A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Friday, December 21, 2012

Thinking on "Things" (Part 5)

So, when does one go from lower to middle class, and from middle class to upper? I hope one or two of you thought about it when you read the first post in this series. Truth be told, I don’t really care! A lot of people do care, though, and spend a lot of time comparing themselves with others, looking into averages and wondering whether or not they’re getting what they deserve. From the time of the first human king (Genesis 10:8-12) there has always been rich and poor. Jesus says there always will be (John 12:8). Since the start of modern times we’ve been insisting on the existence of the in-between-rich-and-poor class.  All this socioeconomic class stuff has become a tool for politicians. Taking advantage of either fear or envy, they play people for fools pitting one class against another to sieze power. Please don’t fall for it!

Do you want to be rich? Be careful! (1Timothy 6:9) Do you really want to be poor, though? It would seem the wisest choice would be to go for the in-between gig. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me” (Proverbs 30:8b). However, when we consider what wisdom (Proverbs) wants, it’s not the middle class we desire so much in Western Civilization. It looks like that in-between place could even include what we would call poor—it’s just having what you need. In Biblical terms, middle class means rich; let’s not fool ourselves. All Sociology aside, it’s my opinion the whole discussion of social class is rooted in envy, fear, selfishness, and prejudice, and it goes both ways.

Both rich and poor are guilty of dehumanizing the other “class” to get or keep more of what they want. Rich people ought to share what they have with those less fortunate (1Timothy 6:17-19), but they ought to do it freely, out of love for their fellow humans, not by exaction. Poor people ought to pay their fair share of whatever taxes are essential and rich people ought not to be expected to pay a bigger percentage (Exodus 30:15). Class warfare is demonic! The mature Christian is able to step outside the socioeconomic class system; realizing money is just one more tool to serve God. Jesus calls his disciples to renounce all they have, including money, race, social class, etc., etc., etc. Read your Bible, and read it again. God is trying to tell you that you can’t get life with money. In fact, it may rob you of the very thing you’re seeking.

The apostle Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11b-12). To Paul, money, standard of living, and possessions were peripheral matters his faith had enabled him to transcend. He knew how to be Jesus’ follower in riches, poverty, and everything in-between. I wish the same knowledge for you and me. 

Money, or rather the love of it (AKA greed), is making America, and most of the “First World Nations” sick and miserable. I don’t advise you to burn it all and hike out to live an ascetic life in a cave somewhere. I advise you, as the Scriptures do, to make serving Jesus as the highest thing of value in your life (Matthew 6:33), and let that “pearl of great price” set the value or lack thereof of all else (Matthew 13:45-46). Don’t envy those richer than you. Don’t fear those poorer than you. Don’t think anybody owes you anything, but never forget you owe your fellow man--rich or poor--love (Romans 13:8).

Who’s happier, the rich or poor, or those in-between? None of the above! Happiness is in Christ and it's bigger than money.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Can Every Day Be Like Christmas?

There’s an Elvis Presley Christmas song, written by Red West, that has stirred my thoughts around this time of year for a long time now. The chorus goes:

"Oh, why can't every day be like Christmas? Why can't that feeling go on endlessly? For if everyday could be just like Christmas, What a wonderful world, this would be."

There's a lot of truth to those lines. If every day could be just like Christmas for everyone, one would think this would be a pretty good world, but we grownups know that isn't possible, right?

I searched the net for a while to see what people have put out there in articles, blogs, etc. as their top ten favorite things about Christmas. The top four seem to be: (1) spending time with family, (2) decorations, (3) presents (getting them, or watching others open them, or just the whole environment of everyone passing them out and opening them), and (4) Christmas dinner. There's a lot of variety in the six rounding out the average top ten, but some things I saw on several lists were lights, time off work, snow (obviously not folks from the south), playing games, the general feeling, and yes, celebrating the birth of Christ. Interestingly, of the fourteen lists I looked at, only three mentioned celebrating the birth of Christ, and only two of those put that as number one.

I generally wasn't brought up to observe Christmas as a celebration of Jesus' birth. It was a Roman Catholic thing, and I'm not Roman Catholic. My family celebrated it as special family time. Not exactly secular, but it wasn't (and still isn't for me) about Christmas Pageants and Nativity Scenes (though we did have the latter at my Grandparents' house and I liked them). On the other end, I had relatives who, for religious reasons, did not believe in celebrating Christmas at all--people who closely shared my faith--so there were a lot of spiritual things for me to think about as a kid.

As a grownup, I came to believe celebrating Christmas falls under the "things we can disagree about and still be brothers in Christ in good standing" from Romans 14. I have zero problems with those who celebrate it as the day of Christ's birth. However, I feel sorry for those who try to celebrate it as a purely secular "holy day." A day that stands for nothing but toys, tinsel, tantrums, and getting tanked? That's empty--like eating too much candy, you'll eventually grow sick of it. Is that what we wish every day could be just like? Children (or the childish) may think that's what they want, but I think not. I've come to believe it's outside the will of Christ to view any day secularly. Every day is a holy day for the truly converted. Every day IS just like Christmas, or should be. Shouldn't it?

Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians, "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain" (4:8-10, emph. mine). How could those words have come from the same pen of the apostle who wrote, "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord... while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God" (Romans 14:5-6). It makes sense if you get the different reasons why he wrote those two texts.

It's like this, a Christian has been made holy by God's grace. As long as we keep faith with Christ, we keep on being holy all the time (1John 1:7). We're never holier on one day than another, nor are we less. Therefore every day we live in is a holy day, and equally as holy as any other. You don't have to fully understand all this to be right with God in your intentions--that's what Romans 14 is about. However, to act like someone is required to observe certain days and times above others (or required not to), and to push that mindset on others is entirely out of sync with the Spirit of God--that's what Galatians 4 is about. Bottom line is, we ought to act like every day is a holy day and do holy things in it! For mature Christians who get this, every day really can be like Christmas--at least like the truly best parts of it.

So, being thankful, celebrating the grace of God through Jesus, telling the story of the gospel, living the day as holy to the Lord and every part of it in his honor and to his glory--those things are the elements of a real holy day, and I want them in my life always! Sharing good food with family and friends? Oh, with the exception of some time especially for prayer and fasting (holy days of another sort) I can enjoy that every day as well! Gifts. I want to give today as a gift to my God, because he has given me so much. And I think I really ought to start trying to give someone a gift every day of my life from now on. It doesn't have to be much. It can even be free, but to live every day with that exhilarating feeling of giving someone a gift that expresses your love for them... it really is better to give than to receive, and why do I have to limit that to just one day? Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I realize just how much of life many of us deny ourselves and our loved ones every day by living in denial of the holiness of everyday life!

Every day can be just like Christmas--at least as much like it as really matters--because all the best things about Christmas are actually just characteristics of a good, spiritual life. Merry Christmas everyone!  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Thinking on "Things" (Part 4)

This week, continuing the challenge to “think on ‘things,’” I’m writing about tithing. It means setting aside the first tenth of all your incomes and giving it as an offering to the Lord. The Law of Moses required all faithful Israelites to tithe (Leviticus 27:30-32; Numbers 18:20-32; Deuteronomy 12:5-11, 14:22-29). They gave it to the Levites (the priestly tribe) for their living, maintaining the central place of worship, and to take care of the poor. There were occasions in which an Israelite was required to give 15% (i.e. when he would benefit from or partake of the tithe himself), and the people were encouraged to give free will offerings above the tithe if they were able and (as “free will” suggests) willing.

The question often arises among Christians, “Do I have to tithe?” The strictly biblical answer is no, because Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Law for us and God no longer desires to legislate the specific amount a faithful Christian must give. He wants to see what we are freely willing to give through grace (2Corinthians 9:6-11). Some have said, “If the Israelites were required by the Law to give their first 10%, that’s a good place for those of us freed from the Law by grace to start.” I can’t argue with that. A disciple who has a real sense of the Christian mission will want to give as much as possible, and will not need to ask how much he’s required to give.

In the last book of the Old Testament, God issued a challenge to his people. “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Malachi 3:8-10). The promise there is similar to the one in 2Corinthians 9. So, as you think about how much God has given you, I hope you’ll realize everything you have is his to give and take away (Job 1:21). Whether you tithe, or whether you look at the tithe as simply a good place to start, accept the Lord’s challenge. Give—generously—and keep on giving! Give God a chance to pass the test! 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thinking on "Things" (Part 3)

“Scripture lays out a clear line between sinful materialism and godly stewardship of one’s possessions.” Perhaps not as clear a line as some would like. It requires thoughtfulness and careful examination of one’s motives, but the line is there, and it isn’t fuzzy.

A steward is one who manages someone else’s possessions. In Luke 16:1-13, Jesus told the parable of the unrighteous steward (or manager). He hadn’t been responsible with his employer’s assets, and was to give an account before being fired. Desperate, the failed manager scrambled to settle accounts with several of his employer’s debtors in their favor, hoping to win them as potential benefactors after losing his job. In the parable, the rich employer didn’t praise the steward’s dishonesty, but his shrewdness in understanding that wealth is simply a tool; that relationships are the greater wealth, and the surer path to security. The point of the story is to recognize wealth is a tool to advance the mission of the kingdom, not just the means to bring us pleasure and power. Jesus was quick to point out; the worldly often understand this better than the spiritual do. What a splash of cold water in the face!

“If it’s all God’s and I’m just a steward, do I act like it, or deep down do I really think it’s all mine?” Your possessions up to and including your own life are most surely not all yours! They are God’s, given to you to use for a brief span. The Parable of the Talents lays it all out easy to understand (Matthew 25:14-30). God expects you to use everything to glorify him and bear fruit unselfishly. It will require devotion, and many sacrifices, but in the end it will make you eternally rich. If you choose to use up God’s gifts on yourself, you will end up with eternal poverty and unimaginable suffering. Does God require me to handle my wealth (or the lack thereof) in a specific way in order to get to heaven? Maybe it would be better said that if you are heaven-bound you WILL handle your wealth in a way that pleases and honors God, but either way, the answer is yes!

Godly stewardship is a method of viewing possessions and money that results in using it unselfishly in pursuing the mission of the kingdom of God. It’s a worldview that follows recognizing the incompatibility of materialism with godliness (Luke 16:13). Remember, keeping your family well fed, clothed, and sheltered are necessities of life, nor is there necessarily any sin in driving a nice car, living in a decent house, and taking a family vacation every now and then. The clear line is in your soul. How do you view money? How much of yourself is consumed with getting it? How willingly will you part with it for a good cause? How often do you part with any considerable portion of it with zero selfish motives? What would you give it all up for? Your answers make the eternal destination you’re presently heading for very clear. You’d do well to think about them honestly. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thinking on “Things” (Part 2)

Last week I asked: “Why do we need so much stuff? What do we get out of it? What is it really costing us? Where is the line? Is there a line?” I want to pick up there this week.

I recently picked up a little book called The Pocket Thomas Merton. It’s full of quotes from the writings of the Roman Catholic Trappist Monk who devoted his life to contemplating the “false self” (the life given over to sin), and the “true self” (the life in keeping with the will of God). I can’t fully endorse the book, because I haven’t read it all yet, but this first passage is worth contemplating:

“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. There I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface” (The Pocket Thomas Merton).

I think Merton’s right, and the thought closely relates to our questions about “stuff.” We want “stuff” and the power (money) to get “stuff,” because we mistakenly think the key to happiness is to be found in these pleasures and experiences that only money can buy. Yet Jesus said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15 ESV). There is no true life to be found in possessions! They are not in themselves evil, they’re just things, but the love of them comes from deception—the thought that they can actually provide us true life. This is why we think we need so much, but none of us ever get out of it what we’re hoping for. In many cases it’s costing us the very thing we’re seeking. Scripture lays out a very clear line between sinful materialism and godly stewardship of one’s possessions. More on that next time.