I recently watched a very thought-provoking video lecture entitled The Story of Stuff. In her presentation, Annie Leonard, who is an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues, explores the impact of consumerism and materialism on global economies and international health. She talks about the North American practices of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal and at the end, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that we have to start changing the way that we think about how we are using [and disposing of] the earth’s natural and human resources.
We cannot just keep thinking about ourselves only and what the drives of self-centred greed, pleasure and pride demand be provided for us here and now! [e.g. Her discussion of our unconscious buy-in to “planned obsolescence” and “perceived obsolescence” gets to the heart of the issue.] Life is not about us only. There are others who share the planet with us and there are generations that will follow us if the Lord continues to tarry. Most of all, the earth is the Lord’s!! Have a look at Leonard’s talk at: www.storyofstuff.com and you’ll see what I mean.
I bring this up because what Leonard talks about on a big scale gives a perfect backdrop for considering this edition’s topic of managing personal and church finances. We are thinking about the story of how we manage “our stuff” at home and “our stuff” as congregations. The truth of the matter though, is that unless we are in touch with the underlying attitudes in our hearts, and the conscious and unconscious values we hold, we can have efficient budgets and great management strategies and at the end of our lives discover that we have been on a vector that has taken us far off the mark of God’s intentions.
So let’s start there. What is at the heart of God’s intention for His creation – especially that part of it that He has endued with a conscience and a will capable of making choices, meaning you and me? In 2 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul talks with his friends about how they are managing their “stuff.” He leads into this by talking to them about the amazing freedom of their very poor brothers and sisters in the Macedonian churches and then he writes: “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:8 NIV
The Macedonians had figured something out as they lived every day in real and extreme poverty. As followers of the Lord Jesus, they had come to understand that He came to earth with a “healthy mindset of chosen poverty.” This was not because there is innate nobility in being poor, but because such a chosen way of thinking gives freedom from self centredness, gives release to the resources of one’s life and unleashes reserves to help others.
This “healthy mindset of chosen poverty” knows how to say a firm “No” to what’s not important so that one can say a loud “Yes” with deep conviction to what really matters now and what will matter in the future that stretches past the end of one’s life all the way into eternity. This is the heart of godly grace and living graciously. I know poor people (and churches) who live in stifling bondage because they do not understand this. And, I know people (and churches) “of means” who, in spite of the abundance of what they have, live with a wonderful, detached freedom. In short, it is not about how much you have; it is how you think about what you have.
It is clear that the apostle Paul understood this. He told the Philippians (one of the Macedonian churches that he was telling the Corinthians about) that he had learned to be content whatever the circumstances. He knew what it is to be in need and what it is to have plenty, and he had learned the secret of being content in any and every situation (Philippians 4:11-12). In other words, he was not distracted by what he did not have or worried about how to safely hoard what he did have. He was following Jesus’ gracious example of living with this “healthy mindset of chosen poverty.” Read on to see what he says about the freedom the Macedonian believers had as they made choices about their “stuff,” meager as it was.
“And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.”
2 Corinthians 8:1-5 (NIV)
So what would be some guiding principles for managing the “stuff” we have and get as churches and individuals? How about these?
• Understand that poverty can be nothing more than a mindset that craves things, pleasures and convenience.
• Be aware that poverty can be an illusion created by a materialistic culture.
• Root the values that inform your choices in the lifestyle Jesus lived and make what is important to Him, important to you.
There is nothing innately noble about poverty, but there is wonderful freedom in “a healthy mindset of chosen poverty.” Ask the Macedonians. Ask the apostle Paul. Ask the Lord Jesus.