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Monthly Archives: March 2006

My good friend Jimmy from Colorado posted a very thoughtful response to my last post, which leads to this revision/continuance of what I had talked about. To view his post, just scroll down and click on the comments to my last one. In summary, Jimmy made some great points about 1) how the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 suggests that what we do with our money matters more than what we have, 2) how Richard Foster wrote in “Celebration of Discipline” that God doesn’t want us to be either rich or poor (because the extremely poor can be just as preoccupied with money as the wealthy), 3) and the education of Paul is evidence that he came from a wealthy background. I’m sure that all of these ideas are true, but I still think we need to add a couple qualifications to them. While I think Jimmy is exactly right that God gives us economic blessings so that we may be blessings to others, I think there are subtle ways in which we often fail to use that money appropriately.

First think about it this way: in order to have wealth, you have to acquire it. Regardless of what one does with his/her money, doesn’t God also care about how that person got the money? Check out Deuteronomy 23:18: “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God to pay any vow, because the LORD your God detests them both.” (NIV). Obviously prostitution was then and is now considered to be immoral and offensive to God’s design of sexuality, hence profits made from that were not acceptable to God even if someone tried to present them as an offering to God. Now let’s apply this to today’s business world. Of course there are many perfectly honest companies and executives out there, but we know there are just as many who are not perfectly honest or faultless in their business ethics. If it is acceptable in God’s sight to possess wealth, does that hold true for people who made their money in the tobacco industry? Or the pornography industry? Or drugs? I have a feeling God detests those products like God detests prostitution. So what about companies that are economically immoral? Most people agree that sweatshops amount to cruel treatment of the workers. Would God approve of the wealth possessed by a person who made his/her money by marketing merchandise made in sweatshops? Furthermore, does God approve of us buying clothes that are made in sweatshops because we want to save the extra money to include in our tithe at church? The lines there are getting pretty blurry.

This leads to the second point: even if we received our wealth justly and honestly as a blessing from God, are there moral implications for how we go about preserving that wealth? Let’s use coffee as the example now. “Fair Trade” coffee hit the market after people read horror stories about the way workers on coffee plantations in Africa and South America were abused and not even paid enough to live on. (For more info, see http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/coffee/). If my need for caffeine forces me to buy cheap coffee and thus perpetuate the degradation of a worker in a third-world country, does God approve of that? I don’t think so. What if I need the coffee to stay awake to study for my seminary classes? I still don’t think God would approve. One of the core themes in the Old Testament Prophets is that economic exploitation is dishonoring to God. Therefore, while it may have been acceptable in God’s eyes then for people to possess some degree of wealth (the kings of Israel?), it wasn’t acceptable if that meant the oppression of others. Here is one final example that carries this idea one step further: God created the earth and said that it was good, and even though God gave us dominion over the earth, he probably didn’t intend for that dominion to lead destruction of his good Creation. When we buy food that was grown using pesticides that pollute the ground, we are polluting God’s Creation. When we buy other products that are made in a manner that demeans Creation, such as non-recycled/recyclable materials or gas-hogging vehicles, we are also polluting God’s good Creation. And why do we do these things? Because we love our money too much to pay the premium for a hybrid car or organic food. And of course this doesn’t even scratch the surface on the even larger issue of moral investment/divestment. If we put our savings in mutual funds or stocks that include companies that are unethical in their business practices, are we too not responsible for their sin? When Sharon Watkins, the Enron “whistle-blower”, gave a guest lecture here at Pittsburgh Seminary last Fall, she mentioned the fact that responsible investment is one of the only ways to hold unethical companies like Enron responsible. If we divest the savings we have in immoral companies and instead invest them in socially-responsible companies, we send the powerful message to business executives that we value people and morals more than just money and interest.

I write all these things realizing that I am far from perfect in living up to these standards. Most of the ideas I listed above are ones that I am only now beginning to explore in terms of actually making a difference in the way I live. But that is what it means to repent – when we realize we are in sin, we repent, turning the other direction and making a difference in our lives. In sharing these thoughts, I guess I am initiating the repentance process for myself, which for now may just be a heightened awareness of the impact my decisions make. The more people there are who have the awareness, though, the more people who will make a change in their lives, and that has the power to change our society.

Holy Lord God, please help us, though we fail to live up to Your perfection, to at least live in a way that pushes us ever closer to You. Forgive us our oppression of others, and grant us the ability to see the economic decisions we make through Your eyes. If You bless us with wealth, guide us by the power of the Holy Spirit to show us how to manage and use that wealth as You alone see fit. Amen.

“Rich or poor, God I want You more than anything that glitters in this world. Be my all, all consuming fire.” – Charlie Hall, All We Need

Rich or poor. Emphasis on poor. On the phone tonight I had a chance to catch up with my best friend from college who told me about his recent feelings of conviction about his own selfishness and materialism. Providentially, since getting married and moving to Pittsburgh, Eileen and I have tried to live our life here together in a non-materialistic way. Tried because we have not always succeeded – a la the deluxe coffee table we have courtesy of Eileen’s parents. But there have been some successes. For example, as I’m typing this, I’m wearing a shirt I bought at a thrift store and pants given to me by a friend. Beans and rice were lunch today. And after paying the copay at a doctor’s office today I was left with a grand total of ninety-five cents in my checking account.

At the beginning of the semester Professor Scott Sunquist frequently reminded our Church History 1 class about the continual importance of apostolic poverty for the early leaders of the church. Athanasius, St. Patrick, Columbanus, and many more boldly set the examples for what poverty meant in conjunction with the Gospel. At the same time as I was hearing this in class, Eileen and I were getting involved at The Open Door – the most unpretentious and genuine church I’ve ever attended. The sermons may not make a big deal about it, but it is obvious from the fact that we meet in a cold and drafty old church building currently under renovation that the community of The Open Door embodies more genuinely the virtues of apostolic poverty than any other non-monastic church I know. Add to that the connection with the intentional communities associated with the people of the Open Door who move into the poorer parts of the city for the sake of setting a Christ-like example for their neighbors. Perhaps that community is more sensitive to the riches of poverty because of their own personal experience as well: as a tangible reminder to pray for the concerns of people in the community at church a couple weeks ago, people were invited to write their personal prayer concerns on a rock which would then be taken home by another person who would commit to pray for that concern and person. Right now I’m looking at a rock that reads “failure, poverty, and debt”. I can relate to the debt – I graduated college with credit card debt and no job, and that debt was eventually only relieved by the generous wedding gifts we were given.

Perhaps this is why “debt” in the Calvinist tradition is so often used as a metaphor for sin: it is a pit we simply can’t get out of on our own. And just as in realizing our spiritual poverty we are forced to come to God for His gracious cancellation of our debts, our physical poverty in this life serves as a tangible reminder of our ever-present need to depend upon the Lord.

So where does this lead? To the lyrics of Derek Webb’s song, Rich Young Ruler. (http://www.derekwebb.com)

“Poverty is so hard to see when it’s only on your tv and twenty miles across town,
where we’re all living so good that we moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood,
where he’s hungry and not feeling so good from going through our trash.
He says, ‘More than just your cash and coin I want your time, I want your voice. I want the things you just can’t give me.’

So what must we do? Here in the west we want to follow You.
We speak the language and we keep all the rules (even a few we made up).
‘Come on and follow me, but sell your house, sell your SUV, sell your stocks, sell your security
and give it to the poor.’
‘What is this, hey what’s the deal? I don’t sleep around and I don’t steal.’
‘But I want the things you just can’t give me.
Because what you do to the least of these my brother’s, you have done it to me
because I want the things you just can’t give me.'”

May God grant us the grace and ability to live up to what these words suggest.

This morning I read some words of Jesus that really struck home for me. In Mark 10:29-30 (NASB) , Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.” To come to Pittsburgh, Eileen and I left behind all the friends we’d made in Boulder, CO, and our families in Colorado, Chicago, and Phoenix to come here so I could attend Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. At the time I didn’t think the distance from friends afamilyliy would affect me much – I seemed to believe that emotional attachments like that didn’t have as big an effect on me. Eileen took it harder, and even though she’s done a better job of keeping in touch with friends in Colorado, she still misses Boulder even more than I do.

Yet now we are anything but lonely here in Pittsburgh, and this past weekend testifies to how much our new family here has grown. Friday we had a St. Patrick’s Day party with friends from the seminary, the Open Door, and others, and we were blessed by the presence of every one of them in our apartment that evening. Saturday night BJ and Katrina Woodworth welcomed us to their house to hang out and chat, graciously including us in their family’s birthday festivities for BJ. Then last night at the Open Door, it really sank in how much the community there has become an essential part of our lives. As John Creasy preached about how we have been “adopted” into the family of God, I saw how that process becomes tangible in the new church communities we join.

Jesus is faithful, and his words are true. Of course that shouldn’t be a surprise, but it can be surprising at times to read in the Gospels something Jesus taught two-thousand years ago, and suddenly have it dawn on you how true it is in your own life. Praise be to God for the families we’ve been blessed with both at home and here in Pittsburgh. May God grant us the ability to continually live as a part of God’s family: “Jesus said to them, ‘My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.'” (Luke 8:21). Amen.

What do I mean by poesistheou? The inspiration for this blog title actually goes back to a class I took at the University of Colorado. One of my majors there was Creative Writing, and I remember a day where my poetry professor explained the etymology of the word poetry. Poetry has its root in the Greek word poesis, which means the process of doing, making, or being in action. When a person write poetry, he or she is using words as building blocks to create something, a linguistic work of art that acts upon the reader/listener. So, poetry is quite literally the process of doing language.

That said, as a seminary student who still tries to write poetry, I’ve noticed especially this year that there are some aspects of God that can only be described in poetry, song, or art. A professor here named Scott Sunquist likes to point out the importance in church history of people who “sing their theology”. As systematic as we make it, some things about God can’t be confined to black and white prose on a piece of paper. So one aspect of poesistheou is that it’s about dealing with God, thinking about God, talking about God, relating to God poetically, musically.

The other side of poesistheou is that because poesis basically means action, I want to try to be aware of God’s action in this world. As I’ve grown out of the shallow faith I had in high school, I’ve come to see that God is more at work in this tangible world around us than we can ever imagine. Being religious isn’t only about believing, it’s about acting on that belief. So, the idea of poesistheou ends up being not just how we think about and believe in God, but how we act. It includes how we interact with God, with other people, and how we see God acting in this world. God is real, active, and beautiful in ways that are beyond comprehension – that is what I mean by poesistheou.