Thursday, December 20, 2007

For the Person Who Has Everything

Each of us has people in our life for whom it is difficult to find a suitable Christmas present. For me it’s my parents. They pretty much have everything they need and want. My mother has asked for “anything perishable.” She wants to be able to eat it or use it and not have anything left over! My father and stepmother don’t want any more “stuff” either, and specifically asked not to receive anything edible. They are on a rigorous fitness plan and don’t want any sweets or baked goods to derail them. What in the world do you give folks who have everything?!

This challenge prompted me to recall a book by William Willimon called “The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything.” Willimon, a preacher and scholar, reflects on what has become the standard Christian testimony, which goes something like this. “I was miserable, then I found Jesus.” This pattern hearkens back to influential church leaders in history like Augustine and Martin Luther, who indeed had dramatic conversion experiences arising out of personal crises. But Willimon asserts that we short-change the power of the gospel when we insist, in effect, that people can only come to saving faith in Jesus from personal despair.

“Look at the many ways people are called by God in the Bible. Abraham, a rich and contented desert sheikh, was out gazing at the stars one night. Moses was a murderer hiding in the wilderness. Isaiah was at prayer in the temple. Peter was fishing. The little man in the tree (Zaccheus) was curious. Matthew was at the office counting money. Paul was on a pious errand.”

When we narrow the gospel’s ability to transform peoples’ lives by framing it as medicine for only troubled souls, we inadvertently convince people who don’t feel an overt need that the Christian faith has nothing to say to them (until they are in crisis).

Willimon notes how much greater credit to the power of the Christian gospel it is for a person to be able to testify:

“I was happy and fulfilled. Each day was sheer joy to me, and life was a shower of blessings. Then Jesus showed me how much greater joy life could be when I rose above the selfish pursuit of my own happiness and the preoccupation with my own problems. In losing my life for others and for him and his work, in using my blessings for something greater than myself, I found my true life.”

In many ways this describes the journey to my baptism into Christ in 1983 at age 20. I didn’t feel any overt personal need for God; my life was indeed looking very promising. But what grabbed me about the gospel was Jesus’ call to give myself to something bigger than myself, to be (re)claimed by God for his purposes. Scripture says that in Christ “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). Did I need to be forgiven of my sins and saved “through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)? Of course. But the gospel spoke even more powerfully to my need and desire to live for something bigger than myself through a relationship with Jesus.

I’m still pondering what I will give my parents for Christmas. And I’m thanking God for the gift of his Son, who came not just for the desperate but for everyone. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Tail and the Dog

This week I sat down with some financial software and did a sort of year-end review of Soper spending in 2007. One of my purposes was to make sure we had given what we had intended to give to West Houston and the other ministries we support. Each year Angela and I decide the percentage of our gross income we are going to give away, and then we decide the recipients (most recipients continue year to year). The local church always gets the first ten percent (our “tithe”) and then other ministries/organizations get the remainder (our “offerings”). I remember hearing a sermon in the 1980’s about how in the Old West a man always took care of his horse first, and the local church is a Christian’s “horse.” That made a big impression on me and it has been my paradigm since.

Well, sure enough, when I ran the report our offerings didn’t equal what we purposed to give at the beginning of the year. I talked to Angela and we decided to take it out of our savings to meet our “obligations” (self-described) for the year. I feel good about that decision, but here is the main thing I want to focus on. Isn’t it significant that our offerings fell behind what we intended for the year, instead of ahead? I suppose it’s possible that some people discover at the end of the year they gave more than they planned (I admire that!), especially if they experienced an unexpected financial inflow of some kind. But my bet would be that most of us give less than we intend. We mean well, but then life circumstances interfere: we incur unexpected expenses, or we pursue opportunities to do or buy special things.

Here is where the real spiritual challenge takes place. Will we let the tail wag the dog or will we insist that the dog wag the tail? In other words, will we let our lifestyle choices determine our giving to God, or will we insist that our giving to God determine our lifestyle choices? In many ways, our finances are a spiritual battleground. Will we serve God or money/lifestyle? This is why Jesus mentions money so often in his teachings and why he uses so many examples that involve money and stewardship: he knows that this will be a continuing spiritual challenge for us and that how we address it will determine in many respects what kind of disciples we become.

Let me challenge you in this regard: Ask yourself what your financial giving this year to the Lord’s church says about your discipleship. Does it reflect favorably? If not, will you make the changes necessary to “give” the way you want to “walk” with Jesus? If you ran a personal financial report for 2007, would you be ashamed or satisfied with the percentage of your income you gave to God? What would you say to God if he asked you, “What kind of steward have you been of the resources I blessed you with in 2007?”

Some people complain that preachers talk too much about money, and maybe this has been uncomfortable for you to read. But Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). God wants our hearts, and he knows that our hearts can’t be separated from our checkbooks. This is true for everyone.

Have you given God room to bless your financial faith choices? If you can make sure the dog (giving to God) wags the tail (lifestyle choices) instead of vice-versa, you are on the right path.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

I Have Just One Thing to Say

In the 1920’s, on the heels of the Bolshevik Revolution when Joseph Stalin was extending his chokehold over all of what became the Soviet Union, he sent political speakers out to Russian towns and villages to brainwash the people about Marxism and the Russian form of Communism. Peasants were forced to hear the harangues telling them what they must believe. It was made clear that the teaching of Christian faith was to come to an immediate end. The church was no longer to be active. What none of them realized was that hundreds of years of Russian Orthodox teaching about the resurrection couldn’t be rubbed out of people’s souls just like that.

One large crowd of people sitting in a public auditorium listened for three hours to the speech of a Russian commissar as he tried to convert them to Marxism and the glories of the Communist party. When he finished, he was exhausted, but he had taken his best shot. He was sure he had won over the crowd, so he invited questions. Here and there people rose to ask questions, but the questions were not probing or critical. He felt they had received his message favorably.

Just as things were about to end, and he was preparing to sign his success seal over what he had done, a Russian Orthodox priest stood up at the back of the hall: “I have just one thing to say to you. Christ is risen!” Instantly the entire crowd responded, “Christ is risen, indeed!”

-- Gordon MacDonald, “Take Your Best Shot”

In the Wednesday night class I am teaching on the Ten Commandments, one of our conversation partners is a book by David Klinghoffer, an orthodox Jew, called “Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at our Peril.” Klinghoffer is a keen social observer, and from his hometown of Seattle he notes the ways in which America’s increasingly secularized culture and worldview is affecting our society’s moral fabric. He notes, for instance, that the first commandment’s exhortation to “have no other gods before Me” is also, and even primarily, a warning against having other “sources of moral authority” than God.

For the Russian orthodox priest, this one declaration, “Christ is risen,” embodied the post-resurrection equivalent of the first commandment. Communist ideology sought to put the state in place of God. To declare that “Christ is risen” was to say, in effect, “I am choosing to put my ultimate trust and allegiance in the moral authority of Christ the Lord, not this political ideology.”

It is a good reminder for Christians, especially this time of year. Undergirding our gift-giving and celebration of family and friendships is our declaration, “Immanuel, God with us.” This embodies the post-incarnational equivalent of the second commandment not to make idols for ourselves. Because God is with us in Jesus, we can see the false gods for what they are, and declare “Immanuel, God with us indeed!”

Every December we hear the familiar murmurings about maintaining “the reason for the season” and we are admonished to “keep Christ in Christmas.” All well and good, but ultimately a bit superficial. How much better to “keep Christmas in Christ.” The One to whom we belong, and whom we follow.