Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How more money might not make you happier

In last week's post, I talked about how J. D. Roth's book, Money: The Missing Manual starts out with a discussion of happiness. Here is the graphic that has stuck with me: The Fulfillment Curve.

Here's how it works.

  • When you spend money on survival needs (food, clothing, shelter, safety), that money delivers you a great deal of fulfillment. 
  • When you buy basic comforts (a chair, a pillow, a second pair of pants), these items bring you fulfillment but not as much as your survival needs. 
  • Eventually, especially if you are an American, you likely get to spend money on luxuries (a house, a more comfortable bed, a wardrobe of clothing that is stylish and functional enough to make you feel pretty good). This puts you at the top of The Fulfillment Curve. 

The mistake many people make is that they keep hungering to spend more. Here's how Roth describes the plunge over the top of The Fulfillment Curve:
Buying a sofa made you happy, so you buy recliners to match. Your DVD collection grows from 20 titles to 200, and you drink expensive hot chocolate made from Peruvian cocoa beans. Soon your house is so full of Stuff that you have to buy a bigger home — and rent a storage unit. (p. 10)
Here's the problem. This sentence demands to be read slowly and repeatedly:
Beyond the peak, Stuff starts to take control of your life. (p. 10)
Paul said, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal 5:1). Slavery to keep enhancing lifestyle even if it might mean going into debt is the way many, if not most, Americans live. 

If you are reading this blog, you are probably wealthy enough to have passed the Enough point long ago. What would it mean to find Enough and cut back to it? For one thing, it would mean being happier.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Connections between money, possessions and happiness

I am gearing up to lead a discussion this Sunday at Sanctuary about possessions and happiness. Jesus warns people not to make too much of money. For the typical American -- even the typical American Christian -- this message falls on deaf ears.

I will argue that Jesus wasn't out to require his followers to live in poverty. Rather, he wanted them to be acutely aware how a desire for money and all it can buy us can worm its way into our hearts and become the key by which we make decisions. Be free, and you can live free -- and this can happen for both the poor and the rich.

Personal finance write J. D. Roth holds a fascinating discussion of the relationship between possessions and happiness in the first chapter of his book, Your Money: The Missing Manual. He makes the argument that whereas money can help bring you limited happiness, money's impact on happiness is actually much smaller than we usually think. After you have gained the basic necessities of food, safety, clothing and shelter, the amount of additional happiness money can buy you drops dramatically. Buying that fourteenth shirt or top to put in your closet simply doesn't make you that happy for that long. (Shh. Don't tell the advertising industry we have figured this out.)

The key to being happy? Roth says to figure out what "Enough" is for you. More on that in coming days...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Loving others and loving self

A couple days ago I posted a collection of quotes from Don Richard Riso on "real love." One of those quotes -- a proverb, really -- led me to think more deeply. 

"Real love seeks nothing for itself but is not self-forgetting."

There is so much wisdom in this proverb that it is worth its own post. I have spent my adult life seeking to grow in real love. Much of what I have done has focused on the first half of the proverb: "seeks nothing for itself." This has meant finding ways to lay down my life for the good of others. As a spiritual leader, I am always looking to influence people to love in this way. 

Lately I have been learning that the second half -- "not self-forgetting" -- is just as important as the first half. Believe it or not, this has come as a bit of a revelation to me. I come from a family that leans toward seeking the good of others, even sometimes at the expense of self (and family). For some folks, it can be difficult to give ourselves permission to be good to ourselves. But the God of the Bible is just as much in this side of the proverb as he is in the other side. You might have heard that love extends both to others and to yourself, but when God brings it home to you, it will cause you both to rejoice and to rethink many things.

For one thing, I rethink what Jesus meant when he quoted the Scriptures: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." (Matt 22:39)

We all need to grow in both sides of this proverb, and different seasons of life will open up new growth in one side or the other — more authentically seeking the good of others or seeking the good of oneself. This means taking decisive new steps to build others up or take better care of yourself (and your family). Which side of the proverb do you feel most challenged by today or in this season? What is the invitation that is open in front of you? 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Why we love Christmas traditions

Why do we love the Christmas season so much?

This morning I head a short interview of Bob Richter, author of A Very Vintage Christmas. I haven't read the book, but I connected with his comments. Richter says the reason we love the Christmas season is that it allows us to pause and become sentimental. It's like our whole culture gives itself permission to look into one another's eyes and tear up just a little.

Christmas traditions are like historical connective tissue. An old glass ornament knits together childhood and adulthood. Grandma's plastic Santa reminds us of her sugar cookies and what the house smelled like when she was baking.

The spirit of Richter's interview was this: go ahead and indulge yourself in the sentimentality of Christmas. Gifts are only a springboard for the real treat: having a heart-to-heart connection with others. And the theology of Christmas is just as simple: God dwells in those connections!

So, what's your favorite Christmas tradition or ornament or treat?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"Think Advent" and the joy of the season

 This is the season of Advent. 'Advent' means "arrival, appearing." It's one thing to say "Advent" in a religious way, like you might say "independence" on the Fourth of July. But what happens if you think Advent? That means paying attention to how God is appearing today, in this moment. It means practicing EAT -- "Enjoy-and-Thank."

"Think Advent": How is God arriving or appearing in your day right now, especially in the simple things you might otherwise take for granted?
For instance, in this morning's devotional readings, there was a sentence, "He causes me to dwell in safety." "Thinking Advent" helps me to stop and pay attention to elements of life I would normally take for granted.  So I took the thought from the devotions and combined it with Advent. "Dwelling in safety... Advent... How is God appearing in ways that give me safety?" ImmAdvent!
ediately I thought about having a safe, warm house this morning. I also envisioned our church community, surrounding me like a forest surrounds a tree so the tree is not alone to the elements. Today God is here, and I can write this post because He causes me to dwell in safety.

How is Advent happening for you today? Here are some starter questions...

How is God causing you to dwell in safety?
How is he leading you in paths for your utmost good and the good of someone else?
How is he forgiving your propensity toward destruction of yourself and others?
How is he helping you let down your guard so you might give and receive love in simple acts of kindness?

Now I invite you to "think Advent" in your own ways. And see if the joy of the season doesn't start to rise in your heart!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A way to deal with life's trials: "enjoy-and-thank"

Sometimes it feels like life is one long wrestling match against a stronger opponent. Very few things come easily. How we come through life's many challenges is a matter of having a biblical perspective and some practical steps to take.

Our family bought a house this summer. The inspector said, "For a 60-year-old house, this place is in great shape." He went on to say those magical words: "it has really good bones." Well, no sooner did we move in than things stopped working and we discovered all sorts of problems. One morning Susan was turning on the shower, and the shower handle came off in her hand. You know, stuff like that. On the more serious side, when Sacramento got its first good rain of the year, I came home to find water dripping steadily from the ceiling in the living room onto one of the television speakers we had bought five days earlier. Living in this house has felt like a wrestling match in which I'm being outpointed rather badly.

At times, Susan's and my marriage has felt like a wrestling match. So has our relationship with our kids. And our jobs. It can easily feel like your getting outpointed. You're going through your week just trying not to get pinned. Let alone the thought of winning. Yeah, right.

Today I started the book of James for my devotional reading. He takes it for granted that life will often get you in a chokehold. That's an important point, because it's easy as a Christian to carry an expectation that God is going to remove most of the difficulties from our lives. Not so. God doesn't call us out of the fight. He gives us better skills and instincts with which to fight.

So, James says, when life has thrown you to the mat and you're having a hard time moving, let's call this a "trial." Your first key is perspective. James would say, "Repeat after me. Trials are good." A trial produces a lot of decision points. Will you remain on God's path for you or find a way out? Persevering under trial cultivates depth of character and spiritual maturity. The you that you really want to be can only come about this way. So, rather than giving in to anxiety and hopelessness, focus on how good it is to be challenged to your limits, and "consider it pure joy." That's more than just seeing the silver lining in the cloud. It's having such a complete change of perspective that you consider a trial pure joy. Complete joy. Total joy. 100% joy. This shift in perspective has long been a game changer for me. But I still find myself complaining too much, so I have to renew my perspective from time to time.

In addition to taking on a biblical perspective, I've found a simple way to keep my mind in a joyful place. Enjoy-and-thank. What is there to enjoy? Right now I'm thinking about how refreshing the cold, clean water I'm sipping is. Last night it was the sound of a soft rain falling in our back yard. I thought, "This is one of the greatest rain houses I've ever been in." You know what I mean? I love rain, and some places accentuate the peaceful sound of water. (It helps that the roof had some work done, and it appears not to be leaking.)

So, I am simply enjoying things, and I'm letting my enjoyment be a prayer of thanks. "God, this water tastes good." "Wow, look at the morning sun on the redwood tree." "The clock makes such a comforting sound." "I love Snickers bars that are left over after Halloween."

So, there's a shift in perspective and a practice. May we be people who live biblically even during life's trials.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Inside the head of King David: "Get out of bed!"

Ever wish you could get inside the head of King David? It's not too hard. Of all the biblical writers, King David is the most open about his self-talk. But I particularly love this one: "Come on, self. Get out of bed! Sing!"

Here's the scene. King Saul has been chasing young David around the countryside. Saul wants to run a spear through David's gut. Psalm 57 takes place in a cave where David has taken refuge. 

With the terror of having a bounty put on his head by the most powerful man in the land, can you imagine how exhausted David must be? It's about 5:00 in the morning -- not quite light yet. All is quiet except the sounds of David's companions sleeping. Here's what he says to himself:
"Awake, my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn." (verse 8)
It's basically a pep talk to himself. "Come on, self. Get out of bed! Sing!"

Inside the head of King David: The greatest worshipper of all time had to discipline himself to worship. But that's how much he loved God.

David reminds me:
  • ... to be gracious to myself and others when we don't feel like worshiping God or connecting with him.
  • ... to take a closer look at the excuses I make. I mean, no one is trying to run a spear through my gut.
  • ... to take small, daily choices seriously. In verse 7, he says he is "steadfast." Steadfastness is made in those moments when it's decision time. Like 5:00 in the morning.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

When you don't understand the Bible

We are free not to understand everything in the Bible. There's no need to stress when we come across something we don't get. Sure, do a little historical homework. Read the notes in your study Bible or some other resource. But sometimes there just aren't any clear answers. I am reminded of that as I prepare to preach this Sunday on a passage I'm not sure anyone really understands (Matthew 8:28-34 -- a story that involves Jesus, two violent men, a mob of demons, and a herd of pigs). I've consulted three biblical scholars, and there is no clear consensus about all the aspects of this story. But here's the good news. We don't have to force the Bible into categories or expectations we construct -- as if we were trying to reshape jello with a hammer. We can let the Bible be what it is. And it is sometimes a mystery.

So in our puzzlement, we are encouraged to read on. Read consistently. And read with a loose grip. Even with the mysteries, there is enough clarity in the Bible to completely reshape anyone's life.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The man who took eight years to learn one Bible verse

A long time ago there was an illiterate monk named Pambo. He was young and new to the monk's life in the desert, so he went to an older monk for advice. The old man began reading a Psalm: "I said, 'I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin...'" (Ps 38:1). Young Pambo stopped the master, saying, "My father, if I haven't learned the beginning of the text, I won't learn the rest." So he went away. For the next eight years he concentrated on obeying this one verse of Scripture. This meant being silent until he learned to speak only after considering whether what he would say would be life-giving or not.

When Pambo returned, the old man said, "Where have you been? I haven't seen you for eight years. Why didn't you come back to hear the rest of the Psalm?" Pambo replied, "Since I hadn't learned the first verse, I didn't return to you to get the second, since God had not given me the grace until now to learn it."

Young Pambo grew to become one of the great monks of the desert and someone sought out by all sorts of people for his wisdom and godliness. Near the end of his seventy years, Pambo reflected that since he became a monk, he had never spoken a word he regretted. He chalked this up not to his own determination but to God's grace.

In writing this story, I also thought of Brennan Manning, whose spiritual director once said to him, "Brennan, you don't need more insights into the faith. You've got enough insights to last you three hundred years. The most urgent need in your life is to trust what you have received."

It makes one pause and think about how seriously we take (a) the Bible's cautions about "sins of the tongue," (b) Scripture in general, and (c) our need to be patient as God works within us.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The brain science behind why small groups are important

It's September, and small discipleship groups all over America are firing up afresh for the fall. Here's how being in a small group can contribute to your long term spiritual growth. It's about brain science.

Authors Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee begin their book Primal Leadership with the science of how people affect one another. Among the three main centers of the brain, the limbic brain is our emotional center. If you take a moment to survey how you feel right now about different things, you are accessing your limbic brain. The thing is, Goleman et al point out that the limbic brain is an open-loop system. That means our limbic brains are directly affected by the limbic brains of others around us. It's what allows a mother to soothe her crying infant. It's what makes it so fun to watch a football game with other fans of your favorite team. It can make you love or dread the thought of going to work on a Monday morning.

When we get together, our brains can enter into a dance without us even noticing what is happening. The limbic dance doesn't happen so much if we are paying for our food at a restaurant, but in a group where we have grown close to others, when someone opens up about the grief she feels after losing a loved one, the dance happens quickly and powerfully.

These emotional brain dances are incredibly important for discipleship. We can quickly pick up new information about God and the spiritual life through our neocortex. We love learning this way, and it is important for us. It's why we relish a good sermon or a retreat that makes us think. But real, long-term change happens when our limbic centers become rewired, and we come to respond to situations differently at a gut level. That's what Jesus was getting at when he said a good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. When the limbic brain becomes rewired -- and it can, even into old age -- the tree is changing, down to its roots. If you're pursuing God, you probably feel a deep desire to be changed by God, down to your roots.

So our limbic brain is important for long-term change. And our limbic brain is directly affected by others, especially those with whom we have grown close. This means that if we want to become like Jesus, we need to be with others who are on the same journey. We aren't created to go solo.

So let those small groups meet. Let there be limbic dances in living rooms all over America. And let the music playing be that of God's Word.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hearing and responding to the Still Small Voice

This morning when I least expected it, I experienced a sudden, spur-of-the-moment prompt to go out of my way and do something good for someone. This happens pretty regularly, especially when I have been enjoying prayerful communion with God. I call it the Kind Little Thought.

For me, Kind Little Thoughts have been prompts like telling my boys I love them before they go off to school (rather than just grunt at them), reconciling a conflict more quickly than I want to (when I feel I'm in the right, it's easy to be slow to reconcile), or expressing something I appreciate about someone (instead of just thinking it and not saying it).

Now, here are three convictions I have about the phenomenon of the Kind Little Thought:

  1. The Kind Little Thought is more often than not the Still Small Voice (of God within me).
  2. The Kind Little Thought is an invitation to open a valve and release God's love by doing the corresponding Kind Little Action.
  3. Kind Little Actions, done with no strings attached, can contribute to Great Big Changes.

Kind Little Thought --> Kind Little Action --> Great Big Changes. Sounds pretty good, right?

Only sometimes the Kind Little Thought doesn't get converted into the Kind Little Action. Like today, for instance. This morning I went to yoga class and afterward as the students were milling around at the door, our instructor made an off-hand comment about needing to vacuum the floor of the studio before she left. Suddenly into my head popped a Kind Little Thought: "Vacuum the floor for her." I hemmed and hawed. I looked at my shoes. I pointed out to myself that I didn't know where the vacuum was.

I stepped into the doorway of the office. There was the vacuum, standing at attention and ready for use. I felt I was about to lose the wrestling match with this Kind Little Thought. But before I could be pinned down, I dodged left. I told myself that if I started vacuuming, I would interrupt the conversation going on among the instructor and the other students. And that wouldn't be very considerate, would it?

I saw my opening. I walked back to the front, gathered my things, said goodbye to everyone, and ducked out.

So lame! What was such a big deal about vacuuming the floor that I would squirm my way out of it? I don't know. Sometimes we are a mystery to ourselves -- and not in a good way.

This morning at yoga class, a Kind Little Thought did not get converted into a Kind Little Action. I'm owning it, asking for more of God's softening grace in my heart, and moving on. I want to be ready if another Kind Little Thought pops up this weekend. And I pray a Kind Little Thought or two will pop up for you today, tonight, and/or this weekend. We are together addressed by the Psalmist:
"Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts..." (Ps 95:7-8).

Thursday, August 27, 2015

How to tell what's really important: use the "down the road" test

One axiom that has risen to the top for me is, "Don't sweat the small stuff." Being able to separate what's really important from what's simply bugging me or clamoring for attention is a critical skill for negotiating life when there is so much coming at us on a daily basis. 

Take your phone for example. Which platform should you work with? iPhone? Droid? Something else? And once you get your phone, which apps are the best ones to use? How useful will this phone be in keeping you abreast of what's happening in your personal world and in the world at large?

So many choices. So little time.

How do you weed out the truly important from the unimportant? Here's a took I recently found in Real Simple magazine's September 2015 issue: use the "down the road" test. This means asking,
How important will this be a few years down the road?
Real Simple asked five thinkers to identify something we stress over that won't be a big deal down the road. All five responses are full of wisdom. Sheryl Wudunn, a Puhlitzer Prize-winning author, counsels us not to sweat "Problems of Privilege." She means things like choosing which smartphone to get, being hurt because we didn't get invited to a party, being annoyed because we didn't get the best price on a flight, and so on. Wudunn concludes,
The little things can cause stress and crowd the big picture. You may miss a real opportunity to solve a problem or make a difference in the world.
Christians share a beautiful calling to participate with God in making a difference in the world. Jesus called the big picture "the kingdom of heaven." If we don't want to miss opportunities that pop up in our everyday world, we can use the "down the road" test to separate what is important from what isn't. Having coffee with that homeless person may be far more important than how clearly you make your point in your next work meeting.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Why Jimmy Carter may be more influential in his 90s than when he was president

Jimmy Carter's cancer has brought him into the public eye in a new way. With his mortality so close at hand, many Americans are reflecting on Jimmy Carter, the man. And I, for one, like what I see. It is good for my soul -- and for the American soul -- to have a political leader to look up to. As I remember him, Jimmy Carter was a marginally effective President. But I have a feeling his imprint on America may be greater in his 90s than it was when he was the most powerful man in the world.

Carter has attempted to live quietly and steadily as a public servant. There is a constancy about him that the rest of us would do well to observe and take in. Here's one way it has showed itself: Carter goes to church.

When Jimmy Carter was president, the news on a weekend would go something like this: "The president went to church this morning. And in other news..." The president quietly went to church, and that wasn't the real news. There is a lesson in this for us.

Carter's quiet habit of going to church reflects who he was and is. He goes to church not to make an appearance but because it's important to him. His faith draws him to church.

Carter's quiet habit of going to church also has made him who he was and is. He goes to church to be trained as a disciple of Jesus. His faith grows as he is in church.

In a clamorous age of selfies, vlog hits and viral videos where jockeying for attention is seen as the way to get ahead, we do well to observe Jimmy Carter's quiet habit of going to church. Carter's story shows us that much like the tortoise and the hare, a "long obedience in the same direction" will allow us to leave the deepest and best imprint on the world.