It was years ago now when I began to wrestle as a Christian with what God would have me do with my “stuff”. In other words, though I was not wealthy per se, every now and again I could do pretty well for my family. And as I began to evaluate that through the lens of my professed Christianity, I began to see a little glimpse into what Jesus was in such a fuss about when he talked about money—something that he talked an awful lot about. He did so specifically as it related to how those identifying with this new upside-down kingdom were to hold on to it, or not. And Jesus seemed to always have different strokes for different folks in this regard.
Now though I had always been a giver of myself and my “stuff”, since I had never had any real wealth to speak of, I began to realize one can only understand the principle of extravagant giving when he or she is suddenly faced with the reality of their growing discretionary income. Because until then, it is sheer “speculation”, or mere pompous sermonizing to others about something you yourself have never had to wrestle with. And so I found out that until you have a big check that you can actually write and that won’t bounce, the talk is cheap. Also, most interestingly, as I reflected on these weighty matters, I saw something I had not seen before. It seemed that both the rich, and the poor were guilty in a similar vein. For the rich looked down on the poor for what they did not have, but the poor envied and even hated the rich for that very same reason.
And I guess you could say because of that experience, I began to see that contrary to the social justice warrior community and many on the progressive left, Jesus was not condemning a man’s wealth at all. In fact, a lot of people who give the scriptures a mere cursory glance rather than sticking around for a while miss this by at least a mile or so. Because contrarily, rather than condemning a man or woman’s ability to make wealth, Jesus’ cautions were to simply remind them who gave them the power to make it in the first place, and thus equally challenging them as to whether or not they should hold on to it loosely instead of guarding it with a miserly clinched fist. And as I see it, for Jesus, it really came down to our clear decisiveness as to which kingdom we were to now focus on, and whether or not we trusted that God actually had our continual back once we sowed into it. And like the two men we are going to briefly look at today, one of them teeter tottered on the precipice of radical Christianity on the narrow path, yet then succumbed to the default comfort of the mere “letter of the law”. The other presented with the same invitation, knew that the Spirit would require a change of the heart in proportion to the talents (or wealth) one had actually been given. Consequently, one left saddened because he finally understood the requirement, while the other had something Jesus called “salvation” finally enter into his very home.
Rich Dude #1
The first rich dude (we’ll call him “The Rich Young Ruler”) encountered Jesus, and it seemed Jesus was pretty smitten with him at first. In fact, the scriptures lead us to believe that Jesus is perhaps offering to him a chance to throw in his lot with the rest of the motley crew. And so the crowd awaits with anticipation as the young man asks Jesus what seems to be a really great question given the circumstances. He asks, “What good thing must I do to gain eternal life? Jesus’ reply seems to be accommodating at first glance. He throws out what seems to be a spiritual soft ball of sorts by having some table-talk with the young fellow about the goodness of God as opposed to man. A little Sunday-school primer shall we say. And yet as I read it, I can’t help but wonder if the subtle innuendo before us is that the man’s first question is in itself incriminating his chances of becoming disciple #13, as he inadvertently shows us his unlucky hand. He does so by holding on to a list of do’s and don’ts that he has always evaluated himself by, and marvelously always came out smelling like a rose! And yet also rather cryptically it seems, alerting us to the fact that “eternal life” is yet one thing left on his rich bucket list that he has not yet attained. Perhaps he seems to think Jesus is also on to something more, which is why he is inquisitive, and so we don’t want to take that from him. However, lurking somewhere in the distance is a man, who also like many of us, equates salvation as mere icing on the cake or simply “fire insurance” added to an already privileged and also sheltered life.
And yet before Jesus gets the conversation down to brass tacks, He lobs out one more soft ball question about an answer he knows all of us law-abiding religionists will get right without batting an eye. And as you guessed it, the young ruler does not disappoint. For like us, he has a lot of head knowledge that has yet to seep down into his stony heart. And it is here that Jesus has now called the spade out for what it is! For In knowing that the man actually thinks he is already good, and that salvation is something to be gained by his own effort and money clip, he puts the very prerequisite before him that is the one thing that always separates the men from the boys on the narrow path: zeroing in on whatever the one thing is in our lives that we love more than the God we profess we want to follow. And for rich dude #1, that love is money honey; and all at once, there is nothing left in sight but the road still untraveled.
Rich Dude #2
Rich dude #2 actually has a name, and we know him as Zacchaeus. He was a short dude, and so I guess he had to have money if he wanted to pick up chicks. I don’t know. Or maybe it was because he was a chief tax collector, which was tantamount to being a lawyer, or perhaps today’s Title-loan shark. Yea, that’s it. But anyway, Zacchaeus was also intrigued by Jesus and wanted to know more, and so being short and all, he climbed one of them there sycamore trees and such, so he would be sure to not miss Jesus when he passed by. And maybe he didn’t actually think he would get to see Jesus so he was keeping a safe distance, but Jesus spotted him and told him that he “needed” to come to his house. This little tidbit we are told elated Zacchaeus, yet likewise also further disrupted the religiosity of pretty much everyone else in sight. Yet for Zacchaeus, it didn’t matter, because wealth was all had. He made no such boasts such as the young ruler about keeping the law perfectly all his life. Rather, he was more than likely rich and also lonely, because he made a living exploiting the rich and the poor, and everyone else in between. We’re not given much commentary after this, but one thing we know, is that like the grinch, he got a super-size heart that day that came with a recipe for his immediate change. His vow therefore became the following: “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much”. Then Jesus said these very telling words that will help us wrap up our thoughts today. He said, “Today salvation has come to this household”.
Me and You
So in the end, we have two sets of rich dudes. Both are spiritual seekers, but only one recognized that in order for salvation to have its full effect, there would be costs associated. Costs in proportion to his own talent and wealth for the good of a different kingdom with a different kind of King. A salvation that requires a change in our behavior, and equally one that also involves a drastic reevaluation of the abundance of our own stuff, as well as equal ponderance and restlessness about what to do about those without the very basic stuff. And though there is no “one size fits all” strategy for who is to give and do what, one thing is abundantly clear: In order for salvation to truly come, we need to make sure we are the right kind of rich dude!
Command those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be haughty or to set their hope on riches, which are uncertain, but on God who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous givers, sharing with others. In this way they will save up a treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the future and so lay hold of what is truly life. (I Timothy 6:17-19 NET)
The Dying Man
To say I’ve been dying for some years now is probably a gross misrepresentation, even to those who knew depression had become both my regular and ever abiding companion. Nevertheless, this very real experience in my life will serve as a useful entry point into what I want to talk to you about today.
I’ve actually thought about writing about this particular life experience I only began to learn something about 11 years ago now. But for whatever reason, I simply made it part of my own daily remembrance since then. In fact, I have written it over and over in my weekly prayers, visibly posted it in familiar places where I can see it’s other-worldly common sense more regularly; and its compelling wisdom has been occasionally known to echo from my lips to others seemingly lost amid this thing called “life”. Particularly those “examined” lifers that are always willing to call the baby fat when it should be equally obvious to the rest of us.
A Visit to Mepkin Abbey
It started out during my enamored flirtation with the spiritual disciplines as a way to perhaps get more of God into me somehow. Now don’t get me wrong. I had always given that a college try throughout most of my life at least, but somehow the promise of more attentiveness to these matters as a way to keep me on the narrow path drew me closer to take a look see. That particular focus in my life would lead me to a place called Mepkin Abbey where I unexpectedly got some manna from heaven that I sorely needed.
Mepkin Abbey is a Cistercian monastery nestled along the Cooper River in a place appropriately called “Monk’s Corner, S.C.”. And in my search to find a cure for my impending death, I decided to not only go there and pray, but to also take a tour into what the life of men who did nothing more than work, pray and sing praises to God might be like. I wanted to see if where my particular trajectory in life seemed to be taking me was worth paying a little more attention to, instead of simply drowning it away in the evenings from the bottom of a bourbon glass.
After we walked through the various areas of where the men lived and worshiped and learned about the daily rhythms of their life, we were finally ushered into a room at the conclusion where we could ask any lingering questions that we might have for our tour guide. I remember distinctively others asking what I perceived to be rather trivial and superficial questions, that in my dying mind were not becoming to a man who had sold out his life to what I have come to believe is truly the “heart of the matter”. And so, as I continued to listen I grew ever more impatient, yet waiting my turn, I finally got the go ahead to take center stage. It was then that I looked at the monk now in his mid to late seventies, and I asked him what had been on my mind for some time now, and that as of yet had not found an answer to. I then said, “Sir, what is it that you have learned here, that you could not have learned on the outside in the real world”? And it was in that very pointed moment, with all eyes now waiting to hear his words, that without hesitation he played for me something of a movie short of his life.
He told me he had lived as a Catholic priest his whole life, and he then felt, nearing his retirement, that the most logical step for him was then to enter the monastery. We all listened on. He then said that the one thing that he learned in his life of ministry, specifically as he spent a lot of time with the sick and dying in the hospital and in parishioners homes, was that those who were dying all of sudden became the most selfless people he had ever met. He then added that these dying people came to realize in their looming death, that the only thing that really mattered, was to now “lose oneself” in the service of God and to others. Sniff, Sniff. He then said, “That is what I learned here, without having to die”! And to this day, I have never forgotten it.
The King’s Wisdom
Now for those of you who know about what I speak; the dying that is; you also know that pouring fuel onto a walking dead man on fire is not typically the best course of action. However, for me, hanging out in the book of Job, or particularly with a wise and somewhat nihilistic King were actually just what the doctor ordered. For King Solomon pulls no punches. He’s not whispering tiddlywinks or blowing smoke up our ass! He’s been there, done that and bought the t-shirt; as well as the t-shirt factory. And by way of introduction, he lets us dead people know that we’re actually right. All this stuff he says is a vanity of epic proportions, and so he has to spend a great deal of time shoving his epiphanic nihilism in our faces, just in case we have a tendency to forget. Because of course; we do.
And so our sagely friend starts with the bad news by expounding on a litany of things all of us dying men already know all too painfully. For instance, things like being obsessed with having “stuff”; receiving accolades from men; becoming freakin “know it alls”; and those who embrace an epicurean lifestyle. And he says in no uncertain terms, that these things are in fact on the road to a dead-end street (no pun intended). And quite honestly, if we are wise, we stand up and pay attention, because we are hearing this from the lips of a man who spared no amount of time, money or devotion to those very things for the entirety of his life. And the result: A man who could find no rest for the one thing he needed most when it counted—his very own soul. And his reminder to us is that in the end, you and I will die! And regardless of whether or not we cherish the thought, they will forget us more than likely before the freakin weekend!
Now just let that sink in for a moment.
But before we criticize the man for stealing our mojo, he rightfully steers us towards a practice that most of the world simply won’t sign up for. For he says in chapter 7:3 that “death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart”. In other words, Solomon tells us that the way to really live rightly is to do so out of the certain and futuristic crystal ball depicting our own demise.
Death-talk Is Not In Vogue
Now to say that people in general don’t like to talk about this subject, and Americans more specifically, should be self-evident. We are constantly told, “you’re as young as you feel”, and “you’re not old, you’re just getting better” and other mounds of bullshit just like that! Oh, now don’t get me wrong, keeping a young mind so to speak, while obviously growing old, is a perspective we should all embrace. But the fact remains, that in order to live a good life, a life that really matters, the reality of death and taxes as absolute certainties in this life should occupy our thoughts much more than it does I’m afraid. Because the facts are in man, and none of us are getting out of this damn thing alive!
Now I’m fortunate in the sense that I began to think somewhat like this as I mentioned earlier during a particular economic death I experienced some 11 years ago now. Which consequently always makes me a great companion for Tony Robbins types (no offense Tony), which are everywhere man! And though I’m all for goal-setting and reaching for the stars (whatever the Hell that means), quite honestly, I’m much more comfortable with a little morbid thinking that gives me a healthy dose of undeniable reality which reminds me that I’m really not that big of a deal in this whole drama. In fact, this reality, if we will allow it, can infuse us with something that will really teach us how to live rightfully, more so than simply “successfully”. And though they can be companion bedfellows (if they are rightfully defined), oftentimes they are most emphatically not!
Dead Men Tell No Tales
It was Friday the 13th of this year when I got an up close and personal brush with what death might actually feel like. And to show you how disordered my thinking still was, even though I had been in this class for some time now, the one thing that I kept rehashing over and over in my mind was the fact that I would leave my family with nothing as far as this world’s goods was concerned. Now not that being able to do so is a bad thing. It is most definitely not. And we should endeavor, without killing ourselves (pun intended), to do that. But the fact still remains, that if we die, and the saying that “he who dies with the most toys wins” is bullshit (and it is), then the legacy we leave in terms of what kind of person we were before God and to others is the only thing people will remember. Which is one of the reasons we are still talking about Mr. Rogers now some 16 years after his death. And the summation from both Fred and our somewhat nihilistic King is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”. It’s the only thing, and I mean the only thing that matters! I promise you.
And yet I know, at the stroke of my keyboard, many of us still consider this talk to be nothing more than poppycock and endless sermonizing from some “negative Nancy” types, only trying to rain on our parade. And I get it. I really do. However, the last time I checked; I never ever saw a hearse carrying around a trailer hitch. And to be sure, I never heard a dead man tell any tales to speak of. But then wait; perhaps they do after all.
Are you listening to this one?
Rod Stewart Theology
As I thought introspectively about the impetus for this blog, I couldn’t escape a flashback of the cover Rod Stewart did of the song “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right” for some reason. In fact, I can remember listening to that song for the first time in 1977 somehow knowing it was not just saying something about an affair between a married man and a woman that he is erotically smitten with. Also lurking there was somehow something much deeper in my mind that told me this song was about much, much more as it relates to an age-old problem most of us seem to never shake. And perhaps understandably so. For the very real but unquenchable pull of what we feel, see and touch is a powerful seduction that most of us fall prey to time and time again; causing us to howl like a cat in heat, repeatedly choosing the satiating temporal over our perception of the inaccessible eternal. Is it any wonder then that when the disciple that Jesus loved tells us to “love not the world“, we would prefer to cast our lot with those on the “highway to hell” instead. For after all, the cure for what ails us seems nowhere in sight, and often times the world feels pretty damn good—for a season that is.
John is trying to tell us something though in I John 2:15-17. The text reads,
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions is not from the Father, but is from the
world. And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever” (NET).
This is something that we must pay attention to very closely. For if loving the Father is right, and yet we choose to be wrong (in bed with world), there is a juxtaposition that cannot be reconciled on the narrow path laid out for us. And it is this paradox that constantly wars against our soul, beckoning us to draw straws for that which we actually believe gives us the best bang for the buck in the here and now, in stark opposition to the best the Father has for us. And according to biblical history and our collective human experience, our public record is replete with examples that matter-of-factly illustrate the fact that our allegiances to one or the other do matter; both in the here and now (which is a point we often miss), as well as in that everlasting place that our hearts both secretly and restlessly long for. Yet for the life of us, it often is a day late and at least a dollar short in our ability to somehow let it under our skin.
The Root of the Problem
We are in fact given more insider insight to the age-old problem we’re forced to grapple with in Genesis chapter 3, when the author alerts us with a news flash across our cerebral screens that “when the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it” (Gen. 3:6 NET). The temptation of course was deeper than the sensuality of the forbidden that summoned her that we just mentioned, but went much deeper into the human psyche of the very distinct possibility of becoming the master of her own destiny, and of somehow putting herself in the spot of the God who was somehow holding her back from “my body, my choice” or, just fill in the blank. Evidently Adam also thought this was an equally grand idea; and coupled with the thought of sleeping on the couch, the passive male now entered onto the world stage for our abiding education.
But let’s not give Adam and Eve too much of a go of it, for if we had stood in proxy, we would have eaten the whole damn tree; roots and all! For it is in the very raw and organic nature of mankind to run like a moth to a flame to grab hold of anything that we have been told is off limits for us. Thus to deny the instantaneous satiety of the smoldering red stew on the fire, the Delilah-like “brick-house” promising ecstasy for the night, or the subtle lure of calling one’s own shots; this is indeed the trifecta that has told the sad tale of mankind’s unhealthy love for the world, rather than for the creator who understands the rules it mercilessly plays by.
The God-like Fool and His Money
John however adds some additional insight that is equally helpful to us in discerning a better way forward from the shape we are in. In fact, we learn that it is not only the trifecta aforementioned, but also lurking behind “calling one’s own shots” is “the arrogance produced by material possessions”. It would seem that the very god-like characteristics that money exemplars gives us the added ammunition to tell God to “take the job and shove it”, while adding a heaping teaspoon of pride that makes man think he’s “gangsta-rich” and thus invincible, even when he hasn’t got an eternal pot to piss in! And if there is such a thing as “creating a monster”, this is one now full grown and ready to rumble.
So then, at the risk of being repetitive, we already learned that the biblical story and our own tells the tale well. Yet for our further reflection on the matter, Ezekiel 7:19 also reminds us that just like our current lesson, part of the Israelites own dilemma, and a direct result of their exile was in recognizing that it was their “god-like” wealth that was actually the “obstacle leading to their iniquity”. Several chapters later Ezekiel even goes so far to say that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was much deeper than we assume at the surface, as he chimes in that the Lord’s very own chosen had now given them a run for their money. In fact, in chapter 16:48-50 we learn that it was their “haughtiness” and “carefree ease” that caused them to not only neglect the weightier matters of giving a damn about others less fortunate than they, but also was the main ingredient that ultimately caused them to do the “abominable deeds” that wiped them off the map in the first place. And then I all of sudden remembered this prediction that has still yet to come to fruition. Ruth Bell Graham once said (paraphrased) “that if God doesn’t punish America soon, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah”. But let’s not give America too much credit. Because the real problem with the world, as G.K. Chesterton once so eloquently put, is in fact just plain ole (you) and “me”.
Who’s Your Real Daddy?
So the question we must answer then is both a simple and complex one I’m afraid. But you probably already figured as much. For John clearly tells us to make a decision as to “who’s our daddy”, and we know the right answer. We’ve been in that class for far too long I’m afraid. The eternal difficulty however lies in dealing head-on with the enigma I put before us at the outset of our brief talk today. For if it is in our DNA to prefer loving what we know is wrong because of its temporary yet aphrodisiacal nature, and thus consequently continually choosing not to be right instead; then the answer, like the snake that should have already bitten us, has to be both a daily and disciplined choice. A choice of putting in our lot and our love with the right family. The family that we are told first loved us with a whole lot of blood poured out to prove it. For the world promises much yet delivers little once our finite dust is settled, and thus choosing who you will love is of a most epic proportion! And yet if we cannot learn from our own mirrored history, then as one wiser than I once said, “we are eternally destined to repeat it”.