Tag Archives: Offering

When Generosity Becomes Compulsory it Becomes Something Else

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, Paul continues his encouragement to the followers of Jesus in Corinth to be generous. Paul was specifically asking them to give to an offering that was being collected to support impoverished fellow believers in Jerusalem. Paul wanted all believers in Greece and Asia Minor to give so to help their fellow believers in Palestine and it was a significant personal undertaking that had social as well as economic implications. If believers in the “gentile” world gave to the predominantly Jewish believers in Judea then it could only help tear down the walls and prejudices between the two groups.

Yesterday morning Wendy and I were discussing Paul’s encouragement to generously give to their fellow believers in need. Our conversation deepened from the subject of yesterday’s blog post on generosity to the section of Paul’s letter about equality. Paul argues that those in plenty should give to those who have little so as to bring a level of equality between all.

The conversation between Wendy and me quickly meandered into the fact that the early church is often seen as a shining example of socialism. Based on the evidence, there is no doubt that the followers of Jesus in the first century, connected by a common faith, supported one another financially and were encouraged to do so. As our conversation progressed, Wendy and I surfaced what I believe are some important distinctions in the contemplation of today’s chapter.

The giving and sharing among early Christians was not uniform system but an organic one. It looked very different in varying locations and times. During my life journey I’ve personally become weary of the way our culture (the institutional church in particular) loves to turn everything into a repeatable, marketable formula. We love to try and package what Holy Spirit did at church A and market it in a cool new program so that churches B through Z can easily replicate the experience. It usually creates popularity but I rarely see it result in a replication of spiritual power.

I’ve learned that there’s a reason why God gives us wind as a word picture of Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit mysteriously blows here and quickly moves there. Holy Spirit waxes for a time in one place then inexplicably wanes. You cannot manufacture it or replicate it at will as much as we try.

Paul’s offering was never made compulsory. Money was not demanded of the believers in Corinth. Rather, they were encouraged to be generous and the decision of what and how much was to be sourced in their own hearts. I find this a critical distinction. In Paul’s paradigm each believer was to give as each believer determined and was led personally by God’s Spirit. Paul certainly gave a full court press of encouragement explaining that generosity was a part of spiritual maturity and provided examples of other believers giving. There were, however, no formulas or discussion of percentages of income. There was no larger governing authority demanding it of the Corinthians, nor were there material consequences to be doled out if they chose not to give.

This leads to a final thought. The giving and sharing between believers in the early church happened on a micro-economic level. This was a  relatively small societal sub-culture connected to one another by a loose system of communication and a common faith. It wasn’t an authoritative institutional system trying to provide for all of society. There was no governing authority compelling believers to pay a percentage of their wealth and income to be redistributed to others as that particular governing authority determined. My experience is that things which work on a micro-level in small groups, especially things which are spiritual in nature, are rarely successful at being systemized and institutionally applied at a macro-level across society.

I hope no one will read what I’m not writing this morning. I am not arguing for or against socialism as an economic or governmental construct. I’m not arguing for or against any economic or governmental system or another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and thus we experience the never ending debate around our globe.

The conclusion my heart is coming to this morning is this: As a follower of Jesus, no matter what the societal economic system I find myself living in, generosity is an essentially spiritual act. My free choice and willing decision to give of what I have been given to others in need is, and should be, an act of loving kindness. What’s more, as a follower of Jesus the measure to which I give should be personally motivated by the measure of love and grace I have received from Christ Jesus.

As soon as my generosity becomes compulsory, it becomes something else.

Perpetual Embers

A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out.
Leviticus 6:13 (NRSV)

My family vacationed at the same place every year. Camp Idlewood on Rainy Lake in Minnesota was where we spent two weeks in early August every summer. There was a campfire pit just outside the boathouse and a fire was lit every night as families gathered around to swap stories, sing songs, and enjoy each other’s company.

As childhood gave way to the tween and teen years, we were allowed to stay later and later at the campfire. Eventually the parental unit would head to bed and we were allowed to hang out at the campfire until the wee hours of the night. Occasionally the wee hours gave way to dawn and we would still be there huddled around the fire pit.

I remember those nights watching the fire evolve from blazing bonfire to glowing embers. Still, we would stoke it and tend it and keep it going through the watches of the night as conversations continued, friendships were forged, and camp romances occasionally were sparked to life and then quickly went out.

I thought about that campfire as I read this morning of the ancient sacrificial fires prescribed by God through Moses. They kept going. Wood was added. The embers were stoked. The spiritual conversation and relationship continued around the fire.

This morning I’m reminded that my worship, my sacrifice, and my offering to God is not a compartmentalized act confined to a Sunday morning. It is a campfire in my spirit which does not go out. Every day, every stretch of the journey it blazes, it ebbs, and I tend to it;  I stoke the embers into flame again and again. God and me perpetually around the fire through the watches of the night, into the wee hours, and on to the dawn.

I’m an Epic Fail at Gift Giving

If you bring a grain offering baked in an oven, it is to consist of the finest flour: either thick loaves made without yeast and with olive oil mixed in or thin loaves made without yeast and brushed with olive oil.
Leviticus 2:4 (NRSV)

I have a confession to make. I am generally an epic failure when it comes to gift giving. In fact, forget the “generally” and just call it epic fail. The procuring and giving of gifts doesn’t come naturally like it does for others I know and love. I have to think about it. I’m forgetful about special days. I constantly second guess myself. I agonize over what the recipient would want and enjoy. Once the gift is given I am insecure about the gift I gave and agonize over whether I should have given something else.

The truth of the matter is that my agony over gift giving is, in part, because it points to a core self-centeredness in my soul. It feels like an inability to know and love others better than I love myself. I hate that. I need help.

In today’s chapter, God’s ancient rules state that a blood sacrifice should be accompanied with a gift. The grain offering was basically a loaf of bread made with the finest ingredients. It required that the giver remember, think, set aside time, prepare the gift by making and baking it, then bring it to God at the altar. The blood sacrifice was about atonement, the grain offering was about gratitude.

For forty years the nation of Israel wandered around the wilderness in search of the promised land. Each night God sent a gift known as Manna. It arrived with the dew each morning. It was bread from heaven and it sustained them in the long march.

Now God says, “if you want to say thank you, make me a nice loaf of bread.” It tells me that you remember the manna. It says to me that you appreciated my gift and were grateful. It is consider-ate. I appreciate the thought. I value the sacrifice of time and effort you took to think of me in this way. It’s a tangible expression of your love.”

This morning I’m feeling, once again, repentant. I’d like to think that I’ve made progress in this spiritual journey. I know I have. Nevertheless, God’s ancient prescription to be a good and grateful giver of gifts reminds me this morning of core changes that have yet to be made; work still in progress after all these years.

This is a reminder to me that no matter how much progress I’ve made I still need help. I still need a savior. I still need forgiveness, and mercy, and grace. And, it strikes me that this is exactly the point of God’s ancient law in the first place. The law was given to ultimately make our need perfectly clear to us. To which, God responds with a gift. You will find it wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

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A Ceaseless Offering

art and praisePraise the Lord.
Psalm 135:1 (NIV)
Praise the Lord.
Psalm 135:21 (NIV)

I couldn’t help noticing that the lyrics of Psalm 135 are bookended with praise. I love it when artists layer their work with meaning. The song writer was not only expressing praise, but he consciously chose to start and end with it. What a word picture. Praise is not to be a moment in time but continuous momentum from start to finish. Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. Praise is not a tithe, but a whole and ceaseless offering.

I sit here at the beginning of my day and at the end of a work week…and offer praise.

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The Christmas Ham Puts it in Perspective

Source: Tennessee Traditions
Source: Tennessee Traditions

When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong? And isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are crippled and diseased? Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. Malachi 1:8 NLT

When I am neck deep in a stage production, my heart and mind tend to get focused on the play. Last night was first rehearsal for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which I’m directing. Here in the early morning hours my brain is already pondering last night’s rehearsal and what needs to be accomplished in the weeks and months ahead. So, it’s no shock that when I read this morning’s chapter I made immediate connections with the story. It’s one of the things I love about God’s Message. It always meets me where I happen to be in the journey.

In the play, a family of bullies from the “wrong side of the tracks” invades the small church Christmas pageant. It’s sweet, funny, and heart warming. In the process of the play this rag-tag group of sibling ruffians hear the story of Christmas for the first time and began to internalize what it means.  The older brothers, who play the three wise men, decide to forget the fake  props of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and instead bring the ham from their family’s welfare Christmas basket (still wrapped with a bow) to the baby Jesus. After the show, they refuse to take the ham back even though it’s their family’s Christmas meal. “It’s a present, and you don’t take back presents,” one brother explains.

I was reminded of the Christmas ham this morning by Malachi’s prophetic rant about the cheap props we too often offer to God. We have everything and yet we tend to give to God what we don’t want or need. We offer our leftovers and hand-me-downs. Then, just like the old widow that Jesus spied at the collection box one day, someone who has nothing gives everything they have and reveals our paltry offerings for what they truly are in the eyes of the Great Recipient.

I’m guilty as charged this morning. Have mercy, O Lord. I’m sorry.

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 27

International Money Pile in Cash and Coins
Image by epSos.de via Flickr

“A tenth of the land’s produce, whether grain from the ground or fruit from the trees, is God’s. It is holy to God.” Leviticus 27:30 (MSG)

When I was small, I was taught to give God ten percent of what I made in an offering. I received a box of envelopes from the church just to be a weekly reminder to give a portion of my newspaper route and lawn mowing income back to God. When my daughters were young, I taught them the principle of giving ten percent to God, putting ten percent in savings and learning to budget and live on eighty percent.

It’s funny to think that there are still pieces of our lives, our faith, and our culture that are still rooted in Levitical laws given by Moses 3500 years ago. There is, of course, no magic to giving the ten percent, first-fruits “tithe” of income to God. In fact, Jesus upped the ante on a regular basis, urging followers give everything to God. Offering a portion of our income back to God is spiritually profitable on a number of levels. It reminds us that what we “own” really belongs to God, it provides for the well-being and needs of those less fortunate, and it reduces our propensity to be self-centered and materialistic.

Today, I’m thankful that the principle of giving was taught to me as a kid, and I’m renewing my commitment to, as Psalm 112 says, “be generous and lend freely…to scatter abroad my gifts to the poor.”

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 6

Bernard Madoff's mugshot
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He must make full compensation, add twenty percent to it, and hand it over to the owner on the same day he brings his Compensation-Offering. He must present to God as his Compensation-Offering a ram without any defect from the flock, assessed at the value of a Compensation-Offering. Leviticus 6:5b-6 (MSG)

It’s interesting to read these ancient laws and think in comparison to our justice system today. In cases where a person had wronged another person, the Levitical prescribed resitution for both the victim (with interest) and God. The victim was compensated, by the perpetrator, for their suffering.

I can’t help thinking about Bernie Madoff, who took millions in people’s life savings and perpetrated a giant shell-game in which he and his family, well, made off like bandits. Others lost their entire life savings. Madoff is in jail, but those he victimized are still suffering from his crimes.

I feel like the concept of restitution has been largely been lost from our culture and legal system. We made perpetrators pay for their crimes with time away from society, but how often to they have to compensate their victims for the crimes they’ve committed against them?

We may not be able to do much to influence our society, but there is a system of justice in which we have a great deal of influence: our own families. Parents can still teach children by expecting them to provide restitution when they’ve victimized their siblings, neighbors, or friends in childish crimes. Often, changing the world starts with changing our own realm of influence.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 2

Gold Medal Flour at Dot's Cafe
Image by ChicagoGeek via Flickr

When you present a Grain-Offering of oven-baked loaves, use fine flour, mixed with oil but no yeast. Or present wafers made without yeast and spread with oil. Leviticus 2:4 (MSG)

When my children were still babies, I made a habit of having them close their eyes, bow their heads and hold hands while we thanked God for their food. At bedtime I would read Bible stories and we would act them out together in little bed-top improvisations. On Memorial Day, grandma would pick them up each year to help her plant flowers on the graves of loved ones. These repetitious rituals are word pictures and reminders of thankfulness, offering, obedience, and honor that, hopefully, stick with children as they grown into adolescence and adulthood.

When I read Leviticus I often picture mankind and human society in its infancy. The sacrifices, rules and offerings are ritualistic word pictures prescribed by a Father to his people, who are just a toddler society beginning to understand their place in the world.

Today, two things struck me in the word picture of the grain offerings:

First, fine flour was to be used. When we give, to others and especially to God, we should give the best we have. It reminds me of the lyric to David’s song (which we know as Psalm 112) which says “Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely.” Am I giving God and my neighbors the fine stuff or the white elephant stuff on my basement shelf?

Second, the bread offering was not to contain yeast. God uses a word picture out of what was a daily chore at that time: the baking of bread. We bake a lot of bread in our house and the last ingredient you put in to the breadmaker is the yeast. It always amazes me how a little teaspoon of yeast makes such a HUGE difference in the outcome of the bread. That’s why God used it as a word picture for sin. A little sin taints the whole person the way a little yeast taints the whole loaf. You can’t bake a loaf that’s half leavened (with yeast) and half unleavened (without yeast). Once the yeast is added, the entire loaf is tainted. We often want to think of sin as this isolated part of our person. We’re mostly “good” people who have this hidden little sin problem back in our closet. By requiring bread without yeast as an offering, God was telling us “I demand a sinless sacrifice. A pinch of sin affects the whole person, and that’s a problem.”

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Chapter-a-Day 2 Chronicles 4

 He made the Bronze Altar thirty feet long, thirty feet wide, and ten feet high. 2 Chronicles 4:1 (MSG)

In my worship community we don’t think much about altars any more. Most of the churches I’ve attended have called the front of the church “the altar” but it’s more of a general term. There is no physical altar. I have mixed feelings about that.

One one hand, God’s message tells us that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice “once for all.” In that sense, it’s a good thing to remember that there is nothing else I can do to add to what Jesus did. His sacrifice paid the price for my sins. Finished. End of story. There’s nothing I can do to add to it. The absence of a physical alter reminds me that there is nothing else I can add to what has already been done.

On the other hand, I recognize that my journey is a process of dying to self, and sacrificing my own desires for those of Jesus. The act of building an altar, or having an altar, is a phyical and metaphorical reminder that while Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice, I must daily lay down my life, take up my cross, and follow in His footsteps.

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Chapter-a-Day Isaiah 54

Guilty as charged. Any accuser who takes you to court will be dismissed as a liar. Isaiah 54:17b (MSG)

Wendy and I had a quiet evening last night. As we puttered at mindless tasks we got caught up on a few of our favorite television shows which we had recorded. We watched Saving Grace, a show about a flawed and broken cop who is visited by her "last chance angel," Earl (Warning: this show is for mature audiences only; it reveals Grace's sin in graphic and uncensored manner).

In the episode we watched last night, Grace dreams (is it a dream?) and finds herself in a courtroom. She discovers that she is the one on trial. She is accused by the prosecution of her promiscuous, violent, drunken behavior. Friends and family are called to the stand to testify about their experiences with Grace.

As I watched. I put myself in Grace's shoes. How scary to think of standing in a courtroom with my friends, family and enemies lining up to testify to all the stupid, hurtful, sinful, disobedient things I've done. Believe me, the Accuser has no problem making a strong case against me.

Then I thought of yesterday's chapter and was reminded why Jesus came. That's why Jesus gave himself up to be beaten and bloodied. That's why Jesus died. He paid the penalty for all of my wrong doing. When the Accuser lays out the charges against me (they are many, and I am guilty) the Judge sees that the penalty has already been paid. THAT is "saving grace."

He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
   he took up the cause of all the black sheep.

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