Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Discipleship Economy

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 word, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9.24-25)

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6.21)

Living This Lesson

A nasty head cold over the weekend sapped my drive to do little more than doze in front of the TV. (Efforts to pull together a Sunday post went nowhere, for which I apologize.) I did manage to reply to comments here and engage in a heated Facebook discussion sparked by a comment I posted last Friday about the current union controversies. As expected, conservative friends pounced on my remark about “free-wheeling ‘governance.’” They talked dollars, I talked lives, and in the end we agreed we didn't know what the best solution might be. On Sunday evening, Walt and I watched Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s outstanding documentary about the global economy’s 2008 collapse. Its depiction of incestuous relationships between government, regulators, investment banks, and thought leaders dumbfounded us. The only response I could muster came from Luke 9.25: “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?” (KJV)

So soon after a lost weekend peppered with money talk, I opened the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to find the Facebook chat and film prepped me for today’s topic. “Goods are given to us to be used, but not to be stored away,” he writes. “The heart clings to collected treasure. Stored-up possessions get between me and God. Where my treasure is, there is my trust, my security, my comfort, my God.” The text we’re asked to contemplate in light of these thoughts is Matthew 6.31-32—Jesus’s teaching to trust God’s daily provision based on provision we see in wildlife, recently discussed in Back to Nature. Bonhoeffer also reminds us of manna that spoiled when stored, the subject of Our Daily Bread, posted here in the wake of the 2008 meltdown. As I pondered all of this, I thought, “We’ve been living this lesson for nearly three years. And while I see little evidence the world has learned it, have we, as believers, taken it to heart?”

The Antidote to Fear

We’re not fond of discussing money and possessions. If we’ve accumulated an abundance of wealth, we’re concerned about appearing selfish and insecure. If we’re in need, we’re ashamed of not having succeeded. Either way, discomfort about finances is rooted in undue credence we give to the human economy’s metrics of success and security. We accept the market’s rules, methods, and measures without questioning its principles, which are blatantly founded on fear unique to us. Knowledge and logic—drawn from awareness of our mortality—compel us to offset uncertainty with trust in material goods, about as insane a notion as we’ll ever devise.

Do other creatures plan for old age? Do they amass fortunes for their offspring? At best, they stockpile food to sustain them through scarce times. When the seasons change, however, they leave their overstock for fresh pastures. They’re unencumbered by worry and ownership. They instinctively live day-to-day at the will and mercy of God. Yet we—who know God and cognitively recognize God holds our lives in hand—hang onto every shred we can collect, socking away “nest eggs,” saving for “rainy days,” and relying on “insurance” and “securities” and “real estate.” Surely by now we realize entrusting our future to possessions is a dubious pursuit. Not only must we admit what we own can vanish through none of our doing, we also must confess the value we place on wealth is illusory. The antidote to fear of want isn’t financial stability. If it were, we’d stop when we had enough to safeguard against its terrors. But we don’t stop, because fear of losing what we’ve got urges us to get more. The only antidote to a fear-based economy is trusting God to care for us in every circumstance. That’s why we participate in the human economy without relying on it. Instead, we invest our faith in the discipleship economy.

Losing is Saving

“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 word, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” Jesus says in Luke 9.24-25. In every way, the discipleship economy contradicts humanity’s fear-based economy by endorsing sacrifice, not security. It assesses wealth by what’s given, not gained. It measures success by the richness of heart, not portfolio. The discipleship economy’s fundamental law holds that losing is saving and saving is losing. Its standard of currency isn’t material. It functions exclusively on intangible exchanges and investments—sacrificial love, tolerance, kindness, grace, mercy, and so on. Its key objective has nothing to do with sustaining the physical body, which is futile, given its mortality and vulnerability to random harms. The discipleship economy’s sole intent is nurturing and maintaining spiritual growth. In realms where its principles are applied, there are no “haves” and “have-nots.” Everyone gives and everyone gains. No one is at risk of gaining so much that he/she loses or forfeits his/herself, because what is gained is passed on. Security for all is assured.

In Matthew 6.20-21, Jesus says, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And in case we’re not getting the point, He adds in verse 24: “You cannot serve both God and money.” We are called to make a choice. Do we permit the fear-based economy to dictate our worldview and shape our behavior? Or do we place our trust in the discipleship economy that’s immune to material loss and trades in intangible riches? Fearful hearts that store up material treasures are wedges between God and us. During Lent, with its talk about what we “give up,” perhaps we should consider giving all of it up—all the trust we bank in things that, in the end, will not cure our fears, and all the fears that urge us to trust anything other than our Creator. As we’ve witnessed with alarming vividness, the human economy steals the souls of its adherents. The discipleship economy pays eternal rewards that protect and prosper our souls.

The human economy puts its trust in the coin. The discipleship economy puts its trust in God. One is driven by fear; the other counteracts it.

Postscript: “Nothing Between”

Bonhoeffer’s comment about stored up treasure coming between God and us brought this old hymn to mind. Apparently it’s fallen from favor, as the youtube selection was pretty slim. As you listen to its lyrics, you’ll no doubt see why…


claire said...

Frankly, Tim, I feel I am asked to befriend Lady Poverty. Not that I do a good job at it, as I do like the odd meal out and to be able to order books from Amazon...

I cannot see any proof that the 2008 Wall Street meltdown has taught anything to anybody. Money is addictive, easily as much as cocaine or sex. (In fact, sometimes they even all go together.)

I don't see us changing our consumption -- the world is running out of oil and we can see right now the dangers of nuclear power...

And really, I cannot point the finger at anyone because I am like everyone else...

The only thing I can do is living as close as I can to what I see as the 'right path,' the 'Golden Mean,' ... nearly readying myself for my life to be swept away like so many others are, day in, day out.

Oh, Gosh, Tim, sorry. I sound so bleak... The tragedy in Japan is just heavy on my heart.


Sherry said...

It's odd that the poor do best in economic downturns in one fashion: they are used to doing without...Unfortunately cutting down further for them often is dangerous in terms of health and safety. The rich get in a dither if they have to live normally.

It is one of the paradoxes that God would have us measure our richness by how much we give.

I so admire those who are able and more to the point willing to live very streamlined lives so that they can give as much of their excess to those in need.

We live in spacious homes compared to most people who are lucky to have a few square feet to call their own.

The more stuff we have, the more room we need to protect it. How unlike our ancestors. There is a freedom in not owning that is I suspect purely magical. Food for thought.

Tim said...

Claire, the Japan tragedy is a sorrowful thing--and, I think, one more example of why investing trust in material possessions is a huge risk. That misplaced trust is more common than the widespread corruption documented in Inside Job (which, if you've not seen it, validates your comment about money, cocaine, and sex often being simultaneous addictions). But the reason we're warned against storing up treasure here is because that's the first step toward the corruption that devastates lives.

To press the metaphor a bit, trust in material wealth is the gateway "drug" to hardcore greed.

To befriend poverty--in the sense of not trusting or craving wealth--is wise. Yet, you needn't be so hard on yourself, dearest Claire, about enjoying blessings you've been given. We must remember Jesus, too, went to banquets and enjoyed His life; He chided Judas for criticizing the woman who anointed him with expensive oil poured from an alabaster box, saying, "The poor will be with us always." Our blessings turn into curses either when they engender pride--as in keeping up with the Joneses, or thinking the Joneses should keep up with us--or when we selfishly refuse to give of our means to those in need.

Perhaps I'm just being a bit over-reactionary here, out of the desire that you, my sister, not neglect the goodness that comes to you out of excessive guilt; I want you to enjoy a fine meal out now and then. And, oh my, you most certainly should feel free to purchase books! Out of them come many of the wonderful things you give the world in your writing. They are hardly selfish things!

We pray for Japan--and Thailand and Haiti and other places that have recently borne the brunt of the Earth's instability--yet in our concern we follow Christ's call to fear not, be of good cheer, be prudent stewards of God's riches, and do for others as we would have them do for us. And I think you are right; we've not yet learned our lesson; we're very slow students--which is unfortunate, because I believe our slowness has much to do with why the lessons grow more bleak.

I'm sort of all over the map here, but I trust you can follow my response!

Blessings, my friend. It's so good to have you along for this journey once again!

Tim said...

Sherry, as Walt and I get older, we understand the real truth in "less is more." Such burdens we carry by owning so much, storing up so much treasure that what we have begins to molder while we chase after more!

You touch on so many important things--how we lose touch with what's essential by cluttering our lives, how we take up more space than we need simply to show off how much space we can buy, how much freedom we sacrifice by filling up these big spaces.

Ironically, I more envious (in a good way) of friends who do with less than those whose lives appear to be overflowing with material wealth. I think of what a nightmare it must be to keep all of that straight and running and enjoyable. For instance, I have a number of friends who bought lovely little sailboats to spend their weekends out on Lake Michigan. Their tiny crafts were pure joy. Then the boats got bigger and now they spend most of their weekends on upkeep and maintenance. But they persist, because in their minds having bigger boats says something important about them. It does say something, but I'm not sure it's what they mistake it to mean.

The joy of giving comes not from how much but how often. The treasures we store in heaven multiply automatically based on our faithfulness and compassion. I think of Jesus's statement about the widow who drops a coin in the Temple treasury after the fat cats have made a big show of their donations. "She has given more than you all," He says. Gifts from the heart are treasures. Their value is in the love and obedience, not the size.

Thanks, dear friend, for your thoughts here. They enrich the conversation greatly!