Saturday, August 16, 2008

No Longer Chasing the American Dream

When I was young, the children in our family received an allowance each week - ten cents for each year of age we had attained. I planned and saved and looked forward to the weekly handout, and I did remarkably well, saving to pay for half of my first ten-speed bike and still being able to buy a few gifts at Christmas. This allowance kept coming until I started working a few hours a week at a grocery store in our small town, where I made $3.15 an hour. At the time, I felt like I was on the road to financial independence.

My attitude then (and sometimes now) was to hoard and save. If I saw a penny on the ground, I would pick it up and add it to my fortune. Throwing it in a nearby fountain seemed like a waste, and I would never have been seen contributing any money in this way. Through my junior high years, I kept all of my money - paper and coin - in an empty one-gallon plastic milk jug buried behind things in the darkest corner of my closet. I kept a running tally of how much the jug contained on a sheet of paper tacked to the wall inside my closet. Sometimes, if I had a few free minutes, I would dump out the contents of the jug on my bed and re-count it all, just to make sure I had it counted correctly (and in the hope that I might discover two five-dollar bills stuck together).

In short, I was greedy and obsessed with money.

While I’m still considered “frugal” by those who know me best, I think I have finally come to put money in its proper place in the broader scheme of things. But I have a concern for my children. How will they view money (and the love of it) as they grow up? Will they follow in the footsteps of their father, or will they learn generosity and the real value of money when they are young? I’m proud to say that they appear to be far ahead of me in understanding God’s financial principles.

Recently, my son earned twenty dollars for helping out with nursery duties for an entire summer of weekly Bible classes. For him, that’s quite a lot of money. If I had earned that amount when I was ten, it would have been added to the milk jug and counted a dozen times in the first week alone. The timing of this payment coincided with our church’s annual Vacation Bible School. One of the VBS goals was to take up daily donations to apply toward missions and special needs. On one of these days, when they were trying to meet the set goal for donations, my wife observed my son putting in fifteen dollars to help the cause. After a few minutes, she walked over to him, and asked if he really wanted to contribute the majority of his recent earnings. His answer? “Mom, it’s just paper. And besides, the missionaries need it more than I do.”

To tell the truth, I’m in awe of that moment. My son understands a fundamental concept in his youth which I never did while growing up, and which still escapes me at times today. Two things strike me about what he did – he gave freely and generously, and he thought he was doing it anonymously. He didn’t seek glory or praise for his act. He did it because he truly thought it was the right thing to do, and there was no greed in his heart. Moments like this make me want to break down and weep at the wonder of little hearts and their innocence.

Over the last few years, my goals for my children have been turned upside-down. I don’t necessarily envision a future for them where they are richer than I, and where they are guaranteed to be more financially successful than previous generations of our family. I don’t aspire to have them only choose careers that pay at the upper end of the pay scale, or demand that they choose a career which assures them of upper-middle-class status. My goal for them is to love God, serve Him, and find a career or purpose which furthers His kingdom. I want them to have a pure understanding that, while we may live in a material world, we are called to rise above it and recognize that the spiritual aspect is the most important. Wealth, possessions, and earthly treasures are all going to burn up some day. What will be left?

1 Chronicles 29:11-12 tells us “Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all.” Wealth comes from God, and enables us to do things in this world. But it is no longer the pursuit of my life’s efforts. I am at the point where I am prepared to sacrifice a great deal of wealth and security, if it allows me to serve God better and to bring my family along with me. I think my children are already at that point.

One more piece of the story remains to be told. Four hours after starting this entry, God sent me a test. While walking through the airport coming home from a business trip, my path took me directly over a dime resting starkly on the dark blue carpet in an uncrowded section of the terminal. I am pretty certain that God put it there. I just walked on by.

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