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Momma Goose and Romans 16

   ‘Momma Goose” died two weeks ago.
   Her real name was Annette Harvey, and I met her while I was Minister of Youth at Monticello Baptist Church in Monticello, MS. This was a part-time position, as I would make the 2 1/2 hour drive back and forth from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary each Friday and Monday. This was my first church staff position.
    People called her Momma Goose for several reasons, but I suppose it related to her desire to take in strays. This applied to both people and animals. She also had a tendency to hover over people and try to take care of everybody, usually by feeding them or being an attentive ear. She was someone that you would call “a mess.” Her son Anthony was in my youth group, so we were able to spend time together that way too.
    I received a call from someone who let me know about her funeral. Even though it has been a long time since I’ve been in that small Lawrence County community, the news still had an impact on me. I am sure it had an even greater affect on those still living in that town and remaining involved in that church.
   There are many things that go into keeping a church going, and the same is true with ours. We know about the impending roof replacement, flooding in the choir room, panic bar installation and other maintenance needs like the compressor going out that cools the choir room and loft (thus the robe-free summer). Then there are all the sick people in the hospital and at home.
   However, we have enjoyed meaningful reports from our children who went to Windermere for Camp Connect, and the youth talked about their recent trip to Louisville, KY for Mission Fuge.
   Then, there’s the matter of Carol Baumberger deciding to break her arm and get a concussion a few weeks ago. Fortunately, she is on the mend and back in the office keeping things running smoothly.
   It is also a privilege to be part of families for signficant moments. It was also a great pleasure to perform the wedding ceremony for Trey and Abby last weekend. We wish them all the best in their life together and as they share their lives with us through their work with our children, youth, and college students. And, this past Wednesday, I conducted a funeral service for Erma Wehr. That’s how life goes in the ministry.
   The Apostle Paul compiled a list of persons who were important to him while he worked with the church at Rome. A lot of times we skim over the names, but they remind us that the church IS the people. There was one person in particular who made a difference for Paul. He wrote, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother for me, too” (Romans 16.13 NIV).
   This woman was like a mother to Paul, and Annette was like a mother to me when I was still finding my way during seminary years. I will always be grateful to the Lord for that.
   Two Sundays ago, you all graciously recognized my family and me for seven years of ministry with UHBC. I appreciate the gift card very much (already been used) and more importantly my connection with this church family. Lori and I are grateful in particular for the ways you have loved Cally, Lucy, and Matt and made them part of your lives. Lucy and Matt were baptized here, and for that reason alone this church will always be special to us.
   Romans 16 reminds me that the reason I am where I am today is because of the many members of the family of faith who, through the years, have prayed for, encouraged, and been part of my life too. Maybe you could create your own list as well, and perhaps several of those persons who come from your connection with UHBC.
   Each Sunday is a kind of “family reunion” and I hope to see you this upcoming Lord’s Day. I realize it is a holiday weekend, one in which we celebrate the birthday of our nation and the freedoms we all enjoy. Regardless of the challenges that face us, it is a wonderful blessing to live in the United States of America.

 

From the Mouths of Babes

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It is one of those worship services that affects people in different ways. We choose to acknowledge the emphasis by lighting candles to represent those men who have been our dads as well as those men who aren’t biological dads, but have influence over us through their witness and example. The story of the Prodigal son was shared and I reminded the people that, like the younger son, we have to come to ourselves before we can come home to the Father.

Part of the worship service involved having our children talk about their recent camp experience. We usually invite the children down to the steps for a children’s message, but this time the ones who went to Windermere Retreat Center for those few days last week were the ones talking. Each one shared about the Bible stories, games, and events of the week. However, one of our precious girls talked about the significance of being an American and how much we have to be thankful for. She talked about the hunger offering that was received for the people of Guatemala, and that there are many people there who do not have anything to eat. She talked about how we have cars and houses, and that the people in this impoverished area had to dig around in garbage dumps for food, and use refuge to build meager houses to live in.

There weren’t many dry eyes in the house, and without intending to do so, Elle gave a remarkable testimony of how much we have to be thankful for and that our mission should be to help those in need.

I am waking up this morning to a number of challenges relating to work and life in general, but after spending time in prayer this morning and recalling her gentle words, realize that I have too much to be grateful for to worry about things I can’t control. What I can control, are my actions and leadership in remaining outward focused and keeping in touch with the hurts and needs of others.

The younger son in the Story of the Prodigal Son, or as it is more accurately depicted “The Story of the Loving Father” reminds us that God continues to love us no matter what we have done. We don’t have to remain surrounded by pigs in the distant country. Also, that quite often it is only when we run out of our means that we recognize our need for God. While the younger son was in that place, he hired himself out to work with the pigs, and he was so hungry that he “would have been glad to eat what the pigs were eating, but no one gave him a thing” (Luke 15.16 CEV).

No one gave him a thing.

Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” And this was offered in response to the generous offering of a woman who broke open a very expensive jar of perfume to poor on Jesus’ feet. He indicated this action of affection was anointing his body for burial. Those around him didn’t understand what that was about.

There is a time for extravagance. There are times when we must invest in our facilities and house of worship. It’s not often something we want to do, but it is necessary to maintain a strong base of operations when it comes to reaching people for Christ and expanding the Kingdom of God. At the same time, however, we must keep our eyes focused on what is happening around us and remain engaged with the hurting and hopelessness around us too.

This young child, in her sweet voice, reminded us that we have a lot to thankful for and that there are many people in this world who have far less that we do. With that perspective, our “1st world problems” pale in comparison to those who are wondering where their next meal is coming from today.

She also gave a wonderful lesson on the tremendous capacity of children to learn and care about others. Let us continue giving voice to our children, while at the same time providing the kind of atmosphere where they can grow and have opportunities to share from their own experiences. We might be surprised at what they teach us.  

 

The “Tables” of Deacon Ministry

Daniel Vestal, in his article “Deacons and other servants” referred to these words of challenge he once heard at a deacon ordination service: “This is not a position of prestige or self-importance. It is a role that requires a humble mindset to do whatever is required to glorify God and benefit the Kingdom even when those tasks are too menial for others to consider or worth their efforts.” Vestal offered other meaningful thoughts about the deacon ministry, and challenged deacons to serve “when every eye in the world is upon you, and when there is no one else to see; For the world is watching and God always sees. . . “

Our church is having a deacon ordination service this Sunday morning. We will hear from the two deacon candidates as they talk about their faith journey and how their relationship with Christ impacts them on a daily basis. Our Chairman of Deacons will offer his own challenge, and then I will follow with a message on “The tables of Deacon Ministry.” This idea emerges from Acts 6, as the disciples informed the congregation that “it is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables.” As a result of the church’s growth and ongoing internal needs, the church appointed seven men to carry out this administrative and ministerial function in order to release the disciples to focus on prayer and the proclamation of the gospel.

There are several “tables” of deacon ministry that I’ll be talking about on Sunday, the first of which is the family’s table. Deacons must be ministers in their own homes before they can be authentic in their service outside the home. I Timothy 3 records admonitions for deacons to be faithful in their marriage and manage their children and household well. It’s important to reflect Christ not only while around church people, but more importantly in one’s home and around one’s family. Too often there are individuals who want to be seen as pious in their dealings in the church or community, only to be harsh toward their children or spouse. This is called the “saint elsewhere syndrome.” This cannot be, because the deacon ministry is shared by the spouse and children too, and the love of Christ must be demonstrated to them first and foremost. This is the first circle of ministry for the deacon, and one that should be cultivated with prayer, compassion, and leadership.

A second table relates to the church family. The church in Acts was growing and changing, and conflict was emerging as a result. Some people weren’t getting enough attention and something had to be done to avert a crisis. Things haven’t changed in that regard today. Deacons were birthed out of a conflict to help deal with a conflict. Those first seven were “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” and became a stabilizing force in that community of faith, allowing growth to continue. In other words, deacons should “put fires out, not start them.”  This means that deacons should be especially mindful of what they say and do. The fellowship of the church is a precious and sometimes fragile community, and deacons are to promote, protect, and pray for its well-being. There should be a certain level of spiritual maturity expected for those in the deacon ministry, and the church should select men and women who demonstrate this quality into service as deacons.

Another area of service should be the pastor’s table. Deacons enable the pastor to focus his or her attention on “prayer and the preaching of the word.” Practically speaking, I have found this to be a great challenge. It is the desired but not always the practical result of ministry. This might describe the “professional” side of the pastor’s life, although I use the word “professional” with great caution and only to emphasize the task and work that the pastor does. The “personal” side of the pastor’s life is especially if not more vital that the former, as it involves one’s spouse and family. John Killinger, in his work “The seven things they don’t teach you in seminary” devoted one chapter to this topic: “there is a meanness in some people that is simply incredible.” Pastors are responsible for things over which they have little or no control, and pastors and their families are especially vunerable to verbal and spiritual attack. Pastors deal with a loneliness that is unique to their profession as well. In short, deacons should “have the back of their pastor” and do what they can to intervene and intercept criticism before it is harmful to the pastor. Deacons should be the best friends of the pastor in the church. This too is the ideal and not always the reality in the local church.

The final table is the most important one, and that is the Lord’s table. Deacon ministry should not be reduced to simply “going to meetings and doing church stuff.” It is an important component to the well-being of the body of Christ, and is part of the Kingdom of God. Jesus told his disciples, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.33 NIV). Deacons should certainly reflect this priority in their own lives. They should also embrace the Great Commission and Great Commandments of our Lord in their beliefs and actions. Nothing should be as important as serving the Lord and doing so with a spirit of joy and gladness. Deacons should reflect Christ in their words and actions, and by doing so be an example and encouragement to others in the church. If deacons can serve the Lord’s table sincerely and wholeheartedly, then the other tables will necessarily be taken care of as well.

That first church prayed over the seven and laid hands on them, an action indicating their affirmation of them to service in the church. We’ll do that again in our church this Sunday. It’s a beautiful practice and one that I hope will be a blessing to our new deacons and the rest of our church family.

Aside

Guess Who’s Coming to Seminary?

Life in the church is not always easy. Sometimes it is downright confusing and difficult to understand. Christians are part of a community of a common faith in Christ, and from what I have learned, this does not always mean we come to the same conclusions about social or ethical issues. But, we do agree that “Jesus Christ is Lord” and that should be the maypole that we all dance around in sharing life together. Of course, that doesn’t mean we dance the same way or to the same tune.

Marv Knox has written an excellent article entitled “When ideology trumps theology” in which he discusses the unbelievable yet not so surprising move of Paige Patterson in allowing a Muslim student to be admitted to Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary. This is a breach of the school’s purpose in receiving students who demonstrate “mature Christian character.” It is possible to have good character and not be Christian, but in order to receive an education for the local Church at a seminary this should exclude persons who do not share a common faith in Christ.

Also, and Knox rightly points out, Patterson spent the bulk of his life kicking out fellow Baptists out of SBC positions whom he deemed as “not believing the Bible” yet apparently now it is okay to demonstrate understanding to someone who agrees philosophically with him while not believing the Bible.

I share Knox’s reaction at this development, yet recognize that many Baptists have moved on beyond denominational ties and designations. I was fortunate to receive a good education at a Southern Baptist seminary, and while there studied alongside persons from different denominational backgrounds. These students did not benefit from the Cooperative Program monies given by the local churches, but came to learn at a greatly reduced price compared to other schools of advanced learning. This experience was the closest to an ecumenical perspective I had while earning my degree, and it was helpful to hear different perspectives from fellow Christians.

There is a place for tolerance and diversity in learning alongside persons of different faith backgrounds. Much can be gained in that process regarding love, compassion, and tolerance. Unfortunately, there was not much of these qualities evidenced during the so called “denominational controversy” and Baptists who decided they could not in good conscience describe the Bible as “inerrant” were labeled and libeled and told they didn’t believe the Bible. Now a prominent SBC leader who led in that denominational purging has determined that agreement on moral and social issues trumps salvation through Christ Jesus as a criterion for admission into a Southern Baptist seminary.

Before I could be admitted into New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I had to give a written testimony of my conversion experience and have letters of support from Christian leaders. I was asked to give evidence of “a call to ministry.” I would think such criterion remains part of the process. I wonder if this remains part of the process of admissions and if so, how does a non-Christian qualify for admission?

No doubt, there are many SBC refugees who are looking at this development at SWBTS and wondering where the graciousness was when they were being told that “you don’t believe the Bible.”

There is good learning point from all this. It is a good opportunity to go back and review what it takes and means to be part of the body of Christ. In his book “Life Together” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it is a brief single encounter or daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does that mean? It means that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and unity for eternity.”

It’s not always easy being part of the body of Christ. It means rubbing shoulders with people who don’t always agree with us on certain social, ethical, or theological issues. We should use these opportunities to learn, debate, and disagree without diminishing the value and relationship the other person has to Christ. Baptists remain a “believers church” and that means belief in Jesus Christ, not necessarily believing all the same things about our sacred book. That’s what makes life together a challenge, and that’s what makes life together important.

Let’s show graciousness to those of other religious backgrounds and beliefs. Let’s share our faith, listen, and learn. Let’s build relationships. But, let’s also be sure to do same to persons who share a common faith in Christ even if they don’t agree with us certain matters of biblical interpretation. After all, they are part of the family of faith known as the body of Christ.  

 

 

 

 

 

Mother’s Day Musings

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of “Mother’s Day.” In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law a bill which would make the observance a national holiday.

Florists love this day, as many people choose to show their love and affection for moms by sending her flowers. Last year, the industry made $2.6 billion in flower sales and related gifts for the occasion. It is the 2nd highest gift giving holiday, behind only Christmas. Make sure you get those restaurant reservations for Sunday if you can, if the place where you go won’t take them, just hope your pastor doesn’t forget what going on and gets you out around noon.

While this can be a very meaningful day, it’s also a difficult one for some people. Not all women are mothers, first of all. And, not all children have good memories of their moms. For some families, this is the first Mother’s Day since mom’s death and for this reason it’s tough. We also must keep in mind the many single moms out there, and that some women feel alienated on this day because they wanted children but were unable to have them. Infertility affects about 10% Americans, so for these individuals and others, it’s a hard day dealing with loss and grief.

This holiday in particular, is a good time to remember the school girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped by terrorists. These men are threatening to sell these girls into slavery and the sex trade. On April 15, 230 of these young women were studying to better themselves by a government sponsored school, and now no on knows where they are. The world is rallying to their cause, and social media is abuzz with #bringbackourgirls with the hopes of raising awareness and speeding up the process of locating them before its too late. There will be many moms and dads in Nigeria who are going through a nightmare right now, and we need to remember them. We must also remember especially those young girls and pray for their safety and release.

It’s tough to know how to recognize the holiday without alienating people. It’s on everyone’ mind, yet there are many different emotional reactions to Mother’s Day. As a pastor, I want to be sympathetic and affirming of women who approach this day with their own backgrounds and family dynamics.

Sermon wise, I’ve decided to go with a passage of Scripture that relates to Jesus and his mother. “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, the disciple took her into his home (John 19.25-27 NIV).

Mary was standing by her son as he died on the cross. She was there with him at a wedding at Cana of Galilee where he performed his first miracle, which began his public ministry (John 2.1-5). Mary was there when his ministry started. Now, she is here when he ministry was coming to an end. She was with him at a wedding. Now she is here at his funeral. Mary was there.

I don’t sense that Jesus was overly sentimental about his mother or family. It’s not to say that he didn’t care, which is evidenced that one of the last seven “words” of Jesus on the cross related to his mother. However, it’s important to note that Jesus’ overall view was the Kingdom of God and the family of God. On one occasion when the crowd was accusing Jesus of being crazy, Jesus’ mother and his brothers arrived near the house, supposedly to get control of the situation. “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him and told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’ Then Jesus asked, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother‘” (Mk 3.31-34).

Jesus showed compassion and care for his mother in making sure she had a place to live after his death. John took her “into his home” from that point on. The care of mothers can be complicated one, especially as they age. I have had numerous conversations with older children who have told me “we had to put mother in a nursing home” because they couldn’t take care of her on their own. It’s a hard decision.

While on the cross, Jesus made mention of his mother to ensure she was cared for and she would have John to take his place in the family. That’s a good lesson. I also believe it’s important to see that Mary was “standing by the cross” near her son during the most difficult and painful period of his life (and hers). I wonder if she recalled the words of the priest in the temple upon presenting Jesus “a sword will pierce your soul.”

Mary was standing by Jesus. That’s where we need to be on this Mother’s Day weekend. Let’s give thanks for the godly women in our lives and recognize that we are part of a larger and more lasting family as brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

 

 

Not so Sterling comments a cautionary tale

We could see this coming. With so much attention given to Donald Sterling’s remarks, he was bound to get a severe rebuke from Commissioner Adam Silver. And so he Sterling receives a lifetime ban and a hefty $2.5 million fine. Silver hopes that pressure from other sources can be enough to push Sterling out of ownership of the Clippers. We’ll see, but I would expect this to take place. There will be significant pressure to carry this penalty through.

Watching this story develop, I began thinking more about how any one of us could say something offensive and hateful to or about another person. Granted and hopefully, not to the extent of the racist tones that Sterling offered, albeit in a private conversation it still has no place in the NBA for an owner. This is someone who is in a position of power to hire and fire people. However, the whole situation does make you wonder what the NCAAP was thinking to plan to honor Sterling with a lifetime achievement award next month. That’s another subject.

We need words to get along, communicate, express our feelings, and let others know what we are thinking. Sometimes we don’t think carefully prior to verbalizing those unedited thoughts, and when this occurs, the results can be costly.

It used to be that the only forms of communication were in person and by writing a letter and mailing it, a process which could take a long time. It also allowed you to write something down and throw it away prior to sending it in the mail. Nowadays, there is all sorts of social media and email which allows for instant and unedited reaction to whatever is bothering you. These verbal and electronic bombshells explode and leave a lot of collateral damage.I’ve been told and agree with the sentiment, that it’s better to write out an email of criticism without putting the name in the address bar, to prevent from sending it out prematurely.

These issues of the tongue have been around for a long time, and there have been cautions given to those who wish to be teachers or in positions of authority. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. . . The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3.1,5 NIV).

What (and who) inspires me is a person who is able to “hold his tongue” when being berated unfairly by others. When Jesus was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge–to the great amazement of the governor (Matthew 27.12-14 NIV).

I’m always looking for applications, and the incident with Sterling offers several. His remarks were recorded and played for the whole world to hear, and it cost him dearly. He didn’t know that what he was saying would beyond his intended audience. One of the enduring lessons from this story is that each one of us has said things that we regret. We have the freedom to say whatever is on our minds and whatever we believe to be true, but this does not grant us the freedom from the consequences of those opinions. Sometimes this means that our beliefs clash with culture and we expose ourselves to criticism and ridicule. Other times it means that our spiteful and cute remarks go beyond their intended and desired audience to a wider circle of listeners.

A rule of thumb is to assume that whatever you say is going to be repeated at least once, and you need to be able to feel good about those comments if they should get back to you. This is a goal rather than a reality in some cases, but being mindful of one’s words might diffuse some difficult situations before they get out of hand.

The other application is that I don’t have to always respond to an accusation simply because it is there. The reaction to the criticism can be heard more loudly than the complaint itself. Silence can be a powerful tool when facing unfair criticism. It doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t anything to say, but it can result in the verbal barbs of the accuser hanging the air a bit longer on their own merits. I marvel at how Jesus was able to do that.

Sterling isn’t the first and won’t be the last to have his private comments made public. Let’s be cautious in what we say, and more importantly let’s learn how to be kind and gracious to people regardless of who they are or what they look like. Even if Sterling had never said them, his views on this subject are disturbing and deserve to be condemned.

Holy Week at University Heights

 RISEN!

   This one word from the angel on that Resurrection morning changed everything. The women arrived at the cemetery dark and early, compelled by affection rather than anticipation of anything other than Jesus’ dead body in the tomb. They arrived in the dark, both literally and spiritually with a lingering question, “Who would roll the stone away?”
   We know how the story goes. Christians around the world rejoice at this wonderful news of Jesus Christ marked by the phrase “he is not here, he has risen!” The women were encouraged to “come and see the place where he lay” and then “go and tell the others.”
   Come and see. Go and tell.
   These are still good admonitions when it comes to how we approach Easter. My hope is that we will experience the wonderful truth of Easter, and the power and wonder of that first Easter in particular. Let us come and see what Christ has done, and then share that good news with the world around us.
   I hope you’re excited about Sunday morning. Of course, it’s Easter Sunday. We will experience wonderful music and the baptisms of two new believers in Christ. We’ll hear the message of Christ’s resurrection and how that moment is the singular most important event in human history.
   This upcoming Sunday follows one of the most meaningful church experiences I can recall. Last night, our Tenebrae service reinforced the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. Many of you have indicated how moving that worship service was for you. I hope you’ll let Chris, Julie, our Chancel Choir, and others who made that experience possible know how much it meant to you. We left the service in shadows. Indeed, our time together in the darkness of the chapel should make Sunday morning especially meaningful.
   Recently, I received my periodic update from a mentor and seminary professor who is battling cancer. He writes about the emotional ups and downs that go with this struggle. His most recent email included this quote from Meister Eckhart: If you only learn one prayer in your whole life, learn this one. . . “Thank you
   As this Holy Week comes to a close, let’s reflect upon the resurrection of Christ and the joy that comes from knowing him. Let’s also be thankful that we can go through life together as a church family.
   We have a busy weekend coming up. Saturday is our annual Easter Egg hunt. I appreciate those of you who help out with this great event. Then, Sunday will be upon us and we’ll celebrate the truth of what Easter is really all about.
   I look forward to seeing you all soon but until then may we cling to these words: “he is not here, he has risen!”

The Widow’s Might

Newsweek magazine ran an article a few years ago entitled “The Giving Back Awards: 15 people who make America great.” The issue recognized people “who through bravery or generosity, genius or passion, devote themselves to helping others.” Two undergraduates, Benita Singh and Ruth Degolia, were included in this list. They started a company that raised $600 thousand to send Guatemalan kids to school.

They visited a Guatemalan village as part of the senior year requirements, and met women who had endured the country’s civil war back in the 1980s. They noted that the women weren’t begging for money, but only wanted a market for the goods that they were producing to be sold.

The two Yale undergrads took the goods back to their school and sold them at a 300% markup, and laid the groundwork for a non-profit organization to help poor communities.

It’s important to give back.

This month our church is going through a stewardship emphasis “Cheerful Giving, Joyful Living” which means I am preaching a series of sermons on giving and money. This is not necessarily one of my favorite things to do, but it is important and a viable part of being connected to a family of faith. Sometimes I hear people say, “What I give is private. No one else needs to know.” I can appreciate that sentiment, but the truth is that giving is personal rather than private. The difference being that what you and I give financially impacts the lives of others, and no one else can give for us. Giving often encourages more giving. The opposite can also be true.

The story out of Luke 21 has been a “go to” for pastors who want to inspire their people to give. It’s about the poor widow who gave “two very small copper coins” in comparison to the wealthy who gave out of their “surplus”–meaning it didn’t really cost them anything. Jesus saw both the widow and the wealthy give to the treasury, but it was what the widow did that prompted him to gather his disciples and teach them a valuable lesson.

I’ve often referred to this passage as an example of sacrificial giving, and it is. It shows that our giving is not measured by how much we give, but how much we have left over. However, it is also a reminder about justice. In the preceding chapter, Jesus criticized the teachers of the law for their false piety and hypocrisy. They “devour widows houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Lk 20.27).

It’s easy to refer to the poor as a faceless mass of humanity. Yet, Jesus criticized the religious leaders for being oppressors and puts a face on the problem by pointing out the poor widow. She is a real person who is affected by the injustice of those in leadership. It doesn’t make sense to give large amounts of money yet show little concern for those who are in need, yet that is what the religious leaders were doing. Apparently, the large sums of money they were giving did not translate into compassion to those in need. That’s a difficult truth pill to swallow. They gave to be seen and heard, and were disconnected from the pain that their actions were inflicting upon others.

Another aspect of the story that comes to mind, is that Jesus did not rebuke the widow for giving to a corrupt religious system. Jesus showed indignation at those in the temple: “My house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it a ‘den of robbers’” (Lk 19.46). Things were not ideal at the temple, but Jesus recognized the generosity of the widow to the temple rather than the problems that existed in the temple. There are applications to our attitudes about the church and why and how and when we give.

I’m still sorting through the implications of this charming comparison between the wealthy and the widow. Jesus didn’t criticize the wealthy for their giving, but it was the widow’s costly contribution that made him take notice. And, we don’t know the widow’s name. She walks in and out of our lives, leaving a powerful example of giving and a reminder that our actions impact those around us. That is a mighty lesson.

 

The Power of Giving

Osceola McCarty was born in 1908 in Wayne County, MS and moved to Hattiesburg at an early age and spent her life there. In the 6th grade, her aunt became hospitalized and needed care. She had no children of her own, so Osceola quit school never to return in order to care for her. Osceola became a wash woman and did that until her arthritic hands prohibited her from doing so.

Throughout her life, she put back a small amount of her meager earnings at 1st MS National Bank, where someone noticed what she was doing and offered to help. A local attorney, one whom she was doing wash for, set up an estate plan for her in which she was able to contribute for more than seventy years. She left 60% of her estate to the University of MS for students who were in financial need. Her actions drew international attention when it was discovered that the amount would be $150,000 for USM. Osceola died in 1999, having been recognized by President Bill Clinton for her generosity and example.

Who would have imagined that someone like Osceola could leave such a profound impact on the world? Indeed, she is perhaps USM’s most famous benefactor.

This month our church is entering into a Stewardship emphasis entitled “Cheerful Giving, Joyful Living” in which I hope that all of our church family will participate in. We will have a commitment Sunday on the 30th, but rather than ask for a dollar amount commitment, there will be a place to mark different levels of involvement. The hope is that every single person, regardless of age or economic status, can indicate some level of giving to the Lord through our church. It is a commitment between each one of us and the Lord, but affects the overall community.

The Apostle Paul, during his last missionary journey, stopped prior to his arrival at Jerusalem to challenge the Ephesian church leaders. Paul defended himself from his critics and talked about his future sufferings. After his remarks, he closed by saying to remember the words of Jesus: “it is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20.35)

This was Paul’s last time to speak to these Ephesian leaders whom he loved, and what he wanted most was for them to remember what Jesus said rather than what he said. The CEV records “More blessings come from giving than receiving.”

On Wednesday nights, I am leading a study on “I am a Church Member” by Thom Rainer. One of the chapters relates to this truth: “I will not allow my church to be about my preferences and desires.” This has been one of the most helpful sections of this little book, and highlights a painful truth about life in the church. There is no way to satisfy every person’s preferences for music, for example, and this reality results in great conflict and pain in churches throughout our nation. Each one of us has a preference, and when we insist up getting our way, then disagreements lead to divisions. I will not add to the multitude of articles on this subject, but mention it because it is an example of how we can become fixated on our own way of doing things. In short, “there’s no way to please everybody.”

I don’t think church should be about pleasing people. Of course, if we end of displeasing enough people, there won’t be a church at all. Yet, our focus should be not on what we can get out of our church experience, but rather what we can give to the body of Christ. Church is about a community of faith who are united in their love and connection to Christ.

God gave to us first when Jesus came into the world (Jn 3.16). Our response should be one of giving too. And giving of ourselves, both in our time, energy, and yes finances, can make an eternal difference in the lives of others. That’s where the power is. And giving to others also changes us along the way.

Don’t ever underestimate the power of giving in the name of Jesus.

What does it mean to be “called”?

Jeff Keuss wrote an article entitled Vocation and the Call to Discipleship in which he noted the connection of what we do and who we are as followers of Christ. What he indicated was that anyone who is a follower of Christ has been “called”. Keuss maintains it comes down to this: “to be ‘called’ is the act of paying attention and following God or writes Annie Dillard, ‘waking up.’”

Growing up and around church most of my life, I have encountered this designation as something to be reserved for someone going into full-time ministry. That has certainly been true in my situation, and remember vividly an experience when I confirmed that belief with my church family who I was connected to in college. There are persons who have this kind of calling, a particular direction on one’s life to serve through the local church in some capacity. It is unique and has special meaning for those who have this experience.

Yet, I feel that all too often church members limit the definition to apply strictly and only to those who fit the above mentioned situation. When this is done, we get a skewed version of what it means to be “called”.

I’d like to make reference to the phrase “vocational discipleship” as a way to respond to this deficit in thinking.

This past week in particular, I have spoken to several of our own church members who have unique training and skill sets which allow them to serve in what might be considered “secular” jobs. However, they devote themselves to ministry in their own occupational settings. Some of them have been retired for a while, yet find ways to live out and share their faith in the community and through the church.

To the first century church the Apostle Paul wrote: “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Eph 4.1-3 NIV) He based his argument on a divine foundation, which he referenced in the following verses. In short, the principles for this unity are “one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God the Father.” Paul used seven references, the number of completion, to posit his high view of the church as the family of God.

One of the prayer points and hopes for 2014 that I presented to our people last month was to “pray for spiritual renewal and awakening in our church life.” I have been praying along those lines and encourage others to do the same.

There are multiple opportunities to share our faith in Christ and make a difference as the body of Christ, a metaphor Paul used almost 100 times in his writings. This beautiful image illustrates our connection and capacity for each other as followers of Christ.

Yes, I know there is a lot wrong with the church. There are a lot of hypocrites and self-righteous people rubbing shoulders with the sincere and unselfish folks. That’s just the way it is. That’s why Paul also said to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Unity takes work. It’s not always easy, and not everyone works as hard as others. That’s why we should only compare ourselves to Christ rather than each other.

The church isn’t perfect for sure. We shouldn’t make that claim either. We aren’t worthy of our calling, but let us live in a manner worthy of it instead. That should be our focus and our mission, for the Kingdom’s sake.

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