Matthew 6:19-34 and 7:7-12 – Money and Worry

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

7

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

This is a rather wonky way to break things up, but I think it is best to discuss these verses altogether, as it all boils down to worrying about what money can buy.  Everything I’ve read on these passages assumes a rather privileged position of already having that money.  I’ll admit, the first question that came to my mind was, “Is saving for retirement Christian?” What about those who aren’t able to save for anything, let alone retirement?  Those living paycheck to paycheck?  The very idea of Godly saving is kind of a moot point.  We’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the easy one.  Let’s assume that yes, you do have the money.  I know, I know, we could all use more money, but hey, if you’re able to save at all for retirement, or your kids’ college, or really for anything, that means your basic needs are being met, and you have the privilege and responsibility to wonder, “If I’m saving up my earthly treasures to buy more earthly treasures, doesn’t this mean I’m serving Money and not God?”

The answer comes down to attitudes. As discussed previously, God knows our secret hearts. The question is, do we?  I don’t think saving is inherently un-Christian.  In fact, there are other places in the Bible that praise a wise man’s stores, such as Proverbs 21:20: “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.”  Let’s look closer at the example of retirement, since that’s (supposed to be) our largest savings goal.  First, I see saving for retirement as an act of love towards my children: I do not want to be a financial burden unto them in my old age.  Second, I don’t plan on just kicking back on a beach and frittering the last thirty years of my life away.  Of course I want some rest, but I’m the kind of person that cannot be happy without a project.  What that project might be, I don’t know, but as retirement draws near, I’ll be looking for that thing that gives me purpose, that keeps me young.  Perhaps it will be as “small” as just being there for my family.  Perhaps it will be something “larger,” like becoming a CASA volunteer.  Whatever it is, having some money in the bank will allow me to take on a project that may be one the world needs, but not one that could pay me a living wage.  Do you want to do nothing other than drink beer and sit on a lounge chair in your retirement?  I’ll be honest, God didn’t make you for that, and the proof is in the pudding: retirees who give up “doing stuff,” if you will, lose their health, and, quite frankly, die faster.  This article sums up the myriad of studies that prove seniors with a sense of purpose live longer.  However, if you want the freedom to pursue a passion and continue making a positive impact on the world in your retirement, then no, saving for retirement is not turning away from serving God.

Now, let’s get to the real worrying.  Again, in the grand scheme of things, I’m guessing most of you, dear readers, have your basic needs being met.  Maybe not as comfortably as you might want, but they are being met.  That being said, who hasn’t worried, in a very tangible way, about having enough money?  I recognize my privilege in that.  Yes, we have debt I’d like to clear up, and I can’t make large – or really even medium – purchases without planning for them, but I can go through the grocery checkout without worrying if I need to put some things back.  You know how many people can’t do that?  But even from this place of relative privilege, I know viscerally what it feels like to not have enough.  Just this year, with the government shutdown in January, Chris and I were in very real danger of having to deplete our savings, max out our credit cards, and possibly shut down the farm.  It didn’t come to that, but we had some stark conversations about what no contract work (on which we still rely) would look like.  As it was, our finances still took a hit.  (Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t worry, we’re fine!) Our debt went up instead of down, and we had to skip a rent payment.

In trying times it is easy to forget to pray, but this is just when we need to pray the most.  And I believe God will come through for us – I have to.  It may not be as soon (or as much) as we would like, but Xe will.  We are Xyr children, and Xe wants to see us thrive.  This small slice of the Bible contains many of my favorite verses.  High on the list is this one:

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

God wants to provide for us, but even Jesus says we need to ask.  Let’s make a parenting analogy!  I have the capacity to get my kids just about anything they want for snack.  They probably want ice cream sandwiches and gingerale.  What I’m going to give them is pita and hummus and apple juice.  And I’m going to make them say “please, Mommy” when they ask me for more.  God has the capacity to provide us with anything, but Xe’s going to provide us with what we need.  Rest assured, even if it’s not exactly what you thought you were going to to get, Xe wants to see our needs met.

Also, not worrying does not mean we can just sit back and wait for the free blessings to rain down upon us.  “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus tells us.  “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  True, but they also spend their whole day in search of seed.  The birds are working, but in an in-the-moment sort of way.  One of my other favorite passages (one I need to remind myself of often) is this one:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Jesus isn’t telling us to not worry at all, but just to not worry needlessly.  Perhaps this whole passage could be summed up as: Do what work is in your power, pray for God to fill in the rest, and all will be well.  Simple to say, hard to do, but I have to believe it’s true.  Let’s look at my own personal example again, of how the government shutdown effected us.  Our debt went up, but now the farm is doing better than ever before, and we are slowly working it back down.  My side hustles look like they might start making some money in the not-too-distant future, too, something I never would have expected in January, so relief is on the horizon.  As for skipping a rent payment, we are fortunate enough to live in a house owned by my very generous father in law, and he made it clear to us that he did not expect rent that month.  Now, is any of this how I would have chosen to be provided for?  No, I would have had that money and then some in the bank so I could pay down the debt right then and not have to worry about relying upon the generosity of family, but that is how God chose to provide for me.  Who knows, maybe Xe did it exactly so I could write this blog post – to testify how I know what it’s like to have to pick which bills to pay, to worry about the money running out, to have to humble myself and ask for help from family.  And how even from that low point,  I was able to trust that God would provide for me, and that you can, too.

I can hear the doubters now: “So what about all the untold millions who have died throughout history waiting for God’s mercy, for God’s provision? Did they not pray hard enough? Did God not love them?” To be honest I don’t have a good answer, and it troubles me, deeply.  The only thing I can say to that is I believe this life is only temporary, and perhaps God provided for those mentioned in ways that we cannot see or comprehend – maybe even beyond the bounds of this life and this world.  This in no way excuses the evils that mankind can visit upon each other, or grants us immunity from trying to rectify those evils, but I must believe that there is something greater at work, and that those who have suffered have not suffered in vain, but are now with God, who wipes every tear away.

My closing plea is this: Just try it.  Try turning to God with your needs.  What can it possibly hurt?  I’m not asking you to stop working, saving, paying off your debt, or even to stop wanting the things you want. Really the only thing I’m asking you is to stop worrying, and that’s behavior that even non-religious people would agree is detrimental to one’s mental and even physical health.  I know it’s hard, and the results may not be exactly what you’d thought, but try praying for what you want, what you need.  Do it with an open heart, and with patience.  Seek God first, and the rest will fall into place.

Psalm 32 – What is Sin?

The greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Lent seems like a good time to have a discussion about sin, since we’re supposed to be doing a little spiritual cleansing in preparation for Jesus’ return.  But what, exactly, is sin?  I want to make absolutely clear that this is just my own opinion.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, a little praying about it, and minimal reading about it, other than Bible passages such as this one.  All that being said, let me give you my ideas on sin, repentance, and forgiveness:

In order to discuss sin, I think we first need to (re)establish what I see as the greatest purpose, the greatest commandment asked of Christians.  And that is unconditional love for each other.  In John 13:34 Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  I think all other commandments stem from this basic principle of love.  Resting on the Sabbath?  That is self-care, and when we take care of ourselves we can better care for others.  Honor thy mother and father?  Just another way of saying show filial love and respect.

So what is sin, then? It is a failure to love one another to the best of our ability.  So yes, we are all sinners, because we all fall short in that.  Personally, I fall short when I get frustrated with the kids, when I speak out of annoyance to my husband or parents, when I buy clothes without knowing where they’re made (because they could potentially come from unsafe or underpaid workers), when I don’t recycle (because poisoning the world with plastic is not an act of love for future generations).  As a society we fall short when we don’t welcome refugees clamoring for help, when we turn a blind eye to the harm we are doing to the earth that future generations will inherit, and when we deny the basic humanity of someone based on their skin color or because they pray differently than us.

So how do we repent, how do we change our ways?  It can seem futile, at first – one person cannot stop the all wars, pollution, and hate that is rampant in the world.  And even on a smaller level, we know that we ourselves can’t promise to never get frustrated, never get tired, and never give into less than loving impulses.  So what is even the point?  Let’s return to the parenting analogy I’m so fond of.  I want my girls to be the best they can be.  Just this week Marienne seems to be getting the point of “please” and Betty has been super helpful, cleaning up her playdough and putting her boots away.  My heart bursts with pride at these little accomplishments, and I do all I can to encourage that sort of behavior.  However, they also just today fought over a toy fish and had a hair pulling moment at the rice table.  I corrected them (redirecting for the hair pulling and a “reset,” which is like a pre-timeout, for the fish).  I was not pleased with that behavior, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them, or that I don’t think they’re capable of more good moments.  And that is how I think God must view us.  Of course Xe is going to get angry at us making a mess of the beautiful earth he has given us, for fighting with and oppressing our brothers and sisters. Xe may even punish us for it.  But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us, and think us capable of good.  Nothing melts my heart more than Betty’s little “sowwy, Mommy.”  That’s all we have to do, too.  Turn to God with a heart-felt apology, a vow to do better, and we are forgiven.  Yes, we will mess up, we will “sin,” if you will, but that’s only part of being human.  Xe expects that.  But we can do well by God by earnestly trying to be better.

I admit – acting out of love seems simple, but it can get murky.  There’s lots of different ideas of what is good or bad.  I probably let me two year old do more things than some parents (play outside under minimal supervision, taste the dog food, wear lipstick on her eyebrows) because I think that it’s a safe way to let her learn and grow.  I probably also let my two year old do less things than some parents (I’m still terrified of her eating nuts and lollipops, and I still can’t let her cry it out for more than a few minutes at night).  Am I a “bad” parent for sometimes too lenient or sometimes overprotective?  Some might argue I am, even though I think I’m acting from a place of love.  Scale that difference of opinion up to larger debates like deciding to go to war (are we really promoting democracy or are we propping up an oil friendly regime?), or climate change (are we hurting small business owners by imposing stricter environmental standards?) and you’ll find good people on every side of those opinions.  The important thing is to really search your heart and examine your actions, and if you find you are acting out of greed, distrust, or even laziness instead of love, then it may be time to change your course.

So to recap: the greatest commandment is to love one another.  The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  We can strive to act out of love all the time, but, being human, we will fail in that from time to time.  But God loves us with a love stronger and more pure than anything we can ever know, and because of that, no sin is beyond Xyr forgiveness.  It’s not a free pass – we need to keep trying to be better and not repeating our mistakes, just like my girls will keep getting time outs each time they bite each other.  But they will also be forgiven afterwards, and we, too, can always turn to God with a contrite heart, ready to be forgiven and start fresh.  Going into Holy Week, the last week of Lent, I encourage you to stop and examine your heart.  Is there anything that’s been bothering you lately?  If so, I encourage you to pray.  Pray to God for forgiveness, if you feel you need it, and pray that Xe will show you the path of love, and pray for the strength of spirit to follow it.  And then keep doing that any time you feel you stray, come up short, or “sin.”  God will always, always welcome you back, because God’s love is greater than any sin.

Job 09 – Including Nature in Christianity

To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

Then Job replied:

“Indeed, I know that this is true.
    But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
    they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
13 God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.

14 “How then can I dispute with him?
    How can I find words to argue with him?
15 Though I were innocent, I could not answer him;
    I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
16 Even if I summoned him and he responded,
    I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
17 He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason.
18 He would not let me catch my breath
    but would overwhelm me with misery.
19 If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
    And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
20 Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
    if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.

21 “Although I am blameless,
    I have no concern for myself;
    I despise my own life.
22 It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
23 When a scourge brings sudden death,
    he mocks the despair of the innocent.
24 When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
    he blindfolds its judges.
    If it is not he, then who is it?

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they fly away without a glimpse of joy.
26 They skim past like boats of papyrus,
    like eagles swooping down on their prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

32 “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
    that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to mediate between us,
    someone to bring us together,
34 someone to remove God’s rod from me,
    so that his terror would frighten me no more.
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him,
    but as it now stands with me, I cannot.

I once had a pastor who said she thought it was a shame that early Christianity was formed at a time and place where popular thought was enamored with the idea of a separation of body and soul.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with Plato arguing that that soul is immortal (he is not the first to do so, but probably is the most influential), it leads to a disconnect from the physical world. To paraphrase: Stoics believed the highest human achievement was rational thought; Epicureans believed one could only achieve the highest mental state through focusing on rational (instead of physical) pleasures; and Skeptics doubted anything that could be perceived through the senses – basically the whole natural world.  All of these early philosophies were focused on taking man beyond body and the experiences of the physical.  Nature became a second-class citizen.

Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, nature became something for man to dominate through conquering and rules.  This was the great age of exploration, where “new” worlds were discovered, colonized, and bent to the will of the ruling people.  As scientific thought became first less dangerous and then more popular, western society approached nature through rules and laws, and it became at best a system from which to take resources, at worst an adversary to be quelled.  Yes, nature was God’s creation, but one over which people (at least, the people in power) have total control to exploit and subvert at our own pleasure.

It makes some people uncomfortable to think about Christianity being prone to “influences,” but the truth is, it did not form in a bubble.  Jesus was a vocal critic of society in a time of great political tension. Yes, he came to save all mankind, but the problems of his day were searingly visceral as well as spiritual.  And the societal influences, as you can see from the previous two paragraphs, just continued from there, usually at the expense of nature’s influence on worship.  I will say that there has been a slow return towards a respect for nature as God’s creation.  Romanticism, in particular, held a mystic view of nature, and conservation efforts today help us recognize the finite beauty of the world, and our responsibility towards it.  But there are still those who are afraid of nature, afraid that by looking to nature we are introducing pagan practices to Christianity and polluting our Christian faith. Well, I have a news flash for anyone who believes that: Pagan practices have been a part of Christianity from the very beginning, so that ship has sailed.  Here’s a whole Wikipedia article, with a whole subset of links, that describe all the pagan practices currently in Christianity, if you don’t believe me.

The early authors of the Bible did not have a conflict of thought between God and Nature.  And it readily apparent in the Book of Job.  Clearly, God is the great creator of nature, and when we are in awe of nature, we are in awe of Xyr power.  To illustrate this point, I think a whole section of this chapter bears repeating:

He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.

I don’t think we should go out and pray to the trees, or the moon, or the sun.  They are all creations – glorious ones, but still just creations – of our almighty God.  But, does a mindful walk through the forest count as a prayer?  If done with intention, I think so.  Same goes for marveling at the beauty of a sunset, the vastness of the ocean, the delicateness of a butterfly.  I think it similar to admiring a painting.  When we admire a painting we are admiring the artist’s skill.  What artist wouldn’t want their painting admired?  To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

And then there’s the act of planting.  Planting, in particular, I find synonymous with prayer.  We plant a vegetable garden in the hopes of a bountiful harvest, or plant bulbs in the fall in the hopes for flowers in the spring. Even planting saplings in the hope of a timber harvest decades from now is a hopeful and even prayerful act: planting implies hope for the future, faith that God will carry us through to the next season.

Perhaps, if we all spend a little more time with nature – admiring it, respecting it, and caring for it – then we will be spending more time with God, too.