One tough marathon

B2B_North-Brother5-1-1030x413Over the weekend Bonny Hills, where we live, was filled with people and festivities. Saturday featured the Back to Bonny’s community events with market stalls, historical displays, music, dancing, surf carnivals, a gala dinner, and more. Sunday saw another lesser-known event passing through our village. A crazy event really—the Beach to Brother Marathon.

This is no ordinary marathon. It’s a combination of 5km, 10km, half marathon, team marathon, and personal marathon, all in one. But the distinctive of this event is the terrain. It begins at Town Beach in Port Macquarie and continues on coastal trails, on beach sand, around back streets, on single tracks, and ends by climbing a mountain.

That’s the crazy bit. If it’s not hard enough to complete a ‘normal’ marathon, this one finishes by climbing 500 metres in only 3.7km of track. That’s an incline of more than 13.5 percent. We’ve driven up North Brother a number of times because it affords spectacular panoramas from the summit. The drive is 5 kms and it seems like an endless incline. And that’s only 10 percent incline and in a car! The run is even steeper, and it’s the last thing people do.

Why do they do it? I don’t know! But I suspect that a win for all involved is simply to finish. To be able to say they’ve completed the Beach to Brother.

The Bible describes life as a marathon. The focus for Christians is to get to the end and receive the prize. I’ve been looking at the Letter of James lately, and we read this in chapter 1 verse 12:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

In the context of persevering under trials, James says it makes sense to keep going. It makes sense to endure when things get really tough. It makes sense to keep going in the face of opposition and difficulty. And it’s the prize at the end that makes sense of it all.

If this life is all there is, and it’s too hard to keep going, and the pain is overwhelming, and the suffering relentless, then it makes sense to give up. Surely avoiding pain and difficulties and trials is the smart thing to do. Why struggle if you don’t have to?

But, if this life is not all there is, if Jesus has risen from the dead, if there is a judgment to come, if faithfulness to God counts for anything, if trusting in Jesus is our only hope, then stay the course, keep on going, endure until the end. This makes abundant sense. God has promised a crown of life to those who love him. Do you love him?

In ancient times those who finished the marathon received a crown, more like a wreath. It would be an honour to wear such a prize, but it wouldn’t last long. By contrast God promises a crown of life. Keep going until the end because death is not the end. It may be the finish line in this marathon we are running, but there is life to follow. And this life is eternal in nature.

There’s something else about the Beach to Brother that gives me cause for concern. It doesn’t get easier as you go along. It gets harder, and the toughest part is at the end. I suspect this too could be a warning for those who follow Jesus. If we are going to stay the course, not give in to temptation, and continue to put Jesus first, then the toughest paths may well be yet to come. Perhaps your life has been pretty easy until now. If so, don’t let the past be a predictor of the future. Maybe you’ve been doing it tough for some time, then stay focused, it’s not over yet.

Most entrants to the Beach to Brother do the race as a team. There are transition points along the course where you can pass to another runner. A smart move, I reckon. The team runs for the prize together. That sounds more my scene—so long as I could get a flat stretch of beach! Another lesson for Christians: Don’t try and navigate life’s trials on your own. God gives us brothers and sisters. Following Jesus was never intended to be a individual event. We run together, support each other, and draw our strength from God who gives us the power of his Holy Spirit. Stay in touch with your support team and don’t stop until you reach that finish line.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

9781433557866_grandeInspirational. Provocative. Enticing. Raw. These are some of the words that quickly come to mind as I reflect on Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Let me confess, I didn’t read this book. I listened to Rosaria read it. She kept me captivated from the minute I left Canberra until I drove into my street in Bonny Hills. Eight hours of ‘radically ordinary hospitality’.

If you haven’t come across Rosaria Butterfield, let me introduce her briefly. She grew up in an atheist family and went to a Catholic school. She found herself attracted to the lesbian and homosexual communities at an early age, pursued studies in literature, and eventually became a professor in English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. Rosaria was a influential radical and a leader in LGBTQ rights. In an earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria describes how she set out to write a book critiquing Christianity, and how in the process she became a Christian herself.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a book about the importance of hospitality. Not the hospitality of tea parties and lace tablecloths. This is a long distance from ‘entertaining’ others. This is radical and ordinary, and it is motivated and shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s about welcoming strangers and turning them into neighbours. It’s about welcoming neighbours and inviting them to become extended family.

Rosaria’s conversion came about over many months of dinners at the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. They demonstrated to her the deep difference between acceptance and approval. They accepted Rosaria for who she was. Her beliefs, lifestyle, aspirations, and politics were no barrier to real welcome, hospitality, acceptance, and friendship. Her experience of God’s grace through the hospitality of a Christian couple has radically shaped her desire to pass it forward. Together with her husband and family, they welcome anyone and everyone into their home, and they do it not occasionally, but on a daily basis. Their modest and functional home provides a safe haven for many in their community. They share meals, discuss current affairs, explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus, assist the needy, provide a refuge for discarded and abused, provide warmth, and model genuine love and friendship to others.

It’s a costly process. They give time and love in spades. Their food bill each week is double or triple what they would spend on themselves. Rosaria is making extra food literally every single day. When a family is in crisis, she is out delivering homemade meals. She makes regular offers on a social media app to the entire local community of 300 homes to assist the needy. All this on top of caring for her own family, supporting her husband in the ministry of their church, looking out for wider friends and family in need, studying the Scriptures, praying for many people, and even writing books. It’s a family lifestyle. The children consider it normal to reach out to others and invite people into their home. Her husband takes this attitude of hospitality to the jail, where he provides support for men who society has rejected and forgotten.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a gripping read because it is so real and raw. Rosaria tells story after story. We learn of her mother who absolutely hated Christianity and made life hell for the family. We meet the bloke across the street, his pit bull, and his drug addicted girl friend, and the account of the DEA raiding the house to dismantle his crystal meth lab. And we learn how God worked through the patience and love of Rosaria’s family to introduce these people and many more to the saving love of Jesus.

There is nothing showy about this hospitality. The regular menu revolves around rice and beans and the occasional chicken. Chairs are optional. Dogs are welcome. It’s barebones, rough, honest, and unpretentious. It’s attractive and daunting at the same time. Rosaria doesn’t have all the time and resources at her disposal, but she finds them and makes them. It’s costly and sacrificial.

There’s a warning too. Those who will find it most difficult to offer hospitality to the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the unloved and unlovable will more than not be the rich—people like me, and maybe you. Those who have the most, fear they have the most to lose. They can’t risk their carpet, or their dining setting, or their polished reputation, or their safe, self-contained lifestyle. It’s hard following Jesus if you’re well off. Jesus had meals with ‘sinners’ and prostitutes. He met with lepers and social outcasts like the tax-collectors. He didn’t care about his reputation. He was willing to be waylaid and interrupted. He taught us what hospitality should really look like.

I asked myself a couple of questions after finishing this book:

  1. How much of my hospitality is merely catching up with friends, rather than reaching out to care for the needy or the alienated? How much of my hospitality is literally the philoxenia—love of strangers—that we find in the New Testament?
  2. We have a nice home, fairly new, matching furniture, close to the beach. Will I ensure that our home is for people? Will I care more for the welfare of those around us, than the welfare of our couches and coffee machine?

“Please God, help me to love others before myself. Help me to love people more than things. Help me to be generous with my time, gifts, possessions, and particularly our home. Teach me to become more and more hospitable. Teach me to delight in the love and care of those around me. Move me to share the great news of Jesus Christ with strangers and neighbours as you give me opportunity.”

 

Gospel economics

rawpixel-741658-unsplashWhen we’re hit by the trials of life, we face the temptation to look immediately to our own resources. We’re taught to do this—to be resilient and strong and resourceful. We draw on our experience, our education, our networks, our finances. And we should. If a nail is sticking out of the wall, and we have a hammer, then we knock it in. Problem solved. If an unexpected bill arrives, and there’s money in the bank, then we pay it. If we lose your job, and we have the right qualifications and experience, then we look for another. We can overcome adversity, we’ve done it before, we’ll do it again, and it’s all good.

On the other hand, sometimes we don’t hold the winning cards. We’re short-suited because we lack the resources that we need to face our crises. We despair because we lack the money, or training, or relationships, or optimism to carry on. The trials overcome us. We’re left troubled and weak and ashamed.

And it’s easy to envy. Some people never seem to face any trials. Their lives are endless pleasure cruises. They’re handed everything on a plate. Or so it seems.

Jesus warns us to beware the deceitfulness of wealth. Money, investments, financial strategies are dangerously deceptive. They seduce us into trusting in them. More than this, they have the audacity to call themselves ‘securities’. They promise everything, but they can’t ultimately deliver. We don’t have to look far to see the how empty such promises can be. Remember the GFC.

Every night as I watch the news, there are stories of war, crime, drought, corruption, drugs, disease, and new political leaders. And every night we are drawn to focus on finances. What is the dollar doing? What’s happening with the housing market? What’s rising and falling on the stock exchange? How is our economy comparing to yours?

It’s hard to escape the viewpoint that whatever problems we are facing in this world, the solutions are economic. If we’re wealthy, we’ll make it. If we’re poor, then we’ll struggle and fail. That’s how we’re measured and valued. It’s just the way life works. Except it’s not.

James knew this, and he tackles our warped perspectives as he shows us how to face trials of many kinds. He writes to Christian brothers and sisters with these words…

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
(James 1:9-11)

The deception of wealth is that the more we have the safer we feel. We look to our possessions as the source of our satisfaction and security. But they’re not. They’re like a mirage in the desert, or a chasing after the wind. Money can buy us lots of things but, as the Beatles said, it can’t buy us love. And more importantly is doesn’t buy security. How many of the multi-millionaires of the 19th century are still secure in their wealth? None of them. How much of their hard earned wealth and their clever investments did they lose when they died? Absolutely all of it. If we don’t waste it, or lose it in this life, then we will most certainly say goodbye to it all when we die. And we’re going to die! And death will make a complete mockery of our claims to be secure.

Do you feel rich? Or do you feel poor? My guess is that most of us feel somewhere in between. We move between confidence and fear, based on the measure of our cashflow, assets, and  savings. We get tossed around by the seduction of our society and the deception of our hearts.

If you know Jesus Christ, if you have been forgiven by the loving Heavenly Father, if you have received God’s Spirit as a down-payment on eternal security, then you have a far better hope. You have different economic values—gospel economics. You might not have much to lay claim to in this life, but you have an eternal home that is kept secure. You might be very comfortable, even wealthy in this life, but it would be a massive delusion to rely on what you have to get you where you ultimately need to go.

When the wealthy face trials of many kinds, they should humble themselves and remember their need for God. When the poor are troubled and overwhelmed they should remember the treasure that is theirs in God.

“Thank you Jesus Christ, that though you were rich beyond measure, you became poor, that in you we might become rich.”

Wisdom in crisis

cristian-palmer-718048-unsplashIt’s some time since I’ve been out in big surf. I don’t trust myself anymore. I’m certainly not as young or fit as I like to think I was. But there have been times in the past when I’ve been dumped by large waves, tossed and turned, struggling to find my way to the surface, desperate for air, wondering if I was going to drown.

Life can be like that. We can feel so tumbled and turned that we don’t know which way is up and which way down. It’s all too hard, too scary. Crises have the capacity to disorient and destabilise. Where do we turn when our world is falling apart around us, when the ground is shifting under us, when the sky is falling in on us?

James, in the New Testament, writes to his Christian brothers and sisters, calling them to have a joyful outlook as they face their fears. A nice thought, but when the trials come, that might well be the last thought to enter our minds. The darkness closes in and we struggle to find a glimmer of light. It’s seems easier to retreat, to curl into a ball, and to hope the darkness goes away. And so we will often miss out on what God wants to do in us doing in these tough times.

It’s no simple matter to find joy in the context of suffering and pain. It takes real wisdom to see the broader context and the deeper reality. So many time over the past few years, I’ve sat in a dentist chair while needles and probes and high speed drills have gone to work in my gums and teeth. It can be hard to focus on the ‘greater good’ when your gums are being stretched to splitting point and a high speed pain delivery device is doing its stuff. But there is a greater good. There is a genuine joy to be found in the midst of the suffering. The pain is short-term but the gain is long-term. And I need wisdom to remember this.

James writes into the the context of suffering…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
(James 1:2-5)

So often we lack wisdom. We can’t see the bigger picture. We are overcome by the circumstances we are facing, and joy seems an impossible dream, let alone a present experience. And into this crisis we are called to ask God for help.

It’s not humanly possible to find joy in the midst of all pain and suffering. Don’t waste your energy trying to lift yourself up by your shoelaces, to conjure up enough faith to carry on, to convince yourself that it will all work out fine. But do ask God for wisdom. The great promise is that God will give wisdom to those who ask him. He will. It’s a promise. This doesn’t mean you will necessarily feel wise, but God promises to give you wisdom all the same.

If…

That’s right, there is a proviso.

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
(James 1:6-8)

When you ask God for wisdom, be willing to receive it. Don’t be secretly working out your alternatives for when God doesn’t seem to give it. Don’t go through the facade of praying that God will give you his wisdom, but always planning to rely on everything else to get you through. These verses don’t mean that you have to be 100% sure of God, or that there is no place for confusion or fear. This isn’t about the power of positive spiritual thinking, or ‘name it and claim it’ word/faith mysticism. What they are saying is don’t be double-minded. You can’t have a bet each way. You need to come to God and rely on him to equip you with what you need. You can depend upon God. You don’t need your back up plan. That will only turn you away from God and keep you from his wisdom.

So if you struggle to see the greater good, if you can’t find the path to joy, if everything is overwhelming, then pray. Ask God to graciously open your eyes. Ask him to ease the pain in your heart and to find solace in him. Seek his supernatural help to keep on trusting in Him.

“Father God, please give me wisdom to see the unseen, to remember that you are at work in all things, to know deeply that you will never leave me nor forsake me, to grasp that there is real hope, to feel your comforting presence, to be reminded of your deep, costly, generous love in Jesus, and to keep my faith in you, now and for the future.”

Reflecting on suffering

aaron-burden-426280-unsplashJames, the brother of Jesus, opens the argument of his New Testament letter with these words…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds
(James 1:2)

At first glance, this seems superficial—put on a happy face, smile, look on the bright side. At second glance, this seems a gloss or a pretence—things aren’t really that bad, there’s always someone worse off than you, you think you’ve got problems, luxury. At third glance, this seems to represent an asceticism or stoicism that’s detached from reality—pain is inherently good, no pain-no gain, harden up.

But if you only glance three times at this verse, then you will be ill-prepared to face the difficulties of this life, and you won’t have much that’s helpful to offer others.

I’m off to a funeral this morning. A young man, husband, father of two, son, brother, friend to many. Some will still be in shock. How could this happen? It’s so not right. Many will feel the pain acutely. Something tragic has taken place. Relationships have been severed. The grief will be palpable.

We will gather in a church—a building that many of us have gathered in many times. We’ve been there for weddings, baptisms, funerals. We’ve come looking for answers, searching to find hope, seeking to make some sense out of such horror. We will ponder two small children without their daddy. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, not in this life. Our hearts will crumble as we listen to family sharing, friends praying, people crying.

What help does James 1:2 offer at such a time? Is it a verse for such an occasion? Will it only rub salt into our wounds? Is it best left for another time?

James 1:2 is a word for a such a season, because it is written specifically to brothers and sisters. Not flesh and blood, but spiritual siblings. Even though Jesus and James shared the same mother, it’s their spiritual bond that matters most. He writes for those who have been adopted into the God’s family through trusting in Jesus Christ. James has a word for Christians who call God their Father.

It’s a timely word for us today, for James is not saying to pucker up and smile. He’s saying first of all to think. That’s right, think. He doesn’t say ‘Be joyful’, he says ‘consider it pure joy’. He calls us to reflect, ponder, meditate upon, consider what’s really going on when we face trials of many kinds. When life is difficult beyond belief, when people are suffering, when there don’t seem to be answers, when it just hurts so deeply… at this time consider it joy. How so?

because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
(James 1:3-4)

A Christian funeral is not a place for platitudes. It’s not a place for wishful thinking, for simply hoping for the best, and least of all for glossing over the pain and hurt. Death is harsh. It’s unkind and unrelenting. It’s devastating and cruel to all who are left behind. And yet, for the brothers and sisters, for those who hope in Jesus, for the ones who trust that Jesus has conquered death and offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust him—death causes us to reflect again on what matters most. We are reminded to refocus, to maintain our hope in Jesus, and to persevere in trusting him.

We might not feel much joy on this occasion, but we have reason to be reminded of the objective joy of resurrection hope. My friend is now with his saviour. His wife, his children, his family, his friends, you and I, will one day be reunited for all eternity if we persevere in our faith. Death and funerals will test our faith. As we look to Jesus, this faith grow stronger.

“Dear Heavenly Father, as we mourn today, fill our hearts with the truth, enable us to trust in your good and loving purposes, enrich our faith in Jesus Christ, and remind us to see the joy in being with you for all eternity.”

Carry on baggage

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Independent churches tend to attract people with baggage. At least that’s been my experience, having pastored two of them and now attending another. I suspect most churches attract people with baggage, in the sense that everyone has baggage, but I think independent churches are especially ripe for the experience.

Why so? We live in an age of church shopping. People are seeking a church that’s just right for them. If they don’t like what they get in one place, then it’s not hard to shop for another. If you are living in the bush, where there is only one church for the next hundred kilometres, then this probably isn’t your experience, but it’s certainly common in cities and larger towns.

Some of our independent evangelical churches have arisen because of perceived needs in certain areas. Existing churches aren’t growing, or aren’t preaching the Scriptures, or aren’t reaching out to the community, or aren’t providing anything for children and youth, or keep stubbornly riding their ridiculous hobby-horses, or something. When a new church is planted it isn’t too long before people are leaking out of other churches. Drifters, who’ve left their churches some time back, dribble into the new church, aiming to give it another go. All these people bring baggage. They might recognise it or they might not, but it will surface soon enough.

The baggage comes in different shapes and forms. Firstly, there is the idealist. They’ve created a picture of what church is to be like. Sadly, their last church didn’t live up to the ideal. Neither did the one before, or the one before. There will be a honeymoon period where they give you time to impress them. You might even find that you are the best church they’ve ever been to. You’re a breath of fresh air; an oasis in the desert. You might start to hear stories of the horrors of the past, the problems of their previous church, the failings of the pastor. Beware—you might be next!

Secondly, people come with an attachment to how things have been done. They might have left their denomination, but they haven’t necessarily discarded what attracted them there in the first place. It won’t be long before you start hearing what you ought to be doing and how church should function. You see, there is a right way to do things. It’s stunning how often I’ve heard ex-Baptists tell us we must baptise for membership, or ex-Presbyterians insist we have a council of elders, or ex-Pentecostals tell us we need to be more open to the working of the Holy Spirit, or ex-Anglicans tell us we should follow a particular liturgical form, or ex-Salvos tell us we should all wear uniforms and play brass instruments. OK, I made the last one up.

People move because they are unhappy, but they may remain deeply attached to familiar practices, forms, structures, and values. The independent church is considered a clean slate to be filled. People with baggage cling to ways that things should be done and feel strongly about ways they shouldn’t. Transfer growth is usually accompanied by excess baggage. History is often the strongest predictor of the future, and discontent will likely lead to more discontent.

Thirdly, people move churches because they’ve had a bad experience with a previous church. More often than not, they feel hurt or grieved by things that have been said, or done, or not done. In reality, the pain is mainly about people—being treated poorly by someone, often in leadership. They’re likely leaving because they haven’t resolved the conflict or haven’t dealt with the pain. So if you are a leader, it’s possible that you will be tested. Are you going to be just like the perpetrators of previous pain? Can you be trusted? Will you repeat the patterns of the past? It’s too easy to get these things very tangled when we leave matters of the past unresolved. And maybe they tried to resolve things, and it didn’t end well, and they are broken, and seeking care and compassion. They are looking to your church to be a safe haven.

So what can independent (and other) churches learn? Here are a eight suggestions:

  1. If people come to you from another church, then have a conversation with them early. Listen to them. Where did you come from? What was it like? What happened? Have you worked through these things? Does the church know you have left? Have you spoken with the pastor or leadership? Do you think you need to go back and work on things? Maybe, let them know you will give a courtesy call to their previous pastor. Be strong, but gracious and caring. Don’t be bullied by people seeking a platform for themselves. Don’t become a bully to people who are seeking refuge and help.
  2. Communicate clearly what your church is on about. Speak to the things you value. Make clear what you won’t fight about and what you will. Share your theological convictions, your mission, and your vision. Don’t just tell people what you do, but how you do things, and why you do them. Excite people about gospel priorities. Aim for simplicity and clarity. Draw people into God’s agenda. Explain that your church is not a place for competing human agendas, but a place to draw together in the one Spirit.
  3. Invite people to become part of the church on the church’s terms. Tell them where the church is at currently and where you are hoping to get to. Let them decide if they want to go on the journey. Of course, this means you need to know where you’re headed and how to communicate it.
  4. Hold orientation meetings for newcomers where you can share the matters of importance. This might be an evening in the home of the pastor or a course over multiple weeks in small groups. Whatever it is, create an opportunity for people to know who the church is and who it’s not, so they can be clear about what they are joining. Some people will leave early, saving you and them the pain of breakup down the track. Others will join more enthusiastically because they love the vision and appreciate your communication.
  5. Have a clear website that outlines what you are on about. Websites are the noticeboards, the yellow pages, the advertising brochures of the past. The flavour of the church should be clear before someone visits. If people want to dig deeper then they should be able to find your beliefs, values, priorities, and other essentials. Or at least they should know where they can find out more.
  6. For those digging deeper, consider an FAQ page or link to position papers on matters that might divide. This is not shop window stuff, but it is what you keep on your shelves inside. If need be, spell out your beliefs about things like church governance, tithing, communion, baptism, spiritual gifts, roles of men and women, creation, predestination, or whatever hot button topics are relevant in your context. If you take a position, then explain why it matters, how much it matters, and what it looks like in practice. If you are inclusive of different views, then make it clear why you accept different views, and what this will mean for unity in your church. Most importantly, work out what you believe and be prepared to explain this to others. If you leave a vacuum, then someone else is going to fill it.
  7. Be clear on how people can get involved. If you need to be a ‘member’ before you can exercise caring ministries, then explain how and why? Some churches are quick to rope people into various ministries, either to make them feel involved or because they can fill a pressing need. If you need to join a small group before you join a serve team, then explain why and help people navigate the steps. Go slow. Not too slow, but go wisely and carefully. Take the time to get to know people. Let them know the pathway to involvement and walk with them.
  8. Most importantly, be motivated by love, not suspicion. Knowing that people have baggage that they carry around with them, gives you the opportunity to help them lighten their load. Everyone has a history and every history is burdened by pain. Remember that we are called to share one another’s burdens. It’s the gospel that frees us from every weight. So speak and act from the gospel of grace. Don’t add further burdens, but help people to find freedom that comes from Jesus.

Gracious living

I was introduced to the idea of ‘gracious living’ by some friends—time out, good friends, laughter, rejoicing, wine and cheese, sunsets and oceans, enjoying the blessings of God.

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, (1 Timothy 4:4 NIV)

kat-yukawa-754726-unsplashBut at church this past weekend I was reminded of another kind of gracious living—the grace of giving generously. I had to pause and think. Do I really know what that means? Not just in theory, but in practice? Have I ever truly given generously? Or do I merely give out of my surplus, redistributing what I don’t need anyway?

Take a look at how the Apostle Paul describes the Christians in Macedonia:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
(2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NIV)

A close look at these verses challenges me to my core. It turns upside down many of my assumptions and expectations about the grace of God.

  1. God gives his grace to his people so that they are able to give to others who are in need. This is the idea of it being more blessed to give than to receive. God does a supernatural, gracious work in the hearts of the Macedonian Christians and this motivates and enables them to give.
  2. God’s grace works to prevent needy people becoming greedy people. The capacity to give doesn’t flow from having more than we need, and then giving the surplus away to appease our guilt. It comes from the joy of knowing that God provides, so that even in their poverty the Macedonians gave to meet the needs of others.
  3. Gracious giving is costly. It’s sacrificial. It’s giving beyond our assumed capacity to give. It is generous, not because of the amount that is given or the percentage that is given, but because it gives away what we would normally keep for ourselves.
  4. Gracious giving is taking the initiative to give to the needs of others without prompting, pleading, special marketing campaigns, or end of financial year fund raisers. It’s common to give when called upon to do so, but unusual to ‘entirely on our own’ plead for the privilege of being generous.
  5. Gracious giving is giving first of all to God and then to others. And it’s way more than money—and nothing less than giving our whole selves.

Have you discovered this grace in your life—the grace that moves you to delight in giving your God-given time, money, and resources to him and to others?

There was an Old Testament pattern of giving called a tithe. I grew up on the idea of a tithe, literally a tenth. So every time I earned money, I would set aside 10% of what I earned and give it to church, or missions, or charity, or child sponsorship, or such like. And I thought I was generous. But it didn’t hurt because I still had 90% left to spend on myself. Now I’m all grown up and I know how much more complicated it is. Giving 10% doesn’t mean that I have 90% for play money. There are never ending bills and expenses. There are the weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly costs of groceries, fuel, utilities, insurance, education, clothing, housing, you name it. And it’s so easy to we consumed by these things.

It’s a rare thing for me to give beyond my ability. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever have. Have you? I’m missing out really—missing out on the gracious living that only comes from God.

Please God, lead me to give cheerfully, generously, graciously. Lead me to consider what I can give and then give more. And lead others who know your amazing grace to do the same. Amen