Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Riding on Donkeys

At one of my previous churches we always took people to the Grand Canyon. It was amazing to watch the 8th graders see one of the greatest things God has ever created.  On one of the first nights we were there, we would take a walk.  The faces of the kids would light up as they would take pictures over the vast canyon.  I made this visit several times, and it never got old.  One of the things I found odd was that mules would take people up and down the canyon.  Mules are very funny looking animals.  We would watch the kids move out of the way every time the mule train passed.  The 8th graders would pinch their noses at the smell, as they constantly had to move around the mule poop.  On one of my favorite trips, we had to wait an hour so a mule that had died could be removed.  A helicopter had to be flown in so it could be lifted out.  The kids were amazed watching this happen.  What I find funny is that here we have this majestic formation that God made, and included in His creation is this weak looking animal that carries people up and down this beautiful canyon.
            This weekend our lesson is much the same.  Here is our great King, and He comes into town riding on this donkey.  It is like the Grand Canyon and a mule; the comparison is between something so awesome and something that is weak and humble.  Kings didn’t do things like Jesus did.  They rode in their big chariots and showed off their kingly riches.  Jesus was a different type of king; He was humble. This week we begin Advent, and remember the first time the world ever saw a different kind of king.  We reflect on the way in which the world accepted God’s idea of a king.  Years before, the people had begged God for a king, and what they got was a variety of selfish men who wanted to rule the world.  They saw natural wonders similar to the Grand Canyon, and wanted to make those things their own. They could never have enough; then God intervened and gave the people the kind of king that He originally wanted them to have.  The disciples saw this happen before their own eyes.  Can you imagine what it was like when they had to go get the donkey for Jesus?  They had to be thinking, Why does this guy want a donkey?  He could have something greater.
            As God moves us along on our train of sanctification we stop at stations to stare back at our kingly selfish nature, and recognize how that attitude puts us in bad places.  There are times when we don’t even like what we look like.  In those moments we pray that God would restore us and help us to go forward.  In Advent we are reminded that it took Jesus coming to this world in a humble way--our only way out of the pit of our selfishness.  God restores us through a baby, and we begin the Church Year in that mindset, and in preparation for what God is going to do with us this year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Growing in Generosity

As a kid I began mowing lawns and making a good amount of money in the summer. I watched as my stockpile of money grew and grew.  I began to plan on all the things that I wanted to buy.  I had a list of all the baseball hats I wanted.  (Yes, this was well before I turned my back on baseball, after which my heart was changed back years later with our Cardinals.)  I also collected baseball, basketball, and football cards.  I had over 300 Michael Jordan cards, and I was always looking for the next bump up in the collection.  This was also the beginning of my love of music, so I had a list of CDs I wanted to buy as well.  Back then, music companies had special offers where you could get a certain number of CDs for a low price if you bought one for the next six months.  I was always looking for those ways of increasing my CD collection.  Not to mention, more CDs meant more CD towers to hold all of them.  I had figured out exactly how much money I was going to make, and had written out my plan of what I was going to do.  (I know this may come as a surprise to some of you that I had a systematic way of preparing for all the things I was going to buy.)  Anyway, I remember telling my dad about my plan.  I told him that by the end of the summer I was going to give ten percent of all the money I had made to church, because I would have made my last purchase by then.  I remember my dad specifically saying, “Will, if you do that you won’t have that money left to give; it is better to give first.”  There was some confusion in my head of why this was true.  But I took it is as truth.  Throughout my life it has been confirmed why this is true.  It was not like the number on my lists of baseball hats, CDs, or cards was going to get smaller.  With every new thing I bought, it was kind of like a drug, luring me to purchase more.
            In my recent Tuesday night Bible study we talked about this.  Several of us agreed that we don’t seem to get enough of the excitement of purchasing things.  It is hard to explain, but there is something to be said about the feeling you get when you buy a new shirt, new music, a new car, a new house, or new furniture.  It is a natural desire, built in by our selfish, sinful nature, the result of which is to satisfy ourselves first and everything else later.  Early in our faith walk many of us react just like I did.  I will give to God when I have more, or have bought everything that I want.  It is through biblical teaching that we see the practice and understanding of generosity that God teaches us about giving.  Every time we give, we let go of something we hold onto so tightly.  This is best seen through the eyes of children.  Think about little children playing with toys.   So often they are quick to tell other children that the toy in their arms is theirs.  They own it!  It belongs to them!  Often, we too want to say, “This is mine.”  Yet, in reality, everything we have is what God has given us.  Sometimes when kids are first taught to share, they throw the toy at the other person.  Trust me, Jacob and Gavin have both been hurt by an iPad toss from his brother.  Sometimes our own giving can resemble throwing it at God.  We think, Ok, I give.  I am supposed to share.   Here you go, God.  If we begin to think of earth like a hotel room, we realize there are things that are necessary in a hotel room, but none of them are ours except what we brought.  In this case it is just our selves.  When we look at Heaven as our home, we realize God is putting all kinds of things in our heavenly room that we truly need.  None of it will be because we are selfish, and all of it will be what we really need.
            This is Genius of Generosity at work as we begin to see earth and all the stuff we have here as temporary goods.  The amazing thing in all this is that God continues to give to us even in our lack of generosity.  He continues to bless us, and as we come alongside and live in that atmosphere of generosity, we recognize the depth of His love in the way He gave to us.  So, I still have over 300 Michael Jordan cards, but I no longer have magazines to tell me what they are worth.  Some time ago I thought my kids would love to have them.  The reality is that those basketball cards sit in a box in my parents’ garage.  I haven’t looked at them in years, and if my mom threw them away I probably wouldn’t care.  Funny how God changes our perspective over time!  This weekend I pray that God changes all of our hearts so we can become Geniuses of Generosity.

Generosity, the Gateway to Intimacy with God

Intimacy was one of those words my family didn’t jump at the chance to talk about. This was partially a family thing, but also a cultural challenge.  Too often intimacy was misunderstood on television, the movies, or just the basic understanding.  Just as last week, we broke down the understanding of genius, this week it is more an understanding of intimacy. I am sure when you think of intimacy you think of a story of a man managing money, right?

Yeah, right!  But this week we examine one of the toughest parables in Scripture.  This is not just because I want to challenge myself to preach on a parable often misunderstood, but honestly, it has to do with the depth of our intimate relationship with God.  Jesus continues to bless us with many things, but unfortunately we often treat them poorly.  It is through the depth of our relationship with Him that we form intimate relationships with the gifts He gives us, and in turn, learn the depth of His blessing.

This week Jacob’s godfather arrives in town.  Derek and I became friends during our final year of seminary.  He was telling a story about a girl.  Soon that became a common theme in our lives.  We shared stories about girls and the dream of intimacy.  These were stories with white picket fences and kids that ran through the backyard.  We never anticipated our stories continuing, but sure enough, our first calls put us 20 miles apart.  In the LA area this meant more of a drive than it would in St. Louis; but even so, Friday after Friday our lives were joined together.  We began to live and breathe the depth of ministry, while wondering what God would do next in our lives.  Mindy and I married soon after, and then little Jacob came along.  It was an easy choice to make Derek Jacob’s godfather, and he carries the title well.  He is always one to send birthday cards and gifts to help prepare for the financial burden of college.  The hard part is that Jacob has to learn who Derek is every time he visits.  But the last time he was here, we made some great memories.  Derek and I spent the day with Jacob playing baseball on a small field. Jacob was just beginning to love baseball, a love Derek has had for a long time.  Jacob was quick to jump on his lap every morning before Derek truly had a chance to wake up.  The final most intimate moment was their farewell.  Derek went to say goodnight to Jacob the night before he left. Jacob called for one more hug from him, and as Derek returned to the living room tears poured down his face.  That is intimacy.  Derek hadn’t seen Jacob in two years, yet the memories of his being in the hospital when Jacob was born are certainly something that Derek treasures.  His relationship with a baby who is now a young boy has grown even though they are states apart.

We want to picture intimacy with flowers on beds, champagne bottles, kisses on doorsteps, and date nights.  Yet, intimacy involves a much deeper definition than moments of romance captured in time.  Intimacy grows in each of our relationships with our interactions.  So if we were to think about our intimacy with God, with Jesus our Savior, what does that look like?  If Jesus is described as Love, and if His deepest act of Love—generosity--was to rescue us, then wouldn’t it make sense that the more we act on love, we act on generosity as we care and give to others? Then we begin to grow in our intimacy with God, and realize what Jesus did for us.

As Jacob grows up and learns to love baseball more than he already does, he will see something that his godfather is passionate about.  He will hear stories about how Uncle Derek got Jacob’s dad back into baseball.  He will listen to accounts of Uncle Derek playing fantasy baseball with his dad.  Jacob will discover how something Uncle Derek was passionate about changed his story.  Yeah, you heard me right.

I had no real passion for baseball until Derek got me back into it.  Because of that Jacob and Gavin have memory after memory of going to baseball games with me.  It changed Jacob’s story because of Derek’s intimacy with him.  The goal is that God would do the same for us.  The story of Jesus’ generosity will help us grow in our intimacy with Him.  We will see the way He gave and how it changes our story.   And then we can’t help but become a Genius of Generosity!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Genius of Generosity

I heard it again the other day.  I was out to lunch with a friend who was telling me a story about money.  He said, “Money is the root of all evil.”  Ah, a lesson in context.  If you don’t like learning how to Read 1, you won’t like this lesson, but let’s just assume you do.  The rules are simple.  Scripture interprets Scripture.  Don’t proof text.  And the Gospels are not only the books we stand for in church, but we actually believe they carry more weight than other books.

What do I mean?  Let’s break it down.  First, it is important to check to see how Scripture can help you decode other Scripture.  So in this case, What does God think about money?  If God thought money was bad all together, why would Jesus pay the temple tax?  Why would He commend the widow for giving her few coins?  You see what I am saying:  God doesn’t hate money.

Proof text means I want to tell you something that Scripture says, so I take one Scripture (often out of context) and say, “Here is what I mean.”  In this example, I want to convince you that money is bad; that God doesn’t care about money.  Now my friend meant that in a totally different way, but he was missing a key word, but we will get to that.

Finally, we uphold what Jesus did as higher than other books of the Bible.  Why do we do this?  Simple!  We know that the main message of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is simple: we are broken sinners; we need a Savior; Jesus our Savior fulfilled the law so we could go to heaven.  The Gospels maintain this central theme by bringing all of Scripture together concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So what does this have to do with money and generosity?  This often misquoted Scripture is from 1 Timothy 6:10, where it says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.  It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with pangs.”  Wow!  Eye opening, right?  It is the love of money, not money.  But they “pierced themselves with pangs.”  (I’m not sure what a pang is but I don’t want it.)   Many translate a pang as grief, but you get it, right?  Who needs more grief?  Not me, for sure.

About a year ago I watched this 30 for 30, ESPN film called, “Broke.” It was all about how athletes go broke.  I have your attention now, right?  You feel bad for A-Rod, and the many professional athletes who are making millions of dollars.  Hang with me for a minute.  Think about it.  Many of them go from a life of poverty to living a millionaire life style in a matter of minutes.  Yes, I said minutes.  The natural progression of finances goes like this: we slowly creep up, and things start becoming easier.  Mindy and I had our first son very early in marriage.  We had to move to a larger apartment, and began to realize the cost of diapers, formula, etc.  Then, in addition to that, we moved from California to Missouri, and our income was reduced
to one salary.  This often happens in the early years of marriage.  So who feels bad for these athletes?  But think about it.  They have friends who are poor; they have family members who are poor; and so they begin to help them out.  They also get crazy and start blowing money.  They buy new cars and other new things, and before they know it, someone talks them into purchasing a business that will surely tank.  Suddenly, they realize that they started their career early in their 20s, when few young people knew how to manage money, and then their career ends in their mid 30s.  Now it occurs to them that they need to have enough money to carry it through the rest of their lives.

That is what got me.  Without the basic principles of saving, paying bills, and so on they find themselves Going Broke.  This weekend we start a new series called “The Genius of Generosity.”  Basic Principles are key for all of us.  If we don’t understand why giving is important, or how to give, or what to give, then how can we be generous?  Generosity has more to do with stewardship than anything else. Stewardship means managing what God gives me.

Let me explain:  I grew up living through my parents’ bankruptcy. Therefore I had a hard time giving up our stuff. Mindy grew up with a much different attitude.  Since her love language is giving, she will give up almost anything to anyone.  Such different outlooks can cause a few wrinkles in any marriage.  But soon enough I saw her heart for giving, and had to discover ways to accommodate both outlooks.  It also meant I needed to give to her.  With little money early in our marriage, I decided that gifts for Mother’s Day, birthdays, and Christmas should be things of the past.  We acknowledged them, but we didn’t give gifts.  Words of encouragement were my love language.  So all I needed was a letter and a reminder that I was valued.  Over time God has changed my heart, and I treasure finding unique gifts for my wife.  I also understand when she wants to give to others.  This series is not about money; it’s not even about stewardship; it’s about heart change.  And I pray that God will allow us to become more generous through observing His goodness to us.

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Saints Day

Over the next 48 hours we will celebrate some pretty key holidays.  It is interesting that Reformation, All Saints Day, the Day of the Dead, and Halloween all fall within this time frame.  That is enough to put our brains on overload so it’s a good thing that we can enjoy an extra hour of sleep.  We believe that Luther and the Reformation brought us back to the true meaning of the saving grace of Jesus.  Its promise helps us see what truly happens in death, and to the saints.  Not to mention that this also keeps us from seriously participating in a holiday that involves people acting like evil spirits; rather we can trust that God has power even over that.
            I actually encourage you to think about death during these moments.  The other day my family and I were at the zoo, hanging with all the cousins and having fun before the big wedding.  We were talking about how retirement has been such a focus for our culture.  People put so much emphasis on what they will do when they retire.  They save, and work hard, promising themselves that they will play when they retire.  Do they ever capture the moment of what Jesus has for them today?  I encourage you to Read 1 - Ecclesiastes 9 and specifically verses 7 to 10.  This was the wedding verse I planned to have for my wedding until it was vetoed by my mother-in-law.  See, even pastors get challenged by mothers-in-law.
            The context of these verses help us to see that while Solomon did think life was meaningless, he took the time to grasp everything God gave Him in it.  My mother-in-law didn’t like this verse because it implies that after we enjoy this life we will go to Sheol; ultimately we will face death and then we will be with Jesus.  But we definitely will face death.  I like to face the facts.  I will die, and when I die will I wonder if my money, my life, and my fun remained dormant while waiting for retirement?  Now I am not talking about reckless behavior.
            I believe God created us to enjoy His work.  Think about the fact that God wanted us to enjoy marriage.  He didn’t want us to keep checking out the opposite sex after we were married.  He wanted us to look at our spouses with passion.  He wanted us to enjoy food that will keep us healthy.  He wanted us to enjoy the family He has given us.  He wanted us to enjoy loving others.  I’ve got to admit that a long time ago I didn’t look forward to the awkward talk about Christianity with a stranger, but now I treasure the moments when I can discuss faith.  In the beginning of my ministry funerals made me nervous; now I know they provide an opportunity to share the saving grace of Jesus with a room full of broken people.  Yes, even weddings offer a chance to speak about what marriage truly is.  No doubt my sister- in-law will get a full dose of that this weekend whether she likes it or not.  No, she knows me well enough to know what’s coming.  I tried to convince her to choose Ecclesiastes 9:7-10.  She almost agreed, which meant it would have been getting my mother-in-law back six and half years later.  But she went in another direction, and actually picked another great verse!   She chose the Ruth passage.  That was a unique situation because Ruth resisted what her culture maintained.  Ruth allowed God to influence her, rather than adhere to some false expectation of what her world required.
            When we look death in the face, we realize that we need a Savior.  When we become aware of that, we begin to allow Him to take over.  He shapes our lives through the Holy Spirit, and we enjoy every step and blessing He gives us.  Don’t miss the opportunity to look death in the face and relinquish its power over you. Then sleep an extra hour on Sunday, you’re going to need it!

Pray 1

One reason I gave all my reading to God, as I spoke about it in the last blog, is because I knew I was not going to do that in other areas.  This means the reason I read only Christian books and the Bible is because I knew I was never going to do that with my music.  I realized a long time ago that I was never going to be like my mom or my uncle Rich, who only listened to Christian music.  Yet, from my roots there is a band I love a lot--Toby, Kevin, and Michael, otherwise known as DC talk.  DC talk was the first concert I attended.  They have broken up now, and have formed three separate bands.  The most successful is Toby Mac.  His band has created some of the top Christian hits.  Occasionally I hear one of his songs, which is just like pop music, and I fall in love with it immediately.  I was in the midst of having one of my Christian music moments while I was listening to Pandora, and I heard one of Toby's new songs, "Steal my Show."  Let me develop this song for you.
            Toby gets off the plane and heads out to put on his "Show" or concert.  He realizes, as he is about to be on stage, that the people came there for "the beat to drop."  He goes on to explain that what they really need is Jesus.  So this is where the line comes in: If you want to steal my show, I'll sit back and watch you go, if you got something to say, go on and take it away.  The concept of this artist stepping back from all his fans and letting Jesus be center stage is a powerful image of prayer.  But the image gets even stronger at the end of the song when he sings: No matter who we are, no matter what we do every day, we can choose to say, if you want to steal my show, I'll sit back and watch you go, if you got something to say, go on and take it away...go on take it away, my life, my plans, my heart, my dreams, my fears, my family, my career, take it away.  What a powerful portrayal of our prayer life with God.
            We all have a show.  We all have something we own.  We all have lives that we expect belong to us, and prayer is that time when we communicate with God, and listen for what He has to say in our lives.  It is also the moment that we give it to Jesus, to have Him take it away; a reminder that we need His leadership.  As I listened to this song I thought through all of the times I have had to say to God (and sometimes with resistance) Steal my show and take it away.
            Martin Luther stood in the crux of time when the show that the Church was putting on was wrong.  The prevailing spiritual leaders were truly unwilling to let Jesus take back the show.  They had their way of doing things, and were not just resistant, but unwilling to hear the true essence of the Word of God.  Jesus came to save.  He came to rescue us from the mistakes we have made.  It may be hard to hand over our lives, but this is where prayer is important.  It is our connection with God.   And while I love the prayers I have memorized since childhood, there is nothing better than just talking to Jesus, knowing He came to steal my show and rescue me.  He came so that I could Pray 1, and now that has become a privilege.  If praying out loud makes you uncomfortable, I would encourage you to practice it.  But right before you try it, say:  Jesus, steal this show, and then Pray 1, boldly trusting in His Word through you.  Pray 1!