Monthly Archives: September 2011

Uncomfortable Confessions of a ?Rich? American

I’ll just come out and say it:  I don’t like to be thought of as rich.  Why? I cannot quite pinpoint the reason.  Perhaps it is because for over half of my adult life in the United States, I have been, well, not poor exactly, but I can make no claims of ever raking in the big bucks. After years of surviving on a pot-pourri of part-time jobs, counting pennies, praying that God would send some critical last-minute money for a bill, I have grown surprisingly, and perhaps strangely, comfortable in my inconsequential economic identity.  But all that changed when I moved out of the country.  I really didn’t think it would; after all, Eastern Europe can hardly be compared to a region of destitute poverty where a family cannot access clean water.  Still, the economic situation remains fairly stagnant, particularly in places like Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.  The unemployment rate is staggering, and there are a generation of bright young people looking for any kind of job.   And even part-time jobs often pay next to nothing.

Being an American represents wealth to many other countries. Regardless of my circumstances in America, I am wealthier than the majority of the world. In the developing world, 1.4 billion people  live on less than $1.25 a day. In America, I had a car, I had a nice place to live, I had multiple jobs,  and I had access to resources to supplement my income. Although this is true, something in me balks against the implicit assumption that I have a secret reserve of wealth, that no monetary issue is a problem for me. Even as I write this, I realize that sometimes that assumption does not exist at all—it is I who impose that expectation on the other person.

“I hope this bike lock is sufficient, ” I told my friends as we locked our borrowed bikes up in town one evening.

“Well, you could afford to replace the bike, but we would be in real trouble,” my friend answered. My friend, merely stating a simple fact,  meant no ill will, but  I felt the familiar and uncomfortable sense of wanting to defend my financial condition.  At the time, I couldn’t  afford to buy a bike for myself.  However, I also grudgingly admitted to myself that if the bike were stolen, I could somehow find the resources to replace it.  Since both considerations were true, I remained silent.

Dr. Kumič, prolific writer, speaker, and Christian activist in this part of the world, recently wrote a chapter in To Give or not to Give. In it,   he calls for a “transformative generosity”—a Biblical view of mutuality and sharing as we sit at the same “Father’s table.”  But what does this look like? “Transformative” indicates that one’s generosity must somehow address the roots of the economic issues, thereby contributing to sustainable change. “Mutuality” indicates that transformation takes place in both parties at the table.  But this is a tangled and confusing path, difficult to navigate.

In this part of the world, as in many parts, Western money is both a blessing and a curse.  During a recent trip to Serbia, I witnessed the significant financial need in various churches and ministries—but I also heard stories of big problems arising from generous yet ill-informed donors.  And yet, when I hear of a friend, ministering in a poor Roma village, having heart issues and cannot afford  necessary tests, I immediately want to open my wallet.  When I discover that another friend, unable to find a job, worries about putting food on the table for her family, I have the impulse to rush to the nearest ATM. But if I give to all the numerous needs around me, I will soon be on a plane back to America.  Just as not giving can be representative of a greedy heart, so can indiscriminate giving offer one a false sense of self-satisfaction and lethargy regarding true transformation.

So the question remains, why am I so uncomfortable at the implicit innuendoes regarding my financial status?  How do I handle both the perception and the reality of being ‘wealthy’ in this society?  How can I move from being uncomfortable with my resources to wisely generous, bringing my resources to the table as part of my ministry here?   Perhaps my discomfort merely signals an opportunity for change, to reevaluate my personal approach to mission and money. My status has changed—therefore so must I.

If you are interested in this topic, check out these books:

*Rowell, John. To Give or not to Give? Atlanta: Authentic, 2006.

Bonk, Jonathan J. Missions and Money. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 3rd printing 2011.

Fighting for good?

“Why do you want to fight in the war?”  the question came unbidden to his mind, surprising him with its distinct clarity.

“I want to fight for good, for my country, to defend it.  I want to fight against evil.”

Even as J. responded to this strange inner-dialogue, he knew the question, so outside the realm of his present orientation, had not come from him.  At the inception of Croatia’s war six months before(1991), he was only nineteen years old when he volunteered as a personal security officer.  At some point, he realized that his close friendship with the Prime Minister’s son meant that they were constantly put through “specialized training” rather than sent to actual combat.  Frustrated, he had  withdrawn from that company and was trying different channels that would likely move him into combat.  And then suddenly, this mystifying experience unmoored him from his course.

“If you want to take up a weapon, you will be killed by a weapon. But if you want to fight for good, then put off your weapon and give it away and I will teach you how to fight for good.”

So J. gave up his gun and uniform and began a three-year spiritual journey in which he practiced a sampling of the “spiritual market”:  Islam, astrology, numerology, mediation, and Christianity.  When he read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, however, he was captivated by Jesus’ words.  “If I submit under any authority, it would be Jesus,”  he thought to himself.  Slowly, his other spiritual practices faded into the background and he studied the Bible with greater frequency.  Finally, in a quiet moment, he understood the gospel message in his heart and accepted it.

Consequently, during the last year of the war, J. underwent a radical transformation. Whereas before he would read his Bible, smoke weed, and entertain his friends with his fantastical interpretations, he now gave up everything from his former life, much to his friends’ astonishment and confusion.  Like the other newly-converted individuals who would soon become the leadership of the Borongaj movement, he knew little about “church” or what a Christian was supposed to do.  He only knew that he was now compelled to share  his experience with his friends who were living in a drug-smoked, alcohol-numbing haze, trying to deaden the pain and confusion of those days.

“In those early days, we would take the whole summer and drive down the coast, taking nothing with us.  We stopped where we felt we should stop, talk about Jesus to whoever was in our path, sleep on the beaches or park benches,  sometimes eat and sometimes going hungry. Those were fantastic days.  We were discovering God and His kingdom and sharing our lives and deepest sins with each other, praying and receiving healing in those areas.”

Fifteen years later, has the promise from the voice been fulfilled?  Since many conflicting voices claim to be “fighting for good” in our world today, how can one evaluate the truth?

“I believe the Borongaj movement is a work of God,” another local pastor said.  “I know what kind of lives they had before and I see them now.  How do you evaluate a church? They teach their members to give and  take care of people in all kinds of need; for example, they support two elderly people who have no means to take care of themselves.  They teach their people how to serve the poor, broken, and needy…they are growing, and are healthy, and planting new churches… and I think this is the best way to tell.”

This kind of lifestyle seems to reflect Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the very picture of Jesus that captured J.’s interest in the beginning. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be satisfied,” Jesus proclaims.  As I looked into J.’s eyes as he told his story, I saw more than satisfaction; indeed, I was drawn to the life and light that spilled out from his eyes—a life hinting of deep joy and peace.

For more on the Borongaj movement see: \”Croatia is the Door to Europe\” and In the beginning…

and Out of the God Box