Archive for October, 2012
Here’s an editorial regarding the value that is added to not for profit organizations by affording tax deductions to donors who support their mission. For years, government has toyed with the idea of eliminating tax deductions for charitable contributions. Given the present state of our nation’s economy, it should come as no surprise that legislators are once again considering elimination of the tax deduction on charitable donations. But at what price to the not for profit sector? You can read John H. Graham IV’s fine opinion by clicking THIS LINK to his article, published The NonProfit Times.
I agree with Graham on his point that if the deduction were to be eliminated we would hope people would continue to contribute at the same pace as they would contribute otherwise. However, as studies reveal, this may be an unrealistic expectation.
Here’s an excellent blog post from StickyFaith.org on the church’s need to value and prioritize Children’s Ministry! Check it out HERE.
The Pew Forum has released new data showing a trend toward global crackdown of religious freedom in the world. The two headlining statistics reveal that 75% of the global population live in countries where restrictions to religious freedom is “high.” The other eye catching stat is that 37% of the world’s nations have in place high restrictions on the practice of religion. You can read the full report by clicking HERE.
The final word of Psalm 23:5 I focused on was the word CUP. When shepherds had to carry water to the flock they would fill the bucket or trough to the brim. A full bucket was easier than a nearly empty bucket to drink from. In mid-eastern culture the full cup is a sign of hospitality. To keep a guest’s cup “topped off” conveyed the message, “you are welcome, feel free to stay longer.” We can sense the same thing in modern culture in restaurants. If a server keeps your glass full, it’s a sign that your presence is welcome. When they stop filling up your glass, well, it may mean that its time to pay your check and leave in order to make room for some other hungry customer.
Here, the full cup is a picture of God’s abundant blessings. God is not stingy with his blessings. He’s not a tight wad. He’s generous to his children. So what do we do with these blessings? What is our response to the generosity of God?
Our first response to God’s blessings should be gratitude. Gratitude is important because it cultivates humility. When we thank God, or anyone else for that matter, we acknowledge that the blessings do not come from ourselves. We didn’t earn them, and we certainly don’t deserve them. God’s blessings are an act of grace. Gratitude and humility are never far apart. This is an important reminder for those of us in western civilization. I read a statistic last week that reported that if a person earns $22.00 per day they are wealthier than 75% of the world’s population. That staggering statistic alone should be reason enough to pause and express thanks to God for all he has provided.
Our second response should be to share the blessings with others. The theological significance of the nation Israel in the Old Testament illustrates this principle to perfection. God’s people were blessed, not so they could have and hoard, but so they could be a blessing to the world. Whatever blessing you have received from God is to be shared with others. Those blessings are not for you to stockpile and keep in reserve.
Our third response is to ask God for a bigger cup. In other words, ask God to increase your capacity so you can increase your Kingdom influence in the world. Jesus said it this way: “Give and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back” (Luke 6:38, NLT). Some understand this to mean that Jesus is saying, “Give so you can get.” That’s not totally accurate. I believe Jesus is saying, “give so you can increase your capacity to give even more.” You’ve heard it before. You’re life is a river, not a reservoir. God’s gives his blessings to you so he can get his blessings through you. If God can’t get his blessings through you, why should he give you more?
The second word in the passage I dealt with was OIL. The word oil, like many biblical words, has layers of meaning and interpretation. Shepherds would use oil to anoint the heads of each individual sheep. This heavy oil could be used as an insect repellant, providing relief from flies and other insects. Oil was also administered on the heads of sheep who were aggressive. If two rams, for example, were vying for a particular ewe, they might “slug it out” by ramming each other. The oil would lessen the impact of the blows as the oily rams would glace off of each other. Another use was for medicinal purposes. Scrapes, scratches, and cuts would be treated with the application of oil.
Oil in the Bible was also used as a sign of hospitality. If a guest entered your home, you would welcome them by anointing their heads and feet with oil. This practice of hospitality is chronicled in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
My favorite use of oil in the Bible, however, is its use as it related to the consecration of a person for special service. Prophets would anoint kings and priests with oil as a symbol of the sacred nature of their calling. Those persons were dedicated to God for some special task, and oil represented the presence of the Holy Spirit who would energize their work.
I believe that its important for each follower of Christ to see himself or herself as called by God for some special service. For too long we’ve made much about those who are called to vocational ministry and not enough about the calling and gifting of everyone else in the church. Being called by God has nothing to do with paychecks, ordination credentials, and seminary diplomas. It has everything to do with understanding the fact that as a believer God has gifted and empowered you to serve him in some important way. If you’re a Christian, you’ve been called by God to serve in his kingdom. If you’re not sure what that calling entails, begin to ask God to reveal his special plan for your life.
“You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings” (Psalm 23:5, NLT).
In the fifth verse of the 23rd Psalm, threats are turned into triumphs. Leaving the dismal valley of the shadow of shadows, several transitions are evident. The scene moves from out of doors to indoors. The imagery changes from a sheep in a flock to a guest at a banquet. And the shepherd? He becomes the host of the feast.
There are three words in this verse that I focused on this weekend in worship. The first word was the word TABLE. In Bible times, shepherds would go to new pastures ahead of the flock to do advance preparation work. Before the flock could safely graze, the shepherd would need to eliminate any poisonous weeds that could provide health concerns for the sheep. Some scholars suggest that the shepherd would also survey the pasture for snake holes, and pour oil in and around the holes, making the serpents prisoners in their homes. When all of the safety concerns were settled, the flock would be introduced to its new feeding grounds.
David cited that God prepares a table for his sheep in the presence of enemies. So what does that mean? One obvious take is that God’s love for us is public and demonstrative. His love for his children is not secretive. When I was in high school our principal would often make announcements to the student body discouraging P.D.A.—Public Displays of Affection. God is not like that. He lavishes his love on his children for the entire world to see.
An alternative rendering of this phrase merits mention. The Hebrew word translated “enemies” can also be translated “opposites.” A person who is my enemy is certainly “opposite” of me. But it could also be taken in reference to the word table. If taken this way, David could be suggesting that the table that God provides is opposite to the tables where he formerly sought fulfillment, only to walk away dissatisfied. The loving faithfulness of God led David to “trade tables,” walking away from the tables that left him empty to God’s table that provided meaning and satisfaction.
Either way is not a bad way to think about this phrase.
The 23rd Psalm begins with warm tones and rich images. David has taken a brush and palette and painted a beautiful scene including green meadows and calm pools of water. It is pastoral and tranquil; the kind of place one would desire as a respite. But the landscape changes in verse four, where the contour shifts from peaceful to ominous.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
This is an interesting selection of words that merits a brief description. In Bible times, shepherds would move their flocks from pasture to pasture to keep them from over taxing a particular field. This transition was not just part and parcel to the daily feeding of the flock. It also involved seasonal shifts. Flocks were moved to adjacent fields in season. They were also moved to higher or lower altitudes to accommodate the change of seasons. During these season changes, a shepherd may have to lead his sheep through a valley. The valleys of Palestine that David references are not like the valleys of the Midwest. The paths leading down into those valleys would be steep and rocky. The base of the valley would be bordered by steep, rocky cliffs. Those rock formations could possibly contain wild animals, bandits, snakes, or poisonous weeds. Danger lurked behind every cleft and boulder. Because of the steep walls, little direct sunlight would touch the valley floor. Even in daylight, vision was less than optimal. Shadows would appear, shifting with the movement of the sun. Because the Hebrew language has no device for superlatives (e.g. good, better, best), the words have a poetic ring. In English we would say that the valley was filled with the darkest shadows. But David could only write of “the shadow of shadows.” Or, as we know it in English, “the shadow of death.”
What can we take away from this verse regarding the valleys that are dark and filled with frightening shadows?
First, I believe its important to note that adversity, regardless of the size or scope, is temporary. I love David’s hopeful optimism as he declares that he’s passing THROUGH the valley. He doesn’t believe his experience will be permanent. Sometimes when we face adversity, or even the mere threat of loss or pain, we feel as though there is no end and that we have little if any hope. Our adversity, whatever it may be, is temporary. How can David be so confident that there is a limit to his suffering? After all, each of us knows of someone who faced a challenge that lasted up to the point of death. I believe David viewed his adversity as a temporary condition versus a permanent state because he viewed it through the lens of eternity. Paul would agree with such sentiment. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul described his suffering as a “light and momentary affliction compare to the surpassing weight of God’s glory.” In other words, Paul knew that death was not the final experience of life. What ever he faced was temporary because he had all of eternity beyond the end of his physical existence. So do we. Our adversity is temporary. Remember, it takes two mountains to make a valley!
Second, Psalm 23:4 reminds us of God’s comforting presence with us during our moments of adversity. I think its important to observe the change of pronouns in this verse. Up to verse 4, David spoke about God. “He makes me lie down.” “He leads.” “He guides.” But in verse 4 David spoke directly to God. “You are with me.” God’s position has also changed from one who goes before as a guide to one who walks beside as an escort.
I recently read about a psychologist from a major university who did a study on pain tolerance. He discovered that a person could keep their bare foot in a bucket of ice twice as long with a person in the room as the person who had their foot in the bucket of ice in isolation.
So what valley are you facing?
A valley of death?
A valley of disease?
A valley of debt?
A valley of divorce?
A valley of doubt?
A valley of discouragement?
A valley of depression?
No matter what your valley is, you do not walk through it alone. God is with you. Our challenge as persons of faith is not to find the courage to face our adversity. Our challenge is to find the courage to trust God.
Trusting God always does more to eliminate fear that trumped up courage. I’ve said in previous posts that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). And when the fear of God is absent from our lives we become enslaved to lesser fears. David’s reverential respect for God was greater than his concern for his adversity.
Finally, when walking through your valley escorted by God, remember that he is in charge. He is in control. God is not only present, He’s armed. “His rod and his staff” bring comfort to our struggling hearts.
In Bible times, the rod was the shepherd’s weapon. It was a club carved from wood that was approximately 24” long that was carried on the shepherd’s belt. Like a mace, it had a head on one end with bits of metal or rock embedded in it. The shepherd could use it as a club or could throw it at any threat out of arm’s reach.
There is a play on words here in the Hebrew language. The same word used for rod is the same word that is also used in the Old Testament for scepter. I believe the message here is that God is not only in control, he’s also just in his rule. Our lives are not spiraling our of control as we a prone to think. God is in control.
All of this discussion about adversity begs one obvious question. If God is in control, why does he lead us to the valley to begin with? Couldn’t God just keep us up on the mountain top?
The first real vacation my wife and I took was to Colorado. A friend who had a cabin near Steamboat Springs graciously allowed us to spend a week there. During our stay we spent an afternoon riding 4-wheelers up a mountain. As we drove along the path our guide pointed out various aspects of the landscape and periodically stopped so we could take snapshots of scenic views. We came to one particular stopping point and the guide explained that we had reached timberline. Timberline is the place that marks the highest altitude that vegetation can grow. As we sat there we could look down the mountain and see the trees and greenery. As we looked up the mountain all we saw was rock. The scene was beyond description. And the lesson was this: the growth is in the valley. Mountain tops are beautiful The air is crisp and clean, and you can see with great clarity. We love mountain tops, literally and figuratively. But at the end of the day, the growth is in the valley. Valleys are important because that’s where we develop character. And, that’s where we learn to truly trust God.
Here’s and interesting take on the so-called “helicopter parents” by Brink Lindsey published in The Atlantic.
I don’t know if you heard about this or not, but an Iowa church is embroiled in controversy after being challenged by a member for making available pamphlets on the upcoming judicial retention vote in our state. When the female member appealed to the I.R.S., the Pastor allegedly stated from the pulpit that he’d “like to slap that woman,” further insinuating that her husband needed to put her in her place, whatever that means. You can read the article from the Sioux City Journal by clicking this LINK.
I’m not sure which is worse. The fact that the Pastor felt he had biblical authority to speak as he did? Or the likelihood that the 150 members of the congregation will be back Sunday for more of the same? Or that the majority of religious people in America really don’t know anything about what the law really says about separation of church and state?
The Pew Forum for Religion in America has recently released a new study citing that one in five adults in America is unaffiliated with any church. You can find the full and abridged versions of the study by clicking HERE. Even with the continued growth of the mega church movement in America, these numbers come as no surprise. The real questions concern why this is true.
The day after the research numbers were released by Pew Forum, a reporter from the Des Moines Register called me for comment. I was unavailable and did not have the opportunity to respond. But given the chance, I would have pointed to two factors that I believe contribute to this five year trend.
First, I would have pointed out the rapidly growing home church movement in our nation. Some families have opted out of organized religion in favor of having their own private worship experiences at home. Think of it as a home school version of church. Others are networking with other two to four other families and meeting in their own homes for worship. Free from the overhead of church facilities and paid clergy, they pool their resources to support ministries that focus on the marginalized and missions beyond our nation’s borders.
Second, I think many have tired of the consumer driven approach of the church planting movement. “Church your way” and “it’s all about you” seems to have run its course. The people attended in droves, were entertained, had their felt needs met, then moved on. When the consumer models had the need to develop a volunteer base or fund a budget to keep the plates spinning, it felt like “bait and switch” to the consumers who were promised a commitment free worship experience.
What factors do you think are contributing to this trend?