Matters of the Heart

Each year in January the financial stewardship team at church sends out a letter to provide a record of our financial contributions, ostensibly for IRS purposes. But the truth is, the meaning of that letter can go much deeper. It gives all of us an opportunity to consider our stewardship, specifically in how we have worshipped God with our offerings and how we can grow in the year to come. After all, we are encouraged to “grow in the grace of giving.”

PEP, Pease, and Worship

In the 1990’s limits on tax-deductions known as PEP and Pease were part of a budget deal. Specifically, they limited the percentage of charitable giving and other deductions that could be itemized on your tax return. PEP and Pease were in effect for a decade before being eliminated in 2001 tax cuts.

With the “fiscal cliff” deal, Pease is back in 2013, at least for higher income people. So if you make $250,000 per year (singles) or $300,000 (married couples) there will be a cap on how much of your charitable giving can be itemized and deducted on your tax return. Here is a quick explanation and example of how it works.

 …the Pease limitation reduces a household’s itemized deductions by 3% of the amount over the threshold. The reduction can’t exceed 80% of the total deductions.

A couple with income of $400,000 average about $50,000 in itemized deductions, according to IRS statistics. Because their income would exceed the $300,000 threshold by $100,000, their allowed deductions would be reduced by about $3,000 to $47,000—potentially boosting their tax bill by about $1,000.
(from Deduction Limits Will Affect Many by John D. McKinnon  in The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2013).

The return of Pease will give some opportunity to rail against tax increases. Others will give thanks that taxes have increased, especially on people many consider wealthy. Still others will fret about the effect Pease might have on charitable giving. Some may even vow to stop their charitable giving. While I have little interest in the politics of all this, I am very interested in people of faith taking opportunity to examine our motivation for giving, particularly to church, but other charitable giving as well.

Back in the 80’s a friend of mine named Dennis told me that he did not itemize his church contributions. He explained that he did not feel right about benefiting from what he was giving to God. We looked at passages like Malachi 1 in which the prophet rebuked the people of God for giving God blemished sacrifices. Dennis asked, “What kind of ‘giving’ is it when we give God what costs us nothing?” After we finished our conversation, Dennis decided the best approach would be to itemize his church contributions, calculate how much that deduction benefited him, and donate the refund amount generated by the itemized deduction. I appreciate his intentions.

So as political rhetoric rages, I want to encourage people of God to give their first fruits to God as they have been prospered, give generously to those in need, and to do it all to worship Almighty God, not for a tax break.

Boxes in the Attic

Getting our house ready to put on the market began with Lourene watching several episodes of Designed to Sell. The whole purpose of the show, as I understand it, is to offer viewers some often simple, always important ways to improve the odds of selling your house.

Her reaction? Well maybe it was because she was serving on jury duty at the time, but she delivered it more like a verdict–

“We have to declutter if we want to sell the house.”

So we began to declutter.

We decluttered the closets. We decluttered the cabinets. We decluttered the file cabinets. We decluttered the storage room. We decluttered the storage shed. We decluttered the walls. We decluttered the tables. We decluttered the counters.

Just when I thought the decluttering ordeal was over and the time had come to guiltlessly watch The Rose Bowl, you know– the granddaddy of them all–she spoke words that struck fear in my heart.

“There are boxes in the attic.”

Yes, there were boxes in the attic. Boxes full of memories. Boxes full of stuff we wanted to preserve but we couldn’t have displayed for all to see. Boxes full  of stuff we didn’t have time to sort through at the time so we hid it out of sight in the attic so we could deal with it later.

We hauled the boxes out of the attic and sorted through all the stuff. Memories. Things we didn’t want to deal with eight or ten years ago. Junk that we inexplicably saved. And the decluttering ordeal finally came to an end.

Now that it is finished, I can tell you I am glad we decluttered. Throughout the process Lourene and I reflected on how thankful we are for our memories and our material blessings.  We found a box of cards the children made for us, many made from construction paper and crayons.   We discussed how we need to guard against the temptation to hoard. We found enough lamps, pictures, and knick knacks to decorate an entire house. And we pondered how we have stored boxes of stuff in the attic of our hearts, you know, the stuff we didn’t want to deal with at the time but we kept it so someday we could.

The “For Sale” sign is in the front yard. A decluttered house awaits potential buyers. And Lourene and I have enjoyed some wonderful conversations thanks to the insistence of the television real estate gurus that we declutter.

Today I am chewing on these passages–

1 Timothy 6:6-8 (NLT)
“Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.”

Hebrews 13:5-6 (MSG)
“Don’t be obsessed with getting more material things. Be relaxed with what you have. Since God assured us, “I’ll never let you down, never walk off and leave you….”

Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)
“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.”

Thoughts on Stewardship

Skyline’s elders have presented a challenge to our congregation to increase our giving so that we may expand our involvement in kingdom work.

The following words from have challenged me as I have considered their challenge.

God wants our best, deserves our best, and demands our best. From the beginning of time, He has been clear that some offerings are acceptable to Him and others are not. Just ask Cain, upon whose offering God “did not look with favor” (Gen. 4:5).

For years I gave God leftovers and felt no shame. I simply took my eyes off Scripture and instead compared myself to others. The bones I threw at God had more meat on them than the bones others threw, so I figured I was doing fine.

It’s easy to fill ourselves up with other things and then give God whatever is left. Hosea 13:6 says, “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.” God gets a scrap or two only because we feel guilty for giving Him nothing. A mumbled three-minute prayer at the end of the day, when we are already half asleep. Two crumpled up dollar bills thrown as an afterthought into the church’s fund for the poor. Fetch, God!

“But when you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and the sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?” says the Lord.
— Malachi 1:8 NASB

from Crazy Love by Francis Chan, pp. 90-91

Fully Surrendered

Fully surrendered, Lord, I would be,
Fully surrendered, dear Lord, to Thee.
All on the altar laid,
Surrender fully made,
Thou hast my ransom paid;
I yield to Thee.

Fully surrendered–life, time, and all,
All Thou hast given me held at Thy call.
Speak but the word to me,
Gladly I’ll follow Thee,
Now and eternally
Obey my Lord.

Fully surrendered–silver and gold,
His, who hath given me riches untold.
All, all belong to Thee,
For thou didst purchase me,
Thine evermore to be,
Jesus, my Lord.

— A. C. Snead

Affluenza


Affluenza (1997) is an hour long documentary about the dangers of greedy consumerism. One scene features the Potomac Mills Mall in Northern Virginia (near Washington D.C.).

First, let me confess I have been there, more than once. The place is huge, it actually is divided into neighborhoods to help shoppers keep from getting lost. In a state with Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, a number of key Civil War battle sites, the Eastern Shore, and Virginia Beach; Potomac Mills Mall is noted as the top tourist attraction in Virginia.

Second, I want to share two quotes from the documentary caught my attention:

The narrator says, “Seventy percent of us visit malls each week—more than attend churches or synagogues. On average we shop 6 hours a week and spend only 40 minutes playing with our children.”

A Potomac Mills TV commercial is referenced where an announcer says, “Shopping is therapy. Listen to that little voice in your head. Shop. Shop. Shop. Shop. You can buy happiness. Just don’t pay retail for it.”

I close my thoughts today with three passages of scripture that came to mind as I was reading about this documentary in an Preaching Connection email I received yesterday.

“Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions'” (Luke 12:15).

“Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need”
(Acts 2:45).

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).

Affluenza can be deadly. I pray God will purify my heart from whatever greed may be lurking.