“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JUL!!!!” Mom was more excited about my 15th birthday than I was, because I could start working. Her baby boy was now eligible to join the masses with the privilege of earning an income. This was a major rite of passage, marking the beginning of responsibility and stewardship.
She had already taught me how money worked. I remember asking her to buy me something one day, and her response was, “We don’t have any money.” That was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. We lived in a nice 3-bedroom home with a full finished basement, complete with a pool table and VCR. I had a closet full of clothes and shoes, a kitchen full of food, a bike, a swing set, a basketball goal, and a video game system. She was a highfalutin’ manager at the Federal Reserve Bank, and my dad was making 6-figures as an engineer. Who did she think she was fooling?
“Mom, I know we have money; you just don’t want me to have it.”
“Oh, really? I’ll tell you what. You are going to balance my checkbook this month.”
“WHAT?! I can’t do that!”
“It’s just math. I’ll give you all my canceled checks and deposit slips. You deduct from or add to the previous balance. Your number should match the number on my bank statement. If it doesn’t, either you or the bank made a mistake. It was probably you, so you’ll have to find and correct it.”
Easy enough, right? Well, I never knew how many checks one could write in a month. There were tons of checks and slips, but I got to work. After about an hour of sorting through all the transactions, additions and subtractions, I had my number. You know what happened next. My number was $0.03 off of the bank statement’s, so I had to do all my math all over again to find three doggone pennies! Mom just chuckled and went back to what she was doing. She’d been there and done that.
I went back, found the error, and declared proudly that I had done it. The point wasn’t to complete the task though, it was to see how much money was left. I looked at the balance and was shocked. It was not a lot of money at all. I wondered how we were making it. I wondered how we were going to survive the following month. I wondered if all of our things would be repossessed. Would they take my BMX bike with mag wheels? Would they take my state-of-the-art Intellivision gaming system? They wouldn’t dare take the VCR, would they? Mom talked me off the ledge, and explained we were fine. That was the amount after the bills were paid. Plus, this was just one month. Some months there was much more left over; there just happened to be a lot of expenses that month. Whatever is left over though is oftentimes cut in half so money can be placed into savings. She then showed me the savings account. I about fell over. “WE’RE RICH!!!” I exclaimed. She replied, “We?” She then explained we were not rich, but that she was committed to putting money away for rainy days, and for the years I would attend college. I then understood that when she said we didn’t have any money, she meant we didn’t have any money for whatever it was I wanted.
While she didn’t have the money to purchase all my material possessions, I now had the power to obtain all that my heart desired. I had EMPLOYMENT! My first job was Olga’s Chicken in White Marsh Mall in White Marsh, MD. My responsibility was to make sure we had enough fries. No biggie; just cut the bag open and dump them in the fry basket, right? Wrong. There were no bags of fries, only potatoes. I had to wash boatloads of potatoes and put them one by one in a fry cutter. You pulled the lever down onto the grate and the fries would come out the bottom. Doing that for eight hours was quite laborious, but that quickly turned to ‘glorious’ when I saw my first paycheck. It was WAY over the $2/week I was getting for allowance. I couldn’t believe I actually made that much money on my own. At my first opportunity, I cashed it, raced home, threw it all on my bed, and rolled in it!
I had finally gotten my first taste of what it was like to be part of working America. It certainly was an honor, but being the contemplative teen that I was, I started to look ahead to see how this was going to play out. I wondered if I would be able to make the kind of living I wanted. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted, but knew I wouldn’t hate being filthy rich. My goal was like everyone else’s – to make tons of money as early as possible and live a life that would make Robin Leach’s jaw drop. I knew no one who accomplished that though. Mom made a good living, but she worked very hard for it. Dad also put in lots of hours and travel. He also explained his six-figure income was just a number. It put him in a higher tax bracket, so his take-home was in line with the rest of the middle class. So what was I to do? The only path I knew was diploma > degree > job > retirement at 65. I knew that formula did not equate to independent wealth, so I looked for alternatives. Being a musician, I naturally tried the music business at 18, but that did not pan out. I tried multi-level marketing at 24, but that also did not result as I’d hoped. The most secure option I had was to obtain a job in corporate America and climb the ladder, though some of those rungs had some pretty hefty price tags hanging off them. A lot of sacrifices had to be made to make the climb, e.g. missed birthdays, anniversaries, school events, quality time, etc. Was it worth it? King Solomon sure had something to say about it. Ecclesiastes 2:18-23 basically says the point of amassing wealth is…pointless. Everything you acquire will go to someone else when you expire. Then why get the Porsche, and the mansion, and the planes? To enjoy, of course! You want to have as much fun as possible while you’re here, right? Nothing wrong with that. The issue is the joy they bring is highly temporal. I remember my kids having a big toy box that was literally overflowing with toys they rarely played with. At one point, each of those toys made them squeal with glee, but quickly became afterthoughts. The same holds true as we age; the toys just get bigger.
So why was the wealthiest and wisest king so down on being rich? Doesn’t the Bible say money answereth all things? Yes, it does, and in the same book, too – Ecclesiastes 10:19. Note though it does not say money is the answer to all things. Pastor Rashiid Coleman of Freedom Christian Bible Fellowship explained it this way several years ago: money answers, or reveals what is in you. When you obtain a large sum of money, your character is exposed and magnified. If you are a giver, a miser, kind-hearted, angry, peaceful, or paranoid, it will come to the light when you are the beneficiary of riches. So when you see someone change after receiving a windfall, and perceive that the money changed them, it didn’t really. It just revealed what was already there. That’s why the Bible strongly cautions against striving to be rich in 1 Timothy 6:9: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.” If you question that verse’s accuracy, just ask the countless lottery winners who ended up depressed, divorced, and broke; some even committed suicide. How in the world could money have that kind of impact?
King Solomon realized in order for the happiness created by obtaining material things to continue, one had to continually obtain material things, then worry about keeping them (Eccl. 2:23), then leave all the remaining Benjamins for somebody else, who might just blow it all on nonsense. That’s enough to drive one batty. The Lord Jesus provided the remedy in Matthew 6:19-24: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
So how does one actually store up treasures in Heaven? Pretty sure that’s out of FedEx’s jurisdiction. What He is saying is the success and prosperity you pursue should not only hinge upon the physical, but more so the intangibles; because unlike the physical, they last. Your pursuits should involve blessing the pants off anyone and everyone with whom you come in contact. If you obtain a fortune along the way, cool; use that to bless others, too. Be a conduit rather than a storage unit.
Several songs have captured the essence of this, and these two did so rather well. Recording artist India Arie said this in her hit song, There’s Hope:
Back when I had a little
I thought that I needed a lot
A little was overrated
But a lot was a little too complicated
You see, zero didn’t satisfy me
A million didn’t make me happy
That’s when I learned the lesson
That it’s all about your perceptions
Hey, are you a pauper or a superstar?
So you act, so you feel, so you are
It ain’t about the size of your car
It’s about the size of the faith in your heart
Kenny Chesney wrote a powerful song with an incredible video to complement. Click the link below to enjoy it, and remember there’s nothing wrong with chasing success; just make sure your definition lines up with God’s: JOSHUA 1:8: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
Julian Ketchum is a resident of Norristown, PA, originally from the Baltimore area. He is a member and former elder of Hope Community Church in King of Prussia, and serves primarily on the Worship Team as a drummer, pianist, and vocalist. He has been married to his lovely wife, Katina, for 21 years, and they have 3 children – a daughter aged 16, and two sons, 14 and 12.