Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rainy Days, Vaughan Roberts' "Life's Big Questions" and Prosperity and Possessions

French Onion and Cider Soup and the Eskimo Kissing BowlsChocolate ChunksHot Chocolate
When grey monsoon days sweep round, clearing schedules with their drenching and furious howling and bursts of lightning, it is for the luxury of french onion soup laced with leftover cider, and the unctuousness (her term not mine) of velvety beef stew laced with Guinness (not leftover) for some, and the oven-waft of bacon-and-spinach quiche and a throw-together of garden salad and cherry tomatoes for others, and, for all, for good thick hot chocolates studded with marshmellows, and snacky Jaffa cakes that speak of home in that other land, and sweet baked Granny Smiths with a core of melted marshmellows, and for saying "Hello, God!" without accidentally konking off, rudely in mid-conversation, from utter exhaustion.

(The story about actually having a Schedule is: after merrily and absently promising to meet up with two (and sometimes three (and sometimes four)) different sets of people on the same evening, each evening, for a whole fortnight, resulting in at least one tua a day, LS shook her head, decided to take things in hand and voilĂ !, there was a black Moleskine diary for an early Christmas present and for the encouragement (or at least, the non-discouragement) of others. LS is extremely proper and/but for this, we like LS.
Chocolate Cake
Also, as LS is extremely proper, LS bakes chocolate cakes from Pierre Hermé's "Chocolate Desserts", where a chocolate cake is not just any ole chocolate cake, mind, but, attention! attention please!, a "dark-as-midnight chocolate cake" or a "luxuriously soft, rich cake" whose "center remains ever so slightly wet". But that is another story.)

And the monsoon days, they are

for cats, yawning and stretching mightily, tickling you with their whiskers and favouring you with Eskimo kisses before settling down (exactly on top of your notes) to twitch in their sleep, dreaming perhaps of bobbing butterflies amongst the sunshine and grass (or maybe of the new creation).



for hot baths and sitting snug and smug, beneath the warm incandescent glow of a floor lamp, by the large bay-windows (where the browned leaves from sunny days past rush by and down the dark soaked street in the swift stream of rainwater, knowing if they shouted,"Tarry Ho!" as they swept past, you'd have the occasion to reply,"Pip pip and all that!") and messy upsidedown apple tarte tatins and hot tea and working quietly.
Apple Tarte Tatin
It is possible that this has been said many a time previously, but I will reiterate, that Vaughan Roberts is spot-on on, not all, but very many things. His "Life's Big Questions" is masterful in its (relative) conciseness. For instance, on wealth and possessions, he writes:
Materialism and consumerism
Materialists think that observable things are the only reality. They think this world is all there is, and live on the basis of that assumption. Materialism leads automatically to consumerism...

1. Pattern of the kingdom - money and possessions are good gifts from God
Some religions see god as entirely separate from the material realm and concerned only with the spiritual realm. As a result, god has little or nothing to say about how we should regard and use our money and possessions. But [Christians] cannot think like that when we remember how the Bible starts:"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). He is the Creator and owner of all things, spiritual and material. "The earth is the LORD's and everything in it" (Psalm 24:1). As a result, we should be both grateful and good stewards.

We should be grateful
Paul writes,"...everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving..." (1 Timothy 4:4). In the context of 1 Timothy, Paul is opposing some ascetics who denied themselves good pleasures, such as marriage and certain foods, and told others that they should not enjoy them either. But Paul insists that they are good gifts of a loving Creator, which he wants us to enjoy. God wants us to take pleasure in what he gives us...

We should be good stewards
Our house, computer, money and all we own belong to God and not us...we should consider not how much of our money we will give to God's work but how much of God's money we will keep for ourselves. One day we will have to stand before him and give an account of how we have used what he has entrusted to us (Luke 16:1-2).

2. The perished kingdom - money and possession can be spiritually dangerous
Money and possession are good gifts of God's creation but, now that sin has entered the world, they can be...dangerous...

Jesus told one young man,"Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Mark 10:21). But the young man was rich and, faced with a choice between his wealth and following Christ, he chose the former. Jesus does not give a general command to each of his followers to forsake possessions, but he does say to all of us,"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:24). We will have to decide which will come first...

"He who dies with the most toys wins." But such attitudes are idolatrous. There is only one God and we should live for him and not for anything in this world.

I have seen many keen young Christians lose their spiritual fervour as they get older. Often it is because they begin to worship money and possession. Their priorities gradually shift as their salary and mortgage increase, until Christ is relegated to second place in their lives, or even lower. We need to be on our guard against the idolatry of materialism.

Do not covet
The Bible never says,"Money is the root of all evil." As we have seen, money in itself is a good gift of God's creation and, even if it can lead to sin, there are plenty of other roots to evil. But Paul does write that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). He urges us to be content with what we have and not long for more...

A Christian who is relatively poor can allow bitterness and jealousy to creep in. She begins to feel resentful of the big houses, smart cars and expensive holidays enjoyed by others in the church. Instead of praising God for what she has, she complains about what she does not have. Another believer is comparatively rich, but he is never satisfied. Within days of settling into his first home he is dreaming of the next, with more bedrooms, a bigger garden and in a smarter area. He always wants more. Such discontentment can...lead to greed, jealousy, dishonesty and ingratitude and, in the end, it can lead away from Christ:"Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Timothy 6:10).

Do not hoard
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. (James 5:1-5) not condemning the rich simply because they are wealthy. There is nothing wrong with having wealth; everything depends on how we use it. James is provoked by the fact that these rich people have accumulated far more than they could ever use themselves, but instead of using the surplus for the good of others, they have let it rot...

Of course, it is right that we save, so that we can make provision for ourselves and our families, not just for now but in the future as well. But there comes a time when prudent saving, which is right and good, becomes selfish hoarding.

3. The promised kingdom - promise of material blessing
God tells Abraham,"To your offspring I will give this land" (Genesis 12:7). The blessings God promises will, at least partly, be material. God is not just concerned with our spirits. His promises encompass the whole of life.

4. The partial kingdom - justice and prosperity in the land
God fulfils his promise to Abraham and brings the people of Israel into the Promised Land. The land is then divided so that every family receives a share in its blessings. But they are not free to use their property entirely as they wish. The land is God's gift and they are responsible to him as his stewards for how they use it.

God's concern for justice
God's law was intended to ensure justice and fair distribution of the material lessing in the land. There is a concern to help the needy and to prevent an increasing gap between rich and poor. The land was to lie fallow in the Sabbath year. That law is motivated not just by ecological concerns but also by humanitarian ones:"...during the seventh year let the land lie unploughed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it" (Exodus 23:11). Legislation also requires that debts should be cancelled every seven years and Hebrew slaves freed (Exodus 21:1-11; Deuteronomy 15:1-18)...

How should we regard these Old Testament laws? The New Testament never commands us to obey them to the letter or to put pressure on our governments to enact them. They were designed to be implemented at a time when the people of God were a nation living in his land. We live in very different days since the coming of Christ. But, even if the specifics of these laws are not binding on us, the principles behind them certainly are. We should care for the poor and needy ourselves and also, in so far as we can, influence our governments to have the same concern both within the nation and throughout the world.

Is prosperity a reward for obedience?
God presents two possibilities to the Israelites as they are about to enter the land. If they disobey, they will be cursed and ultimately evicted from the land. But if they obey, they will be blessed. That blessing is described in material terms:"The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity - in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground - in the land he swore to your forefathers to give you" (Deuteronomy 28:11)...Such passages are quoted by proponents of the "prosperity gospel", who teach that God will ensure that we prosper materially if we are obedient to Christ...

The fulfilment of God's covenant promises to Abraham was tied to this world in the Old Testament. Blessing from God came largely from peace and prosperity in the land. But the New Testament makes it clear that that fulfilment is only partial. What the Israelites enjoyed in the land was a shadow of the substance we can receive in Christ. Whereas they received material prosperity in a physical place, we praise God,"who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3).

Christians are not promised material prosperity in this world. When some believers were imprisoned for their faith and had their property confiscated, the writer to the Hebrews did not tell them that if they obeyed God he would release them and return their possessions. He rather reminded them that they had "better and lasting possessions" (Hebrews 10:22-23). There will be an important physical element to the ultimate fulfilment of God's promises, but it will be in the new heavens and new earth when his people will enjoy prosperity in every sense for ever.

5. The prophesied kingdom - God's concern for justice
God is concerned not just with religious life of the Israelites, but also with their greed and injustice. Through the prophets he gives frequent condemnations of their disobedience of his command to care for the poor:
You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine. (Amos 5:11)
I will come near to you for judgement. I will be quick to testify against... those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me. (Malachi 3:5)

Many of us in the course of work face difficult decisions that affect others. Sometimes in this fallen world we may be forced to make a decision between the lesser of two evils. But we all need to remember that ultimately we are not accountable to our employers or the shareholders; we are accountable to God, who is more concerned about justice than about profit margins. The market does not rule; God does. His Word calls us to submit to his authority, not just in church, but in the office, in the boardrooms and in the marketplace.

6. The present kingdom - money and possessions will not last

Is poverty a spiritual advantage?
Luke records that Jesus' public ministry begins when he stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
[Jesus then claims that] he is the promised Messiah who has come to spread good news to the poor...he says,"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). Some conclude from these verses that poverty is a spiritual advantage...But the wider context of Luke's Gospel suggests that we misread these verses if we take them only in a literal way.

Jesus did give sight to the blind, but there is no record of his freeing prisoners from jail. He certainly had compassion on the poor...but he also saved rich tax-collectors...He was concerned about justice on earth, but that was not the chief aim of his mission. Above all, he wanted to rescue people, both rich and poor, from their sins so that they could be restored to a right relationship with his Father...

There is freedom for the oppressed and sight for the blind, but both are understood spiritually. We should understand the "poor" in Luke 4:18 and 6:20 in the same way.

The "poor" are the "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3), who recognise their helplessness and need before God, like David in the Psalms:"This poor man called and the LORD heard him" (Psalm 34:6). It may be that the materially poor are better placed to see how desperately they need God's help, whereas the rich are used to relying on their own resources; but poverty in itself does not guarantee spiritual blessing. God's kingdom advances when anyone, rich or poor, repents and believes in Christ.

"Moth and rust destroy"
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal". (Matthew 6:19-20)
Things in this world do not last...if we are wise, we will live not for this world but for the one to come. We will "seek first God's kingdom" (Matthew 6:33), which has broken into the present through the death and resurrection of Christ and will one day come in all its fullness when he returns.

7. The proclaimed kingdom - we should use our resources for this world and the next
We live in the last days after God's kingdom has been inaugurated in Christ, but before it has fully come. We are citizens of heaven who are called to have our eyes focused on the new creation that Christ will establish when he returns. But, meanwhile, we must live on earth in this fallen world. These two foci of our existence are reflected in the New Testament's teaching about how we should use the resources that God has given us.

We should provide for ourselves and our families
"If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). It is obviously right that those who are unable to work, because of incapacity or a lack of jobs, should be supported by others, but the general principle is that we should earn money to provide for our own needs.

We are also commanded to support our families. Paul writes,"If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8)...

But what does "support" mean? What standard of living should we aspire to for ourselves and our families? Should Christians simply cover the bare necessities and give the rest away or is it justifiable to aim higher than that? Should we make do with a terraced house, caravan holidays, a clapped-out old car and state education for the children; or can we justify a detached cottage, exotic holidays, a brand new sports car and private school education? There is no chapter in the Bible that gives us detailed instructions about exactly how we should spend our money. It simply gives us principles and then leaves us with the responsibility of applying them. In doing so we should resist the temptation to judge others; we are each accountable to God.

I will limit myself to one of the Bible's principles: sufficiency. It is well-expressed by Agur in Proverbs:
...give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise I may have too much and disown you
and say "Who is the LORD?"
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God (Proverbs 30:8-9)
His chief concern is godliness and, for that reason, he is nervous of the extremes of both poverty and riches...

We should pay taxes
Jesus said,"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's (Matthew 22:21). Caesar does not have the right to demand worship, but he does have the right to levy taxes. Paul writes,"Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue" (Romans 13:7). Christians are not to be dishonest or search for loopholes, but should rather gladly pay our taxes in full.

We should provide for the needy
As we have seen already, concern for the poor is an important theme throughout the Bible. It remains a responsibility for Christians. Paul tells the Galatians," we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Galatians 6:10). We should be concerned for all people, but above all we should care for those within the family of the church...

We should support gospel work
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says,"Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain" and "The worker deserves his wages". (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

Paul chose not to receive financial support from Christians but to work as a tentmaker instead, to avoid the accusation that he preached only to make money. However, he insisted that he did have the right to such payment (1 Corinthians 9:3-12), and he expected churches to provide it for others. As the ox should be able to benefit from its labour, so should gospel workers. They should be freed from the necessity of earning a living by the generous giving of Christian people. That enables them to concentrate on their work without distraction.

8. The perfected kingdom - true prosperity for ever
Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17)
The struggles of this life will not continue for ever. When Christ returns, he will remove all that spoils life on earth. There will be no more poverty or injustice. All his people will enjoy eternal life in the perfect new creation. The Lamb who was slain for us will be the shepherd who provides for us in every way, both materially and spiritually.
And in the morning, the fresh clean air is for a smooth 5km run and then a stack of strawberries and muesli and yoghurt for breakfast. In the afternoon, another thunderstorm, for a leisurely game of tennis in the evening and supper at Keong Saik Road after.
Supper at Keong Saik
Yay weather! Yay earth and sky! Yay body! Yay health! Yay food! Yay friends! Yay God who gives us good things! But even when the weather's mad and the body breaks down and our health fails and food is tasteless and friends let us down and (if we are a Certain Cat) humans insist on tickling our tummies when we're trying to get some shuteye, yay God who gave us his Son, that in the present in this world, we can know him and live as his good stewards and his agents, and in the future in the new creation, delight in Him forever.



At December 06, 2006 4:43 pm , Blogger The Hedonese said...

Amen and amen! Let's dare to dream of being the embodiment of God's kingdom on earth in the present, awaiting its final consummation is word and deed, in proclaiming the gospel and demonstrating compassion for the poor. The religion James spoke of that is pure and undefiled :)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home