What Your Church (Probably) Doesn’t Want You to Know about Giving

It’s the giving season.giving

If you haven’t noticed, you soon will. As Christmas approaches, we will soon be bombarded from all sides by messages urging us to buy expensive gifts for our family and friends. Charities will use this time to raise money for their programs. If you live in the northern hemisphere, Autumn is upon you and many churches and organisations use this season to run pledge drives to underwrite their budgets for the following year (This works so well with back-to-school ‘Homecoming’ or seasonal ‘Thanksgiving’ themes).

Churches rely on gifts from their membership to sustain the many programs they run and to employ staff. Today it seems we must have some sort of structure and this requires finances to maintain.

I am in no way against supporting my local church. If I align myself to a congregation in my community and receive nurturing in that context, it’s only right for me to give to keep the church doors open and support-providing programs running.

What I cannot support, however, is the growing number of pastors, evangelists, and Christian churches and ministries who keep the subject of giving in front of their congregation, constantly reminding and reprimanding them with commands from the Old Testament in order to keep giving to the church/ministry, and promising them God’s blessing if they do so.

Following are four observations I have made about this from my own experience.

Giving to your Church is not the same as giving to your community.

In most cases, over 95% of your community does not have anything to do with your church. While the argument is often made that the church facilitates ‘the work of God’ in the community, statistics fail to support this.

Then there’s the question of what actually is ‘the work of God’? Is it running programs on Sunday to benefit the children of those who attend the church? Is it facilitating a seniors’ ministry on a weekday morning for the elderly church members and their friends? Is it putting on special events to draw in the community in an effort to ‘share the gospel’ with them in exchange for entertainment, food and/or fireworks?

Or is ‘the work of God’ that which Jesus time and time again exemplified in stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Lost Sheep and in such sayings such as found in Matthew 25:35-36–

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

It has been my experience that, whenever churches in the Evangelical tradition speak about ‘Giving,’ they are referring to giving your money to The Church to enable it to run its programs and pay its staff, or giving your time to be on any number of church ministry rosters—from music to making coffee; from cleaning the church to teaching Sunday School.

And, while this is often called ‘giving to the community,’ is more likely has absolutely  nothing to do with the wider community and everything to do with meeting budget and providing programs for the initiated ones.

Giving to your church is not a Biblical requirement.

I had a friend who visited a growing evangelical church in our area a few years ago and I asked him what he thought of it (he is Catholic). He said the service was uplifting, the people were friendly and the sermon was very helpful and practical. Then he shared how, as he entered the door, he saw tables set up and people sitting at either side of them filling in forms and exchanging money. When he asked about this, he was told it was for the purpose of tithing. On one side of the table sat the church elders who were questioning the church’s members about their income the previous week and then taking 10% as a tithe for the work of the church.

Like me, he found that very strange a practice.

But it is common—maybe not so blatantly, but still a popular notion in Christian circles that members are asked (required?) to give at least 10% (the ‘tithe’ is stated as 10% and ‘offerings’ are anything above that).

Others have written extensively about this practice on both sides of the debate. One of the most thorough treatments I have seen has been this one by L. Ray Smith.

In summary, the tithe is an Old Testament ‘tax’ on God’s people to pay for the upkeep of the temple and its priesthood. There are other tithes in Scripture as well—of produce, of stock, and a ‘poor tax.’ Some have estimated that, if we are to be ‘Biblical’ about tithing, we would be giving around 20% of our income, not just one-tenth.

That said, St Paul writes about those who ‘labour in the gospel’ (which we would understand to be those whose only job is full-time service in the Church) to be deserving of payment for their labour (1 Corinthians 9:14), yet he himself didn’t do this just in case people thought he was profiting from his preaching. How unlike many of today’s money-grabbing televangelists.

Giving to your Church is not a measure of faithfulness to Christ.

I am convinced that, many times, church ministries become the conscience-salve we use when we want to stay in a safe, protected environment. It’s the love of the familiar, for those who were raised within its doors. It’s easy because all you need to do is sign up and show up. We won’t be subject to constant swearing, the mentally ill, addicts and we won’t have to give our time to those who we may deem to be ‘unworthy.’ Apart from one morning a week and the occasional evening, we’re not really put out that much at all. And the added benefit is that we will been seen by all our fellow churchgoers to be faithful to Christ. (Should we choose not to be involved, we can still give our money and that will be enough to keep the pastor from calling us, maybe…)

I remember a funeral I attended once where a rather ordinary man in his 60s was being farewelled after a brief battle with cancer.* He wasn’t actively involved in his church, though he was respected by all who knew him. The funeral was simple—a few hymns, a eulogy from his eldest child, and a slide show. Then . . . then the testimonies started. “He regularly volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for those in need.” “He showed up every Thursday at the homeless shelter to serve lunch.” “He visited the local school and helped kids with their reading.” “His neighbours could depend on him any time to help them out.” “His work colleagues were amazed by his positive attitude and caring words.” “He was a blood donor.” “He sponsored three children in Kenya.” “He volunteered with the State Emergency Service.”

What an inspiration! He followed the example of Jesus in giving over and over again and, in his giving, influenced more people than those who sacrificed every cent and every moment of their life to church ministries. His faithfulness to the calling of God in his life was evident inside and outside of the confines of his church circles.

Giving is a lifestyle choice.

Generosity is a choice we make every day when we plan our time, our spending and our priorities. We decide to be generous when we decide to smile and give our co-workers encouragement. We follow the example of Christ when we give to those in need without being asked, begged, or solicited by a door-knocker. We contribute to our community in meaningful ways—not simply as an armchair activist or opinionist. We know the truth of the saying attributed to Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and so we cheerfully dig deep, bring a plate, buy the next round, open our home, give our time and talents to our larger community, not just to those who think the same way we do.

In doing this, we truly show ourselves not only to be people of integrity and purpose, but people who love, following in the generous path of the One who loved humanity and showed it in the generous grace of giving.

_______

*Details have been altered so as not to identify the man or his family.

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What did Jesus do?

wwjdThe Christian™ marketplace is flooded with a huge range of memorabilia, gadgets, gizmos, plaques with cute sayings, and symbolic creations meant to entice the Christian’s hard-earned cash away from them and into the pockets of Christian™ entrepreneurs.

And nothing has been such a smashing success as the WWJD brand.

Based on the poignant question ‘What would Jesus do?’ asked in the classic Christian™ novel (before the Christian™ novel became a sanitised Harlequin Romance), In His Steps, this question has been a consistent top-seller in Christian™ book stores, church shops, Christian™ cafes and Christian™ online sellers and market stalls.

Yet, I don’t think the average person who calls themselves by the name of the Christ ever actually stops to think about what Jesus actually did.

Here’s just one of the many things he did–toted as Jesus’s ‘first miracle’–in a little town called Cana and a wedding the details of which have been lost to anonymity.

So what did Jesus do?

John Shore, in his excellent little book I’m OK and You’re Not tells it this way:

What Jesus did that afternoon at that wedding was, to my mind, as powerful a testament to how much he loves people as was his very sacrifice on the cross*. I believe that his choosing to make his first miracle turning all that good water into all that good wine says everything any of us will ever need to know about what Jesus wants our attitude to be toward not just fellow believers, but toward virtually everyone.

It’s a pretty safe bet that Jesus fully understands the power of first impressions, don’t you think? He knew blessing that wedding with more wine than any of its guests could drink would be recorded as his opening miracle. He knew that for as long as people told his story, they’d remember that that was how he first chose to conclusively prove his divinity.

Pretty clearly, he was meaning to tell us something with that choice. And I believe that something was love people just us you find them.

He didn’t lecture the people at that wedding. He didn’t frighten them. He didn’t try to convince them of the error of their ways. He didn’t start dividing them into groups of good and bad. He didn’t in any way interfere with what they were doing. He quietly and without fanfare enhanced what they were doing and that was all.

And what were they doing? Dancing, singing, hugging, whooping it up, crying, and in every way acting like people usually do at wedding receptions: Like they’re celebrating all the tilings about being human that deserve to be celebrated. In a real way that we all understand, there’s nothing more gloriously human than a wedding reception.

And that’s where Jesus decided to launch his ministry.

And that’s how: By doing nothing more dramatic than making sure the lovely couple and all their lovely guests didn’t run out of wine.

And not that cheap, comes-in-a-gallon-jug wine, either. He gave them good wine. He gave them great wine.

Because he wanted them to just keep doing what they were doing

when

he

got

there.

I don’t see how Jesus could have made any clearer what he intended to be his first Big Message to anyone who would ever follow him: Accept and love people exactly as they are when you first meet them.

Go and do likewise.

Life by Default

I came across a study recently, conducted by Cornerstone OnDemand (a software company that sells recruitment and training packages) that discovered a direct correlation between employees who stayed with a company longer and which web browser they used to apply for the job.

The research also proved beyond a doubt that employees who applied for the job using Firefox or Chrome browser excelled in numerous other areas–such as creativity, initiative, and meeting sales targets–above those who used Internet Explorer (the browser that comes preinstalled on all Windows computers) or Safari (the browser that comes on all Mac computers).

Why?

Chief Analytics Officer, Michael Housman explains:

“I think that the fact that you took the time to install Firefox on your computer shows us something about you. It shows that you’re someone who is an informed consumer. . . . You’ve made an active choice to do something that wasn’t default.” (quoted here)

‘Default’ is easy. It doesn’t take any initiative. It doesn’t demand furthering your knowledge or improving your skillset. Those who opt for the ‘default’ option tend to be more likely to settle for whatever life throws at them rather than stepping out and making the decision to take ‘the road less travelled.’

How many times are we tempted to settle for the default option in our lives?

It’s easier, to be sure.

But how much of lasting value has ever been accomplished by those who navigate their lives by choosing only what’s easy?Icecream

It’s kind of like choosing Vanilla ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Yes, it’s available. But seriously? Give me a classic Peanut Butter & Chocolate, Pistachio Almond or, better still, how about that intriguingly-named Love Potion #31?

Vanilla is not an option. At least not for me, when I’m at Baskin-Robbins.

So what about life? Am I settling for the ‘default’ or am I saying, “I can do things differently”? Am I rationalising the status quo, or am I asking how I can make a difference? Do I mindlessly cooperate with whatever is offered me or do I dare to question what is often sold as ‘part of the package’?

If you haven’t caught on yet, this post isn’t about web browsers. It’s about living. And life’s too short–and too previous–to placidly accept whatever comes your way.

In the words of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Now who’s up for some ice cream?

This is Making Me Stronger

IMG_4426.JPGI enjoy a good massage. Not the light, fairy-fingers muscle teasers, but the heavy-handed, elbow-in-the-small-of-your-back Chinese massage. The harder the better. And chuck in some of that back-scorching mentholated oil for good measure.

When I first started going to visit a Chinese massage therapist, I felt nothing but pain. He said the pain would go away the more my muscles because accustomed to being manipulated.

And so, from then on, every time I would lie down on he massage table, I would remind myself: ‘This is making me stronger.’

He was right. It wasn’t that I developed a superpower that didn’t feel pain, but a strong sense grew in me—an awareness, if you will—that this was good for me, that this was building strength, resilience, courage.

I think of this as I sit at my desk, drowning in reports, deadlines, and everyday issues of a job dominated by IT and all the troubles dealing with It and people-who-use-IT-but-can’t all day. My neck muscles tense as I stare for hours at the screen. Back muscles burn from repeated turns to one side of my desk to retrieve the next job sheet, invoice, or roster.
‘This is making me stronger.’

A few years ago I would never have believed you if you told me I would be doing what I do today, ever day. The sheer volume of work and the details involved would have blown my mind. I would have foreseen my imminent committal to a mental institution, or at the least some sort of prescription drug dependency.

But, like a good massage therapist, those muscles I needed to do my work became stronger with us. My neurons started firing in different ways that led my brain to adjust to the growing pressure and multiplicity of tasks.

Life has a way of throwing difficulties our way constantly. As an older—and wiser—man once god me, ‘It doesn’t get any easier.’ (That same wise man told me that the sausage on pizza was cat intestines. It goes to show how wise someone may be one day and totally incredulous the next.)

In spite of this, I believe we get better at handling the stuff life throws at us. Problems that are solved, troubles that are navigated, adrenaline-inducing risks that are embraced all build into us some sort of immunity that makes the next obstacle seem a little less daunting and the next mountain a little smaller than we once would have imagined.

‘This is making me stronger.’

Bring it on!

Disembarking

IMG_4401The last rays of a tired sun reflected
on the mirror-like, just-out-of-the-factory 737
disgorging it’s passengers
through a miles-too-long aerobridge

Two businessmen with over-sized briefcases
who planned ahead to avoid the anxiety of
a shoulder-to-shoulder, four-deep baggage claim

A mother with a crying 3-year old
whose tears ran out long before the discomfort

Three surfer dudes returning from distant waves,
congratulating a fourth who (apparently)
scored the number of one of the stewardesses

My heart seemed like it was beating out of my chest—
Oh! the relief of arriving
and the joy, the joy of reuniting

A family—mum, dad, three children wearing Mickey ears—
showing the relaxed look of having holidayed,
but now-glum faces at its necessary end

An elderly man whose face lights up like Christmas
at the sound of a screeching duet of “Grandpa, grandpa!”
from youngsters (impatiently) waiting
in the the cordoned-off area

Where was she?

Why did she always wait
for everyone else to leave the plane?

My restless mind scans the passengers
making their way along the aerobridge,
most into the welcoming embrace of family
or meeting smiling friends

Is that her?

Craning my neck I see a grey-laced-with-pastel-blue head
on a increasingly-hunched-but-still-stately frame,
Rose Pink the chosen colour for today’s adventure
(Once she dressed in Sunday-best for traveling;
now it’s all about comfort)
Yes! My heart was beating out of my chest—
two years is a very long time.

Scanning the crowd,
her gaze meets with my growing-misty eyes.
Pushing through the meeters and greeters
I find myself in a strong, Chanel-scented hug
(lingering—will she ever let go?)
“Oh mum! It’s so good to see you again.”

Are We There Yet?

roadWhen I was 6, my parents, my sister and I boarded what seemed at the time to be an awesomely amazing Pan Am 747 and returned to the U.S.A. for around 18 months. In our blue Chrysler station wagon (with homemade desks in the back end for doing our school work) we traversed the country, staying in the homes of family and friends or in our Shasta trailer (translation: Australian ‘caravan’).

Those of you who have travelled with young children will know exactly how this went.

Driving through high mountain passes, in between majestic snow-capped mountain peaks, whose sides were splattered with aspen trees decked out in the brightest autumn colours . . .

“Are we there yet?”

Crossing a mountain stream whose babbling waters cascaded through the valley like a string of diamonds in the autumn sunlight . . .

“Are we there yet?”

Winding our way through a canyon with sheer, red cliffs rising on both sides, the clear blue sky creating a picture worthy of the world’s highest-esteemed gallery . . .

“Are we there yet?”

As a few elk meandered across a snowy meadow in the moonlight . . .

“Are we there yet?

As yachts moved gracefully through the dancing waves of Lake Michigan . . .

“Are we there yet?”

In the stillness of a forest, with the verdant greenery encapsulating our car in the dappled, dewy morning light . . .

“Are we there yet?”

I was destination-driven. I had a single-track focus. Riding in the back of our family car was an inconvenience that I had to endure on the way to the ultimate goal: grandma’s house, Disneyland, camping with my aunts and uncles, or wherever the journey ended.

But what if . . .? What if I noticed the patterns of sunlight through the trees? What if I actually enjoyed watching the glorious mountain scenery as drove all too swiftly through it? What if I stopped to feel the fresh breeze as it bounced off the blue water? What if the journey was the goal, not the destination?

There are so many clichéd lines written about ‘journey.’ This metaphor has become somewhat part of an Oprahfied motivational vocabulary that we pass back and forth on Facebook in an attempt to appear to our friends to be wiser and deeper than we actually are.

“Sooner or later we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip.” — Robert J. Hastings

“Life is a journey that have a lot different paths, but any path you choose use it as your destiny.” ― Ryan Leonard

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” — Arthur C. Custance

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ― Henry Miller

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ― Lao Tse

“Not all those who wander are lost.”  ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”— Sir Winston Churchill

“I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

The reality is that we are all travelling. We all have our own version of the travel journal.

High School Graduation.

“Are we there yet?”

Meeting our one true Love.

“Are we there yet?”

Marriage.

“Are we there yet?”

Birth of our first child.

“Are we there yet?”

Finally getting that promotion at work.

“Are we there yet?”

Buying our first home.

“Are we there yet?”

Taking our child to school for the first day.

“Are we there yet?”

Landing that new job and moving house.

“Are we there yet?”

Taking that first big overseas holiday.

“Are we there yet?”

And so it goes, day after day, year after year.

I know. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. “Just one more mountain.” “It’s just beyond the next bend.”

What if we find that we have been ‘there’ all along, and that what we have experienced is of far greater importance than the point where our travels end.

What if our biggest challenge for the part of our journey called ‘today’ is to be fully present, to explore, appreciate, and enjoy what we encounter instead of being the one in the back seat who, every five minutes, pipes up with the refrain, “Are we there yet?”

We may just stumble across–

the beautiful,

the glorious,

the majestic,

the refreshing,

the abundant,

the breathtaking

and far, far more than we ever dared to expect.

We may just find that, “The journey is the reward.”

A Good Memory, Part 2

“Lest we forget.”

These words will be echoed across RSL halls, war memorials and Community gatherings today, April 25th. This is Anzac Day, the day when Australians remember those who gave their lives in service to our country during all the wars of past generations, but especially World War I.

anzacYes, we could look back at the insanity of war, the bad judgement on the part of politicians who send young men to die on the battlefield, and the many, many mistakes that have been made that resulted in tragedy upon tragedy, loss after loss. We could look at the permanent scarring of the soldiers, the refugees created when their homes are obliterated, the PTSD and other mental health issues arising amongst the witnesses of such horror and the unacceptable numbers of men and women who have, upon returning from the battlefield, suicide.

War is never good. War is not a necessary fact of global life and there are ways of avoiding this monstrous, nation-numbing experience that so many have endured.

This is one of the reasons we have memorials erected in nearly every city and town across the nation to these brave men and women. As we visit these sacred spaces this week, witness with others in Dawn Services, ceremonies and marches, may we look at the moving stories of mateship, courage, and sacrifice, and dedicate our lives to building a better future with these lessons in mind.

May we use our collective memory for its intended purpose and, never forgetting the realities of war,  work towards a future of peace, hope and forgiveness.