Following Christ mostly, or misplaced objections

Listening to the Day Ahead speakers, it occurred to me that we were focusing mostly on sacrificing time, energy, even the privacy of homes as professors who seek to serve students, but I heard little about issues of wealth. Jesus of course spoke over and over about issues of money but these concerns did not find a place at FC08 alongside stewardship and sacrificial usage of the other resources with which God has blessed us.

Are we then only mostly following Christ, or is this a call that is outside the sphere of university ministry? Am I adding a burden that is outside the full gospel, or is wealth simply not on the “radar” of most American Christians?

I ask these questions as I have wrestled with the transition from graduate student in the social sciences (not as rich as engineering or natural science students who actually earn money in the form of stipends for their schooling, yet not as poor as the language and literature students who have fewer scholarships available to them) to new professor making more than three times more money. I neither want to let money concerns be the guiding force in my life (such that I fail to cultivate campus friendships because many faculty socialize by eating out) nor do I want thoughtlessly settle into a middle class trajectory that does not question my use of money any more than it questions how I value time or energy.

What worried me at the conference was that we are very comfortable discussing issues of the correct philosophy or theology or intellectual approach to problems (after all we are intellectuals!) but I find myself much less comfortable delving into issues of money. That discomfort leads me to ask whether there is a stronghold of power and status that I am unwilling to relinquish.

Such questions have been strengthened in reading Day Ahead speaker Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta. Mother Teresa emphasized that full obedience to Christ, including living at the poverty level of poor Indians, leads to full freedom to follow Him wherever He leads. As American Christians, I would guess that we consume at the same level as our non-Christian friends, buying as much stuff, traveling as frequently to far-off vacations, and eating out at restaurants as often as others do. As American Christian academics, we do not seem to wrestle with the easy position of status and wealth accorded us.

What am I suggesting then?

Mother Teresa herself was not against enjoyment of all the fine things God has made available. A friend told me a story of Mother Teresa’s reaction to a young couple that planned to spend $500 on an evening of dinner and music. “Shouldn’t they give that money to the poor?” was the question put to Mother Teresa. No, but they should remember the poor, replied Mother Teresa, and give money (an equal sum?) as well to the poor as part of the night’s celebration. (How much richer the evening’s enjoyment might be, knowing that others are also being blessed at the same time!)

Mother Teresa was not advocating punishment or self-denial for its own sake. But I am suggesting that we raise questions about (and consider thoughtful alternatives to) how we use the money we’ve been given to steward. As another friend said, denying ourselves should occur because we want to experience more of Jesus, not because we want to fashion crosses for ourselves that the Lord has not asked us to carry.

If we are to deny ourselves materially (by living below far below our means or by giving away much of our income), the promise of Christian community is that we can share in the excitement and support each other in the struggle to live out a counter-cultural call to simplicity and sacrifice. Such denial is difficult, maybe impossible, to do alone but it is certainly less fun than if we share in the journey together.

Are these irrelevant objections, or are we only mostly following Christ?

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One Comment

    John Montague commented on January 3, 2009 Reply

    I think Carsten asks questions about which all Christians should be thinking. At the Day Ahead event “Exploring Privilege and Redeeming Power,” Michael Lindsay suggested Christians should consider living beneath their means as a form and a path to evangelism. Several other speakers at that event also touched on issues of how Christians should handle wealth. While issues of wealth may be most obvious for Christians in professions such as business or law, it would be a mistake to believe that other Christians should not be thinking about these questions.

    I think a life of material sacrifice is indeed a cross that Jesus wants us to bear. After all, he told those who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). And he warned, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). These sayings are not part of some philosophy that glorifies asceticism for the sake of asceticism. Rather, they are part of a gospel message that re-values the things of this world. As Jesus makes clear in the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matt. 13:45-46), a true understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven will cause us to not put the same weight on things that are valuable in this world. Rather, our attention will shift to “treasures in heaven.” A true understanding of the love of God is essential to being able to love our neighbor. This radical love of neighbor is also a necessary consequence of a true love of God (1 John 3:17).

    Finally, consider how the words of the author of Hebrews might apply to our situation: “By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God…. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:9-10;13-16).

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