Finders Keepers

While in college, I was introduced to one of the most interesting places on the planet.  One weekend a month, a major clothing company would open a supply room of their store, accessed from the back of the building, for a first-come, first-serve shopping experience at highly discounted prices.  The first time my friends took me along, we arrived at 5am and there was already a line of people waiting in their camping chairs, rehearsing strategies as if they were on an apache helicopter touching down in an overgrown field somewhere.  It turned out I was not prepared for what came next.  As the clock struck six, two brown metal doors opened and a company employee handed me a garbage bag.  I thought to myself, “Why do I need this?  Do we have to clean up first?”  Just then the crowd literally pushed me through the door.  As my eyes adjusted to the lighting in the room, I found the very purpose for the bag in hand.  The room was filled with clothing – coats, vests, shirts, pants, some lined on tables by size and style, others thrown in bins or hanging on poles.  Instincts I didn’t even know I possessed kicked in, and I was off like a sprinter at the sound of a starter pistol, grabbing everything in site that I might be remotely interested in and stuffing it in the garbage bag.  This is not a place with fitting rooms or benches for the weary.  The strategy I would come to learn and pass on to others was the “grab and stash,” in which you grab as many things as you can (throwing elbows if you must), secure a corner of the room, and sort through the pile for the things you actually want to purchase while throwing the rest back to the vultures circling the room for leftovers.

I went back to this place several times during my college years, and each time there was this twisted hope as those brown metal doors began to open.  All of this can be mine. This is the voice of materialism.  We see something and we just have to have it because we don’t know what we would ever do without it.  We say things like “I’ve always wanted one of these” or “I don’t know how I’ve lived so long without one of this.”  It will make our life easier.  It will cause people to fall in love with us.  It will bring world peace to the darkest corners of the globe.  There is another voice, very similar to the first, which lurks just below the surface of materialism.    I’m pretty sure I heard it that day while I was stuffing clothing in a garbage bag like a bank robber stuffing a canvas sack with a dollar sign on the side.  All of this should be mine.  This is the voice of entitlement.  While materialism breeds a desire for more, entitlement convinces us it is our right.      

I remember a few years back, my wife and I had dinner at the home of some newly married friends of ours.  We hadn’t been to their house before, and so I was quite surprised to pull into the driveway of a brand new home.  Their house was bigger than our house.  Their backyard was larger than our yard.  Their refrigerator was shinier than our refrigerator.  As we pulled up to our house at the end of the night, I noticed our siding looked faded and the driveway had more cracks than when we had left earlier that evening.  I felt depressed and found myself thinking, it’s not fair.  I’m older.  I’ve been married longer.  I’ve worked harder.  They don’t deserve the better house. 

I do.

This is the voice of entitlement and it permeates all of society, including our churches.  This has not always been the case, however.  Just read the accounts of the first Jesus followers in the beginning chapters of the book of Acts.  As the message of the resurrected Christ spread throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding region, more and more people came to put their faith in Jesus and joined this new community. Luke gives us this description of those early days of the Jesus movement:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.  (Acts 4:32)

When the text says everything, it means everything.  Luke continues on to speak of new Jesus followers even bringing the deeds of their homes so that their property could be sold and the money distributed evenly.  The thought that they had a home and their new brother or sister didn’t was unacceptable.  In our society, this type of action would be considered outrageous, possibly even downright irresponsible.  You earned it.  You deserve that.   Let them get their own.

Thank God our heavenly Father doesn’t deal with us in this way, for we can do nothing to earn his favor.  We may come holding out our deeds or thinking our life circumstances certainly should earn us something, but God’s grace is not for sale.  It cannot be earned.  We cannot do enough to deserve it.  But here’s the crazy part – he gives it anyway.

Paul, a former church persecutor turned Jesus follower (who then went on to write most of the New Testament) was quick to remind us how little we have actually done to earn God’s grace.

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

While we were undeserving, God gave.  While we were incapable of earning, Jesus bled.  God’s grace is truly an unmerited gift, as is our entire life.  How much different would your life be if every day began as a gift instead of a right?  As the sunlight spills through the blinds and stirs you from your slumber, you become aware that you are indeed alive for a new day.  With a voice still heavy with sleep, you whisper to your heavenly Father, “Thank you for the gift.  It’s beautiful.”  You rise to live in the newness.  And as you stumble from the bed to your shaky feet, you take your first steps all over again.

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These Things Are Rarely Things [Materialism]

[This is a revision of a piece I wrote last year, hence the baby references of my youngest.  Otherwise, I thought it might be timely.  mb]

I said it again when I prayed tonight. I didn’t really mean to but it just slipped out, sort of like when you go into “sub-conscious prayer mode” and find yourself reciting phrases without really thinking about what you’re saying. Left unchecked, pretty soon you realize that you have just repeated to God the items you need to pick up at the grocery store tomorrow.  Embarrassing, I know, but anyhow I said it. I prayed “and thank you for all the things you have blessed me with.”

Which got me thinking how these “things” are rarely things.

I am writing this after the close of a truly spectacular autumn day. The magnificent yellows and oranges of the trees beg a second look. It is before such a backdrop that I was able to watch my blessings unfold. Today, it’s the sheer surprise and joy in my son’s eyes as he connected the bat with the ball in our backyard this afternoon. It’s my daughter’s silent expression of belonging as she plops down next to me on the couch. It’s our youngest’s unabashed raising of arms in the air in an effort to once and for all answer the “how big” question. It’s someone to share these precious days with. Family is my blessing today.

It’s funny how when answering the blessing question, my mind seldom visits the ideas of touch screen cell phones, flat screens, or designer jeans, and if it should happen to, it doesn’t stay long. That’s because these “things” are rarely things.

Sure, today I’m also thankful for meals and roofs and clothing, and each one of these is cause for thankfulness to our heavenly father, but I get the sense that when Jesus said not to worry about what you will eat or what will cover you, it was not simply about provision but also about priorities. Don’t get me wrong, my roof is great.  It keeps most of the rain out and most of the heat in, but for me today, it was more about what was going on under my roof that led me to be thankful. That is the “thing” I felt blessed by today.

I wonder what it is about the human heart that causes us to cling so tightly to things made of metal and plastic.  What makes us hunger so deeply for “stuff?”  With the commercials for Christmas already in full swing, you can’t help but feel somewhat un-American if you don’t spend the next two months in a mall somewhere living on a steady diet of Auntie Anne’s pretzels and lattes or if your guest room closet doesn’t resemble a squirrel nest just before winter.  I don’t mean to sound cynical, and I sure love giving and getting as much as the next person, but I just worry sometimes about the amount of stock we put into things that are just, well, things.  Beyond being “just things,” they simply don’t last.  They are temporary.  Fleeting.  They have their moment in the sun but it is truly that…a moment.  Just ask the beanie baby that was once enshrined in an air tight glass case with the name and number proudly in view about the transition to becoming the dog’s chew toy in the backyard.  Okay, so maybe don’t ask the beanie baby…but you get what I’m saying.  The allure of things is short-lived.  The next thing will be replaced by the next big thing which will give way to the next bigger thing.

I imagine at some point in time an eager friend calling another to excitedly announce “Hey man!  I just picked up my new Commodore 64 Computer.  This thing is beautiful!  The green tone of the screen is even more vibrant than in the pictures.  And it’s got 8 bits!  I don’t have a clue what a bit is but there are 8 of them!  That’s gotta mean something!”

I’m guessing it’s been a long time since the Commodore 64 has received that kind of attention.  Now, it’s a large paper weight- a huddled mass of metal and plastic taking up space in some corner of the basement alongside crusty paint cans and a salad shooter.  This is the temporary nature of things.

Over ten years ago, I was in a small impoverished village outside of Tiajuana, Mexico.  Houses made of tarps and cardboard.  Sewage running through the streets.  Barefoot children walking among trash and debris.  Though this was over a decade ago, I can vividly recall the joy in the faces of several young boys as they played with a discarded hubcap on the side of the road.  They tossed it back and forth, rolled it, spun it…you name it, they did it.  And they laughed.  Man, how they laughed.  I had come to teach a thing or two to these “poor people” and yet, I was the student that day, for back in the States, I had not one, but four hubcaps.  They were attached to my car which was parked in my driveway which led to my house that contained my bedroom that was filled with drawers and closets and boxes and dressers full of stuff.  Things.  Metal and plastic just like that hubcap, but better.  Nicer.  Newer.  More-er.  I had everything and yet they were the happy ones.  I was jealous of them.  I longed to be like them.  I get the sense that the joy in these kids was very much related to the fact that they had very little.  They had learned at a young age not to cling tightly to things simply because there was nothing there for them to cling to.  A hubcap brought joy but I would guess the joy was more about the running and throwing and laughing and less about the possession of an object, for they possessed very little.  Maybe a better way to put it is that they were possessed by very little.  They used the thing without it using them.  As quickly as they snatched them up, they could set things down and move on.

It’s been over ten years and I’m still trying to set things down.