What happens when you give?

illustration-nelson-iypas-banner

Illustration from If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson.

My church, Fremont Presbyterian Church, is currently in their Stewardship season where people are encouraged to commit to giving for the next year. When churches and pastors start to talk about giving, things can often get a little weird. Many pastors hate talking about money and asking people to give. Those attending church often are uncomfortable when they are asked to give. Words like “stewardship” or “tithing” can cause even the most devoted member to check out. Everyone has to balance their own checkbook which brings it’s own amount of stress. Most people don’t respond well when it feels like the pastor or the church is asking them to squeeze a little bit more out of an already tight budget.

I think most people understand that giving is good and that we should try to give often and with as much as we can. So, I am not here to talk about why you should give or even how much you should give to your church. Both of those questions are often personal questions that you have to answer on your own. What I would like to explore a bit is what happens when we give to your church. What should we expect to happen with our money and our time that we offer to support the church?

I think one of the parables Jesus told will be helpful to open up what we should expect to happen with what we offer. In the midst of teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells this parable in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark:

“What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32 (CEB)

Jesus was a fan of agricultural illustrations and parables. They can sometimes be lost on those of us who do not really have an agricultural background. But, there are a few reasons why I like the Parable of the Mustard Seed to help us understand what happens when we give.

First, the mustard seed is small.

People will often struggle and strain over how much to give. Should we give 10% of what we make? Gross or our net income? What about investments? What about gifts? What if I win the lottery? The people in the Old Testament offered the first fruits of their crops, should we give what we grow in our gardens? While these are interesting questions, I think they miss the point when it comes to giving. The size of the mustard seed does not equate to the outcome of the parable. It’s human nature to expect big things to cause big results and little things to cause little results. The power of this parable in illustrating the Kingdom of God is that the littlest of things can become something great. Regardless of what amount you give, God can use that amount to do great things. If you give a little, great things can happen. If you give a lot, great things can happen. The important thing is that you give.

Second, the seed is planted.

Something very strange happens when you give. Suddenly you are connected to what you have given. There is a relationship. To continue with the agricultural metaphors, one might say roots have been put down. The illustration above is from a beautiful children’s book called, If You Plant a Seed. It opens with the lines, “If you plant a tomato seed, a carrot seed, and a cabbage seed…in time…with love and care…tomato, carrot and cabbage plants will grow.” The growth only happens after the “love and care.” When we give, we demonstrate that we love and care about what we are giving to. Giving our time and our money means we are putting roots down, we are planting ourselves in the community and we want to see that our church is taken care of.

Finally, the birds of the sky are able to nest in its shade.

As I read this verse again, this part really stuck out to me. Often when something is given, we expect something in return. A payback, recognition or some kind of reward can sometimes be expected. But the unique thing about the conclusion of this parable is that the one who planted the seed and tended the plant is not the one receiving the benefit. The plant ends up being used by birds who are able to nest in its shade. When we give to our church, it is important to realize that the giver is often not the beneficiary. The real benefit may come months, years or even decades later. And, the beneficiaries may not even be people who sit in the pews on Sunday. The birds did not plant the mustard seed, they did not tend it, they aren’t even human and the farmer does not “shoo” them away. They are the recipients of the blessing of the mustard seed.

I pray that this has helped you think in a new way about what happens when you give to your church. If you attend Fremont Presbyterian Church, you can commit to giving through their website. I would encourage you to consider committing to give to Fremont, or your own church, in the upcoming year.

Standing in the Gap

grace-bridge-web

It seems a bit cliché to say, but this election is one that will go down in history. While many pundits and commentators are wringing their hands with what the historical importance will be, you can feel it in the air that this election feels different than many others. Coming after our first African American president this election featured two significant firsts as well. Hillary Clinton was the first, major party, woman candidate for president and Donald Trump is the first president-elect to have never held a government office or even a military position.

So many firsts mean that our country is culturally, economically, demographically and in many other ways shifting in front of our eyes. In a sense, to use another cliché, everyone’s cheese is being moved. Some will benefit from these changes and others will feel pressure from them. Some want these changes while others will feel pushed aside.

Change is hard.

The church has felt this change and pressure as well. Many churches are probably just as split as the popular vote was in this election. On Sunday, Christians who supported Trump will sit in pews and sing worship songs with Christians who supported Clinton. Pastors who supported Trump will preach to parishioners who supported Clinton. And parishioners who supported Trump will listen to messages from pastors who supported Clinton.

No doubt this will continue to deepen the divide many churches are feeling. Trump supporters celebrate as Clinton supporters mourn what could have been. There will be calls for unity but this will mostly be calls for people to unite around Trump since the democratic process and voice of the majority has spoken. Or, Clinton supporters will demand compromise in order to be willing to unite. Both sides will essentially be asking the others to move towards their side but, often, neither will be willing to cross over on their own.

You know, like Congress has been acting the past few years.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of the image of Christ and the cross bridging the gap of sin in many tracts and evangelism materials. The concept is that Christ bridged a gap we could not bridge on our own so that we could be reunited with God and in right relationship with him. It seems to me that this provides a good example for how to “bridge the gap” after this election. Philippians 2 gives us some help:

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:1-8 (CEB)

Jesus had all the power and rights as God. If he was chosen in our process, one might say he had won the popular vote, the electoral college and had a “mandate” as the pundits like to say. Yet, Jesus chose to not exploit that status, and instead took the opposite route of that power. He chose life as a human, ultimately ending in death on a humiliating cross. About the last thing you would ever expect God, or any god for that matter, to do.

To bridge the gap, Jesus didn’t demand people to come to his side. He instead moved towards sinful humanity and stood in the gap so that we might be reunited with God.

If you’d like a current political example of someone doing exactly this, take some time and listen to the story of Beth Fukamoto over at Rob Bell’s podcast (the Robcast). Beth was a democrat who lived in Hawaii which is a pretty solid “blue” state and regularly votes democrat. Beth saw a bit of an issue with this as the republicans in Hawaii essentially did not have any representation in the House and Senate. So, she chose to run as a republican in order to give those people a voice.

Yes, a democrat ran as a republican in order to give a voice to those who didn’t seem to have one. And she won.

Beth stood in the gap. Rather than demand that republicans move towards her and her party, she instead moved towards them and worked so that their voices could be heard. She doesn’t agree with everything, but she works hard for who she represents.

The example Jesus gives us is not ascending some ladder so that we might exert our political and ideological might on others. The example of Jesus is descending the ladder of power so that we might serve those who have no voice and now power in the systems of our world. As Paul states in his intro, this is the path towards true unity. Not through power exerted, but in humility, selflessness, and looking out for the benefit of others.

So, for Christians who supported Trump, pray for, listen to and look out for those who feel ostracized, afraid and swept aside by the election of Trump. For Christians who supported Clinton, pray for, listen to and look out for those who felt ostracized, afraid and swept aside and believed Trump was the man to turn that around.

The only way to end this deep polarization and begin to heal these bitter wounds is to move towards the other side, not draw back and entrench deeper. Having the mind of Jesus is not mainly about voting the right way and checking the right box, but about not exploiting our power, position and authority for our own sake. But in grace and humility, listening to, looking out for and learning from others for their benefit.

Grace and humility. Now wouldn’t that be a nice change?

 

Sunday Prayer

Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

We praise your abiding guidance, O God,
for you sent us Jesus, our Teacher and Messiah,
to model for us the way of love for the whole universe.
We offer these prayers of love
on behalf of ourselves and our neighbors,
on behalf of your creation and our fellow creatures.

Loving God,
open our ears to hear your word
and draw us closer to you,
that the whole world may be one with you
as you are one with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Taking our Post

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Circle of Juan de la Corte, 1580-1663. Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

With the impending election in our future, the bombast and proclamations coming from both sides has seemed to increase exponentially. Talks of election fraud to landslide victories scroll across our screens. But, often even louder and crasser are the supporters of the various candidates. Both sides claim to hold the moral and political high ground. Then, when you throw Christians supporters into the mix, the religious ferver that gets mixed in seems to amp the issues up even more. Things move from not only moral issues, but transform into religious, and even possibly salvation, issues for some.

From a Christian perspective, the noise at this point is deafening to me. I’m not exactly sure this is the witness we want to have in the world.

I have been spending a lot of time wondering lately what the Christian response should be in situations like this, and politics in general. I stumbled across the reading for this Sunday which features a selection from Habakkuk, one of my favorite books in the Old Testament. After Habakkuk’s initial complaint in first few verses, the reading movies into this description of the Chaldeans (aka the Babylonians).

For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it. Then they sweep by like the wind; they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!
Habakkuk 1:6-11 (NRSV)

If I took this reading out of context (eliminated the mention of Chaldeans and didn’t mention it was from the Bible) and passed it around, I’m sure there would be a few people who would fully support and desire this description for America. Replace horses with tanks/helicopters and horsemen with drones and I think we’re not too far off. It’s tempting, power of this sort is exciting and can be very fulfilling. I get sense of excitement watching things blow up just as much as the next guy. But, as great as that all is, the last line of the reading should bring those thoughts back down a bit.

“Their own might is their god!”

What I hear a lot in the political discourse today is talk of this kind. We need to be bigger, faster, stronger and richer. If only we had the right leader, then things will be alright. Other nations are doing so well and we seem to be struggling. It feels a little bit to me like when the Israelites demanded a King in the book of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 8). The Israelites were not thrilled with the way things were going in Israel, and were tempted by what they saw with other nations and their kings. Even though the prophet Samuel encourages them otherwise and God realizes they’re ultimately rejecting God as king, they get what they want.

And things go south very, very quickly.

Except for a few outliers, (David, Josiah, Hezekiah to name a few) who were not totally blameless, the rest of the kings were pretty much horrible. The Israelites got what they wanted, but it was definitely not what they needed.

The temptation to be bigger, better, faster, stronger is very strong. But, I think returning to Habakkuk can give us some insight into where Christians should fit into all of this.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.

Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
Habakkuk 2:1-4 (NRSV)

First and foremost, Habakkuk waits for words from God. He is not distracted by the blustering of the Chaldeans or the chatter of the king and politicians within Israel. Habakkuk takes up his post and stations himself to hear from God in a rampart. Habakkuk places himself above the fray. From the watchpost he can see everything, he has a better perspective.

I’m hearing echoes of Psalm 18:2 here, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Habakkuk seems to be realizing that the real place of safety and security is with God, waiting on God, waiting on his words. From this position he is safe and is also able to listen for words from God rather than be distracted and tempted by the words and yelling from others around us.

Finally, God’s word comes and it knocks the blustering and show of the Chaldeans right off their high horse. The spirit of the proud is “not right in them.” They are all show, all bluster and their faith in themselves and their power is misplaced. Instead, “the righteous live by their faith.” Those whose faith is in God, who take refuge in him, live and are sustained by their faith in God.

During this tumultuous and divisive political season, I think Christians should be placing themselves above the fray. Like Habakkuk, we should not be tempted by the words and displays of the proud, but should find solace in the quiet security of God. By being above the fray, we are in a unique position to evaluate and critique prophetically. When our support and security is in God alone, we can resist the temptations of temporal power and stand secure on the watchtower making the message of God plain so that our message might not get wrapped up with the shouting and the noise.

Sunday Prayer

 

Shishkin, Ivan Ivanovich, 1832-1898. Rain in an Oak Forest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Shishkin, Ivan Ivanovich, 1832-1898. Rain in an Oak Forest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

God of faithful surprises,
throughout the ages
you have made known your love and power
in unexpected ways and places.
May we daily perceive
the joy and wonder of your abiding presence
and offer our lives in gratitude
for our redemption. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

The Fear

Fortt, Annette Gandy. Jacob and the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Fortt, Annette Gandy. Jacob and the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

This week begins my first steps into whatever it is next for me. Last Friday, for those of you following along, I turned in my two week notice at my current job. I had grown weary of working at something that was definitely not my passion and was mentally draining. I needed a bit of a kickstart to refocus my passion and hopefully end up back on the path that I feel like I should be on. A path towards ministry of some kind.

Now it’s Tuesday, and the fear has started to set in.

I feel like this whole process so far has been like going skydiving. I had some immense excitement about the initial thought of it and with sharing the details with some of my friends. I felt a bit of that anxious excitement with the buildup to Friday like ascending on the plane must feel like. My nerves on Friday were haywire as I rustled up the courage to step into my boss’s office and deliver my resignation letter, almost like stepping into the window to jump.

Now that I’ve “jumped” I’ve had a sudden rush of fear come over me.

Fear mixed with a twinge of regret. What have I gotten myself into? What sane person would ever do this? I hope my parachute is okay? Do I even have a parachute? There’s a safety parachute, right? That plane ride sure was nice…

But, as with any skydive, once you commit it’s impossible to jump back into the plane. There’s no turning back and you might as well enjoy the ride and the view.

On Sunday afternoon I attended a meeting for my church where we voted in new elders and deacons. A few of the outgoing elders were given time to share about their experience. One after another they talked about stepping up and answering the call of God, even though at first they were resistant. Once they stepped out, they did not regret their choice. One of the new elders, a sweet older woman, talked about her calling as an elder and about the few times she’s served before. While I can’t recall the exact words she used, she spoke about how surrendering to God is one of the best ways to grow and learn how to live into what God has called us to.

I went up to her after and gave her a big hug and thanked her for her words.

Surrendering is never easy. Jumping out of a plane is crazy. But it’s only in those moments as you push through the fear, the anxiety, the doubts and questions when you learn what you can really tackle.

The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Isaiah 40:28-31 (NIV)

Sunday Prayer

 

Weyden, Rogier van der, 1399 or 1400-1464. Mary's Tears, detail from Descent from the Cross, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Weyden, Rogier van der, 1399 or 1400-1464. Mary’s Tears, detail from Descent from the Cross, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

God of power and justice,
like Jeremiah you weep over those
who wander from you,
turn aside to other gods,
and enter into chaos and destruction.
By your tears and through your mercy,
teach us your ways
and write them on our hearts
so that we may follow faithfully
the path you show us. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.