Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hindsight is 20/20

Hindsight is 20/20. How many times have you looked back on a situation and wished you had known then what you know now? With time comes perspective and wisdom that redefine our understanding of the past. As a father I understand my childhood in ways I didn't from the vantage point of a son. Time and experience didn't change the basic truth of my past, but they have opened my eyes to a more complete understanding of it.

As I read the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament I am struck by the lack of understanding in those closest to Jesus. There are at least 12 occasions where we are told that Jesus's followers "did not understand" something He said or did. The people who lived with Jesus could never have fully understood Him during his lifetime. It was only after the crucifixion and resurrection that they began to understand all Jesus said and did while He was with them. When we read the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, it is from the perspective of writers looking back on events that only made sense after they understood how the story would end. While we consider the life of Jesus from manger to empty tomb, the Gospel writers were looking back from the empty tomb to the manger. As they reflected on the life of Jesus, there must have been many moments when they finally understood the truth of their time with Him. "He was God WITH us ... how could we have missed it!"

What was true for Jesus’s first followers is true of His followers today. It is difficult to see God in the middle of our circumstances. As we face challenges, disappointments and brokenness, we may forget God has promised He will never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). He also promised to be with us always -- even to the end (Matthew 28:20). The reality of the incarnation is not only that God became flesh and dwelt (past tense) among us, but that God is still with us today, even when we fail to recognize Him.

Just like Jesus first disciples, I may not always see God in my circumstances, but my failure to recognize Him doesn't change the truth that He is with me. God is among us. He is present in our disappointment, shame, brokenness and fear. He meets us in our pain and weakness. God is with us. We are not alone. I must remind myself that while I may not be able to see Him today, one day it will be obvious that He was with me all along. My perspective it not what it will be (read 1 Corinthians 13:9-12).

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Better Plan?

Several years ago my family and I were driving across town after church when a conversation began in the back seat about the church offering. Now it is important to remember that I have been involved in leading local churches for the entirety of my children’s lives. Each and every Sunday they have witnessed and participated in placing money in an offering plate as it was passed down the aisle. Their offering may only be a quarter or a single dollar bill, but they understand the importance of giving. I don’t know why this particular subject came up on this particular trip, but one of the girls asked if the church "had a good offering" that morning. I found that an odd question and answered that I didn’t know. One of the other girls said she thought that it must have been good because she saw “a lot of money” in the plate.

My son (who was about 12 at the time) piped up and asked, “Dad, where does the rest of the money come from?”

“What do you mean, ‘the rest of the money’?" I asked.

“You know, the rest of the church’s money to do things like buy food and pay for electricity and pay all the people that work at the church," he answered.

“It all comes from the offering,” I said.

“What?” he exclaimed, “You mean to tell me the only money the church gets comes out of those plates that get passed down the aisle?"

“Yes, son.” I could have entered into a conversation about on-line giving and direct deposits, but I knew that wouldn't satisfy.

“Dad, you gotta come up with a better plan than that! What happens if people decide not to put any money in there?”

That is a good question. As someone who has fed his family based on the generosity and faithfulness of Christians willing to support the local church through tithes and offerings, I have asked the same question many times. Unfortunately, for many churches it would mean little more than the inability to pay a pastor and keep the lights on. If these congregations stopped contributing to their church's offering, there would be no less money going to missions, feeding the hungry or binding up the broken because they don't give their money to such causes anyway. While calling on their members to be faithful with their resources, these churches are anything but. Tithes and offings are treated more like membership dues, buying the givers services to benefit their own needs and wants. When such wants go unmet, offerings can be withheld or contributed to another church where there is a greater return on investment -- American consumerism at its finest.

One of the most common criticisms of the church today is its seemingly constant demands for money from those who attend. Perhaps this wouldn't be if people actually saw the church using the money it requested in generous ways that clearly impact the greatest needs in our world today. Somehow the pastor driving the newest Mercedes while wearing a thousand dollar suit, leading a church in the midst of constructing a fitness center and gymnasium, asking his congregants to sacrifice just rings hollow in the ears of many. Perhaps church leaders should consider applying the biblical principle of the tithe to their own organization's finances. Many churches teach this idea to their members, so why not model it in their own church budgets? Give the first 10% of your church's receipts to international and local mission needs. Support organizations working to solve global problems like hunger, the lack of clean drinking water, human trafficking and AIDS. If every American church cooperated and gave generously to help meet the needs of the world, perhaps such examples of generosity would unleash the generosity of those sitting in the pews.

Rich American Christians have the ability and resources to solve some of the world's most severe problems. Surely this is why God has blessed us with such unprecedented abundance. When we pray asking God to solve these problems, perhaps we should consider that He may already have answered our prayers in the form of the wealth He has allowed us to amass. Consider how the world's view of Christians might be impacted by such acts of generosity.

Viewing the church’s finances from my son's perspective reminded me what a miracle the church is. Consider what we can accomplish each and every week through the combined generosity of people whose lives have been impacted by the generosity of Christ. We put money in the plate not because we are manipulated or required, but because we are grateful. I can’t think of a better plan than that.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Follow the Money

“Your heart follows your wallet” -- not exactly a literal translation of Jesus’ words, but it certainly captures His meaning. As the maker of the human heart, Jesus understands how it works and He wants His followers to understand the link between what we treasure and the location of our hearts. On another occasion, we are told we cannot serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24). We are again warned, “the love of money is a root of evil.” (1 Tim. 6:10) Pretty tough stuff!

Nobody likes it when preachers start talking about money. What you may not know is most preachers don’t really like to talk about it! Jesus, however, talked about it a lot. He talked more about money than He did about heaven and hell combined! The amazing thing is, He never asked for it. Jesus wasn’t trying to get anything from His followers, He wanted something for them. He wanted them to understand how dangerous it is to allow your heart to be enslaved by wealth and greed. He wanted hearts fully devoted to God and He understood money and the love of it is the number one competition for the human heart. Notice how Matthew 6:24 doesn’t say, “You cannot serve both God and Satan.” Wouldn’t you expect that to be the choice? No, Jesus says the choice is much harder … we will either serve God or our stuff. Our heart follows our wallet.

If Jesus is right (and He always is) an effective way to turn our hearts toward God is to invest our treasure in His Kingdom. That principle doesn't only apply to individuals but to churches as well. So many churches see themselves as the recipients and beneficiaries of tithes and offerings that they unwittingly become self centered in their approach to managing the money people give. In his book The Hole in our Gospel Richard Stearns points out that if Christians would only give 1 percent of their income they could life the poorest 1 billion people out of poverty. Perhaps the reason unchurched people are so skeptical when the  church starts talking about money is because they look at how churches selfishly use their money and don’t see a reflection of a selfless God who loves the world so much that He would GIVE. The world hears the words we say and watches how we spend our money and they instinctively know there is a disconnect between the God we say we believe and the god we actually worship.

In their provocative book Passing the Plate, Smith and Emerson write “The vast majority of the money that an American Christians do give to religion is spent in and for their own local communities of faith – little is spent on missions, development and poverty relief outside of the local congregation, particularly outside the United States in ways that benefit people other than the givers themselves.”

It is my prayer that the church in America would be known for its generosity. That will only be true when our churches are filled with generous people who reflect our Generous God. Just as church leaders challenge their attendees to give a percentage of their income away, church members should expect no less of the church they attend. Can you imagine the difference Christians could make in the world if tomorrow every church designated just 10% of their offering to meet needs outside of their own walls? When that happens our hearts will be turned in God's direction, for where our treasure is ...

Thursday, August 25, 2011


The church I have the privileged of serving (  has been in the process of remodeling our sanctuary which was originally dedicated in 1950. It has stood in the heart of San Marco, a historic district of Jacksonville, Florida, for over 60 years. Throughout the years many passers by have found relief from the hot Florida sun in the shadow or her steeple and paused in the middle of a busy day at the sounds of the chimes and hymns that call out as a reminder that there is something more to life than the grind of 9 to 5. When the renovation plans were in process and completion dates were being discussed, we soon realized dedication Sunday would fall on September 11, 2011. Not just the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, but the 10th anniversary of those attacks. We debated changing our dedication date, but ultimately decided it was the perfect symbol of our church’s message to the world. Out of the brokenness and destruction, beauty will rise through the love and power of Jesus Christ.
The date of September 11 will forever be scarred by the events of 2001. On this, the 10th anniversary, we reflect on the ways our world has changed and the terrible reminder of its often broken condition. “Out of ashes,” the psalmist reminds us, “beauty will rise.” As Christians we know that without the terrible events of Good Friday there would have been no Resurrection Sunday.  As Christians we believe the brokenness of our world does not define us. Instead we stand as lights in the darkness pointing to the hope of a new day dawning. While we never forget the terrible lessons of our past we refuse to allow them to steal our hope for tomorrow.