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Who Do You Compare Yourself To?

A funny thing happened when I moved to DC six years ago. I went from being surrounded by a laid-back crew of seminarians, pastors, poets, and radicals, to living in one of the most powerful, motivated, and highly-paid neighborhoods on earth.

It was a big shift in perspective. I had gotten used to living among simple people. Some of them had money and impressive jobs, but they weren’t the norm. I mostly compared myself to the people who were just getting by. And I was always aware of my friends who were struggling to survive. In the Mid-Western rust-belt economy, the Great Recession has been going on for decades.

When I moved to Capitol Hill, I was introduced to a whole new social landscape. These were focused, driven, specialized and highly-paid people. My neighbors came from around the world, seeking to work at the seat of US power. They served congressmen, lobbied for interest groups of all kinds, and led nonprofits stationed in Washington to advance a variety of social agendas. I had arrived in a land of formal attire, nannies, and dual-income power couples.

The air is different here in Washington; the longer I breathe it, the more it has affected me. Over the years, I’ve lost my frame of reference in the gentle culture of honest but economically struggling people. Another worldview has become the norm for me: one of worry, status-obsession, and lives that revolves around work.

These years in DC have helped me understand that my perceptions about life have little to do with what is actually happening, and everything to do with the comparisons I make with those around me.

Who am I comparing myself to? Is it the family to the west who work for a think tank and can afford a home on Capitol Hill? Is it the diplomats, politicians, and corporate leaders chauffeured from one climate controlled environment to another? Or will I look to the thousands of DC residents who are struggling to survive in the midst of rapid economic upheaval and injustice?

There’s another world that exists in my city, a thousand light years from the brunches and cocktail parties of the elites. It’s a world of rising rents, dwindling job opportunities, homelessness, and talented lives wasting away on public assistance. I experience an almost irresistible temptation to turn away from this alternate reality, the apartheid state hidden in plain sight.

Why? Why do I prefer to compare myself to the wealthy rather than consider myself in solidarity with the poor? How did I allow the 1% to become my norm?

This elite focus is especially mis-guided for someone who wants to follow Jesus. Christ’s entire ministry was about making himself the least, descending to the very bottom of the social pyramid in order to upend the whole oppressive structure once and for all. Through his liberating teaching and revolutionary sacrifice on the cross, Jesus conquers the myth of the 1%. He calls us into a reality where those who have the least are our frame of reference.

Shifting the focus from the richest to the brokest isn’t just some pious exercise; it’s the surest way to experience joy and freedom. As long as I’m fixated on the wealth, fame, success, status, and power that others have, I trap myself in a race to acquire those same advantages. But when my frame of reference centers on those who have the least, I’m liberated into a life of thanksgiving and generosity. This is the opposite of the high-stress culture that is so prevalent here.

How about you? Who are you comparing yourself to? What kind of life do you want to be living? Do you want to spend your time climbing ever higher towards those who have more than you, or would you prefer to focus your attention on those who have been left out of the games of the 1%?

Related Posts:

Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more

Why Jesus is Anti-Capitalist

The Key to the Good Life? Just-In-Time Delivery

At the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering, we were asked to share a simple word or phrase that expressed our vision of what abundant life looks like.

For me, the phrase was just-in-time delivery

This is a concept from the business world. It’s the idea that the most efficient system is one in which all resources are delivered shortly before they are to be used. An example of this would be an auto factory that received all the parts it needed the day the vehicle was to be assembled. The factory wouldn’t stockpile wheels, axles, and lug nuts for next week or next month’s production. Instead, it would rely on suppliers to deliver those items the day of

Why did I choose this random business concept as my definition of the good life?

It all goes back to the desert. In the Sinai wilderness, after Moses and the Hebrews had escaped from Egyptian slavery, they were totally reliant on God. They had no idea how to survive in the desert, far away from the carefully irrigated Nile Delta where they had lived for centuries.

Once they got over the shock of escaping certain death at the hands of Pharaoh’s army, the Hebrews were assailed by doubts. What have we done? Where have you taken us Moses? Did you bring us out into the desert so that we could die of starvation?

Moses and his compatriots were about to discover a way of life that was in many ways more uncomfortable than Egyptian bondage. Sure, in Egypt they were abused and oppressed – but at least they knew where dinner was coming from. If there was one thing the Egyptians were good at, it was stockpiling food.

There were no such reassuring granaries in the desert where Moses had led them. They were defenseless. They had nothing to rely on for survival but the daily mercy of God. They were dependent on just-in-time delivery of food from the sky, a substance so mysterious that they called it manna, which means What’s that?

This is exactly where the Hebrew people needed to be: Rooted in reality. Freed from the false security of stockpiles, military might, and economic oppression. Everything now depending on God’s daily providence.

This is where I need to be, too. When asked what abundant life looks like for me, I said just-in-time delivery. I might just as easily have said manna. It’s this life of dependence on God, trusting him to provide the next step, the next meal, the way home – this is where I find true abundance.

Rather than living slavery to accumulation and self-protection, I’m invited to trust deeply, release control, and see life as it really is.

Have you experienced this kind of desert abundance? When are times in your life when you were forced to rely completely on God for the resources you needed – material, spiritual, or emotional? What would it be like to remain in this desert journey, embracing the just-in-time delivery of the Holy Spirit? Who might you meet along the way?

Related Posts:

Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more

Why Jesus is Anti-Capitalist

Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more

Yes, but I'd trade it all for a little more

Did you ever watch The Simpsons? I’ve got most of the first seven seasons memorized, seared into my brain from repetitive viewing on VHS tapes. Along with the Star Wars trilogy, The Simpsons are part of my personal canon.

My favorite character is, by far, Mr. Burns. Montgomery Burns is so absurdly callous and evil; he’s hilarious in his lack of humanity. He is a caricature of what it means to be so given over to Mammon that he thinks of little else. All his pleasure and ambitions, all his thoughts and relationships revolve around one thing: money.

I love Mr. Burns, because he shows me so much of myself. He cartoonishly reveals the many ways that I cling to my own desire for control, security and prosperity, rather than allowing God to be in the driver’s seat. By being so completely over the top, Mr. Burns is able to say some pretty profound things. He teaches by counter-example, showing which way not to go.

There’s one scene, an exchange between Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns, that I find particularly revealing:

Homer says, You’re the richest guy I know! And Burns replies, Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more.

Wouldn’t we all? There’s something about human nature – or, at least, my own human nature – that is never fully satisfied. No matter how awesome my life is, I can always imagine something that would make it better.

At first glance, this impulse to more and better seems great. After all, it’s this kind of endless ambition that built America, isn’t it?

But, for me at least, I’m noticing that this insatiable hunger for more is often the enemy of gratitude. If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to miss how beautiful my life is, because I’d trade it all for a little more.

How would it feel to be completely satisfied, to not feel a need anything more? What would it be like to rest in gratitude and trust?

As I sit with these questions, I’m reminded of a quote from an early Quaker, Isaac Pennington:

Give over thine own willing. Give over thine own running. Give over thine own desiring to know or be anything. And sink down to the seed that God sows in thy heart. And let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee. And thou wilt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion.

Even if you’re Mr. Burns.

Related Posts:

Humble Me, Lord

Feeling Impatient?

Why Jesus is Anti-Capitalist

The kingdom of God isn’t what you think. It isn’t at all compatible with the lifestyle that most of us are living. It’s not just about thinking the right thoughts or feeling the right feelings; it involves a total life change – including our economics. The way of Jesus is dangerous, because the kingdom of God and the wealth-driven, capitalist system we live in simply aren’t compatible.

Capitalism, for all its tremendous achievements, is not based in Christian values. Love? Mercy? Release for the captive and oppressed? Sight for the blind? All of these go out the window in the capitalist system, because love and justice are not the primary values for capitalism – capital is. Capitalism operates to benefit those who have capital. Those who don’t have money are basically irrelevant.

That’s not to say that our capitalist society is completely heartless. In the midst of capitalism, there’s a huge amount of philanthropy going on. Rich people (and not-so-rich people) give their resources to benefit the poor all the time. They can even get a tax break for it! But even in these cases, the logic of capitalism remains. The power dynamic is the same: The rich give and are thanked; the poor receive and are grateful.

The Golden Rule of Capitalism

The kingdom of God could not be more different. In the Book of Acts, it says that the early Christians held all things in common. Folks who were rich sold all their belongings and gave the money to the community. Everyone received whatever they needed on a day-to-day basis. Whether you used to be rich or poor didn’t matter anymore. Everyone was equal in the radical life of God’s community.

To be honest, there’s a part of me that finds this horrifying. I’ve worked really hard and have forgone a lot of luxuries in order to get the measure of economic security that I have today. I’m supposed to just give that away and live an equally precarious existence with a bunch of folks who never saved for a rainy day? That’s not fair!

But it’s a central theme of the New Testament.

John the Baptist made it pretty clear: If you and I want to be the people of God together, there’s going to be some repentance required. Repentance doesn’t just mean feeling sorry for bad things we did or naughty things we said – it’s about righting the wrongs in our society. It’s about feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and looking out for those who’ve been left behind in the capitalist race to the top.

Jesus took this message even further. He told stories about everyone being paid equally, even when they didn’t earn it. He asked his followers to abandon their professions and follow him into an entirely different kind of economy. Whether or not every follower of Jesus is required to sell everything they own and give the money to the poor is a matter of debate, but it is clear that true repentance involves economic redistribution. There’s no doubt that Jesus is calling every one of us into a radical practice of financial reconciliation. In the kingdom of God, those who have more give freely to those who are in need.

This isn’t philanthropy. This isn’t about rich people being charitable to those in need. It’s about each of us treating our brothers and sisters as Jesus commands us to – not gloating, not feeling superior, but giving our all and saying, We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done!

The kingdom of God is a direct challenge to our society’s economic and social order. Jesus takes the side of those who are the least successful in the eyes of the market. The God of the Bible is one who releases captives and restores sight to the blind. The presence of the Holy Spirit disrupts the lives of those who have the most, and lifts up those who have nothing.

This is enormously challenging for me. I want to be part of that egalitarian community of believers, living out the kingdom of God in joy and amazement. Most days, though, I’m nowhere close. I still carry a lot of fear, and the assumptions of the capitalist system we live in. Considering how much of my lifestyle depends on this very system, it’s hard to accept that the kingdom of God and our economic order are mutually incompatible.

But they are. And if I think I want to follow Jesus, I had better count the cost. Because the kingdom of God asks everything of us, especially our money, security, and sense of control.

What about you? How does your walk with Jesus and the Christian community challenge the economic basis of your lifestyle? Are there ways that your relationship to money might need to change in order to be part of the egalitarian kingdom of God? What would it take for you to embrace the startlingly anti-capitalist way of Jesus?

Related Posts:

The Gods of the Market

What are You Working For?

The Power of None

A couple years ago, a survey found that one in five Americans don’t identify with any religion. For Americans under thirty, the number was far higher – more like one third. This report is being cited constantly throughout the religious-nonprofit world. In many quarters, there seems to be a deep sense of shock at the decline in religious membership.

Me? I’m not surprised at all. What does surprise me is our failure to see that affiliation with a traditional, God-centered religion is no longer the primary way that many Americans express their deeply rooted need for faith. We humans are relentlessly religious animals, and post-modern America is no exception. We’re just embracing a different kind of faith.

A powerful religious system has swept across America in the last fifty years, and it has little to do with our traditional ideas about what religion looks like. This new faith is all but invisible to eyes that have been trained to view religion as only those systems with God at the center. Though few seem to see it, our nation is slowly being converted to an apparently non-religious religion. It is a universal faith, a world religion that has taken root everywhere that armies have marched and Coca Cola has been bottled.

The rituals of this faith can be observed at our great national festivals, such as the Superbowl and the State of the Union address. The priests of this religion wear suits and ties, officiating over the mysteries of currency fluctuations, interest rates and stock markets. Our new state church is one of power and prosperity, whitewashed with beautiful words like honor, freedom and democracy. These words and rituals are administered like a drug, to numb our moral sense in the face of injustice. They serve both to reinforce and conceal the new normal.

While some sectors of the religious establishment are panicking about the rise of religious-nonaffiliation, I would like to suggest that the emergence of the nones is not the real problem. The true crisis has been brewing for much longer, and we as Christians have been complicit in creating it. The Christian community has embraced the idols of the unrestrained market and the self-interested and hypocritical poses of electoral politics, all the while neglecting the weightier matters of economic justice and love of neighbor. We have used God as a mask and shield for our will to power, a convenient rallying cry to cover over our own spiritual nakedness. It is precisely this kind of compromised, false religion that many of the nones are rejecting, and all of us should be thankful for that!

The choice that we are facing is not whether we will be a country of believers or non-believers. The idea that the nones are non-religious is just another part of this new religion’s cloak of invisibility. Of course the nones are religious! The religiously unaffiliated are, in fact, deeply faith-based people. We all are. Rather, we must make a decision about what we will place our trust in. Whether we claim religious affiliation or not, whether we believe in God or not, each one of us must determine who or what we will serve. Will we dedicate ourselves to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? To a new American century? To the American Dream?

There is an alternative available to us, though it is one that will put us in sharp conflict with the present order. There is a President whose State of the Union address is given not to score political points, but to establish true justice and peace. There is an Economy that exists not to enrich the 1%, but to ensure that everyone has enough and that the earth is restored to its intended beauty. There is a God who does not rely on bloodshed to support his power, but instead endures the suffering we inflict, in order to demonstrate his great love for us.

Before we can truly embrace this radical reign of God, however, we first must unmask the deeply religious claims of our current political and economic system. We cannot understand who Jesus is until we see that he is President of presidents, and that his authority over our lives is absolute. Unlike our earthly political systems, his administration brings peace and healing, justice and joy for everyone who seeks the truth. He puts himself last so that each one of us can experience the amazing power of his love.

Are we ready to embrace this fundamentally different system, one based in God’s selfless love for us rather than the dazzle of human might and the allure of self-interest? There is good news for each one of us, whether we are religious believers, atheist/agnostics, or one of the many nones who don’t really care about religion. There is an alternative to the violence and selfishness of empire – an identity to be found that goes beyond who we vote for, what we consume, or who our friends are. There is hope beyond the world that has been pulled over our eyes.

What might it look like for us to embrace this hope together? Regardless of whether we affiliate ourselves with a particular religious institution, what could it look like to center ourselves on Jesus and his amazing example of fearless love? How might we be drawn into communities that go far beyond stale religious rituals, discovering instead the whole-wheat bread of life that we’ve been hungering for?

The Power To Trust

It’s easy to underestimate the value of trust in my daily life. For example, I generally feel secure in the quality of the food I buy. This relieves me from a huge amount of worry and second-guessing when I sit down for a meal. I trust that those who produce and package my food take necessary precautions to keep me healthy. Sure, this trust is occasionally called into question by occasional salmonella outbreaks. But even food recalls ultimately reinforce the sense that I can trust food producers with my safety; if there is a problem, they take measures to correct it.

Because I can trust others, I generally don’t sweat every detail of life. I am able to focus on my most important tasks, rather than worrying about whether the mechanics did an adequate job repairing my car, or whether the mail will arrive on time and in good condition. Because I trust my mechanic and the postal service. Because I trust them to do their jobs to the best of their ability, I can do mine.

But what happens when trust breaks down? How will it affect me if I no longer feel confident in the safety of the food I buy at the grocery store, or the quality work of my mechanic or postal delivery? I’ll worry more, for one thing. If I can afford it, I’ll probably also pay extra for assurance that those I depend on will come through for me, if only out of a sheer profit motive. A world without trust is one filled with contracts and lawsuits, high fees and deposits; it is a world of constant stress and second-guessing.

As a result of this vicious atmosphere, the federal government has been largely paralyzed, the essential business of the people left undone. The health of the whole nation has been negatively impacted, from the pay rates of public workers to the vital services that millions of citizens have come to count on. In the absence of trust, compromise seems unlikely. After all, how do we know that the other side will not use today’s deal to take advantage of us tomorrow?We can see signs of this disordered, stressful world in the dynamics of the US federal government. Compromise is almost unheard of. Highly polarized interests vie for the slightest edge, and to keep legislation advocated by the other side from passing. Law-making has become more like a war between opposing factions than a cooperative exchange in the interest of good government.

The longer this goes on, the less trust that the average American feels toward big government and big business alike. Rather than conceiving of ourselves as participating in a cause larger than ourselves, we begin to sense that the whole game is stacked against ordinary folks. In such an environment, we may each scurry to defend our own personal interests, fearful that if we do not watch out for ourselves, no one else will! The end result is a nation of individuals, separated from one another by distrust and naked self-interest that ultimately impoverishes us all.

I have watched this problem grow over the course of my lifetime, and I feel very concerned about my country’s growing lack of trust and caustic bitterness in the civic life. I cannot help but wonder where this all is leading. For the sake of the common welfare, I am eager to find ways to restore our willingness to work together, even when we disagree sharply. Yet, with so much damage already done to our cultural commons, how can we find a way forward?

As a person who is attempting to follow Jesus in my own life, I know that there is a source of trust available to me that no human being can take away. Even when I doubt the reliability of other people, I can feel confident that God is trustworthy; his Holy Spirit will guide me and sustain me. Even when the government is going haywire, ground to a halt by competitions between powerful interests, I can have confidence that the Lord of history is in control.

Even when my society seems to be in utter disarray, I can trust that the power of God is over all of it. Even in this present darkness, I can feel confidence that Jesus has already conquered the world. It is in this confidence that Jesus gives me the freedom to continue revealing his love, abiding in his peace, and extending trust to those who might very well hurt me.

Living in a world that gives us many reasons to doubt and fear, what does it take for us to embrace the deep reservoir of faith, hope and love that we find in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit?

Here are a couple of worthwhile articles that got me thinking more about the issue of trust:

Mr. Money Mustache looks at the problem from a personal perspective, encouraging his readers to embrace a lifestyle of trust and generosity.

Joseph E. Stiglitz examines the issue from a more government-centered viewpoint, arguing that only greater public intervention in controlling the excesses of monied interests can address the growing lack of trust in our society.

Are You A Consumer?

Over the course of my lifetime, it seems that consumer has become the most common word used to refer to individual members of our society. On television, in newspapers, and on the radio, we regularly hear stories about what consumers are doing and thinking. We are constantly being updated on how consumers are reacting to the market. Whether it’s that gasoline has gotten too expensive, or that the latest iProduct is in high demand, the habits and patterns of consumers are of great concern to the established media companies.

This morning at breakfast, I was reading an article in the newspaper about how the Affordable Care Act is negatively impacting some individuals – especially those who buy their own insurance, rather than receiving it through an employer. The content of the article was interesting, but what struck me the most was the way the problem was framed. Rather than approaching the story from a public policy angle, the article mainly focused on the reaction of consumers of health care goods and services. The crux of the article was whether some individuals should be required to buy a product they might not want or need so that other individuals could have affordable access to health care products they need desperately but might not be able to afford under the old regime.

This is the way they presented the dilemma: as a story of tension between healthier consumers and less healthy consumers, fighting to get the best deal for their health care dollars. But could there be another way of thinking about health care, and about our society as a whole? Is there a framework that would allow us to consider these questions in a way that assumed connection, caring and community between individuals, rather than the zero-sum competition of the market?

One framework that immediately occurred to me was that of citizenship. I have the impression (my older readers can tell me if I’m mistaken) that fifty years ago the word citizen was much more common in our public discourse, and that the word consumer much less common. How would our public conversation – not to mention public policy – be different if framed in terms of citizenship, rather than consumption?

The idea of citizenship could offer a positive antidote to the consumeristic worldview. While consumers have only unmet desires and (hopefully) means to pay for it, citizens have rights, responsibilities and a role within a larger community. What might change if we thought in terms of rights and responsibilities, rather than in terms of consumer desire and spending? In short, what would be the effect of a worldview that is primarily civic rather than hedonistic?

Such a renewed conception of citizenship could yield enormous benefits for our society. A nation that conceives of itself primarily as a union of citizens, rather than consumers, would be a much healthier, functional, and more prosperous one. Yet, there are definitely problems that this worldview based in citizenship would fail to address – in particular, our culture’s unbalanced focus on the individual. Even as a nation of citizens, it would still be easy for us to think in terms of my personal rights and my personal responsibilities. We would no longer be hedonists, perhaps, but we would still be individualists.

Rather than stumbling into single-serving citizenship, what if we learned to be a body together? In the New Testament, Paul talks about how those who live in God’s love are knit together as a single organism. No longer a mere collection of individuals, we discover that we are all deeply connected; that, in a certain sense, we are not separate at all. When one of us is happy, we rejoice together; when one of us is in pain, we feel it as a community. This experience of being a body together takes us far beyond the duties of citizenship. Deeper than individual rights and responsibilities, we are called to surrender our prerogatives and take on the burdens of others – not because we have to, but out of love.

What would it look like to consider the issues of our day with this mindset? How would we address one another in our conversations around affordable health care, military spending, gay marriage and genetic engineering? How would our whole way of living as members of the human family be changed by this awareness of ourselves as an interconnected society, a community of communities, whose health and prosperity depend deeply on one another?