Rust and sweat: Making money and the slavery of things

My father always told me that work wasn’t about having fun or making money; it was about being of service to people. That’s a very godly perspective to have, and I try to keep that attitude, but my dad actually made good money doing what he did, and I, well, I have always made enough, but never much more.

Possibly because of my horribly misspent youth, or maybe there were other mysteries at play, it took me quite a while to find a viable career path, as they say in books about such things. Through experiences, the suggestions of others, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, I finally concluded that I should be a teacher.

In order to do that, I reluctantly entered graduate school. By God’s grace and through the unfailing support of my wife and parents, I obtained the education needed to become a certified teacher.

An instructor’s pay isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. At this point in my career, I make a fairly respectable income, though not as much as some who are my age with my level of education.

Unfortunately, I was almost a decade older than the typical graduate when I became a first-year teacher, near the bottom of the pay scale with a pregnant wife and facing responsibilities beyond those of most beginning educators.

My wife was content to live in a very used trailer that first year, and she did an amazing job stretching my salary to meet our needs. To quote Bob Dylan, Linda’s “a God-fearing woman I can easily afford.”

During my second year of teaching, we managed to buy a small but brand new house in a development. About 80 residences on one-acre lots were built in the midst of cornfields and woods, and living there has been something like being in the country without the isolation, or maybe it has been more like living in the suburbs without as much convenience.

Up and down our street, families moved in, and they obviously spent money. Neighbors showed us their ongoing projects: finished basements, upgraded flooring, sunrooms, professional landscaping, and other improvements.

My wife and I did what we could afford and didn’t really worry about it much because we had our priorities in mind: I was teaching, and my wife was staying at home to raise our daughter. We also planned to have more children.

After supper, Linda and I would chat while pushing our daughter in a stroller, passing our neighbors and waving, sometimes stopping to talk. When we first met one couple, they had a little one in a stroller, just like we did, so conversation came easily. Eventually, the woman asked my wife what she did, and with some veiled embarrassment, Linda revealed that she stayed with our daughter and wasn’t working outside of the home.

The woman sighed, one of those genuine, protracted, groans of remorse. “I wish I could do that,” she said. “But we just can’t afford it.”

I felt sad for her, but by then we were in front of their home, which was the same model as mine, only they had a completely finished basement. Mine was nothing more than bare cinderblock walls and a cement floor, waiting for the time when we really needed to finish the space.

Two new cars were parked in their freshly paved driveway. We did have a fairly decent little Ford Escort wagon parked on our gravel, but I was driving a rusty Dodge Colt to work every day.

I felt sad for that woman because she desired the freedom to do what she really wanted to do, but she apparently hadn’t discovered that our belongings have a way of enslaving us and cutting back our options. There was no way I could have become a teacher, and my wife couldn’t have stayed home with our kids if we had been paying off cars and a hefty mortgage.

Everything we own requires labor to acquire and even more to maintain, and that takes up our precious time. We can always make more money, but we can never make more time. Consequently, I’m not a big fan of things.


Trump, the Falwells, and culture wars

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the largest evangelical college in the world, Liberty University, has not only endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential primaries, but has also actively campaigned for him. I can understand that some of my brothers and sisters in the faith see Trump as an alternative to something worse, though I beg to differ with their views.

What I can’t fathom, though, is enthusiasm for a man who seems the Sermon on the Mount’s antithesis. Trump is brash, arrogant, and at times downright crude. His speech regarding migrants, refugees, immigrants, the poor, and the downtrodden in general has been spiked with contempt.

Of course, he is a successful businessman, and maybe that gives him some credentials for leadership, but much of his money was made in ways that don’t exactly resonate with Christian virtue. The man is best known for his reality television shows and casinos that feature not only gambling, but strip clubs, too. Dig a little deeper, and one finds his business style is marked by an uncharitable degree of egotism, bullying, and ruthlessness.

Unfortunately, American Christians are easily manipulated. Way back when Jerry Falwell Jr’s father was first coming to national prominence, touting something called the Moral Majority, American Christians were led into a culture war. Many believed that our country was falling away from its Christian roots, and the “majority” needed to stand up and make its voice heard.

Reclaiming our alleged spiritual heritage and gaining political clout was supposed to bring revival to this depraved land. We backed candidates who gave lip service to ending abortion and other moral causes, and too many Christians became single-issue voters in an increasing complex political world.

We wound up losing the culture war anyway. Not only has abortion continued to be legal, but gay marriage is now the law of the land. In the meantime, our own churches are rife with sexual immorality, divorce, scandal, materialism, and greed. America doesn’t need a new type of politician to implement reform from the top down; our country needs average Christians who truly believe Jesus is Lord and live their lives accordingly, which could transform society from the bottom up.

Back in the 80s when the Moral Majority was flexing its muscle, I was part of a campus ministry at the University of Maryland. When I tried to share the gospel of Christ with a particular student, he completely dismissed the message, vehemently proclaiming that the church was a hypocritical institution with a political agenda.

I told a brother who was with me at the time, that if real persecution came to Christians in America, it wouldn’t be because of our faith in Jesus, but because of our political allegiances.

I hope I wasn’t right about that.



The unreality of music and media

Most music and other media is mere “product” that  we consume, disposable and serving no function except to entertain us. There is a place for entertainment because God does give us all kinds of good things to enjoy, but entertainment is primarily an escape from reality that gives us no real benefits or insights. Most novels, virtually all television shows and movies, and music as well, present us with non-reality, absurdly idealized versions of life.

In the little worlds created by these art forms, life is rarely dull. Violence is engagingly brutal, romance—or at least sex–is abundant, and virtually no one is seen actually working a real job, changing a child’s diapers, or doing the other myriad and mundane tasks that are part of reality.

Such an overload of unreality can distort our thinking. A lot of us aren’t beautiful like the people on the big screen. We don’t all live in big houses and drive cool cars. Love doesn’t always feel the way it is portrayed in a song. Life simply doesn’t resolve like television episodes.

Worst of all, most of what we see and hear is godless. By this, I don’t mean it’s necessarily immoral or heathenish or overtly gross, but the microcosms we enter in popular media do not acknowledge the existence of God. He is simply not part of that world.

I can remember sitting in my parent’s house as a young man, terribly challenged by the example of the young, zealous Christians I was meeting, and as I watched a sitcom, I had a distinct thought: “These people aren’t fanatical about God, and they’re normal.” I was no dummy. I knew I was watching TV, and the people were actors spouting lines by writers, yet I considered this God-vacant representation as “normal.”

Christians have reacted to all this godlessness by producing their own media, and the world therein is not exactly real, either. Often, it is just as escapist as anything produced in Hollywood, a distortion of reality where there is no ambiguity or mystery and everything fits neatly within our theologies. Highly speculative dramas about the end of the world, quaint little neighborhood narratives where parishioners seek the wise clergyman’s advise, prairie epics where settlers are monolithically brave and pure and virtuous—the unrealistic scenarios go on and on.

Even worse than being escapist, some cross another line and are unvarnished propaganda that seeks to persuade an audience that their rather skewed and simplified views of God and man and religion are the truth. But they aren’t.


Theology and its limitations: Part two

Getting too analytical and taking everything apart for examination can cause us to lose perspective. I’ve had wonderful friendships with Reformed Presbyterians as well as Free Will Baptists. Having hung out with both camps, I know that in reality they agree on much more than they disagree about, and I have learned much from their own peculiar doctrines, even if they do have different ideas about what election, predestination, and perseverance mean.

On one hand, Reformed thinking taken to its extremes casts God as some sort of dictator who picks and chooses who goes to hell, and he pretty much micromanages all the goings on in this crazy world, both good and bad. On the other hand, when we take Arminianism (that’s the fancy word for the free-will side of the issue) and really run with it, we can make God seem impotent, hamstrung by man’s feebleness, and our own salvation can be a rather tentative arrangement.

Now, the theologians out there will argue that I’m oversimplifying their concepts, which I deliberately am just to make a point, or that I am completely misunderstanding them, or that I’m simply an idiot. Perhaps I am an idiot, but I am God’s idiot, and I have delved into various theologies pretty extensively. On points where they are polarized against one another, opposing camps have their Bible verses lined up, and they have their explanations for what they believe.

I choose to cling to what is precious and plain and simply let God keep some of the details to Himself. The Apostle Paul wrote down many of the very ideas all these divergent theologians use for their doctrines, but even he knew that he didn’t have everything sized up completely by exclaiming in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable are His ways!”

While I may sound like a mush-headed mystic, I want you to know that I’m not at all against theology. We all need some of it, to be sure. Certain truths must be taught, guarded closely, and defended passionately, but beyond these nearly universal basics of the faith held by most Christians, their apparently divergent theologies are mere lenses through which we may view reality.

We can certainly glean insights from many different theological constructs, but like any lens by which we view truth, each has its limits. I can use a microscope to see strange organisms swimming in my spit on a glass slide, or I can use binoculars to spot a deer I wouldn’t otherwise notice in a grove of trees, or I can use a telescope to view Saturn’s rings, but these tools can’t be used interchangeably, and they don’t help me one bit if I’m trying to tell my wife how her makeup looks before we go out on a date. Sometimes it’s simply best to use what God has given directly–His written Word and His Holy Spirit–and leave everything else alone.

Granted, the Bible can be hard to understand, and the Holy Spirit, or rather our perception of His work, is rather subjective, and that is where the theology guys start arguing their worth. Still, I can’t escape the fact that I’ve known and loved people with rather diverse theologies who all loved and served God well, nor can I escape the conviction that no single theological approach can answer all our questions. Much, we simply must leave to God.


People are put off by the Bible

People often read the Bible and are put off, primarily because they expect the book to be something it’s not. Folks want inspiration, comfort, or self-improvement, but they fail to realize that above all else, the Bible is a book about relationships and reality.

Some readers get quite distressed when they find that some men of God had multiple wives and still slept with people other than those women. Supposedly godly people arranged murders, raised rebellious children, killed multitudes in acts of war, owned slaves, constructed elaborate lies, engaged in deliberate acts of deception, and generally acted in less than exemplary ways. These biblical figures aren’t intended to be examples, at least not of perfection or godliness. They are, however, flesh and blood portraits of people caught up in life; sometimes they were walking closely with God, and sometimes they weren’t.

Christians like to say that the Word of God is perfect, and it does perfectly reveal man’s imperfections. There are honest psalms where, besides offering praise to God, the speaker seems to crave vengeance or arrogantly compare himself to other people, and one even blesses those who bash the babies of the psalmist’s enemies against rocks (Psalm 137:9).

Does all this really demonstrate God’s perfection? Jesus Himself said at least a portion of God’s perfect word reflected not so much His perfection as man’s lack thereof when he told the Pharisees that part of the laws concerning divorce were written because of man’s “hardness of heart” and not because of God’s perfect will, which always has been for one man and woman to cleave to one another (Matthew 19:7-9).

I Corinthians 13:9 indicates, “We know in part and prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, they will be done away.” Some of my non-Charismatic friends interpret this to mean that when the Bible was assembled, we no longer needed certain gifts like tongues and prophecy, but I beg to differ with them. The “perfect” refers not to the Bible, but to Christ Himself. A few verses later, Paul, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “Now we see in a mirror, but then face to face; now I know in part, then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known” (13:12).

At some point, we will see Jesus face to face, and when that day comes, we will have full knowledge. Until that time, we have a collection of writings inspired by God’s own Spirit that can be misinterpreted, mistranslated, and used in deceitful ways, but that doesn’t invalidate them in the least. For thousands of years, God’s people have used these written words as a standard against which they can measure their thoughts and experiences, and we do well to consider these writings as nothing less than completely relevant.


Bible reading keeps me on track

I’ve read the entire Bible one or more times in the following versions: King James, New American Standard, Living Bible, The Message, The Way, Contemporary English Version, New International Version and the English Standard Version. Additionally, I have read the entire New Testament scores or maybe hundreds of times in an even greater number of translations and paraphrases, and the same is true for Psalms and Proverbs. I don’t say any of this to brag, but rather to give some hope and perspective.

First of all, a little Bible reading a day really adds up. There have been times when I’ve sat for long periods with a Bible in front of me, but mostly I read just a chapter or two, sometimes in more than one session each day. In truth, it’s usually better not to read very much, but rather to read a little as deeply as possible.

If we cover too much too fast, we don’t really understand what’s there. I remember once reading Philippians 4:4-20 over and over for about a week because I felt there was much in those verses that I needed to absorb, embody, and live out. I’m sure that I still have much to learn from that small section of the Bible, but eventually I moved on and found other passages to ponder, pray about, and incorporate into my life.

Secondly, and most importantly, I’m sure all that Bible reading has kept me pretty much on the right road for all these years. It has saved me from making horrible mistakes, given me the insight to do things right, and it has helped keep me in the faith when many of my contemporaries have strayed.

Even though I’ve spent much of my life as an English teacher, and I’m a real book guy, I’m convinced that the Bible is the only book everyone needs to read. Sure, works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner and all those others teachers have badgered kids about can be profitable, but the only thing all of us really need is the Bible.

Too often people read little devotionals or other Christian books that have some nice thoughts with a little Scripture and neglect the Bible itself. It is the most influential book in the history of world, so a thinking person should know what it says, and a serious seeker of God should read it widely. That means we should read whole books of the Bible, the entire New Testament, and eventually the Old Testament with all its strange stories, lists of dead people, obscure laws, and seemingly repetitious prophecies.

We should also read it deeply, focusing within those pages on verses and small sections while really thinking, praying, and listening to the Holy Spirit, so we can know what those words really mean. If we don’t do this for ourselves, others may try to do it for us, and that isn’t always a good thing.

I’m convinced that reading the Bible for myself and seeking to know its wisdom has protected me from cultists knocking on my door, charlatans and lunatics on television, good friends parroting various deceptions, and well-intentioned church leaders who simply didn’t know what they were talking about.

Oh, and best of all, the Bible has delivered me from my own ignorance and deception. When you get right down to it, we don’t really need others to lead us astray. We do a good enough job of it on our own.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches


Sin, Slavery, and Freedom

People talk about the freedom that is found in Christ, and like many spiritual truths presented in America, this freedom is too often seen as something granted instantaneously. Usually, it isn’t. Jesus said that if we “abide in His Word,” and that’s a process, we will “know the truth and the truth will make us free” (John 8:31-32). Some of this freedom is an objective present fact. In Christ, we are already free from the penalty of sin and have the liberty to know God.

The greater reality of this freedom grows as we know more and more of Him and His ways, but ultimately, this freedom will only be realized fully in the life to come. The freedom addressed in Scripture is freedom from sin, not freedom to do whatever we want, which is really another form of bondage.

For centuries, oppressors have used the Bible to justify human slavery. I’ve looked myself, and I don’t think this is the case. The Bible does not condone any institution of slavery, but rather simply recognizes that people are enslaved at various levels. Some of us are literally slaves owned like property by others, others are slaves to bosses and jobs, and many are slaves to their own self-centeredness. In essence, we are all slaves.

Paul put it in perspective when he stated, “He who was called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freeman; likewise he who was called while free is the Lord’s slave” (I Corinthians 7:22). The spiritual realm is our great equalizer.

As Bob Dylan sang, “It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you’re gonna’ have to serve somebody.” We have a choice to make, and unless we are slaves of Christ, we will have a harsh taskmaster, regardless of our station in this earthly life.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches