Friday, April 13, 2012

Counting Joy with Dollar Signs?

I've told you before:  this blog is as much for me as it is for you.

In fact, many times, I'm talking more to myself than anybody else.  So you'll excuse me as I work out some cathartic therapy regarding money.

Money, my lack of it, and my frequent envy of people who have way more of it than I do.

People like the Dallas couple who are hosting an information session for a missions organization I used to support (before the missionary I supported through them transferred to a different organization).  I still get all the mailings from this prior missions agency, and I received an invitation today to attend this year's get-together with its leaders who serve overseas.

Despite already knowing I'm not going, I Google-Maps'ed the address on the invitation out of curiosity, because the last time I did attend their annual event, it was held at a posh McMansion in University Park, one of Dallas' most exclusive enclaves.

And no, this year's meeting isn't in University Park, but in an equally-exclusive neighborhood near the compound of former president George W. Bush.  This home is even grander than the manse in University Park, with an ornate wrought-iron fence along the street, a sweeping circle drive leading up to an impressive two-story entryway, and opulent urns holding flowers in each corner of the motor court in front of the front door.  It looks like a miniature French palace.

Cake was probably on the event's menu, too.

I confess that I was disgusted.  Embarrassed that I will never own such a home, and even somewhat chagrined that I don't even have the drive to push myself to earn the money it takes to own such a home.  After all, a friend once told me that the only thing keeping me from earning the big money Dallas' elite earn is the enormous ambition.  He told me a lot of the wealthy people he knows are dumber than I am; they just have that drive to excel in careers that pay big bucks.

But that's small comfort, isn't it, knowing I have the intelligence it takes, but not the thirst?  When I'm living where I'm living, tithing and giving what I think I can to cross-cultural missions, and these people are doing the same thing - at least, ostensibly - while living in a $3.4 million house.  At least, that's its appraised value for tax purposes.  It would likely sell for much more, especially with its five bedrooms, four fireplaces, and two - count 'em, two - wet bars.

Yes, I researched the property on Dallas County's tax site.  Is that really bad of me?

Hey - I was disgusted, remember?  What business did this missions organization have continuing to pester me with requests for money when at least one of their board members lives this kind of lifestyle?  Remember, $3.4 million is just the taxable value; then there's the cost of furnishing a place like this, paying the summer air conditioning bills, having a small army of landscapers grooming the grounds every week... and I'm pretty sure the lady of the house doesn't clean all of its 10,000 square feet of living space by herself.

And what did a board member at an evangelical missions agency need with two wet bars, anyway?

Maybe part of my frustration stems from the fact that I did my taxes this morning, and as a freelance writer, you can guess that the process - and its outcome - didn't exactly flood me with joy.  Isn't it odd how the IRS can actually make you feel guilty about being paid for your work?  Alas, even if I had been getting a nice, fat refund this year, it likely wouldn't have put me in a better frame of mind when I learned about the home owned by this mission agency's board member.

Let's face it:  I struggle with envy.  Sometimes, I don't "struggle" with envy, but that simply means that at those times, I've caved in completely to it.  Wallowing in a good old, green-eyed fit.

As they say in pentecostal churches, "Can I get a witness?!"  Indeed, I know this is not an experience unique to me.  And I daresay the owners of this home might even look with envy towards the homeowners at both ends of their street who each own an even more palatial mansion with exquisite English gardens and separate gated service entrances.  I saw them - on the same Google-Maps search.

Indeed:  wealth, like almost everything else, is relative.

Which reminds me of a sermon I once heard from the former pastor at my church, Park Cities Presbyterian.  Park Cities Presbyterian counts among its congregation a sizable stable of millionaires and at least one billionaire.  Yup - the guy's on several Forbes lists.  Suffice it to say that it's a wealthy church, with a budget before the Great Recession that ran over $12 million annually.

You'd think a church like Park Cities Presbyterian wouldn't have any problems with money, but you'd be surprised.  Many people in the church don't tithe at all, and that's the problem.  I used to be one of those people.  For years, even after I started attending, I'd send my tithe to my old church in New York City, figuring they needed my money more than my Dallas church with its legions of uber-wealthy congregants.

Yet Dr. Ryan, our former senior pastor, caught on to the misguided thinking of people like me at Park Cities.  One Sunday, he bluntly challenged all of us to reconsider the principle of the tithe.  First of all, it's not our money we're giving to the church; it's God's money we're returning to him.  Second of all, we're not supposed to give in relation to what we suspect other people are giving.  Proof of that is the widow's mite, where a destitute elderly woman gave all she had, while people far wealthier than she were giving a far less generous portion of their money to the temple.

And the third thing?  God looks at the heart.  He looks at why we're giving, not just what.  He wants cheerful givers, not people who give out of obligation.  He wants people to return a portion of His money back to Him so that we'll need to trust Him to provide our needs.

It's not so much the amount, or percentage, of the tithes and offerings, but our attitude.

Shucks, I'm probably guilty on all counts more often than not.

So, what is the amount we're supposed to return to him?  Many people say it's ten percent, but like one of my former pastors at another church, Randy Frazee, liked to say, "ten percent is a convenient starting point.  We're not going to stop you from giving more!"

Basically, money is something you and I use to gauge how well we're doing.  But we're comparing ourselves with each other when we do that, aren't we?  And what kind of standard are you?  What kind of standard am I?  You're pegging your worth on something as unreliable and faulty as me, and I'm reciprocating.

No offense, by the way.  That's just the way it is.  And even though you're probably wealthier than I am, do you ever give out of true joy?  I'm wealthier than some folks, and I'm rarely joyful when I tithe.  It's usually more obligation than anything else, but the funny thing is, God doesn't "need" our money.  His Kingdom work won't sputter to a stop if you and I don't return to Him a portion of what's His to begin with.  The whole point of tithes and offerings is to increase our happiness in service to Him.

This means I shouldn't care if the board member at this cross-cultural missions organization lives in a multi-million dollar mansion.  I shouldn't even care if he and his wife are tithing fifty to sixty percent of their income, which means this home of theirs pales in comparison to what they could afford if they didn't tithe so much.

Dear Lord God, please help me to be satisfied and joyful and giving, and not to make any of this a competition. 

After all, it's not "he who dies with the most toys," but "he who dies with the most joy."

Which, actually, means Christ has already won, since He counted it "all joy" to be crucified for us.

The payment that matters most, amen?

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