Saturday, August 18, 2007

Getting All That You Need

The older I get, the more convinced I am that people live their life defined by the reality of their own death. The immanent and unavoidable end of their existence here in earth. For some people the notion that they only get one turn round on this crazy ol' world has led them to the place that they want to fearlessly stare death in the face. Their mantra is "eat and drink and live today, for tomorrow we die", so they span the globe looking for experiences they've never had before, and take wild chances with their own life, wringing every last drop of adrenaline out of their glands.

For others the reality of death is so overwhelming they hide from others, paralyzed by their own fears. Fearfully, they cope with overwhelming anxiety about what the future holds, venturing little or nothing, under the logic of why take a needless chance.

Still others have lived lives, either in reality or in their heads, that have been so painful, so difficult, that they begin to believe that death is the only way out of their misery. They'll begin to dance a morbid dance, often killing themselves slowly with self-destructive behavior that often causes great pain to those who love them.

And there are also others who have decided that what lies on the other side of death is the only thing that's truly good in life. They build their lives around the premise that life has to be endured until finally a reward can be realized in an afterlife. And it's that afterlife, heaven or whatever a particular religion calls it, they focus on and live for, often turning their backs on this world we live in, so as to embrace the next.

But for, what I believe, is the vast majority of people, life is spent just trying to keep death at bay. At a little further than an arm's reach, where it can't claim us, or those who we love in life. We work to earn money so that which might kills us - hunger, a lack of shelter, disease, the evil of others - to enable us to get what we need to keep death howling far away from our door. And while we are at it, we try to make the little cocoon we we weave for ourselves; the space behind the hedge we plant and nurture marking the barrier where we are safe; more comfortable.

Such is the premise behind the late 20th century American phenomenon we call "the suburb". Safe, clean, communities where people share similar values about those things they want to exist in their neighborhood - maintaining property so it will rise in value, good schools, quiet streets, no crime, and the like - and those things they don't. They are communities, I believe people move to because the quality of life is high, and the likelihood of something bad happening at least seems less probable to happen to us. And it matters not, really, if your idea of this kind of better place is a more conventional suburb like Shawnee, or what you conceive is a better neighborhood in town, or a move from the city to the country, or from a village to a town with more to offer, we're all just really chasing the same thing.

A safer, nicer place.

That, I believe, is what most people want. I was watching this show on TV the other night, a show called "Cribs" on MTV, where a camera crew goes to the house, the crib, of a celebrity or extremely wealthy person, and that person takes them on a tour. And the night I was watching, the featured celeb was Snoop Dogg. The D - O - double G. Here's a guy who's made millions of dollars rapping about how hard, or wild, life is in the ghetto, and where's he living now? The suburbs, of course, in huge house with a manicured lawn, formal sitting room, huge garage filled with lots of cars, fully stocked kitchen, and his own recording studio.

A gangster who now prints off rules that are posted throughout the house in order to keep it clean, neat and tidy. For shizzle my hizzle. And you get bet nobody is popping caps into anybody else. No way. Instead, Snoop's kids are doing their homework and watching Scooby Doo.

And this, pretty much, is what people are looking to do. Move from down the hill, up the hill, from a life of poverty and uncertainty, to four bedrooms, three square meals, health insurance, and nice 401k. Just ask people living in Banglore, India or Shanghai, China... the suburbs are the place to be.

But the thing about affluence, the thing about moving up the ladder, about power and responsibility, is that its a double-edged sword. With the greater reward, comes greater responsibility, greater pressure, and greater stress. It's an age old issue B-I-G summed up as mo' money, mo' problems. So old, in fact that its as old as the Bible itself.

Have you ever read the story of Solomon - the son who succeeded David to the throne of Israel, who as a young child asked God for wisdom? The man regarded as the wisest in history, the person who is credited for writing the vast wisdom that makes sense even to this day in the book of Proverbs, as his responsibilities grew with the size and scope of his kingdom, was forced to make harder and harder choices as he navigated the murky seas of leading a nation.

You know why Solomon, for example, had over 800 wives and concubines? It's not, as a former student in a confirmation class once said, because he was "a horny old goat". At least, not solely because of that, anyway. In Solomon's time, kings took wives from other national leaders, other royal families, as a means of cementing alliances, treaties, and agreements. Solomon was so shrewd a negotiator, that he ushered into Israel unprecedented wealth and peace. A time so rich that not only was able to build up Jerusalem into a major city, complete with the first permanent temple of the Lord and a palace so opulent it was the envy of his world.

But in making the choices that he did, by exercising his great wisdom, Solomon ushered into Israel even more difficult problems. The 800 women brought with them their religions and customs, bringing with them idols the superstitions that confused God's people. Wealth for huge building projects meant the enslavement of those people so those projects could get built, leading to resentment among the subjects for Solomon's lack of concern for their welfare. A resentment so great that upon the confusion of who should have succeeded Solomon as king (the guy did have 800 wives - that made eventually for lots of potential heirs) part of the kingdom took the opportunity to be freed from Solomon's legacy.

He built a great kingdom, but also sowed the seeds for it's demise. The wisest man in the history of the world.

So it should be of no great surprise to us that statistically speaking, when we talk about things like divorce, treatment for anxiety and depression, suicide rates, drug and alcohol dependency, incidents of diseases associated with high stress and lack of self-care, and the high cost of white collar crime, that the suburbs aren't really the haven of safety and security we think they are. And even more telling, surveys of Christians versus non-Christian people show absolutely no difference in the chances of a marriage surviving or failing or a prescription being issued for an anxiety disorder. As a matter of fact now, one-quarter of all Christians are now perpetually church-shopping, hopping from one church to the next, looking for better program or preaching or counseling or something they keep looking for.

It's no wonder Jesus is so direct, in his parable of the bigger barn, when he calls the rich man who builds the bigger barn for his abundant harvest so he can quit work and lounge about doing what he wants, a fool, because the stuff we use to build the hedges that supposedly will make us, if not immortal, less mortal, are an illusion. An illusion that fooled the man that he had it made, when in fact, it wasn't what made him at all. The bigger barn is for Jesus, nothing but a missed opportunity. A wealth of potential experiences and relationships never realized because the rich farmer thought he could live off what was in the barn. Instead, now it sits, the unrealized potential of a man, now dead, his possessions to be fought over by those who are left behind.

Now don't misunderstand me: It's not the wealth that makes the guy foolish. Being wealthy doesn't make you inherently evil anymore than being poor makes you inherently holy. I've long since abandoned the notion the idea that the key to spirituality is to stay poor or powerless. That kind of idea can become every bit the destructive idol people will use to put themselves up on a pedestal above their brothers and sisters, as those who can travel first-class will use their wealth and power to do the same.

The sin of the rich man is the sin Jesus tells us we must be wary of here in the suburbs. The sin of believing that things sustain us. The sin of separating ourselves from one another, except largely only when it's mutually beneficial, in order to be protected and comfortable. The sin of leaving behind little more than a barn filled with stuff that will be divided up, and that's it because we never believed we could really amount to anything more. That's the sin that dogs us all.

The sin that deceives us into measuring the success of our life by our things and place in our tiny little corner of the world. A sin that might help us end up in a safe, comfortable car, while never looking for the opportunities now given to us to use our things and place to bring glory and honor to the living God. A sin which localizes the effect of our fruit and character, when really, all along, the joy and fulfillment from being able to reach beyond what you thought you could, is unrealized.

The unforced rhythms of grace lead us to live life at a a pace Jesus promises will be more sustainable, even if at times it can demand more of us. A pace, which after pondering for awhile, Paul says will lead to fruit in our lives that's more meaningful and deep. New measures of success like the depth of our affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick it out no matter what "it" might be. Measures of success that involve the depth of compassion in our heart, a conviction that basic holiness permeates things and people, a life filled with loyal commitments, where are able collaboratively with others to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

A life that can only begin if we change in our minds and hearts what we think the nature of the trophy and award will be when we get to the finish line. Because whatever it is you are racing after, will be what you'll end up with.

So for you, what wouid that be? And if, by chance, it's "more" of something, when will you know you have finished?

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