The first Sunday of February is Transfiguration Sunday, followed by Ash Wednesday ringing in Lent. It is a reflective time to wrestle with sin and rediscover our need for salvation.
Have you ever been puzzled or bemused by Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) before Ash Wednesday. The theme here is “Feasts because the Fast is coming.” But this year the Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday tension is something I’m feeling in a different way. It is in the air because of our economic environment.
I’m not the only person in our church with a stock portfolio or a retirement fund. Some read the Epistle to the Saints on Wall Street, (the Journal) religiously. Some click on Web pages and scan how their investments are doing on the host page between the daily devotion reading and evening prayers.
Anybody else watch their annuity fund drop 10 percent in value over the last 60 days, or daily watched their portfolio hourly dip and rise like a design for the next Busch Gardens roller coaster?
Nervous aren’t we? “Sub-prime” really is a four-letter word.
These economic uncertainties make the buzz term “economic stimulus” sound to our ears like “Joy to the World!” The objective of an economic stimulus is to get people shopping. The stimulus methods may vary, but the goal is the same: Shop!
Some say give a person who paid $300 in taxes a $600 rebate. Others say give business a tax break to buy new equipment, which means somebody selling the equipment makes a few bucks to spend, somebody else will hire workers to manufacture the equipment (producing income for shopping) and minimally someone will draw a wage shipping the equipment from Japan or Korea.
The end result will be more money for workers to spend, and these workers will shop! Hallelujah, thank you Jesus! When people shop, all our lives are better. This is an economic reality older than Marco Polo. Shopping alleviates recessions. This is Economics 101.
A few weeks I stood in the local Sam’s Club looking at the latest iPod. A fellow came by me saying: “Hey, I got the 80 gigabyte online through eBay for $104, lots less than here. God, I love eBay, I’m addicted! I could sit there and buy stuff all day long.”
Strangely, as this fellow passed by, I didn’t think, “Wow, that guy is a patriot shopping for the good of our country, gladly going in debt for the good of the rest of us.” Maybe this guy thought I was his priest and he needed to confess. I did think about Isaiah’s words, “He was wounded for our transgressions, and by his bruises we are healed.”
Primarily, I heard an out-of-control spender. This guy had a confessed consumption addiction. As one who once was given the nickname “super consumer” by a seminary classmate, the addiction I had just heard described was familiar. The addiction had taught me lessons about rolling credit card-debt over to home equity credit lines. I’ve “been there, done that.”
I put the Apple cardboard sleeve back in the rack, picked up some flowers, and headed quickly toward the checkout.
Most Americans’ greatest investment is their home. Home values have grown at record pace in the past five years, yet our net worth savings have decreased overall during the same period. Many people have spent away on credit card purchases their most valuable asset.
Something is out of balance around us. Our economic patriotism and our impoverished consuming materialism are in fact two sides of the same coin. Our culture has adopted a salvation message of borrow, shop, consume and rent self-storage units so we can purchase more.
We own more stuff than we need or can use. We run up high personal debt and celebrate that consumer addiction is good for our common economy. Our debt load grows deeper and deeper.
I’m not an economics specialist, but as one who knows a little Bible and some of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, my sense is that we are nearing midnight of Mardi Gras and are in desperate need of Lent.
We live in a society that needs to follow Christ into the wilderness. Hear our Lord’s answer to the tempter salesman who says the “whole world can be yours.”
Jesus replied, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.”
We need to hear our Lord when he says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal. Store up treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is your heart will be also.”
We need to hear Jesus words: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you eat or what you will drink, or about your body, and what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing ¦. Strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
Remember when Jesus sent the disciples on their first mission? “Take no gold, silver, or copper in your belts, and no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, or sandals or staff.” “Birds have nests and foxes their dens, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Where do Christians hear a compelling word teaching us “to love Ebay” or “Shop until you drop and do it for the kingdom,” or “The winner is the one who dies with the most toys?”
Mardi Gras is near, and the proclamation of salvation by consumption is all around us. Thank God for the gospel, a simple call to make the Lord our Lord, to simplify, to trust, to take up a cross. Lent, fasting and restraint are part and parcel of salvation, following a man along the way to a cross. Yes, this Lenten journey can save us.
Larry Coleman is senior minister of Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va.
Eyeing Easter, Walking through Lent: A Bible Study with Global Baptists