Monday, 29 April 2013

The Epiphany: Rethinking My Materialistic Mentality

"You have succeeded in life when all you really want is
only what you really need."
(attributed to Vernon Howard)

I came across that quote recently, and though I do not know anything about the author, I like it because to me it speaks to what I view as our society's insatiable materialistic appetite. Lately I have been asking myself more and more often, Do I really need all this stuff that I seem to insist on collecting? Do I really need to keep up with the Jones'? Do I really need this 5-bedroom house for just the two of us? Is the old adage of "he who dies with the most toys wins" really true? Maybe another advantage of a smaller house would be that we'd have less room for "toys." Perhaps it is time to start some serious down-sizing.

I remember someone I used to work with some years ago. Apparently she and her husband had a similar epiphany. They sold their home, liquidated as many possessions as possible, and put the rest into storage until they could be disposed of properly. They then bought themselves a 35-foot 4-season RV and paid a cheap monthly rate to park it at a campground by a river. I remember her telling me once how freeing it was to get rid of all that stuff.

Now I am not suggesting that's necessarily the right answer to my dilemma, but apparently the decision was right for them and it brought them great joy. I know the financial arguments against investing in a depreciating asset such as an RV, but I also know how much money we regularly waste on junk we don't really need, only to ultimately throw it away once we get bored with it or once it quits working as we expect that it should. If we really sat down and did the math, I doubt we'd find much of a difference.

From a faith perspective too, a materialistic mentality seems so unlike the Lord we profess to follow. Jesus once said of himself, "Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20; NIV). By saying that, I'm sure that Jesus didn't mean that we should all become homeless and live under a tree somewhere. However, I'm equally sure that He would also not endorse the wealth mentality preached by the prosperity gurus who strangely feel that God would have us all living in multi-million dollar mansions and driving expensive vehicles, and that if we didn't, we simply showed a lack of faith.

But I have digressed. To each their own. I am not here to judge the next guy; I am here to sort out my own revelation and what God may be calling me personally to do.

The story of the rich young ruler comes to mind. You remember the story. It's the story of a young man who asked Jesus what he must do in order to get eternal life. Jesus goes through some of the commandments and the man says that he had kept all of them. That in itself is pretty amazing. The problem comes with what Jesus said next. He said, "If you really want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Matthew 19: 21; NIV). Upon hearing this, the guy went sad, because he had great wealth and apparently couldn't part with his stuff. In some ways I can relate to that guy; I am struggling parting with some of my stuff too.

Please understand that I am not interested in making a doctrine of this, nor am I suggesting that God is calling all Christians to a pauper's lifestyle. This has nothing to do with the gift of salvation or earning brownie points with God. However, I do think that what Jesus was saying here is that possessions can sometimes be a trap that, while not necessarily keeping us from God, can actually keep us from a fuller experience and joy of Him. Certainly it bears thinking and praying about.

Well there you have it; my latest epiphany. The only question now is what am I going to do about it? Quite frankly, I don't know. At the very least, it may be time to start clearing out some closets and perhaps hosting a garage sale or two.

Anyone want to buy a TV?

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Confused Church: Investing in Business?

Someone once said, “Perception is Everything.”

In reading an article in this week’s Globe and Mail, I perceived a rat; a big rich religious golden rat, one that I simply cannot sit back and say nothing about. In the article the Globe and Mail reported on how the Church of England has some $12-billion worth of investments spread over approximately 2000 companies. Yes, you heard that right … $12 BILLION!

I cannot tell you how many times people have taken exception to my claims that the institutional church has become little more than a business, however when one reads stories like this, can one really come up with any other conclusion? Obviously there are always exceptions, and we really shouldn’t paint everyone with the same brush, but $12 billion … really?

The article reports that a new church policy states, “Businesses are vehicles for wealth creation, without which there can be no wealth distribution.” I struggle with that kind of logic. That’s like saying it’s good to gamble because, if you win it big, you have a greater ability to give money away to the needy. That’s like saying that it’s OK to sin, because then grace will increase all the more (Romans 6:1).

Businesses have shareholders who invest in the business because they also are interested in wealth creation, and specifically, their own wealth. If the business makes money, then the shareholder makes money. One does not invest in something without expecting some measure of return on the investment. With its $12-billion worth of investments, the Church of England is an obvious and significant shareholder interested in making money. That fact also makes it a business and not a “church” (ie., the Body of Christ). But then again, apparently I have a different definition of the word “church” than many today do.

While the article speaks primarily to how bonuses are handled among executives in the businesses in which the church has placed it’s investments, my issue has more to do with the fact a “church” should even have such disposable monies to invest in secular business in the first place. Having said that, where else but from the backs of the faithful whom it claims to serve, did it acquire such wealth? How ironic that the “church” should get rich from the poor folks that it presumably was sent to serve.

If you ask me, I think this “church” has gotten itself a little confused. What about investing the monies in people (other than bonuses of business executives)? What about investing in the poor and needy? What about investing in the homeless and unemployed? What about investing in young single mother struggling to feed her children and the elderly couple unable to pay their heating bills? What about investing in foodbanks? What about investing in drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs? What about investing in orphanages and finding ways to get child prostitutes of the streets? But, no, in the interest of getting rich, it invests in corporate business giants instead.

Am I missing something here?

Jesus said that whatever we fail to do for the “least of these” we fail to do for Him (Matthew 25:45). Now I am not suggesting that this “church” doesn’t do “something” for the poor and needy of society, but the image I have in my mind here is that of Jesus observing the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury while the poor widow gave 100%, even though it was only two small coins that she gave (Luke 21: 1-4). Imagine what they could do with a $12-billion budget/investment into the lives of the “least of these” as opposed to lining the pockets of a handful of already overpaid business executives? Hmm.

Perhaps the cure for cancer or the solution to global hunger is already here. Maybe it’s just locked away in the coffers of the Church of England, the Church of Rome, the Mormons, and other institutional churches. Maybe it’s time for the faithful to stop financially investing in the institutional church and to consider investing directly into the lives of those around them instead. Maybe investing $10 into buying a meal for a homeless man instead of putting it into an offering plate is being a little more like Jesus.

And many church leaders wonder why the world mocks them and wants nothing to do with their form of institutional pseudo-Christianity. God forgive us.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Are You Nursing A Grievance Against God?

Have you ever “nursed a grievance against God?” (Watchman Nee)

Grievances against other people are common; we’ve all done it from time to time. But nursing a grievance against God? I know some people who have done just that. Theirs are sad and tragic stories that often had their genesis in an event or two in which the person’s theology seemed to crash head-on with reality and expectation. Suddenly when God did not respond in a way that they thought that He should, their faith-world collapsed and the grievance was born. Perhaps you know a few of those stories too from within your own circle of relationships. Perhaps you’ve even authored one of them yourself.

Many of us have had life-shattering experiences where our whole world was suddenly turned on its head. Sometimes these events are consequences from our own misguided choices; other times they are simply fluke events that appear to have happened quite by chance. Perhaps one of the worst of those kinds of events, however, centers on the death of a child.

A couple of biblical stories come to mind of individuals who have lost children; one through no fault of his own, the other as a direct consequence of the father’s own sin.

The first is the story of Job. He was a godly man simply minding his own business and regularly worshipping the Lord. One day a messenger arrived and announced, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” (Job 1: 18-19; ESV)

Try and put yourself in his shoes for a moment. Can you feel the pain? Can you feel the gut-wrenching anguish of this godly man who lost not just one child (which would be bad enough), but who lost all of his children at the very same time? What’s going through your mind as you try to make sense of this? Would your faith be tested? Would you blame God? Job’s wife ultimately suggested that he should “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Would such a tragic event cause you to curse God and renounce your faith? Would losing your children cause you to nurse a grievance against God?

The second is the story of David. We all know of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and how, upon hearing of her pregnancy, he arranged for the death of her husband Uriah. When confronted of his sin, David repents. Still, the prophet Nathan announces God’s judgment: “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die … And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick” (2 Samuel 12:14-15; ESV). Though David fasted and prayed for the child, seven days later, the child was dead.

What are we to make of that? An innocent child loses his life, essentially by the hand of God, because of the sin of the father? Again, put yourself into the shoes of the character. For a moment, you are David. How would you respond to the news from the prophet Nathan? Would you shoot the messenger? Would your faith be challenged? Would you make the connection between your sin and the child’s death, and if you did, could you accept such a form of divine justice? Would you fail to take responsibility for your own actions and, as we often tend to do, lay blame of someone or something else? Would you nurse a grievance against God for allowing your innocent little child to die?

Like Job and David, I know others who have suffered the pain of losing a child; even my wife and I have been down that same dark road. The proverbial, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” comes to mind. Who hasn’t asked that? Why, why, why? I cannot answer that question.

When that happens, though, it is easy to play the blame-game. If only he didn’t drive so fast, the accident would not have happened and the baby wouldn’t have died; if only she didn’t drink during pregnancy, the baby might have lived. If only God were ‘really’ a God of love, He would not have allowed the child to die. But since the child did die, some might argue that God either does not exist, or He is not really a God of love after all. Who hasn’t heard arguments like that? The fact is, we love playing the blame-game, and we love nursing grievances.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Yes, but that’s the Old Testament and today we live in the age of grace and love and forgiveness and Jesus. Since Calvary, God isn’t like that anymore.” While there is some truth to that, I would like to suggest that if we were to rest on that premise alone, we would still be missing and important piece of the puzzle. Watchman Nee alludes to it in his little devotional classic, A Table in the Wilderness. In it he writes:
David’s son died because of David’s sin. True, David had repented, and being a man of prayer had fasted and prayed earnestly for his son’s life. Nevertheless the child died. A man of less humble spirit, ignorant of divine discipline, might have been offended and have nursed a grievance against God. David did no such thing. Told of the child’s death, he arose at once and worshipped. Sometimes God has to vindicate His own holiness in this way, putting His servants into the very fires of suffering. The great test in that hour is their reaction to His governmental hand. Of course David felt the sorrow keenly – he would scarcely have been human not to. But when at length he realized that this was God’s way with him and there was no relenting, he bowed to it and worshipped the will of God. Should such an occasion arise, could we do this? It marked David as a man after God’s own heart.
Did you catch that? Watchman Nee said, “Sometimes God has to vindicate His own holiness.” No, on the one hand, God doesn’t “have to” vindicate Himself, in the sense of needing to prove or justify His actions to us. On the other hand, He sometimes does “choose” to vindicate Himself to His creation when they foolishly put Him on trial and nurse a grievance against Him. Why does God bother? I believe that the short easy answer is that God loves us. Having said that, He also wants to remind us that He is also holy and that holiness and sin do not mix.

I do not pretend to fully understand this. I get that God is holy, and that God calls us to holiness as well. I know that the Bible says that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14), but that doesn’t mean that I fully understand the holiness of God. I also know that the cross of Christ says that I am already made righteous (holy) in His sight, but I also know that I am still prone to sin. Combine that with the apostle Paul’s, “For now we know in part … For now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13: 9,12; ESV), and we have to admit that we do not see the full picture. And it is precisely therein that I think the answer to the problem of our nursing grievances against God really lies; we do not fully understand the mind of God.

What are we to make of stories like that of David and Job and the loss of their children? Did the children die because of some sin of the parents? The thought of that no doubt raises so many theological red flags that we may think we’re in downtown Beijing! Still the story of David, as recorded in 2 Samuel 12, does seem to suggest that. Or maybe the children were permitted to die simply because God is holy and sovereign and, by default, because He allowed the tragic event to happen when He gave Satan permission to afflict Job.
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9: 14-15; ESV)
Does the death of my child all those many years ago change the fact that God loves me intensely? Of course not! I may never know why He permitted it, but hopefully I will never take the advice of Job’s wife and “curse God” over it. Hopefully I will never nurse a grievance against God simply because I don’t understand why He sometimes moves beyond the theological box that I often tend to relegate Him to. God remains merciful and God remains loving, despite my lack of understanding of His ways and despite my propensity to sin. At the end of the day, God remains God. The only question that remains, then, is can we rest in that?

And one day when my life is over, may it be said of me that, like David, I too was “a man after God’s own heart.” 

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

What If You're Wrong?

I have sometimes joked, “I once thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken.” If one were to take that seriously, it could be said that it smells of pride and perhaps even of a little arrogance. After all, we all make mistakes, don’t we? Of course we do.

While we all know that is true, it seems equally true to say that, a common characteristic of our fallen human race is a spirit of pretentiousness. Obviously there are always exceptions, but directly or indirectly, we seem to have elevated our self-worth and understanding (at least in our own eyes) to such an extent that, at the very least we’re prideful, but perhaps worse, we border on actually being frauds (ouch).

Society has raised us as such, so we might be inclined to argue that, if this is true, it’s not really our fault. Society encourages us to take pride in ourselves, in our accomplishments, in our family, in our favorite sports teams, and even in our nation. I will be the first person to admit that at times I too wrestle with pride. Maybe you’re asking yourself right now, so what’s wrong with that? Maybe you’re thinking that I’ve gone and lost my mind and am making a big deal about nothing. Maybe I am.

However, before we go any further, let me share something I was meditating on very early this morning. It is this:
“For we [Christians] are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit and by the Spirit of God and exult and glory and pride ourselves in Jesus Christ, and put no confidence or dependence [on what we are] in the flesh and on outward privileges and physical advantages and external appearances.” (Philippians 3:3; Amplified)
Notice again the second part of that verse and ask yourself a question: Is Paul speaking about putting “no confidence” in those very flesh-things that we spoke of above? Is he saying, don’t be prideful in anything or anyone but Jesus Christ alone? That’s the way I read it. Notice what Watchman Nee had to say on this subject:
Circumcision was a sign that marked out the Jew from the rest of mankind. What is the corresponding mark of our Christian life before men? Is it charity? wisdom? sincerity? zeal? Other men have these. None of them is peculiar to the people of God; but there is one that is. It is a seemly absence of self-confidence! What distinguishes God’s own is that their confidence in the flesh is destroyed and they are cast back upon Him. I have known Christians who are so sure they know the will of God that they will not for one moment consider that they may be mistaken. I tell you they still lack the supreme sign of the spiritual “circumcision,” namely, no confidence in the flesh. The spiritual man walks humbly, always aware that he may be wrong. He assents gladly to the apocryphal beatitude: Happy are they who realize they may be mistaken!
What if you’re wrong?

Someone once said, “You can justify any opinion from the pages of the Bible.” I think there is some truth in that. Likewise, one could give the same Bible passage to half a dozen different Christian leaders and end up with half a dozen completely different interpretations in their ensuing sermons. Some will no doubt argue, “ah, but you need the Spirit of God to bring interpretation.” My question then becomes, what do we do with the fact that all six of those preachers believe themselves to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that you and I claim to be? Can they all be right? Can they all still be wrong? Or are they only partly right?
“For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been clearly known and understood [by God].” (1 Corinthians 13:12; Amplified)
I am reminded of an illustration I heard years ago. It seems that there were four men who were blind from birth and who had never enjoyed the ability to see that which we each take for granted. All four men were taken on an outing to a zoo. While there the zookeeper took them into the elephant enclosure and allowed them to touch the elephant so that they might try and gain a little perspective of the awesome creature. As they stood around the elephant, one felt the ear, another the trunk, the third one was placed beside one of the massive legs, and the fourth reached out and touched the tail. But when they began to share their perception of what the elephant was like, there was of course no consensus. The four blind men were not even close in agreeing what an elephant was like. What each of them felt was true, but it was only a small part of the bigger picture.

I think Christianity is somewhat like that. Like the blind men, each of us has seen something of the nature and wonder of God, but we have not seen the whole picture. For us to claim otherwise would border on pride and arrogance. We would probably all do well to remember that, this side of glory, the best any of us can hope for is to see is a dimmed and blurred reflection. Perhaps that is why the half-dozen pastors can arrive at a half-dozen different interpretations based upon the same biblical text.

Maybe this also helps us to understand Jesus’ words in the greatest commandment a little better, in which He said that everything hangs first on love (Matthew 22: 25-40). Given that all any on us can see now is a dim reflection, maybe it really is first and foremost all about love. Have I ever been wrong? Oh, I’m certain of it. However, God helping me, I am striving to put less confidence in the flesh and more in Christ alone.

Which part of the elephant are you hanging on to?

Pride goes before destruction, 
and a haughty spirit before a fall.” 
(Proverbs 16:18)
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons