Many of us are well aware that we have been in a recession for some time now.
The stock market has experienced significant losses that have resulted in investors like you and me, charities and institutions like our church to have lost between 20-40% in the value of investments. Most real estate values have declined and the housing market is slow. Most businesses have experienced significant declines which placed pressures on many to close the doors, downsize or seek a lifeline from the government. Unemployment has reached 9.5% and is climbing. Newsweek, this past week, had an article that said 6.5 million jobs have been lost since December 2007. Foreclosures are up. Bankruptcy is on the increase. A few weeks ago, the national debt exceeded $1 trillion. We are not immune to the consequences that these factors produce. They are realities that have some level of impact on all of us. Some of our church family have felt the huge impact of these economic factors with job loss, home ownership in danger, their businesses are struggling, etc.
While these statistics are bleak, in my mind they still do not display the full force of what many people are dealing with. Sometime it helps to hear a story. For example, it becomes more real when you know of a guy who just lost his job, thus loosing his health benefits if he does not find another job soon. The problem is that his wife has cancer. This is just one example of someone who is suffering.
I believe that while the economy is very bad and people are suffering a great deal, there is also an upside to a down economy. I know that for those who are really hurting, this sounds unsympathetic, but I in no way mean it this way. Instead, I hope you will be able to find hope in the hopelessness.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus devotes a little time to the issue of finances. He begins by saying,
19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:19-24)
Jesus tells us the same message we briefly mentioned in a sermon on Luke a few weeks ago, that you cannot serve two masters. You will either serve or love money or you will serve and love God. A few verses above this, he says this is the case because where your treasure is; there your heart will be also. If we focus all of our time storing up wealth, then we are not focusing on serving God.
After the sermon I preached on Luke, someone asked me the question, "Can you be wealthy and still be a Christian?" To this, I think the answer is "yes." As a matter of fact I do believe that God blesses some people with means so that they can in turn be a blessing to others. I think our attitude about money makes all the difference in the world. If we live to make money for ourselves, then our hearts are in the wrong place. If we live to serve God, then we will use what God has given to us to serve others.
Jesus then goes on to say,
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6:25-34)
Jesus' conclusion is simple, if we place our trust and efforts in following God, then God will care for us. Jesus gives us several examples of this. First he says that the birds of the air do not sow or reap, yet God feeds them. Then he says that we worry about clothing while God clothes the lilies of the field, yet they do not toil or spin. Notice the verbs used in these illustrations. "sow", "reap", "toil", or "spin". These verbs all relate to work that provides basic needs. Jesus is telling us that God created us so we should trust God to provide for us.
This morning, I want us to take some advice, from the greatest Sage of all time, on how to live life when things are tight. Again, I am not suggesting that these things will make everything better, but I do think they will help us respond the best way we can to down times
Upside to a Down Economy One: Reflecting on our Priorities
For us, struggling with a down economy, it seems that Jesus would encourage us to reflect on our priorities. When money is tight, we are forced to go back and look to see what things are truly important. It allows us to take Jesus' words seriously that we cannot love money and God at the same time. Jesus says that where our treasures are where out heart is. Therefore, we should go back and analyze our lives and see where our priorities lay and make life adjustments if necessary.
I love ESPN. I would watch it 24/7 if I could. In order for us to have ESPN, we would need to pay about $50 a month for cable. Of coarse this would also mean that I would want to have a DVR and so forth.
The recession has not really impacted Melanie and I as much as other people. I did not get a pay raise this year, like most of the world, and I began to pay for insurance for Caleb, which meant I was taking home less money. Melanie and I had to evaluate our finances and we made the decision, that while ESPN would be nice, we did not need it. We could take the time that I would normally watch ESPN and spend quality time with each other. Also, I can go to my parent's house and watch it for free and spend quality time with my parents.
I am not suggesting to anyone that you get rid of your cable, but I am suggesting that this may be the time to talk with you spouse about what I would call "kingdom things." To determine "kingdom things" we need to ask if the way we spend our time and energy is pleasing to God. ESPN- Not So Much, Time with Spouse- YES
Upside to a Down Economy Two: Greater Level of Generosity
During times of economic recession, common reason would expect that giving to non-profits, charities and churches would decrease. History has shown this is not necessarily the case. In some situations, total number of dollars may decrease but usually the percentage of income increases.
Do you know in what year in recent history recorded the highest per capita giving? In 1933 – during the height of the Great Depression. Do you know which states annually vie for the highest per capita giving in the US? Arkansas and Mississippi. Do you know another distinction they share? They are the two poorest states in the nation.
I have a theory as to why this is the case. It seems to me that no matter how much money I see people making, the amount of money left over normally remains the same because the more money we make, the more money we spend, causing our standard of living to increase. Because we normally give to God out of what we have left over, our percentage of given actually increases when our income decreases.
Maybe having a down economy will enable us to give at a higher percentage and then challenge us to increase our percentage of giving as the economy recovers. Andy Stanley, in his book Fields of Gold, suggests that we should practice what he calls the 3 P's of giving: (1) Priority Giving (2) Percentage Giving (3) Progressive Giving. He says that we should make giving the number one priority. We should choose a percentage to give and then gradually increase that percentage over time. Doing this enables us to make sure that we keep our heart in the right place.
I have heard it said many times I am beginning to agree that if we want to find out what we value, look at what we spend our money on. Learning to be faithful to God with our money will help us keep God as our treasure.
Upside to a Down Economy Three: Deeper Level of Trust
With a down economy comes anxiety. I don't won't to downplay the real worries that are out there right now. If my wife and I were on the verge of loosing our jobs because of the economy, I would be worried to.
Jesus though, tells us in Matthew 6 that if we will strive first for his kingdom, that God will take care of our needs. It maybe that right now, we can begin to seek God first and allow him to truly care for our needs.
I am reading a book in preparation for our mission sermons called, Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin, on the life of Mother Teresa. She explains that Mother Teresa placed all of her faith in God. Poplin writes,
From capitalism to communism, economic theories all assume a scarcity of resources. Divine providence assumes that God has provided an abundance for every need. Divine providence is not merely about money, it is an attitude toward life of trust in God.
Poplin goes on later to explain that there were times when Mother Teresa and the volunteers were out of food, but they would play and trust that God would provide and he did. Our test tells us to first seek after God and his kingdom, then God we trust that God will provide.
A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing, impossible as it sounds. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting "Left" and "Right!" As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skier word. It was either complete trust or catastrophe.
In our lives, we have to learn to trust God. We have to understand that when we are worried about things in our lives, God can see the big picture. The best way to navigate life is to seek God and allow him to pull us through.
I truly believe C.S. Lewis when he says, "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in: aim at earth and you will get neither." When we place our hopes and trust in the hands of God, we will find that not only will we find God, we will find that God provides for all we will need now.