Archive for September, 2021

Sep
19

Secrecy vs. Confidentiality

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It’s common to hear a church leader struggle with the challenge of developing and discipling their givers when their church’s giving records are closed. My company, MortarStone Generosity, provides data analytics and intelligence software that measure the recency, frequency, volume and tenure of givers so that church leaders can encourage givers to take steps toward a lifestyle of generosity. But the elephant in the room is that dollars are associated with names, which can create heartburn for church leaders who are unaccustomed to privileged information.

Many, if not most churches have strict rules about who has access to information, citing Matthew 6:1-4 as the reason for strict observance of secrecy. Let’s look at it.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4, NLT)

Jesus began this portion of the Sermon on the Mount with a thematic statement that would serve for the three points that follow: giving, fasting, and praying. So right up front, Jesus wants us to know that he assumes that his disciples will give, fast and pray, but these practices should be done in a way that is not self indulgent. The word hypocrite is featured in the text, and is borrowed from the secular world of theater. Actors in Greek theater would wear masks (think “comedy and tragedy”) and assume the role of whichever character they would play. So the word simply means “one who wears a mask,” but came to colloquially refer to a person who pretends to be someone they are not, or a hypocrite. Those who act with hypocrisy receive their apecho. Apecho, translated “reward” is a business term that refers to a receipt that is provided when a transaction has been paid in full. Jesus is literally saying that when we give in a way to be noticed by others, we have our receipt.

Having said that, Jesus instructs his disciples to not let their left hand know what your right hand is doing. Scholars are divided about what this means, but the general idea is to not give with both hands because in so doing, you draw attention to what you’re doing. If you think about how you may have passed notes in Jr. High School during class, you will get the idea of what Jesus is saying.

His admonition directly follows this instruction, where Jesus directs us to do our giving in kruptos (as in cryptic). Every English translation will interpret kruptos as “secret,” except the New Living Translation which translates the word as “private.” The word kruptos is used in the New Testament to mean secret when it is describing concealment. For example, Jesus said what we do in kruptos will be shouted from the housetops. (Luke 12:3) He also describes the person in the parable of the talents who took his one talent and buried (kruptos) it in the ground. (Matthew 25:14-30). But the definition of kruptos is not limited to concealment. It can also mean “to escape notice.” And this is how Jesus is using the word as it relates to our giving.

If you think about it, there are many examples in the Bible that describe the amount of a particular offering. Solomon’s gift offered on the day of the Temple’s dedication is itemized. Then there’s the woman who gave two coins, and in Acts we have Barnabas’ gift given as the result of the sale of real estate. Unfortunately in the next chapter, we know all about the size of the gift presented by Ananias and Sapphira.

The point here is that there is no single passage in the Bible that calls for confidentiality of giving. Giving confidentiality is a fiduciary responsibility of any not for profit organization who closely holds information that has been entrusted to them by contributors. Most not for profit boards routinely talk about both donors and the size of their donations. In fact, Pastors and church governing boards who are ignorant of their members giving are among the exception to this generally accepted practice. But however this is practiced within churches, it should be based on the church’s governance as fiduciaries. Whatever you do, don’t say “this is what the Bible says.” Because it doesn’t.

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Football season is here, which means that many of us will spend our Saturdays and Sundays watching games either in person or on television. Each game begins the same. Two opposing teams take the field with the same score: 0-0. The game kicks off and concludes when time elapses and the scoreboard announces the final outcome. There is one winner and one loser.

Casual fans of the sport are concerned with one thing, that being who won the game. While pundits may give insights as to why one team won and the other team lost, the only thing that is memorable in the years to come is which team won the game. The individual efforts of the players and even the final score itself will fade into the sea of the forgotten.

This is the point of arguably the most famous verses in Ecclesiastes, found in chapter 3:

For everything there is a season,
    a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
    A time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NLT)

Qoheleth captured the essence of life’s extremes. But like yesterday’s football game, he doesn’t address the 60 minutes of struggle between kickoff and the final gun. Yes, there is a time to be born and a time to die, the most obvious of extremes. But he’s using a literary device called a merism that is inclusive of everything that lies between the extremes of birth and death. He assumes that the reader knows to include all that is in the middle.

Even though he cites several couplets in extremist language, it’s not the extremes that he’s necessarily concerned with. His point is that the monotony of the middle space provides no real profit. What is the value of time outs, replays, commercial breaks, and halftime? Life lived between birth and death has a lot of those time outs and commercial breaks, doesn’t it? And the same principle is applied to each successive couplet. Qoheleth provides his own interpretive commentary in the verses that follow.

What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. And I know that whatever God does is final. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God’s purpose is that people should fear him. What is happening now has happened before, and what will happen in the future has happened before, because God makes the same things happen over and over again. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15, NLT)

He cynically saw these events as the busy work that God has prescribed human kind and judged it to be pointless. If God had a purpose behind it all, he doesn’t see it. Our entrapment in time does nothing more than emphasize our mortality. So what does he recommend? First, Qoheleth suggests that we make the most of the time we live between the extremes. The ability to enjoy life and be happy is a gift that comes from God. To focus on the extremes is to waste the majority of the time we are granted on earth.

Second, don’t define your life by its extreme events. We are more than our birth date and our date of death, no matter how difficult they may be. The extremes he described cannot be minimized or avoided and should not become the thermostat of how we live our ordinary days. As the well known poem asks, “What are you doing with your dash?”

Finally, he challenges us to revere God. While we may not understand the absurdity of life’s extremes, God does have a purpose: that we will live in humble reverence of him. When he wrote that these things happen over and over again, I believe he is describing the entire human race. Therefore, we don’t have to take life’s extremes personally, for these are the things that everyone has faced or will face.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless! So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.

Some people work wisely with knowledge and skill, then must leave the fruit of their efforts to someone who hasn’t worked for it. This, too, is meaningless, a great tragedy. So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless.

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him? God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)

In the previous paragraph, Qoheleth had acknowledged that death is the great equalizer of life and levels the playing field. Death is indiscriminate and does not distinguish between the rich or the poor; the wise or the foolish; the young or the old. Everyone dies, and to add insult to injury, the memory of their lives quickly evaporates.

That being said, he then turned to the futility of the work he enjoys. Although he found work to be fulfilling, he simultaneously found it frustrating, for he realized his achievements and all he has acquired will outlast his physical existence. He has amassed generational wealth. So much wealth that his descendants will never want for anything. This creates worry and anxiety for him.

What happens if they waste it?

What happens if they lose it?

What happens if they don’t appreciate it or take it for granted?

What happens if they don’t learn the value of hard work and develop a strong work ethic?

What happens if they love their gifts more than they love and remember me?

These, and similar questions I’m sure, kept him awake at night. Qoheleth could not reconcile all that he knew about wisdom, wealth and mortality.

These frustrations led him to a decision. He decided to be fully present in each moment and enjoy life at face value. His decision was one that each of us needs to make if we’re going to fully enjoy life. Sometimes decisions are made in a moment of resignation, where we give up and settle. Other times decisions are rooted in a realization; an awakening of sorts.

For Qoheleth, the realization was that God is the giver of life’s gifts and blessings. But he also realized that God was also the one who gives the ability to enjoy those gifts and blessings. In and of themselves, the gifts and blessings are neutral. Any enjoyment we have comes from God and serves as reminders that no gift is greater than the giver of the gift.

I wonder if Jesus had this passage in the back of his mind when he famously asked, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NLT) The truth is that anyone who places more value on the gift than the giver is in danger of his warning.

Being fully aware of the present moment is to pay attention, in a particular way, to the present moment without passing judgment. It is in the present moment that we find clarity and become fully alive.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Sep
08

What’s Up With Deconstruction?

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A friend sent me an article today from the Mere Orthodoxy website asking my thoughts about the current trend of theological deconstruction that is becoming prevalent in evangelical communities of faith. The author, Skyler Flowers, does an appreciable job of attempting to develop categories that sort the conversation, albeit akin to nailing jello to the wall.

Evangelical deconstructionism is a topic forceful enough today to have become a cottage industry, complete with books, podcasts, and small group gatherings to discuss theological dissonances. It’s not nearly as tidy as the six neatly defined categories outlined in Flowers’ article, but yes, it’s a thing. By definition, to “deconstruct” basically means to question or doubt what you have previously believed. It can be motivated by the awareness that one doesn’t really know why they believe what they believe due to strict indoctrination, or from a negative event associated with a church such as spiritual abuse or moral indiscretion from a church leader.

The motif seems to follow this model: prior order, disorder, then re-order. In other words, a person has their normative belief and practice disrupted by something or someone, then re-ordering takes place as persons attempt to put the pieces back together. But the pieces create a new picture. They re-create the old one into something new. 

Admittedly I know little with regards to the deconstruction movement, but there’s a reason for it. There is no template to follow. Deconstruction tends to be more individualistic by necessity, for each person has their own catalytic moment that produces disorder and their own rhythm and tempo for processing re-order.

When I think about it, King David may have been the first deconstructionist. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann used a similar patter to interpret the Psalms. His structure is orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. If you read the Psalms carefully, you’ll see David wrestle with people and situations that cause in to question what he had always believed that then turned into something stronger. Deconstruction, to that point, doesn’t have to end with atheism or apostasy as some would assume. It just transports you from where you were to where you are, and ultimately to where you’re going.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Sep
06

Barna on Global Missions Trends

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I realize that the primary focus of American churches during the global pandemic has been and continues to be re-opening and re-engaging their congregations, but according to Barna’s most recent report, churches also have a lot of work to do in the area of re-engaging in global missions and evangelism.

According to his report titled, Trends Impacting Global Missions and Evangelism, American Christians have shifted in their understanding as well as their approach to global missions.

What do you think?

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I was unaware that Martin Luther King, Jr., required every volunteer to sign the following commitment card:

I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF–MY PERSON AND MY BODY–TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS.

  1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory.
  3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on demonstration.

I SIGN THIS PLEDGE, HAVING SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED WHAT I DO AND WITH THE DETERMINATION AND WILL TO PERSEVERE.

How might your life be different if you chose to commit to this level of humility for the next 30 days?

Categories : Uncategorized
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So I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and madness (for who can do this better than I, the king?). I thought, “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.” Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die. So I said to myself, “Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!” For the wise and the foolish both die. The wise will not be remembered any longer than the fool. In the days to come, both will be forgotten. So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:12-18, NLT)

Having announced his quest for the meaning of his life, Qoheleth conducted multiple experiments from every possible avenue, leaving no stone unturned. Starting with laughter, wine, women, and song; he then moved to architectural and engineering projects in order to have real estate to possess, followed by economic growth, amassing an enviable if not obnoxious wealth portfolio. His assessment of all of it was that it was meaningless, and as if to be clever, states that there is no profit in profit.

Qoheleth then decided to turn to his chief resource, his wisdom, and compared it with foolishness. He grants that in the end its better to live as a wise man versus a foolish man, the difference between being as obvious as night and day.

But just when we thing he’s turning a corner, he restates his chief complaint. At the end of it all is the end of it all. While wisdom may provide some satisfaction during life, the wise one is just as mortal as the fool. Everyone dies, and no one memorializes them. With particular angst in his voice, he states, “I came to hate life.” Judging by the ego-centric tone of the book, we could insert the pronoun “my.”

Wisdom may relieve a person from the evil business of living life, but it doesn’t solve the death problem. It’s as though life has played a trick on him, and even though he clings to wisdom, deep down he feels like a fool.

Lest we pull up a chair at Qoheleth’s table and become co-lamenters, we need to pause and remember the biblical principle of “othering.” It doesn’t take much to become jaded about life when it’s lived in the first person singular. We have been created for community, where we can know and be known. It’s easy to over value ourselves and our importance to the world. But our truest value comes from being made in the image and likeness of God, and that value is only fully understood in the context of relationships. God doesn’t love all of us, He loves each of us, for no other reason than we are his. And his love doesn’t diminish or heighten based on whether we are wise or foolish. The life we live may be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean we have to be forgettable.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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