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Sunday, November 1, 2009

When Dreams Become Nightmares

When I was a kid, I did a lot of drawing. In fact, I was a pretty good artist, if I do say so myself. I drew all sorts of things – animals, landscapes, city scenes, but I drew one thing more than anything else – cars.

Even at the age of three, I knew cars. And even at the age of three, I loved luxury cars. I could identify a Mercedes-Benz or BMW by the symbol on the hubcabs. And I really liked Mercedes-Benz and BMW. I still do. I would spend hours drawing these cars, paying careful attention to every detail. I soon realized that the cars looked weird just on their own, so I gave them a context. I started drawing them in the driveways of houses. At first, they were the houses I saw all the time - the tall, long and narrow houses of my city neighborhood. Now, I took some artistic liberty; most of them didn’t have driveways. In fact, you could shake your neighbor’s hand if both of you leaned out your bedroom window.

Soon, however, I realized it didn’t make any sense to have these luxury cars sitting in front of the modest homes of my working-class neighborhood, so I began to draw the houses larger and larger and fancier and fancier. Circular driveways around Roman fountains, Dorian columns, tennis courts, swimming pools, golf courses, palm tree-lined beaches, and of course, a landing pad for my helicopter. My helicopter. Somewhere, I had gone from drawing just a fancy car in the driveway of a really nice house to drawing my fancy car in the driveway of my big house. It was my American dream. I was drawing my desired future. We all had our version of it when we were growing up, and if we’re honest, still have a version of it that we’re working toward.

Today begins the first in our four-part series entitled Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity. When it comes to finances, we need a word of hope. Even though many economists argue that the economic recession has ended—and this is a debatable point—it’s still going to be a long way until we get out. We are offering this series of messages because we Americans have gotten ourselves and our nation into a pretty sticky situation pursuing the American dream. I am convinced that the American dream contrasts with God’s vision, and that pursuing God’s vision will bring us a joy and hope the American dream will never be able to deliver. May we pray.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the preamble of the United States Constitution, these are outlined as certain unalienable rights to all people, and their very existence is a self-evident truth. These three things are the principles upon which the American dream was founded. Some of us, or at least our ancestors, came to this land of opportunity seeking a better life, a new and improved life, something that would make it all worthwhile. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – who could ask for anything more?

However, somewhere along the way, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness became wealth, property, and the pursuit of more. Along with those dreams came a certain lifestyle. From Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to MTV’s Cribs, our television-viewing habits were only an indication of a fascination with how the wealthiest among us lived. Truth be told, we all wanted that lifestyle. It’s just like the Nickelback song says – “We all just wanna be big rock stars, and live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars.”

For most people, the American Dream has to do with a subconscious desire for achieving success and satisfying the desire for material possessions. It is the opportunity to pursue more than what we have, to gain more than what we have, and to meet success. We tend to measure our success in life by the stuff that we possess.

The love of money and the things money can buy is a primary or secondary motive behind most of what we Americans do. We want to consume, acquire, and buy our way to happiness – and we want it now. You’ve all seen the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” and that statement captures fully the ethos associated with the American Dream.

There is only one tiny little problem with the American dream. It’s completely unsustainable. The economic recession we find ourselves in now is the result a system that told us the only way to keep the economy healthy was to continue spending, even when we really couldn’t afford to. Eventually, under the weight of all that overspending, the economy collapsed. People were left unemployed or underemployed, retirement accounts dwindled, our 401(k)s became 201(k)s, housing values plummeted, and we experienced stress, anxiety and fear about our finances the likes of which had not been seen in many of our lifetimes.

The American dream has become an American nightmare due to two distinct yet related illnesses that impact us both socially and spiritually.

The first is Affluenza – the constant need for more and bigger and better stuff – as well as the effect that this need has on us. It is the desire to acquire, and most of us have been infected by this virus to some degree.

Let’s take a little quiz. Who thinks the square footage of the average American home is getting smaller? Who here has added on to their home, built a larger home, or bought a larger home? Who has more closet space in their home today than in the home you grew up in?

The evidence shows that the average American home is growing. In 1973, the average American home had 1,660 square feet. Now, it is an average of 2,400 square feet. Homes that are being built today are larger. They have more bathrooms, more closet space, more televisions, more laundry appliances, and more cars in the driveway than homes that were built before.

Yet, the American household is shrinking. In 1973, the average American household was 3.5 people. Today, the average American household is 2.6 people. That means that as recently as 1973, the average American person had 474 square feet of living space. Today, that same average American has 926 square feet of living space. In 35 years, our average living space per person has about doubled.

Or, consider this statistic. It is estimated that there are 1.9 billion square feet of self-storage space in America today. Not only are our homes larger to accommodate more and more stuff, we have to rent additional space so we can store even more stuff! We love our stuff! We love having more, we love being surrounded by things. For a time, I rented a 10’ X 10’ storage unit – 100 square feet. It was indoors and climate-controlled, and it cost me $80 a month. Let’s assume it was on the high end of things, and let’s say that the average cost of that much storage space is $50 a month. If there are 1.9 billion square feet of self-storage space in this country, assuming it to be 80% occupied at $50 a month per 100 square feet, Americans are spending $760 million per month on self-storage, and that’s probably a fairly conservative figure. That means we’re spending over $9 billion per year just for a place to store the stuff we think we need that won’t fit into our homes. That’s what we mean by Affluenza. We have developed such an appetite for “stuff” that storing the extra stuff we accumulate has turned into a $9 billion dollar a year industry, which is roughly the Gross Domestic Product of Madagascar.

The second social illness that has led to this American nightmare we’re experiencing is Credit-itis. Credit-itis an illness that is brought on by the opportunity to buy now and pay later, and it feeds on our desire for instant gratification. Our economy today is built on the concept of credit-itis. Unfortunately, it has exploited our lack of self-discipline and allowed us to feed our affluenza, wreaking havoc in our personal and national finances. The Great Depression was a complex problem, but economists and historians agree that one of the major contributing factors to the Great Depression was the overextension of credit. How little we’ve learned.

Consider these statistics. In 1990, the average credit card debt in this country was $3000. Today, it’s over $9000. If your card carries an 18% interest rate and you paid only the minimum each month and did not make any additional purchases, it would take you 19.8 years to pay off that credit card debt, during which time you would have paid an additional $8700 in interest charges. Think about that the next time you reach for plastic.

Between my second and third year in seminary, I went to Europe for five weeks. I had a great time. Originally, I was only supposed to take a weeklong class in Methodist studies in Oxford. But then I thought, “Since I’m already across the ocean, I may as well just enjoy myself,” so I made plans to spend another four weeks traveling around Europe. Now, I didn’t really have the money to go, but I wanted to so bad. Fortunately for me, I had this magic plastic card in my wallet. It has a high credit limit, and it made it possible for me to spend another four weeks traveling around Europe and not even consider how much I was actually spending. For some reason, I assumed I would just pay it off when I arrived back home – with what money, I don’t know.

Here’s the thing. I’m a pretty smart guy. I manage my money fairly well. I keep receipts, I track expenses, I’m pretty decent at making a budget and sticking to it. I live simply, I don’t accumulate a lot of stuff, I give stuff away I haven’t used in six months, and generally live within my means. And yet, there was something that I wanted and I just charged it without even thinking, like it wasn’t even real money. Thankfully, I’m probably the only person here who has ever done something like that with a credit card.

When we make a purchase with a credit card, on average, we pay an additional 125% over what we would pay using cash. Credit-itis not limited to credit cards; it extends to mortgages, car loans, and other loans. The life of the average car loan and home mortgage continues to increase while the average American’s savings rate continues to decline, and the average household spends 107% of its annual income. Are you depressed yet?” This is hard enough to sustain in a good economy. It’s crippling when things turn sour. Pursuing the American dream has become nightmarish for many of our friends and neighbors, and perhaps for us, as well.

At the center of our current economic crisis is the extension and abuse of credit. Credit comes from the Latin word credo, which means “I believe” or “I trust.” To extend credit to someone is to believe or trust that he or she will repay. Or sometimes, we talk about someone having street credit, meaning they are both trustworthy and an expert of some sort. Credit implies credibility. As Christians, our credo or trust is in God. The Apostle’s Creed begins, “I believe (credo) in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Throughout the Bible we find words of hope and promise that remind us we have no reason to fear, for God is our refuge and strength.

At its heart, our financial problem is a spiritual problem, which means the solution is also a spiritual one. Our souls were created in the image of God, but they have been distorted. We were meant to desire God, that’s how we’re created, but that desire has become warped and instead turned toward possessions. We were meant to find our security in God, but we find it in amassing wealth. We were meant to love people, but instead we compete with them. We were meant to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, but we busy ourselves with pursuing money and things. We were meant to be generous and share with those in need, but we selfishly hoard our resources for ourselves. There is a sin nature within us, a self-centered turn toward ourselves instead of the disposition toward God with which we were all created.

Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). The powers of evil don’t need to tempt us toward drugs or stealing or an extramarital affair in order to destroy us. All evil needs to do is convince us to keep pursuing the American dream—to keep up with and surpass the Joneses, to borrow against our futures, to enjoy more than we can afford, and indulge ourselves. By doing that, we will be robbed of joy, made slaves to our debt, and be kept from truly doing God’s will.

Consider the following scriptures.

Matthew 4:8-10: Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Luke 8:14, as Jesus explains what happens to different seeds that are scattered in various places: As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

Mark 8:46: What will it profit them to gain the whole world but lose their life?

1 Timothy 6:10, an oft-misquoted text. Listen carefully for the emphasis here: The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

The problems we face with our attitudes and behaviors around money are spiritual, and so is the solution to them. Although we receive a change of heart when we accept Christ, in many ways we need a heart change every morning. We need to re-orient ourselves toward God and away from ourselves each and every morning. After college, a friend of mine lived in England for a few years, where they drive on the left side of the road. She said when she backed out of her driveway every morning, she had to remind herself to stay left. Without that constant reminder, it’s easy to keep moving back to what you’ve always known. There are things in my golf swing that I have to remind myself of every time I swing the club, because when I start swinging without thinking, I immediately revert back to old patterns and things that even feel natural, but are not the best way for me to swing the club and connect with the ball.

In the same way, each and every day, we need to re-orient ourselves toward God. Our natural inclination is to orient ourselves toward ourselves, to put ourselves and our own indulgences first. We’ve discussed sin as simply a condition of separation from God, and at its heart, all sin is self-centered-living instead of God-centered living. We are separated from God because we have placed ourselves in a position of greater honor and importance than we have God. And it’s our nature. It’s natural. If we’re not intentional, we keep going back the natural impulses within us.

Friends, I am not up here as someone who has this all figured out. I’m not preaching at you this morning. This sermon is just as much for me to listen to and embody as it for any of us, if not moreso. I still struggle with affluenza, with the desire to have more things and nicer things, to accumulate stuff, and fail to realize that my desire for all those things is a potential barrier between myself and God. I still have a long way to go.

But what I’ve come to realize is that pursuing the American dream as we know it doesn’t lead to happiness or joy or peace or contentment. It is a fleeting dream at best, and it can leave us absolutely empty if we devote ourselves wholly to following it. George Carlin says it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it. We can continue to go after more and more, living further beyond our means, so far upside-down that we don’t even know any different, but eventually, the pursuit of such dreams turns into a nightmare.

Do you long for something different? Something better? Something outside yourself, because you’ve looked deep within yourself and you know that the answers to life’s deepest yearnings just aren’t there? I know I do. The answer isn’t in accumulating more stuff. We were created with an spiritual void, a place deep within us that begs to be filled, a place that can’t be filled with the treasures of the world, but only with God. We were created in the image of God, and our wills were created to be formed more and more like God’s.

Every day, we need to get down on our knees and say, “Lord, help me to be the person you want me to be today. Take away the desires that shouldn’t be there, and help me to be single-minded in my focus and my pursuit of you.” As we do this, God comes and cleanses us from the inside out, purifying our hearts.

Not only do we need a change of heart; we must allow Christ to work within us. Christ works in us as we seek first his kingdom and strive to do his will. When we allow Christ to work within us, we find our wills being bent and shaped and molded more like the will of God. A little more each day, a little less of our old rebellious streak that keeps trying to pop up. As this happens, we begin to sense a higher calling—a calling to simplicity and faithfulness and generosity. We begin to look at ways to make a difference with our time and resources. By pursuing good financial practices, we free ourselves from debt so that we are able to be in mission to the world. A key part of finding financial and spiritual freedom is found in simplicity and exercising restraint.

Today, I simply want to give you permission to do two things. First, I want to give you permission to stop keeping up with the Joneses. If you’re like me, you probably don’t even like the Joneses very much anyway, so you don’t need to feel compelled to keep up with them. Second, I want to give you permission to stop living on credit, to stop borrowing against your future, to stop living so radically beyond your means, to stop living in bondage to your debt.

With the help of God, we can simplify our lives and silence the voices that constantly tell us we need more. We can live counter-culturally by living below, not above, our means. We can build into our budgets the money to buy with cash instead of credit. We can build into our budgets what we need to be able to live generously and faithfully.

Let me invite you to place your hands on your lap, palm side up. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. I invite you to say this prayer with me, quietly or even silently.

Change my heart, O God. Clean me out inside. Make me new. Heal my desires. Help me to hold my possessions loosely. Teach me generosity and help me have joy. Help me be an ambassador of hope this week, to bear your light to others. Help them see you in me. I offer my life to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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