Thanks it’s a delight to be here. Unless you’ve been living under a rock in recent days you would all know that most places around the world are experiencing the most dramatic economic downturn that people of my generation have ever seen? Now, Bob Schuller survived the huge recession right after the civil war, you know that was back in the 1870s, but I have no recollection of that and none of you do either. But for people of my generation this current down turn that we’re in is about as bad as anything we’ve ever seen. It’s the subject of conversation at water coolers and dinner tables and I thought it would be profitable for us to have a conversation about it in church this morning.
So I want to ask the question what do we learn from a downturn? And maybe the way to jump into this is just tell you some of the things I’m learning and see if you can relate. The first lesson I learn or relearn in any downturn is that downturns are inevitable. They are inevitable of our collective economic reality. As was told to you I have two children. I have a twenty-nine year old son right now who’s sailing a forty-two foot sailboat around the world. He left from Michigan, he went through the Panama Canal, through the south Atlantic over Australia and he’s just within a day or two now from pulling into Cape Town, South Africa. When he was preparing for his circumnavigation he purchased a lot of heavy weather sails, heavy weather gear and I kidded him one day about all of this heavy weather preparation stuff and he said, “Dad no one sails twenty-five thousand miles without encountering a storm. I’m not going to be the exception.” And just in this last week in the Indian Ocean he took a couple of huge poundings for which I know he and I are both glad he was fully prepared. All that to say nobody in this church, no one watching this program is going to go twenty-five or fifty or seventy-five years on this earth without encountering an economic storm.
We live in a broken world. We live in a world with fragile economic systems and with mistake prone people running them. And every so often grey clouds are going to form on the horizon, the wind will pipe up and before you know it we’ll be in a full-blown storm. And we’re in one now and the question will be did you prepare for the storm you knew was going to come? This leads to my second learning from downturns; downturns ruthlessly expose any and all weaknesses in our current financial strategies. Downturns ruthlessly expose any and all weaknesses in our current financial strategies.
Question: does your air conditioner ever break down when it’s cool outside, 55 degrees and a gentle breeze? Of course not. It only breaks down when it’s 90 or 95 and the humidity is high and company is coming over. Any problem you ever have with your air conditioner is going to get exposed when it is put under a heavy load. The same is true in economic downturns. The load, when it comes, exposes any weakness. So a married couple says our zero down adjustable rate mortgage sounded great when the seas were calm and the sun was shining. Now it feels like a noose around our neck. Or the twenty-eight year old with ten thousand dollars of credit card debt and school loans and a car payment and no emergency funds well that all feels great when the economic indicators are all green. When they turn red the whole house of cards starts to fall. The fifty-five year old sole provider for a family loads up his 401-K with risky stocks believing he’s going to beat the odds and retire comfortably when he’s sixty and then a downturn hits. Well we all know what happens.
In downturns any weakness, any short cut, any financial high wire act is likely to get exposed and usually the consequences are very painful and I’m sure everyone I’m talking to can relate. Is the downturn, this one that we’re going through, is it shining a light on any part of your recent financial strategy? Are you thinking, are you re-thinking, are you putting together a “what am I learning” list? I don’t think it does anybody much good to beat yourself up over what’s happened in past months but I do think there’s some learning to do, some underscoring to do. We’ll get into that in just a moment.
The third lesson I learn in a downturn is how reliable the bible is in its wisdom about how to handle God’s money. How reliable the bible is when it comes to how to handle God’s money that you and I are entrusted with. Now at the risk of mixing metaphors a moment, in Chicago where I’m from we all know what a chump is. We use that expression and it’s used probably more in Chicago than any place in the world, but do you know what it is to be a chump, to be called a chump?
I was feeling like a chump a while back when a friend of mine asked me as a favor to drive his grandmother’s car from Chicago over to his place in Michigan, so it’s not a cool car. This is the kind with vinyl seat covers, fuzz around the steering wheel, prayer beads, full hubcaps, you get it. This is not a cool car. But I’m doing my friend a favor so I get in the car, I’m driving on the highway between Chicago and Michigan, I look along side of me and there’s a young guy in a BMW convertible. He pulls up next to me, checks me out in grandma’s car, disses me. I’m sure he did, he dissed me. He gave me that look of disrespect then he floored it and took off. It was like getting sand kicked in your face at the beach when you were in junior high. But there I was, doing a favor for a friend.
I kept going the speed limit, feeling like a chump and I’m sure you understand what the word means now. Then about fifteen minutes later I see this young guy in the BMW convertible pulled off to the side of the road. Two cop cars have him off to the side of the road, lights flashing, badges glistening in the sun. I think he’s getting a speeding ticket. I don’t feel so much like a chump anymore. Of course I had to honk and wave when I went by, pull on the prayer beads a little bit.
But hang onto that thought for just a second because the point I’m trying to make is that God’s money management plan revealed in the bible is pretty straight forward and clear. Let me review the basics for you. God’s word says earn money enthusiastically and honestly. Live well within your means. Have margin in your life. Avoid debt like the plague. Debt is not your friend. It never will be your friend. Save and invest all you can. Give generously to people in need. Honor God with the first ten percent of your earnings. Give it to the church that you’re a part of that helps you grow. Support great ministries like this and other ministries that take the message of Christ and spread it around the world. But the bible says apart from those basics make sure that you’re trusting God as the supplier of your provision and not just getting God confused with your income stream. Trust God, not just your portfolio. Trust God, not just your 401-K. Follow His financial plan, trust Him completely and anticipate His full blessing. That’s God’s plan. It works famously when it’s followed. It works in fair weather and foul. It works if you’re young or if you’re old. It works if you make a lot of money or you make just a little. But it has worked for centuries.
But here’s the point. When you are on God’s plan following it carefully, following it consistently, spiritually, meticulously you start to feel like a chump. Admit it, you do. You’re driving the speed limit in grandma’s car and all your friends who are on a different financial plan are flying past you, dissing you along the way. They're all buying the bigger houses that they really can’t afford; they’re driving the better cars that they have huge payments on. Everyone’s whizzing by and there you are chumping along doing it God’s way.
You pay cash for used cars. You resist the abuse of credit cards. You vacation in the basement with your in-laws in Peoria. You write out your tithe check to your church each week. And all the time you feel a little bit like a chump. But then right about the time when you think you can’t do chump-hood one more month here comes a downturn. And while none of us would ever get any delight in watching someone else struggle truly, there’s a quiet voice in our head whispering aren’t you glad you’re a chump now. You have a six-month emergency fund and it’s all set aside. You have no credit card debt and no car payments. Your mortgage is manageable, your investments are conservative, you’re giving to God and His work in the world has been consistent and generous. You know the hand of God is on your life. You know He’s your ultimate provider. You’ve been honoring Him. You sleep like a baby at night because your economic future is in His hands. What’s not to like? And maybe I’m talking to someone today. Maybe chump-hood isn’t that bad after all.
I love what I Timothy 6, verse 17 to 19 says: “Command those who are rich in this present world,” that doesn’t mean really, really rich it just means people who have income and houses, cars and so, “command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant or to put their hope in wealth.” I love the next sentence. “Don’t put your hope in wealth, which is so uncertain.” Haven’t we seen that? “Don’t put your hope in wealth because it’s so uncertain. But put your hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command the affluent to do good; to be rich in good deeds, to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life,” life that is truly life. Something more vital than just trading dollars and buying stuff. I love that passage. I’ve underlined it so many times in my bible that I’ve almost wrecked that page in the scripture. And I find that in a down turn sometimes God whispers to us that this is the time for a do over. This is a time to get a clean sheet of paper out. This is the time to go back to God’s financial plan and to put our faith in His wisdom and be a chump for God and secure His blessing for our current time and for our future.
The fourth lesson I learn in a downturn is that God often uses financial pain to bring clarity into my mind on what really matters in this life and what doesn’t. I’ve been the pastor of Willow Creek church for over thirty-three years now. I hear a lot of God stories. People who stop me after services and they want to tell me the activity of God in their life and so I listen and here’s often the kinds of God stories that I hear. Someone will say, everything was going along great in my life. I was having a ball at work, the charts were going up, everything looked fine and then we lost our biggest account, or our industry changed, or our division was sold, our company was downsized, my position got eliminated. You fill in the blank but an economic storm came their way and the stories usually go on like this. For the first time in my life I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to turn, who to turn to. I was scared, embarrassed and all alone and then here’s the turn in many of these stories: so for the very first time I bought a bible. Or they say I went to a church or maybe they say I turned on a Christian television program or I went to a friends bible study who had been inviting me for years but I didn’t need the bible study then. Or I talked to a Christian friend or something.
But the learning comes when they take a step and then they say you know what I learned through the church, through the bible study, through the TV show or whatever they say, I learned that I had made money my God, or career advancement, or material things my God. And then the story continues and I decided I wanted to make God my God. And I wanted everything else in my life to find the right level. So many of the stories go on: I wound up asking Jesus Christ to forgive my sin and to be the leader of my life and I yielded control of my life to Him. I put my hand in His hand and I took hold of it, never to let go of it again.
Now, parenthetically many of theses stories do not include in them God made all my financial worries go away. In fact most of these stories continue that there was still economic hardship but the greater gain was coming in to a relationship with God and putting Him in the rightful place. I’ve heard that kind of story hundreds and hundreds of times and I have no doubt that in our current downturn a lot of people are going to come to the same kind of realizations like the stories I’ve heard in the past. And I think there’s going to be a lot of people some months or years from now who are going to be in a vital relationship with God. Maybe they’ve lost a ton of money. They’re going to look back and say the downturn of ‘08 and ’09 that terrible downturn was what it took to bring me to faith in God and to get my faith central to my daily life and if it took that then so be it, but I’m glad it happened.
Now, some of you are in the middle of excruciating financial pain right now. It’s the thing that’s in front of your face when you get up in the morning; it’s like a cloud over your head all day, every day. It’s your last thought when you go to bed at night. And I’m not trying to diminish the seriousness or the pain you’re feeling in any way. I’m just saying that sometimes God redeems financial pain and sometimes He uses it to bring clarity to your mind and your heart and sometimes it’s exactly that kind of pain that helps you see the love of God in ways you’ve never seen it before and you grab His hand like you never had before. And there is a greater good in all of this you know.
The fifth lesson that many people learn in a downturn is that less is sometimes more. Less is sometimes more. Philippians 4:11-13 the apostle Paul he says “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need. I know what it is to have plenty. I’ve learned the secret of being content in any and every situation whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” Don’t you love that text? In every downturn I’ve been in, in my life, I’ve talked with people who have had to make some very tough decisions. There are people in my church right now in the last thirty days that have had to put a for sale sign on their dream home. Not the first home that they bought in the subdivision that they knew they were going to get out of someday, but a for sale sign on their final home, the dream home. There are people who have had to sell the car that they thought they were going to keep and feel real good about for a long time. There are people who have had to shut off or cut up their credit cards, turn off their cable service, stop dining out. There are people who are going to the library now instead of Borders to buy books. They’re wearing fashion that is a little out of fashion.
And when I’m talking to some people who have made these adjustments, its surprises me, although it shouldn’t, but it surprises me how often I hear people say it wasn’t really as bad as I thought it was going to be. Instead of the frenetic non-stop quest for more, contented people learn how to say an incredibly powerful six-letter word. The word is, enough. Would you say it with me? Enough. Yeah, enough square footage, enough stuff, enough clothes, enough toys, enough gadgets, enough flat screens, enough extras. Enough. Enough. That six-letter word can emancipate you from a kind of insidious addiction to an ever-escalating cycle of consumeristic insanity. Contentment can set you free.
I have a grand child now and he’s two years old and I love this little guy! And sometimes when I’m busy maintaining my stuff, this little guy is twenty or thirty feet away from me wanting to relate to me, but well I’m shining up my Harley or I’m maintaining some other piece of property and more recently I’ve been thinking why would I do this? Why wouldn’t I play with this kid? These are the kinds of things you start to notice and pay attention to when you’re in a downturn. How sometimes less can actually be more. It can open up space in your mind and space in your heart and space in your schedule for relationships and even for God.
Sixth thing that I learn in a downturn is that I often learn that other people get hurt in a downturn even more than I get hurt and I therefore have the privilege before God to help them. Every time I’m in a downturn and I think I have it bad, I run into friends or people from my church or in my neighborhood who got hurt a lot worse.
In the very early days of Willow Creek, my wife and I worked three years for nothing because our church had nothing. They couldn’t pay us and so you know we took in boarders and I had a night job and it was very hard. But eventually the church could pay us a little bit. And I will never forget when Lynn and I finally had saved up one thousand dollars of disposable income; this had come in like in twenty-dollar chunks or forty dollar chunks from little jobs we did and some payment from the church. And right about that time after we celebrated that achievement of having a thousand dollars of disposable income, it was in the early eighties and we went in to a downturn and a new guy came to our church. We were still in the movie theater and the guy stopped me after the church. He was elderly. He was broken and he had lost his wife already, he was very shaken by this downturn and he was going to lose his condominium. That’s the only thing he had left in his life. That’s where he intended to die. And he was going to lose that condominium unless he could come up with a thousand dollars. And he asked me if the church could loan him some money and I said really our church doesn’t have a thousand dollars right now, we’re in debt. And he said okay I understand, I understand. He said would you pray that somehow, some way God would meet this need and I said I will. Well after I prayed on the way home, I thought my wife and I could meet this need. We have a thousand dollars. And so I went home and thought about how my wife was going to respond to this suggestion and I told Lynn about it and if you knew my wife you would know that this was a no brainer to Lynn. She said there’s a reason why God gave us a thousand dollars. We could help this man and we did. And he was able to make his payment and he got a part time job and he wound up dying in that little condo many, many years later. But I think five or six years later he stopped us after our church moved into our new building and he had become a Christian and all that and he wanted to pay that thousand dollars back to Lynn and me. And we said there is no way that we would do that. God built our faith by doing what we did for you. We felt in tune with the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught repeatedly if you have two coats give one to someone who has need. If you have extra food in the cupboard why wouldn’t you freely share it?
Well what we’re learning these days at Willow during this downturn right now, we’re learning that this era in a downturn is when our church can really be the church to one another. I stood up a couple weeks ago and Willow’s a very large church and we have the very rich and the very poor and everyone in between and I said gang, here’s what’s going on. We’re all affected by this downturn. Some of you for the first time in your whole life in this church you are going to have to raise your hand and say I need help. You used to bring food to our food pantry, now you need to go to our food pantry. You used to give the extra offering that we would use to help people in need and now you’re going to be one of those who has to raise his hand and say I’m the one who needs the extra offering. And so I was cheering on our church to be the church to one another. And sure enough afterwards my staff let me know that we had hundreds and hundreds of people who raised their hand and said can the church help us. And our business manager let me know by Wednesday of that week that we had the need for tens of thousands of dollars from all these people who were real excited about being the church to each other, at least on the receiving end.
The very next weekend a young couple who I had never known stopped me after the service and they said while you were standing up there last week saying this is when the church has to be the church, they were saying God whispered to us that we have plenty. We haven’t been affected by the downturn. They gave me a check for over a hundred thousand dollars and they said we want to help the church be the church and when that’s gone, you come back because we have never been a part of a church that could be the church in a downturn and we are going to do everything in our power to be on that helping side. Isn’t that a beautiful spirit?
And friends that happens in a downturn. The dream of an Acts II church is the dream of an interdependent community of believers. Where the rich care for the poor and where people who go through hard times admit it and they don’t play church, they step up and they say can you help me? And then others say I can help you and it’s a joy to help you. And I predict that in the coming months and perhaps years the church of Jesus Christ around the world is going to have an opportunity like it hasn’t had in great financial times. It’s going to have the opportunity to meet each other’s needs and create this interdependent loving community in ways that weren’t possible when it was all up and to the right. I pray that for this congregation. I pray it for every congregation and we will be the church to the church to each other and to the watching world. It’ll have a powerful witness for Jesus Christ.
One more thing that I learned in a downturn and I’ll close with this: I’ve learned that whenever the season of the downturn comes to an end and the dark clouds lift and the sun peeks through and it all gets a little bit more normal, every single time that’s happened in the past I’ve always fallen to my knees in recognition and in thanksgiving to God for having proven Himself faithful to me, to the Hybels family during that last downturn. Every single time. We went through downturns in the mid seventies right when we were starting Willow. There was the downturn of the early eighties. There was black Monday in 1987. There was the recession of 1991 and 1992. There was the tech crash of 2001 and of course all of what happened around 9/11. I was affected by every one of those downturns in the last thirty-some years, but when they were done I actually had to say God You know you did meet my needs. I did have shelter through each one of those downturns. I had sufficient food. My family survived, I’m still standing so in every other downturn God proved Himself faithful to me. So when this downturn hit and when I could tell it was going to be a doozy I made a commitment. And my commitment is that I’m not going to wait until after this economic thing corrects itself before I declare my faith in a faithful God. I’m not going to wait until all of the smoke clears and the dust settles and then be anxious every single day between now and that day when it all works itself out. I’m not going to wait till the end this time. Every day when I get up I’m going to say God You were faithful to me and my family and our church to every other downturn. I believe by faith that You’re going to be faithful to me and our family and our church during this one. And I’m going to trust You in this storm, through this storm while the waters are raging and while the wind is still howling and maybe there’s someone in this congregation that wants to take that same kind of pledge. To say from this day forward I’m going to declare my faith in the providing hand of our great God. I’m going to trust Him and not cave way to fear. I’m going to walk with Him hand in hand and not let go and fall into the abyss of discouragement, but I am going to trust Him everyday in every situation until this whole thing works itself out. Anyone in agreement with a pledge like that? Yeah, yeah I am. I think you all are.
And it brings me back to a song that I watched my father sing and he’s been in heaven now for a long time. But when I was a little kid in Faith Christian Reform Church in Kalamazoo Michigan we’d sing a great hymn, “Great is thy faithfulness, oh God my father” and my brother and I would be standing there screwing around and not paying much attention to what was going on and we’d look up at my dad and here this very powerful business guy, he’d be singing and tears coming down his cheeks. And I’ve never forgotten that. I thought oh man he’s seeing God be faithful for a longer time then I have. He’s got more to sing about. He’s had many more life experiences where the faithfulness of God proved itself and that’s why he’s singing the way he’s singing, and my brother and I are not singing at all.
Many of you have seen God be faithful through a whole lot of stuff. And we’re going to end this service by giving all of you an opportunity to express your faith in the faithful God as we sing this great closing hymn.