identifying with the poor

In my culture here in the United States, there seems to be a belief that has taken hold of many, that people are poor for a reason, meaning the poor are essentially at fault for being so. I’ve heard it put quite starkly that way, as if there are no outside factors which have contributed to their plight. Let’s face it, everyone makes less than best decisions at time, surely all of us have even done foolishly sometime when it comes to finances. But those who have a steady job and especially with a good income, have a nice margin of error, whereas the poor, who may not get much over minimum wage, do not. Yes, there’s all kinds of considerations to be added, like how some (some would say many) want to live off the government, while they smoke their cigarrettes and sit in front of the television. Yet there are others who have given up because they felt marginalized and simply didn’t have the qualifications needed to overcome.

Yes, there are poor people in the United States who barely have enough to eat, at times not enough. But most are helped in some way by the government or private agencies such as charities. The world’s poor in comparison suffer a much greater plight, since they often don’t have the resources that the poor here do. I think of places in Africa in which there is starvation even of children, often war ravaged areas in which governments can’t stop evil militia groups, oftentimes the governments themselves being corrupt.

People removed perhaps on the other side of the globe are sadly easy to dismiss or forget. But people suffering where we live is another matter. And yet we so easily live in bubbles among those of our economic, political, religious status, seldom breaking out of them enough to even begin to get to know the “others.”

To identify with the poor is essentially the way of Jesus, whose entire life, in fact coming was about identifying with the poverty of the human condition by becoming completely human except that he never sinned.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8

So we must start with our Lord, and it’s good to see it in the context of the above passage just cited (the link goes to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9). Paul was encouraging the Corinthian church to give monetarily, an offering for their poor brothers and sisters in Jesus in Judea. Some in their poverty gave generously for the help of others in spite of their own lack.

In and through Jesus, our hearts are to go out to the poor, and we’re to help them in practical ways in the love of our Lord, those who do not know him, with the good news of the gospel, itself.

We also need to be careful that Money doesn’t replace God in our lives. This is a life changing series, entitled, “God and Money,” which while saying a good number of things we may already know, is revolutionary in challenging us to see all of our resources as not only gifts from God, but also belonging to God, we being stewards of such. That needs to get into our hearts and bones to change our lives.

May the Lord teach us more in this direction, as we endeavor to walk together with him, longing for others to know the true riches we have found in him.

the error of chasing or living according to the American dream (part one of two)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Matthew 6:19-24

When I look back on my life, one of the things I wish I could change is how I handled money. This post requires two parts, but in this part, I will focus on the love of money. Note that it’s not money itself, but the love of money that is called a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Handling money well as in not going into debt unncessarily and foolishly, and saving for retirement, as well as for helping children through college, this is all well and good, to be commended. Of course not everyone can afford much more than the basic necessities of life, which for most Americans includes things which seem marginally necessary like the Internet, and some things not necessary at all.

We too often live by default. I wanted early on to live not caring about money at all. I did want to invest some for the future, but we didn’t have 401-K in those days or any plan as simple and straightforward, or as good as that (short of Social Security itself). I was in rebellion against the idol of money. Jesus’ words quoted above refers to money as a master, and church fathers personified it. Paul said that greed amounts to idolatry (Colossians 3:5). And yet to some extent I’m afraid I succumbed to that idol by not thinking beyond the parameters set within the American system. This is tricky, because it’s not like we either can or should remove ourselves from the world. Some people of faith disagree with that and do at least largely live removed from the rest of society, such as the Amish. But the way of Jesus seems to be to live as a witness within society, certainly in a distinct and what will amount to a peculiar way in contrast to the world’s way around us.

And yet it’s easy to fall into the trap of living according to the world’s norms and therefore falling into the world’s trap, instead of really living by Jesus’ kingdom standard, catching that dream and by faith committing oneself and remaining true to that. Even if we do that, it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t seek to build up credit and do all the same basic things others would do. It does mean that we will think, pray and live according to Jesus’ teaching no less, which includes generous giving of our wealth, particularly to those in need, and a refusal to live well beyond what we really need, not to mention well beyond our means. According to the NIV footnotes from the above passage “healthy” in the passage implies generosity, while “unhealthy” implies stinginess, both referring to one’s handling of money.

What is needed is to catch the vision Jesus casts of God’s kingdom come in him, and what that means for us who live in it. Again, that doesn’t mean we don’t live in the world, but we certainly do so as those not of the world. Our faith and witness is unavoidably and inevitably linked to our use of money. What is of fundamental importance in this post is that money would not become our master, but only God. Jesus said there’s nothing in between, it’s either one or the other for us. Even though I saw God as my one and only Master, I’m afraid that in practical terms I failed to see and catch Jesus’s kingdom vision, as well as the teaching of scripture on this. I did not care at all about getting rich, or so I think anyhow, but I did live not entirely, but largely according to the standards and limitations within the American system. Which made it hard to do what we have done over the years in deference to God’s kingdom in Jesus. But more on that in the last post of this two part series.

 

when all or much seems lost in this life

It is interesting how the down and out, thinking of the homeless and those in prison, seem disproportionately to be more people of faith than the rest of the population. Although sadly it’s been found recently, I read somewhere, that it is harder to reach the poor in terms of helping them become a part of a church family than what it used to be. Just because one is poor doesn’t mean they’ll connect with a church. Maybe some of them have had difficult experiences with churches, and everyone is on a different part of their faith journey. That said, it is still by and large those who find themselves in great need who are more inclined to reach out to God, while those especially who have accumulated great wealth, or have plenty and seem well set, may struggle a lot more to do so. Jesus said it is not only hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God, but actually impossible. But that what is not possible with man, is possible with God.

Our faith somehow needs to be grounded in God’s provision, as Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-34). And he tells us in the same place that money can indeed become an idol, replacing God in our lives. We so easily become lax in our faith. It ends up being that because of God’s grace, the rich can live in a manner pleasing to God, doing much good with the generous use of their wealth. And ironically those who are poor and in great need or trouble, can turn against God and fend for themselves, worshiping money every bit as much as many who are wealthy. I can’t help but think of the lottery. But by and large in scripture, and in life it ends up being especially the poor who are rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom God has promised to those who love God (James).

All of this goes to show that while our difficulties can help us have faith, we still must take initiative in coming to God for our needs, and in learning to trust God for God’s provision. This requires an effort on our part, and commitment to continue on this path. We know that in doing so, we are completely dependent on God and God’s grace. God’s grace goes before (called “prevenient grace”) and behind us, and really with us all the way, so that we can learn to trust God to meet all of our needs according to God’s riches in glory in Jesus.

Those who have lost all hope for normalcy in this life can find the true life in and through Jesus. Sometimes when our lives are stripped away of the things that won’t last and may even be doing us harm, we then find what will last and matter when this life is over, indeed what really matters even in this life now. The true riches and the true life in God in and through Jesus.

living in identification with the poor

It is wonderful to hear of those who are wealthy pouring a sizeable part of their fortune into helping those who are poor and in need. And I find it encouraging that Pope Francis turned down an invitation to a meal with members of the US Congress to instead eat with the homeless.

We all live in varying economic situations. Most of us in the United States and in other first world countries are wealthy in comparison to the rest of the world. Although many of us live from paycheck to paycheck with sizeable debt. Yet our standard of living is something billions of others could not imagine.

I found it striking to see that a psalm attributed to David, which may have been a Davidic psalm in a sense other than him having actually written it, that the writer saw themselves as “poor and needy” (Psalm 86). If one sees their true state, then instead of thinking they are well off just because they are materially wealthy, they will learn to see that they are indeed, “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3). Jesus called both the poor and the poor in spirit blessed, while he pronounced a woe on the rich. And stated that it is impossible for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God. But that what is impossible with humans is possible with God (Matthew 5; Luke 6; Matthew 19).

When we understand how everything is a gift and how utterly dependent we are on God for all of life including each breath that we breathe, we can begin to see ourselves as no different than those who live in abject poverty or conditions much  different than our own. But with that insight comes responsibility. In love we need to reach out and help those in need. And be sure that our hearts are not tied to material wealth rather than God.

We are poor in and of ourselves. Everything is a gift. With whatever we are blessed with we’re meant to bless others, especially with the true riches that last forever in and through Jesus.

living by faith- in a world of trouble

Life is a full plate, on the one hand. So much to try to take in, and so many decisions to make. And it’s not user friendly, either. There are all kinds of ways the world offers “success,” on plates which can spell doom- and difficulty at best. I think of credit cards and student loans, just to name two.

On the other hand, life can be relatively straightforward and simple, at least in theory if not in reality. Simply refuse to borrow except on mortgages. Refuse debt, save money with some put aside early on in something like a 401-K. Be generous in helping the poor; make that a priority. Certainly give to the church, a tithe is a good place to start, or according to one’s faith. Arrange life around those principles. John Wesley’s axiom: Make all you can, save all you can and give all you can.

What ends up being more realistic is a life committed to trusting the Father and seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness in following Jesus. And not hedging from that when the inevitable troubles and trials of life come. Knowing that there will be circumstances which are quite beyond us. Being much in prayer, trying to take in wisdom especially from scripture and from other places. Making the best decisions one (or preferably spouses together with godly, wise consultation) can make after that, with the knowledge that some of the decisions will actually not be the best. We are not foolproof in this life, and we will make mistakes. And even sound decisions can have worms in them in this present existence.

Keep reading the Proverbs and be in the rest of scripture. Wisdom means embracing simplicity and shunning worldliness, but not the world itself.

So in the end, there are no easy set formulas. The best answers are like leads which you follow, or offers you take in hand. But they are good only as one begins to live through the experience. The crucial factor is to be committed to a life of faith in God in every aspect of life. To be committed to being unwavering in that. And when we stumble, to accept God’s forgiveness and go on.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[a] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,[b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:19-34

the problem of debt

The rich rule over the poor,
and the borrower is slave to the lender.

Proverbs 22:7

As we hear about the financial crisis in Greece and the growing possibility that Greece may default, go bankrupt and slide out of the Eurozone, the reality of the crushing burden of debt hits home for to many of us in the wealthy countries such as here in the United States. The economy of the United States is built largely (and I think, foolishly) on credit which means most people are going into debt to the point that there is little hope that they will escape that shadow at least anytime soon. And as long as people can borrow, they might make some sacrifice (some of that involuntary), but by and large they will keep up a lifestyle that not only meets their needs, but many of their wants, as well.

It does seem unrealistic to avoid debt and even the most conservative anti-debt advocates such as Dave Ramsey, make an exception for a home in what is called a mortgage, but I’m unaware of any other exception he and others like him might make. Unless one gets a scholarship into a full or partial ride through school, it is next to impossible to avoid debt in the form of school loans. And we know that it all depends on the salary one gets as to whether such a tact is a good one or not.

Let’s not forget investment of 401 Ks or the like. One should start in that in their twenties and leave it alone. Even if the United States has years of decline, it is a pretty sure bet that in the end, compound interest alone being a huge factor, there will be plenty of money to see one, or them and their spouse through “retirement” years. In my view just because one is in debt doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be investing toward retirement. One should be working toward paying off their debt and saving for the future at the same time. Don’t make the mistake of paying off the debt first, then saving. One loses out exponentially if one doesn’t start saving as early as possible and lets that saving accumulate over the years.

We must beware in all of this kind of proverbial wisdom thinking that we put our confidence and trust in anything less than God himself and God’s word. By seeking to be wise in these ways, we are trusting in God who in the end is our true Provider.

I for one am not a fan of debt, even if by having it and making payments in time one builds up good credit. That credit is good only to keep on borrowing. What is better by far is to avoid debt altogether insofar as that is possible. To do so in radical ways early on. One way that comes to mind is to trust the Lord for needed finances to avoid debt, and if those finances don’t come to simply refuse to proceed. In other words the radical idea that I won’t go to school unless the Lord provides the funds. That provision may come over time by working and saving. One should be willing to say no to whatever purchase seems necessary (with the exception of a home, I think) if one can’t pay for it upfront without debt. Faith would grow as a result, as one sees God answer prayer and provide for needs.

But for many of us that window of opportunity has come and gone. We’ve simply taken the American way of borrowing and borrowing some more and some more and on and on, so that borrowing is the way we make major purchases, after that taking years with oftentimes signficant interest against us, to pay them off, only to be greeted with more seemingly necessary debt. It can become such a way of life to us that we can easily fail to make the necessary changes to seriously cut into the debt beyond what is required and eventually cut it out altogether. Debt should always be the exception and never the rule, and when we do accrue debt, we should pay it off as soon as possible.

Life is not over though, if one is either head over heels in debt, or seriously enough so, even if later in life. Surely life will take on signficant challenges which those well off can hardly imagine. But the Lord is faithful to provide for his own as they seek first his kingdom and righeousness in their lives. We can do the best we can with what we have learned and the resources we have. And encourage especially younger people to do better, even as I’m trying to do here.

I agree with John Wesley’s counsel on money: Make all you can, save all you can and give all you can. But even if we have little to give (and by the way, I think people should continue to give to the Lord’s work, especially to the church, even when in debt) we can say to anyone: “Silver and gold I do not have. But what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” We who are poor in this world (certainly a relative term given the abject poverty in too many places in the world) can be rich in faith and a blessing even to those who have plenty in material goods but may be wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked (see the Lord’s description of the rich yet empty Laodicean church in Revelation 3). We have to learn to be content with little, generous with what we do have, and dispensers of the true riches in Jesus which last forever.

hard work in earning a living

Most everyone has to work for a living and most of the work we have to do has some degree of toil and difficulty. A motto nowadays which can be considered a maxim holding some wisdom is “Don’t work hard, but work smart.” Literally I wouldn’t agree with it, since no matter how smart you work, you should work hard at it, as well. But we should make our work as efficient as possible. That stands to reason for both maximum productivity in terms of output and quality.

For some of us for one reason or another, or likely a number of reasons, we find that life hasn’t fallen out the way we (or anyone) would want it. Some of that can be our own doing, and some of it purely circumstantial, of course figuring God’s working and providential care into that equation. We find that we’re up against it, that unless some break comes (short of winning the lottery, which people like me have no possibility of winning) we may have to work in earning money as long as we are able. In America this is a problem to some degree for many baby boomers as they/we begin to reach the set retirement age (65-67).

One might think of Paul as a man certainly devoted to the gospel and the proclamation of it, an apostle sent to evangelize in preaching that gospel and oversee the churches taking root and growing especially among the Gentiles (Paul considered the apostle to the Gentiles, even as Peter was considered the apostle to the Jews- Galatians 2:7-8) and therefore a man who surely did not have to work for a living, not that faithfulness in preaching the gospel and overseeing the churches isn’t hard work, because most certainly it is. That is not to say that the Lord’s yoke is heavy (Matthew 11:28-30), it is only to say that in God’s grace one can work hard, a different subject and tack altogether (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). Paul does indeed say that those who preach the gospel ought to get their living from that work, in other words be supported by believers (1 Corinthians 9:11-14). Interestingly Paul knew what it was to live well by God’s grace in either scarcity or plenty. None of this nullifies God’s promise to meet our needs as we remain devoted to the cause of the gospel (Philippians 4:12-13, click to see the entire passage, verses 10-20).

Of course we want to live honorably and die honorably. And how we live in regard to material wealth, our giving, our saving so we can give more as well as support the needs of our loved ones- is not to be underestimated in its importance (see 1 Timothy 5:8).

So baby boomers like myself can take some comfort and refuge as well as instruction in Paul’s outlook and what he did (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8). And what he expected of the churches (for example 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). In the equation it should go without saying that one shouldn’t spend and give (move out) more than they earn (move in). That can be tricky in that we may not be aware of all the expenses either present or possible in the unknown future (even just over the horizon). And so it is important to plan well so that one can live as honorably as possible in love for the Lord and for our neighbor both present and future. And in whatever place one lives, whether rich or poor, we can and should be generous in the grace of giving (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-15), as we continue in the work God provides for us as well as our calling in the mission of Christ.