Deuteronomy 14: 22-29; Matthew 6:19-24
In 1927 a hotel operator, Raymond Orteig, offered a prize of $25,000 to the first person who could fly non-stop from New York to Paris. This was a huge amount of money at the time, around $330,000 for us today. Do you know who the contenders were?
Rene Fonck, a French World War I flying ace, would’ve been there except he had tried that flight just a few months before and had decided to do it with style. He had plush furniture aboard, wine and champagne, and lots of elegant food for all that time in the air. He packed so much, in fact, that he weighed in at 8,000 lbs over his 20,000 lb weight limit and decided to add an extra wheel instead of leaving anything behind. As you might imagine, the day he was to take off, among crowds of spectators, he never made it off the ground. Newspapers reported that as the plane roared faster and faster down the runway, it broke apart piece by piece until it ran off the runway and crashed in a fiery mess. Fonck narrowly escaped.
Another contender was a millionaire named Charles Levine. Levine wanted the ordeal to be showy to say the least. He hired two pilots, one of whom he wanted to fire later because he wasn’t sure he was handsome enough, and at the last minute tried to cheat his pilots out of their share of the winnings, having them sign a contract for a small percentage of the winnings. With all of the internal conflict, they remained grounded.
Next was a Naval officer named Richard Byrd, who prized safety above all else. He took every safety device he could, and sometimes two of them just in case. On one of the trial flights, Byrd had to make an emergency landing, and this deterred him even more as he continued to try to figure out the safest and surest way possible to get across the Atlantic.
The last contender was Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh didn’t have a staff, a lot of supplies, or much comfort. He worked closely with the aircraft company to give his opinions on the design of the plane, and kept very clearly focused on his goal. He realized early on that the plane would need to be as light as possible, and in the end left behind even his radio and parachute. On May 19, 1927 Lindbergh took off in New York and 33.5 hours later, landed in Paris, 3600 miles away. He won the prize, becoming the first person to fly over the Atlantic without stopping. They called him Lucky Lindy, but not much of it was luck. He had a complete focus on the goal he wanted to achieve and in doing so, defied gravity in a way that had never been done before. (1)
So what does this do with our lives and the financial gravity that exists in them? Here’s the thing. I think all of us want to be generous. As much as there is an instinct in us to protect ourselves first, there’s also an instinct in us that longs to connect and to give of ourselves, to become generous people of God, whose image we reflect.
But clearly we don’t always get there. 41% of Americans in 2012 reported not giving any money away for anything. (2) Something gets in our way. So often as we dream about the things we want to do financially, we find ourselves like those contenders for the Orteig prize. Some of us get weighed down by the financial gravity in our lives and get caught up in our drive for the latest things or the greatest comfort, and in doing so we find that we can’t ever get off the ground to do the things we want to do. Some of us are conflicted either internally or with our family about what we want to do and procrastinate our giving by arguing with ourselves about where to give or how to give or what to give. Some of us focus so much on making sure that we’re safe and every generation after us, that we find our hands tied in being able to be freed up to be generous.
But God doesn’t ask us to do any of this spontaneously— God asks us to be intentional. Because generosity takes planning.
You might not think that as God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, a people who clearly have next to nothing, that giving would be high on the list of priorities. But it was. As the people began to get settled, even in the wilderness, God began to talk to them about giving; and not just any giving, but about tithing— about giving 10% of both their produce and their livestock. Interestingly enough, they had it split up throughout the year. So for part of the year you would bring your tithe with you and your family and basically throw a part at the Temple for everyone around. For part of the year you would bring your tithe to the temple to make sure the Levites— who were the priests— were cared for and fed. And for part of the year you would bring your tithe to the temple so that the widows, the children, the poor, and the foreigners would have enough to live on. All of it was seen as a way to bless God, as a way to remember that we are children of God, as a way to set the Israelites apart as people of a generous God. (3)
Today most of us have the benefit of knowing what our income is going to be— not having to guess based on how well the crops do or whether the livestock have babies. So our intentionality can come sooner. The simplest way to be intentional, is just to have a budget.
My daughter is doing something called the Million Dollar Project in her math class at school. And there are many qualms that I have with it, including the fact that they “gave” her a million dollars to spend but haven’t talked to her about all of the costs associated with owning those things— a house, a car, etc. But one thing I do like about the project is that one of the rules is you have to give away $100,000, or 10%; and you have to save about that same amount. An easy example of a financially sound budget is to give 10% right off the top; save the second 10% right away; and then live on the last 80%. So budgeting is a huge part of being able to be as generous as you want to be.
And I just want to say as an aside, that paying off loans has to be a significant portion of this. There is a reason that in every Abrahamic religion, whether you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, taking out loans is frowned upon, if not prohibited, as is lending money to someone with interest. We have gotten so used to having loans in our culture that we don’t often think as much about it as we should and we can get in trouble fairly easily; and if not trouble, at least not be able to be as generous as we want to be.
Another way to be intentional is to live simply. I remember when I was in high school and my father lost his job and all of a sudden my family’s worldview on what was actually important shifted significantly. The difference between our needs and our wants became much clearer. And, in fact, what was a stressful event in our family’s life that could’ve drawn us apart, actually drew us closer together because my parents set us down and we talked through what was important to us and what we could give up. We still talk about how fun that Christmas was because my Mom had pulled my brother and I aside and told us that since there would be few gifts that year, we could each pick one thing we wanted to do as a family. I picked for us to go sledding— something we had never done as a family before. My brother chose for us to look at pictures from a family trip we’d taken years before and tell the stories of that trip together. My Mom chose for us to make caramels together and then give them away for some of our Christmas gifts. And my Dad chose for us to watch A Christmas Story together and have a movie night. I still remember that. Can I tell you what presents I got for Christmas the year before or the year after? I don’t have a clue. When we keep life simple, we actually can get a lot more out of it.
So set your goals; make a budget; keep it simple; and pray.
This may seem strange, but a practice I’ve learned over the years, is to pray that God takes away my wants rather than praying that God give me everything I desire. And it works. The only problem is, I have to keep praying it— even when I don’t want to. But then I remember, that I actually do want to. I don’t want to be stuck in financial gravity. I don’t want to get caught up in the rat race of trying to do more to make more to have more. That’s not where I will find life. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew, we can’t serve two masters. When we get caught up in always having more, we tend to feel guilty when we think of God and we can easily become resentful of God and of the church that is meant to reflect God. But when we are intentional about defying financial gravity in our lives, when we let go of the cultural demand to have more and choose to discern wisely the difference between what we need and what we want, God is able to bless us with life that really is life— and we end up storing up the treasures that actually matter— the love and joy that transforms our lives.
It’s not easy to defy gravity—it wasn’t easy for Charles Lindbergh. But he did it with focus, with drive, and by leaving everything that didn’t matter to him behind in New York. And because of that, he did something no one else had done before. It’s not easy for us to defy financial gravity in our lives, but when we stay focused and intentionally give to God, we too will find that we can accomplish goals way beyond our imagination and find the deep joy and satisfaction of serving God.
Resources Consulted/Cited: 1) Defying Gravity by Tom Berlin 2) philanthropy.com 3) JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy