Tag Archives: Wealth

Of Spirit and Paperweights

Of Spirit and Paperweights (CaD Ecc 5) Wayfarer

Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 5:19 (NIV)

I still remember a big, glass Skippy jar that belonged to my brother, Tim. The lid was wrapped tight with athletic tape and a slot for change was snipped into the tin lid. It was filled with change (Note: a Skippy jar full of pocket change could go a long way in those days). It sat there. For years it served as a paperweight on my brother’s desk. For years I saw that thing just sitting there…years.

During those years. I didn’t have a piggy bank or any such change jar. There was no point. If I had a dime I spent it.

That’s a parable, by the way.

It’s also a confession that I was not great with money for much of my life. It was a lesson that ended up being a long, hard stretch for me on both the spiritual and physical levels. But learn it, I did. As a sincere follower of Jesus, I couldn’t get around the fact that money and the spiritual implications of it, was His number one subject.

Not sex.
Not drinking.
Not drugs.
Not politics.
Not church attendance.

Money, wealth, possessions and their spiritual implications was numero uno on the Top Ten list of subjects that Jesus talked about. And, for anyone reading this who has not read Jesus’ teaching on the subject yourself, please know that it’s completely opposite of those televangelists who twist His teaching in order to pad their own pockets.

Yesterday morning I had the honor of kicking-off what will be a six-week series of messages about the economy of God’s Kingdom (it’s on the Messages page, btw). Talking about economics is always a tough subject from a spiritual perspective because money and economics are so intertwined with my life, my mind, my heart, and my spirit. I believe that’s why Jesus talked about it so much. I can live a good, religious, morally pure, upright life, but if I don’t get the spiritual lessons of economics right, then I’m still hopelessly stuck in spiritual kindergarten.

It felt like a little spiritual synchronicity that the Sage who authored Ecclesiastes is talking about this same subject in today’s chapter. What fascinated me is how it dove-tailed what I spoke about yesterday, and what stuck out to me in the chapter was an interesting contrast.

In verse 10, the Sage warns of the spiritual trap that wealth creates because there’s never enough, and the dissatisfaction and discontent of the perpetual more will eat a person’s soul.

In verse 11, the Sage warns of the spiritual trap of limitless consumption because it is also never satisfied. It leads to life as described in the movie Wall-E.

In verse 12, the Sage observes that there’s a certain simplicity of life and peace of spirit the comes with having very little, while having much only adds increasing layers of complexity and anxiety. This robs life of sleep (and peace, and joy, and goodness, and contentment, and etc.).

Wealth and consumption are spiritual traps that lead to bad places.

Then at the end of the chapter, the Sage observes what appears to be the exact opposite: “when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” 

But I couldn’t help but notice the key ingredient in this latter observation. The wealth and possessions flow from God, they are received and held as the gift from God that they are by a person who manages those resources with a sense of gratitude, contentment, and spiritual discernment.

In my message yesterday I spoke about the spiritual lesson that I’ve learned (and learned the hard way) which must precede any conversation about money itself. Interestingly enough, Jesus told one wealthy man that selling all his possessions and giving it to the poor was the one thing he had to do. But Jesus had other people in his life, like Lazarus and his sisters, who were wealthy and Jesus didn’t ask them to do the same thing. I find this an important distinction that the Sage is revealing in today’s chapter.

The wealth isn’t the issue. The issue that precedes the money conversation is one of heart, eyes, and worship. You’re welcome to listen to the message if you’re interested in unpacking this more.

By the way, on my dresser sits a large coffee mug full of change. It basically serves as a paperweight. It’s been there for years.

I’m learning.

Envy: The Pretty Sin

Envy: The Pretty Sin (CaD Ps 73) Wayfarer

When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

Psalm 73:16-17 (NIV)

Wendy and I were having a conversation early in our relationship and she used a metaphor that I’d never heard before. She spoke to me of “ugly” sins and “pretty” sins. It gave language to something I’ve always inherently understood but never really knew how to simply express.

Ugly sins are those types of moral failures that, when brought to light, are typically accompanied by public shame and humiliation. Ugly sins generate scarlet letter status within a community. We not may make modern day Hesters stitch the letter on their clothing anymore, but it doesn’t mean others haven’t stitched it there with their hearts and minds. Ugly sins generate gossip, slander, and hushed whispers behind the sinner’s back long after the secretly committed sin was made public and created sensational community headlines.

Pretty sins, in contrast, are shortcomings we largely ignore because we all do it and so there is an unspoken social and spiritual covenant we have with one another to turn a blind eye. No need to notice the speck of it we might perceive in the eye of another so that no one will point out the log of it in my own. Pretty sins are typically overlooked, dismissed if noticed on occasion, and sometimes we even find ways to make them virtuous.

Envy is one such pretty sin, and it’s at the heart of the song lyrics of today’s chapter, Psalm 73.

With Psalm 73, we start Book III of the Psalms. What’s cool is that the editors who compiled the Psalms put three symmetrical groupings together: six songs, five songs, six songs, with the middle song as the “center” of Book III. It’s the same way an individual Hebrew song would be structured. So they made Book III one giant psalm with individual songs as the “verses” of the structure. Psalms within psalms.

Psalm 73 is an instructional psalm in which Asaph confesses to the sin of envy. He looks at the lives of the wickedly rich and famous living in their Beverly Hills mansions, driving their Maserati, and jetting off to their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard or their yacht in the Caribbean. Life is so easy for them. They don’t know what it means to struggle. On top of that, they are so arrogant looking down their noses on the rest of us.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had a week or two ago with a friend of mine who is a retired CEO. He lives near an elite golf club that caters to the jet-set and took a part-time job driving club members from their private jets to the luxurious private golf club. He told me how amazing it was to drive these billionaires around and routinely get treated like crap and stiffed for a tip. That’s the kind of people Asaph is singing about. Like Asaph, I confess that I’m envious to know what that kind of life must be like, even as I feel contempt for them.

As Asaph’s song continues, he goes into God’s Temple and it’s as if the Spirit of God gives him an attitude adjustment. He stops looking at the objects of his contemptuous envy with earthly eyes, and he opens the eyes of his heart to view them with an eternal, spiritual perspective.

Jesus taught that we who follow Him should maintain a similar spiritual perspective. On multiple occasions, he told parables warning about spending our lives “gaining the whole world” while we “lose our souls.”

Asaph ends his song of instruction understanding that it’s “good to be near God.” Along my journey I’ve discovered that contemptuous envy of others leads to destructive ends on many different levels. When I stick close to God, as Asaph instructs, it’s easier for me to keep both the eyes of my body and the eyes of my heart focused on things of eternal value. I can see my contemptuous envy for what it is, and can better perceive the spiritual price paid to gain this world and the things of this world.

In the quiet this morning I am looking forward to a simple feast with a few family members tomorrow. I’m looking forward to being home surrounded with love, joy, peace, and gratitude.

Wherever this finds you, I wish you and your loved ones a Happy Thanksgiving. I’m taking the next few days off. See you back on this chapter-a-day journey next week.

Cheers!

The Perplexing Mystery

The Perplexing Mystery (CaD Ps 10) Wayfarer

The Lord is king forever and ever;
    the nations shall perish from his land.
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
    you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
    so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 10:16-18 (NRSVCE)

We don’t talk much about evil anymore. It gets used as a weapon-word fired at the political “other” in the empty, name-calling wars on social media. It is referenced in conversations about acts so heinous that everyone agrees that they reached a depth of depravity so dark as to be inhuman. I observed, however, that even people of faith are dismissive of the notion that evil is set up in active conflict against good in the spiritual realm of this world.

Again, the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Matthew 4:8-9

The evil one was able to offer Jesus the kingdoms of this world and their splendor because this Level 3 world is where evil holds dominion until the final chapters of the Great Story. At every level of the socio-economic ladder from the grade school playground to Wall Street and Washington D.C. are those who will exploit anyone to advance their personal power base and portfolio of wealth. Unlike Jesus, they have knelt before the evil one and taken him up on his offer. These are the ones David writes about in the lyrics of today’s psalm.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, today’s psalm is connected to yesterday’s. Like We Will Rock You and We are the Champions by Queen, or Journey’s Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezing and City of the Angels the two songs are were meant to go together. One of the common conventions of Hebrew songs and poems that is lost in translation to English is the fact that each line begins with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order just as if you wrote a poem and each line began with A, B, C, D, and etc., Psalm 10 picks up with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet where Psalm 9 left off. In addition, there is no header or title to Psalm 10 like there has been for every other psalm we’ve read since Psalm 1. Psalms 9 and 10 go together.

With that in mind, King David is writing both psalms from his position as King of Israel. The thing I find most fascinating is that he is writing from a position of power. He’s at the top of the food chain. He holds more power in the kingdom than anyone else, and he is lamenting the wicked highway robbers who oppress the poor in the rural villages of his own country. He’s complaining about the wealthy brokers of power in his own kingdom who “prosper all the time” and establish their legacy for their descendants.

Why doesn’t he do something about it?

Along my journey I’ve observed that there is only so much that one can do in a world where evil has dominion. Not that I shouldn’t do everything that I can to act in the circles of influence in which I operate. I should. Nevertheless, I have witnessed good people, followers of Jesus, who have ascended the ladder of earthly power and influence only to find that there is only so much that they can do.

That’s the point I believe King David is getting to in his songs that read like a leader’s lament. His position of ultimate power in his kingdom cannot stop the wickedness of every rural bully bent on taking advantage of poor villagers. Even as King he is surrounded by the wealthy and powerful who have their own personal kingdoms built to oppose him.

It’s interesting that towards the end of today’s psalm David appeals to God as “King forever and ever.” At the end of his personal, earthly power that has fallen short of bringing justice to everyone, David appeals to God as the only higher authority who can step in and do something about it.

Welcome to one of the most perplexing spiritual mysteries of the Great Story. Jesus comes to earth and refuses to operate in worldly systems of the evil one’s dominion where injustice and wickedness reign and oppress the poor and the weak.

Why didn’t he do something about it?

Instead of confronting evil on earthly terms, Jesus goes instead to the rural, the poor, and the simple. He reaches out to individuals, encourages the personal transformation of individuals from self-centered evil to a life of self-sacrificing service to others. He triumphs not over earthly kingdoms but over Death. He wages war not against flesh-and-blood but against principalities, powers, and forces of spiritual darkness behind flesh-and-blood power. It leads me to consider that ultimately, the Great Story is not about this Earth. It’s not about this world. It’s not just about this 20,000 to 40,000 days I will spend journeying through this lifetime. It’s about something greater, something deeper, something more eternal.

In the quiet this morning I find myself identifying with David’s lament. At the end of the song, David expresses his trust that God sees the acts of evil and hears the cries of the oppressed. He entrusts the King of all with ultimately making things right. I have to do the best I can as an ambassador of God’s Kingdom on this earth in the circles of influence I’ve been given. Beyond that, I can only make an appeal to the King forever, and trust He will see this Great Story to its conclusion, joyfully ever-after.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Escalation, Truth, and Discomfort

“[The teachers of the Law] devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Mark 12:40 (NIV)

Over the years I have had the privilege of serving certain clients in the monitoring, coaching, and providing Quality Assessment (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes.”) for their collections teams. The process of working with customers who owe you money can be a sticky wicket. We’re not talking about third-party collection agencies who just want to bully people into paying so they can quickly get their cut and make their margins. My clients are businesses who want to collect the debt, but also want to keep most of their customers knowing that the lifetime value of that customer’s business far exceeds the amount they are past due in the present moment.

As I always remind both my team members and my clients: “When you are dealing with people’s money, the conversation takes on additional layers of complexity and emotion.”

In today’s chapter, Mark continues to share episodes from Jesus’ final days. There had always been conflict brewing between Jesus and the religious power brokers and rule keepers in Jerusalem. Most of His ministry, however, had been in the region of Galilee far from Jerusalem. Now Jesus is in Jerusalem and is teaching in the temple during the most crowded week of the year. Three times in previous chapters Jesus has told #TheTwelve that He was going to Jerusalem to be arrested, beaten, and killed, and then He would rise from the dead. The episodes Mark relates in today’s chapter illustrate the escalation of conflict between Jesus and the institutional religious powers.

In the first episode, Jesus tells a parable that metaphorically states what He has said plainly before: The religious rule-keepers killed the prophets that God had sent in the past, and now they’re going to kill God’s own Son. The parable antagonized Jesus’ enemies who have already been looking for a way to make sure Jesus “sleeps with the fishes.” Ironically, Jesus said that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days, He would spend three days in the grave. [FYI: That’s a reference from The Godfather for those of you who didn’t catch it.]

What follows is three different attempts to trip Jesus up with religious questions that were political hot potatoes. The intent in at least two of the three questions was to try and get Jesus to say something that His enemies could either spin to diminish His approval rating or condemn Him. Each time, Jesus deftly handles the question and leaves His enemies flummoxed.

On the heels of these trick questions and attempts to trip Him up, Jesus speaks critically of His enemies and warns His audience to “watch out” for the teachers of the law. He then offers a curious accusation that is lost on modern readers. Jesus says that the religious power brokers “devour widows houses.”

In most cases, women had very poor legal and social standing in Jesus’ day. This was especially true of older widows who might have been left with her husband’s debts. With limited means and a social system that made it virtually impossible for her to produce an income, the widow was incredibly vulnerable. Unless she had an influential and/or wealthy male advocate, the widow fell prey to wealthy and powerful men (remember, the religious power brokers were “Teachers of Law” (aka lawyers) within the Jewish religious, legal, and social system. These lawyers would use the law to seize a widow’s home and assets, leaving her destitute and living off the mercy of others. Even though the Law of Moses demanded special consideration for the defenseless (including widows), the “Teachers of the Law” found legal loopholes to justify their greedy victimization of these women.

What was most fascinating for me in today’s chapter is the very next episode. Right after criticizing the Teachers of the Law for their treatment of widows, Jesus leads His followers to the place where people came to give their “offerings” to the temple treasury. Wealthy Jews from around the known world were in town for Passover, so there were certainly many wealthy travelers using the annual pilgrimage to give generously (and publicly). Jesus sits and watches the riches being offered to the temple coffers. Then an old widow (I wonder which Teacher of the Law there at the temple now owned the home she once shared with her husband along with all of its possessions?) steps up and puts in two pennies.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Two things stuck with me this morning. The power brokers in this world have their way through systemic advantage, intimidation, instilling fear, dishing out punishment, and eliminating the opposition. This is true of any number of systems including criminal, political, governmental, organizational, business, financial, social, educational, legal, military, familial, and even religious systems. It is obvious in the episodes Mark shares that there is rapid escalation between Jesus and His enemies, and His enemies have political, religious, social, legal, and financial systemic power. They want Jesus dead, and Jesus knows this. In fact, He knows that they will kill Him. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to fearlessly speak spiritual truth that both condemns His enemies and pushes the buttons that will ensure the signature on His death warrant.

The second thing that struck me is that I have infinitely more in common with Jesus’ enemies than with the widow whom Jesus praises.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

In other words, Jesus is in the Collections business.

Most days the chapter and my meditation leave me encouraged, challenged, inspired, contemplative, and even comforted.

Today, I leave my quiet time very uncomfortable.

Opposite Instinct

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
Luke 13:31-33 (NIV)

This past Sunday I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I made the simple observation that in almost every story, television show, or movie the protagonist is trying to avoid, escape, or solve death while attempting to cling to, extend, and/or enhance life. Life is such a basic human desire we hardly even give it much thought.

I found it fascinating that in today’s chapter Luke continues to foreshadow Jesus’ death. Both Pilate (an official of the occupying Roman Empire ruling over the region, who would eventually sentence Jesus to die by execution) and Herod (a regional monarch who killed John the Baptist and before whom Jesus would stand trial). Both of these rulers were known for their violence and cruelty.

Herod’s family, in particular, had a long history of holding onto power by killing anyone they saw as a threat. It was Herod’s father, Herod the Great, who upon hearing from the three wise men that a prophetic sign told them “the King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem, proceeded to have every baby in Bethlehem under the age of two slaughtered in an effort to prevent Jesus from growing up and threatening his reign. His son, Herod Antipas, who is referenced in today’s chapter, carried on his father’s bloody, corrupt legacy.

At the end of today’s chapter, Jesus is warned that Herod is attempting to have Him killed. In yesterday’s chapter is said that Jesus has been attracting stadium worthy crowds so large that people were trampling one another to get near Him. This would have rattled Herod. Any person with that kind of popularity was a threat to his position and power, and Herod learned from his father that clinging to power required killing anyone who was a threat to take it from you, (even if that threat is just a baby).

What I found interesting is that Jesus expresses neither fear or concern. Rather, Jesus doubles-down and tells the messengers to return to Herod and tell “that fox” that He would press on:

[Jesus] replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

Beyond the attitude of courage and perseverance in Jesus’ reply, there is also an important subtext that is lost on many readers. Jesus references three days to reach His goal, foreshadowing the three days in the grave before His resurrection. He then offers a puzzling statement about no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem.

Back in chapter 9, Luke stated that Jesus was “resolutely” fixed on going to Jerusalem. Jesus has consistently been criticizing the religious leaders and their ancestors for killing the prophets sent to them. He has also been making consistent, metaphorical references foreshadowing His own death. Jesus is on a mission and He can see how it is all going to play out. He isn’t the victim, but the instigator of events that He knows will lead to His death.

I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words to His followers in previous chapters:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?

Luke 9:23-25 (NIV)

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.

Luke 12:4 (NIV)

Everything Jesus is doing runs contrary to our most basic human instincts. Humans want to avoid and escape death at all costs. Humans want to cling to this life as long as we can along with everything we can possibly acquire within the finite amount of time we’re given. Luke offers his readers Pilate and Herod as exhibits A and B in today’s chapter. Two men at the top of the heap who will kill anyone who threatens their position, wealth, and power. Jesus, however, is the antithesis. He’s moving in the opposite direction and telling His followers that they must follow if they want to experience the Kingdom of God.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded of a passage I referenced in last Sunday’s message. Jesus’ friend Lazarus is dead. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, tells Jesus that if He’d have arrived sooner then her brother would not be dead. Jesus replies:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

He then asks her a question:

“Do you believe this?”

Do I believe it?

And, if I say that I do believe it (and I have been saying it for almost 40 years), am I willing to follow Jesus in the opposite direction of the basic human instincts of this world?

Motives and Example

So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?”
Nehemiah 5:9 (NIV)

In 1993, the state of Iowa experienced historic flooding. An army of volunteers sandbagged along the Des Moines River attempting to protect the Water Works plant, but it was eventually inundated, leaving a quarter of a million people without fresh water. My family and I had just moved back to Des Moines in the weeks before the floods peaked.

I was working for a non-profit organization at the time and was dispatched by my employer to assist in any way I could. I ended up working at an emergency shelter for victims whose homes were flooded.

My experiences as a volunteer during those days opened my eyes to a side of national emergencies that we will never see on the news. I overheard conversations as relief officials and corporations negotiated the amount of aid they were willing to “give” dependant on the publicity they would receive and the level of the government official who would be present to publicly accept the donation in front of the cameras. I witnessed relief officials act as casting directors, sizing up flood victims as to which news outlet they would be perfect for on camera. I watched news producers coaching victims how to sound and look more pitiful, and making the victim’s situation seem far worse than reality.

I realized during those days that national emergencies are big business. They tug at global heartstrings, earn lots of viewers (and ad dollars) for news organizations, earn publicity for donors, and generate millions of dollars in revenue for relief organizations. And it’s all done under the humanitarian guise of helping our neighbor.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah is in the midst of his emergency construction project to shore up the walls of Jerusalem. He begins to witness things that open his eyes, as well. What becomes clear is that the dire situation among the people in and around Jerusalem is not just the lack of protective walls and gates around the city. The wealthy have been using the tough times and difficult circumstances as an excuse to extort interest from the poor and take people’s land and children away. Nehemiah calls an assembly and demands that they stop using their position to take advantage of others.

Nehemiah goes on to explain that, as Governor, he led by example in these matters. He didn’t accept all that was due him as Governor nor did he levy taxes on his people to line his own pockets as Governors usually did.

In the quiet this morning I am thinking about motives and example. When the people’s motives were out of whack they acted accordingly to the detriment of all. Nehemiah’s appeal was not just about changing their behavior but about changing their hearts. Nehemiah’s motives were to do what was right for the people which translated into behaviors that were consistent with those motives.

I find myself doing some soul searching today and a little personal cardiology examination. It’s easy for me to accept that my motives are right and my behaviors towards others are aligned, but how do those under my leadership see it? What do my actions and motives look like from their perspective? When I get uncomfortable with looking at it that way, then I’m pretty sure I’ve got some changes of my own to make.

Our Physical Lives Frame Our Spiritual Perspectives

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Matthew 19:16 (NIV)

Late last week I received notice that one our clients was terminating our company’s services. Public records show that their company is facing significant financial losses, so their move is not unusual nor entirely unexpected. The news, however, is never pleasant to receive. This company had been a faithful client. We had done good work and provided good value to them through our ongoing quality assessments. The loss of income from the project will temporarily pinch the budget for Wendy and me, and I confess that our moods around the house have not exactly been buoyant since I received that notice.

On Monday afternoon I had to leave on a scheduled business trip and got the mail just before I headed to the airport. In the mail was a letter from a young girl named Joyce. Joyce is a girl in Africa whom Wendy and I support financially through Compassion International. Joyce is a young girl going to school and hoping some day to be a doctor. In her letter she thanked Wendy and I for our gifts and asked for our prayers as a drought in the region had destroyed the crops that her people depend on for survival both economically and physically. Despite the dire circumstances, Joyce expressed trust in God’s provision. As I finished reading the letter out loud to Wendy, it was obvious to us both that Joyce’s letter was a well-timed dose of needed perspective.

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. In the chapter today a rich man comes to Jesus and asks, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” I noticed as I read that the man was approaching spiritual matters like an economic transaction. His life was likely dictated by daily transaction. Do this and receive a fee for service. Pay this and receive this in return. He was approaching his spirituality with the same transactional paradigm.

“Let’s make a deal, Jesus. You’ve got eternity on your side and I want a piece of that. You know what? I’ll even be gracious enough to let you start the negotiations and set the price. So tell me what you require. What one thing, what good deed, do I need to do to punch my ticket to heaven? Give a tenth to the church? Be nice to a Roman? Volunteer for my company’s United Way campaign? Give a week to help build a house for a poor family? Pay tuition for a girl in Africa? What’s it gonna be? You just name it. “

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. Life had skewed the man’s perspective to see his relationship with God like everything else in his temporal paradigm. Jesus’ answer cuts immediately to the heart of the matter. Salvation is not a transaction, Jesus tells him, but a liquidation. Jesus Himself provided the example:

Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 (emphasis added)

This morning I must confess that I’m humbly mulling over my own skewed perspectives. How easy it is for me to talk about trusting Jesus when I don’t really have to think about where I’m going to lay my head tonight, or whether my family will have enough to eat.

Have mercy, Lord.

What We Find in Our Fears

Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

The king (Herod) was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.
Matthew 14:5,9-10 (NIV)

A few weeks ago we journeyed through the account of Herod the Great killing all of the baby boys of Bethlehem under the age of two, fearing that the Messiah born there (as reported to him by the wise men from the east) would grow up to supplant him. Herod was more afraid of losing his worldly power than anything else.

One of the little confusions in the story of Jesus is the fact that the Herod who killed the babies (that would be Herod the Great) is not the same Herod as the one we read about in today’s chapter. Herod the Great died (doesn’t matter how hard you cling to power and riches, death gets everyone in the end) and his kingdom was split up and given to three of Herod’s sons [cue: theme from My Three Sons]. The Herod who killed John the Baptist in today’s chapter is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

Now think about Herod Antipas for a moment. He is the son of a brutal and ruthless tyrant and watched his father desperately clinging to power. Think about the sibling rivalry among Herod’s sons for the throne and all that came with it. Think about the fear, machinations, and intrigue that may have been present between the three brothers. Think about their inherited lust for power and desire to cling to it.

Matthew gives us a couple of fascinating clues about the mind of Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas wanted to kill John. He had learned a lot about rubbing out your enemies to solidify your power from his father Herod the Great (“Leave the knife; Take the humus.”). The goal of Herod Antipas was holding onto what power he’d inherited, and John the Baptist was very popular with the people. Killing John might create a riot among the commoners, which the Romans would then have to deal with. The Romans didn’t like uprising and unrest in their Empire. Caesar Augustus in Rome might choose to replace Herod Antipas just as he replaced Herod Antipas’ brother, Herod Archelaus, years earlier.

A few verses later we learn that Herod Antipas got played by his lover, who also happened to be his sister-in-law, his other brother Philip’s wife. Remember what I said about fraternal competition? Herod Antipas has stolen Philip’s wife who tempts Herod with her own daughter, his niece. Seriously, this is like a soap opera. Now, Herod Antipas is stuck with a house full of guests and his niece has publicly challenged H.A. to bring her the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod is afraid of the riot, but he’s even more fearful of looking weak in front of the rich and powerful players in the room. He’s stuck. Herod must choose between competing fears and their threat to his pride, prestige, and power.

This morning I’m thinking about Herod Antipas. He feared losing power. He feared losing face. What he obviously did not fear (and seemingly gave no thought to) was God or anything to do with the things of the Spirit. He was oblivious to the Great Story in which he and his father were playing, and would continue to play, a significant part.

Our fears tell us a lot about ourselves, our priorities, and our faith (or lack thereof). What are my fears? What do they say about me? Do my fears reveal a soul clinging to that which I can never really have, have enough of, or keep in the eternal perspective? Am more like Herod, or more like John and Jesus?

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
-Jesus

 

Religion, Commerce, and the Soul

cover-Time-19870406-66703A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.

A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business.”
Acts 19:19, 24-25 (NRSV)

Back when I was in high school and college there was a crazy period of time when there was no shortage of scandals centering around a group of prominent American televangelists. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the couple that the media couldn’t seem to get enough of, but there was also Jimmy Swaggart and others who leveraged their television ministries into personal profit machines and media empires. A closer inspection of these ministry moguls produced plenty of odd and salacious fodder for the tabloids. Many televangelists fell in a strange train wreck of disgrace that was too compelling to look away.

I was reminded of the uncomfortable tension between faith and commerce this morning as I read today’s chapter. There were two groups of people described who stood in stark contrast to one another. I had never really noticed this in my previous journeys through the Book of Acts.

First, there are those who had vocationally practiced different types of exorcism, magic, and spiritism who became followers of Jesus (v. 18-20). Upon their choice to place their faith in and follow Jesus they abandoned their spiritually dark professions and burned down their old lives. This, of course, meant that would have to begin new lives and careers. This is a picture of Jesus’ consistent admonishment for people to repent (literally, to about face and go the opposite direction) and follow. Old things pass away, new things come. There is a spiritual rebirth evidenced by their willingness to experience a huge financial loss and, in faith, walk away from that which was spiritually dark to begin a new path following the Light.

Next, there is Demetrius and the guild of silversmiths tied to the temple of Artemis. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and Artemis of Ephesus was a popular fertility idol, her long body covered in breasts (or perhaps their bull testicles, scholars aren’t quite sure). Not unlike the media empires of the televangelists, the Temple of Artemis was a tourist attraction and a lucrative, religious cash cow. With the trending of Jesus, His message, and His followers the business of Artemis idols, trinkets, and souvenirs  was taking a huge financial hit. The local metal workers union was not happy. The response of Demetrius and his fellow merchants was to create a public riot and threaten bodily harm to the followers of Jesus along with their forcible expulsion from Ephesus.

I consider one group has a spiritual transformation that results in a willingness to suffer financial and vocational loss. Then I think of the other group who are hardened to preserve their finances and vocation at all costs. Finally, I think about the disgraced televangelists from my youth. I’m not sitting in judgment of them, rather I ponder if spiritually I’m not more like them than I’d care to admit. I wonder if they didn’t start out with sincere hearts that were hardened over time by their lucrative, religious cash cows and personal empires.

Today, I am doing some soul searching. Which example in today’s chapter am I more like, and what is the condition of my heart? Am I willing to suffer temporal loss for eternal gain, or will I cling tightly to that which is temporal at the sacrifice of my soul?

The Call to Contentment

Not that I was ever in need,  for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. Philippians 4:11-12 (NLT)

Jesus never told poor people to seek after earthly riches.
Jesus told certain rich people to give up all their earthly riches.
Jesus told all people to seek after heavenly riches.
God’s Message tells us all to learn to be content.

I have come to believe that God’s call to contentment is one of the most critical spiritual concepts we have most consistently ignored.