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We Don’t Have to be Afraid Anymore

I recently came across an article in The Atlantic, which examines why many Americans (particularly elite men) are so obsessed with wealth and work. The author speculates about the extent to which these obsessions are rooted in culture or biology. He notes how the wage gap between men and women is exacerbated by such obsession, and he laments the deep unhappiness of many elite men who work themselves to death for the mirage of achievement and wealth-accumulation.

This article points to a deep crisis of values in our culture. In a society that is so fixated on money and professional identity, how can we root our lives in something deeper? In a culture that worships wealth and exalts those who succeed in business, what does it mean for us to prioritize health, family, community, and our relationship with God?

Deep fear lies at the heart of this crisis. We’re terrified that we’re not doing enough, having enough, being enough. We have become a society that hides from the reality of our limitations, weaknesses, and even death. We long to be forever young, strong, and healthy. The fact that we know these dreams are an illusion provides all the more motivation to distance ourselves from reality. We flee into the endless chase for more money, higher status, greater achievement.

But, for those of us who have come to know Jesus, we are invited into a different reality altogether. We have begun down a path that acknowledges the reality of our own limitations, of struggle, and death. Accompanying him to the cross, Jesus shows us that we don’t need to be fixated on our own survival anymore. We can experience freedom to love others without holding anything back. Even if that means a loss of status or reduced income. For Jesus, this path led to arrest, torture, and a humiliating public execution. Compared to that, why should we concern ourselves with how big our paycheck or how important our job?

All this talk of the cross sounds really stark. It’s fair to ask, Why would anyone want to walk in the way of Jesus? Yet, as we embrace this way of surrender, we discover that the heart of the gospel is love. It is a release from the fear that has gripped us for so long, and in so many ways that we had almost stopped noticing. The way of the cross is freedom; its fruit is joy. Despite all of the darkness, uncertainty, and even suffering, the path of Jesus is marked by radiant joy and passionate love.

This kind of love drives out fear. Opening ourselves to a life beyond the grasping self-interest of the meritocracy, we can be filled with wholeness and peace, even in the midst of challenges. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

Related Posts:

Blessed Are Those With Nothing to Lose

What Are You Willing to Lose?

Related Video:

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

Give It All Away

This week at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 12:13-34, where Jesus lays out some of his radical teaching about money. He tells the story of the rich fool who stored up all kinds of riches for himself, not caring for the needs of others or thinking beyond his personal comfort. Jesus reveals that the God Movement has nothing to do with accumulation or self-protection. Instead, we should take our cue from the ravens and the flowers: These creatures don’t have bank accounts or pensions, but God provides for them and cares for their needs. If God takes such good care of the birds and the grass, how much more is he going to take care of us, his human children?

In case there was any confusion, Jesus concludes with this startling bit of encouragement:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.

OK, Jesus! I could get on board with the whole no hording thing, and I could embrace the whole birds and grass thing as a nice metaphor about trusting God to provide. But what’s this about selling my possessions and giving to the poor? And what kind of crazy are you talking about heavenly bank accounts? You don’t expect me to take this literally, do you?

Christians love to argue about what the Bible says, but I don’t hear much argument about this one. On the contrary, there seems to be a pretty broad consensus that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant what he said about money. Yet the gospels are full of Jesus’ explicit, clear instruction to abandon our dependence on material wealth and to give generously to the poor. It’s right there in black and white, clearer than almost any other scriptural command: We cannot serve both God and money. How can I even pretend to be a follower of Jesus if I do not take this repeated, explicit teaching with utter seriousness?

Why does Jesus command us to surrender our wealth and give sacrificially to those who have nothing? No doubt he meant what he said, but there have got to be some extenuating circumstances, right? We live in a very different culture from the one he originally spoke to. Maybe back then someone could give away all their wealth and be OK, but nowadays we have health insurance to think about, children to put through college! There must be some sort of First World, 21st-century exemption.

This teaching of Jesus is so hard, and so consistently repeated throughout the gospels, that I cannot help but conclude that it must be central to his entire message. I want to be a disciple, and I know in my gut that I’ll never become one if I don’t take this teaching seriously.

The fact that Jesus’ teaching on wealth inspires such discomfort and consternation reinforces my suspicion that it must be very important. Why do we all get so nervous when Jesus starts talking about selling our possessions? If we really trust God and believe that Jesus speaks for God, why wouldn’t we be eager to do what he says? If Jesus’ message is good news for the whole world, why would we shrink from a central theme of the kingdom he announces to us?

I have been sitting with this question a lot lately, and I am realizing that my own hesitation to obey Jesus is not based primarily in a fear of material deprivation. For all our problems as a country, in the United States we can count on certain safety nets. No matter what happens, I feel confident that I will not starve to death. If I have emergency medical needs, they’ll be taken care of even if I can’t pay for them. I also feel sure that I could find another place to stay if I lost my house. Materially speaking, I’m basically covered. So why does the idea of giving up all my wealth to follow Jesus seem so impossible?

I’m seeing that my deepest fear is not of losing my stuff, but rather that I might lose my autonomy. For me, having some extra money in the bank means that when I get into trouble I don’t have to ask others for help. At the end of the day, I want to be self-sufficient. The last thing in the world I want is to be forced to rely on others. Giving away my reserves of wealth puts me in a precarious situation: It won’t be long before I’m forced to ask for help, to depend on others.

As a small child, I had almost no autonomy. I went where my parents said I could go, I ate what they gave me to eat, and I slept when they said it was time for bed. As I have grown older, I have increasingly been able to make my own rules. Nowadays, I go to bed when I want, and if I really wanted to, I could have ice cream for breakfast! For me, growing into adulthood has mostly been an experience of increasing autonomy.

Given this progression in my life from lesser to greater personal freedom, I naturally assume that the proper end point for my life is total autonomy – symbolized by retirement from paid work. How great would that be – to have enough wealth stored up that I never had to rely on anyone else again?

But in his parable of the rich fool, Jesus reveals that this aspiration is a false one. Mysteriously, he teaches that we enter into God’s kingdom by becoming like a child again. Rather than continuing to progress into greater and greater levels of personal autonomy, disciples of Jesus are called to make themselves servants to everyone. When we surrender the false independence of Mammon, we find the true freedom that Jesus offers: embracing total devotion to the Love that lays down his life for others.

What is your experience with Jesus’ teaching on wealth? Where do you feel discomfort? Where do you feel joy? What would help you to open yourself more fully to the radical implications of Jesus’ self-emptying way of discipleship?

Millennials: Shake Off the Shame!

The US Census Bureau recently released a report reveals that, since the beginning of the financial crisis, a growing number of Americans are living with roomates or relatives. The greater part of this increase has come from adult children living with their parents. Millennials, this is about you.

The fact that so many Millennial adults are living with their parents partially hides the fact that our generation has been plunged into a level of unemployment and poverty with no parallel since the Great Depression. If poverty status were determined by personal income, 45.3 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 would qualify as living in poverty.Clearly, we are living in a different economic age than the one that many of us were raised to expect.

So many of my generation know from experience how terrible it feels to be scraping by on an absurdly low income, unable to afford both student loan payments and groceries. What is even more demoralizing is that many of us have virtually no income, and millions are forced to rely on parents and relatives to provide even the most basic needs while we work unpaid internships or desperately search for work. No matter how you slice it, being broke is awful.
But lack of money is not the worst of it. The truth is, most people my age are coming to terms with our economic diminishment. We know that we will probably never be as materially prosperous as our parents were, but we know that this is not necessarily a tragedy. We are acutely aware of the environmental, social and health impacts of the consumerist binge of the late 20th century, and many of us do not feel deprived to not be able to participate. On the contrary, thrift is increasingly becoming a virtue, and care for the earth is a very real consideration in our spending choices. We are willing to pay more, and to live less luxuriously, if it means that we can inhabit a healthier, more sustainable world.
So, if many of us are content living with less, what is the problem? One word: Jobs. I am confident that my generation can thrive in a world where unrestrained luxury gives way to global responsibility and sustainability. That is the world that we want to live in. But being chronically jobless or underemployed is not sustainable. The prolonged drought of meaningful employment is tearing my generation down in slow motion.It is crippling us professionally, emotionally and spiritually. And we will bear the scars for decades to come.

In his new book, End This Depression Now!, economist Paul Krugman observes that, “People who want to work but can’t find work suffer greatly, not just from the loss of income but from a diminished sense of self-worth.” The youngest cohort of adults today are not simply facing a loss of income, we are facing a loss of meaning. Who are we? What is our purpose? What value do we offer a society that tells us repeatedly and simultaneously: “We don’t need you,” and “Why don’t you grow up?”

There do not seem to be any easy answers to the challenges that we are facing on the level of economics and public policy. It may be many years before the job market returns to what was once considered “normal.” In the meantime, however, we Millennials are going to have to make sense of our lives, often in the absence of meaningful employment. What might this look like? How can we shed the shame and feelings of personal failure that come with un(der)employment and begin to look for ways to empower ourselves, regardless of the economic outlook?
If anything is clear by now, it is that older generations are not going to provide us with systems of meaning. It might be tempting to go into a holding pattern, to cross our fingers and hope that our economy and sense of core values will eventually recover. But I do not think that is good strategy. Instead, how might we focus our energies to create the just, healthy, sustainable and meaningful society that we long for? The answer to this question will undoubtably involve a lot of tough, entreprenurial work – work that will go largely unsupported by the dying systems and institutions that are clawing for survival right now. Birthing a new society in the crumbling ruins of the old will not be easy.

But I believe we can do it. Time and again, older generations have asked us, “when will you grow up?” Now is the time to demonstrate that we aregrown – but that our adulthood does not conform to 20th century assumptions. We can model a responsible, sustainable adulthood that produces the fruits of justice: A society in which the poor are not crushed, the earth is not ravished, and there is meaningful work for everyone who is willing to contribute. The time has come to shake off the shame that we have lived under for so long and to embrace the power that is latent in our generation, if only we will choose to exercise it.

The Spirit of the One Percent

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12

Who is the One Percent, anyway? A recent article in the Washington Post sought to answer that question – not merely with statistics, but through interviews with DC-area folks who fall within the top 1% of the income range. In Washington, DC it takes an annual household income of $617,000 to qualify. With the charged debate taking place about income inequality and corporate power, the Post reports that, “Some local millionaires… feel unfairly targeted.” One wealthy individual characterized the Occupy movement as being, “one class of people driving another class of people against them… That’s the most anti-American thing you can do.”

I do not really know what qualifies as “American” or “anti-American,” nor am I sure that it matters. However, I do think it is worth asking another question: How does the langauge of 99% and 1% relate to our faith as followers of Jesus?

Does the language of 99% and 1% dehumanize the super-wealthy? It certainly seems to have that potential. During my involvement in the Occupy movement, I have heard people say hateful things about other groups of people – whether it be police, politicians or the One Percent. These expressions of hate and dismissal – treating others as irredeemable objects of frustration – are clearly out of line with my Christian faith. Jesus laid down his own life for those who hated and oppressed him, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am called to pray for those who persecute me.

At the same time, Jesus stood up against the predatory lenders of his day. He called out the abusive religious elites who lorded their status over others and took advantage of the poor. Jesus loved everyone he met – and he forgave those who were ready to receive forgiveness – but he did not give a free pass to those who neglected their responsibility to care for the needs of the poor. The truth is, those who had the most consistently rejected Jesus.

And yet, our struggle is not against the particular individuals that make up the wealthiest 1% of the United States. Demonizing other human beings and directing our anger at them does not address the underlying issues at work. Our fight is not with human beings, but with the dark forces that keep us all enmeshed in a system that develops our most twisted and selfish inclinations. Rather than choosing to hate the “one-percenters,” we must recognize that the spirit of the One Percent is alive within all of us.

Much of the economic elite does not believe that they are that well-off.  Many interviewed by the Post, “were quick to point out that, in an area with the country’s eighth-highest cost of living, they didn’t have as much left over for luxuries as those in the 99 percent might imagine.” One family described their lives as “typical, stereotypical… very normal, upper-middle-class…” Another interviewee said, “Once you pay for a house, a car and child care, it’s not that much money. … [We] feel like regular middle class people.” There are many, it seems, who are leading “very normal” lives in their “very normal” million-dollar homes.

When I read these interviews, I can barely contain my anger. How can they not see their own privilege? Do they not realize that most people in DC live on a tiny fraction of what they do? If their salaries feel like “not that much,” imagine what the rest of us feel like in this economy! It is easy for me to feel infuriated at these clueless rich folks. Until I realize: I am just like them.

My wife and I share a personal automobile. We own a house with running water, electricity, heating and air. We have internet access in our home, and we never go hungry. We have both been nurtured by relatively stable families, and we have never experienced the threat of war. Still, with our combined income, we often feel like we are just barely scraping by. DC is indeed a very expensive place to live. And yet, especially by national standards, we are in a better financial situation than many.

And then I think of my trip to East Africa last summer. I think of the material deprivation of rural Kenya. I remember the dirt floors. I recall that most meals there are simply ugali (sort of like grits) and greens – you are lucky to get protein once a day. I think about how between the members of my nuclear family we probably own more books than the library of Friends Theological College, the premier Quaker seminary in East Africa.

One of those interviewed by the Washington Post said that he already drives a Jaguar, but he does not consider that a sign of true wealth. His dream is to be able to, “drive by the Ferrari store and say, ‘I want that red one,’ and just buy it.” When I first read this, the man’s lack of perspective simply blew me away. How could he not see the obscenity of his greed?

But then, he became a mirror. How many times have I said to myself, “I wish I did not have to worry about money.” Me, with my house and a personal automobile. Me, with clean water to drink and a refrigerator full of food. Me, with access to good hospitals and skilled surgeons. Me, a citizen of the wealthiest empire the world has ever known. How silly is that? I worry about money.

I believe in the struggle for economic justice and grassroots democracy represented by the Occupy movement. I believe that the corruption of the wealthiest elites must be exposed and challenged. I believe that the poor and middle classes  – the 99% – must join together to push for a moral economy. Yet, I also recognize that our problems run far deeper than the personal failings of the economic elite. We are all caught up together in this culture of self-centered greed.

How can we take responsibility for our own participation in a culture that worships money and cultivates fear of deprivation? How can we root ourselves in the Spirit that frees us from greed and pride, hunger and fear? As we work together to forge a moral economy rooted in our faith as friends of Jesus, can we confess our own need for changed hearts and lives?

Foreclosure Resistance: An Answer to Prayer

Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
preserve me from violent men,
who have planned to trip up my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
and with cords they have spread a net;
beside the way they have set snares for me.
-Psalm 140:4-5

Bertina Jones lives in Bowie, Maryland, in a home that she purchased in 1997. She is a professional accountant and makes a liveable income. However, like millions of Americans, Bertina has been affected by the economic crisis. In 2008 she lost her job of 17 years and fell behind on her mortgage payments. Thankfully, she was able to find work again within several months.

Once Bertina had secured a new job, she contacted Bank of America and asked for a loan modification, and Bank of America eventually consented. The terms of the new agreement included an initial payment of over $12,000, and the reinstatement of regular monthly payments. Bertina paid Bank of America the huge lump sum, and resumed her regular payments. All the papers were signed, and everything seemed to be in order.

But Bertina’s nightmare had just begun. Though she had done everything that was asked of her, Bank of America repeatedly lost Bertina’s paperwork. Each month, she sent in her monthly mortgage payment, and whatever paperwork Bank of America asked for. Mysteriously, the bank always promptly cashed Bertina’s mortgage check – but they always “lost” her other paperwork.

I say to the Lord, You are my God;
give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord! […]
Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked;
do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted!
-Psalm 140:6,8
Bertina worked in good faith with Bank of America, dutifully filling out whatever paperwork they demanded from her, but it was always “lost.” Finally, one month, the bank returned her mortgage check to her. They informed her that her loan remodification was no longer valid. Bank of America was going to foreclose.
Bertina soon learned that her house had been put up for auction. Though she makes just enough money to be ineligible for legal aid, Bertina cannot afford a lawyer. She tried to resist the auction of her house, filing the legal paperwork herself. She spent her precious free time in the Annapolis law library, trying to figure out how she might prevent Bank of America from selling off her home, but her efforts were unsuccessful. The auction went through, and her home was sold out from under her.
I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.
-Psalm 140:12-13

Today, Bertina’s home is owned by Freddie Mac, an enormous, government-sponsored mortgage bank. While an eviction notice has not yet been issued, it could come any day. Bertina lives each day under the shadow of eviction, the possibility that the corporations that have already taken so much will rob her of everything she has left.

Bertina has worked hard her whole life. As a single mom, she has struggled in ways that many of us can only imagine to raise her family. Today, she is nurturing her adult children and their families, even while continuing to work as an accountant. Her home represents her life’s work. And as Bertina nears retirement, it also represents a possibility of aging with dignity. Everything is at stake.
Apparently out of options, all Bertina has left is prayer.
We’re not about to lose my home. I’m believing in God, to tell you the truth. – Bertina Jones
But God is responsive to the prayers of the oppressed. In recent days, Occupy Our Homes DC has partnered with Bertina to resist eviction and seek a just conclusion to this shameful chain of events. Bringing together citizen activists from across the DC metro area, we are standing together to ensure that Bertina is able to stay in her home.
The Occupy Church movement is throwing its weight behind the effort to resist unjust foreclosure. In some small way, we are seeking to be an answer to Bertina’s prayers – to become a concrete expression of God’s love for the poor, and for those who are having their lives torn apart by entrenched, systematized greed.
We are learning to put flesh and bone on our prayers. We are praying with our eyes, really seeing the damage that predatory banks are doing. We are praying with our lips, bearing witness to the way in which mechanized corporate greed is stealing people’s homes out from under them. We are praying with our feet, rallying to draw attention to Bertina’s situation – and, by extension, the suffering of thousands of families who are in a similar spot. We are praying with our whole bodies, preparing ourselves for the possibility that we may be called to physically stand in the way of this unjust order, defying the legalized theft of Bertina’s home.
How is God calling us to stand with those who are being exploited and marginalized by our economic systems? How can we be faithful to the mission of Jesus, who preaches good news for the poor, liberation of those in bondage and the forgiveness of debt? Do we hear the Spirit’s invitation to convert our prayers into action, demonstrating God’s love and justice in the world?