It’s been cold here in Tennessee lately. Real cold. When I hopped in my car to go to the store I welcomed the heated seats, a luxury that I had at first spurned when I got this car a year ago. It just seemed so silly to me, an almost hedonistic option. But not as silly as the heated steering wheel – I mean, a couple miles down the road and I would be gripping a steering wheel that was a little too toasty. Plus, to light it off required going through the menu on the 9” touch screen, first the climate icon and then the icon that looked like a wheel on fire. A lot of work – a real first world problem if there ever was one. Which got me to thinking about real problems.
A few years back I started sending Bibles and tracts to a man in Cameroon, West Africa named Belmon Njong. Belmon is a classic evangelist who seizes every opportunity with whatever resources he has to spread the Gospel. Cameroon is one of those African nations that has a reasonable economy, they speak French and English and, in the cities at least, can expect modern conveniences like electricity. I don’t think my friend has a heated steering wheel but, judging by the climate, he probably doesn’t need one. Sending Bibles to Africa is an expensive proposition so I suggested I send money instead so he could buy more locally. Ultimately, I was surprised how little money Belmon needed to support his wife and children. An apartment, utilities and food together cost less than some of us spend on cable TV packages. Which is why supporting indigenous people for ministry makes sense.
A couple years back our neighbors, Clip and Mary Suddeth, gave up his sweet gig at a burgeoning Baptist church as education director to relocate to Panama. They did not speak Spanish. At all. So immersion training was required and, being first world born and raised, they needed a different level of living standard and, hence, more support. But the mission was legit – they were going to train leaders at local churches in discipleship programs so the folks that came to the church could grow and become a functioning part. Essentially, they needed middle-class American income to accomplish the task at hand – language school, a place to live, food for a family of three, an SUV to make it off the beaten path. In this case, supporting a well-educated sent American missionary made sense as there was not a man on the ground to do the job. And Clip doesn’t need a wheel on fire either, Panama being on the warm and humid side.
Two scenarios, one first world and one third world.
I pondered the stark differences in lifestyle and the money required to maintain the first world lifestyle over the economy of the third world lifestyle. And I think I was about to get caught up in a moment of Pharisaical indignation when I was reminded of the story of Jesus having dinner (the guests included Lazarus, recently returned from being dead) and Mary anointing him with very expensive perfume. I’m talking $20,000 worth. Look at the response:
Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”John 12:3-7
It is too easy to get caught up in what others do with their money, their time, their possessions. It’s even easier to rail against the uber-rich and their hoards of cash. It’s a lot harder to assess our own situation and decide what to do with the resources that we have control over. How best can I use my money, my time, my possessions?
I remember when my kids were in marching band. Now, high school is financially competitive enough but add a layer of band to it and suddenly us parents are shelling out more money each month then it would take to support, say, an evangelist in Cameroon. We did it because it was a good use of our money, time and resources to help our kids grow in certain areas, to build character, and to keep them out of trouble. But I remember one glaring episode that shows the absurdity of the obsession over what others have. We bought Camelback water systems, like many parents, so our little marchers could stay hydrated. It’s hot out there on the practice field, folks. And that was a fine solution until one year the packs were banned. Not for safety, not for any practical reason. But because not everyone could or would buy them. I can only guess that someone decided if every marcher couldn’t be equipped than none would. A fine Pharisaical moment.
We are not all born into the same set of circumstances. Some of us are rich, some of us are poor, most of us are in the middle somewhere. Even sometimes when we have it all and try our best there is no guarantee of success. Solomon, one of the richest men of his day, said it best:
I returned and saw under the sun that— The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.Ecclesiastes 9:11
It’s time and chance. Whatever situation you were born into, Cameroon or Tennessee, first world or third, heated wheel or no wheel, you need to make the best of your money, time and resources as befits your situation. Because it’s okay to be rich and it’s okay to be poor and it’s okay to be somewhere in the middle. But spending your time bemoaning the use of someone else’s money will get you nowhere.
And, as radical a thought as it might be, it’s okay to enjoy the lifestyle afforded you. There is nothing wrong or immoral or unfair about you using the money, time and resources you have to live the life you choose. Just be ready, like Mary, to pour it out if and when the time presents itself.
After a year with my new car I decided to embrace all the silly luxuries it offers me. After dinner at our friend’s house last night I remembered a feature that I have never used, a feature even more insane to me than a heated steering wheel. I pulled out my car remote, pushed two buttons and we waited inside while my car started and warmed itself up. It was also thoughtful enough to activate my heated seats and toast the steering wheel. (Did I mention it’s been cold lately?)
I am not going to feel weird or bad or guilty that I have more than some. I also am not going to feel bad about those that have more. I think the Avett Brothers sang it well:
Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
And when I lose my direction I’ll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I’ll be ready to surrender, and remember
Well we’re all in this together
If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die
The Avett Brothers/The Once and Future Carpenter