Friday, November 9, 2012

Gazelles & Ants (Wisdom & Wealth #1)

Audio available, and here.
Proverbs 6.1-11

We struggle in our relationship with money. Years ago I heard about a day time talk show that interviewed a number of prostitutes. When asked, "How much do you make?" the prostitute responded, "Oh, I don’t talk about that." Our culture is super-saturated with sexuality, just one sign that we’ve got a problem in our relationship with our bodies. As to money, we’re in the Victorian era. We don’t talk about it, but we are no less enslaved to it. Today and next week, as we prepare for Consecration Sunday, we are going to examine the Wisdom tradition of the Scriptures, specifically the book of Proverbs, for insight on Wealth. In this way, we will be able to place this whole process in the context of discipleship, of following Jesus, of the development of our spirituality.

A friend of mine, quoting a famous preacher, referred to the book of Proverbs as an ancient "hints from Heloise". It is down to earth, direct, sometimes funny, sometimes conflicting, and always packing a punch. It is mostly one-liners, with some longer stories – like our reading today – sprinkled throughout.

Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing;
others pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth (Prov 13.7).

We’ve all met pretenders, particularly those who believe they are better than they actually are. And, we’ve all been surprised when our first impressions turn out to be far off the mark. We have witnessed – and maybe even participated in – the competitive "keeping up with the Joneses". A big reason we struggle with this is that we are simply not content. We want to be what we aren’t, and we think we’ll be happier if we are. But contentment has no correlation to our circumstances. The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, "I have learned to be content with whatever I have" (Php 4.11).

Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, 9 or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, "Who is the LORD?" or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God (Prov 30.8-9).

This proverb is crystal clear about the spiritual dangers of wealth and poverty. Most of us need enough stress, enough need in our lives, to keep us calling on God. We’re not equipped, in terms of character and spiritual maturity, to deal with great wealth. And, most of us, if faced with extreme need or other great loss, turn to our own power, whether anger or other gods, instead of trusting God. But is there really a "sweet spot", a "Goldilocks-just-right", a perfect balance that lasts? This proverb, and the simple wisdom that we recognize as true, reminds us that money and spirituality are deeply connected.

John Wesley, the founding figure of the Methodist movement, gave three bits of practical advice on money: Gain all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can.

GAIN all you can: Work hard and make all that you can (legally, of course). Or, in the traditional reading of Proverbs 6, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard". There is no substitute for hard work. We forget that the first purpose of work is to provide for our needs. We all want work to be fulfilling on some level – and that is possible, and wonderful. Sometimes, however, it is just work and it needs to be done. And, we just have to tend to our fulfillment in other ways and work a longer term plan that puts us in a career that is more fulfilling. "Manual labor has its reward" (Prov 12.14). I spent two weeks on a temp job, wearing a disposable Tyvek suit and breathing mask, cleaning a press with mineral spirits. The work wasn’t particularly fulfilling, but I did meet some nice guys in the lunch room each day, and I got a paycheck.

Prepare your work outside,
get everything ready for you in the field;
and after that build your house (Prov 24.27).

This proverb isn’t about putting career first, or about getting established before you start a family. It is about recognizing that providing for basic needs comes before comfort, even the comforts of a home. It is about the experience of homesteading in the ancient world. Live in a tent for a couple years if you have to, but if you’ve cleared land for crops and put up fences for your livestock you won’t starve.

Gain all you can. Sluggards or lazy folks don’t get ahead. It is tempting – and it is often done in our culture – to blame poverty on laziness. I’ve known plenty of poor people who outwork most other folks, and I’ve known some rich folks who don’t know how to lift a finger to do the smallest job. The proverb is correct – if we are lazy we will, sooner or later, lose what wealth we have. But we cannot paint all poverty with the same brush, and the book of Proverbs does not do so. In fact, there are many proverbs that urge us to provide care for and respect to those who are poor.

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,
but those who are kind to the needy honor him (Prov 14.31).

The rich and the poor have this in common:
the LORD is the maker of them all (Prov 22.2).

If you close your ear to the cry of the poor,
you will cry out and not be heard (Prov 21.13).

Gain all you can . . . SAVE all you can. There are three dimensions: One is a basic thriftiness – not spending what we don’t need to spend, making do. It doesn’t have to be thrift at the expense of all fun, but thrift is a good thing. Another dimension is to set aside what you may need for the future, whether for a rainy day or retirement. That’s the story of the ant, working hard to store up what is needed for a future. The lesson is simple: Live on less than you make. Much better, and more consistent with the biblical wisdom tradition to, "pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth" (Prov 13.7). The other dimension of "save all you can" is to stay out of debt. Debt is anti-saving. Debt (especially credit card debt) is living on more than you earn and hoping that it doesn’t catch up to you.

The borrower is the slave of the lender (Prov 22.7).

And, in Proverbs 6, we learn not only about ants but about gazelles. Those beautiful creatures know what it is to flee a predator, a hunter. The image of the running gazelle is given for us who have become indebted to another, "given your pledge", "bound to another". Work as hard as you can, and go as fast as you can, to get out of that trap. Because, you don’t want to be lunch. But we really have trouble doing this. Check out this gazelle. (Video: A Bad Day in Africa, gazelle runs into a tree and knocks itself out, next to a pride of lions; available on YouTube).

A number of years ago, Robin and I took our boys to a zoo. At the zoo store, we didn’t have enough cash with us and we made a purchase with a credit card. (We’ve never paid interest on a credit card, and we are moving more and more into cash only.) The clerk, a teenager, said, "Wow, that is so cool!" He was talking about the credit card, not about the item purchased. "I can hardly wait until I can get one. Then, I can buy things and not have to pay for them." He is going to be lunch.

Dave Ramsey speaks about "gazelle like intensity" in the work of getting out of debt. He advocates an old process: List your debts, pay the basic payments, and add everything you can to paying off the smallest one. It gives you a quick victory, and then you take all that money, including the basic payment toward that small debt, and set it up against the next one. Imagine what you can do without debt – no payments, no collection agencies

Gain all you can, Save all you can, . . . GIVE all you can. Ultimately, it is not about us accumulating wealth for ourselves:

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD,
and will be repaid in full (Prov 19.17).

It is not about wealth for us, it is about wealth for others. Today, when we remember the saints we have lost in the last year, when we recognize the saints that have been part of this fellowship for 50 plus years, we have named many people who have figured that out. I think of folks who have made an impact in my life, particularly when our family was still in that homesteading stage, living on nothing while we developed the skills and resources to provide the basic needs. I remember Helen Rock, who gave us her canning jars when she could no longer do that work. I remember Donnie Gohn, who brought his tiller to help us start a garden. I remember Sam Taylor, who provided a truck load of manure, and Kay Taylor, who provided us with fresh sweet corn and taught us how to freeze it. I remember our family doctor, who dropped co-pays and cared for our children.

These persons all modeled most fundamental things in a daily spirituality – hard work, thrift, systematic saving, staying out of debt, and – above all – a generous spirit. It is a spirit that starts with God, "who so loved the world that he gave his Son" (John 3.16). It is that gift that we remember and treasure as we gather around the Lord’s Table.

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