with my God. But in this season of my life, more was just going to be an exercise in futility, so I prayed to find another way.

I found one. And because I believe that it’s something many folks struggle with, I want to share my experience so far because it’s been humbling and life-giving.

I gave up my voice for Lent - I gave up yelling. I vowed to God – “I will not yell at my children, unless someone is in immediate danger.”

You may wonder just how much I yell at my kids if this was what I felt compelled to give up. And the truth is, probably not as much as some folks and a lot more than some others. But I can tell you this – every time I yelled at my children, I felt how contrary it was to my great love for them. I could see how wrong it was for me, who has all of the power in the relationship, to verbally crush and castigate the fledgling life entrusted to my care. It was a way I resorted to overwhelming them to obey me instead of guiding and teaching them.

It’s been a tough discipline to maintain. And it’s been a great way to draw closer to my God, who rarely yells at me, but has embodied relentless, unconditional for me and for all. Repeatedly in our Scripture, we ask “who can stand?” if God were to come in all his glory and might. No one – none of us can stand before the tremendous majesty of the Lord.

So, like a gentle, patient parent, God comes to us with love. God’s voice, God’s word, who we name Jesus Christ, is life-giving, not soul-shrinking like the yelling I found in myself. Like Elijah, I realized that God was not in the great wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Now, I’m not perfect. I can already count the times I've slipped in my discipline this Lent. But those have been opportunities to repent, apologize, and continue trying. My hope is that a discipline begun for Lent will become my holy habit as I grow in grace. I hope that you have found a life-giving, soul-stretching discipline this Lent.