Money, Personal Priorities, and Changing the World

change-the-worldWe live for money. Let’s be honest. Especially if we’re American. It’s in our blood. And despite all our insistence about living a life full of meaning and purpose, about being fulfilled, and not surrendering to the rancid materialism everywhere around us … we hold on to our debit cards like they were oxygen tanks under water.

Well, unless there’s a good sale going on at Macy’s.

It’s about priorities, after all, isn’t it?

But don’t worry. This isn’t gonna be some tirade about how we all need to make deep personal sacrifices to save the world. This isn’t going to be a sermon on “sell everything and give to the poor,” or even encouragement to tithe. (“Tithing?” Isn’t that Old Testament?)  But if we’d just do a little, it would be enough.  Stuff might actually happen. The world might become a better place.

Two things happened recently that bring this to a head for me.  My friend Josh recently told me about his “adventures” helping out another mutual friend during a time of financial crisis.  This mutual friend (I’ll call him Mike), had an unexpected emergency come up which put him in deep financial stress. His rent was due, and now he couldn’t pay it. His bank account was empty.  Josh had a little extra in his account, so the burning question of the day was, Should he loan the money to Mike?

Loaning money, to friends or anybody else for that matter, is a risky business. That old Shakespearian saying proves true all too often: “neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend.”  But we call ourselves Christian, and Jesus’ teaching on the matter is painfully clear. “If someone asks to borrow your coat, give him your shirt also…”  Jesus constantly challenges us to look to God as our ultimate financial backer, and not worry about pay back.  So, many people I know routinely consider every “loan” a gift. Can they afford to “give” the money away? If so, they let it go. If they get it back, that’s great. If not, well, God saw their hearts, he saw the sacrifice, and they leave it to him to sort it all out in the end.

Josh did have that little extra in his account that month, so he was able to help. But it would sting. It would deplete the “emergency reserve” he was trying to build up for himself.  Should he do it?  Could he afford to lose it if Mike never paid him back?  Time passed, and Mike, the needy friend, started getting eviction notices for overdue rent.  Josh wrestled with the decision for a few days, but during one sleepless night, he arrived at a decision. All night long, as he wrestled with the options, a phrase from the bible kept going through his head.  “Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good …” (Acts 10:38). If he called himself a Christian, if he really wanted to follow Jesus’ example, he should choose to “do the good thing.” And in this case, he decided, that meant helping out the friend in crisis – regardless of the risk and potential loss.  Maybe that isn’t the right answer every time someone wants to borrow money, but Josh felt like it was the Holy Spirit speaking to him about this specific case.

And he did it. He tapped his account and paid his friend’s rent.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story goes just the way you’re probably anticipating. Mike never did repay him, and it’ll take Josh months to save up enough to rebuild his emergency fund.  But he saw the look of relief on his friend’s face when the eviction notice got torn up, and knew he’d done the right thing.

Was he a sucker or a saint?

sanctuaryThis week, our church had its quarterly public meeting to open the books to the congregation. “Here is how much came in, here are our expenses, and here’s where the money went.”  And sadly, all too frequently, the weekly expenses outweigh the giving of the congregation.  And things have to be cut and staff doesn’t get paid.  The harsh truth came out in a single statement. “Our average weekly attendance is __, and if every one of our regular attenders gave just $20 a week, our budget would be completely met.”  Twenty bucks a week?  Not $20 more, mind you, just $20 total.  Never mind even mentioning “tithing.” Never mind special pleading from the pulpit, or sermons on promised prosperity to motivate believers to open their wallets.  (Do we really need sermons on Sunday solely for the purpose of raising enough funds to keep the doors open on Sunday?)

Bottom line:  Church functions and community services were being pinched because our own people weren’t taking ownership of them.

Here’s the simple truth:
The work of the Kingdom of God is done by the people of God. And that includes financial support. If the money doesn’t come in, the work doesn’t get done.

Even Jesus, with his miraculous powers to heal the sick, raise the dead, and speak the liberating truth of God’s love to unexpected people, even he was able to do ministry because people supported him financially (Luke 8:3).

That 20 bucks sticks in my mind.  It’s not so much, not such a big deal for most of us most of the time.  We all go through periods when every penny counts, but for most of us, those periods are short-lived, and we generally have the luxury of affording our daily Starbucks fix.  Or maybe it’s an iTunes fix or getting that latest smart phone.  I honestly do not believe God begrudges us those little pleasures.  He’s not stingy. He’s not an old curmudgeon, demanding we forego our caffeine for the sake of “the poor.”  But what does it say about our heart, about the condition of our “spiritual but not religious” priorities, when “good” isn’t being done because we won’t take financial responsibility for the work of the Kingdom?

What about the family next door whose kids live on peanut butter and grape jelly because mom isn’t bringing in enough money to put decent meals on the table – even if she had the time?   Could we add a couple of extra items to our grocery basket and quietly leave a bag on her doorstep?

starbucksThere’s that homeless guy who hangs out on the corner near work. Bet he’d appreciate a cold drink from the drive-thru on these sweat-soaking summer days.  Or a cup of soup when winter rolls around.  Will that break me once in a while?

Or when we see those commercials on TV about starving kids, and how “for just pennies a day …”?  Yeah, we can’t bankroll every charity with a good cause, but maybe just one …

Jesus spent a good deal of time talking about money. And if we call ourselves his followers, maybe we should work on this area a bit more.  Luke 16 records two parables he told, “The Shrewd Manager” and “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” both lessons in spiritual principles of money handling: “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home.”

The alternative is a world of suffering people untouched by us, and a less than rewarding future for us who ignored them.

I admit it. I live for money. I hate even saying it. But most of my waking hours are spent earning it and then consuming it.  What would happen if I altered my spending priorities just a little?  What if I made “giving” my priority — using more of my earthly resources to benefit others — and my daily latte became the optional “if I can afford it” item?  What if we all did?  Would the world hold Christians in such low esteem if we put our money where our mouth is?

What would the world look like if we all did just a little?  No huge sacrifice. No guilt-inducing sermons from the pulpit. No quitting our jobs and joining the Peace Corp, Vista or World Vision.  And no need to respond to every request for help that comes our way.  Just a little, here and there.  Just a little bit more.

We all don’t need to be missionaries, visionaries, millionaires or martyrs to change the world.  We only need to do just a little.

 

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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You gotta Cooperate with Change

Change_ExitSignI’m tired. Not physically, but mentally, maybe a bit emotionally. And I know why. I’ve deliberately put myself in a place requiring a change in my attitudes, in my perspective, in my limited world-view. It’s part of the “Radical Acceptance” journey. But I’ll tell you what: change is tiring. It can be exhausting. And part of me really just wants to back out, withdraw to my former comfort zone, and find some peace.

Peace is good. But it’s a state of mind, not a goal. I mean, if we seek to always “find” peace, we’ll never put ourselves in any kind of stressful situation — situations that cause us to grow. Instead, we’re supposed to stretch ourselves, step outside our immediate and little lives, and wrestle with life. It’s in the struggles that we discover our true character, and it’s only after a great struggle that we can really appreciate our victory. And somehow, by holding God’s hand through the struggle, through the unsettling changes, there we find peace and security. He is there with us in it all, and we can always fall back on his love and support even when everything around us is being shaken up. We find peace in him, not necessarily in our circumstances.

So, I can’t back out. I can’t go back to my familiar church, to comfy environments, and non-threatening people. I’ve whined too often in the past (at least in my prayers) about wanting change, wanting something new, to see God’s love for real and to experience his power and his presence outside just my prayer closet. People who work with the poor and oppressed, the Mother Teresa types, often talk about finding Jesus in the faces of those they serve. I’m not in their league. I haven’t put myself out that far. I’m just stretching a LITTLE right now. And I’ve met some truly wonderful people, people with genuine hearts of gold, people who care, and who desire to serve God and their fellow human beings. Along with them, I’ve met some who are a little rough around the edges, and I often seem to slice my fingers a little on those edges. But hey, I’m no well-polished saint by any means either, and I know some them have grimaced at some of my comments, been abrased by my rough edges. Guess we’re in a mutual blood bath right now. Eventually, I expect, calluses will form on both sides, and we’ll get used to each other. But for now, I just have to gut it out. Hey, if they can put up with me, I can certainly learn to accommodate some of them. Who knows? When I can truly walk in that “radical acceptance”, when I can genuinely love people without wanting to trim off the edges that grate me the wrong way, or recast them in my own image, I may actually become of some use or make some kind of real contribution.

My mom sent an email today, commenting on Oswald Chamber’s remark that “No amount of enthusiasm (worked up zeal) will ever stand up to the strain that Jesus Christ will put upon His servant.”  She said that a desire to serve God is not enough to keep us going, nor will our lives demonstrate a real love of God. Our desire alone will not be able “to stand the strain” that Christ puts upon His disciples. We need a revelation of Him, who He is, and what He has done for the sin problem in our lives. We need the Holy Spirit moving and working within us, motivating us. In other words, we can’t do it in our own strength.

And I guess that’s where I’m at right now. I was motivated by my desire to see a change in my life, to actually make a difference in this world and in the lives of people around me. I wanted to be an agent for the Kingdom, a useful tool in God’s hands to help his people. And prompted by a little revelation that I needed to learn how to love people as they are (not as how I’d like them to be), I’ve stepped out a little, and moved into a circle where I see God at work, where I know his heart is. But God’s work can be ugly sometimes — at least to us. It’s definitely got its challenges. And I’ve gone as far as my own “desire” can take me. I need to experience the master’s hand recrafting my heart, touching my mind, opening my eyes. I need the Holy Spirit working within me before he can effectively work through me. I’m gonna need his strength to get me through to where he wants me, to where he can use me. Because I’m tired. Change is hard, and sometimes I just don’t want to exert the energy.

But nothing worth anything ever comes easily. Change takes guts. Success, achievement, and a fulfilling life don’t come to those who sit comfortably on the sidelines. If you want to make a real difference, you gotta stop resisting the stretching, and cooperate with the change. Even when you’re tired. Reminds me of what the Apostle Paul said when he was worn out: “when I am weak, then am I strong.”  I’m on a new road now, changing lanes from ones that point to familiarity, comfort and security, to ones that lead to new horizons, increased usefulness, and greater personal fulfillment.  I’m taking the exit out of familiar territory.  And yeah, it’s a little taxing.  A little more demanding.  But the “same ole, same ole” just isn’t working for me anymore.  And I’m really curious to see where this road takes me.  I’m gonna need more of God’s strength to see me through some of the turns ahead, but I guess that’s not a bad road to be on after all.

Change begins with recognition

I woke up this morning feeling a little irritable.  No particular reason — I went to bed early enough, didn’t eat too late, and the day before was relatively calm and stress-free.  But there I was.  I grabbed my morning coffee and sat in my little study to pray.  At first I stayed quiet, hoping to hear some fresh whisper from God. But then my mind wandered to all the people around me who needed prayer (myself included), and the petitions began.  Well, no new revelation this morning.  And I was a little frustrated about that.  “Okay, Lord, here I am, making myself available, spending time with you, opening myself up, and …?”  Nada.  And then it occurred to me that I was not really hearing God, I wasn’t being sensitive, because I was allowing my frustration to put up a wall in my heart. It was blocking my receptivity.

Hmm.  Still with a bit of agitated assertiveness, I started asking God for the big things that were in my heart, the unrealistic dreams I knew he planted there. And I named them specifically.   (Hey, if you’re gonna ask, you might as well ask BIG.)   And I realized that the “no particular reason” was more about my subtle lingering frustration over feeling like my life is stuck in the mud, not moving fast enough toward those great dreams. 

As I started laying out these bold requests before God, the words percolated to the top of my thoughts: Change begins with a recognition of truth.  Truth in who you are, and what you want.

But it’s not the “hi, my name is Steve, and I’m an alcoholic” kind of truth.  It’s not an admission or recitation of my faults.  It’s an affirming of who I am that God made me to be, and embracing the core truths that make up my spiritual DNA. It’s the positives.  And I realized that those big-ticket requests I was making were actually in line with the identity he gave me: my dreams and desires fit neatly with the image he had shown me years earlier of who he wanted me to be. 
 
But those core truths don’t have be just grand visions of the future. The power of truth applies equally on a smaller, more down-to-earth level. They are truths about our present, about our day to day relationships with people around us.  You could say, for example, “I am a good husband, I love my wife, I take care of her; I provide for her, I make sure she has everything she needs.”  “I am a great worker, I do my job well, I am an asset to my company.”  “I am a good friend, God has placed me here, now, in these people’s lives, and I help them, I bless them, I care for them.” 

Of course, these should not be idle words, or mere wishful thinking.  It’s not hocus-pocus, or some magic formula. The truth should be rooted in God’s plan for you life — what he’s called you to do and who he’s called you to be — but it should also be reflected to some degree by your actions in reality. (If it isn’t, start acting the way you should!) You gotta have a leg to stand on.

As these concepts were racing through my head, I noticed my attitude was suddenly different.  I was calmer, more optomistic, and I felt stronger.  And later at work, I was more friendly with colleagues, less stressed, more confident in the projects before me.  But this isn’t simply a matter of me talking myself out of a bad mood into a better one.   It is the key to all kinds of change in life.  How you see yourself, and what you believe God’s plans for you are, will determine how you act. And how you act now will determine your future.

We’re all dissatisfied with some areas of our lives.  Some things need changing to get us in proper alignment with God’s divine design for us.  And we will be restless and unfulfilled until they are.  But all the necessary changes begin with a simple but profound recognition of who God made you to be and of the dreams and desires he placed inside you.  So if you don’t like who or where you are right now, start focusing on the original blueprint for your life.  Check your spiritual DNA.  See yourself as he sees you, and ask boldy for the dreams he’s given you.  That is who you really are — and that is what you really want.  God’s power begins to be released the moment you recognize the truth.  And that truth will change your life.

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As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.  (Prov 23:7)
You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32)