Friday, June 4, 2010

A Little Goes a Long Way

Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of the wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous. (Psalm 37.16-17)

The Dark Side of Wealth

My high school’s English department offered one film study course, but only seniors could take it. Having been a movie nut all my life, I’d gobbled up more movies before freshman year than many people see in a lifetime. While I waited to get into the course, I endeared myself to the instructor. We spent hours together after school, talking movies. One Friday, he pointed to a film canister and 16-mm projector. “Take these home and bring them back Monday.” I read the label and nearly fainted: Citizen Kane, the picture I’d read so much about but never seen, since its studio, RKO, hadn’t licensed it for TV. I’m sure I screened it a dozen times that weekend.

With each viewing, the novelty of Orson Welles’s techniques faded further into the background, while the movie’s theme pushed nearer the fore. The shadows, distorted angles, and sound design painted stark pictures of the dark side of wealth. The effervescently young Charles Foster Kane almost imperceptibly matured into to a leaden, sinister loser. He surrounded himself with the most beautiful things money afforded. Yet the more he got, the less of him he had. Kane truly was greater than a dazzling display of film artistry or a sophisticated pastiche of the newspaper titan, William Randolph Hearst. It was an epic parable about soul-rotting largesse, exactly the same story Jesus tells about the rich fool who keeps building bigger barns only to die lost and alone. Citizen Kane, of course, ends with the reporter never solving the mystery of Kane’s life or what “Rosebud,” Kane’s last word, means. He delivers the film’s closing line: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.” Jesus ends the story of the rich fool with, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12.21)

God’s Economy

If wealth on any level, from vast riches to modest accumulation, invariably led to fates like Kane's and the rich fool’s, it would be easy to say, “No thanks.” But wealth isn’t a problem. What we do with it and what we allow it to do with us are the issues. When getting more things is driven by a desire to have more—or, worse yet, prove we can get it—we become misers. We may spend lots of money. Yet if what we’re spending it on remains in our possession, we’re not parting with a penny. Eventually, we become misers in its real sense: actually miserable. We adopt a mentality that Jonathan Larson, author or Rent—another great American artwork about wealth set at the opposite end of the spectrum—described as “you are what you own.”

We’re not what we own. We’re made for distribution, not warehousing. This is Jesus’s message when He contrasts storing things for oneself with being “rich toward God.” When we learn true wealth is self-worth, not net worth, two things happen. One, we realize we’re much richer than we appear. And two, we find our lives are fullest when our storage is emptiest. That’s when flow happens. More pours into us so more can pour out of us. We don’t need to gather it; it’s given—not necessarily in dollars and cents, but always in priceless commodities like compassion, faith, hope, kindness, wisdom, peace, and contentment. These are divine currencies, instruments of God’s economy. And their value doesn’t accrue with hording. They increase with flow. David knew the real meaning of wealth, even though “on paper” he was the richest man in Israel. He writes, “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of the wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.” (Psalm 37.16-17) As Kane and the rich fool find out, power and permanence aren’t guaranteed or measured by human investment. On the other hand, when we invest in God’s economy, a little goes a long way. It lasts.

What We Have

The wicked go broke, but the Lord upholds the righteous. When we’re rich toward God, He ensures our investments. But more than that, He dispels mystery from our lives. What we do and why we do it become very clear to us, and those around us. The only people who don’t get it are misers trapped in the human economy. They don’t understand how our lives can be so full when we have little “to show for.” They don’t recognize why fears and insecurities that plague them don’t worry us. They don’t grasp why we place less value in money than God’s gifts. They don’t perceive why actual worth is evident in a balanced life, not on a balance sheet. And they balk at our banking habits.

We take Christ’s counsel literally: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6.19-20) As we’ve learned in very real ways lately, human securities are not secure. But, tell me, when has God’s bank needed bailing out? When has His investment firm gone bust? When have the currencies in His economy foundered? And when has the flow of His blessings crashed? Never. Better the little we have by way of righteousness than the wealth of the world by way of disobedience. God doesn’t need a lot. All He needs is what we have—what He gave us to give back to Him. When we spend our lives being rich toward God, the little we have will go a long, an infinitely long way.

Kane’s treasures: things we collect and measures based on what we own mean nothing in God’s economy.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Family Matters

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. (Psalm 68.5-6)

Emotional Divides

Survivors of the “generation gap” era that spawned its own industry, family therapy, vividly remember pioneers in that field writing bestsellers and populating TV panels. After they dazzled the world with complex theories and diagrams of “the family dynamic,” their advice inevitably wrapped around two words: boundaries and communication. Members of functional families, they said, respected each other’s limits and maintained a healthy, two-way conversation between them. This was wisdom of the best sort—simple, obvious, and therefore simply, obviously true. What it lacked, though, were comparably simple and obvious strategies to deal with the parent, child, or sibling who had “boundary issues” or “poor communication skills.” Unless everyone worked at the paradigm, the paradigm didn’t work.

At first, communication became the sore spot. You couldn’t talk to someone who wasn’t available—literally available. By the time kids reached an age they could speak plainly about their feelings, many families had scattered. When Dad wasn’t working, he was relaxing on the golf course or somewhere else. Mom’s respite from responsibility also centered on getting out of the house. Teenagers threw themselves into extracurricular activities or killed hours at the mall. “Apart” meant out of touch, while together usually meant “at home,” behind bedroom doors or hunkered down in front of a TV, watching sitcoms about dysfunctional families and their creepy opposite, perfect ones, neither of which resembled real life. So one would think in this age of connectivity, with families tethered together by mobile phones, text messaging, email, and IM’s, a lot of the old gaps would have closed. We’d speak more freely together, know each other better, and be more comfortable with one another. I pray we are. But I’m not convinced of it, because connectivity isn’t communication. That requires availability of the emotional kind, which fosters a different breed of boundary issues—namely, removal rather than respect. We can’t communicate without first removing our emotional divides.

Widows and Orphans

The Bible typically calls out two groups when addressing familial isolation: widows and orphans. In our culture, people bereft of partners and parentless children are our first concerns, and we’re grateful for that. But this was not so for hardscrabble ancient existence, when drought or flood or marauders could destroy an entire family without notice. The harsh realities of life boiled down to this: if you brought nothing to the table, you weren’t welcome at the table. Since property rights were consigned to male side of the family, when a wife lost her husband, what he owned reverted to his closest male relative. Widows were at the mercy of sons and in-laws, who often heartlessly tossed them aside to provide for their immediate families. The most fortunate orphans got sold into slavery, which guaranteed their masters would house and feed the children to protect their investment. Most often, orphans were abandoned to fend for themselves. Relatively few of them reached adulthood.

“How could a society do this?” we ask. Our compassion for widows and orphans is so primal we can’t conceive any human deserting their own. Nearly everything we read in Scripture about these customs indicates this was learned behavior—a conscious stance of emotional unavailability toward family casualties. In Isaiah 1.16-17, the prophet rails at Israel: “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Stop. Learn. Seek. Encourage. Defend. Plead. This goes beyond social reform. It’s a call for change of heart. Isaiah wants Israel to feel the plight of those they callously turn away in the interest of self-preservation. He’s urging them to be emotionally available in family matters. He stresses this because family matters.

When Families Fail

The extent to which family matters can be gauged by Psalm 68.5-6: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.” (Emphasis added.) When families fail by isolating those most needful of their nurture and care, God intervenes. Yet note where intervention occurs—“in his holy dwelling.” Where might that haven of hope be? Before we scramble for directories of faith-based institutions, let’s revisit Christ’s teaching: “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17.20-21) We are God’s holy dwelling. It’s in us that orphans find parents, widows find care, and others cast aside by familial neglect find homes. That means authentic emotional availability—removal of all boundaries that might prevent us reaching them or them reaching us. Connectivity, keeping tabs on how they’re doing, isn’t enough. Communicating with them, listening and speaking from the heart, then backing up our conversation with action, is the only way we can demonstrate our boundaries are gone.

Consistently, when we’re urged to attend the most needy among us, a severe warning follows the admonition. Psalm 68 adheres to this pattern. Verse six concludes: God “leads forth prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.” Just as Israel justified its emotional isolation of widows and orphans as avoidance of taxing encumbrances, we often withhold emotional access to alienated people to guard against getting trapped in their mess. We even talk about being “held hostage” to their problems. And if we offer ourselves to them for any reason other than inviting them into God’s dwelling, we will find we’re captives. But when we open our arms to draw them into the Presence in us, God leads us forth with singing. On the other hand, if we close ourselves off from those in need, we’ll eventually find we’re isolated, living in a sun-scorched land. God sets the lonely in families. He places them with us, in us. Family matters.

We make ourselves emotionally available, opening our arms to those in need to draw them into God’s dwelling inside us.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Love, Grace, and Fellowship

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13.14)

Reactionary Doctrine

Today is Trinity Sunday, when millions of Christians contemplate the mystery of three distinct Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—alive in one Being. And, already, we’ve hit a snag, since calling the Trinity a mystery is like calling Mt. Everest a toboggan run. So preachers will enter the pulpit and do their best to unravel this idea cogently, in 20 minutes or less. (As Philomena points out in her post, Trinity Sunday isn’t called “a preacher’s nightmare” for nothing.) As ministers and priests labored on their sermons this week, one envisions sentences creeping across their monitors and then vanishing with a hard lean on the backspace key. One imagines their ears ringing with the classic Laurel & Hardy line: “Well, that's another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” Because Trinitarian doctrine is a fine mess, and it’s indubitably one of our own making.

Let’s start with the word “trinity.” It isn’t in the Bible. There’s not even a word we can extrapolate to mean “trinity.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appear together in several places, most famously at Jesus’s baptism, where the Spirit descends as a dove and God audibly confirms Jesus is His Son. We also find verses linking them together, as Paul does in 2 Corinthians’ closing salutation: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” But nowhere does Christ or any apostle so much as allude to the Trinity as a doctrine, let alone explain It at length. The concept of a “triune God” doesn’t gel until the fourth century, when the Nicene Council establishes It as a stopgap against heresy refuting Christ’s divinity. It’s reactionary doctrine, which doesn’t negate its legitimacy, per se. But it sure does make things tough to validate without firm scriptural grounding. How hard is it to convey this teaching? A couple years back, a friend and I stepped out of Trinity Sunday service and she said, “I thought I understood the Trinity. Now I’m not so sure.” That’s a preacher’s nightmare!


Once we digest this information, we’re compelled to ask, “Is Trinitarian doctrine necessary?” As it happens, the Nicene strategy worked splendidly. Insisting God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are substantially the same put an end to internal theories Jesus wasn’t actually God Incarnate, but created by God as the Perfect Human. Since Nicaea, the divinity debate threatening to split the Church has ceased. But it never really went away. Secular thought and non-Christian religions (e.g., Islam, Deism, and the Bahà’í Faith) either reject or minimize the divinity of Christ by casting Him as a prophet, moral example, or messenger—but not the Incarnate God. Thus, while the Nicene success made the Trinity doctrine unnecessary for the institutional Church, it remains necessary for us as individual believers.

Confidence we can be reconciled to God hinges on faith in Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. This work was beyond the ability of any human being, since it would automatically imply merit. If one person were perfect enough to die for everyone’s sin, the rest of us wouldn’t be worthy to receive forgiveness his/her death provides. We’d be right back where we started: trying to earn mercy, not accepting it as a gift. When we strip Jesus of His divinity, we reject God’s grace and love in assuming human form as the offering that ensures it. And when grace and love walk out the door, the Holy Spirit is no longer needed, because It nurtures fellowship with God. How can we fellowship with God when we’ve not accepted the love or accessed the grace enabling reconciliation with Him? This is the core premise of our faith. It’s why we believe. It’s why Jesus repeatedly says He came. While the doctrine may stand on rickety scriptural pilings, the bedrock beneath them is eternally secure. That makes the doctrine necessary and essential for any true follower of Christ.


We stumble over the Trinity by focusing on what It is, rather than how It operates. We concoct simplistic metaphors to decipher Its structure. I was taught to picture the Trinity as an apple. It has three parts—skin, flesh, and core—but it’s still one apple. That did a fine job of explaining the Trinity as an organism. But it shone no light whatsoever on how each component works, or how they work together. Gratefully, I discovered a number of theologians willing to address this and all of them reached the same conclusion. The Trinity’s power exists in the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They complement one another in action. And, as we’ve seen, no better explanation of their function is found in Scripture than in 2 Corinthians 13.14: the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

With that, comprehending the Trinity becomes far less difficult. It comes down to instrumentality. God’s love for us activated His desire to be reconciled with us. Christ’s sacrifice opened the bottomless well of grace that entitles us to reconciliation. And the Holy Spirit completes the process by drawing us into fellowship with our Maker. Forget about the Nicene Council’s machinations. Throw the apple away. Hang on to the Trinity for what It makes possible: divine love, grace, and fellowship.

We stumble over the Trinity by trying to decipher Its structure (L) rather than understanding how It functions (R).

Postscript: Great Reading

It’s been a while since I’ve recommended blogs I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate. I’m adding several of them to the blog-roll today, and briefly want to give you a bit of information about them. Each is fascinating in its own way—and all of the authors have kindly graced us with their comments here. Take the time to drop by and say hello. I’m sure you’ll find all them as inspiring and challenging as I have! Alphabetically:

Blue-Eyed Ennis is the handiwork of Philomena Ewing, who writes from Cornwall, UK and continually delights with her refreshing wit, scriptural depth, and keen eye for photography and art.

Kelly describes her blog, Not A Virgin, But Occasionally A Martyr, this way: “A wayward Catholic girl tries not to forget about God.” Her posts cover a wide range of topics, from faith to daily life—all of them open, honest, and briskly written.

TomCat’s Politics Plus leaves no doubt about his views. His tagline: “Overcoming Right-Wing Insanity, One Day at a Time.” He’s got a great sense of humor and stands up for equality (including GLBT rights), compassion, and justice—all of it driven by faith-inspired conscience.

Jan’s Yearning for God is another breath of fresh air. She combines personal items with spiritual reflections in an effortlessly seamless way. What strikes you most about Jan’s writing is its continuity between the day-to-day and the profound. You never know what to expect, but whatever it is, it’s grand.

I want to personally thank all of these fine people for finding time to join us here, and for their terrific work at “their places.” I’m grateful to know you.