Friday, October 31, 2014

Maybe You Hadn't Thought About Giving This Way Before...

In a letter going out in the mail next week to all those who contribute financially to The Falls Church Episcopal, we'll be asking folks to step up their financial support.

But first, there's an important question for any church-goer to ask him or herself:

Do you know what proportion, or percentage, of your income you give back to God in thanksgiving? 

Many people do not know: they simply put cash in the offertory plate or write checks Sunday by Sunday without ever figuring out how much they actually end up giving to the church over the course of a year.

Take a minute and do the math: how much do you give back over a year?

And what percentage of your annual income is that number?

If that number - that percentage - is not already a tithe (giving ten percent of whatever comes into your pocket back to God in thanksgiving), do yourself, your family, your church, and the wider community a great service and commit to doing so for the remainder of 2014 and in 2015.

You may not think you can jump to 10% overnight. 

You can. I'll bet almost every single person reading these words can.

If you don't think you can, then try this: start setting 10% aside in an envelope or special savings account labeled "RETURN TO GOD IN THANKSGIVING" and see if you miss, really miss, the money.  

If after 3 or 4 months you find yourself in dire straits - unable to pay bills, buy food or gasoline - then go ahead and dip into that envelope or savings account.

I'll bet you won't. In fact I'll bet as a result of giving back to God in thanksgiving 10% of whatever comes into your pocket, you'll find four things happen to you:

1)  you appreciate your other 90% -- the 90% you are keeping -- more than you ever did before - you feel more blessed, more fortunate than ever before; 

2)  you find that money - financial worries and concerns - have much less of a "hold" on you than ever feel freer of financial worry than ever before; 

3)  you find you care more about your church, "for where your money is, there your heart will be as well," and 

4)  unexpected blessings - so-called coincidences that are really God-incidents - start appearing in your life that more than make up for what you are giving back. You simply cannot out-give God. See Malachi 3:10. 

This has been true for thousands of people. And I know this has been true for Mary and me ever since, more than 20 years ago (when we could least afford it!) we jumped overnight to giving 10% of everything that comes into our pockets back to God in thanksgiving. The habit has never left us, and we have almost never regretted it.

At this point, I'm tempted to suggest a backup plan: if you really don't think you can jump to 10%, to commit to getting there over the course of a few years by immediately tripling or quadrupling your current giving, and keep tripling or quadrupling until you get there.

But I hesitate to offer that backup plan, because if you strongly resist the notion of letting go of 10% of your income, you are probably wrestling with an addiction (an addition to wealth) or you are captive to the illusion of financial security and independence, which, according to the Judeo-Christian faith, does not exist ("All things come of thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee. "-1 Chronicles 29:14b) 

And according to Jesus, "the lure of wealth" is not only one of the most powerful addictions there is, it is a major -- if not THE major -- obstacle to living a life of faith.

So why tear the Band-Aid off slowly? Why be free in stages? Why delay the good that your giving can do? Why delay the blessings?

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Elf on the Shelf" is HORRIBLE Theology

(I'm re-posting something I wrote last year about "Elf on the Shelf," the theologically obscenity that doesn't seem to be going away.)
Here's what I want to repeat: Besides being psychologically creepy ("taking in all the daily activities around the house," we're told, "the elf makes his daily report to Santa,") (YOU. ARE. BEING. WATCHED.), "elf-on-the-shelf" is about as bad an idea, about as horrible a theology around Christmastime as you can get. 

If there is one thing Christmas is NOT about, it's NOT about who is on who's "nice" or "naughty" list.

People talk about "a war on Christmas." 

Well, there is one. Except it's not the the perceived hostility to the celebration of Christmas that some hyper-ventilating news commentators and others get all worked up about - the way Christians are supposedly being persecuted because people say "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and that nativity scenes aren't being permitted on public grounds and religious-themed Christmas carols are no longer being sung in public schools.

No, despite the histrionics, we Christians in this country at this time are not being persecuted (or even very much inconvenienced) as we practice our faith; rather, we're being reminded that we live in a pluralistic, richly diverse nation. Which, by the way, from our very constitutional origins has wisely held "freedom of religion" in tension with opposing any attempt to establish any official state religion, for the benefit of everyone, Christians or not.  

That's not the "war on Christmas" that's going on. 

Nor is it the "commercialization of Christmas," either. Granted, our culture has, in the last fifty years, turned a simple, Thanksgiving-like holiday into a two-month-long orgy of consumerism. Granted, it is ironic that we spend billions of dollars to wish one another a Merry Christmas, a holiday which has as its origin the birth of one born in a feeding trough. To poor parents. And who spent much of his adult life warning humanity about the lure of wealth and love of riches.

No, the "war on Christmas" that I'm referring to is the way that Christmas has become, for many people and in the eyes of our culture, about rewarding good behavior...about deservedness...about earning affection.

It seems innocent enough: "Have you been a good little boy or girl this year?" we ask in high-pitched tones to worried children.

But think about it. Over and over again this time of year, we are inadvertently (or worse, quite deliberately!) reinforcing the idea that good behavior brings "gifts" and bad behavior doesn't.

People! The whole idea of a gift is that it is freely given. A "gift" that is given in return for good behavior is not a gift. It is "payment for services rendered."

Stop it. Stop it right now.

Again, I thank God that this theologically obscene "elf-on-the-shelf" trend wasn't around when our kids were little.

Mary and I are not perfect parents, and I'm not a perfect husband, and so I do not pretend to know how to raise psychologically healthy children or guarantee a psychologically healthy marriage.

But (to paraphrase my mentor William C. Placher), I do know one sure way to screw up your children and your marriage. It's really quite simple. All you have to do is make your love - your affection, your gifts - conditional. Just let them know that IF they do X, Y, or Z, you will love or provide for them, and if they don't, you will not.

That's not how God loves us. 

And that's not how we are called to love one another.

God's gifts of love - and the gifts we give each other - are just that: gifts, freely given. Un-deserved. Without condition.

Remember: Jesus was NOT born in the Ritz-Carlton of his day: in fact, there was no room for him in that inn.

"Those who are well have no need of a physician," he said.

The Light shines in the darkness...not where there is already plenty of light.   

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining/
Til' he stepped in, and the soul felt its worth." the hymn goes.

That first Christmas, God did not need a clean, well-swept place to be born into.

And this Christmas, God doesn't need it either: a messy, smelly, more-often-bad-than-good, more often naughty-than-nice heart and life -- like mine and yours -- will do just fine. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Broken Record

In this Sunday's Gospel reading, we'll hear of the time a lawyer challenging, or testing, Jesus by asking him "which of the commandments is the greatest?"

There are, after all, not just the Ten Commandments in the Torah, but as many as 613 commandments... 248 positive ones ("you shall...") and 365 negative commandments ("you shall not...") 

So, among all these commandments, how to sort, to prioritize: which is the greatest?

Jesus said in response, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Love God with all you've got, and love your neighbor as yourself. It's as simple as that. 

As Michael Moynahan, S.J. has written in his poem/prayer "Broken Record," 

"Grandparenting God,
You see our sin as
symptomatic stutter,
self-effacing struggle
to ignore
the confounding reality
of Your willful

"I love you
because I can't do
anything else.
I made you,
every last part of you:
all that's hidden
and all that's revealed,
all that's muddled
and even all that's clear.
You are,
at the risk
of repeating Myself,
dear to Me.
You are precious
in My eyes
just because
you are Mine.
That's enough for Me.
And it will have to do
for you.

Wrestle with it
until you get tired
and then relax
and give in.
Take a deep breath
and enjoy."