From Cloud Cult to Wham! in one short week! I’m resisting the temptation to put up a photo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (who will forever be known as “that other guy from Wham!”) sporting the iconic T-shirt of my adolescence, but surely you can Google that if you missed out on the 80’s.
I think people often read this week’s text from Deuteronomy with as much subtlety as a Wham! song. In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, we seem to be offered a stark choice between “life and prosperity,” on the one hand, and “death and adversity,” on the other. Our day-to-day choices seldom seem that clear-cut. Most of us experience life as a mixed bag of adversity and prosperity, and while we often notice when we seem to be getting more than our fair share of adversity, we think less often about how we’re faring as a community and the work we’re called to do together. In our individualistic culture, it’s easy to read this passage as a formula for obtaining God’s official stamp of approval on our personal aspirations, and lose sight of the practices God is calling us to embrace as a community.
I remember, about eight years ago, spending the night with Paul’s brother and sister-in-law. As I was getting settled into the lovely bedroom they had insisted on giving up for us, I spied a copy of The Prayer of Jabez on the nightstand, a book that for many epitomizes the “prosperity gospel.” It seemed to be working out pretty well for them. My brother-in-law and his wife had recently taken a huge risk. They had given up their good jobs and their beautiful home and moved with their two children back to Minnesota to take over the old family farmstead. Within a couple of weeks, both had found jobs that were perfect for them. Just as quickly, they settled into life in the idyllic little town and became instantly beloved pillars of the community. They were rapidly employing my sister-in-law’s excellent taste in restoring the old farmhouse and grounds, and after a few short months it already felt like the perfect warm, homey extension of their truly wonderful family.
Meanwhile, our own lives were in shambles. We had spent the past four years plowing through one medical disaster after another and we were still reeling from the death of our four-year-old son from a rare and cruel cancer. Our cramped house was a mess of neglected projects, our neighborhood was deteriorating, and we were growing weary of life in our noisy, crime-ridden pocket of the city. Lying there in my in-laws’ graciously appointed featherbed, listening to the old windmill whirr pastorally in the distance, I was consumed with envy. I stared at the cover of that insipid book and wanted to fling The Prayer of Jabez against the tastefully decorated wall.
Thank God our loving families bore with us through those bitter times! The happy footnote is that every summer Paul’s siblings and parents take turns descending on one another’s houses to help with DIY projects. Together, we built a massive porch on that farmhouse, and when we sit on that porch, sipping our lemonade in the summer breeze, it’s a grace-filled reminder that when we invest in one another’s lives and build up ever-widening circles of community, we all share in God’s true prosperity. And God has much bigger projects in mind for us than porch-building.