In the Bible, 40 plays a prominent and recurring role. It crops up everywhere. Many of the best-known stories have the number 40 associated with them:

  • It rained 40 days on Noah.
  • Moses spent 40 years in Egypt, 40 years in Midian, and 40 years post-exodus. When he went up on Mt. Sinai, he stayed there 40 days.
  • Joshua did 40 days of recon on Canaan.
  • Israel wandered the wilderness for 40 years.
  • A criminal got 40 lashes max.
  • For 40 days Goliath taunted Israel.
  • The kings of the united monarchy—Saul, David and Solomon—all reigned 40 years.
  • For 40 days Satan tempted Jesus.
  • For 40 days Jesus appeared after his resurrection.
  • Women are pregnant for 40 weeks.
  • The army demands you do 40 push-ups.

Ok, those last two aren’t specifically biblical, but you get the idea. There’s a whole world of 40s out there. What’s with that? Is it sheer coincidence or some sort of Bible code?

Well, it’s not so much a code as a condition. It seems God deems “40” the appropriate period for testing, judging or proving something.

Just about anybody can drop and give you 20. But make it to 40 and we learn something about you.

That seems to be God’s intention for the number. When it comes to testing, “Let there be 40.”

Forty days of rain proves how dirty life on earth is. Forty years in the wilderness certifies the failure of an older generation, while creating faith in a newer one. Goliath’s forty-day taunt confirms the cowardice of one king, while Satan’s forty-day gauntlet proves the character of another.  And if you can’t get with the fact that the latter king ascended into heaven after 40 days, well, his kingdom marches on without you.

Forty. It’s God’s favorite challenge.

The Dangers of Our 40s

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,ché la diritta via era smarrita.”[1] Dante Alighieri

Dante was about 43 years old when he began writing the Divine Comedy, nearing the nadir of midlife. The year was 1308, centuries before we invented psychology. No matter. His description is perfectly apt for today:

“Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone.”

I think the disorientation of midlife is hardwired into the human experience every bit as much as puberty. The times may change, but this time doesn’t. Everybody goes through midlife.

And in the dark wood, dangers abound.

We can fall off a cliff through our own blind wandering. Like the strong man Samson who, somewhere in the middle of his life, started taking liberties with his holiness vow. As one called to be a nazir, meaning separated or consecrated, this ancient knight was not permitted to consume alcohol, touch a dead body, or cut his hair. But he brazenly did the first two, then foolishly permitted the third. Both the Lord and his strength left him (Judges 16:20), and Samson didn’t even notice until it was too late.

We can fall prey to ravenous predators. As 1 Peter 5:8 warns, “Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” And Peter knew what he was talking about. In the darkest moment of his spiritual journey, Satan nearly drained the faith right out of him, as three times he denied Christ.

We can fall into the hands of the living God. For reasons only he knows, God sometimes allows us to enter into a rigorous “40 test” when we least expect it. Deuteronomy 8:2 reminds us that Israel’s forty years in the wilderness were designed to humble and test them, in order to reveal what was in their hearts. Similarly, somewhere in the middle of King Hezekiah’s reign, circa 700 BC, God “left” him temporarily to know everything that was in his heart (2 Chron 32:31). And don’t forget Job. His was the crisis to end all crises, losing health, wealth and family in a moment. When Job awoke, the wood was darker than any of us could fathom. But if he could hold onto faith and sanity, perhaps we can too.

Midlife is a time unlike any other. It’s a moment when we are able to look back at the first 40 years of our lives and gain a new perspective for the next 40. It’s what we’re calling 40/40 vision.


Cover

 

Excerpt from 40/40 Vision by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty

» To download the first chapter of 40/40 Vision, subscribe to my blog.

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[1] “Dante and the Divine Comedy: Did You Know?” Christianity Today, April 1, 2001, www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2001/issue70/14.2.html.

Gracism

June 26, 2015 — Leave a comment

After the recent events in Missouri, Maryland, Texas, and South Carolina, my son commented, “Dad, it doesn’t seem safe to be black in the USA.”

YouTube videos and news headlines have shattered our idea that throughout America there is full acceptance that we are all created in the image of God with certain unalienable rights… including the most basic right to life.

Growing up in a suburb of Boston, I had very few cross-cultural or multiracial friendships. As a community, we were about as homogeneous as they come. But thankfully, through my work, travels, and family, my world is much more diverse and I know it’s had an impact on the way I think and feel about issues of race and privilege.

As one African proverb shares:

  • When I saw him from afar, I thought he was a monster.
  • When he got closer, I thought he was just an animal.
  • When he got closer, I recognized that he was a human.
  • When we were face to face, I realized that he was my brother.

Nationally, as we enter into conversations of race, my hope is that we would decrease distances and truly see others as our brothers and sisters.

Perhaps an important step in decreasing distances is simply to listen to voices of people who come from different backgrounds and different perspectives. If you’re looking for a place to start, I’ve appreciated the voices and perspectives of Trillia Newbell (author of United) and David Anderson (pastor of Bridgeway Community Church in Maryland and author of Gracism).

In David’s book, he writes how the intentional inclusion of grace can be woven throughout conversations on race. It’s a concept which attacks the very root of racism and offers a hopeful path forward for followers of Jesus.

Gracism

Instead of adding additional commentary, I thought I’d just share a few of my favorite quotes from his book:

- A “gracist” recognizes the beauty of diversity. A gracist will go to any length and work as diligently as possible to ensure that such beauty is seen and celebrated. A gracist truly believes that everyone matters and should be included. Gracist refuse to settle for unicultural segregation without doing all they can to include diversity at all levels of the church.

- Gracists take on the job of caring for the marginalized regardless of their color, class or culture. They intentionally reach out to those who are on the fringe, and if for some reason the marginalized person or group falters, gracism demands covering that person in such a way that his dignity is protected and his faults are not exploited.

- When I become aware of others who are not being treated fairly while I’m being given special treatment, that should give pause inside of me to refuse my special status and make right what is wrong in a systemic way through advocacy for causes that defy injustice.

- The “them vs. us” mentality plagues race relations, denominational distinctions and cultural differences to such a degree that it is hard for compassion to cross over to the other side of the street. If I don’t see the man lying on the side of the road as one who is a part of my family, ethnicity, religious group of class, then it is easier to dismiss him.

- When others are hurting in the body, gracism demands that we sympathize with the pain of our brothers and sisters. When someone is unfairly or unjustly treated, we should stand with that person since we are all a part of one body.

- After quoting the African proverb above, David concludes, “As long as we keep people at a distance, we can categorize them as monsters or animals. But when we get closer and begin to communicate with each other, we recognize that people are just like us in many ways. Comprehension begins with conversation.”

Lastly, I appreciated his thought on how “the longest prayer of Jesus recorded in Scripture is for the oneness of his offspring. God hates it when his children fight even more than I hate it for my children.” My sincere hope is that as we walk into essential conversations of race, we will do so bound by the unity of Christ, and holding hands with brothers and sisters in our beautifully diverse family.

This week is the 75th birthday of Muhammad Yunus, the inspiring leader who asked a question which struck at the root of a paternalistic approach to poverty alleviation: Why do for people what they’re capable of doing for themselves?

This question served as the basis of Yunus’ groundbreaking work in the 1970s as he founded the Grameen Bank, pioneered the modern microfinance movement, and garnered some impressive recognition, including Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Hundreds of thousands (myself included) have been inspired by the model of microfinance and signed up to help unleash women’s and men’s creativity around the world.

But recently there have been articles and thoughtful research projects critiquing this tool. Does this recent criticism undermine the microfinance movement? Does it unravel all that Yunus envisioned and many of us have worked to implement?

Intuitively, it makes sense that microfinance has the potential to benefit a community. Many of us have benefited from a savings account, a mortgage, business coaching/mentoring, access to loans for business investment or to care for an urgent need. Why assume those in poverty wouldn’t have similar needs for financial services or benefit from the services you and I enjoy?

Instead of a grand critique of microfinance, I find the recent articles and data contain important lessons for those of us who implement these ideas. It’s an invitation to do some soul searching and consider where we might have gone wrong in implementing these ideas – and perhaps pop a few myths.

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Myth #1: Everyone should borrow.

Initially, it was thought that if every person received a microloan, then poverty would be eliminated. The reasoning was that any person could receive a small loan and start a business . . . but this hasn’t proven to be true. Not everyone has a successful business idea, and not everyone needs additional capital. It’s possible for a person to actually become worse off if they take capital and use it for unhelpful or irresponsible consumption spending. Assuming that everyone needs a microloan just doesn’t makes sense.

Instead, a growing number of organizations are realizing that while not everyone should borrow, everyone should save. The approach is shifting from focusing primarily on loans to placing a significant emphasis on savings. This is why I hope we can finally banish the word “microcredit” and replace it with “microfinance,” recognizing that a loan is only one part of providing families with the services they need.

As one example, initially at HOPE International, we focused on microloans. Over the past decade, our services have expanded to include savings and today 74% of the families we serve only save with us, 25% save and borrow, and 1% only borrow. The impact of savings is largely underestimated.

Myth #2: Profits are all that matter.
Microfinance began as a movement among nonprofits and credit cooperatives, but something changed in the 2000s. I remember going to a presentation on microfinance in New York, and the only metric that highlighted was the quarterly financial return and how microfinance was an investment opportunity uncorrelated with global markets. The message was simple: Invest with us to maximize your return. This had nothing to do with serving families, investing in dreams, or honoring dignity.

Over time, this “maximize profit” approach resulted in the removal of anything that didn’t directly contribute to quarterly profits. Entrepreneurship training, health services, and group celebrations for clients were left behind. It’s made some microfinance institutions look more like payday lending shops than community-minded organizations seeking to positively impact families.

Microfinance institutions that are truly effective have always focused on investing holistically in the client, providing resources and training opportunities so that they can grow professionally, personally, social, and communally. At HOPE, we take this one step further by investing in clients’ spiritual lives, knowing the transformation that is possible through a relationship with Jesus.

Myth #3: Microfinance will eradicate global poverty.
Early positive stories caused a rush of enthusiasm for microfinance; finally, there seemed to be a business approach to alleviate global poverty that could be scaled to assist millions of families! At some point, enthusiasm crossed over into the land of fairy tales, with the promise that one single approach could effectively eliminate poverty.

But poverty is complex. And while savings services, stronger community relationships, greater hope for the future, access to small loans for expanding a business, and cash flows smoothing all help, none can, on their own, eradicate poverty. Instead, a huge number of other issues—justice, property rights, education, health, nutrition, infrastructure investment, social constructs, government transparency and corruption—all come into play.

By understanding that each of these elements has an important role and by creatively linking with other organizations, we believe real impact will occur.

By soberly understanding the places where we’ve got it wrong, we can help ensure that microfinance remembers why this tool was created and get back to work serving families. I can think of no better birthday present to give Yunus on his 75th birthday.

Let’s Make Pies

May 1, 2015 — 1 Comment

Recently, my friend Shane Claiborne and I took part in a debate on Christian responses to poverty. To call it a debate might be a bit of a stretch, especially when the prevailing image of a “debate” is rancorous TV personalities angrily shouting over each other.

Still, in the midst of our discussion, we hit on a particularly provoking concept: Is one person’s wealth the result of another person’s poverty? And is a system of redistribution the loving, biblical response to poverty?

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The idea of a system of redistribution as the way to care for those in need seems supported by the example of the Early Church in Acts and verses like 1 John 3:17, which says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

There is no question that God calls us to radical generosity, particularly toward the most vulnerable. Even a cursory reading of the Bible can leave no doubt: We are called and compelled to care for those who are hungry and orphaned, trafficked and enslaved, widowed and sick, broken and marginalized and living in poverty.

As men and women designed to incarnate the God who came to serve a world hemorrhaging from sin’s piercing wounds, our hearts are to reflect that same relentless love and pursuit of others. Our words and actions are to point an aching world to Jesus.

So, it’s right that stories of human suffering grieve our spirits and move us to action. We are to “spend ourselves” on behalf of others.

But here’s the thing—I believe that, as followers of Christ, it is our responsibility not simply to act, but to act in wise, strategic ways that are actually effective in alleviating suffering.

It is because I follow Jesus—not in spite of it—that I cannot simply ignore the evidence showing that systems based solely on the redistribution of wealth never work. Historically, they promise utopia and deliver misery. As I once heard economist Jay Richards say, “Systems of forced redistribution don’t just fail to promote freedom—they fail at producing food.”

More importantly, systemic redistribution misses the beautiful truth that God created a world in which there is the possibility to create—and that as God’s image-bearers, we are to be co-creators.

Wealth is not a fixed pie from which we must shave off meager slices but something that can be multiplied. Instead of focusing on cutting up a single pie, what if we focused our efforts on working together to make more pies?

God demonstrated this most basic principle in a common seed. In God’s economy, you can take a seed and plant it in the ground. If you take care of it, the seed will grow and bear fruit, which will produce more seeds. You can then take those seeds and open a store to sell them, or perhaps turn them into flour, which can then be used to bake bread to share with others.

When we depend on systematic redistribution as the solution to poverty, our focus will be on cutting slices from a limited pie and divvying out increasingly smaller pieces to men and women who are capable of much more. Not only is that approach grossly ineffective, but it also robs the recipients of life-giving, dignifying opportunities to create and grow.

I don’t want to miss breathtaking stories of human flourishing, as people mirror our Creator by creating. The more I travel around the world, the more I’m convinced of the overwhelming capacity and creativity of all people in all nations.

If you want to care for those in need, then it’s time to help make more pies.