Searching for the “Good Life”
A friend of mine recently learned that he needed hearing aids. He had probably needed them for quite a while. But he had finally gotten around to having his hearing tested. Once he got the results from his test my friend began shopping for hearing aids. He was amazed at the price tags on these devices! He learned that the latest thing in hearing aids are tiny devices that are so small that you can slip them right into your ear. They’re practically invisible. No embarrassing devices behind your ears. No wires or tubes hanging down. But, way beyond most people’s price range! My friend finally settled on a pair of more affordable hearing aids and is now getting used to them and enjoying his enhanced ability to understand what people are saying to him.
Such a familiar story. Having a need — going shopping for it — Wanting the best but not being able to afford it. We are living in what has been called a “consumer society.” Whether it’s a hearing aid or a dish washer there are endless products to choose from. And, no matter which one you end up buying, it will probably be obsolete in a year or two. Madison Avenue and the entire advertising industry works night and day to make us dissatisfied with what we have and anxious to own an up-grade — the latest model. Consumer spending is the engine of the American economy. In this culture, in this society in which we live and move and have our being, it’s almost impossible not to be drawn into the relentless search for the “good life.”
As I read the four gospels there are two things that really strike me about the teachings of Jesus. The first is his sense of urgency. He always seems to be saying that time is running out. You need to act now! He was clearly convinced that his message was a matter of life or death. The second thing that strikes me is his insistence that we need to change our way of life. He was constantly warning his disciples, his followers, those who came in great numbers to hear his preach, that in order to have the life God intends for us to have we will probably need to give up much of the life we are now living. “Those who love their life will lose it, but those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) He seems to be talking about life or death.
Oh yes, there’s one other thing that I find extremely interesting in the teachings of Jesus. He frequently made statements that were shocking. Here’s an example, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26) Here’s another, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. . .For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34) And, in today’s gospel we read,
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell. . . . And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell. (Mark 9:43-47)
Again, Jesus is talking about life and death matters and he wants to get our attention. Imagine people on their way home, after hearing Jesus say things like this. They might be asking, “what do you think he was talking about? What did he mean? “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off!” I’m convinced that Jesus was being intentionally provocative. He wanted people to stop and to reflect on their lives. He wanted them to question their values, their hopes, their dreams. He was convinced that this was a matter of live or death and he wanted his followers to realize that.
A few years after Emily and I moved to this part of Pennsylvania there was a tropical storm that made its way inland and eventually came roaring through the Susquehanna valley. It was in September and the corn in this area was just about ready for harvest. The winds from that storm were very strong and the corn stalks in many fields were brought right down to the ground. Left on the ground, the corn would soon rot and the crop for that year would be totally lost.
As you know, many of the farmers in this valley are Amish. So, faced with this catastrophe the elders in the Amish communities met and prayed and tried to decide what to do. After much discussion and prayer it was decided that they would hire the English to bring in their modern harvesting equipment into their fields and thus save the crops. [I should explain that “English” is the word the Amish use to refer to non-Amish people. We’re all English here.]
A reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer was sent out to cover the story of the destruction caused by this tropical storm passing through central Pennsylvania. Interviewing an Amish farmer, the reporter asked why they didn’t do this every year. Why don’t you always hire the English to harvest your corps? It would surely be more efficient and cost effective. Better still, why doesn’t your community invest in one of these modern harvesters? The Amish farmer thought about this for a minute and then he replied, “But, where would it all end.” The Amish people share a great fear of becoming entangled in our consumer society. They’re afraid of where they might end up if they did. And remember, the Amish tradition pre-dates the industrial revolution.
Now, if you’ve ever watched Amish farmers harvesting corn you will know what this reporter was talking about. A large horse drawn wagon moves slowly through the field while the harvesters, the Amish men and boys, step up to each corn stalk, breaking off the ears and flinging them into the wagon — very slow and very labor intensive.
The Amish are very much aware of the culture of the people who live near their farms — the English. They see their pick-up trucks flying by their houses. They see the harvesting equipment moving steadily through their neighbor’s corn fields. But living in simplicity is a core part of their understanding of the teachings of Jesus. They believe they are responding to Jesus’ urgent message. Don’t get entangled. Don’t get trapped. Following the guidance of their founder, Jacob Amman they seek to avoid individualism and greed. They’re not trying to “get ahead.” They are not trying to “keep up with the Jones’s.” I’m quite sure that if you became acquainted with people in the Amish community you would soon discover that are many exceptions to what I have just said. They are, after all, human beings. They may take some pleasure in having the finest trotting house in their community.
Now, we may not find the Amish approach to Christian living very attractive. Surely, being a follower of Christ doesn’t mean living like that! Perhaps not. But, is it possible that we can learn something from our brothers and sisters in Christ who are Amish? What is the relationship between our material life and our spiritual life? They just may be on the right track.
You will recall that prior to the beginning of his ministry, Jesus experienced three great temptations. One of those temptations was the possibility of possessing all of the kingdoms of the world — to be the richest and most powerful person on the planet! Just think about it. The gospels tell us that Jesus rejected this temptation and that he went on to live a life of service — of ministry — of poverty. He told his disciples that foxes have holes and the birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. He had chosen a life of poverty. Later, he said to his followers, “What would it profit you if you were to gain the whole world and lose you soul?” What did he mean? I take this to mean that in seeking greater security, greater wealth, greater status, greater comfort, we are in danger of dying spiritually. It really is a matter of life and death.
Jesus warned that ‘…those who love their life will lose it, but those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) This is our high calling in Christ. He came, he said, that we might have life and have it abundantly.