Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Cheerful Giver

October is almost here—have you started your Christmas shopping yet?  You’d better get started now if you want to snatch up those hard-to-find gifts for the 2014 season.  You know how difficult it is to get those hot items, once the Christmas shopping season has really begun.  For creative ideas[i], you might get someone an iPad foosball game ($100), a natural wooden wrist watch ($120), or a Gummy candy maker ($40).  According to Amazon[ii], princesses Anna and Elsa from Disney’s Frozen will be big this year, as will Lego’s Minecraft the Village and Funko Pop’s Dancing Groot.  But you’d better get started now, because this is the kind of giving that really matters—isn’t it?
            The Bible talks a lot about giving, but not once does it mention the kind of consumerism that our American culture displays.  “God loves a cheerful giver,” says the apostle Paul—but what kind of giving does he mean?  What are the specific situations in which you have been called to give?
            In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul invites believers in Corinth to give.  There are a lot of reasons to give to support God’s work.  Sometimes we give to provide for the needs of the church’s general operating expenses like salaries, electricity, office supplies, and so on.  Other times we give to a special project like building a church building, paving a parking lot, or purchasing a piano.  We might give to support the work of missionaries serving locally or abroad.  We could give to help the poor, fund someone’s seminary education, or dig wells in developing nations.  All of these are great reasons to give. 
Paul’s purpose for asking the Corinthian Christians to give was to provide the needs of believers in Jerusalem who were living in poverty.  You might think that the Gentile Christians in Greece would feel little reason to give to relieve people all the way in Israel—but on the contrary, they gave with gusto!  Paul even created a little healthy competition between the Churches in the northern Greek region of Macedonia and the southern region of Achaia.  Each one knew that an offering was being collected in both places.  In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in Achaia, he reminded them not to disappoint.
Paul knew that it wasn’t enough just to ask people to give.  He knew that all our good intentions will amount to nothing unless we have a plan for giving, and time for preparation.  In 1 Corinthians 16.2, he asked the believers, “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”  So each week when they came to church, they would take up a collection.  It’s interesting to note here that their giving was on the first day of the week, and not the last day of the week.  In other words, their giving was in anticipation of how God would bless, and not in response to the way God had provided.  Their giving was done in faith, not solely in gratitude.  In 2 Corinthians 9.2 we read that they had been taking up their collection for a solid year, in preparation for Paul’s visit.  In verse 5, we find that this gift was something that the Corinthians had promised to give, and so they were fulfilling a commitment to God.  In the same way, we should give regularly, systematically, and faithfully to God’s work.
A lot of people say, “I can’t afford to give.”  We need to remember that God wants not only our treasures, but also our talents and our time.  But in regards to financial giving, God’s word spells out some principles to guide us.  Verse 6 says, “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. ”  Jesus put it another way.  In Luke 6.38, He said, “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure-- pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return."  In God’s economy, when you invest in His kingdom, you will receive a reward back.  So, it has been rightly said by many preachers that you can’t really afford not to give. 
Strangely enough, it’s the wealthiest Americans who tend to give the least and the poorest who tend to give the most.  According to The Atlantic, “The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent. What's up with that?[iii]  I think it’s because those who struggle the most understand other people’s struggle the most, and have the most desire to help.  In 2 Corinthians 8.1-5, Paul says that God’s people who were in poverty still gave liberally to help those who were in need.  With which category do you more identify—the ones who hold back or the ones who are eager to share?
Just as important as whether you give is the manner in which you give.  Verse 6 tells us, “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  I’ve heard preachers prophesy divine disaster for people who refuse to tithe.  I’ve heard clergy cajoling people to give out of a sense of guilt.  But God would rather not have our money, if it’s given for the wrong reasons.  God wants us to give out of faith and a pure heart, cheerfully rather than begrudgingly throwing our dollars into the plate.
Verses 8-11 give God’s promise for all who faithfully give to His work: 

  And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed; as it is written,
He scattered abroad, he gave to the poor,
His righteousness endures forever.”

Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God. 

            The Lord promises that those who give generously and sacrificially don’t need to worry about where their next meal is going to come from.  Instead, God will take care of them above and beyond their need, giving them even more so that they can be generous the next time.  Matthew 25.23 says that those who are faithful in small things will be trusted with greater things, and this is true of our financial stewardship.  God promises to provide for those who are faithful in giving to Him.
            This year as you begin to think about your pre-Christmas shopping list (and believe me, those Christmas ads will be coming sooner than you think), let’s remember the kind of giving that God’s word invites.  Instead of the greatest new gadget or a can’t-live-without-it toy, let’s be generous in our giving to God.  This fall, as you’re bombarded with fund raisers for the school and Girl Scouts and everything else, let’s remember where the priorities for our giving lie.  As you give, keep in mind the final verse of 2 Corinthians 9, which says, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”  Let Jesus be your model for sacrificial giving—the One who gave everything so that we might live!  Yes—let’s give like Jesus!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Daddy, Do You Love Me?

            My daughter Emily told me that when she was growing up, one of her favorite books was Mama, Do You Love Me?[i]  In only 285 words, author Barbara M. Joose and illustrator Barbara Lavelle beautifully tell the story of a Native Alaskan mother’s unfailing love for her precious child.  Over and over, the child asks the extent of the mother’s love.  Again and again the mother affirms that she will always love her Dear One—and what’s more, no wrong that her child could do can ever make her stop loving her child.

Mama,what if I carried our eggs – our ptarmigan eggs! – and tried to be careful, and I tried to walk slowly, but I fell and the eggs broke?

Then I would be sorry. But still, I would love you.
What if I put salmon in your parka, ermine in your mittens, and lemmings in your mukluks?
Then I would be angry.
What if I threw water at our lamp?
Then, Dear One, I would be very angry. But still, I would love you.

            When the child asks what if she ran away and stayed away, the mother answers that she would be worried and scared.  Even if the child turned into a scary polar bear and frightened her mother and made her cry, the mother insists, “Then I would be very surprised and very scared. But still, inside the bear, you would be you, and I would love you.”
            Though I didn’t realize it twenty years ago when I first read this book to my daughter, I was giving her good theology.  In many ways, Joose and Lavelle teach the nature of God in this delightful children’s book.  Many Christians want to know the same things about God: How much does God love us?  How long will God love us?  Is there any wrong that we could do that could ever take away God’s love?  Certainly our sins are worse than putting lemmings in God’s mukluks—but in a deeply spiritual sense, many Christians are guilty of throwing water on God’s lamp.  Many believers run away and stay away, making God cry.  And a whole lot of Christians act like bears, forgetting the gentle Dear One that resides inside and exchanging good behavior for animalistic tendencies.  Even then, God insists that He loves us.
            Perhaps the greatest fear I’ve heard many Christians express is that they might do something so bad that it might cause them to love their salvation.  I’m aware that thoughtful and faithful people fall on both sides of this debate, but we need to understand that the issue at stake here is not simply the future of our individual souls but the very nature of our loving God.  In Matthew 7.9-11[ii], Jesus tells us that the loving Father provides everything that His children need.  “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  Indeed, how much more will the Father give spiritual liberation to those who ask for it!  When we ask for eternal life, He doesn’t give us temporary salvation.  Eternal life means forever—that’s how long God’s love and forgiveness last.
            Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out (John 6.37).”  When Jesus died on the cross, he saved us from the penalty of our sins.  If our sins could after that begin to pile up again to a point where their offense outperformed Jesus’ forgiveness, then our sins would be stronger than God’s love—and that, my friend, is an impossibility. 
            So, because we have Jesus’ promise that He will never cast out anyone who trusts Him for salvation…

and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…(Hebrews 10.21-24).

            We understand that Jesus doesn’t save us because of our love and good works, but so that we might love and do good works.  This is grace—the unmerited favor of God.  If we deserved our salvation, it wouldn’t be grace.  By the same token, if we deserved to lose our salvation, then our salvation would be by grace, either.  In other words, we can trust that our salvation isn’t because we’re good—it’s because God is good.  So we can have full assurance in our faith.  We can hope without wavering, because Jesus is always faithful.
            Certainly some who are on the losing side (meaning that you can lose your salvation) will point out Hebrews 10.26-29, which says:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.  Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.  How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?  

Here, we have to understand that while God cannot behave in a manner that’s contrary to the divine nature, we certainly can!  We’re saved from the penalty of sin—that took place once and for all on the cross.  Jesus is saving us from the power of sin in our lives—but it’s a gradual process.  That means that sin no longer controls us unless we let it.  However, it won’t be until we get to Glory that the possibility of sin will be removed.  Until that time, sin is a reality in the life of every saved Christian.  So, if that’s true, then how can we understand verses 26-29?  Because it would seem to say that our past sins are forgiven but from that point on, but that we need to be sinless thereafter in order to be saved.  Can this be true?
No, the saving power of Jesus sustains every true believer to the end.  Verses 26-29 don’t mean that we have to be sinless.  Instead, they remind us not to let sin govern our lives.  Just as a child who has thrown water on the lamp, run away, or changed into a bear is still loved by her mother, so a saved Christian is still loved and welcomed by a forgiving Father.  Verses 26-29 describe not a true child of God, but someone who simply wears a fa├žade of faith without a real relationship.  Those who are truly in love with Jesus can have confidence, and full assurance in our faith.  Verses 35-38 say:

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,

“Yet a little while,
and the coming one will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”

            Notice here that even if the righteous one who lives by faith shrinks back, it doesn’t say that he has lost his salvation—God simply loses pleasure in him.  All children make their parents cry from time to time, but that doesn’t mean that their parents disown them.  If ordinary parents know how to give good things to their children, how much more will the heavenly Father care for those who trust Him?  If evil parents continue to keep their children who continuously disappoint them, how much more will God preserve those who put their trust in Him?
            Verse 39 says that “…we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”  These are of an entirely different category from true believers.  They didn’t lose their salvation—they were never saved to begin with.  They may have once looked like Christians, but these are those to whom Christ says, “I never knew you (Matthew 7.23).” R.K. Kendall puts it this way:  “The faith that fizzles before the finish had a fatal flaw from the first.”  Those who look like Christians, who may have spent plenty of time in church hearing the Gospel, yet who never made Jesus their true home, do not have a resting place in His arms.  Though the church may have been the comfortable setting of their lives, their sin is not covered, because they never truly received God’s grace.
            Those who are truly the children of God will know the Lord’s blessing.  Certainly we will continue to sin after we’ve been saved…and, at times, there may be some doubts in our mind about God’s enduring love.  We may throw up our arms and ask, “Daddy, do you love me?”  But just like the child in our book, the loving Parent will say, “I will love you, forever and for always, because you are my Dear One.”

[i] Joost and Lavelle.  Mama, Do You Love Me?  Chronicle Books: 1991.
[ii] All Scriptures taken from the ESV.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

All Things Through Christ

When I was young, my friend David and I were hiking in a public location and we discovered a cave.  It’s no good trying to talk some sense into seventeen-year-old boys when a cave is involved.  Never mind the fact that we had no guide and no proper caving equipment except a couple of dollar store flashlights—we plunged into the black with full abandon.  The entrance to the cave narrowed into a tunnel that descended at about a forty-five degree angle.  It was so small that we had to shimmy through it feet-first on our sides, leaning on one elbow.  The opposite wall of the crack that we were descending was so close that our noses almost touched the wet rock.  We were lucky we didn’t encounter any cave-ins or dangerous wildlife, and we emerged from the crevice into a large and beautiful cavern.  The great explorers were triumphant!  Of course, we soon found graffiti evidence that others had discovered this cave before us—what else did we expect in a cave that was in a public location?  
            As we left the large cavern, just as we began the long climb up that narrow tunnel, somebody at the top who didn’t know we were in there decided to see what would happen if they threw a firecracker into the cave.  The sound it made was deafening.  The tiny crack we were climbing through filled with painful smoke that threatened to take our breath.  Even though we had our flashlights, I know what the Bible means when it talks about a darkness that can be felt.  The only way I made it to the light of the surface was by constantly repeating Philippians 4.13, which says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  That one verse, repeated over and over, got me to the top.  But when I reached the surface, I learned that it helped me do more than survive the smoke and darkness of that narrow tunnel.  It helped me to not clobber the guy who had thrown the firecracker!  It helped me to forgive.  I learned that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
            In the book of Genesis, we read about Joseph who learned a lot of hard lessons in the darkness of his prison.  He’d been gifted by God and favored by his father—and he had let it go to his head.  He had misused these gifts and repeatedly been obnoxious to his older brothers.  In return, they had sold him into slavery in Egypt.  As a slave, he had refused to do something immoral that was asked of him, and it landed him in prison.  I imagine that the stifling blackness of betrayal and choking smoke of his hatred raged within him, as in prison he ruminated on all the people who had hurt him.  But in the journey through his pit he had to learn, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  He had to learn to forgive the people who had wounded him.
            Through a series of supernatural events, Joseph eventually got out of prison and not only thrived but became the number two man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  A famine in his homeland caused Joseph’s brothers to journey to Egypt and beg for grain.  Once they realized who he was, they groveled before Joseph fearing his wrath for what they had done to him.  Yet he forgave them, blessed them, and invited them to come and live with him in Egypt.  Genesis 51 tells about the death of their father, after which the brothers feared that Joseph would now take his vengeance.  But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (vv. 19-21 ESV).”  Joseph confirmed that when it comes to forgiveness, he could do all things through the Lord who gave him strength.  He could forgive his brothers, and love them enough to take care of them.
            You know, it wasn't just Joseph’s brothers that he had to learn to forgive.  In the worst part of his struggle, when guilt and misery and self-blame threatened to choke out his very breath, Joseph had to learn to forgive himself.  He must have understood the role that he had played in offending his brothers to the point of them acting the way that they did.  He must have grasped how he had gotten himself into this situation.  He had to come to a place of forgiving himself, pushing through the struggle, and gaining God’s blessing.
            Forgiving ourselves is hard to do sometimes—but we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.  This past Christmas I got some new shirts.  They were the same size that I’ve always worn, but they didn’t fit me.  They were too small in the middle.  Or rather, I realized that I was too big in the middle.  I realized I had to do something about it.  Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife who is an absolute inspiration to me.  She’s lost 114 pounds in the past couple of years, and she taught me a lot about weight loss, about diet and exercise.  In the first part of the year, I lost a few pounds but then stalled out.  So this past May we began running. 
Lydia, Daniel, Beth, and me at the Color Run in Richmond this past Saturday.  What fun, running and getting covered in colored cornstarch every kilometer or so!
I've never seen myself as a runner.  When I was young I was that pale weak kid with asthma.  But Beth inspired me again.  She had more determination and drive than I did starting out, and all I was doing was keeping up with her.  Together we learned about how to stride correctly and how to breathe so that my asthma was no longer an issue.  I learned that when you struggle, you choke—but when you let go and trust God, breathing comes naturally.  When the running got difficult, I would say to myself over and over the same thing that I said in that cave when I couldn't breathe: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  When I had a hard time forgiving myself for getting into this condition, I would repeat it again.  When I had a hard time loving myself enough to take care of myself, I would repeat it again.  And do you know what I found out?  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  I can forgive others.  I can forgive myself.  I can become what I never thought possible. 
Now, I've lost 21 pounds so far, and I’m more than halfway to my goal.  This past weekend, I ran my first 5k (3-mile) race.  Beth and I are training for a 10k in October.  Like Joseph, my journey with God has led me to understand the place of forgiveness in my life—forgiving others and forgiving myself.  It’s also helped me to understand more fully the ultimate forgiveness that God gives me through Jesus.  None of it would be possible without Christ who strengthens me.  Today I pray that through His power you’ll be able to forgive others, forgive yourself, and become something greater than you ever believed possible.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sifted Servants

This past Sunday marks the beginning of a new year at my church.  Newly selected teachers, deacons, and officers will assume their roles—some of them for the first time ever.  In their newness, novices will learn from the veterans.  But some might wonder who’s greater, the novices or the veterans?
            Speaking of newness, also this past Sunday our church hosted a reception for folks who are new to the church.  People had an opportunity to ask questions, get a grand tour, and learn where they can fit into Sunday School.  Many of these have never participated in the various ministries and jobs in this or any.  Who do you suppose, those who are young to the church or those old-time members?
            As much as we hate to admit it, there are those who measure the value of their membership by the number of years since they joined, the number of committees they’ve helped, or the number of people they supervise.  It reminds me of Luke 22.24, where a dispute arises among Jesus’ disciples as to who is the greatest.  Jesus had twelve disciples, yet Jesus frequently spent special time with Simon, James, and John.  These were the only three that John had given nicknames to—James and John were the “Sons of Thunder,” and Simon was called “Peter—The Rock.”  Naturally, they wanted to know which one was the greatest.  They wanted to understand their pecking order.
            The term “pecking order” was coined in the 1920s by biologists who recognized that among chickens, one establishes dominance over another by pecking.  The dominated one then turns and establishes superiority over another in the same way—on down the line until the lowliest chicken that has nobody to peck.  People are no different.  Just like the disciples, folks at church often wonder who’s the greatest.  Is it the pastor, the deacon chairman, the Sunday school director, the church clerk or secretary?  What’s the pecking order?  Is it the oldest member, or the person who’s been a member of the church the longest?  Is it the newest people with the freshest ideas?  Because we’re human, we all want to know who’s the greatest.
            Jesus contrasted the world’s system with the way things ought to work among believers.  Heathen kings lord it over their subjects.  People in authority call themselves benefactors.  Certainly we have all known leaders like this: managers, teachers, leaders who govern in an authoritarian style that makes you feel small and weak, helpless, and beholden.  This is not the way of Christ.  Instead, Jesus says that “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (Luke 22.26b[i]).”  In God’s estimation, it’s not the chicken who’s at the top of the pecking order who’s the greatest.  Instead, it’s the least, last, and lowliest servant who ranks at the top.  In verse 27, Jesus says, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”  In other words, for the Christian, service and not smugness is the sign of significance.
            Today I want to encourage you to be like Jesus—to take His example and become a servant to those around you.  Instead of trying to establish yourself in the pecking order, put yourself last and serve.  This week, many churches in the area where I live are promoting Operation Inasmuch[ii] Week—a time to commit random acts of kindness in the community.  Not all these good deeds will be completely random.  In fact, some of them will be very well planned.  Some of our area churches are planning free community car washes, river cleanups, or canned food drives.  If you want to, you could clean a house for someone who needs assistance, do yard work or cut wood for an elderly person, write cards and letters of encouragement to people who are struggling, donate blood, take a meal to a shut-in or a bird feeder to a nursing home resident, or help a struggling student that you’re not related to with their homework.  You don’t have to join Operation Inasmuch or get on any other bandwagon in order to serve—all you have to do is model your life after Jesus.
As you serve, keep in mind that the Christian’s purpose of serving isn’t to try to be great.  For the Christian, service and not smugness is the sign of significance.  It’s not like you’re saying, “Because I want to be great, I’m going to serve the people who can gain me influence.”  Instead, it’s about giving of yourself to the people who could never pay you back—not so that you’ll be great but just so you can demonstrate God’s love.  Love should be your motivation—not the laurels you get from service.
            It’s no coincidence that right after Jesus said these things about humility and exaltation, He says, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22.31-32).” The NRSV points out that it’s not just Simon (The Rock no longer) who will be sifted like wheat—but all the disciples who will be tested.  So every Christian who serves will also be tested, to determine their motivations and their dependence on God.  Recently I spoke with someone who has agreed to a position of service in our church.  I told him to be careful, because a time of sifting will come.  Yet, we need not fear the sifting.  God doesn’t allow struggles to come so that we’ll fail.  In fact, Jesus’ prayer is that we will not fail, but that we will use our times of trial to strengthen ourselves and yet remain humble, so we can turn and strengthen others.  I join in Jesus’ prayer that  you may not fail in your testing, in your service, or in your love.  I pray that God will strengthen you so you can be a blessing—and then, that you may truly be great.

[i] Scripture references taken from the NRSV.
[ii] The name “Operation Inasmuch” is taken from Matthew 25.40.  To learn more about Operation Inasmuch visit