These days, we find ourselves relating to this parable as we consider our financial situations in light of the mortgage crisis, the banking crisis and the stock crisis. We wonder how to make ends meet when our 401k has become a 101k.
A friend forwarded me an article from the New York Times by Michael Kinsey that I found to be especially enlightening. What if we consumers all wake up one day and agree that we have enough stuff? This is not the kind of consumer confidence that the retail industry is counting on. Kinsey writes:
What do they want from us, anyway? Without consumers to lead the charge, an economic recovery will be hard to achieve. And yet everyone agrees that we need to start saving more. So should I buy that coffee maker to stimulate the economy? Or should I save the money in order to “grow” the economy and provide for my own old age? I can’t do both.
This is the dilemma that 30 years of Reaganomics (the real Reaganomics — keeping the economy overstimulated with huge deficits and irresponsible consumer borrowing — not the fantasy Reaganomics of government run like a family and tax cuts that pay for themselves) has left us with. So what do we do?
The nearest thing to an actual plan seems to be something like this: stimulate first, to avert various short-term disasters, and then — at some signal from the Treasury Department — turn around and start saving like mad, to avert various long-term disasters. In other words, we need to get back our consumer confidence, and then lose it again.
The first part is fun. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing, only more and faster. The deficit may soar to $1 trillion a year while the government hands out cash to whoever shows up at the teller’s window. Each of us can do our own bit as well. Show your consumer confidence. One last shopping spree. Buy that coffee maker whether you want one or not.
Part II will not be fun. Return the coffee maker (if the store is still in business), and deposit the money in your 401(k). Start drinking instant.
Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee By MICHAEL KINSLEY Printed in the New York Times, Nov. 14, 2008
At the risk of talking a bit too much about money, keep this in mind. In a time of crisis, people are trying to decide how to save their disposable income, assuming we have any. So, people eat in a lot more. We rent movies instead of going to the theater. But how do we decide what’s essential and what’s not?
I serve on the boards of a couple of non-profits, including this one. All of them are having trouble making ends meet. People are not giving as much as they used to. Loyal donors continue to give, but many non-profits depend upon those end of the year gifts to help make up for the losses—gifts that may or may not arrive. So they are cutting back on work or laying off staff or closing up shop all together. Churches are not at all immune to this crisis. I thank God that UBC made the wise choice to begin our fiscal year in July instead of January. Our stewardship campaign happens in April instead of November. But many of my colleagues are in the midst of stewardship campaigns and are facing the real prospect of major budgetary decreases and the difficult choices that accompany such realities. At UBC, 12% of our budget comes from our Foundation, which is tied to the stock market. If current trends continue, we can assume that the percentage of our budget that comes from invested funds will also decrease. Have you considered giving less to the church?
Let me give you this to think about. Non-profits are a good investment. They may even be a God-investment. Their job is to be awake and to wake up others to the plight and the challenges of the world. They help us to focus upon what’s really important. Think about the feeding programs, the activist programs, the truth-telling, hope-giving programs. That’s what we find we really need right now. They are worth your investment, especially if they focus some energy on beauty, hope, creativity, and blessed freedom. We need all of that even more right now. End of plug.
Yesterday, I attended a protest at the State Capital. It was one of hundreds if not thousands of nationwide protests advocating for marriage rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. It was a positive thing to do in the midst of an economic crisis. It reminded me that there is no time to rest on our laurels while there are rights denied in other parts of the nation and the world. These times call for “Constant vigilance” as Albus Dumbledore would say, lest more rights be taken away.
At the protest yesterday, as we remembered the rights of LGBT people being taken away in California, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona, we also celebrated the fact that Connecticut has begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples just like its neighbor Massachusetts has been doing for the last couple of years. They even told us that there is a court case in Iowa that may soon mandate the recognition of same-sex marriages. We live in interesting times when Iowa might have marriage rights for all before Minnesota.
We need to stay awake.
There are reports of hundreds of racist threats to the Obama family and people of color in the aftermath of last week’s election. We need to remain awake and remember that racism still exists and thrives.
We need to stay awake.
But it’s easy to fall asleep. It’s easy to get tired out by all of the wrangling. It’s easy to get into a familiar pattern and let things pass you by. I got trained yesterday to be one of the observers in the Minnesota Senate recount. I was told that the biggest problem of the recount is the monotony and the boredom that sets in. If you’re not alert, you will probably miss something. We need to stay awake. As folk chanted yesterday, “what do we need? Patience. When do we need it? Now.”
It will take more than caffeine and Red Bull. Being physically awake and being spiritually awake are two different things. If your spirit is awake then we tend to focus upon what’s really important. There was a famous study conducted several years ago. It was a driving test. One of the drivers consumed a full bottle of wine. The other driver was sleep deprived for 24 hours. The drunk driver performed the test better than the sleep-deprived driver. We need to be more than physically awake. We need to be alert.
What do we need to wake up to?
Jesus was perhaps referring to our own personal salvation, but part of that salvation is wrapped up in the salvation of our neighbors. Jesus said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. All of the law and the prophets rest upon these two commandments.
The Buddha was once asked if he was a god. He answered, “no, I am awake.”
In times of crisis, we can’t afford to be asleep. So we hunker down and pay attention to the things that really matter. We remember the words of our depression—era family members. We reassess our priorities and we make good, conscious, awake choices. We make awake faith decisions.
We follow Jesus who called us all to love regardless of the consequences. We follow Jesus who embraced the outcasts and turned over the tables. We follow Jesus who opposed discrimination wherever he saw it. We follow Jesus who gave his life on the cross so that he could expose the brokenness of the system of domination and violence.
We follow Jesus who showed through the resurrection that the methods of violence are no longer valid in God’s reign.
That spirit of Jesus lives on in all of us who are brave enough and committed enough and awake enough to follow in his ways. That spirit of Jesus is alive when we embrace each other with real love and commit our lives to a plan of justice, which comes from God. May we never betray our sisters and brothers at home or abroad. May we always be true to God and love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And may we live with the assurance that even in the midst of crisis, our ministry has not been in vain. It is just another stop on the road to resurrection. It all makes the way for the day when people shall beat their swords into ploughshares and bend their spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation. And they shall study war no more. Remember that vision, my friends. Remember it, and stay awake.
So to what do you want to stay awake? What are your priorities? What do you think your priorities ought to be? Is God satisfied with your priorities? If not, how can you change your life, your behavior to better please God and for that matter, make our corner of the world a bit brighter, a bit more hopeful, a bit more blessed, a bit more awake? When we do that, then our lamps are filled with oil and we find ways to light a candle even in the darkest and bleakest of times.
May it be so with all of us. Amen.