Archive for November, 2012
Those of you who know me are aware that I am an avid reader. I try to read broadly across many subjects including those that inform my work in pastoral ministry. At any given time I’ll have two to four books going in addition to the materials I read for sermon preparation. As my wife would say to her kindergarten class, “Books are our friends,” and in my experience, the authors of those books become counselors who challenge my thinking and provide wisdom for decisions that I face.
The most influential book I read last year (2011) is a book by Edwin Friedman titled Failure of Nerve. This book came to me at a particular time when I was facing some significant decisions. His work, published posthumously, continues to speak to me in 2012. Among the leadership lessons I learned from Friedman, I cite the following as most helpful:
1. Those who wish to disrupt leadership will always frame the problem in terms of liberty and order, while those in leadership will always see the problem as one of order and chaos.
2. Sabotage comes with the territory of leadership.
3. A society cannot evolve, no matter how much freedom is guaranteed, when the citizenry is more focused on one another than on their own beliefs and values.
4. Consensus will always be sought by those who value “we” over what is “right.”
5. Just because the page is torn off the calendar does not mean that unit of time has ceased to exist.
6. It’s always easier to be the least functional person in a high functioning society than to be a high functioning person in a dysfunctional society.
7. Well differentiated leadership (charting one’s own way by means of one’s own internal guidance system rather than perpetually eyeing the “scope” to see where others are at) is the solution to chronically anxious relationship systems.
These seven take-aways are a brief sampling of the content of the book. If you find any number of them compelling, the text as a whole will fill in any gaps or provide further detail. If you’re a leader of an organization, group, club, or team of any size or shape, I’d recommend Friedman’s book. His wisdom and insights will give you the perspective your need to make.
In the midst of all of this week’s $550 million plus powerball hoopla, here’s a good word from Ed Stetzer on the tragic impact of lotteries upon those entrenched in poverty in America. The post includes a powerful quote from (then) Senator Barak Obama.
The third word that we find in this week’s text is generosity. Generosity is single-minded sharing. It is giving with no alterior motive or strings attached. It is authentic sharing performed with utmost sincerity. Their generosity was spewing out from a fountain of joy.
Somehow the Macedonian Christians, though highly troubled, remained joyful and generous. How does that work? What is the relationship between the three concepts? I think the relationship between trouble and joy is hope. Hope links the two concepts together. And for hope to be genuine it has to be shared, thus linking joy and generosity.
Paul’s point is clear. Everyone has troubles. But the troubles we experience cannot become an excuse that keeps us focused inward. It is possible to experience adversity without limiting our attention to the world around us. Christians have something better than happiness, and that is joy. Joy comes from within because of our great hope in God. And that hope is strong enough to share.
Here’s the artwork for my Advent sermon series, titled Songs of the Season. The series will focus on the four songs surrounding the birth of Christ from Luke’s gospel. A huge thank you to Mark Marturello who designed this original piece to be used for our bulletin covers, web site, and social media.
The second word Paul used in his letter is the word joy. Joy should not be confused with happiness. Happiness shares the same root word as happening. It is an emotion that is based on external events and actions that happen in our lives. If I get a pay increase, for example, I become happy. If I lose my job, on the other hand, I become unhappy.
Joy is different in that it is a character trait that is graciously bestowed upon God’s people by the Holy Spirit. Because it is internal, it is impervious to outside forces and events. I can have joy when good things happen as well as when troubles come. James 1:2-4 teaches that we can maintain our joy in the face of adversity simply by recognizing that God is at work and is developing our character and growing our faith. What happens in me is always more important than what happens to me, so the value of joy can remain constant. We have troubles, but even in the midst of those troubles we can experience true joy.
Over the past three weeks I’ve preached sermons with the goal of communicating the three most important spiritual truths about stewardship. The first truth I shared is that God is the owner of everything and the blessings we have in life have been entrusted to us to use to bless the world. The second truth is that God can be absolutely trusted to care for our needs, making it possible for us to be free to give.
This weekend I shared the third truth about stewardship, which concerns matters of the heart. And when it comes to stewardship as a matter of the heart, there’s no better place to go than 2 Corinthians. 2 Corinthians 8-9 has a tremendous amount of biblical material on stewardship, but I limited my message to the first two verses.
“Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:1-2, NLT).
The apostle Paul used three words in two verses that are critical to our understanding of how the two chapters work. Those words are troubles, joy, and generosity. Today I want to begin with the first word, troubles, but first a little background.
The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were suffering. A famine ravaged the land and religious persecution complicated their adversity exponentially. Because of their suffering, apostles like Paul were collecting relief offerings and sending the proceeds back to Jerusalem. These offerings not only provided much needed assistance, they also helped bridge the racial tension between Jewish believers and gentile converts. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation he pointed to the Macedonian churches as an example of generosity.
You probably noticed in the text how Paul described the Macedonian believers as troubled and poor. The word trouble is the word thilipsis, a word that describes a wine press crushing grapes to extract the juice. Certainly their lives were difficult as they, too, experienced the same kind of persecution and oppression as their Jerusalem counterparts. One would expect that these Macedonians would have enough problems of their own to consider someone else’s misfortune. But they found a way, in the midst of adversity, to dig deep and share with their foreign friends.
What comes to mind when you think about the troubles in your life? Are you solely focused on your own burdens? Or do you live with the awareness that there are others whose lives are equally challenged?
Last week I posted about the most important question concerning stewardship: Who owns the vineyard? This week I want to share some more thoughts on stewardship from a famous story found in Luke 21. I’ve never had a problem with speaking on the subject of stewardship. I think the best time to speak on the subject of giving and stewardship is when the church is on solid fiscal ground. There is something about being behind in budget and a mounting accounts payable that tends to make stewardship sermons more about immediate pain relief than about the core issues of the heart.
Luke 21 is the story about the widow who placed her last two “mites” into the Temple treasury. Check this out: While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has” (Luke 21:1-4, NLT).
According to the story, Jesus was watching as the rich dropped their offerings into the Temple treasury. The treasury was located in the court of women and consisted of 13 trumpet shaped collections boxes, each bearing an inscription indicating the use of each gift. It was not uncommon for the gifts of the rich to be announced publicly. Jesus observed these generous free will offerings without condemnation or criticism.
That image is placed in contrast to a simple widow who put in two “mites.” Widows in the first century were considered to be the poorest of the poor. They possessed no rights to property and had virtually no prospects to earn income. They were without advocacy or support. They held no status. The widow gave two small coins, called lepta. The two lepta were the economic equivalent of 1 66th of one day’s wage.
Jesus evaluation of her act was straightforward: The widow gave more than the rich because she gave all. Literally, she gave all her bios, her life. While others gave out of their abundance, she gave everything she had. She didn’t save a cushion. She had no promise for more income. And most intriguing of all, Jesus made no attempt to stop her.
So what can we take away from this simple story about the widow’s gift in the Temple?
1. THE SIZE OF THE GIFT IS NOT EVERYTHING
Have you ever noticed how a parent can melt over a picture drawn by their 5 year old? Or how a parent will always cherish the humble gifts given by their kids that were purchased with their own money? Significance cannot be measured by volume. Bigger is not always better. Sometimes it’s just more. Sometimes the smallest of gifts add the most value. Jesus witnessed the offerings from the rich and the poor. But we need to understand that Jesus doesn’t count our offerings. He weighs them.
2. THE POINT OF THE STORY IS NOT GENEROSITY. THE POINT OF THE STORY IS TRUST.
Who really meets the needs of your life? I believe the response that Jesus seeks from the reader is not for us to rush to our banks and empty our accounts. The story calls for us to wrestle with the question, “Who am I trusting for my life?” “Who is the one that I rely on?” The widow gave her last two cents because she trusted God to meet her needs and to be her resource for living.
3. JESUS STILL WATCHES THE TREASURY
Jesus sees what is in your hand and he sees what is in your heart. The heart and the hand are organically linked. So it’s not about the offering in your hand. It’s about what is in your heart.
Some hearts are filled with fear. What if I get sick? What if I get laid off? What if an appliance breaks or my car needs repair? What if the economy tumbles further? Fear works in our hearts to curb faith and trust.
Other hearts are filled with a sense of entitlement. I recently watched an interview with Ken Robinson where he shared some interesting statistics about our planet’s ability to sustain the population. He said that according to research, we presently have about 7 billion people on earth. If everyone on earth lived like those in Rwanda, our world has enough resources to support a population of 15 billion people. But if everyone on earth lived like North Americans, we only have the resources to support a population of 1.5 billion.
There’s a fine line between blessing and entitlement. Like fear, a sense of entitlement can also crowd out our ability to trust God for our daily bread.
Jesus’ parable about the vineyard provides the reader with several important truths about stewardship. For example, Jesus emphasized the fact that we are blessed with many benefits. In the story the vineyard owner provided everything for the tenants, including the land, the wall, the tower, and the vines. When you think about it, everything we have is a blessing from God that He has entrusted to us.
Then, the vineyard owner left and went to a far country. While he was gone he requested no progress reports. One of the issues we have with stewardship is that we tend to forget who owns the vineyard. The longer we utilize God’s blessings without acknowledging his ownership, the more likely we are to view his gifts as our possessions. That’s how stewardship becomes ownership. As I’ve mentioned, ownership is the fundamental issue of stewardship. Everyday, through thankfulness and praise, we can be reminded of who owns the vineyard.
The next lesson from the parable is that harvest time reveals the heart. When the tenants had nothing, they readily agreed to give the owner his portion of the harvest. But as the harvest became plentiful, the tenants became increasingly possessive of the fruit. As long as there are no grapes, there is no problem. The crisis comes when we get something we can call our own.
Finally, Jesus reminds us that the Master expects a return on his investment. In the parable, the owner of the vineyard returned to see the results of the tenants work and to receive his portion of the harvest. God has created us with the capacity to be productive, not preserving. God has entrusted us with many blessings in order that we might reinvest those blessings in our communities and our world. Remember, we are rivers, not reservoirs!
Stewardship begins right where you are today. Often someone will ask, “What would you do if someone gave you a million dollars?” But the question is not “What would you do with a million dollars?” The real question is “What are you doing with the $10 in your pocket right now?”
Bertha Adams died on March 30, 1975. She lived alone in a small, one bedroom apartment in New York City that was pest and rodent infested. As people began to close her estate they discovered that Bertha Adams had over $799,000 in cash, stocks, and bonds. Bertha Adams didn’t have a money problem. She had a stewardship problem. She thought the possessions of this life were to be held and hoarded, not cycled and passed on.
The word stewardship evokes a lot of emotion. When we hear it bells ring and bulls charge. I think there are three reasons stewardship bothers us:
1. We mistake stewardship with money. We see the word and the first S is a $! But the issue of stewardship is not just money. It includes everything that has been entrusted to us: our talents, abilities, time, and relationships.
2. We misunderstand the meaning because the term has been misused. Stewardship is not about giving, its about managing. You can only give what you own. The Bible reveals that we own nothing. Isn’t it easier to give what isn’t yours? Stewardship is not ownership, its management.
3. We think possessions are permanent when they are transient. Job 1:21 says, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away” (NLT).
Several years ago, John McGullis and his girlfriend Phyllis borrowed $1,800, then stole two $100,000 paintings from his father. They held them for a ransom of $20,000. They then used the $20,000 to hire a hit man to kill his father so he could inherit his $25 million estate. There’s a story like that in Matthew 21:33-41.
“Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same. “Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’ “But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him. “When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?” The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”
This week I’m going to post some truths about stewardship from Jesus’ timeless parable. Thanks, as always, for checking in, and thanks for sharing this site with others.