My good friend, Justin Stone, who teaches philosophy at Valencia college, has a really profound way of saying it: “I try to own a few really nice things.” Now, here is the context in which I find that so profound.
My wife, Nikki, and I are trying to be more intentional and faithful about how we use our money.
As three steps forward, two steps back followers of the Way of Jesus, we’re trying to live up to these core commitments:
Sounds simple enough even as I write it out like that. But I find that it was so much easier to be an idealist about how we walk this walk back in seminary and college, when we had no spending money beyond what paid the bills and kept us in Ramen. It was so much easier to be a moral absolutist back then. I remember somewhat obnoxiously pronouncing to my friends in college that I was a minimalist. I might have even told them that they had license to shoot me, if I ever ended up spending my weekends at Lowe’s, buying tools that I don’t want in order to fix up more house than what I need.
Well…guess where I sit right now, as I’m writing this, and guess where I spent last weekend.
It’s not that we’ve totally compromised our ideals about money. But, at some point, we were faced with a choice between renting our money into a bottomless pit, month after month, or seeing a small (surprisingly small!) part of it become that percentage of the house which we actually own (two closets and half the garage, at time of writing). At some point, we were faced with a choice between buying a frame for the guest bed, or letting guests sleep on the floor. At some point we were faced with a choice between actually fixing the leak in the roof or having a Red Alert Class 4 mold storm in our attic.
None of these contingencies are mentioned when Jesus tells the rich young man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21).
I don’t want to make it sound like we’re just at the mercy of these life transitions, and we’ve had no say in the matter. And I kind of want to punch myself for writing such a WASP-y sounding blog. But I’m trying to tell the truth about my life right now—or as we say it in the Castle Church Faith Community, I’m confessing. So there you have it, college me. I said it. I’m a sellout.
Given that I’m a sellout, the question then becomes, Is being a sellout an all or nothing deal? Do our things just own us now, if we can’t fully divest ourselves of them? Or can we partly sellout and partly be devoted to taking the power back in small ways? Do Nikki and I throw our hands up and quit striving for faithfulness, if we know we’ll never get it 100 percent right? In the Lutheran way of seeing the world, the answer is no.
Luther was a moral realist. He wasn’t crazy about moral absolutism, because it never seems to make people any better. It just keeps setting an impossibly high bar for them until they give up entirely. Or they just start lying to themselves. For instance, a moral absolutist, who is aware of the global food crisis, says, “Welp, I don’t think I could ever be a full fledged vegan, so I’m just going to eat steak three times a day. In fact, I think the scientists are just making it all up. There is no food crisis.” Or they go the other direction and say, “Welp, I ate some quinoa for dinner last night, so that pretty much solves it.” Both of these avenues are what Lutherans call “self-justification.” So, every week, we start telling the truth about our lives by reminding each other, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
For Lutherans, having confessed this, it becomes possible, in small ways, to fight back against the torrent of compromises that life rushes upon us. If perfectionism is a lie, the pressure to be perfect is a nonissue. So do something, at least.
When my friend, Justin says, “I try to own a few really nice things,” it’s profound what he’s not saying. He’s not saying, “a lot of really nice things.” There is a limit to how much we need to indulge ourselves to enjoy God’s good gifts, and surpassing that limit always complicates our lives; it never improves them (my understanding of the “tree of knowledge” story in Genesis). He is also not saying, “a few pieces of junk.” There is a certain thoughtfulness and self-awareness that goes into indulging in those couple of things that actually do bring us a bit of happiness versus just “Supermarket Sweep”-ing the store shelves like some kind of ravenous animal. He is being a Lutheran. He is making a bold and liberating pronouncement that it is possible to strive for a life of faithfulness and intentionality, albeit far short of perfection.
We can do this because Lutherans have never believed that Lutherans could save the world. Only God can do that. When we do manage to use our resources in redeeming and life-affirming ways, we’re not saving anyone. But we are saying, “We think God’s plan for the world looks something like this.”
What Aaron, myself, and hopefully you all, with us, are trying to create at Castle Church is a space for “a few nice things.” We’ll drink a couple of really quality beers rather than an 18-pack of something cheap. We’ll turn a few TVs on when there is an Orlando City SC match, but we won’t have 37 TVs playing white noise at all hours of the day. We’ll have a few food recipes born of the love and creativity of a real chef, but we won’t serve a 12 page menu of things that we don’t know how to do well.
And most importantly, we’ll try to cut out some of the white noise of our lives, so that we can really hear and build community with the person sitting across from us.
Grace and peace,
On how Castle Church is stirring up a movement from a brewery in Florida.