Spending: Whose Agenda?

Scripture  |  Isaiah 55:1-2, 6-9, 12  |  Haggai 1

Introduction to the Haggai Reading

Our second scripture reading is also from the Old Testament. It takes place around 500 BCE, long past the time of the great kings David and Solomon. In fact, there is no kingdom now. After Solomon the nation had quickly split apart in civil war. The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell first, in 721 BCE, to the Assyrians. The Southern Kingdom of Judah managed to off threats for years, but in 587 BCE, Judah fell to the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed. The Temple was in ruins. Most of the leaders were sent into exile to Babylon. 

It seemed like the days of the Israelites – God’s people - were over. Without a home, a Temple, a place, how would they worship God? As Psalm 137 laments, “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” 

But somehow they kept the faith, and kept their identity alive. And seventy years later, a new power rose up in the Ancient Near East. Under King Darius, Persia conquered Babylon and sent the captives home. Generations had passed while they were in Exile, but Jerusalem was still their home. 

And so they went back to rebuild the city. 

Their religious leaders knew they would need to rebuild their faith as well. Soon it became clear that they needed a new Temple. It would never be so grand as the one that had been destroyed, but they needed a central place to worship, a place to remember the commandments of God, to bring their sacrifices and offerings, and to help them remember who they were, and whose they were. 

King David had appealed to the people for building the first Temple; now 500 years later the prophet Haggai is appealing to them for the construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. 

* * * * * *

When I was in seminary I did an internship in a church outside of Minneapolis. It was a wonderful congregation – very faithful, and very mission-minded. In fact, they tried to give half of their annual budget to local and international missions. Their building was simple by design: concrete floors, no stained glass, no organ, a hodge-podge of hand-me-down pews from other churches. They were proud of its simplicity, and I appreciated their frugality, especially since it served a larger purpose.  

But I noticed something pretty quickly: no one ever used the building, except on Sunday mornings. Instead, all the meetings took place in people’s homes. Because their homes were gorgeous; large and beautifully decorated, and, to tell the truth, expensive. What I saw was that they were frugal with church funds, but not their own. Which seemed to me to be just a little bit strange. 

That memory came back when I read these words from Haggai. How God’s people had high standards for their own homes, but low ones for the house of the Lord. 

It all depends on what’s important to us, doesn’t it? Doesn’t every financial decision come down to that? What are you willing to spend money on? How do you decide where to be frugal and where to spend lavishly? What do we decide is worthy of our hard-earned cash? 

I recently saw an episode of the show “blackish” called “Keeping Up with the Johnsons.” It was all about money, and how to spend it. Dre has just opened the most recent credit card bill and his jaw hits the floor. Where is all the money going?

He sees the monthly sage cleanses and expensive organic hair-care products his wife Bow orders each month. But Bow looks and sees the “watch of the month club” and all the sneakers Dre is buying. What’s important to one seems ridiculous to the other. 

But it’s pretty clear: They’re “earning wages to put them into a bag with holes.”  

They decide they have to go on a spending diet. They decide they need a budget. And then they begin to realize how hard it is for them to talk about money, and what’s really important, and why. [Blackish, “Keeping Up with the Johnsons,” http://abc.go.com/shows/blackish/episode-guide/season-02/13-keeping-up-with-the-johnsons]

Questions of priorities hit awfully close to home. It’s unavoidable, really. When I was married, Gene and I had very different beliefs about money. He loved buying books … lots and lots and lots of books. Two hundred fifty boxes worth, as it turns out. It made me nuts. But then he couldn’t understand why I spent so much money getting my hair colored each month. After awhile, I couldn’t either. 

How do we decide what’s important, and what’s not? 

Lord knows there are lots of people out there who would like to answer that question for you. 

Christian writer Rob Bell talks about the power of advertising in our lives. Take, for instance, the Super Bowl – one of the few unifying events in our national culture. What’s the Super Bowl all about? He defines it this way: It’s “a series of 30-second short films, designed to create within you an overwhelming sense of urgency that you are just one purchase away from happiness - interrupted by a football game.” [ Rob Bell, “Everything is Spiritual” (2016 Film Tour). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT09JbaEh_I]

If we were to use that big, unifying experience to define our culture, then the answer to the question “What are we doing here?” is, “We’re here to buy things.” 

Corporations know this. They have sophisticated ways of learning just what we’re interested in. Ever wonder why you get specific coupons after you shop at CVS? It’s because your smart-phone locator is sending information that you were hanging out in the Greeting Card aisle or in Lotions for a few seconds longer than anywhere else. Or those ads that show up in your Facebook feed? You know they’re not random. There are pretty sophisticated algorithms designed to create that sense of urgency to buy things. 

How do we decide what’s important, and what’s not? Do we even decide, or do we just react to what’s in front of us, what seems important at the time, to that coupon, that ad, the newest gadget?

It’s hard to believe that what we buy is who we are, but it’s true. How we spend our money shapes our lives. And it’s not just by taking money away from something else. Our stuff changes us.

In his book The Christian Wallet, Mike Slaughter talks about the problem with materialism. It doesn’t just create physical waste, it creates a waste of time. 

Moments we could use to have an actual face-to-face conversation with our spouse… are redirected toward taking care of stuff. Garages need cleaning out; lawns need mowing; bric-a-brac needs dusting; oil needs changing; closets and drawers are bulging at the seams… Our stuff reduces the quantity and quality of our time for investment into key relationships.

Large houses mean we can spend an entire evening at home and never encounter another family member. Or if we are in the same room, Junior is texting on the latest smartphone, the spouse is shopping on the tablet, and you’re engrossed in a mindless TV show. We build a wrap-around front porch on the new and bigger house but never sit outside at dusk to greet the neighbors.

People are recognizing this more and more, I think. There are movements now about getting rid of stuff to simplify our lives. Christian writer Jen Hatmaker’s book Seven talks about simplifying from a religious perspective, but others are seeing the need, too.
— Mike Slaughter, The Christian Wallet (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p 16.

 

One of the most popular is Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. The “Kondo method” is based on paying attention to what gives you joy. The idea is to give your time, energy and attention only to things that bring joy to your life; the rest is a burden, not a blessing. There are a lot of people who find this to be an enormously helpful lens for discernment in their lives. There’s great freedom in letting go, in living lighter. 

As the prophet Isaiah said centuries ago, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

But is our own joy the only lens we should be using? 

You might have seen the post that’s been going around Facebook: 

 

It raises a real question. If owning things that bring personal joy is the only lens we use, what are we missing? What about planning for the future? What about the needs of others? What about the future of the world? 

In the Bible study we’re using as the basis for our series, this chapter is entitled, “Spending: Whose Agenda?” The implication is pretty clear: if the only agenda at work in our spending is our own wants and needs, we’re missing a much wider picture. We can easily escape into our own lovely, beautifully decorated homes, to a world where other people’s needs are invisible, the fragility of the world is forgotten, and the dangers of materialism are overlooked. 

It’s hard enough to be aware of our own agendas in our spending. But what if the bigger question isn’t really our agenda, but God’s? 

As many writers point out, it’s not just a matter of what we buy, it’s how we buy it. How do we filter out our decisions with an eye to how they impact the world? Over the years I’ve seen people use a variety of ‘ground-rules’ for spending. 

  • I think of my dad, who was a dentist; he knew how hard it was to be a small-business owner. He always tried to shop at stores owned by individuals instead of chains. 
  • Friends of mine try to out where things are made and how workers are treated; buying something because it’s cheap may mean that workers are exploited. They try to buy Fair Trade products whenever possible. Others try to support the local economy by buying “local” as much as they can. 
  • A lot of parents I know are trying to avoid buying more ‘stuff’ for their kids but providing interesting experiences instead. Others try to practice “reduce, reuse, recycle” by buying something used instead of new.
  • It’s a small thing, but I’m pretty adamant about avoiding plastic for environmental reasons – I’m worried about how plastic is filling up the ocean and being ingested by animals. I carry my own bags and use a refillable water bottle; I won’t use disposables if I can possibly avoid it. 
  • My son Ben is a vegetarian; he won’t buy meat because of the stress livestock puts on the environment. 
  • I know one friend who is so concerned about hunger in the world that she contributes dollar-for-dollar to a food pantry every time she goes out to eat. She says it makes her so much more aware of what she eats, and what she wastes. 

You get the idea. Getting rigid about rules is not helpful, but having some guidelines for spending truly is. It helps to take time to think about it. What are the values that drive your decisions about spending? Personal joy isn’t a bad place to start, but what happens when you widen your lens? I don’t have magic answers, that’s for sure. But I sure think the questions are worth asking. How do you spend money? Where are you frugal? And why? 

And what does God have to do with it? That’s the real question, isn’t it?

Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
Granville, Ohio