A Tale of Two Rich Dudes

Stuff

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!

 

Selah

 

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)

 

 

What Has Christianity Cost Us Lately?

An Observation

I’ve been pondering the topic above this weekend at great length. What spawned my brief fixation was the observant mutual back and forth between my wife and I, that by and large Christianity no longer costs very much to the average Joe or Suzy Churchman or woman.  Nor is there a sweeping rebuttal from it’s men of the cloth that this is much cause for concern. Oh some do, to be sure. But they are constantly tempted to quickly change the topic for lack of interest from their hearers. It gives a sort of “yawn” effect to it’s American congregants, and quickly leads to shopping for a new teacher to scratch the itching ear somewhere down the road of buffet-line Christianity.   It’s a problem to be sure, and there are no short answers or long ones quite honestly to fix it I’m afraid. This is what our devolution of the faith has brought us to you might say, and we all share a collective ownership of it.

 

The Organism Suffers

 

And as I’m sure you’ve noted by now, if you have taken the time to read anything I have written of late, you realize that for the most part when I speak of church positively, I am from my heart of hearts speaking as to what I feel that the scriptures emphasize the most; that of the organism rather than the organization—though I am apart of both. But leaving the organization aside for a moment, in fairness to the organism (you and me), I realize that many today sacrifice much.  Not only in the everyday crosses they bear due to living on planet earth, but who add to their cost daily by continuing to fill up what lacks in Christ’s sufferings here on earth, in order to further allow the world to see Golgotha up front and center everyday on their own street corner or on a hill far away. And there are those who suffer not only in this country for their faith in some ways to be sure, but more acutely across the globe in the least concentrated areas of Christianity. Those who suffer in their own bodies and pocketbooks in ways we cannot know, and to whom everyday is a constant test as to their unwavering belief or conceded apostasy. They too are our brothers and sisters, and we mustn’t forget to remember their chains and mistreatment (Heb. 13:3) that is felt as if it were our own.

 

Now the church organism in the West suffers too as I mentioned. For instance, if we have somewhat individually clung to the old rugged cross with all it’s foolishness that the world has attributed to it, and to it’s increasing unpopularity of thought in the public square, this comes with it’s own brand of persecution. And of course despite whimsical and momentary elections that offer the believing masses rays of hope that we’ll be great along with God again, the trajectory of the western world is moving away and not toward anything that we have or have had to say I’m afraid. This is partly our fault, and partly due to the man of lawlessness (II. Thes. 2:3) that has already settled down in the both written and unwritten code of our culture. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I believe inquiring minds have to know this is the new norm if anyone is paying attention; all the while still keeping hope that the church will hold it’s ground and the gates of Hell will not in the end prevail.

 

And so if we are picking up our daily cross, we should also wrestle with what we see everyday that comes at us now in a pop-up window across our various screens waiting for us as we awaken each day. Things such as another police officer being shot, racial tensions mounting, refugees who haven’t anywhere to go, and the President-elect’s new cabinet member that many speculate is sure to do us all in. These are all collectively cause for concern and discussion, but closer to home I think we have bigger fish to fry. And we are in information overload to be sure, which brings about not only opportunity, but I think increased sadness; easily explained by the Prozac nation of which we are apart of now. Nonetheless, we are perplexed as to what to do about that, and not sure we are big enough and bold enough to do much about it other than pray and send an occasional guilt-ridden check or a like on Facebook. However, within our own families and street corners, as we open our eyes for a brief moment, we struggle with what to do about the countless ills that are within a stone’s throw of our own private castles: things like kids with broken homes; homelessness; and Single Mom’s who haven’t a prayer unless someone sees the face of Christ in their hopeless eyes. We struggle with what part we are to play, all the while trying to cut off just a sliver of an American Dream for ourselves and our families, and yet…the two are very strange bedfellows indeed aren’t they? Oh yeah, the struggle is for real isn’t it? Or should I ask, “Shouldn’t it be”?

 

The Organization, Maybe Not So Much

 

I can remember about a year ago talking with a pastor friend about my wrestling with the question I’ve put before us today.  I unpacked my life before him about my struggle with these things, and about my experience in opening up my home and pocketbook for many years to the face of Christ I have seen in my own life that were hungry, in prison, naked, or needing some cold water. I remember the conversation and sharing the mêlée I had in my own ability to achieve both the juggling act of trying to lose my life and gain it at the same time—an enigma indeed. His reply was staggering, and I haven’t forgotten it. He said, “Maybe Jesus didn’t want you to do all those things you did”. In other words the quick translation was: Jesus would have preferred I gain my life rather than lose it. I refrained from the chuckling that would have possibly disguised my uncontrollable sobbing just behind my sad blue eyes, and perhaps even scoffing at the stereotypical response by well meaning Christians who believe that if we don’t have a savings account, a 401K and own our own home, we’ve missed God somehow, and simply need a Dave Ramsey class! Its unwritten prose, but its lines are there nonetheless to be seen and read, and many of us in the organism have now memorized their response verbatim. And it is this problem that I believe comes first from the organization at large, and from the broader culture that we are all much more affected by than we are perhaps willing to admit.

 

I’ve done quite a bit of reading in my day, and for those who know me, they would probably say that is an understatement. Nonetheless, most of that reading has been devotionally and as a discipline in the scriptures themselves, but also in reading very broadly in all areas where the church is concerned; and also historically–particularly honing in on its infancy. One thing is overwhelming clear in this practice that I can’t shake out of my head and heart and it is this: The church understood it’s call to reach out to the have not’s; the have nones; the crippled and the lame; the sick and the dying; and the mentally disturbed, and brought them into their care. This was often accomplished with the extension of the healing touch of Christ’s power from their hands to restore, and the equally therapeutic power of love, a place to stay, with food and a warm blanket to ease their continued pain and suffering–as well as from the stigma of their vulnerability from a world that would just as soon find a way to decrease their surplus population.

 

Now to be sure, the organizational church has been known for its outreach in these areas that should not be underestimated in the least. In fact, almost everywhere there is suffering in the world, some branch of both the organizational church and individuals that make up the organism will be the first ones on the front line of offering a cup of cold water and some sort of assistance to the disenfranchised that our world periodically spits out of it’s evolutional system of which they cannot thrive in. Yet what has caused me a slight relapse back into questioning the church’s overall approach, is the fact that most of it’s population in America that I am constantly bumping into seems to be mostly concerned with their own self-preservation and achievement of the American Dream.  To a point that the calling to sacrifice has become almost a faint whisper that almost no one is even straining to hear anymore. It has been drowned out I’m afraid by the scream of cultural inconsequentialities and a familiar call to compete with new sets of Joneses.

 

Cost is Caught and Not Taught

 

One reason I think in particular, and this is sure to get me into trouble with the “I love my church” crowd, stems from the amount of money that goes into the maintenance and upkeep of the machine that is the organizational church. And though many of these same churches have ministries and programs that assuage the picture given that they are involved in the things the church has always been noted for; the truth is: compared to the actual money that comes in the door, 95% in most churches are going to the solemn assemblies and programs we provide the saints– whilst the percentage left to the lost and least of these is negligible to say the least. Part of the reason is because we have become too dependent on paid professionals to do for us what the organism we should be doing for ourselves. And though it is not my purpose today to unpack too much of this, it is simply to point out that this is attributable to a problem I am seeking to highlight–of a Christianity without a cost, where we learn from those who should be exemplars otherwise that self-preservation is to be preferred over giving sacrificially. And while we are commissioned to give more and more to the upkeep of the machine through various tactics and campaigns, we are rarely allowed to peel back the financial statement onion.  Yet when we do, we find that perhaps the church needs financial accountability as well to correct this malaise among itself that has also infected its constituents. As the old adage suggests, “Monkey see, Monkey do”! For if I as a minister of the gospel do not by my own example and admonition to my congregants allow Christianity to cost me something and to wrestle with the various faces of Christ I see each day, then how will I truly teach aside from practice. The devil is in the details I assure you. This to me seems to be a huge problem that should not be overlooked.

 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

 

As I write this today, I am again asking these huge questions in my own life as an individual. Is my sole purpose to provide for my family, leave them an inheritance and provide them the best life now? Perhaps this is the case, but perhaps not. I struggle with this conundrum of late, and it sometimes keeps me up at night. It does so because of the rightful tension it should have in each of our lives as Christians, as well as my own failure to measure up to a Daddy Warbucks expectation. And how will I be sized up as I leave this world if I continually fail in the eyes of the ones I love and in the eyes of others that will no doubt forget me shortly after my body hits the cold, dirt floor? Or did Jesus perhaps really mean it when he said that though the heavenly Father knew we had need of such things as basic to our human survival and well being, that he really did want us to seek first his Kingdom and righteousness? A Kingdom, that while other kingdoms rage all around us and are concerned with their various agendas, should characteristically be concerned with that one that was lost, and the least of these that may knock on your private castle door today. I submit to you that if we call ourselves Christians in any form or fashion, what our Christianity costs us must go outside of our intimate family circle, what’s left at the end of the month, and not to the exclusion of the five loaves and two fish we already have. Until Christianity passes this litmus test, its doubtful that anyone will make much of a fuss about us in the not too distant future. And for a church that once turned the Roman world upside down in just 3 centuries, we have now in just 17 since then turned it back right-side up…and perhaps the writing is now rather chiseled on the church wall.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crosses and Resurrections: A Juxtaposition of How Christians Ought To Live

I’ve thought a lot about the cross and the resurrection lately—two very distinct but cataclysmic events that also have their mystical place in the outworkings of our very real and daily lives.   My contemplations have not been because Easter and its emotive reminders of both events are a few short months away; nor is it because we’ll celebrate the birth of our Lord lying in a manger in just a matter of weeks. Instead, I’ve actually deliberated about it primarily because my experience has been that living in either extreme somehow has not served me quite well–nor has it served others of which I’ve had the opportunity to walk down the path of life with thus far. Let me briefly explain.

 

First of all, living a cruciform life has been somewhat easier for me than most. That is of course not to say that I know it better than many more who have suffered far greater than me in this life, and certainly not to the exclusion of our Lord himself whose Passion speaks for itself. However, I would have to say that the cross is what most coalesces with my feeble existence on this earth. In other words, it’s easy for me to believe that a man dying on the cross and saving a world is good news. And as far as I can tell, the gospel has always been better news to the poor, the downtrodden, the broken and battered; and to the spiritual misfits to whom life has given them it’s daily cross to carry. Jesus said that, Paul and Peter repeated it, and it blends in perfectly with the tapestry that is and has been my life-a life of carried crosses more than glorious resurrections. That is not to say that I have not had great seasons of life, some noted successes, and some say I even have a talent or two that the world has yet to stand up and take notice of. However, let’s just say that the cross to me makes perfect sense. And though the resurrection might be good for Jesus and those of us who await the sweet bye and bye, for me the cross has always been a sentiment that has been easy to stick like glue, and through it I make the most sense of my fragile reality in this world, and to those to whom my misery brings familiar and good company.

 

Now I know, I know. Already you’re starting to slip off because it looks like there isn’t going to be good news to this short story. That’s the resurrection in all of us quite frankly, and to the world of which we are apart. And the truth is, we as Christians are at somewhat of a disservice talking about crosses in a resurrection world are we not? And it’s not hard to believe; as history bears this out repeatedly in the blood of martyrs, and the accompanying growth or decline of the church as a result. It is equally not hard to believe in our own daily experience if we take notice. For each and every time we attempt to give a cross response to a resurrection belief system, it is often met with opposition and checkered results. I for one have experienced this time and time again in my own life; when sacrificing something for someone else (a cross), was somehow mixed in with the hope of a good outcome in the end (resurrection); yet like Waiting for Godot, its actualization never came. And this same repeated story has been written in my own blood, sweat and tears; and in forever missing dollars and cents. So yeah, I get the cross; and you could say it gets me–a little more than I would care to be familiar with. And so, it’s equally not hard for me, like Paul, when I am with you, to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified, to the exclusion of the rest of the (resurrection) gospel story. In fact, throughout my short tenure in ministry as a Pastor, I preached this message, and saw a cross under just about every bush and around every corner. Not only did it make sense to me, and echoed from the unity of the book to which I’ve spent my life’s attention to; but as I mentioned earlier, it made sense to my own daily experience and to the via dolorosa of those who were attracted to my message—those to whom the cross was something they could identify with, and to whom it had become a close and endearing friend.

 

But secondly, what of this mysterious resurrection? This experience that only Jesus himself has achieved in the natural order of things, but to which we only aspire to in the kingdom somewhat here, but still not yet. What of the victorious Christian life to which we are given admonition week after week in our Sunday worship services, to whom many claim they have a stake on, but to which many of us are always a day late and a dollar short? We are suspicious of their claims, and yet equally we know somehow that we are to live somehow juxtaposed between these two worlds; with the cross in one hand, and the rolled away stone in the other. I’m familiar with the former, but uncomfortable with the latter–and so are all my rowdy friends. I realize there is no question as to what we are to become, yet like Paul, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing”[1]. Or perhaps it’s not the missing of the virtuous mark, but achieving the promise on the other end of my periodic obedience, to which my life may very well depend on; yet seems to be stuck in transit somewhere outside of my experience. Do I live in taking up my cross and bearing it as my daily modus operandi, or do I hold out hope that my resurrection of triumph awaits; or do I experience madness somewhere in between?

 

My take on these things as of late is that they are not an “either/or” but rather a “both/and”; a reconciliation of paradox’s of which I am no one’s expert.   I know that God answers prayer, but the answers seem to be slow and at a snail’s pace in their delivery to my inbox, while others boast of a God who speaks and answers before the clock strikes dawn. I step out in faith with everything on the line, but God often seems to be busy with world wars, or perhaps the election; or a million other things instead of meeting me halfway into the next thing I have endeavored to do for him. I’ll settle for the sun will come out tomorrow, but often it’s anything but. As a result, I’m inclined to nestle back up to the cross (splinters and all), awaiting the roll that is called up yonder, rather than holding real faith and God’s occasional silence in a delicate tension. I must learn to live in plenty and in want, and also know that God is still very much in control and attentive to the needs and cry’s of His children. I can ask for the moon and stars, all the while in full recognition that sometimes my same old address is all I might expect today. Meanwhile, tomorrow is another day of hopefulness, another day of faith in the unseen and yet eternal one who knows my name, and who loves me warts and all; and who even says I can call him Father. I can lay hands on the sick and pray to remove mountains, and accept when mustard seeds weren’t quite enough this time around. I can believe in victory, even when sometimes my failure is my more constant companion. More and more, I can continue to walk with my hand in the hand of the man from Galilee, aware of Golgotha’s nearby hill, but equally engaged in the possibility of a miracle happening somewhere along the way. It is into both of these worlds that I must equally pay attention to; never letting either one this side of heaven define who I am for far too long; and yet always holding out for the resurrection of hope that the world also so desperately needs to know and see fleshed out in mine and your shoe leather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Romans 7:19 ESV