Money and Fear

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Dave and I have never been in poverty.

But we’ve visited.

This means we have never dealt with the real difficulties people face when they are in true poverty.  We haven’t had to fight to take care of our family while working minimum wage full time and still struggling to pay rent. We haven’t had to choose between feeding our kids or eating dinner ourselves. We haven’t experienced true poverty. But there was a period of time where we didn’t have quite enough.

We were both full time seminary students when we got pregnant with our first child. What we soon discovered was that being full time students and paying for prenatal care and baby supplies was expensive. We learned how to cover the basics. We qualified for the WIC program, which is a government program that provided peanut butter and cheese and cheerios. We ate lots of toast at the free bread bar on campus. We brought popcorn to the neighborhood potlucks. For our parents sake, I want to clarify that we probably could have called home and asked for help but we were young and stubborn and determined to make it on our own.

But when it came time to furnish the nursery, we had met our match. How would we afford nursery furniture? We were talking about that one afternoon when we were out walking. Then we saw it. Right next to the dumpster at our apartment building. A glider rocking chair. The wood was pretty chipped, it had seen better days, but it was in one piece.  So we grabbed it and painted it and hauled it up stairs. We were so excited.

Had we just pulled a rocking chair out of the trash? Yes.

Did it make a loud screeching sound if you rocked too far in either direction? Yes.

Did we have to learn how to stay in just the right spot so the screeching sound wouldn’t wake up our baby? Yes.

It wasn’t great. But it was our screechy dumpster chair.

It turns out old habits die hard.

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Money and People

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Today’s scripture is about investing. 

When we think about investing, we think about investing in things. We invest in stocks and companies. We invest in things we think will be worth something someday, or that will change our lives.

There was a period in the 90s when we were all encouraged to invest in beanie babies, these small stuffed animals that we were told might be really worth something someday.

Some people invest in commemorative plates, or coins. Or we invest in things that promise to change who we are for the better. Things like a $2000 home gym system that will definitely make us into athletes, not gather dust and be where we dry the laundry. 

And do you ever notice how some people describe all purchases they make as an investment? I wonder how that started? It’s a good sales pitch. Don’t think of this car as an expense, think of it as an investment in your future. This watch might seem expensive, but it’s really an investment in your success. 

No, what it is, is a depreciating asset. Investments are supposed to become more valuable over time. That’s really the only mark of an investment. 

But really, we’ll run with just about any excuse to buy stuff. It’s pathological. “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” That’s America. 

And we end up with houses full of things that our kids will have to get rid of, and still we don’t feel satisfied. We feel empty, so we keep chasing it, until we get wise to the fact that it’s just a game we don’t have to play. 

But sometimes, we’re forced to see the truth about money and things sooner than we’d like to, like when we lose a job, or go through a crisis. 

That’s what happens in our teaching from Jesus today.

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Demons

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Here’s the kind of demon that I’m used to dealing with:

But demons can be all sorts of things.

Addictions.

Fears.

Anything that haunts you and controls you can be thought of as a demon.

We’re going to talk a little about those today.

And we’re also going to talk about the demons that show up in the gospels and talk to Jesus before he casts them out.

What do we do with those?

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The Devil

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I have a cold today.

Which is fitting. Because we are going to be talking about the devil.

I do wish we could blame the devil for things. He would be such an easy one to pin it on. We nod in that direction.

We say things like

  • the devil made me do it,
  • the devil is in the details,
  • the devil is coming out of my nose.

That last one isn’t a saying, but maybe it should be.

But then we have a feeling that isn’t what we really believe, as Presbyterians. It would be easy to pin this cold on the devil trying to get me to stay in bed and watch Netflix but I think i think the blame actually lies with the start of school germs that are in every home with children right now.  So if we can’t blame the devil for things like a cold, what do we believe then about the devil?

The devil and demons aren’t something we talk a lot about in the Presbyterian Church. As postmodern Christians, we tend to shy away from really thinking about the devil and demons and evil. It feels a little like Greek mythology, with God and the devil battling it out. But there is no getting around the mention of them in the gospel teachings. 

I was thinking back to my earliest impressions of what the devil might be. 

A lot of it came from cartoons.

The devil showed up a lot in the cartoons of the 80s, usually perched on someone’s shoulder. This version of the devil would whisper things into your ear, trying to get you to listen. But there was always a little angel on the other shoulder, pulling you the other way to convince you to do the right thing.  

Or there were kids who dressed up like the devil on Halloween, which always involved a red tail and a pitchfork and usually some sort of horns. 

Or, there was the George Burns version.

I grew up watching the 1980’s ” O God” movies with George Burns on VHS tape. He may have been my favorite devil of them all. George Burn’s devil had a great sense of humor and drove an amazing car.  Why wouldn’t you, if you were the devil? These were my earliest devil impressions.  I’m sure you have some of your own too.  We all have some image of the devil.

But what do we really believe about the devil?

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Individualism: Everything Jesus Taught about the American Way

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Individualism: the idea that freedom of thought and action for each person is the most important quality of a society, rather than shared effort and responsibility

I’ve got to say, I’m a little conflicted about this topic. Because I really love my freedom of thought and action. Really really.

Really. 

It’s also clear to me that we’ve gone too far with it. 

But it’s really hard to draw the line between personal freedom and shared responsibility, isn’t it?

Individualism is one of the greatest innovations in history. It has its roots in the Bible. It’s the foundation of our country, and of all Western society.  I wouldn’t trade it. 

But it also has a long list of downsides.

Individualism combines with our natural human arrogance in an insidious way. I don’t think it would be off-base to say that all of the major problems we’re facing in our society right now are all consequences of individualism. Our division, our suspicion of one another, our inability to talk about our values with people who don’t agree, the idea of a post-truth world, even the staggering wealth gap, and the disappearing middle class, all stem from individualism run amok.

But it’s still better than the alternatives, which on the extreme end politically would be communism and totalitarianism, and in the local church and community would be communal living, and I really like my privacy.

So I’m conflicted. 

That’s why we’re looking at everything Jesus taught about the American Way. Because there are a lot of things about being an American that aren’t necessarily bad,  that shape the way we see the world, and the way we approach God. But they sure aren’t Christian. And individualism is one of those things. 

Individualism is all about each person doing things their own way.

That’s not the way the world always was, and there’s a whole history to that, but it’s kind of boring, so we’re not going to get into it. 

Well maybe just a little. And really reductionistic… 

So…why did the Pilgrims cross the ocean?

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Scarcity: Everything Jesus Taught about the American Way

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As Americans, most of us wrestle with some level of a fear of there not being enough. We worry there won’t be enough for us, or that there won’t be enough to go around. The truth is this fear isn’t unfounded.  The competition that is at the core of our economy as Americans virtually assures that some will not have enough. For those who struggle each day to get food on the table or to make rent, scarcity isn’t a distant fear, it is is a reality.  This is the kind of hardship we have been talking about the past few weeks when we looked at what Jesus taught about social justice, and our call and responsibility to help those who need us.

But for today, I want us to focus on the fear of scarcity that isn’t grounded in a daily struggle to make ends meet. This is the kind of fear that shows up in us when we aren’t experiencing an actual hardship, but we still have a nagging feeling that there won’t be enough.  We hold on tight to what we have, we protect what’s ours, we worry about me and mine. When this happens, there really is enough for what we need, but we make decisions as if there isn’t. This is what we will call the scarcity mindset.

The scarcity mindset believes there will never be enough, and acts based on this perception of lack, whether there is truly a lack of resources or not.

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Everything Jesus Taught about the American Way: Toughness

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We’ve looked at truth and justice. For the next three posts we’re going to look at everything Jesus taught about the American way.

Just like Superman! But we will continue to wear our underwear inside of our clothes.

We’ve picked three of the core values that most of us share as Americans, and we will hold them up against the teachings of Jesus to see what we find. As core values ,they often are completely unquestioned. We just believe them and sometimes we don’t even know that we believe them. They just are. 

And the first one is really captured by Superman, especially when the bullets bounce off of his chest.

And that’s toughness.

Toughness

Being super tough is what gets you hero status for us here in America. We worship the kind of power that makes others submit, whether they like it or not.

On the screen, power usually belongs to a good guy who just wants to be left alone until he’s pushed to the edge. But once he is pushed far enough, he always kills all the bad guys. And there’s something in us as Americans that says that’s what it means to be tough.  

But what did Jesus teach? 

Well, Jesus taught a kind of toughness especially for people with no power.  

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Justice While We Wait

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There is one thing we fear most as Floridians. 

It’s not sharks. Or hurricanes. Or even snakes and spiders.

No.  

There is one thing so much more frightening than that.

It is the moment when our air conditioner breaks.

A few weeks ago, Dave and I came face to face with this very fear. I noticed the house felt a little hot, and went over to check the thermostat. The thermostat was set for 75 degrees. But the inside temperature of the house was 78, which meant we had a problem. 

We found a few more signs of trouble near the condenser and quickly called the one person we knew could fix the problem, the repair company, and then sat down to wait. 

Because once you call the one person who can fix something, that’s what you do.

You wait.

And watch the number on the thermostat.

An hour later it went up another degree.  

We were powerless. All we could do was wait.  

But then it went up to 80 degrees.  There had to be something we could do!

We can’t overhaul an entire air conditioner, but couldn’t we do something to help with the problem? A quick google search gave us a few ideas, and an hour later Dave was outside with a shop vac, some clear tubing, and a roll of duct tape.

AND IT WORKED.

Now, can we fix every air conditioner problem? No.

Can we build an air conditioner from the ground up? Absolutely not.

But we were able to do something to make a difference this time when we realized it was broken.

I know it’s a big jump to move from thinking about our broken air conditioner to thinking about the broken state of the world – but hang with me, because the principles we are going to talk about are surprisingly the same.

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Justice for the Vulnerable

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I’ve been struck by two things recently that seem to contradict each other.

The first is that I’ve heard a lot of people say “The economy is so hot right now!” 

Granted I don’t really know what they mean. But I believe them. Partly because they seem like the kinds of guys who would know. And partly because I see lots of buildings going up everywhere. So I guess, the economy is so hot right now. 

But the other thing I notice is that there seem to be more people holding signs asking for money than there were even a year ago.

Moms holding a baby in one hand and a cardboard sign asking for help in the other, standing next to the drive-thru at Chick-fil-a. That feels new. It feels wrong. And it feels like the opposite of the economy being so hot right now. 

And more than anything, it makes me feel powerless.

I want to help. I do help. I’m sure you do too.

And at the same time, I’ve heard the same story, so many times, always with more details than I can keep track of, of job offers in other cities and cars that need gas, that I’ve become a little hardened to just how hard it is to be poor and vulnerable in this city. 

People are in trouble. They are taken advantage of, stepped on, overlooked, and cast aside.

And I want to help, but I don’t know how.

Or more precisely, I don’t know how to help and still have my life stay exactly as it is. 

So if that’s something that you struggle with too, keep reading.

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Justice and Mission

I feel in love with doing mission projects the same way I fell in love with chocolate cake.

One bite, and I was hooked.

I love the way mission projects wake up the team working together to a world they might have ignored. I love the way it breaks down boundaries between people you might never find in the same room short of the work of the Holy Spirit. More than anything, I love watching other people fall in love with it too.

I have this scrapbook of memories of seeing people catch a vision for helping other people. Watching a group of teenagers go out from behind the soup kitchen counter to go play dominoes with the homeless men at the shelter. Seeing the love in the eyes of young mom helping another mom who lost everything in an apartment fire.  Walking through a completed home with a man who helped build it’s frame, and now got to meet the children who would live there.

I do love mission projects.

But after several years I realized something.

These projects are really important. They are valuable and important and they transform the people who do them and show the people we partner with that they are loved and not forgotten. But they are a first step, not the only step. It’s where we start, but it’s not the end.

Social justice is more than a one day project.

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