Monday, August 30, 2010

It Feels Good to Be Rich

My friend Brad is giddy after visiting a Chinese ATM in 2006.
I didn't win the lottery. I haven't come into an inheritance. I'm still working as a reporter. But it feels good to know that I'm rich.

I've got a $20 bill in my wallet. It has been there for weeks. I rarely use cash, so I don't remember when I got it out of the ATM or for what purpose. Maybe it was a yard-sale stash or feed for the parking meters around Atlanta. Maybe it was left over from paying a friend back for Braves tickets. In any case, it still lingers behind receipts, coupons and business cards, just waiting for a chance to be broken.

I was sifting through the ads in the newspaper this morning. I usually only glance at a few nowadays. I took a brief look at the digital cameras, then moved on. It's not that I don't like gadgets, but looking is pretty much pointless. I already have anything that could come close to qualifying as a necessity for work or play.

It's striking to me, especially with the job shortage and the ailing stock market, how easy my life is, how many luxuries I enjoy without much thought. I flip a switch and lights come on. I pull a lever, and scalding hot water flows. My pantry is full, and I generally eat until I am as well. I could drive to California any day, and both my cars could make the trip. Every month I unearth a new pile of clothes to give away.

My charmed life extends beyond basic needs. In college, I used to hold onto gas receipts. Now they're useless. Though I have a gas budget, I rarely even look at the cost when the pump clicks off. Sadly, though, I've known people who put in a few bucks at a time as they wait for a paycheck to come through. Others only have one option: the bus.

My access to communications is further proof of the exceptional grace given to me. Driving through Atlanta the other day, I saw probably a hundred people lined up in the hot sun to sign up for government-assisted home phone service. As they scrambled for the basics, I was chatting on my cell phone. The next day, I logged onto my Comcast Internet connection to make local and long distance calls via Gmail.

I don't show all this to note any empirical personal wealth. Let's just say I'm not someone you'd invite to a political fund-raising banquet. My point is that modern American society has conditioned us to expect a degree of convenience that most of the world's inhabitants will never approach, and it's worrisome that we're no longer shocked by how much of an outlier our country is.

Of course, poverty exists in the U.S., but most Americans treat wealth like fish treat water. We swim in it, breathe through it, feel at home in it, but we never know we're wet. Our chosen peers reinforce our accustomed levels of convenience, and we race each other to the next rung of the socioeconomic ladder. As we climb, so do our living standards, and the things that were once wants are now needed at once.

The Bible is full of warnings to the greedy. Jesus ranted against the money-grubbing Pharisees. Paul warned his spiritual son Timothy about the division that wealthy individuals can sow in the church. James also cautioned against putting trust in things, not God. For the longest time, when reading these passages, I would silently join the biblical writers' critique of their opponents. After all, I wasn't rich. How could these comments possibly apply to me?

But I realized later that I wasn't grasping what they were saying and that the global economy imposes a newer, more stringent set of obligations on the Christian. We can activate humanitarian aid with the click of a mouse or travel to the other side of the planet in less than 24 hours. In a way, we have become neighbors with the nearly half the world's population that lives each full day on less than many of us spend on a coffee or latte every morning.

In this context, most Americans are rich, and that's not a bad thing. I won't call us a "chosen nation," as many do, but I do think God allows America to prosper so that we can facilitate the spread of the Gospel around the world. Our Lord doesn't need more storehouses in our backyards. He wants us to invest in a new harvest.

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