Reading of the Will

Ecclesiastes 7:11-12

I have a confession to make. I grew up in a fairly affluent family. We weren’t Bezos and Buffet rich, but we were doing quite well. My father owned a bank, back in the day when local banks still existed and served small towns and neighborhoods. With an incredible gift for reading people and knowing who would and would not repay a loan, he made that bank, and our family, prosper.

I have another confession to make. When I was a young adult, struggling to get my feet under me financially, I used to take solace in the idea that “One of these days, I’ll get that inheritance from my parents and everything will be set right.”

Today, nearly forty years later, I haven’t received that inheritance. As steward of my mother’s finances, I have a pretty clear idea of what it might be. When I look at my own finances and then at that probable inheritance, I’m not as excited as I used to be. I’m not saying that I won’t cash the check, but that dollar amount helps to prove the truth of today’s passage from Ecclesiastes:

Wisdom is as good as an inheritance
and an advantage to those who see the sun,
because wisdom is protection as silver is protection;
but the advantage of knowledge
is that wisdom preserves the life of its owner.

Ecclesiastes 7:11-12

Better than Cash

For once, Koheleth understated his point. Wisdom is not “as good as an inheritance.” It’s better. Because of the lessons I learned from my father, I’ve done well in the financial realm. Wisdom can help a person earn their own money–and other good things–but money cannot buy wisdom.

Penny and I watched a scruffy-looking man about our age sitting at an outside table at QuikTrip recently. He had a square of cardboard and a Sharpie on the table, and seemed to penning something like “Homeless Vet. Anything Helps. God Bless!”

Lest I seem callous, I have no idea of this man’s story or what set him to standing on street corners, asking for handouts. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and theorize that he does not have a huge inheritance parked in a brokerage account.

Did this man receive a heritage of wisdom from his parents, his broader family, a church, or a community? Perhaps, but somehow it doesn’t seem to have stuck.

The person with a rich store of wisdom, even when times get tough, will tend to find a way to make the best of things. The one who simply has money showered on them will often run through it pretty quickly. Witness the lottery winners who wind up either broke or having otherwise ruined their lives.

Wisdom is a thing that, like money, can be squandered, but unlike money, it needn’t be lost. Let’s imagine that I have a pile of money and a horde of wisdom to boot. If I somehow lose the money, the wisdom should still be available to help me recover.

Getting in Tune

One of the reasons why wisdom is better than an inheritance is that with wisdom we can see that money is a useful but limited thing. There are, of course, many things that money can’t buy, and when we don’t have the wisdom to rightly view our wealth, we’ll tend to just want more and more.

Another reason wisdom is better than an inheritance is that I have very little control over the size or availability of an inheritance. The poorest member of the poorest family can still pursue wisdom.

Rather than chasing that pile of found money, we should spend our energy chasing a pile of wisdom. With it, we’ll find that we get everything we need and more.

Where Was Kira When the Lights Went Out

Where was Kira when the lights went out? In the dark?

The lights are off, but somebody’s home. That was the situation in the home of a woman–let’s call her Kira. The city, which runs the water and electricity utilities had turned off service, leaving Kira and her children dry and in the dark.

If you’re like me, you might be sitting there smugly thinking how you’ve always managed to pay your bills and how you’d never let such a thing happen. Let me assure you that, although she might have taken missteps along the way, Kira is not a deadbeat or an incompetent. A year ago, she had endured a serious injury that took time to heal, time when she couldn’t work. The family got behind on an already-tight budget. Things snowballed, and eventually they owed several thousand dollars.

When we realized this problem existed, we felt the desire to help, but that’s not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to focus on Kira and what she did.

First, she continued to teach her kids–middle to high school in age–to trust in God and live obedient lives. Tough times were not an excuse for ugly behavior in Kira’s house.

Second, after she got back to work, she did not simply focus her thoughts on getting the family’s budget righted. Instead, she continued to look at the people around her. The lady next door needed her yard mowed but couldn’t push the mower around the lawn. Kira thought, “I have time, and I have legs. I can mow her grass.” Many people in Kira’s situation would have sat back licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves.

When she saw another neighbor, she felt led to give that woman some groceries. Sure, by taking food out of her own pantry, Kira was costing the family money that they needed to get right with the utility office, but she still did it. The neighbor thanked her, explaining how they had no cash for groceries for the rest of the month.

Then came Sunday. After discovering how much it would take to get at least Kira’s water turned back on, Penny and I felt a definite urge to help. Penny’s small group, told anonymously of the situation of this woman most of them didn’t know, collected funds, more than we had expected. A new member of the class, somebody attending for the second time, didn’t have cash but brought a large sum to our house in the afternoon.

When Kira brought the kids over that evening to take showers and run some laundry, Penny, without comment, handed her an envelope containing over $800, more than double what she needed to get the water turned on.

I have been young and now I am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous abandoned
or his children begging for bread.
He is always generous, always lending,
and his children are a blessing.–Psalm 37:25-26

I’m pretty sure that Kira didn’t mow grass or share groceries thinking about a payoff from God. She did those things for the same reason we all put money into that envelope: to seek God’s kingdom first.

Doing that, we know that all we needed will be provided for us. Where was Kira when the lights went out? From what I can see, she was standing and trusting in the light.

Wink TV

Would You Like to Be Rich?

Do you want to make more money? Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? What if I could show you a guaranteed way to make the sort of money that would give you the lifestyle you’ve always wanted: a new house, fine car, boat, travel? And what if you could do that with absolutely no risk?

See, I could have easily made my career writing informercials for shady get-rich-quick schemes. Clearly, I missed my calling. But then I have to get serious as we continue to examine Matthew 6:33:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Having established, or at least beginning to establish, what it is that we’re supposed to seek, I’d like to step backward and re-examine the word “seek.” What precisely does seeking the kingdom look like?

It seems to me that we can learn a great deal about seeking from the sort of people who get excited by money-making informercials. Most of those money schemes promise champagne by the pool with almost no work. When people seek money in that sense, they are essentially going out to grab money that has been carelessly left lying around. This is the sort of seeking at work when people bank on Publishers Clearinghouse, lotteries, or day trading of securities.

I talk about this sort of seeking as if it were universally bad, but it isn’t. When Isaac Newton described his rules of motion, he didn’t create them. They were there and he picked them up and explained them. Similarly, if an investor has the vision to see value in a parcel of real estate when no one else can, should she be criticized? She found value that was just lying around untapped.

On the other hand, people can seek money by attempting to add value to the world. This promises a reasonable return for a lot of hard work and effort. This sort of seeking is what we see when people seek through years at a productive job, starting a new business, or investing for the long haul.

  • The first sort of seeking aims to seek and find by picking up what’s already there.
  • The second sort of seeking aims to seek and find by creating what isn’t yet there.

So which of these are we supposed to do when we “seek the kingdom of God”? Are we supposed to go out and beat the bushes looking for the kingdom? Are we supposed to move there? Or are we supposed to work toward creating the kingdom, helping it to transition “on earth as it is in heaven”?

In Matthew 7:7, Jesus tells us, “Seek and you will find,” but does that mean we seek and find the kingdom like Easter eggs lying around the yard? Or does it mean that the action of seeking somehow helps to create the object, like seeking to grow vegetables in the garden?

I think it might be worthwhile to explore both possibilities.

 

A Penny Saved Is . . . Not Much

My mother is a little bit obsessed. Apparently now Taco Bell tacos are too expensive for her. Last night, when I called her to ask if she’d like me to bring her a couple of tacos, she couldn’t get past the price. “I used to buy two of them and they were $.39 each.”

I resisted the temptation to say, “Yes, and you earned $12.50 a week working at Sears in 1940.” Instead, I just told her I’d bring my supper to her house and eat.

Once I arrived there, having changed my plan to Subway, she brought up the price of tacos again. Happily, she didn’t care what a meatball sub set me back.

We’ve had discussions of money before. She’ll pick up pennies from the pavement from her walker. Honestly, I think she’s just proving that she still can. Yesterday, I paid $1.14 for something at QuikTrip. Handing the cashier $1.15, I said, “I don’t need the penny.” Please don’t tell my mother. Out in the parking lot, a moment later, I saw a penny on the ground and let it lie. What’s wrong with me?

Of course, I joke about her obsession with small prices, coming up with things she could do if she really wanted to economize. How about getting rid of that car you don’t drive anymore? But I have my own hang-ups. Why in the world does my son drive miles away from his home to buy premium cups of coffee? It’s extravagant in both time and money! Shaking my head, I mutter, “It’s his money.”

I suppose that pennies do add up to make dollars, but what can you do with a single dollar these days? Am I being wasteful and a bad steward? After all, didn’t Jesus say this?

Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much.–Luke 16:10

And didn’t he criticize the guy who took a single talent and buried it to keep it safe? Don’t forget that he had the disciples pick up all the leftovers after feeding 5,000. Maybe my mother is on to something here. Whatever we waste is what we will not have in the future. Whatever we abandon won’t be on our balance sheet going forward. If I waste (or pass up) money, time, or other assets, I’ll not have their use tomorrow. This is the truth behind the Broken Window Fallacy. You can’t build the economy long term by breaking things. Time and possessions represent money, so wasting them is wasting money.

All of this is true, but I think it is an argument built on an unexamined premise. Should all of stewardship be expressible in terms of dollars? Is the bottom line truly a quantity of currency? Let’s say that it’s not. If that’s true, then what is its measurement?

Now my brain hurts. It’s so much easier to turn off unused lights and shop the sales at the grocery. And Taco Bell? Those tacos aren’t $.39 anymore!

 

Bernie the Millionaire?

Have you heard the latest? Hero to the millennials and democratic-socialist icon Bernie Sanders has made a startling confession. He is a millionaire. People on the right–and that’s where I typically see myself–have been having a field day pointing out the supposed hypocrisy of this thing. The item below is typical of some of the Twitter sentiment.

Let’s do a little bit of math. As a U.S. Senator, Sanders earns, this year, at age 77, $174,000. I assumed that he’s been working since age 25 and that his income has risen by about 3% annually. Then I assumed that Bernie has prudently set back a very conservative 5% of his income since day one. Over those 50-plus years, his savings would have accumulated, earning, let’s say, 6% per year, and, wonder of wonders, crossed the million-dollar threshold just this year.

I earn considerably less than $174,000 a year, and I set back a good bit more than 5% each year. If I earned the sort of money that Sanders is bringing in, even ignoring his book royalties, then I’m sure I’d be socking away considerably more than my suggested 5% amount.

The wonder of things, I would suggest, is not that Bernie Sanders is among the ranks of the millionaires. The wonder would be if he weren’t there. Of course it seems that his books have made him a great deal of money. Will we fault him for that? Should he have intentionally written bad books so that no one would buy them? I suppose he could donate his royalties to some charity, but he would still have the income.

So far, this post has not been terribly spiritual, but I share it because of the problematic things I encounter on social media from solid Christian brothers and sisters. When we get into that political realm, all that stuff about love and forgiveness seems to fly out the window. I see it on both sides of the political spectrum. Sweetness-and-light liberals become ravening savages when they speak of President Trump, while rock-solid conservatives want to disembowel Nancy Pelosi.

Stop it! We will disagree. That’s okay, but we need to continue to disagree together. In Galatians 2:11-12, Paul shares this intriguing tale:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. 

So Paul and Cephas (Peter) disagreed. How did they work out this issue, which they apparently did since they worked together later in life according to tradition? They were apparently able to do it because they stayed in touch. How else could Paul oppose Peter to his face unless they were still speaking?

Sarcasm and blame-fixing is beneath a follower of Jesus. Yes, we will disagree about the matters of this world. That’s completely acceptable, but if that disagreement places a wedge between us, then both parties lose. If we take seriously Jesus’ instruction to “seek first the Kingdom,” let me suggest that it’s not found in snarky social media.

 

The Rich Fool’s New Car

I’m buying a new car today. It’s not actually new but new to me. It’s a sweet ride and a bit of an indulgence. Do I really need it? Not exactly. Is it okay for me to buy it? Good question. Let’s weigh the options.

After using the parable of the rich fool to opine about binge TV and wasting time, I found myself looking back to the actual parable and what it says about possessions. So let’s remind ourselves of it:

A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, “What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there.  Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.'”

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?” (Luke 12:16-20)

What a fool! We can all agree on that, right? But what should the rich fool have done? What actions in response to his great harvest would have earned him God’s approval rather than disdain? What could this man do with his bumper crop other than use it to coast into the sunset? Let’s explore the possibilities.

He could leave it out exposed to the elements where the rain and the rats would compete to ruin it first. Surely we can agree that God would not be pleased with that sort of stewardship.

He could give it away to the needy. Is that a good use of the crop? Apparently the rich man was going to be able to feed himself and his entourage for many years to come. It stands to reason that he could have fed a much larger group for a shorter span of years. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But of course when it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t spend or give away the same dollar (or bushel of grain) twice.

He could sell it and then invest the proceeds. If this man had a hundred acres, perhaps his excess could be sold in order to fund the purchase of a hundred or two hundred more acres. Whatever good could be done with the crop from the smaller lands could be magnified on the larger lands. But is purpose of profit simply to generate a bigger empire to create ever-bigger profits?

He could store it for a time of need. This is how Joseph saved Egypt in Genesis, isn’t it? The rich man could store his grain and then keep on producing more for future consumption. Then, when a bad situation arises, he could draw from those reserves and save the day. The downside to this approach is that he still has to build storage facilities and protect this reserve until bad times come.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t tell us what the rich fool should have done. He just lets us know that the man made the wrong choice. Is there a right answer to what he should have done?

Is there a right answer to what I should do with the extra money that appears in my bank account from time to time? In the past year, I’ve done some of all of these things. I’ve indulged a little bit. I’ve given some money and goods away. I’ve invested some money toward tomorrow, and I’ve simply stuck some into a savings account for an unforeseen need, like the opportunity to buy a car. Did I do it right?

Since Jesus didn’t give us exact instructions for dealing with whatever plenty he provides, I have to assume that he had a different way for directing us. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:16 that through the Holy Spirit, “we have the mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ lets me know when I’m mishandling both my money and my time. I just have to ask and then listen to the response.

What does that say about the car? In reality, this choice is a no-brainer. The car pleases me, is priced right, can be purchased (easily) for cash, and should keep me driving reliably for another four or five years. And did I mention that it pleases me? Jesus never said we shouldn’t enjoy life a little.

So You Want to Win the Lottery?

All that glittersI’d love to have a bucket full of money come my way. Wouldn’t you? Every day, it seems, I watch people clog the checkout at QuikTrip as they agonize over their Lottery ticket purchases or gleefully collect the $25 they “earned” after buying $50 in tickets. (And they typically give that “winning” back for more tickets.)

In case you’re tempted by the lure of easy money, consider the fates of 21 Lottery winners who wound up being Lottery losers. This one is typical.

David Lee Edwards split a $280 million Powerball jackpot with three others, a win that came while he was unemployed and living in his parents’ basement. After taxes, he received a lump sum of $27 million. He bought a $600,000 house, a $1 million fleet of cars, a $78,000 watch, a $1.9 million jet, 200 swords and other medieval weapons, and a $4.5 million fiber-optics installation company. He also married a woman 19 years younger than he was.

Within a year, he had spent $12 million. The house was soon lost to foreclosure, his wife was arrested for stabbing a boyfriend, and David died at age 58 in 2013.

A jet and 200 swords? Wow. Beware of what you hope for. Jesus warned his followers about the lure of wealth: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). In my experience, when we serve God, the money, though not in epic quantities, will come along for the ride.

Like Nails on a Chalkboard?

The New York Times ran a story recently describing the terrible working conditions among nail salons in New York. The exploitation of vulnerable people, made possible due to customer vanity and cheapness, ought to make a Christian recoil. Does it?

Among the more than 100 workers interviewed by The Times, only about a quarter said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of New York State’s minimum hourly wage. All but three workers, however, had wages withheld in other ways that would be considered illegal, such as never getting overtime.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good. There’s nothing wrong with shopping for a bargain. But when you discover that your nice nails at a nice price come at the cost of someone else earning a decent living, the aesthetics and economics certainly change.

Precious Things (Psalm 19:10)

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:10)

Imagine one of those exercises where you try to decide what ten objects you would have with you if stranded on a desert island. I’d want water–or better yet a filter to desalinate sea water. Rope would be useful. Something to eat could come in handy. I’d throw a knife and a first aid kit and some sort of shelter into my supplies. What I would decidedly NOT choose is gold or its modern-day equivalent, money.

If the legendary hijacker, D.B. Cooper, did manage to parachute to safety in the trackless forests of the Pacific Northwest, what did he do with all of that money he took along? Assuming he never made it to civilization, he might have made a bed for himself out of the cash. It might have provided tinder for fires. Beyond that, money in the forest is pretty useless. Gold on a desert island is only good as a weight.

Why do we put such value into things that won’t last any length of time? A couple of weeks ago, thousands of people lined up to buy the second generation iPads on the day they first came out. Why? Why did I make sure that I made it in front of a TV by 1:20 on Sunday so that I could watch my KU Jayhawks lose in the NCAA Tournament? Why do we get attached to cars that will wear out in a few years, houses that require constant maintenance to keep from falling around our heads, and all manner of entertainments that cease us pleasure very quickly.

Do we really believe what David says in this Psalm? Do we really value God’s Word as the most precious, the most delicious thing in our lives? I can’t say that I do on a regular basis. I pay lip service to the idea, but little more.

What do we do then? When I realize I’m not valuing my wife sufficiently, I spend time with her. Perhaps the same will work with scripture. We have nothing to lose in the attempt.