Richness for the Good?
For the majority of my time in ministry I’ve mainly worked with families and students who are abundantly blessed. In fact, I coined a phrase “silver-spoon ministry” in efforts to describe what it was like to minister to students of privilege – students that regularly received a brand new car for their 16th birthday, usually much nicer than the one I was driving. Silver-spoon ministry has it’s challenges for sure… and then one day, I started to look deeper into the Scriptures (and in turn my own heart) to discover if there was any possibility of harnessing materialism for the Kingdom. Could materialism somehow be for the good?
I’m no different than anyone out there really. We’ve all been subject to the indoctrination of the American Dream as an active or passive part of our education. It’s said many different ways: be self-sufficient, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, make a name for yourself, have it your way, get rich, get stuff… and as a result: be happy. And even though I learned early on lessons from Scripture to the contrary, the American Dream mantra is a tough one to overcome. Let’s face it, we do like stuff and we’ll do whatever it takes to get it so we can be happy.
But where this American Dream intersects with the Kingdom of God is of great interest to me and has recently been a place of great tension in my heart. Even in knowing that the American Dream has no power to save – and actually has the opposite power of destruction – we continually find ourselves lying prostrate before that idol in worship. And I am guilty of that. And over and over again in the Gospels we see encounters with the hurting, homelessness, poverty, outcasts, social injustice and the like. And there standing in the way of those encounters are selfishness, greed and materialism.
In the summer of 2005, I led a group of high school students to the second poorest country in this hemisphere: Nicaragua. I had never been to a third world country before and didn’t really know what to expect. One morning we loaded the bus to head to La Chureca – the city dump. I’ve written on it numerous times here before, so feel free to search through any of the summer archives here on this blog to read more. So in driving through the deplorable conditions of humanity that were living in abject poverty, I still knew that I would get on an airplane and return to the comforts of my home and American way of life. Or would I?
I returned not knowing what to do with the amount of “treasure” that my family and I possess. Things that seemed common like a vehicle for transportation, food in the pantry, clothes in the closet and clean, hot water for a shower and a bed to sleep in began to feel like a luxury. I didn’t dare venture to actually think of my “luxury” items. I thought that everything had to go. I didn’t know where to start. The American Dream started to look less like a dream and more like a nightmare.
The goal then became to try to understand how to live the Gospel in a world that I, and the students I seek to minister to, is riddled with narcissism, materialism, greed and entitlement. And those values are sought after and even rewarded. And then one day I came across a quote that read, “The most serious problem facing the church today is materialism – materialism not as a philosophical theory, but as a way of life.” And it isn’t going away anytime soon.
My initial inclination has always been to simply vilify this American Dream. And don’t jump too far ahead, because I intend in no way to excuse sins of greed, materialism, etc. that Scripture condemns. But I began to wonder if the American Dream could be rescued and renewed for the Kingdom? And so while I do my best to understand my wealth and resources from a global perspective and even strive to bring that understanding to my students… rather than getting stuck in guilt or moving towards manipulation… maybe the answer is a both/and. A rejection of the sinfulness and selfishness of the American Dream, while at the same time, an understanding that what we do find that we have (in our time, talent and particularly treasure) can be used in an amazing way for the Gospel around the world. I can do something about the children in La Chureca even if I can’t physically be there to help. God has resourced me well – and many around me – to finance the efforts of the Kingdom.
Then the gospel and our desire for live it out missionally moves from simply being about going, to being about going AND sending. How can we not only go and serve but also funnel our possessions into service devoted to God’s glory and advancing the Kingdom? So maybe the silver-spoon that looked problematic can be redeemed by removing it from our mouths and using it to feed someone else’s mouth! Now that’s richness for the good!