Project 1040: On Generosity, Clean Water, and Imagination

$Here are the common things I remember hearing on the topic of money and resources growing up:

你真的需要吗?(“Do you really need that?”)

不要浪费. (“Don’t waste it.”)

太贵了. (“That’s too expensive.”)

Now, I never sat down with my non-Christian Chinese immigrant parents to discuss their specific worldview on financial resources, simplicity, and generosity – but like everything else – as a kid, you figure out pretty quick what is important and what is NOT.  Thus, conspicuous excess, luxurious spending, and wastefulness were shameful practices.  Also, acts of charity and generosity to those outside our immediate family was also treated with suspicion.

This is the context for my own journey in the Christian faith to reconcile the Bible’s teaching on money and my own upbringing of frugality and self-protection.  I had inherited the lessons of prior generations – borne from a lifetime of being subject to violence, war, financial instability, and limited resources.

In terms of the values expressed on this blog — I found that my family had helped me develop the “muscle” of simplicity, but left the corresponding capacity to be generous in an atrophied state.  It is only in recent years, that I have begun to work on this part of my life.  And although I make no pretense to be a finished product, I feel I am closer today than when I started.

The current example: for Lent this year, my friends and I are raising money to build wells and provide clean water for villages in Tigray, Ethiopia.


Because individuals (typically women) walk around 3.7 miles per day to fetch water for their families, members of our group are also committing to walk this amount each day as well.  It’s a somewhat different “take” on the traditional Lenten practices, but it is a small step for us to try to identify with our brothers and sisters, to push ourselves (and others) to be generous, and appreciate the abundance of what we possess.  This exciting project seeks to raise enough money for 10 wells which may potentially provide clean water for about 5,000 people!  As of today, we have raised enough for 6 wells (Every dollar donated will be matched by our small group)!

More information here:


Now, I could tell you how fun it is to be a fundraiser (not that fun), or to try and walk the required daily mileage (it’s okay), or to see people give generously (EXTREMELY cool), but for myself, I know that the muscle I continue to need developing is that of being rich toward God by being generous towards others.  You would think that years of tithing to the church, donating towards worthy causes, and building wells would make giving money easier over time.  Truth is, it’s tough.  For Project 1040, Melissa and I committed to giving one-third of our savings towards the matching funds.  And let me tell you – it’s still really hard to do for me.  I’m still often plagued with nagging (but important) voices:

“Is this really the MOST effective use of this money?”

“Aren’t I supposed to be joyful?  Why, then, does this feel so hard?”

“What difference will this really make?”

“I could be doing a lot of other things with that money!”

I wish I had better answers to these questions and internal dialogue, but one thing that has helped is to imagine the look on the faces of the women, men, and children in far-away Tigray when the first trickle of water emerges from the new well.  I think about the kids who may have time to get an education; how many might avoid diseases and death.  I think about the celebration that will ensue.


Sometimes I wonder how much easier it would be to give if we were firsthand witnesses to those for whom will benefit from our generosity.  What if these people were just next door?  Wouldn’t we act quickly and without reservation?  Maybe what is atrophied for all of us is the capacity to imagine those in need as truly our neighbors.  We, in some ways, are still stuck asking the same Pharisaical question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

I hope you will prayerfully consider join us in our campaign to bless the people of Tigray, Ethiopia – our dear neighbors in Christ.

But even more, I hope you will allow the Spirit to infiltrate your imagination with visions of how a generous God can use you to pursue His purposes in the world.

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?  What if the Son of God and His disciples were in charge of all your saving, spending, investing, and giving?  At first glance, the idea seems a bit silly, perhaps even disrespectful.  Jesus came to die for our sins, not dispense advice on mutual funds, right?

But actually, the New Testament turns out to contain an awful lot of financial insight.  In fact, Jesus and the apostles talked about it way more than other important ethical issues, such as sexuality.  Today I did little experiment to shed some light on what Jesus’ meta-message as our financial advisor would be.  First, building on several years of previous study, I decided to identify every passage in the New Testament that is directly relevant to the way we manage our money.  After a full morning’s work, I highlighted seventy-five passages (not including about 30 additional parallel texts).  Then I noted the basic theme of each text and put them all on an Excel spreadsheet.  Here’s a summary of the results:

As you can see, by far the most prominent theme in the New Testament is that our wealth is intended to be shared with the poor.  A close second was the idea, variously expressed, that money is somehow dangerous or at least distracting to our spiritual life.  Those themes make up more than TWO THIRDS of the New Testament’s teaching on money.  A final prominent theme is basically to not worry too much about money, because God will provide.

Surprisingly, less than eight percent of the relevant passages spoke about giving to support the pastor or the local church—which is the topic of the vast majority of “stewardship” sermons.  And there was almost nothing on budgeting, saving, or investing—topics that make up the vast majority of Christian financial stewardship books.

In summary, here’s what the two Great Commandments of Jesus’ financial advice look like to me:

  • You shall intentionally, generously, and regularly share your resources with the poor.
  • And a second is like it: you shall become free of consumerism and the need to find your identity in your possessions, instead trusting that God will provide what you actually need.

Now that is some weird financial advice.  You definitely won’t hear anything like that from Prudential or Charles Schwab.  For me, spending almost an entire day poring over these teachings really drove home just how radical and counter-cultural Jesus is, especially for those of us coming from a society that reveres material accumulation like no other in history.

But why not check out the Jesus’ advice for yourself?  I’d like to invite you to reflect personally on the wisdom in my spreadsheet.  If you just do about ten passages a day, it will only take a week.  And it just might be good news for your (financial) life.

Where Face Paint and Foreign Aid Meet: Fusing Fun with Purpose

When God calls us to “open wide” our hands to the poor (Deuteronomy 15) and pour ourselves out for the hungry (Isaiah 58), He leaves the specifics up to us. We can give to aid organizations or donate canned goods to the food pantry, for example, or volunteer at the soup kitchen.

We can even take those dictates literally by sharing a meal with hungry people. Here in Cambridge, I’ve had the pleasure of befriending Mike, who likes to eat chicken fried rice with his hands, and Harold, a gourmand who makes his own pizza and experienced such horror toward my weekly spam dinners that he once surprised me with a bag of fresh groceries. “Anything but spam, please!” he said. Given his nonexistent income, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Yet, most of these responses preclude participation by my large and rather diverse network of friends. Few of our calendars are brimming with empty weeknights that allow us to take a volunteer shift, for example, and from experience, I’ve learned that food pantries can accommodate only so many volunteers each evening anyway.

As I celebrated my 26th birthday this year, then, I decided to put another spin on responding biblically to hunger: I threw a huge, “Back to Childhood”-themed, birthday costume party. Culinary highlights included childhood snacks such as Twizzlers and Yoohoo’s as well as my favorite dessert, pecan pie.

Instead of presents, I invited friends to come bearing costumes and a gift of another kind of wealth, one that we sometimes forget about—political capital. I asked guests to bring a letter for their congressman advocating for foreign aid reform. I tracked their gifts on a spreadsheet and set up a letter-writing station next to my face-painting “booth” for those who hadn’t had time to write letters at home.

hand-writing letters at the letter-writing station… in full costume

creating masterpieces at the face-painting booth

With the help of preprinted templates, all it took was five minutes to hand-write a letter, and in the end, I collected a whopping 30 letters from friends across six states.

My party took place the night before my actual birthday, and I ended up spending much of my birthday tracking letters and stuffing envelopes—all over bites of leftover pecan pie, of course.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a more meaningful way to celebrate turning 26.









more costumes, snacks and face paint: just further proof that we can fuse fun with Biblical purpose in our day-to-day lives — all very simply


How Do You Build a Wealth-Diverse Community?

My church, Jesus the Recreator, is trying to build a diverse community in San Jose, California.  Diverse not just racially, but also socio-economically.  To me, the latter is the hard part.  Personally, I have a much easier time socializing with other educated people regardless of race.  Do you feel the same?  In the secular non-profit world, I also see this clear class division.  You either work directly with the poor, such as social work, or indirectly as a part of a think tank or foundation.  The former generally don’t write papers or work on policy, and the latter don’t have friends among the poor.

If it’s hard to make friends outside of your socio-economic class, it’s even harder to build a whole church community.  I know of only a few examples of current-day churches which have managed to do this: Mako and Ming’s church in Dorchester, Gary and Jodi’s church in Oakland, and Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco.  My impression is that it takes many years and an extraordinary level of commitment to develop this type of community.  Do you know of other examples, and if you’ve been a part of such a church, what have been the key factors to making it work?

Economic Development and Modern Day Slavery

My friend Jimmy Quach works for Good Paper, a greeting card company that started in Rwanda. Their newest line of cards, Sanctuary Spring, is made by survivors of sex trafficking. The International Justice Mission phoned Jimmy last summer saying that they had just rescued 40 women who needed jobs right away, lest they be re-trafficked. Soon afterwards, Jimmy flew to Manila to meet with the IJM Manila office to get them set up as a production facility for Sanctuary Spring cards.

This is just one example of how economic development helps people escape from modern day slavery. It’s probably the best preventative measure we can take. In fact, I recently learned that what British missionary David Livingstone meant when he said, “Africa needs the gospel and capitalism” was in the context of trying to rescue Africans from slavery from Muslim slave traders. Although it sounds imperialistic, what he meant was, “Africa needs the gospel and economic development.” He wanted to make sustainable agriculture profitable enough so that people would not sell other people into slavery by force, trickery, etc. The term “economic development” wasn’t available to Livingstone at the time; so although he sounds wrong today, in fact, he was right.

In the first few centuries, Christians actually emancipated slaves by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands. Augustine and the Apostolic Constitutions tell us matter-of-factly that Christians regularly collected money during their services, not to just pay their clergy, but to purchase and free slaves. Eventually, from the 600’s to the 1300’s, Christians abolished slavery in France, Hungary, England, Iceland, the Netherlands, and the Scandanavian countries. Slavery existed everywhere else in the world; freedom was “the peculiar institution.” And although European Christians got mixed up in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they eventually abolished it once more. British Christians proceeded to use the British navy to shut down the slave trade in other countries, especially Muslim ones. I’m willing to argue that only Christian faith gives a clear moral and intellectual foundation for antislavery. I’ve done a lot of biblical research to substantiate that claim. Please ask me about it.

So let’s keep thinking creatively and effectively at combating modern day slavery. Some ways I know of are: Economic development, legal reform (when good laws don’t exist yet), legal advocacy (when good laws already exist), aftercare, and Christian evangelistic mission and community development. My thanks to Jimmy Quach and Sanctuary Spring for being more recent inspirations to me.

Economic Discipleship: Not for adults only

This morning at breakfast as I leafed through my Bible I found a thousand colones (about $2) stuck between Philippians and Colossians.  Nobody could remember how it got there—but now our family was now just a little richer!  We all suggested various uses for our newfound wealth (mostly centering on Club Penguin memberships) and then I got ready for work.  But a few minutes later, as Isaiah left for school, he handed me a homemade envelope containing the thousand colones and the note you see above. He had decided where the money should be spent!

For me this was more than just a cute, heartwarming kid story.   Jodi and I believe that a central part of parenting means teaching our children, as Jesus put it, “to obey everything I have commanded.”  And Jesus commanded giving to the poor repeatedly and emphatically.

But trying to share these Gospel values is tricky.  If we decide that our giving commitments mean no room in the family budget for a Wii, will the kids become embittered towards this Jesus Who Robs Us of the Games All Our Friends Have?

So it’s really encouraging to see instances like Isaiah’s note in which it’s clear that he “gets it,” even just at the level of a seven-year-old.  But in some ways, that’s just what I’m striving for too.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” –Matthew 19:14

Book Review–Radical: Taking your Faith Back from the American Dream

Note: This is the first in a series of book reviews we’ll be posting over the next two weeks.

Imagine a Christian book that forcefully made the following points. How do you think it would sell?

  • The Gospel is diametrically opposed to some aspects of the American Dream we cherish most.
  • Consumerism is a blind spot for contemporary Christians just like slavery was for Southern white Christians in the early 19th century.
  • Genuine discipleship means not just tithing, but carefully choosing a modest lifestyle and giving away the rest, regardless of income.
  • Followers of Jesus are called to give not just “what can we spare” but “what will it take” to evangelize the world and end the most egregious forms of poverty.

Actually, there is such a book, and it is currently the bestselling Christian book in America.  It has been on the NYT Bestseller List for 31 weeks and has been through 22 printings in nine months.

I happened on David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream in the airport recently.  Normally I religiously avoid Christian bestsellers, but in this case I read all of chapter 6 (“How Much is Enough:  American Wealth in a World of Poverty”) while I stood in the airport bookstore. I almost missed my plane.  By the time I was done, I was actually weeping (a little) in public—an absolutely unprecedented, and rather embarrassing display of emotion for me.

Why was I so moved by this book?  I think because it gave me hope. You see, living simply and giving generously used to be standard issue Christian ethics.  But over the last 200 years, the massive tidal wave of consumerism, upward mobility and the American Dream has totally overwhelmed the church, leaving only a tiny remnant to protest.  There have been occasional attempts to push back the tide, but since the Reagan Revolution the vast majority of evangelicals have been very loud about abortion and homosexuality and very silent about wealth and poverty.

But all of a sudden Platt, a stereotypically slick, charismatic megachurch pastor is saying things like this:

What is the difference between someone who willfully indulges in sexual pleasures while ignoring the Bible on moral purity and someone who willfully indulges in the selfish pursuit of more and more material possessions while ignoring the Bible on caring for the poor? The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves the social norm in the church. . . .

Are you and I looking to Jesus for advice that seems fiscally responsible according to the standards of the world around us? Or are we looking to Jesus for total leadership in our lives, even if that means going against everything our affluent culture and maybe even our affluent religious neighbors might tell us to do?

These are hard things to hear, but Platt offers them without legalistic self-righteousness and with an empowering tone of grace.  If you’re looking for a 20-page introduction to genuine economic discipleship, I’d recommend turning straight to chapter six of Radical. It’s the best bestseller I’ve read in a long time.

What do you think?  Is Radical‘s success a sign that things are changing for evangelicals?


Blessed are the Poor

“Blessed are the poor” — those four words are said by Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Luke, and they don’t go down easy.  What does it mean?

I was in a debate in which we considered this hypothetical situation: imagine that all the wealth in the world were collected in one place and evenly redistributed to everyone.  At this starting point, would we stay an egalitarian society for long?  I argued no: the formerly poor would find new ways to squander their wealth, while the formerly rich would invest and build it.  For wealth is not just money, but also education, culture, habits, and networks.  The rich aren’t just rich by accident — they (we) have spent a lifetime learning how to accumulate wealth.  Of course, there are different ways of doing so, which led me to draw up the above 2×2 matrix.  Conservatives often point to the upper-left and lower-right corners of the matrix, saying that anyone can pull themselves out of poverty with a combination of hard work and frugality.  The implication is that the poor are bad people for not doing so.  But that conveniently ignores the lower-left corner.  I would argue that anyone who is considered money-rich by any measure has committed at least one of the “bad” things in that list.  For anyone living in the U.S. — rich by the world’s standards — that would be #3, profiting from our nation’s forefathers who first took lands from the Native Americans and then set up a series of dictatorships to ensure a steady supply of resources.  Is it any wonder that Jesus also said it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?

How does one make it into the “Blessed are the poor” category then?  Living lazy and squandering money as listed in the lower-right go against common sense and just about the entire book of Proverbs.  That leaves only the top-right corner.  Don’t be attached to what you have.  Sell your stuff.  Be “poor”.  Live simply.  Give generously.  And follow Jesus.

Different Ways of Giving

It’s close to the end of 2010, and time for New Year’s resolutions.  On the physical side, some of us might resolve to eat less and exercise more.  On the spiritual side, it might be to spend less and give more.  While you can set giving goals in terms of percentages and absolute amounts, I’d also like to encourage you to broaden your idea of what constitutes “giving.”

Giving money is great, but without a personal connection it can feel empty.  I believe there must be a personal connection for giving to be fulfilling.  One way to begin establishing such connections is to volunteer.  You can get to know both the organization and the people it helps.  And an organization can help defuse the potentially awkward power dynamics of giving money directly to people in need.

If you want direct deep person-to-person interactions in your volunteering, you might consider mentoring.  Big Brother and Big Sisters is probably the most well-known mentoring organization.  Or if you live in a community with these needs, or know people through work or church, you might do more informal mentoring.  Alternatively, consider the flip side by finding a mentor for yourself, a pastor or other respected leader who can help teach you how to live simply and give joyfully.

Maybe you feel the need to tell others and help propagate the message of economic discipleship.  We set up this blog as a space for people to comment and write posts.  Do you have any stories or thoughts to share?  We’d be happy to hear from you.  Or perhaps you’d like to advocate by leading a Giving Group in the area where you live.  Or maybe ask your pastor to preach on the subject in the coming months.  Or organize a charity benefit with your friends, which can both collect money and educate participants.

Finally, you might consider how your vocation fits into giving.  Many people who believe in the principles of economic discipleship find themselves in professions where they don’t make a lot of money but are able to help the needy directly.  If you’re in this category, great!  You’re giving your life already, and any financial giving is above and beyond.  If on the other hand, you find yourself in a profession where making money is the primary goal, you have a larger obligation to donate money.  “From those who are given much, much will be asked.”  The world needs donors as well as workers on the front lines.  Finally, you might find yourself in the fortunate position of being both a donor and a front-line worker.  Kudos to my friend Grace who is a doctor with 3 kids and still finds time to volunteer overseas.

In summary, I’d like you to consider giving in many ways as you make your New Year’s resolutions.  And if you think of other ones I haven’t listed, please leave a comment and let us know.  Happy New Year!

Motivated by Grief

After World War II, the U.S. set out to control much of the world’s wealth.  One of the chief architects of this order said, “[The U.S. has] about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”  (George Kennan, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948. Report by the Policy Planning Staff, Washington, DC: General Printing Office, 1976, pp 524-525.)  Thus began a subtle, new kind of Empire.  In 1953, the CIA helped organize a coup in Iran to overthrow a democratically elected president to ensure that Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would have access to oil fields.  The oil company renamed itself British Petroleum.  Intense anti-Western sentiment built in Iran as the CIA installed a dictator, the Shah of Iran.

The CIA opposed democracy and installed dictators in Guatemala in 1954, Hungary in 1956, Laos in 1957, Haiti in 1959, Ecuador and Congo in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1963, Indonesia in 1965, etc.  The list is depressingly long.  American business interests spread like a cancer over Latin America and Southeast Asia.

I give because I want to be generous, and because I want to express my grief in love.  “But that sounds like being motivated by guilt.”  No, I’m not motivated by guilt.  True guilt requires direct action to the people I directly hurt.  But in the political-economic context in which we live, neither the hurt nor the recompense is so direct.  So I give because the system is unfair and because I grieve it.  A good deal of the money we have was built on the suffering of other people.

Jesus called the rich ruler to give up all he had (Lk.18:18-30).  The ruler could not.  Then Jesus met Zaccheus (Lk.19:1-10), the filthy rich chief tax collector whose wealth flowed from the reality of Empire.  He sat at the top of a pyramid of lower ranking tax collectors; they got their wealth by collecting taxes for the oppressive Romans and skimming off of the Jewish people.  Zaccheus was able to give up his wealth.  Perhaps he was motivated by an appropriate guilt, to some degree, since he promised to give back four times the amount he had defrauded people; it was a direct action towards specific people he had wronged.  But perhaps he was also motivated by grief, since he also gave half his money to the poor, right off the bat.  Was he able to do so because he knew his money came from an unjust system?  Because he was already uncomfortable?  Was he already growing in his conviction that Empire was wrong?  Did a new identity with Jesus empower him to act on what was already gnawing on his conscience?

This kind of grief is one aspect of love.  “You were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!”  (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, grieve and mourn?  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, long for the comfort of the poor?