Friday, December 09, 2005

On the balance: God's Dream vs. the American Dream

I. Affluenza
In many countries, the religious sites are the main tourist attractions. Tourists flock to see things like the emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand. Muslims, Jews and Christians alike make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to see hundreds of places of religious significance.
Burial sites like the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal have religious overtones. The new interest in Celtic spirituality is spawning tours of Irish monasteries. But what about America? What are the sites of religious significance that attract worshipers from all over the world?
Certainly Disney World must rank up in the top five tourist locations in America where people can partake of American spirituality. Amusement is a key component of the American religious experience. But I'd like to focus for a moment on the Mall of America as one of our key American holy sites because it combines both the sacrament of amusement and the sacrament of shopping.
Consumption is a form of worship in our country and the mall is where we go to draw strength and fellowship with other "converts." The Mall of America employs a wardrobe therapist (a kind of high priestess) and boasts a chapel called the Chapel of Love where more than 4,000 couples from around the world have gotten married.
And what center of spirituality would be complete without a seminary? The Mall of America hosts the National American University. "The first-ever college campus in a mall offering courses in 17 study areas." I would think their course offering in business ethics would be stellar because you could do so much research right there on "campus."
Like it or not you have stumbled into the seminar titled "God's Dream vs. the American Dream." The part of the American dream I will spend the majority of my time addressing is materialism.
We will then compare this to God's plan for anyone who would come after him. But before I get started I need to acknowledge that there are parts of the American dream that are good.
Truth is often more complex and less one-sided than either the anti-American contingent or the "rah-rah USA" proponents would have us believe. So before I start I want to say that the part of the American dream that says I can pursue Jesus with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength without fear of harassment from police is a really great part of the dream.
The part that says I can even give a seminar like this without being shut down by government authorities is amazing. And as flawed as our legal system can be at times, the American dream that insists that I am innocent until proven guilty goes way beyond the reality in many other nations. So though I am deeply saddened by aspects of Americana, I don't want us to completely ignore places where this experiment in democracy has gotten it right.
II. Accumulation
The story is told of an American businessman at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village. A little boat with just one fisherman docked at the pier. Inside the boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican fisherman replied, "Only a little while."
The American then asked why he didn't stay out longer and catch more fish. The fisherman said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.
The American then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"
The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, help out a little at my church. Then, each evening I stroll into the village where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor."
The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then L.A., and eventually New York, where you will run your expanding enterprise."
The Mexican fisherman asked, "But senor, how long will this all take?" To which the American replied, "15-20 years working 80 hours a week."
"But what then, senor?" the fisherman asked.
The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."
"Millions, senor? Then what?" asked the fisherman.
The American said, "Then you would retire, move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, help out a little at your church. In the evenings you could stroll to the village where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."
The quest for wealth can be almost as intoxicating as wealth itself. Part of the American dream involves accumulation. You find this out very quickly when you buy a house. It's not enough for there to be one lawn mower in the neighborhood - everybody has to possess their own lawn mower. The same is true for just about anything you might use on occasion, like a ladders. Is it really necessary for everyone on the block to own multiple ladders? What about garden hoses or paint brushes or swing sets? Does one square block really need 30 punch bowls for that one time a year it might get used, just so everyone can have their own and not have to borrow one?
We are continually encouraged to accumulate more and more things. It's a part of the air we breathe. We cannot help but be affected by it. What if I told you that every single day little, invisible people were sneaking past campus security into your dorms uninvited. These little people are hired by companies with only one goal in mind, to get you to buy things. They will use every means at their disposal and ultimately succeed simply by wearing you down, repeating the same message over and over and over. The most insidious part of this conspiracy is that they can only talk to you, you can't interact at all with them. The relationship is totally one-way. But every time you turn your TV on, you let them in. Now really - how many strangers would you invite into your room if you knew that they would do all the talking and only wanted to sell you things you didn't need? Why do we let commercials penetrate our souls like that?
To come down to Urbana, IL from Madison, WI where I live, InterVarsity reimburses me 36 cents per mile. With that money, I figured I could rent a cheap economy car. I did some shopping around and finally found a car that would fit that budget. When I got to the rental car place, the guy behind the desk said, "I could give you the economy car, or, for the same price I've got a Mustang you could have." What do you think I said? I took the Mustang of course! "I've got red or white." He told me. "Red," I told him with excitement. "Oops," he said looking at the screen, "I guess I've got yellow or white." Now I was starting to feel ripped off. The consumer spirit had taken over quickly. "I guess I'll take for the yellow." I told him with disappointment in my voice. He handed me the keys and off I went.
I was so psyched! I've never even ridden in a Mustang and here I was tooling around in one. The guy preaching against materialism at Urbana is cruising around in a bright yellow Mustang. Something's wrong with this picture. You know what? The car is uncomfortable and completely useless for taking more than one other passenger. Why did I choose the sports car? It was the little invisible people. They told me that the image involved with the Mustang was more valuable than functionality or comfort. I was tricked by the American dream.
III. True Satisfaction
Do you know when my kids seem to want new stuff the most? Saturday mornings. That's because it's one of the few times in the week that they watch cartoons on network TV. This is not a coincidence. Surrounding ourselves with highly seductive commercial appeals will make us dissatisfied with what we do or don't have. The call to consume is so pervasive in our country (and with globalization it's not just an American phenomenon) that you must work hard to sift and screen the messages and resist their enticements. To do nothing is to allow them to have the upper hand.
Is accumulation really that satisfying? Sure there is a bit of an initial high when you get your own DVD player. But you know how quickly that passes and pretty soon there's another DVD player that makes yours look like a piece of junk. You'd think we would learn that accumulation is an empty pursuit. Do you know what Rockefeller said back when he was the richest man on earth and was asked, "How much money is enough money?"
"Just a little bit more," was his reply.
The love of money is as old as humanity itself. But materialism as a cultural value is a really new disease.
Jesus says in Luke 12, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
And he told them this parable: The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, you have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
Scripture is pretty clear. Wealth is not something that we store up for ourselves, it is a trust that we manage on behalf of God. Whenever God gives power, and I would argue that a position of authority as well as money is created by and for Him (Col. 1:16), he gives it to steward for ourselves and for others. God means for those with power and resources to manage those things for the powerless and resourceless. Because the human being was designed to share power and resources, there is a kind of fulfillment that happens when we operate according to those design specifications.
Isaiah 58 says, "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail."
God is assuring us through this passage that our lives will be the most fruitful when we are pouring ourselves out on behalf of the hungry and oppressed. One of the things that seemed to always surprise the spoiled rich kids who left their wealth to follow Francis of Assisi was what glorious freedom came by disentangling oneself from riches. When my wife and I visited San Francisco we carried around a backpack full of fruit to give out to the pan handlers as we toured the city. Every time we gave away fruit the load got lighter and lighter. To me it felt like a parable being lived out. There is a hidden yoke to wealth that lures people in only to chain them to vicious cycle of desire and dissatisfaction. Always wanting more and never being fully satisfied. But that's not how we were made. We were made to be generous. The more we give away - thoughtfully and prayerfully, not flippantly - the greater our mobility and freedom. Not that there is any glory in becoming poor ourselves. Proverbs 30 states, "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread." God knows that accumulating more than we need is harmful. He taught that to the Israelites in the desert after they had escaped from Egypt. Every morning, manna - a kind of bread - would form on the ground. Those who gathered more than they needed for the day and tried to keep it for the next day, found it had spoiled. God's dream is for us to experience the joy of his provision and to avoid the heartache of disappointment that comes with the accumulation of resources.
IV. Waking up in God's Dream
What are some things we can do to wake up in God's glorious dream for our lives?
First of all, monitor the traffic of the little invisible people who sneak into your room. You can't avoid commercials and billboards and malls but you can limit their access to your heart. When the gnawing hunger for things begins to creep in, beat it down. Ask yourself, "Is this thing really and truly the deepest desire of my heart? Will obtaining it satisfy me? What is at the center of this longing and is it good?"
Second, cultivate a posture of stewardship. Let me contextualize this to the American business mindset since we are at a missions conference and we know how important it is to speak the language of our hosts. Imagine that all you now own is really a portfolio owned by someone who cares deeply about their return on investment. Keep thinking, "How would the Investor be pleased for me to utilize this resource on his behalf? Is the purchase of this thing really critical to achieve the kind of return he's looking for? Or, can this thing I own, no matter how silly or seemingly insignificant be turning into profit for him?"
Finally, link your destiny with the poor and marginalized. God said through the prophet Jeremiah, "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." God delights for us to tie ourselves to the "least of these" as he says in Matthew 25. If we so tie ourselves to the powerless that if they stand or fall, we stand or fall, then we are bound to be interested in the lifting up of the marginalized. Whether it's moving into a poor neighborhood or loaning your car out to someone without one, link yourself to people on the margins. You may need to help some learn how to manage and care for resources - that's idea. If we really want to get interested in others getting out a situation of poverty or oppression, we put ourselves in a position of dependence on them. You can't loan your car to someone without a license without helping them learn how to drive first. You don't give someone money without helping them know how to manage it.
Resist the consumer orientation part of the American dream and let yourself be taken captive by God's dream of utilizing the resources he channels to you on behalf of those who don't have access to them.
This address was given at a seminar in Urbana, Illinois (USA), attended by myself some time back. I reproduce it here for the love of its timeless message as a Christian.

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