As I breezed through this morning’s newspaper, I caught a headline that’s been far too familiar lately: "Jobless Claims Hit 5-Year High." More published pessimism. It almost seems to feed upon itself.
The stock market has stabilized since the stunning freefall of post-9/11, but numbers scrolling at the bottom of the cable channels seem distant compared to the anxiety that many people I know are feeling about the places where their bread is buttered. As a pastor in a local church, I see it spread across their faces on Sunday mornings.
People are in "bunker mentality." They are hunkering down in order to survive the economic storm, and the danger–despite the tremendous outpouring of charity we’ve seen since the terrorist attack–is we’ll become so risk-shy and self-focused we’ll forget to keep investing in society and in one another.
I can relate to those having a hard time waking up to the realization that the roaring 1990s economy has been reduced to a murmur. What a ride it was. For so long, we had convinced ourselves that technology and progress were invincible. Then came plummeting Internet stocks and plunging planes, and suddenly we have had to start looking to other places for true security, both economic and emotional.
We seem hard-wired as human beings to brush off the reality of life’s cyclical nature, with a tendency to get caught up in the moment. We don’t step back enough and see the big picture. The larger view shows us that the seasons of plenty and scarcity, of peace and war, fluctuate and always will. Our goal should then be to make each day count.
When the economy was soaring over the last decade, the condition and need of the human heart and soul remained static. We are a people desperate, starving, parched for grace, and the degree to which we accept it and pass it out to one another will determine how we survive this current storm and plan ahead for the return of the good times. (Yes, they’ll be back).
Since it tends to usually hit much closer to home, we seem to fear economic maladies more than threats or realities of war and terrorism. Dread of domestic terrorism has begun to balance this anxiety, but the up-close struggles that impact our lifestyles and plans dominate our focus until something larger than ourselves grabs our attention.
Lots of people have awoken during the past year to see a storm ahead and realized they haven’t saved much money after all.
A lot of them haven’t given much away either.
We need to find true shelter from the waves in a life where our faith, finances, family and friendships work together. The inner peace that comes from a sense of responsible living is invaluable, and gives hope and guidance to others who are drowning while we find ourselves in a position to throw them a lifeline.
Christ spoke of money more than any other topic during His ministry, understanding as only God could how our attitude toward our resources and toys either strangles or liberates us. His teaching transcended the Old Testament commandment for giving 10 percent of our income for God’s purposes, encouraging us to realize that all we possess is a gift flowing from the Life-Giver himself.
Ten percent was not easy for my wife Jenna and I to tackle. One day, the preacher’s sermon convicted us to the point where there was no turning back. We started writing that 10 percent check before any other, and the trust we felt inside exceeded any anxiety over having less cash to throw around.
This was right before we were set to pack all of our stuff and head off to seminary, and we needed dough. The expenses related to three years of graduate school, compared with our resources, showed that things didn’t work on paper. But they worked in the heart of God, and he opened doors we could never have seen except through eyes of faith.
It takes a little time to develop that eyesight, though. And my own vision is still pretty murky.
Life seen through the lens of stewardship is a major shift for our "grab all the goods while you can" outlook that is pounded into us right from the start. It is a transition from an attitude of collecting and retreating to one of contributing, mingling and sharing. It is a withering away of the artificial divisions we construct between faith and vocation, between family/friends and strangers, between spirituality and practical living.
I am seeing more and more how we need to be big-picture people who have a firm understanding that the resources provided to us, whatever the amount, are to be used for the good of others. That is our only hope for an other-centered society that pulls far together more often than just during the 9/11s of history.
We will prosper, and we will suffer. The rotation won’t stop. As we do what is glorifying to God and helpful toward our known and unknown neighbors, our prosperity is seen as a blessing and drives us to achieve more so we can give more. Our suffering is viewed, then, not as an unexpected disaster but a reminder that we are creatures of grace, and as an opportunity to strengthen our faith in God and each other. We discover how the foundation of sharing holds together. We do not have to keep rebuilding something that was never destroyed.
I believe this outlook can get started for you today. Are you worried about this being the last day in your cubicle world of predictability and corporate e-mail? Or do you fear that when you graduate, you won’t even have the chance to get a pink slip?
Take the time and effort to ensure that your skills, attitude and knowledge remain sharp. Find ways to do your job more efficiently in order to help your employer. Declare war on waste.
Consider your vocational goals across the next decade, and diligently take steps toward laying the floorboards for that future reality. Step back and observe your gifts, talents and wiring, and apply those unique distinctives toward professional and volunteer efforts that bless others.
Take a new attitude toward your paycheck when and if it arrives. Give away what you can from the start toward efforts that help people experience grace. Watch the good that materializes around you. Pay off your debts and don’t accumulate anymore if you can avoid it. Sacrifice what you don’t need. There’s much more than you think. Understand, as U2 recently taught us, all that you can’t leave behind.
Then feel the peace. Observe how faith begins to conquer fear, Wall Street and unemployment claims not withstanding. Wipe away the remaining sleepies and gaze at a God-shaped world with grace-blown breezes instead of foreboding howls of hopelessness. The progress, prosperity and poverty of human history will one day pass away, but grace will last.