Monday, September 30, 2013

Are We Outward Focused or Inward Focused? Follow The Checkbook To Find Out.

$50 billion.


That is a lot of money even in a day of trillion dollar Federal deficits. It is also the estimated amount given as "tithing" by some 10,000,000 American church goers based on a study I saw published by Christianity Today ( 10 Million Tithers Donate More Than $50 Billion ). Given that some ridiculously high percentage of Americans self-identify as "Christians" that is not a lot of givers but since I put zero stock in checking the  "Christian" box on a survey it doesn't make much difference. What is pretty incredible is the staggering amount of giving. The study also points to the most common form of religious giving, a form that is pounded into the head of every Christian, "97% make it a priority to give to their local church". If there is one thing that is uniformly taught across the religious spectrum, it is the prioritization of giving to your "local church".

I have said this before but the idea of prioritizing giving to the "local church" is at its most fundamental level a self-serving concept. I say that because most of the money that goes to local churches stays in the local church and is used to make "worship" and religious observation more pleasant, more entertaining and more convenient for the very same people who donate the money. That is not to suggest that all local church giving stays in house as most local churches pay a token percentage to mission work, mercy work or local ministries like food pantries. It is to say that most local church budgets focus on keeping the local church open on Sunday morning. As an added bonus those who are most vociferous in teaching the priority of giving first to your local church are those who likewise depend on perpetuating that myth, namely the paid clergy who depend on this system for a paycheck.The entire system borders on a scheme where our most trusted sources in the church are the ones peddling the most self-serving notion.

This gets back to the broader of issue of our love and indeed worship of money in the church, an idolatry that is a near perfect reflection of the broader American cultural obsession with money. I absolutely affirm that we have a serious problem with how money and the church relate but I don't think it is the same problem we hear about so often. We don't so much have a giving problem in the church, what we really have is a spending problem. Where is our spending as the church focused? Is it outward or inward and which is more Biblical?

The New Testament church was outward focusing in....
  • Caring for the needy, such as widows among the church.
  • Concerned for the welfare of Christians in other locations that were suffering.
  • Supporting the evangelistic work of apostles/missionaries/evangelists who were traveling and preaching the Gospel.

The New Testament church was not concerned with...
  • Mortgages, interest payments, building projects, utilities.
  • Salaries for religious employees.
  • Material and curriculum for Sunday school. 
  • Supporting the hierarchy of religious organizations like denominations and seminaries.

...because those things didn't exist. Have we matured beyond the simplistic, primitive state of the early church? Or have we rejected what was important to the church under the leadership of the apostles and substituted what is important to those with a vested interest in perpetuating the current religious system that panders to the basest impulses of a people obsessed with convenience, entertainment and self-focused consumption?

It is not a coincidence that there is a backlash against the "radical" Christianity movement and the labeling of virtually any notion of a prioritization of mercy ministry as "social justice" with the connotation of liberalism that is attached to that term. These movements, which are by and large so mild that Christians of days past in the early centuries of the church, or those persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike through the Reformation years or contemporary Christians who put their lives on the line for Christ everyday would find laughable to be label them "radical", are a major threat to church as we know it. The questions they raise are uncomfortable and lead to people thinking thoughts dangerous to the religious establishment. When you read between the lines you can see the worry as the religious world that we have known for so long evaporates.

We can have all the studies we want about giving with the implied disapproving finger wag toward those who don't "tithe" to their local church or who give less than 10% or who, gasp!, "tithe" based on net earnings rather than gross. That doesn't get to the heart of the problem, a problem which truly is a "heart"  issue. Where is the church focused? Is it on Sunday morning and our own convenience? Or is it on the messy and often invisible work that goes on "out there"? Until we get our spending figured out, our concerns over giving are a wasted effort.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Paul was a jerk so I can be one too!

I have noticed a distressing tendency among Christians, at least certain subsets, to see the strongly worded statements of Paul and Jesus Himself primarily as a license to be a jerk. The logic goes like this:

On several occasions Jesus and Paul were, in our eyes, pretty harsh with opponents of the Gospel using polemics, sarcasm and even pejoratives. Because Jesus and Paul did this, I can too.

While it is certainly true that at times Jesus and Paul as well as other figures in the New Testament used strongly worded, even harsh or sarcastic, statements it is also true that I am not Jesus. Nor am I Paul or an apostle like Paul. I have found instead that this notion provides many people, like the guys at Team Pyro and myself on many occasions, with sketchy theological cover for being a jerk and a bully. It also is often true that those who are the targets of this bullying are not opponents of the Gospel or heretics but simply other believers that I disagree with.

Of course it is just as dangerous to refuse to call anything an error, no matter how gross an error it might be, out of fear of not being nice. Some errors require, demand even, that we call them out. Some men and women really are heretics, or at least proclaim heretical teaching, and we don't do them or anyone else any favors by pretending that what they are teaching is anything but dangerous and damning.

How we disagree is as important as what we disagree on. My own tendency is to see disagreement as an opportunity to show off, to make someone look stupid, to "win" for my own satisfaction. That attitude has probably won me a lot of arguments and left unconvinced a lot of people. Hooray for me. Or not. So hey buddy before you take the mantle of modern day Paul for yourself remember that you ain't him.

Stand for the truth. Be unwavering. Be bold. Refuse to compromise. Just don't be a jerk about it.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Family Economic Unit

I wrote a few weeks ago about the subject of debt and trying to avoid/get out of debt. In the meanwhile I have been thinking a lot about the economics of the home and family and how that relates to debt and financial stability. As I look at the world around me I see very little praiseworthy from an economic standpoint. The rich grow richer and more power too them I guess. The poor and the dependent class grow larger every year thanks to a mediocre economy and incentives that generationalize poverty and dependence. More and more families have two wage earners and yet those same families are barely making ends meet. I want something different than the rat race and debt/consumption model for my family. That requires a different look at how we approach economics at family level.

There are two main factors in the economy of a household, income and expenses. The expenses side is fairly self-explanatory, spend less and make do with less. Live more simply. That is easier said than done in our culture that worships the new, the better, the upgrade and the update while consumption is king and debt is always available. But we really can do with less, for example see John Mureiko's recent post More With Less: Clothing to look at just one area where we think we need more than we really do. We are a pretty frugal family in some ways, no smartphones, no cable/satellite TV, we don't go on expensive vacations (or vacations at all!) or buy lots of gadgets or clothes. We don't eat out a ton other than breakfast at the local greasy spoon for my wife and I and the occasional pizza. We don't throw a lot of food away because we feed it to our pig in return for bacon. We have a modest sized mortgage and one small car payment. So we are pretty bare-bones in a lot of ways compared to other families.

That doesn't mean we can't do more. We are looking at our livestock because that has gotten a bit out of control, we have too many horses that eat too much hay and do little in return. We are trying to be smarter about our meal planning, more basic food stuffs to make meals from rather than pre-packaged foods. We are being a bit more picky about driving our Amish neighbors around to make sure that we are get fairly compensated for time, gas and wear & tear.

The other side of the equation is income. We are an anomaly in modern America, a large family with a single bread winner. That is who we are and how we have rolled since 1995 when I graduated from college. I am not sure that is going to keep working. So we have to decide what to do in place of that model and in doing so take an inventory of our family. While we have is some extra space and we have lots of potential labor. With four able bodied adults in the home and plenty of other kids old enough to help we are looking at how we can leverage that to diversify our economic structure. That looks a little light this....

- Multiple income streams

As it stands right now, we are a single income family. We have been since the day I graduated from college and we like that. We are old fashioned perhaps but we think that the family is best served when one of the parents, usually mom, is home more or less full time to manage the household. For us that has always meant that I go to a job somewhere and my wife stays home. That has worked for almost twenty years although it has been very trying for us financially for much of that time. It was especially critical when we had a non-stop procession of babies and very small children in the home. Now our children are getting older, our youngest is almost six and soon we will have 5 of our 8 aged 13 or older. That doesn't mean they don't need attention, just not as much of stuff like feeding and diapering which in theory frees up a lot of time. So we are giving serious thought to how the income end of the equation can change without compromising our core belief structure about having mom at home.

What we would like to see are multiple income streams. We have a somewhat unusual opportunity in that we live among one of the largest populations of Amish in the country and we have very good relations with many of them. This means that we can leverage those contacts to drive them places they cannot readily reach with a buggy, get into business ventures including one we are looking at very seriously and also a bartering economy where we trade their expertise for our technology like cars.

- The home as the economic center for the family

Alongside the multiple income streams, we would like to see the home become the economic focal point of the family. Rather than our home being the place we all go forth from to jobs/schools and then come back to for the purpose of eating and sleeping, we would love to see the home be where we work and where we live. That is how humanity worked for a very long time and I don't think modern "progress" has a whole lot going for it, far more so than the model of families scattering to the winds to chase "education" and jobs leaving families splintered and professional caregivers to take care of young children and elderly parents. Our next door neighbor is a hog farmer, his dad lives on the corner of his property and helps him with the farming still, and does so alongside his grandsons.

- An eye toward the future

Far too often in America adulthood means the kids striking off on their own to make their way in the world and this also often means moving away leading to fragmented families. Little wonder that families don't care for parents when they grow older and so many families put their children in day care. Our future hopefully is one where our kids are participating in the economy of the home and stay near us so that we can help care for their children and in turn can rely on them for assistance as we get older.

Also, what will the economy look like in the future?

Like it or not the United States is headed for a single payer health insurance system. While I think that is a horrible idea it is happening whether we like it or not. Having a job that provides insurance might not be a major concern. Also with a family economy it should be less important to have a million dollars socked away in your 401k. I think these and other factors are going to make the traditional employment model obsolete

That is just a rough plan to start.

We would like to get more property as we are kind of tight on land right now. One project we are exploring pretty seriously would require a new building and that would eat up the last bit of land we have that is vacant on our current property. So if we can get established with a decent income supplemented by jobs by myself and my older kids our next task would be expanding with more property, something that is pretty expensive with high crop prices and a ton of land hungry Amish to compete with! Really our goal is becoming more clear in my eyes and that is important. I really want to get out of the office/cubicle world and spend more time working alongside my family for a whole bunch of reasons and I think we are taking a few of the right steps along that path. You are welcome to follow along as we seek a new path!