Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Makes For A Great Life

(Read Luke 12:13-21)

Money gets somewhat of a bad reputation in the Bible or religion in general. But let’s face it, money is necessary. We need it to feed, clothe and shelter our families, pay our bills, and enjoy some of the luxuries of life. Money adds to our stress and discomfort if we don’t have it, and it adds to our comfort and enjoyment if we do have it.

But there comes a point when money goes from being a resource that is useful in maintaining a healthy, happy life to when it becomes a burden and a source of unhappiness. Greed is an unhealthy hunger for money and things in excess of what you need.

The Bible warns against greed because it can destroy your life. Greed destroyed Bernie Madoff’s life. He stole from others in order to have more for himself and ended up in prison. Excessive wealth seems to contribute to the downfall of many celebrities including Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson, all of who have had public breakdowns in the past couple of years.

Yes, money can actually interfere with our happiness and decrease the quality of our lives. For one reason, the acquisition of money requires a great deal of time. The time you spend earning can keep you from taking care of yourself and can keep you from spending quality time with the people that you love. Plus, you might have to work a job you don’t like in order to earn a great income. A second reason money can interfere with our happiness is that money is meant to be a secondary concern in our lives, somewhere behind spiritual awareness and the cultivation of wisdom. No where in the Bible does it say you need money to be a good Christian or a disciple of Jesus. In fact, a preoccupation with money can stunt spiritual maturation, and it is spiritual maturation which actually leads to the peace and joy we seek. A third reason money can decrease the quality of our lives is because it can decrease the quality of other people’s lives, such as was the case with Bernie Madoff. If I need more, then you have to have less, and that is not the way God intends us to live.

A terrible thing just happened amongst a group of friends of mine who were working together on building a house. The contractor paid himself before paying his sub-contractors, which it’s supposed to be the other way around, and then he claimed he ran out of money. Now, there isn’t the money to pay the sub-contractors. Because the contractor was greedy and paid himself a huge upfront fee, those who worked for him are without the money they need to support their families. Not only are friendships dissolving over this situation, but people who were once good friends are suing each other over the matter. That’s the problem with greed.

The idea that tons of money will lead to security and happiness is a fallacy. We all want to win the lottery thinking it will solve all of our problems, but research shows that lottery winners often end up miserable, broke and fighting with their loved ones within a relatively short period of time. With a lot of money comes a lot of demands and a lot of responsibility.

21st Century Americans aren’t the only ones who worship money and think it will solve all of our problems. It’s been going on since the beginning of humanity. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us the parable of the rich fool. The man’s crops produced abundantly, and rather than share his wealth, he builds huge barns to store his grain and goods in. The man says to himself, “Now I can be happy. I can relax, eat, drink and be merry because I don’t have to work hard now, and I have all the food and money I need.”

God says, “You fool. What if you lose your life tonight? Then, what will you have?”

Certainly, he won’t have his life, and without life, he will lose not only his possessions, but the ability to relax, eat, drink and be merry as well.

The real issue is this: we think money will make us happy, but Jesus says, “For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of material possessions” (Luke 12: 13-21). What does one’s life consist of then? Where is a meaningful, happy, worthwhile life found?

I’m going to suggest three ideas. First, one’s life is found in the ability to be able to relax, eat, drink and be merry without having to have it all. I’ll explain further in a moment. Second, one’s life is found in how engaged and invested a person is in life. Curiosity, exploration, getting to know people and places, developing skills…these ways of being lead to a more fulfilling life than acquiring possessions. And third, one’s life is made meaningful in having meaningful relationships. Connecting with others, feelings of belonging, this is where the good life is found.

First, many of us are under the impression that when we get to a certain place in life, then we will be happy, then we’ll have the good life. Perhaps we want to get to that time in life when we own our own home and the mortgage is paid off, or have a $50,000 safety net in our bank account. Perhaps we want to get to that place in life where we have achieved a certain career goal or have gotten married or have started raising children.

The problem here is we can waste many months and years waiting to achieve these goals. A person with a 30 year mortgage might have to wait until he is in his 50’s to be happy. A person who can’t find Mr. or Mrs. Right might spend half of their adult life unfulfilled.

The real key to having abundant life is being able to relax, eat, drink and be merry while we are in the process of achieving our goals. Don’t wait for tomorrow to be happy. Today, even though you don’t have everything you want, is the day to be happy. Keep working towards what you want and enjoy the day.

Second, better than having plenty of things in life is having plenty of interests in life. There’s that bumper sticker, which I disagree with, that says something like: the one with the most toys wins. It’s not the toys that matter, it’s what you do with those toys that makes life good. Having a boat is only worthwhile if you use it. Owning a motorcycle isn’t nearly as fun as riding a motorcycle.

Do you know what made my week this week? It wasn’t any thing. It was getting to know a new person who is very different from myself. On Tuesday, Adam Acard and I went to visit a former student of his named Taryll. Currently, Taryll is living at the Hillcrest House, not in their emergency shelter, which we support, but in their transitional housing. Taryll has lived a life I am blind to: living in the projects surrounded by crack cocaine, growing up on the streets, as a little boy being out until all hours of the night. Eventually going on to use and sell drugs himself. Being involved in the violence that comes with all that. But now he’s trying to straighten out his life, and so he sat down with Adam and I and gave us an education not only about his life, but about what’s happening on the streets of Poughkeepsie, stuff you wouldn’t see if you didn’t know it was happening. And we also talked about what we, Adam and I, might do to help.

Getting to know new people, exploring foreign situations, traveling, cultivating new skills, being curious and invested in life is where one’s life is found.

Third, the good life has everything to do with good relationships. God did not put us here to be alone, to be isolated, to be unknown. God wants us together, in community, and to be known and accepted for who we are as individuals. When you feel supported, it makes all the difference in life. When you feel alone, life is sad and depressing.

Not only do we need one another, we also need to give to and receive from one another. First, I think we need to receive because you can’t give what you don’t have, but once you do have, then you can give.

A perfect example is our food pantry, which was last Thursday night. Because we as a congregation have been so fortunate, we are able to give to those who are less fortunate. It warmed my heart because one little boy, who was only three or four and who attends our nursery school, was so excited when he saw Trix yogurt in his food bag. He was so excited he asked me for a spoon and ate the yogurt right then on the way out to the car. To see someone so happy, and we were able to contribute to making that happiness possible, that is living a good life.

My friends, next time your struggling with what will make your life feel more satisfying, more meaningful, more happy, know that the answer is not found in an abundance of material possessions. The answer is not having more or getting to a certain place.

The answer is that you already have enough, and that your happiness can be found in the present moment on your way to someplace else. The answer is that excitement and joy is found in exploration and getting to know God’s world and God’s people. The answer is that deep, meaningful connections, which make life worth living, are found when we engage one another, when we are real and we share with one another.

We are not rich fools, but wise disciples.

Hanging in my hallway so that I walk past it about 30 times a day is this sign, saying, “You have enough.” May we all be blessed to know that we have enough; we don’t need more and that true happiness is found in the ways of God.

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