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The Road to Nowhere – Part 1

January 28, 2012

It was 30 minutes from the Ferry terminal, but I knew I had to go there. As we sailed through the Tongass Narrows into Ketchikan, the Pursor on our cruise ship pointed out the Road to Nowhere. It just stops at a curve and doesn’t continue. He told us that it was supposed to be connected to the $350 million dollar Bridge to Nowhere which was probably never going to be built. I had to take a taxi to see this boondoggle, but it was worth it.

The taxi ride out to the end of the Road to Nowhere is impressive. Even in this land of constant frost heaves, the road is smooth and pothole-less. The only other vehicle I saw out there was a taxi going the opposite direction. Apparently, I’m not the only tourist in the world that revels in seeing the sheer absence of something. Imagine if someone removed Niagara Falls or absconded with the London Tower. People would go to see those holes in the ground. I wanted to see the end of the Road to Nowhere and the beginning of the proposed Bridge to Nowhere.

Are you confused yet? Don’t be. It’s a simple tale of massive government spending and pork-barrel politics. Gravina Island (see the above picture) sits in the middle of Tongass Narrows, the main shipping and cruising lane of Alaska’s southeast coast. On the island sits the International airport for Ketchikan and region. In addition, fifty other people call the island home. The only public transportation on and off the island is a ferry service that runs every half hour. It mostly carries foot passengers from the airport, but also has a way for cars and trucks to get across as well. Alaska’s Department of Transportation sought in 2005 to build a bridge to replace the ferry service. To span the Narrows, it would be as long as the Golden Gate bridge and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge. The cost was proposed at $350 million.

Congress approved this project through an omnibus spending bill sponsored by Alaska’s congressional delegation. When the press sniffed this one out, they immediately started to call it a “Bridge to Nowhere”. They focused on the 50 residents of the island instead of the nearly 200,000 people who land every year on the tarmac of the airport and the nearly 357,000 that drive to and from the airport every year. As of the writing of this book, the bridge has never been built and may never be built. But that didn’t stop Alaska from building its connector road.

The road is designed to be a conduit from one major highway to the bridge’s approach. It serves no other purpose than that. No one lives along that route and therefore, no one needs to drive along it either. Generally, governments don’t bother to build the connecting road until the bridges are completed. There really is no need to, since the only reason to build a connecting road is to…well, connect two things together. Otherwise, what you have is a road to nowhere. They spent 25 million dollars on that road simply because it had been earmarked for it – and perhaps to pressure the bureaucrats in Washington and Juneau to complete the bridge.

I stood at the end of that road looking all directions. Something occurred to me as I turned around and around.  This is a picture of how Christians live in the Flesh where money is concerned. But before we can go there, let’s review how we are often told to view money as followers of Christ.

It is easy to be clichaic at this point. Most churches teach the same things about money the same way. Regardless of what order the teachings come, these are the essential five things you will hear:

  • * God owns the “cattle on a thousand hills”, which means that all money is essentially God’s money and he can do whatever he wants with his money
  • * God’s people recognize that God supplies all of our needs by offering a tenth (a tithe) of our income to him and to the work of the Church.
  • * We should not go into debt, for that would both dishonor God and put us into a position of slavery to those we owe money.
  • * God will supply all of our needs if we tithe and stay out of debt.
  • * God blesses some people with money so they will have a corresponding ministry of paying for the outreach and vision of the church. This is sometimes called a “Gift of Giving” and is often related to a “Gift of Faith”.

Most other teachings on Christians and money are combinations and variations of those five truths. Different groups emphasize different elements of the list, clearly focusing their teachings on one or two aspects. Prosperity teachers like to focus on how God has control of all money and if we add faith to our expectations, God’s money will flow more freely to us. Churches like to emphasize the priority of tithing in order to pay their bills and ensure the church has a long and rich destiny within a given community. Missionary societies tend to emphasize the gift of giving and the nature of sacrifice. Christian financial gurus point us to the blessings of investments and the curses of debt.

Yet I have never heard a single teaching on how you can do all of the above and still be walking in the Flesh regarding money. I am sure someone is preaching it, and I am equally sure I will hear from those who have. But it is not as common a teaching as it ought to be. However, I am quite sure the Flesh shows up more often in our financial dealings than anywhere else.

A professor of mine once said “we need to see our money as the time we spent at work translated into dollars”. Therefore, by that definition, our money is our life’s energy. How we spend our money is how we view the effort that goes into living our lives. That thought sobers me. I just spent four dollars buying two ice teas for my wife and I at the local coffee shop. By measuring that in “Life Currency”, I just spent 12 minutes of my life on those two ice teas. Was it worth it? Is that how I want my life spent? What if I pondered every financial decision with that rubric? I might lose my mind and I’m not sure I would be satisfied I had ever attained a good answer.

But there is another way. Jesus illustrates this way in a significant confrontation near the end of his life. For a period of time, Jesus had told his closest disciples he was about to die. At first, they could not accept it at all (Peter even goes so far as to rebuke him publicly for talking nonsense…Jesus rebuked him and satan right back). After months of revealing his impending death, a few people began to listen and catch on. One woman even took steps to help him do it right.

In those days, a woman collected things that would appeal to a future husband and his family. This dowry often contained valuable items like coins, sheep and fine clothing. Occasionally, an item of extreme value might be passed down in the family from generation to generation, thereby ensuring a good and pleasing match for a daughter. One of the most prized possessions was pure Spikenard.

Spikenard was a concentrated balm used primarily as an ointment to spread over a dead body. Very few people could afford even a few ounces of it, and if you did have spikenard, it almost always was used to leverage a wedding through a woman’s dowry. Through Spikenard, she would be promising to be with a man until he died, guaranteeing a rich man’s funeral.

One woman took that expensive dowry, her most prized possession in all likelihood, and poured it over Jesus’ head instead. She was doing for him what she would have done for her future husband – preparing him for burial. Later in this scene, Jesus commends her for paying attention to this small, but significant detail surrounding his death. But Jesus is not the only one watching her actions.

Judas Iscariot is outraged by the extravagant use of such an expensive ointment. One Gospel author points out that Judas didn’t really care about the poor; he was simply a thief and wanted to use the money that might come from the sale of the nard for his own purposes. But what came out of his mouth was “This was a waste. It could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.”

What Judas said is technically correct. Regardless of his self-absorbed agenda, he is still right. They could have fed many, many people on the value of the spikenard. After all, what did Jesus need to have his body anointed for? Of all dead bodies, his wasn’t about to stay dead. Yet, his answer is both challenging and instructive. His answer clarifies the difference between handling finances in the Flesh and in the Spirit.

That’s where we’ll pick up the story in Part 2.

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