Friday, March 3, 2017

Investing In Perfection ...

You cannot out give God.  You can try.  He enjoys that I think.  It’s like a Parent watching a toddler try to out-love them; a toddler just does not understand love enough to do it more than a parent, but they know enough to be extremely cute at trying.  God does not give us things, because of our tithes and offerings.  He gives us things, even when we hate Him.  Our behavior does not determine His love.  It is His love that has the power to alter what we do, by changing who we are.  So His gifts to us are coming, to some degree, whether we like them or not.  A toddler can say “no” all they like to a parent, but a loving Parent is going to feed them in spite of what they say.  A loving parent is going to cloth them, and house them, no matter what the toddler thinks about these things.  Many of us toddlers would prefer to run naked, eat bugs, and sleep in the mud – but I think our heavenly parent has higher aspirations for us than that (even if He allows us to realize that kind of eat-bugs-thinking is not all it is cracked up to be).
Sometimes we don’t treat our gifts as something we value.  Sometimes we do things with them, that are downright destructive.  God gives us health, and we take up a practice of smoking, or skydiving.  Now, you can survive skydiving, although the risk is plainly apparent.  But no-one survives the practice of smoking while maintaining excellent health.  It kills you slowly, accumulating over time.  It is less perceptible, but its long-term effects can hardly be hidden.  The gift of God was given, regardless of what we did with it.  God may know what we will do, but He offers us our gifts anyway, hoping we will allow Him to influence what we do, but never controlling our reaction.  His love for us remains, and He does not starve us from His love, only because we make bad choices. 
Wealth can be either a gift, or a curse.  What we do with that can either destroy us, or enable us to bless the world around us.  Whether we consider ourselves wealthy is only a matter of perception.  Comparatively, we will always find those in the world with less than us, some far less.  By the same token, there will always be those in the world with far more than us.  So whether you consider yourself wealthy is how you think about yourself.  Whether others think of you as wealthy depends on whether they have far less, or far more.  The only question that remains is a reflection of “who” you love.  When your resources are spent upon yourself, what most people consider, “taking care of yourself” – it is plain that you are high on the list of things you love.  Those with families spend their resources there as well.  And even though this only seems like the responsible thing to do, and the sensible thing, it is not the only thing our hearts should be so focused upon.
Case in point … the Word of God calls out a practice known as Tithing.  Giving 10 percent of your income back to God (in most cases through a church), is one of our first opportunities to become toddlers showing that our love of God is greater than our love of wealth or means.  It is rarely convenient to part with money.  It is rarely “sensible or responsible” when measured against the “needs” our families have.  But to give it anyway, in spite of these “realities” begins to put a crack in our adult armor, and return us to place of child-like trust that our Parent will not see us destitute because of what we give.  The Bible actually also mentions giving offerings beyond the tithe.  For those already parting with 10 percent of their income, offerings by definition, raises the percentage given.  The Bible does not specify what more we would offer, only that the practice is like icing on a cake, and good for us to do.
Most believers are content to stop here.  I give my tithe.  I give my offerings, and now I am done.  Whew!  That was rough.  (silly toddler, you have no idea how many gifts and blessings are coming your way, open your eyes and watch).  But most believers are content that having engaged faithfully in these 2 practices our obligations for giving have been met.  Nice try.  But there is one more, that was designed with a far more specific purpose in mind.  The last one perhaps is more meaningful, because it directly impacts the giver in a way the others do not, and it impacts the receiver in a way the others could not.  And before you think I am just trying to guilt you into giving more, it was not my idea, it came from Jewish tradition, but was called out and ratified by Jesus Himself.
Matthew records the guidance in his gospel in chapter six, continuing with His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes up the practice of one-on-one charity.  He begins in verse 1 saying … “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.”  The practice of giving alms is not the same as tithes or offerings.  Tithes and offerings are given to the priesthood, or in our day to the church, for the preservation and expansion of the church.  Giving alms was something you offered the poor, the homeless, the destitute that called for help from the street corners, and shelters, and impoverished places where they were forced to reside.  Those who asked help because they had need. 
In the time of Christ many of these were crippled unable to earn a wage.  Some had horrific diseases like leprosy, or possession, and were social outcasts.  In our day, the diseases are no less real, addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol or sexual misconduct).  In our day, our veterans suffer from PTSD, and find extremely hard times trying to transition from killing or being killed every second to “normal” society.  There are those in our world who only fake it, and use panhandling as a way to earn enough money to avoid other types of harder work.  But this perception is so easily accepted by those with means, who are looking hard for an excuse not to give.  I challenge anyone so inclined to stand on a busy street corner for 10 hours a day in the heat or cold, and call that “easier” than working a real job.  Those who ask means of us, present us with an opportunity to give alms.
But the further counsel of Christ is profoundly deep.  To give to the poor, only to be seen of our peers, denies us the rewards our Father would otherwise like to see us claim.  Giving for the credit, or the notoriety of giving, feeds our pride.  It is meant to make us appear better to our peers.  It fosters the notion of comparative salvation.  And it denies us the privilege of humility.  Giving to another, one on one, where you offer what you have, to meet the need of the poor who asks, can truly change how YOU think.  If it is done in secret, away from credit and pride, it becomes something only you, God, and receiver will ever know.  That kind of giving changes your heart.  It puts another crack in the adult armor that believes we must be sensible and trust in ourselves to provide for ourselves.  That kind of giving, opens up the possibility that God could actually take care of you, just as you are taking care of the needs of the poor who stand right in front of you.  This is the reward you miss, when you give for other motives.
Jesus continues in verse 2 saying … “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”  In the time of Christ those who desperately craved to be seen as righteous, sounded trumpets to call the attention of the crowds and passersby to the alms they handed out to the poor.  This was not a call of assembly for more efficient distribution, this was a call to show everyone else, that they were generous.  When in truth, they were not.  This was an exchange of services; money, for a better reputation.  Jesus notes, they received what they had purchased.  And the lack of impact within them, was the opportunity they lost.
Jesus continues in verse 3 saying … “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:”  Instead of attention, Jesus asks us to not even we think about what we are doing.  We just do it.  We do not measure to ourselves the size of our donation, or the rationale for it, or whether we think the person might not use our gift the way we think they should.  Ignore all that.  Decide not to think about all of that, and give anyway.  As our Parent gives to us, knowing that we often misuse and abuse what He gives to us, but He gives it anyway.  Not as a means of control, but because He cares about us, and loves us.  There is something personal about giving directly to someone who asks.  There is no middle-man, it you and them and God.  Our gifts are not meant to occupy a continued place in our thinking.  They are meant to happen, and be forgotten.  We are not meant to keep inventory of them to use in a false analysis of our comparative holiness with our peers (even if only in our heads).  We are meant to discard the memory, and only maintain the practice.
When our giving is so common place that we could not possibly remember all the times we did it, or to who, we are finding a reward only the Father understands.  Jesus echoes these sentiments as He concludes this section of His sermon in verse 4 saying … “That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”  Here we go again.  Our selfish minds immediately begin to think of this promise in financial terms.  We give the homeless ten dollars in secret, and we expect God will give us back 20 dollars more openly.  A business transaction.  But that is not the reward our God who is obsessed with our salvation is making.  The giving we offer in secret, in humility, and without remembering it constantly, has the power to help change how we think inside, and who we love outside.  It has the ability to act as a tool to focus the values we hold in our hearts away from ourselves and towards others, as it is in heaven.
The financial investment we are making is in the perfection of our hearts, not in the doubling of our wealth.  Our gifts and our giving may well cause us to lose what we have, to become poor as well.  We could find ourselves having some of the same needs as the people we once gave to.  Jesus is not making us a promise to shower us with wealth, that may very well destroy us because we are still not ready for it.  Jesus is making a promise that the more important results and rewards that our personal giving to others makes is within our hearts and minds.  And then there is something else, something even more, that money cannot buy, but humble giving can sure contribute to … the life of the receiver.
Imagine being the poor, or destitute, or even someone who fakes it.  Imagine seeing Christians give to meet your needs every time you encounter one of them.  Not just folks who roll down the window and hand you a dollar from their cars, on their way to somewhere else.  But folks who pull the car over, get out, and ask you how they can help.  Who stop to buy food, clothes, and take you to a shelter and pay any fees associated to get you in it.  Some of them who would even take you home with them.  Imagine being on the receiving end of so much love from SO many total strangers, who have nothing in common but a passionate love from Jesus Christ for someone so dirty, stinky, and likely diseased as yourself the poor and destitute.  Even the heart of the faker will be broken in tears over watching what the true love of Jesus Christ looks like, not just in one of His followers, but in all of His followers.  That kind of simple humble giving has the potential to truly change the world, finding poor who are searching for this kind of love, and discovering you who becomes so passionate about making sure they find it in you.
That is the reward of the Father.  That is how the gospel is spread throughout the world.  And just for the record, this is exactly the method Jesus used.  He met the needs first, there was no sermon, before the starving were fed, the naked were clothed, and the funds or needs asked for, were granted.  Only after the needs were met, the love was demonstrated, could the words find a listening ear.  Our church growth is stunted, because we go out with words to those in need, and expect our prayers to get them what they want; instead of our hearts so steeped in His love, that our passion gets them their need.  We must become toddlers once again.  Toddlers share as they love, without a thought about it.  We cannot out-give our God.  But we can surely try.  And in the trying, find something we could hardly have imagined.
For those who find Tithe, and offerings, and now the practice of giving alms to poor, just one more drain upon already meager resources – I would advise prayer, to see things and feel things, with the passion of Christ.  Through submission, over time, what you value is going to change.  What looks like burden today, will begin to become blessing tomorrow.  And the best part is, our Parent was always in charge anyway.  He was already meeting our needs before we thought to ask.  This is only His chance to bring us into the system of giving to share with Him, what it is like to give, only because you love.
And the sermon was far from over …

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