Monday, September 30, 2013

MY PERSONAL Test as a Jesus-Follower: Sacrificial Giving

A Jesus-follower practices righteousness.
  • One area, we need to particularly practice is secret, sacrificial giving.
  • This giving is not only generous, but doesn't occur out of a sense of duty (if our attitude is that of compulsion, there will never be joy) or a complaining spirit.
  • When we give, God opens the heavens and pours out blessings.
  • When we don't give, we rob God of what's rightly his - he owns all we have, anyway - and he turns his eyes away from the devourer.
This is Jesus teaching on practicing righteousness, thus far.  As always, my journey through Scripture, is not for anyone else.  My walk-about-through-the-Word is regularly for me.  I journal, and blog, to put sense to the swirling thoughts and emotions that the truth inspires in me.  If it helps you, that's a side benefit.  It didn't start this way.  It started as something I did as part of my former position at Arizona Christian University.  My hope was to give the ladies on campus a little devotional thought to jumpstart their week.  Then it changed.  I couldn't throw out "just a thought" for their consideration.  It became my consideration.  So, for me, blogging has become a way of chronicling the lessons of life, and having access to it, no matter where I am - just in case I want to revisit an earlier teaching and preach it back to myself.  I have to do that often - preach to myself!  

Bay and I had that sit-down, re-visit-our-giving conversation.  It was good.  We saw the need to make some corrections, even prayerfully made some additions.  As I said, it was good.  However, being a Jesus-follower isn't always easy.  I know Jesus started with giving as a test of MY HEART.  I don't like what's in my heart.  Here's what I saw:
Because I have our tithes and offerings come out of our "bill pay" at the beginning of every month (the first fruit of what we receive), my attitude toward giving reflected the designation of funds.  My heart toward giving was more out of a sense of duty; less joy.  I didn't complain; it was just a matter of being what it was:  I was paying a "bill" - not giving with joy and trust.  

As we added some new ministries to support, I found myself questioning, "Can we really afford to do this?"  I realized how tight fisted I am.  I like the security of knowing there's a little extra in the account at the end of the month.  God showed me a heart of fear.  Giving is never about what we can afford; it's not about giving out of wealth, I remembered - it's giving out of a heart of worship.  

Deeply convicted, I went back to the Word to see how to make some heart corrections.  Scripture is, indeed, God-breathed!  It does have the power to teach, rebuke, correct, and TRAIN.  So, what WORD would God use to help in my heart correction?  As I read further in Matthew, I hit chapter 26 ( read it here, please - I know, I'm jumping around all over the place).  A woman came to Jesus, while he was staying at Simon the leper's house.  Matthew doesn't tell us who she is - Mary of Bethany, maybe; but it doesn't really matter.  Whoever she was, she brought an alabaster vial of very costly perfume and poured it on Jesus head (John recounts the story, saying it was his feet - again, head or feet, it doesn't matter - maybe it was both).  The point is that the disciples were furiously indignant, especially Judas.  This was costly!  Why, that perfume could have been sold and money given to help feed the poor!  Jesus tells them to let her alone, there would always be poor to feed, but he would not be with them long.  Her good actions would become a testimony for the whole world, wherever the gospel would be preached.  When Luke recounts the story, he adds a little detail, calling the woman "sinful." Out of deep gratitude and worship, the woman took her most prized possession, probably her only dowery, and lavished it on Jesus. After all, she had been a sinner, but Jesus' love for her, at some point in his ministry, had set her free.  This is the heart of the gospel.  Whoever has received of Jesus love, forgiveness, and grace, is compelled to give!

Putting it all together, this is my take away, my heart correction.  I, too, am sinful.  I, too, have received of his grace.  Sometimes, many times, I take it for granted.  When I do, my giving becomes less joyful, more dutiful.  At the beginning of every month, when our salary check is deposited, I plan to sit in reflection ("more pondering and storing" - thanks, Mary!) at the generosity of my Jesus in grace and provision, and give thanks through worship.  One of the best ways to show him worship, and offer my life back to him, is out of my checkbook.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Other Thoughts on Sacrificial Giving (Warning: PG-Rated)

Caution.  The following is a hard teaching.  It will feel like an attack.  It might even make you a bit angry.  Yet, Jesus-Followers practice secret-sacrificial-giving, and if we want to walk as he walked, this is part of Jesus' teaching.

If, I've heard my husband say it once, he's made this following statement multiple times (for those who don't know my guy, he is a prophet, a truth-teller, by spiritual gift).  Giving is very easy for him, because he believes this statement (wait for it!).  Over the course of this week, I've probably heard him repeat this truth at least twice: I consider a pastor who won't preach on tithing (and giving) one who is involved in flock abuse.  Did I hear the collective sound of jaws dropping?  I know!  Right?  By nature I'm an encourager (that's probably the Lord's sense-of-humor showing as he brought us together).  I prefer softening things to make them a little more palatable.  He just puts it out there as he sees it. So, there it is...  Yet, there's probably another couple of passages on giving we need to dive into, and the first is the one where my husband has developed this truth (and, for the record, I believe that he is right on target).  He's also not one who is afraid to teach the principle of secret-sacrificial-giving.

I encourage reading the entire last book of the Old Testament, but the main portion of Scripture we'll look at is this (we've all read it before in Malachi 3:8-11).  The Lord, Himself, is speaking:
Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, "How have we robbed You?" In tithes and offerings.  You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, and test Me now in this...if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.  Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so it may not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes...

Here's why avoiding talking about giving is spiritually abusive:
1)  Our fear of not pleasing the people (and talking about someone's money is NEVER a pleasant talk, it is just so.................................private and personal) by discussing tithes and offerings will be a root cause of their failure to be blessed.

See it, there in the middle...  God says, "Test me!"  In fact, the Hebrew word is "bachan" and literally means, put me on trial to examine me.  It's a challenge to us to prove his promise is reliable.  You can't out-give your God.  As you give generously, he gives right back in generous provision.  Maybe not how you expect, but if the eyes of your heart are open, you'll see it in numerous and unexplainable ways.  The windows of heaven will open, and God, himself, will pour out blessings overflowing.  You won't be able to count the blessing!

2)  Not only do we prevent the blessing, we allow the devourer to be unleashed.  In our world, the word rebuke means to criticize, or sharply address another person. However, in the original language, the word meant to "force back, to beat or to cut down, to repress."  As we give generously and sacrificially, the Lord represses and forces back the one who would destructively consume those things which keep life running smoothly and bring provision.  It might not be our gardens that are consumed, though that's still possible.  Instead it could be a car that needs extensive repairs, refrigerators that go out, unexpected dental bills....the list is endless.  Now, please, don't think I'm saying that all of the mishaps in life are related to God's unleashing of the devourer - not so.  I'm just saying, this can be a cause and with all things in life, we need to stop and evaluate...

This brings me to the second passage of Scripture.  Ever wondered how Paul could write the words about "hilarious, joy-filled giving" (2 Cor. 9:7) and that is "more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35)?  I think I am beginning to get it:  When we give generously and see the long-arm-of-God reach down in blessing, it causes us to be filled with gladness in giving.  We can't wait to see what his response is going to be! Why in the world would we give grudgingly or under compulsion?

But...sometimes, it is just, oh, so hard. I know!  Come back...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jesus-Followers Practice Sacrificial Giving

All Scripture is inspired by God (I love the translation, "God-breathed") and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17, emphasis mine)

Remember, last week's take away:  Jesus-Followers Practice Righteousness.  Jesus goes straight to the jugular.  When it comes to training for righteousness, he heads immediately to our checkbooks and Bank Cards.  If there's one thing that's entirely personal to individuals, it's money. The overall opinion of most Christians towards those who teach TRUTH is that you are great-at-it as long as you don't try to tell us/me how to spend OUR/MY well-earned pay.  Right off, I'm learning that following Jesus is going to be a bit uncomfortable.  It's going to challenge all of us right where it hurts the most.  I wonder how Matthew felt about that, considering most of his well-earned-fortune came from corruptible means? I'm figuring he + Jesus worked it out. How could you have Jesus in your home, look around at your good fortune, and not want to make things right?  Zaccheus couldn't; and, he was in the same position as Matthew.  Zaccheus, the wee-little-man-tax-collector-just-like-Matthew, came down from his tree and Jesus took him straight to his house, too.  Zaccheus was pleased-as-punch Jesus wanted to go to his house; BUT, when Zaccheus looked around, he didn't like what he saw.  As he looked at his gain through his new Jesus-eyes, he knew he had to make corrections. His words to Jesus were (paraphrased), "Since I have stolen, I will give back four times what I took."  Good for him!  That was what the moral Jewish-law instructed for restitution (but that had to be difficult, since it probably left him bankrupt!).  I have to wonder if Matthew didn't respond in much the same way.  Whatever he did to make things right, Matthew was being taught and reproved. He had begun making corrections, and was now in the process of training for righteousness... What happened next is between him and his Savior; we'll never know.

What happens next in our teaching, reproof, correcting, and training is between us and Jesus; and Jesus starts with our money.  Really?  Why would you go there, Jesus?  Maybe because our money has the potential to master us unlike anything else; and, he makes it clear, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and riches (6:24)." Oh! Sigh. If, I want to be a Jesus-follower, any other thing that gets in my way of staying on track must be let go.  Money - love of money - is a total distraction (1 Tim 6:10). This teaching of Jesus' regarding money isn't really about having money, it's about the power it has to keep us from allowing Jesus his rightful place as our only LORD.  It's why the rich-young-ruler had such a hard time being a follower.  He couldn't bring himself to part with his that moment, when Jesus asked him to go and sell all he had in order to follow.  Giving away our money is the first test in being a shows what's really in our hearts. 

OK. So, I need to practice sacrificial giving as a true follower. "Then watch me give, Jesus!  I'll be a generous giver!"  Second problem great givers will have to wrestle with: the motivation for giving.  Do we give and tell? Give and show?  Sacrificial giving is not a show and tell project.  Jesus words: "Don't give before men to be noticed. There's no reward in that. In fact, give from your heart in such a way that your left hand doesn't even know what your right had is doing..." Anonymous giving is our second test in being a, too, shows what's really in our hearts. 

Then how much do I have to give?  Notice, Jesus never says. The 10% figure we've been given comes from the Old Testament; I think it's meant as a guide, a place to start.  Jesus-followers are instructed with the widows-mite-principle.  Remember her? She gave her last few cents in true faith and worship (her story is found in Mark 12:41-44). The lesson Jesus teaches us?  Never give just out of your wealth; your giving must reveal a heart of trust to the one you have grown to love/worship.  Remember King David's words, they are a great principle in giving, as well, "I will not give to the Lord that which costs me nothing (1 Chron. 21:24)!" Giving out of a full-of-faith-and-trust-Want-To is the third test in being a reveals what's really in our hearts.  

So far, this is convicting.  How do I respond to this personally?  We've always been tithers...that's not so much the issue.  I don't mean to mention it in pride; because what is convicting to me is the need to re-assess.  It's the issue of the third test. Do we, as a couple, just give out of what we have, or do we give out of hearts of trust...are we GENEROUS?!? Do we give out of our wealth or our faith?  As I write this, I know Bay and I are going to have an evaluation conversation.  It's not about what, or why, or a question of do we; but it will be about how much?  With a decline in our salary, we have talked about the need to possibly re-adjust our giving.  But I wonder how these teachings of Jesus should affect our current practicing for righteousness?  ...and that will be between us and our Savior.  Smile.

PS.  I'm not fully sure we're finished with this teaching, either...stay tuned.  

Monday, September 9, 2013

Jesus-Followers Practice Righteousness

I’ve been asked several times, now that Arizona Christian University has begun, and I am not there, how I am doing with my “semi-retirement.”  That’s a hard question to answer.  I found myself with a little achy, empty hole in my heart on the day I would have normally been heading back to Phoenix for a new year; and, randomly, I still do!  At the same time, over the summer, I had a house full of grandchildren, and was privileged to be involved in some more speaking ministry.  These things reminded me that this is part of what God's new season, for me, is all about. Being “semi-retired” has its benefits.  I really miss the students and my teammates at ACU, but I didn't miss going back to 109-116 degree heat in August.  I do find myself in need of some semblance of routine (which I haven’t fallen into yet), but I thoroughly have enjoyed the leisure of early morning sit-on-my-back-porch-in-the-mountain-cool-with-coffee-and-Jesus time, for as long as I want!  I miss the sense of satisfaction at the end-of-the-day daily ministry, but I am scheduling some little bit of speaking that has a different sense of fulfillment.  So, I still feel a bit mixed… 

In the middle of all this consideration, I’m still carefully evaluating what this new season is going to look like.  I am hesitant to make commitments until I see the direction the Lord is taking us.  There’s still the side of me that wants to just sit in my fuzzy pajama pants and a t-shirt all day, but there’s the responsible desire to be Kingdom-minded and effective, too.  I’m still on the first couple of pages of this new chapter in my story, so I know there is no rush.  However, I’ve always been a fast reader, and I want to see where this story is going…  I’ve had multiple conversations with the Lord about this.

Then, one morning, I picked up where I left off in the gospel of Matthew.  Jesus is calling "followers" (we've talked about that); but then, in chapter 6, verse 1, he starts preaching about “practicing righteousness.”  He says this, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”  I’ve always read that passage in the negative.  Jesus goes on to discuss with his would-be-followers a strong warning in regard to public practice of acts that might be considered “righteous.”  He emphasizes four in particular: sacrificial giving, prayer, forgiveness, and fasting.  It hit me somewhere in the middle of verses 1 – 24 that he wasn’t preaching total abstinence of the practices, just how and where to go about it.  The thought stirred my soul, and started bubbling up inside of me.  At the end of the day, for right now, I know this one thing:  Jesus wants me to go back to the basics.  I am to be about “practicing righteousness.”  He’s giving me an opportunity to sit a little more leisurely in the mornings on my back porch in solitude (as long as the weather allows) and in “pondering & reflecting.”  He’s allowing me to carve out some space for intimate conversations with him, and to strengthen my spiritual well being.  He has reminded me that at my salvation, he gave me the unobtainable gift of righteousness, but righteousness is as foreign to my human nature as it is yours.  Righteousness is like a strange language I don’t understand, or speak fluently.  It is one I must practice; yet, not before men!  So sitting in the quiet on my back porch, or alone in the peace and quiet of my upstairs loft, and in my pajama pants is just fine! I can practice for as long as I want, dressed however I want!  We all need it.  It doesn’t take semi-retirement to go there.  It’s an admonishment for us all; we are all learning to be followers.  So, this one thing I KNOW to be true.  Following Jesus requires a "practice of righteousness."  (Let me re-iterate, practicing righteousness is not for the purpose of being made righteous - I AM in HIM.)  Practicing righteousness simply means setting aside some time to rehearse some of the most basic ingredients that build relationship and help us trust the one who is leading.  Have a great day & a great for me, I'm off to do some righteousness-training.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jesus-Follower, 2 (or, I Don't Want to Be A Christian Anymore)

Well, I got myself in a small-measure of trouble over last week’s blog entry on “not wanting to be a Christian anymore.”  That’s OK.  I do welcome the opportunity, and think it’s good, as well as, healthy, to wrestle with the question, “Did I mean what I said?”  Before answering that question, I have to say, I was surprised that this little controversy didn’t bother me.  There was a time when it would have.  It really had nothing to do with the fact that the words came from a sister-in-Christ that I didn’t know, because that would have still been traumatic.  I believe it’s a testimony of two things:

1.  How far the Lord has brought me on my identity-journey.  Obviously, it’s his doing and I’ve played no role.  He’s been at work in me for sometime, reminding me who I am in Him, and it’s translated into a renewed confidence, and, yes, maybe a little courage.

2.  I’ve said the very same things this dear sister has, who is tired of feeling like she has to tiptoe around what words she can and can’t use in “Christianese.”  I know folks (whom I love), who are “rubbed wrong” by certain words we use regularly.  I’m not one who is big on “banning” particular words from my Christian-vocab.  In fact, Paul tells us to avoid foolish controversy, senseless arguments, and divisions.  So, this is not my purpose in not wanting to be called “Christian” anymore, but rather a Jesus-follower.  So, allow me the opportunity to explain a bit better (sorry this is long).

After my unknown-to-me sister challenged my thinking, I went back to Matthew, and referenced the calling of Jesus’ disciples a little further into the book, when our Savior called Matthew (this is found in chapter 9:9-17).  Too much to print, so please go read it here: Matthew 9:9-17.

No one could explain Matthew’s calling.  Note: there were “tax collectors” and there were “sinners.”  Two categories of scum-of-the-earth.  Matthew was the worst of the worst.  He was “unrighteous” and “sick.”  He was despised, corrupt, a traitor to his people, and, on top of that, a thief.  He was a tax-collector.  No righteous Jew would hang around a sinner, let alone a tax-collector (say that word with particular contempt).  Yet, Jesus saw some kind of follower-potential, and he didn’t just ask Matthew to follow him, He demanded it (take note of the exclamation mark: Follow me!).  Matthew rose and followed.

Here’s where it gets particularly interesting.  Where did Jesus take him?  Not to church.  Not to the river to be baptized.  Not to make right his wrongs. Not to serve in a soup kitchen.  Nope.  Jesus takes him home, and invites his friends to come along.   Jesus took Matthew to the most comfortable place Matthew knew.  The religious Jews were shocked!  They couldn’t believe their eyes, or their ears!  So, they apparently wanted to see more.  They hung around outside Matthew's home.  Why?  Were they hoping Jesus would tear it to pieces in his righteous anger?  Maybe they were hoping Jesus would start parceling out all the stuff that Matthew owned, after all he got that stuff by stealing money from them!  Again, Jesus did the unexpected and the unexplained.  He sat down and ate with them all.

This caused no small stir among the righteous religious of the day.  Some of Jesus disciples were outside among them.  Crowd control? Maybe…  So, the Jewish leaders started asking them all their questions.  Fortunately, and apparently, Jesus heard them, and came out to answer.  Here’s basically what he tells them:
1.  You’ve got some learnin’ to do.  You know what Hosea told you about God, “I desire compassion not sacrifice…”  Go and transfer this knowledge from your head to your heart, then come back.  “I came for sinners, not the righteous; the sick, not the healthy."

2.  Think on this:  “no one puts new wine into old wineskins…”

What does that mean?  It’s so critical to the C-word-controversy:  A Jesus-follower is, first and foremost, about relationships (with Jesus and others) and not religion.  Religion is about doing.  Being a Christian has become about religion, and at that, a religion that is not measuring up to expectations.  It’s become about what I’m against, and how I behave (or don’t behave), rather than what I’m for and who I am.  So, I want to be a follower.  I want tax-collectors and sinners to see me as a Jesus-learner, a becomer-in-process, as I walk in His footsteps (or try to), and attempt to follow his example.  I want them to see me as compassionate, loving the unexpected and the unexplained.  I don’t want my life to be about my hypocrisy – because I will never measure up to expectations until ONE-DAY IN ETERNITY.

What does the teaching about wineskins have to do with anything?  Jesus was presenting the righteous religious with a paradigm shift…a “new thing.”  In essence he’s saying, “Here’s a new idea for ya, and you can’t put it into any old categories, because it’s too big and too important.  Religion is obsolete.  Religion and doing and behavior is on the way out; but loving God and loving others, that’s where your focus should go.”

Yes, I still want to be a Jesus-follower, but not, necessarily a Christian.