Nov. 8 — The Gift to be Simple

Texts:Psalm 23
1 Timothy 6:17-19

Warn those who are blessed with this world’s goods not to look down on other people. They are not to put their hope in wealth, for it is uncertain. Instead, they are to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with all that we need for our enjoyment. Tell them they are to do good and be wealthy in good works. They are to be generous and willing to share. In this way, they’ll create a treasure for the future, and guarantee the only life that is real. — I Timothy 6:17-19, The Inclusive New Testament

By the time the average North American child graduates from high school, she will have seen upwards of 700,000 commercials on TV.  If you add into that mix, billboards, radio, newspaper and magazine ads, you can safely assume one million generally convincing pitches to “Buy! Buy! Buy!”  Neil Postman, the late professor of media at NYU and author of “Amusing ourselves to Death,  calls the cumulative effect of these pitches to buy a not-so-subtle form of brainwashing that “tell us that all our problems are solvable through the purchase of some chemical, food, drug or machine” p. 130. Once we have been taught that salvation comes through our purchasing power, then when our purchasing power ebbs, as it has for so many of us lately, the struggle becomes truly gut-wrenching.  Whether or not you like it, we live in a culture that tells us to buy stuff, whether we can afford it or not.

I want to explore this intersection we have with our world over the next few weeks.  I want to do so because a pledge committee is getting ready to collect pledges from all of so that we can put together a budget.  Because we want a budget that is responsible to our commitments, and because pulling teeth to get there, which we’ve been doing for too long, is too painful, this next month will be about how we can all do our part.

That’s an important part of this.  And I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge that.  But I believe that contentedness in budgeting comes from contentedness in our whole lives.  And I think that we are not that contented in our whole lives; I think that we are honestly troubled by conflicting desires.   And I believe that deep down, we want, whether we have a little money or a lot, to deal with it in a way that really pleases us.  I could say that we want to be faithful with our money, but I’m afraid that doesn’t say much.  What we want, to be blunt about it, is for our actions,  relative to our money, to be pleasing to God — to make a difference in the general creative advance of God.

II.

I tremble as I write this.  I am distressingly aware that some of you truly do not have wiggle room in your budgets.  And I do not want to suggest in any way that a simpler life means  to make do with less wiggle room in your budgets.   I tremble as I write this.  For while  there is no more often mentioned issue in the New Testament than the issue of our relationship with money, there is also no subject in our modern life which is more scattered with shoals upon which to founder.

It is for this reason that I choose to read the selection from the Epistle of Timothy that I did.  Whoever this Timothy is, he is aware that leaders of the fledgling Christian communities to which he writes and ministers, will have to tread carefully.  Nevertheless, he exhorts future leaders of the church, “Warn them, for the rewards of Christian fullness, or we could say, salvation, are tied up with this question — how shall we deal with our wealth?”

I tremble because I do not want to be shrill in sounding the warning.  In fact, I want to be constructive this morning.  I assume that all of us, in our own ways, given our own, very different circumstances, struggle with money.  Further I will assume that no matter our circumstance, that Postman is correct — we are brain-washed into needing more, whether we can afford it or not — and that Timothy’s warning rings a bell, because somewhere, somehow, we know that we’ve had enough.  Nevertheless, the warning and the constructive proposal, while they may be distinguished, cannot reasonably be separated.  If we are to find peace in our financial lives, we will have to explore the struggle in them too.

I have been in some conversation with members of our pledge committee about this fact.  And about how it makes us squirm. And about not being negative.  So let me  say it clearly and carefully again — it is impossible to speak of being led to the calm waters without exploring the turbulent waters in which we now find ourselves.

Our larger situation is like the proverbial frog unconcerned by the water in which he swims being slowly heated till it kills him. Our species may notice a change like that, be we are generally blind to incremental change — and our psyche deals with the turbulent water, much like the cold blooded frog does — continually and incrementally acquiescing — until its too late and financial panic sets in.  The past two years have snapped our eyes open to the situation, and instilled fear into almost all of our transactions.

III.

Perhaps there was a time when the heat was not on the water; a time when human culture encouraged simplicity and generosity.  If so, it was a long, long time ago.  In the book of Isaiah, written about 600 years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah warned his people that unlimited growth would kill us.  We have been turning up the heat slowly antd steadily, hardly questioning the Isaiah’s concerns about growth.  Today it is economic orthodoxy.  Growth creates health , alleviates poverty, and waylays consumer fears.

Not everyone buys the orthodox line.  Herman Daley, who was once the president of the World Bank, is no longer because he continually challenged his colleagues to regard growth as ultimately dangerous to the world.  At some point quantitative growth must give way to qualitative development as the path of progress.  Herman Daley is a voice shouting in the wilderness that we are at the point, and have been for some time.  But he writes, “the World Bank [and the rest of the economic orthodoxy] cannot acknowledge limits to growth because growth is seen as the solution to poverty.”  Daley notes that there is historical truth in that view connecting growth with the alleviation of poverty.  But he argues, that idea no longer applies, despite the refusal of of so many to believe it.

But I’m talking here about our own fears in the midst of this economic downturn.    So let me connect these macro-economic issues, to family sized issues: our budgets and ultimately our sense of joy and satisfaction in life.

IV.

Classical economists like Keynes and Mill, have provided us with a helpful connection between our personal wants and the state of the economy.  They have made a distinction between absolute wants and relative wants.  Absolute wants are those wants that we experience independently of the condition of others.  We experience absolute wants because we have bodies that require food and water and shelter.  Absolute wants can be sated. We can have enough.

Relative wants are those wants which are relative to the world around us.  As John Maynard Keynes put it, “The higher the general level, the higher still are relative wants.”  Our relative wants are the wants appealed to by advertising agencies.  But the important point here is that our relative wants lead to an internal struggle since these wants are relative to their availability — meaning that some can have them met, and some simply cannot.   Our relative wants are driven by an economic model that says bigger is better, more is more and higher is farther. We can never quite have enough.  To the extent that our common welfare depends on relative desires, the common good will not be realized. The self-canceling effect of relative wants, dictates against our finding joy and contentedness.

The corrollary to that self-canceling effect of relative wants, is that absolute wants call us to see this world, and life within it as God’s creation and as good.  Our participation in it is guided therefore by a generous spirit.  When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees what to do with their money, he responded “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” thereby urging us to join together our tithing, or giving to the church, with our contribution to the general good of all of creation.  These two things contain the whole of the law of satisfaction.

Let me conclude by suggesting that there are a few concrete ways to turn away from the self-canceling effects of relative wants to the real joy of generosity.

First — We can construct our budgets in an explicit act of rebellion away from the economic orthodoxy of growth and relative demand by considering our tithing first.  By tithing, I mean serious, pledged commitments to others.  Tithing does not mean is a concept we do not talk much about, but suffice it here to say that it does not mean giving away everything you have until it hurts.  It is instead a state of mind about how your income will serve God.

Second — We can find ways to reduce our footprint — to live below our means — to deny the cultural word that suggests we can have all we want, and actively seek ways simplify.  Like any new skill — seeking to reduce our dependence on relative wants takes time and daily practise.

Perhaps as a corollary to this second principle we should add that credit cards can be our enemy in this effort — Let us, everytime we use them, use them wisely.  That means working at reducing our reliance upon them and using cash and debit cards wherever possible.

And finally — We must cultivate habits of saving.  Saving will even out our ups and downs.  And contribute to our stated intention of reducing our reliance upon credit, which in turn supports our goal of living within our means.

We can live simply.  And as we dive into that practise, using these simple goals, we discover the great gift of simplicity –to be just where we know we ought to be.

Tis the  gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free, tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.  And when we find ourselves in the place just right — twill be in the valley of love and delight.  Amen.

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