Thursday, May 10, 2012

How Much is Too Much? - Part 2

I know some of you are hoping that tonight I will give you a direct answer, maybe a dollar amount or a maximum square footage. You're hoping that I just lay it out, that someone told me the secret answer and now I'll tell you. There's a good chance you'd do it, whatever "it" is. I know this because I am you.

We started on this journey a little over two years ago and I remember looking up in the dark at the chandelier hanging over my bed, whispering to Cory that I just wished someone would tell me what to do. I talked to my brother-in-law and his wife and hoped that they might somehow know "the number". There had to be a number.  Tell me what it is and I'll live beneath it. Tell me what it is and I'll hand it right over.

No one ever did tell me. Because there is no number. And I think God planned it that way.

Wise people have kicked around the idea of living beneath the median income in the United States. Give the rest away. It's an intriguing idea, but I haven't done it. I'm above the median.

Is that too much?

I think it is. Or what I should really say is, For me, it is. Because as so many of you have pointed out, this is a personal thing. There's no boiler-plate template hot-glued to the back cover of my Bible or yours. For me, it doesn't make sense to have one million dollars sitting safely in the bank while people starve and children are sold into slavery. On the flip side, we do have an emergency fund. We keep handing it over to hospitals and doctors and I'm thankful that we have it. (Thanks, Dave!) Maybe that's too much for some people. Maybe soon, it'll be too much for us.

For most of my life, I had everything I wanted and I made sure to give some away. I truly never stopped to consider what life looked like for most of the world. I couldn't reach out and touch it, so it sort of didn't exist for me. I knew poverty was "out there", but I didn't know poverty closed its grip around my brothers and sisters. I just didn't see it that way. I didn't know they were mine.

At the point that we started to really understand, we began to ask God to guide us, specifically our finances. Around that time, a hole opened up in the bottom of our lives and money started pouring out. I now see those months as some of the most obvious times in my life that God stepped in and rescued me. He knew that for me, the money had to start going away. I had to see for myself that I was His and that the cash was His and that He was the boss of both of us. I had to recognize that my self-worth was not tied to my bank balance. I had to begin to believe that I was really under His providence, and if He wanted take it, well, He could take it.

As the money funneled out, as the balance dwindled, I started not to care so much. Soon, Cory and I started to believe that our house was too much. It was too big and too expensive. It didn't matter that we could afford it. It was too much. This does not mean that your house is too big or Dave's house is too fancy. Those are not questions under my jurisdiction, and I thank God for that. But He made it clear to us that the money we had tied up in our "dream home" could be better spent elsewhere. He had different plans for that money. We tried, for a while, to convince ourselves that it wasn't true. We tried to believe that we were just reacting for the sake of reacting. Maybe we had dreamed it all up. But then we remembered that we, on our own, would never in a million years have dreamed that up. We would have sipped tea on that porch until we both had cataracts. That's what we would have done.

So we sold.

But now what? How should we operate in our everyday lives?

Well, we live beneath our means. We don't charge anything. We pay cash for vehicles (then crash them the very next week, but whatever). We keep our budget. We give, only now our giving is becoming sacrificial, because the supply side is no longer as abundant.

Of course we still spend. We still spend on things we don't need. We still buy a bag of mostly-ugly tea towels at a garage sale for a buck. We eat out an awful lot. We have two fancy cameras under this roof. We're building a house right now, which is a landmine of opportunities to get it all wrong.

But for over two years now, not a single non-essential purchase has happened without me thinking about if it's what I really should do. Trust me, it's as annoying as it sounds. I don't think it's guilt. I don't think I'm a martyr. I'm not trying to make it into a bigger deal than it is. But I think that when we began to beg God to direct us in our finances, He wiggled a worm into our hearts and minds that just won't die. It's always there, always making us ask the question twice.

I never need the new shirt, but I often buy it. Sometimes, I don't, because I feel in my bones that it's not what I should do. There's that voice now, and I can always hear it, even when I plug my ears, even when I choose to ignore.

I don't necessarily see giving only as helping others. I used to. And I wish it were still that way. But what I now know is that the giving is usually just as much about how it impacts my heart as how it impacts their life. It targets my ugliest areas, my pride, judgment, self-righteousness, greed. It holds a mirror to my filth and through obedience, it shines me back up.

Here's another thing I believe - I believe that God never finds fault with giving. Sometimes I'll think of a random thing and wonder if I should give it to so-and-so. I don't always do it. I don't always feel a loud-and-clear directive to do it. But I do know that God would never wish that I had kept more of my stuff or my money or my time for myself. So I'm trying to err on the side of the gift, knowing that sacrifice and obedience are refining and believing to my toes that they splinter the lock of self-involvement. They crack open the storehouse of joy.

Maybe God does want some people to be "extra rich" so that they can give more, but the God I see makes much out of little. He doesn't need us in the first place, really. He can carry out his purposes with or without us. He wants us to identify with Him and love like He loves and I'm not saying it isn't possible, but it's hard enough to do that with my "normal" level of wealth, always right there distracting and disarming me. Maybe God isn't up in Heaven calculating income/giving ratios on a giant calculator made of solid gold. Maybe he really does expect all of us to give everything. (That scares me sideways.)

So here's what is too much: Too much is the thing that is not on the table.

It's the house that we would never, ever sell. It's the designer jeans that we won't give up because they are the only ones that fit right. Too much is the car that we say we have to have, so our clients trust our success. Too much is the $800 table that we could pay cash for, but leaves us with a pit in our stomach. Too much is buying four boxes of on-sale strawberries when we know we won't eat more than three before they go bad. Too much is that thing that we justify. It's the thing that our fingers are clenched around. It's the thing we think we deserve. The thing we think we've earned.

I see too much in my life most days. But that's the thing - I see it now. I may not always choose to respond in obedience, but I have asked God to show me my "too much" and He has followed through.

We keep making adjustments. We're learning to hold things feather-lightly. We're growing. We understand that we are still so very wealthy in the eyes of the rest of the world, and that's a difficult thing to make sense of. So far, we have not been told to give everything away and live homeless. We are grateful for the blessings God has entrusted to us, knowing that tomorrow, He may have us hand them back. We take seriously his command to care for the poor and we know we can't really do that if we're spending all our money on ourselves. We know we are to care as much for them as we do for us.

We have miles and miles to go. It's a constant battle. I love cute outfits, old junk and Gorgonzola cheese. None of those things are bad (especially not the cheese), but all of them theoretically could be bad.

My hope is that just as I look back now on this legendary moment in my life, I will look back in two more years to today and laugh a little over how far I've come. I hope my life will be more about letting go and less about holding on.

To me, that's what kingdom living is. It's about holding loosely. It's about believing - really believing - that I'll be held accountable for all of it, one day. I can't answer for you or for him, but I'd better be ready to answer for Shannan Martin.