Affluence and Dependable Lives

One of the conclusions of the survey and research that Steven M. Reese’s conducted for his 2013 dissertation, Engaging the Lost in Highly Secular Suburban Settings (for Covenant Theological Seminary) is that “Each of the participants [in his study] began their movement toward Christianity from a context of personal crisis for which they had no personal resources upon which to draw.” What Reese is saying is that personal crisis — hitting rock bottom — and only finding Jesus as dependable rock to cling-to in the midst of their crisis, was the reason for the participants of his study to convert to following Jesus. This conclusion is peculiar because the participants of his study lived in what has become a typical secular (giving little attention or interaction with God) and suburban American setting.

For most of us at Clarence Church of Christ, this describes the contexts in which most of us live. We live in parts of WNY that (from a broad perspective), give lip service to God and the church, but in many ways, God and his church are second, third, or fourth in order of importance in our neighborhoods. Life for our neighborhoods is found in wealth and prosperity, well-cared-for children, a good education, and entertaining experiences. Poverty seems to be non-existent for many of our neighborhoods — that is, at least material poverty. Some of the consequences of an affluent society tend to be: (1) a movement away from God and community, and (2) the masking of non-material poverty: depression, self-doubt, addictions, or fragile/failing/broken relationships.

The movement away from God often comes as needs are sought through material means: property, money, possessions, and positions of authority. The movement away from community often comes as relationships and services become commoditized: nannies/day-cares, lawn service, chefs/restaurants, social clubs with membership fees, private sports leagues, and maintaining life apart from extended family and maintaining relationship through air fare or the consumption of fossil fuels. The masking of non-material poverty comes as more attention is given to bolstering individual ambitions (whether as single person or a single family entity), at the expense of the common good (community relationships): maintaining relationship with a city/town, next-door neighbors, or extended family.

The non-material poverty in our neighborhoods is some of the hardest poverty for us to deal with. These forms of poverty are not easily engaged by a checkbook or material donations. Rather, they are engaged by countless hours not talking, but listening. They are engaged by giving-up of our interests and pursuits to include the lives of the depressed and mother/father-less in our daily schedules. They include opening the privacy of our homes to offer temporary housing for abused spouses, neglected children, or recipients of unsuspected job losses and home foreclosures.

The Prophet Hosea’s description of Israel in his day, is an apt description and warning for us — and our lives, today. “When I [God] fed them [Israel], they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:6). The people of Israel — whom God adopted as his own child and led, cared-for, and supplied and satisfied its every need — had become overly comfortable in their affluence. And, as a result of their comfort, they became proud. They moved toward bolstering their own ambitions. And, in the process, they forgot God.

We, like Israel have truly been satisfied — we live in a society of plenty (as much as the message of the talking-heads of our society say otherwise). Most of us, at the least, have ample access to the basic necessities of life: food, clean drinking water, clothing, shelter. But, many of us enjoy a variety of blessings far and beyond the aforementioned short list of necessities: multiple forms of transportation, most everybody possesses their own lawn-mower and tools, and some form of dispensable income for entertainment and global awareness/connectivity through television or phone/internet. And we, like Israel, have the same temptations surrounding us to become proud and forget God. As I mentioned in the opening comments, most of our lives are couched in settings of pre-dominantly secular and suburban living. We live amidst an ethos of individual ambitions. We live amidst a mentality of rugged individualism and self-gained-success and affluence. There is little around us that encourages us to be dependent on another, let alone the invisible presence of God.

One aspect of the dramatic message of Hosea’s life and prophecy and the rise and fall of Israel, is that all of us humans are dependable creatures. We are creation. As much as we are tempted to believe the message that we support ourselves, the reality is that we are not. This is exposed, even in a culture of affluence, when our material prosperity does nothing to address the spiritual, mental, and relational poverty that we have. It is in those moments of crisis, that we truly are faced with the reality of recognizing that we are dependable creatures. Our lives are established upon a relationship of dependability: first with God, and then with each other (for without the first relationship, we have little incentive or means to maintain the others).

This message from Hosea is vividly enhanced in the life of Jesus. For in Jesus’ death on the cross and in his resurrection his humanness and divinity are revealed. In his death, Jesus’ dependence on his heavenly Father reveals his humanness. And his resurrection — conquering death — reveals his divinity.

We who follow after Jesus, also hold fast to the life-giving relationship that Jesus had with his heavenly Father. In following Jesus, we accept our humanness — our state of dependability. In following Jesus, we become formed to again be dependable creatures. And, out of our dependence on Jesus, his Spirit, and our heavenly Father, we are fueled to extend and maintain the dynamics of that life-giving relationship with others.

Does the message of Hosea say we need to abandon our abundance? I don’t think it necessarily means that. But, I think the message of Hosea is an apt warning for us to evaluate our own lives; and to examine if we are allowing our affluence to consume us, and moving us down the path of forgetting God, in exchange for our own interests.

All good things come from God, but it is only in a relationship of dependability to God that those things remain good in our lives. May Christ shape us to be humble and dependable recipients of his blessings.