Altars Without Building Permits

As a child growing up in northwest Missouri, I was given the opportunity to live in two starkly contrasting environments, living situations that served to teach me some important lessons about money, among other things.

When I was eight years old, my parents divorced. I moved with my mother and brother to another town. For two years, my mother worked hard, but found it difficult to support two young children on her own. This was the mid-1970s, and while divorce was no longer quite as taboo as it had been in decades prior, the reality was such that when a couple divorced, it was typically the man who kept the lion’s share of the financial wealth. More often than not, the woman’s standard of living plummeted…and her children’s along with her.

So, as a single-parent family, we “managed” by sharing a tiny basement apartment with my aunt for a year. My mother and I shared one bedroom, with two twin beds and a plastic TV tray in between them serving as a nightstand. Such was the limitation on our space. After a year of basement living, we moved into a single-wide trailer which was also quite small…but now it was “just” my mom, my little brother and me, and I had a tiny bedroom all to myself, so I remember it as “a step up.”

After those two years or so, my mother remarried. My new stepfather had a solid job managing a local company, and he provided very well. We owned a sailboat and we spent our summers weekending on the lake, sailing and lounging in the sun. I would spend hours relaxing on the front of the boat, soaking up the sunshine and reading a novel. We often took vacations to Florida as well, and my mother and her second husband traveled together often. In this setting, I had everything I needed, most of what I wanted, and far more than I deserved or probably should have had as a teenager growing up in that house.

But life with plenty of money wasn’t all fun and games, either, and as I grew up I began to see the differences in the two lifestyles I had led in my formative years. Even at a young age, I knew that money was tight during those two years as a single-parent family, but my memories of life in the single-wide trailer are almost singularly made up of laughter, hugs and familial closeness. While certainly we continued to have that after my mother remarried, too, my memories of that later period of life also include tension and arguments – many of them, ironically enough, over money.

I entered adulthood with what I thought was a clear understanding that the security and pleasures that money can provide do not arrive with a guarantee of happiness. Even before I became a Christian, I would have told you that I didn’t hold money and all its benefits too highly.

So, you can only imagine my dismay when, recently, as The Crossing’s building project necessitated that my husband and I sit down and really consider how we might sacrificially give to the expansion of the church, I discovered that I did, indeed, have some remaining altars in place to various financial idols. Those altars, the ones that I would have told you my childhood experiences had torn down and ground into dust? They had surreptitiously been rebuilt, and I had not even been aware of the construction going on in my heart.

The idol resurrected in my life? “Money equals security.”

When I lived with precious little money in my bank account, it was easy enough to say that, “Piles of money provide a false sense of security anyway.” I can honestly say that “doing without” has never been that difficult for me. I think that lesson from my childhood may have ingrained in me a sense that one truly can be content with just a little. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that I don’t feel anxiety when the balance in my checking account is low; I do. But I am able to quickly recognize that anxiety as a lack of trust in God’s provision.

But what happens when money in the bank accumulates a bit – even just a little – and begins to grow into a respectable savings account of sorts? Well, for me, I realized that I’d started thinking this money needed to be “guarded and protected.” After all, it’s there to protect us against life’s inevitable trials.

In other words, while I can see my lack of trust when funds are low, I have been blind to the fact that my heart tends to drift toward trust in my security down the street at the First National Bank when money is more plentiful. In that blindness, I could be tempted to make greedy, selfish choices about what to do with that money.

Sure looks like a surreptitiously resurrected altar to security to me.

In his sermon this past week (March 11th, you can find it here), Keith Simon made the comment that Jesus warns us to be on guard (Luke 12:15) against the sin of greed, and he made the point that our love for and misuse of money – even in the way we think about it – is the one area we seem most consistently blind to.

I felt like Keith had perhaps been bugging my house (again) as this was exactly the uncomfortable realization I’d come to just the week before. While I know I’m at risk here among my own congregation for beating a dead horse with all the recent talk about money, and giving, and sacrifice, I just wanted to share my own experience. Mostly, I just thought I should share the genuine surprise I felt when I realized that I had unwittingly begun collecting all the “stones” required to resurrect an altar to the security that money provides.

And I’ll repeat another truth Keith mentioned last Sunday: There’s a reason that Jesus talked more about money than several other issues that you and I might think would be of “greater eternal importance.” It truly is very easy for us to be blind to the altars we are constantly building to the god of money and its attendant idols of power, stability, comfort, independence and security…just to name a few.

I think we all need to be wise – and exceedingly cautious – about how we manage the money that God has given us the intelligence and ability to earn. For sure it’s wise to save, and wise to prepare for the future as best we can. It’s certainly true for me, and I don’t think I’m unique in this. In fact, for me it is an apparently-ongoing lesson in how to hold money and all it represents loosely.

Loosely enough that if God asks us to let go of it for His kingdom purposes, that we do so gladly, with hearts excited to see what He is doing in the lives of others. It is my prayer that I would choose to live again – joyfully – in a single-wide trailer rather than hoard what God Himself has blessed me with.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

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