Luke 12:13-21, Hebrews 13:5-6
The news is literally filled with disasters that strike in the blink of an eye. For some it is an accident – you’re driving along and suddenly out of nowhere comes another car in your path. For some it is a crime to which they fall victim and wonder how they didn’t see it coming. For some, it is a natural disaster like a hurricane or brush fire. There is a story of a wild fire in California that jumped a fire wall in the middle of the night. One family was awakened by their young daughter who had gotten up and noticed the fire quickly proceeding up the hill right toward their home. She notified the family and everyone literally had minutes to gather what they could and run to safety.
What would you take? If you had ten minutes to grab the most important things in your life – only what you could carry – and run to escape destruction what would you take? Family pictures, books, a favorite musical instrument? How many of you would run back to save your jewelry or your coin collection? We would suddenly realize what was truly important. We would realize just how quickly life could change and all the possessions we worked so hard to obtain were not as critical or satisfying as we originally thought.
Why are we so caught up in this idea of trying to gain more stuff? Our text refers to a common ailment that is affecting all of us – the ailment of Restless Heart Syndrome. We are familiar with Restless Leg Syndrome – where the nerves of the legs continue to fire randomly making the legs jerk and become unstable. Restless Heart Syndrome is this innate restlessness that is in all of us. It is this constant dissatisfaction with what we have and the pursuit of more. We are always discontent.
Perhaps some restlessness is a good thing. God wired us to be a little restless within so that we seek rest in God. Our restlessness keeps us fighting for justice and holiness. We are not satisfied where we are in our spiritual growth so we pursue a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. We see the injustice around us and decide to take action to feed the hungry and provide for our neighbors in need. Our capacity to love never seems to diminish. This type of restlessness and discontentment is rather healthy.
It is the other form of discontentment that often gets the better of us. We are restless about our jobs, our stuff, our status in life. We may be restless about our children or our spouses. It is interesting that the divorce rate doesn’t seem to be diminishing at all. Some will say that 50-50 odds are pretty good, but when half of all marriages end in divorce there is something broken in our world. We are sinful beings and our restlessness can often get in the way of contentment.
So how do we find ways to cultivate contentment? How can we stop singing the Rolling Stones song, “I can’t get no satisfaction?” Do we just keep tearing down our barns and building bigger ones to store our stuff, thinking that our life here on earth is permanent? Our text suggests four keys to cultivating contentment. First, Hamilton suggests we practice a mantra of four words – ‘It could be worse.’ Some will call this unrealistic optimism but is it really? We may be unhappy with our jobs but there are many out there without jobs. It could be worse. We may complain about not being able to afford the latest new electronic toy, but there are many who are struggling to provide food and shelter for their families. It could be worse. We may not like the older model car we are driving but there are many who are either buried in auto loan debt or facing life without reliable transportation. It could be worse.
We lived next door to a rather affluent family. On the sixteenth birthday of each of the neighbor children, the parents granted each a new car. And not just any car – the one son drove a Mercedes convertible. One daughter had a small but sporty BMW. When our children hit the driving stage, we were passing around an old Dodge Dynasty. It was given to us, in decent shape, but at least 12 years old and after one son’s use, had a couple of dents to show for its wear. By the time my youngest was driving, that poor old Dynasty had seen better days. Not only could we not afford to give our children expensive luxury cars, but we held the philosophy that our children needed to earn, save up, and pay for their own cars; otherwise they just got to drive whatever leftover vehicle was in the driveway at the time. My son Nick still drives Mark’s old truck. But hey – it could be worse.
The second key to cultivating contentment is to ask this question before making a purchase: How long will this make me happy? Remember when your children were little and they would receive a gift and end up playing more with the box? Are we like that a little too? Do we like the latest gadget just long enough for the next one to come out? I am of the age group to receive updates from AARP. One of their recent articles was about purchases people made that they quickly regretted. One of the top ten was those purchases made from television ads. You know the ones that convince you that if you buy and use this certain product you too can be an Italian model! Whenever possible, perhaps we should try something before we buy it to see if it truly is the model or brand that will keep us content for the long haul. Hamilton suggests renting the car of your dreams before you actually buy one.
The third key to cultivating contentment is to develop a grateful heart. “Gratitude is essential if we are to be content.” Often our limited prayer times include petitions to God – that’s it. Perhaps we could spend some time thanking God for our many blessings. Mother Teresa was one to travel a lot. Often she would encounter snags in her travel that would delay her progress. The nuns traveling with her were trained to call each of these delays as gifts not problems. She would be grateful for the gift of being able to meditate and give her thanks to God for the blessings of another day. Are we grateful for our spouses, our children, our jobs, our homes? Developing gratitude goes a long way toward living a contented life.
The fourth key to cultivating contentment is to consider where our souls find true satisfaction. Saint Augustine made this famous quote that resonates with many: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.” Our focus this year on ‘Finding Your Balance’ looks at physical, mental, and spiritual health. We could be physically fit, exercising and eating right, and getting the rest our bodies need. We could be mentally fit, finding ways to reduce stress and worry while taking time for recreation and fun. But if we neglect our souls, we will never be truly content. God calls each of us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Seek God’s guidance. Talk with God with a grateful heart. Use your restless nature to continue searching for a deeper and more meaningful relationship with almighty God.
With developing contentment comes the natural progression to simplifying our lives. This is what the text refers to as living below our means. As Americans, we lead the world in consumption of goods and services. We have the most expensive health care system out there but not necessarily the best. We lead the world in emissions of harmful toxins into the environment. We represent 5% of the world’s population yet we produce 40% of the world’s garbage. It is time for us as Christians to take a strong stance toward simplifying our lives and our environment.
Hamilton gives us five steps toward simplifying our lives as a path toward becoming more content. First is to set a goal to reduce consumption. Whether it involves ensuring your next car gets better gas mileage than your current one, or reducing utility usage, see if you can find ways to reduce your overall consumption. We cannot control everything, but we can take control of those things that can be changed and cut back on without too much pain in order to reduce consumption.
Second is to think twice before making a purchase. Ask yourself: is this a want or a need? If it’s something I want, why do I want this now? Hamilton recommends waiting 24 hours before making a purchase. This gives you time to think it through to be sure you really want to make this purchase and can help you toward simplifying your life by limiting the stuff that comes into it.
Third, use up something before you buy a new model. These days, computers and electronic gadgets are not made to last long, but recycling programs are cropping up all over that will help reduce waste. We have a yard sale twice a year – just saying!
Fourth, plan low-cost entertainment that enriches. Wow, this can be a tough one but so necessary in our plugged-in lives. I remember not too long ago during what we referred to as the snow-pocalypse, we were completely snowed in as I am sure most folks were. We couldn’t get to work or activities. We couldn’t even begin to shovel snow because it just kept coming down. TV watching can only get you so far so suddenly the door to the closet with board games opened up and we sat around the table playing cards and games. Some of our best times on vacations were those times when we could grab a picnic lunch, spread out a tablecloth in the park and just enjoy our time together as a family.
Finally Hamilton recommends asking the question, “Are these major changes that would allow me to simplify my life? Would downsizing your home help to decrease maintenance and cleaning time and costs? Would selling your car help to eliminate debt and allow you to purchase an older one that you pay for in full? Could you take your club membership that you hardly use and put those funds toward a local mission? Find joy in simplicity. Find contentment for your souls. Find rest in the love of God. Find gratitude knowing that you are loved by almighty God. Here these words from Hebrews 13:5-6 again: “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’” (NIV) Amen.