My response to my Friends response to Rachel Held Evans response to Dave Ramsey (or reason No. 145 why RHE annoys me…)
My friend and former ministry colleague Grace Biskie recently penned an angry rant-y, hot-mess response to Dave Ramsey getting lambasted by Christians. The lambastation (that’s not a word I know) first came to my attention via a link to something Rachel Held Evans wrote in response to a post Dave Ramsey had on his website.
(Edit: Grace has made it clear that her post was not in response to RHE. I’m not suggesting that it was…)
My reaction to the critique of Ramsey was not quite as rage-filled as Grace, but it was strong… very strong. Grace writes of Dave Ramsey:
FOR GOD’S SAKE PEOPLE, he is NOTHING like Joel Olsteen and why I can’t think of any single comparison for the ENTIRE LAST YEAR that has offended me so terribly much. And how I think the people who have made that comparison have very little experience with ACTUAL prosperity preachers or have had to sit and trenches with or disciple people trying to break free from the EVIL of prosperity preaching & false gospels in general. And how if they had, they WOULD NEVER compare a man like Dave Ramsey who FREE’S people from the bondage of poverty & bankruptcy compare those two…or Dave Ramsey to ANY prosperity preacher. As someone who’s discipled countless students away from the bondage of prosperity preaching I am repulsed by this unhelpful comparison. REPULSED.
I feel you. I was pissed too, and not just because I personally have benefited from Ramsey’s principles (though I have) and not just because the critique lodged against him were shallow, uncharitable, and unfair (they were. In fact her second line, “he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich, too.” is a flat-out lie, but anyway…). It is because I think I ‘get’ Dave Ramsey and his ministry. I ‘get’ his sarcastic humor. Let me explain.
In a strange way Dave Ramsey is living the life I envisioned for myself. He and I are both Tennesseans. We both went to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and both majored in Finance. Dave made a fortune in real estate, which was exactly my life plan. Dave lives in my hometown. If I wanted to, I could go to church with him. I know how to get to Financial Peace Plaza without looking it up on Google Maps. And like Dave is doing now, I had hoped to get rich and also find a way to help people (especially low and middle income people) manage their money. Dave and I are also both fluent in sarcasm. God however, called me in a different direction.
But there is something else besides. Dave taps into something that I think is at least part of why Grace reacted so strongly, and also something that is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. Dave understands, like Grace understands, and like I understand that there is a kind of poverty of spirit that traps people in a pernicious web. He and she and I understand that a person can be so degraded, worn out, and worn down by their circumstances – whether circumstance of financial mismanagement, of family history, of abuse, of dysfunction – that ALL your sense of personal agency is destroyed. You feel powerless, hopeless, trapped, scared.
And then someone like Dave Ramsey comes along and meets you, as Dave says, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, and tells you the hard truth, ‘Yep you screwed up. Yep, someone else messed you up. Yep, the system is stacked against you. Yep, that was a stupid decision. But you know what? You don’t have to live there. There is a better option. YOU have power. YOU have choices. YOU have agency.
And the sarcasm? The snarkiness? It shocks your system. It shocks you because almost all the people who have come to help you before don’t talk like that. They listen to you, let you cry on their shoulder, sympathise with you, and agree with you that, yeah you were done wrong, and that’s about it. Why isn’t Dave more sympathetic? He’s so mean, etc., etc.
And then after you get over the shock at his approach, and the anger, and the frustration, and poking out your lip, you realize he’s right. That while you can’t do everything, you can do something. You realize that your life really doesn’t have to be one of failure, of despair, of constrained choices, of inevitability, of abuse, of dysfunction. And you wipe your tears, and you start where you are. And people like Dave and Grace and others hold your trembling hand and walk you through it. It’s ain’t about getting rich.
If you’ve never been there, or you don’t personally know people who live there, you probably have a hard time understanding that. I know those people. Some of them are my relatives. People who take their children on vacation only to come back to the lights being shut off. People who are afraid to answer the phone because of debt collectors hounding them. People who have never known what it is to have money left over at the end of the month or to have a savings account with more than the $25 minimum required to keep it open. People who make enough, but never have enough and so spend recklessly because they figure that they never will have anything so they may as well enjoy life while they can. Or so that they can forget.
I’m not sure folks like RHE who so easily critique Ramsey understand really what it feels like to live in a world where money is your master and not your servant. Where prosperity preaching is appealing in exactly the same way that the lottery is: because it offers a false hope. Where you are enslaved to habits of materialism and consumerism and yet you are afraid to even open your bank statement, much less reconcile your check book. Where debt collectors hound you morning and night for money that you have no idea how to pay back. Where the biblical statement that the borrower is slave to the lender doesn’t feel at all theoretical, but real.
The thing is, Dave Ramsey doesn’t have to do what he does. He’s rich. He’s a financial whiz. He’s made money, lost money, and made it again in real estate. He doesn’t need this gig. And he understands that it isn’t really about money anyway, because the ‘only way to have real financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Several times in recent days I have thought about posting this or that thing on my blog in response to issues. Well it should be obvious that I have found reasons not to post. I think it is time though to wade back into the world of public discourse for two main reasons.
Firstly, it is a discipline of stewardship for me. The discipline of writing forces me to engage more fully with the intersection of issues of culture & faith, and sharpens my thinking in the process. It is also a way of being responsible with the use of the intellectual gifts God has entrusted to me. By sharing my thoughts in a public way, there is the possibility at least of interaction, of critique, of response that hopefully sharpens, refines, and humbles me.
This leads to the second reason for re-engaging, which is one that feels a bit presumptuous to articulate. That is, I think I may have something worthwhile to contribute. I don’t harbor any illusions or pretentions that my small blog will draw any audience or set the internet ablaze. Nor do I imagine that the thing I share will really be that significant or impactful to anyone. Yet still, I believe at this point in life and ministry, I have developed some insights that could be useful for people to hear.
It is interesting that the second reason is more challenging than the first, especially given my chosen response to the Divine vocation of minister of the gospel. For the last 20 years the declaration of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ — a task I’ve endeavoured to be faithful to, though I have failed at many times — has been my calling. Yet to write my thoughts and share them in a public way feels differently (though I have actively blogged before).
This brings me to the reason why it has been hard for me to re-engage. As I have read, and continue to read, studied theology, reflected more on scripture and life, begun married life and the task of child-rearing and, perhaps most critically, moved outside the US context, my views on a number of issues have shifted, in some cases, significantly. If I am honest though, I don’t know how much my views have shifted as much as they have been increasingly clarified and I feel less reluctant to share them than previously.
In any event, my wife suggested that I should indeed re-engage. My blog was one of the tools she used to ‘vet’ me during our long-distance courtship prior to our marriage and though I don’t believe in submitting to my wife, I am choosing to re-engage
I am not Asian-American. So when I read the Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church I did not immediately rush to sign the letter. It seemed to me impertinent to do so, not to mention presumptuous. How can I sign a letter written from a community of which I am not a part, regardless of how strongly I feel myself to be in agreement with the sentiments expressed therein?
As I reflected further however, I thought of my children. Well, my children are very brown — they look more ‘Black’ than ‘Asian’, but they are as fully Asian as they are Black and who are Asian-American, who understand Mandarin Chinese almost as well as English, whose kitchen pantry is filled with ‘exotic’ foods and spices used to make the yummy food that will always smell like ‘home’ to them, who, when they grow up, may be asked, depending on the setting, ‘where are you from?’, or ‘what are you?’. Because of how they look, they may miss some of the more egregiously negative experiences of being Asian-American, but that doesn’t change their heart.
I thought of my ministry. The Christian fellowship I planted for Asian-Americans, the Bible study group I led for Korean graduate students, the 2nd generation English Ministry congregation I served for more the 5 years as the pulpit supply pastor and interim youth director, the Asian-American fellowship I served for several years. I thought of their struggles and their triumphs, their fears and longings.
I thought of my Korean-American friend, the godfather of my eldest son, who feels equally at home pigging out at a soul food restaurant as at a Korean barbeque.
I thought of my wife, who really does have an answer to satisfy the curious who ask, ‘where are you from’ since she wasn’t born in the US and has lived a lot of her adult life outside of it, but who still deals with the assumptions and stereotypes that go along with her sex and ethnicity.
I thought of my colleague Kathy Khang who always seems to be in the thick of these things; pushing, advocating, pointing out — sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, but always with a desire to see the whole body of Christ do more and be better. I thought of many other friends, family members, colleagues.
And then I thought again about my sons. My beautiful, biracial, bi (multi?) cultural sons. Of course, it is not just about them. But the connection to family brings the abstraction of the pain and frustration and futility that so many others talk about into concrete form. That my sons will have challenges sorting out their racial / ethnic / cultural identity I have no doubt. After all their father is a Black American from the southern US, their mother is a 1.5 generation Chinese-American with Malay roots, and they are currently growing up in West Africa. Of course they will have challenges. But for their sake, and for the sake of the integrity of Christ’s witness in the world through his church, I pray these challenges and burdens will not be added to by those same brothers and sisters in the church.
It has been a long time since I’ve written in this space and don’t know how many people would even read this. This is actually an odd post to start a resumption of my blog
I must admit that this post is a response to a write up I read by Hugh Halter in Outreach Magazine. Now admittedly, I don’t know the man and don’t regularly read anything he writes, so I’m not qualified to make any broad assertion about what he thinks and how he interacts theologically with the issues he raises in his post. With that disclaimer in mind, I found myself responding a bit negatively to what he says. but since I was inspired I thought I’d strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.
He says a couple of things to which I agree wholeheartedly:
In other words, worship on Sunday is only going to be as deep as our worship the rest of the week.
I agree with this. Worship is intended to be a whole life response to God, not just a weekly musical concert with a lot of emotional content. However, he then continues to assert:
Depth through song, liturgy, spoken word and preaching is only going to be as meaningful as the level of meaning we bring to others around us.
Whoa! That’s where my caution meter kicked in. Depth through song, liturgy, spoken word and preaching is only going to be as meaningful as the level of meaning we bring to others around us?
This is, in my opinion, quite an erroneous statement and a misapplication of the biblical admonition to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbour as yourself, which he cites as support for his assertion.
The average church spends well over 75 percent of their time and financial resources keeping the “house of worship” open for business. How can minimize the consumer tendency, justify the expenses or at least find a balance that brings glory to God?
He then goes on to make some quite interesting suggestions geared towards minimizing the consumerism that threatens to creep into the life of the church — something that I believe NEEDS to be combated fiercely.
My problem though is at another level, and again, I’m not attacking the man, his motives, nor really even his good intentions towards the reform of the church.
My issue is that worship is inherently wasteful.
Significant sections of the entire book of Leviticus and Numbers are given over to description of elaborate ceremonies, costly garments, excessively expensive structures that God commanded to be constructed for the sake of his worship. A huge waste of materials, time and resources.
All of Israel was required to pay tax (tithe) to support a whole tribe of people whose sole job was maintenance of the worship apparatus. These people literally did nothing but conduct religious services. How wasteful (and unfair!).
Sacrificial ceremonies required people to travel quite some distance to offer the first and best of their produce and flocks as worship to God. In a subsistence agricultural context, this is very costly — indeed wasteful.
Israelite boys were required to be cut in their most vulnerable parts a mere eight days after birth without anesthetic, without antibiotics and in a context where infant death was very common. Also a wasteful act.
Of course these are all Old Testament references, which does not of course invalidate them though many Christian effectively behave as if it does. Rather we ought to look at the Old through the lens of Christ.
In this light, Mr. Halter’s words seem stunningly familiar. There was another disciple who decried wasteful indulgence of worship while insisting that the money would be better spent on the poor, or in Halter’s words:
put the same amount of money into serving the poor, equipping people to go out in missional communities or simply giving the money away to smaller church plants that can’t even afford to buy a portable Bose sound system.
Of course Judas was a thief and betrayed Jesus. I’m not suggesting that Halter is either a thief or a betrayer. I am merely observing that their suggestions are virtually the same.
Christians shouldn’t be wasteful and extravagant and wasteful in a consumerist fashion, spending only on themselves and their entertainment, and it is far too easy for the apparatus of worship to become that. Agreed. The larger point though is that everything concerning worship can be considered wasteful or extravagant.
By a drum set? Wasteful.
Pay the musician? Wasteful.
Have a carpeted sanctuary? Wasteful.
It is all waste — depending on your point of view, the money can always be spent on something more ‘worthy’.
God save us from a Judas spirit.
(Cathedral picture from: http://worshipvj.com/church-architecture-worship/)
It is difficult to believe that tonight is my last night sleeping in the United States for at least a little while. The long ago dream of a long since matured boy is coming to fruition: I’m going to live and study overseas. It is something I’ve always wanted to do but time and circumstance and the vagaries of life never permitted me to go until now.
So here I am…
the bags are all packed, the visas in hand. Everything is as settled as it can be. And tomorrow morning I board a plane for which I bought a one way ticket — to Accra Ghana.
Am I excited? Scared? Bored? Apprehensive?
Truthfully I am all of these and none of them. I simply AM moving to Ghana and uncertain about what life will mean for me there. I’m sure I will change; in fact I hope that I change. I’m sure that I will struggle. I’m sure that life will throw us curveballs and fastballs and the occasional slow pitch — and I’m not even a fan of baseball, who Lord knows what I’ll do with those.
But I’m on my way by the grace of God, to learn and to serve.
I take this journey in honor of my dear departed mother, who long ago launched me into the world and who always believed in me.
I take this journey in honor of my father, who is proud of me and who has traveled vicariously through me and who is now going through me to live, study, and serve in Ghana even if his feet never leave the ground.
I take this journey in honor of my grandmothers — one of whom has slipped away and the other of whom’s mind is slipping, neither of whom could have even imagined it possible.
And I thank God for the love of my life, Pauline, who walks on bridges with me, and makes me not afraid.
First, we believe that requiring our leaders to affirm the beliefs of the faith community they lead helps preserve our group’s unique religious identity as well as the purpose and mission of our group. Christians and other religious communities have used creeds for thousands of years to define who they are as a community and to preserve the religious tradition they have inherited.
There was a group of young minority men who were among the best and brightest in society. Not only had they been top of their class, they were athletically fit, and good looking besides. They represented the whole package and consequently were selected to be a part of an elite government internship that only the very best could hope to be admitted to. Needless to say, they were very excited about the opportunity, but they were also somewhat nervous. It was not a very common practice for minorities to rise into such positions of influence, and they were concerned to make a good impression. At the same time however, they felt a lot of pressure to not “sell out” their identity in order to secure a position. It was delicate balancing act, but being friends, they worked hard to keep each other accountable and to encourage each other.
For the most part, they did well, but one day the internship director informed them that in order to advance in the program, they would need to sign some documents and agree to participate in some things that normally would be against their religion. “It’s all just a formality,” they were assured, but these young friends were a bit nervous and didn’t want to sign. The internship director told them that he’d give them a chance to think about it, but it really wasn’t an option — and he couldn’t figure what the big deal was anyway. Talking about it later on in their room, the friends decided that they really couldn’t sign it, and certainly couldn’t participate, but they knew it would only make it hard on the internship director, whom they all liked.
Somehow the next day they convinced him to let them continue the program on a trial basis, without signing, and promised him that if anything didn’t go right, they would go ahead with the full program. The director reluctantly agreed, and at the end of the program, well everything worked out for them. They were able to graduate and all of them got excellent government positions. The internship director wrote the references himself, something he rarely did.
Fast forward a few years and our young men are all still friends, well paid, and enjoying the good life. They spent their days in high level meetings and their nights out on the town enjoying the diverse and exciting night life befitting the capital of the most powerful country in the world. The petty troubles of their internship years were far behind them. They were still some of the few minorities working in such high levels of government to be sure, but they lived in enlightened times. No one bothered them much about their odd customs, other than to make the occasional joke, or the puzzled look when their friends found out that they observed such quaint religious rituals. ”To each his own,” their friends would say, “as long as you don’t try to impose it on others, I think it’s fine.” And it was fine, mostly.
Until one day when the large packet packet detailing all the requirements of recent passed legislation landed on the desk of one of the friends. He almost didn’t see it at first, as he lazily scanned the pages and pages of arcane legal language that was the most dull part of his day. But there it was, plain as day – “all employees shall…, failure to abide by this regulation…, this policy will be applied without exception….” He stopped reading, speechless. Usually regulations like this always contained some policy exemption, some language that provided a loophole here or there, but there was none.
Down the hall he ran, not bothering to knock but burst in on his friend. The others were already there. “So you heard?” he asked, but no answer was needed. They had.
Days and weeks went by; meeting after meeting was held. Promises of conciliation and assurances of good faith were given, but no, the policy would not be changing. ”You don’t understand,” they pleaded at desk after desk, higher and higher up the chain of management. Whose policy is this anyway? Surely they don’t mean to implement this. The questions swirled faster and faster but the conclusion was always the same.
The city lights sparkled in the distance. Soft music played while the smell of exquisite food being prepared in the courtyard below wafted in. The spacious apartment decorated in the latest style and filled with the finest decor was a far cry from the cramped dorm room. But the luxurious surroundings and fine wine could not hide the heaviness in the room. Their appeals were exhausted, and so it seemed were they. ”Maybe if we just…” ”No that wouldn’t work.” ”Do you think if we talked to…” Sentences half finished and never answered. They knew the answer already. ”We knew it might come to this some day. We’ve had a good ride so far. God’s been good to us, so we can’t really complain.” Muffled sighs of agreement and resignation answered. It was true. They had known; they’d always known. ”Well,” he spoke, standing and lifting his glass as for a toast, “we cannot know if the LORD will save us from destruction tomorrow or not, but whether he does or not, we will not bow.” The others lifted their glasses to the toast and drank the last in silence.