Giving Back

“What can I give back to the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?” Psalm 116:12 CEB

Finding this question in the middle of my Psalm of the day made it impossible for me to quickly read and move on with my day.

While I realize I can never repay God for all God has done; at the same time, I hope I never stop asking this question.

It seems the natural reaction to an awareness of all the goodness God has done is to ponder how to give back.

So if I stop asking this question, perhaps I need to seriously consider whether I have lost my awareness of how good God has been.

God has been so good. What can I give back?

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.

What Happened?

What happened as we gathered yesterday?

Be real.

Did you worship God?
Was it about God?
Did you talk to God?
Did you sing to God?
Did you eat the meal with Jesus?
Was your tithe presented to God?
Did you hear God in the scriptures?
Were you open to the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit?
Did you see Jesus in the faces of the others who were gathered?

What really happened as we gathered yesterday?

Cut it Straight

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 NASB

Paul’s words to Timothy challenge us to be careful students of scripture. “Be diligent” (meticulous, thorough, attentive) as opposed to being sloppy. Be a “workman” (labor, toil) as opposed to being lazy. But have you ever noticed that the language of worship is used to describe study? To understand diligent study as a way to “present yourself” to God is both inspiring and convicting.

Careful study is an act of worship.

“Tadpole Christians,” as John Stott calls them, are all head. “Their heads are bulging with sound theology, but that is all there is to them.” On the other hand, “pinhead Christians” have a “small head” but can make you jump with the slightest stick. To some Christianity is merely an intellectual pursuit while to others it is defined  exclusively by emotions. Did we forget the greatest command is to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind?” Heart and mind. Intellect and emotions.

Some bound in tradition have no idea why they hold their beliefs. Their opinions are strong but they can’t tell you how they reached their convictions or what passages are crucial to the discussion. “It just doesn’t feel right” and “it makes me uncomfortable” has taken the place of diligent study to determine convictions.

Some bound by emotion have no idea why they hold their beliefs. Their opinions are strong but they can’t tell you how they reached their convictions or what passages are crucial to the discussion. “It feels right” and “it makes me comfortable” has taken the place of diligent study to determine convictions.

Some have studied scripture enough to see an emotional response was important to God’s people. Without emotion religion is dry, lifeless and void of joy. Some have learned through emotional experiences the mind is involved in seeking God. Without engagement of the mind religion is empty and often results in God being recreated in the image of the feeler.

Knowing there are matters of opinion is no excuse for sloppy handling of scripture. Even when a matter isn’t “of faith” we still need study to know why we hold the opinion we do. When discussing disputable matters, Paul urged the Romans to be “fully convinced” in their own minds (Romans 14:5).

Jesus wants our hearts and minds. Every loose thought and emotion should be fit into the structure of life shaped by Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5 MSG). Our minds need to be transformed (Romans 12:1-2). We need to think on the things God tells us (Philippians 4:8). When raised with Christ we set our hearts and minds on things above (Colossians 3:2). Our minds need to be Spirit-controlled (Romans 8:5-6).

So be diligent. Accurately handle scripture; in others words, “cut it straight.” In so doing you present yourself to God in worship.

Diligent study is an offering of worship to God.

Best Church Sign Ever

Messages on church signs often make me cringe.

Some make no sense. Others seem like passive-aggressive attacks.

Still others seem to be smart-aleck.

At one church where I worked a new church sign was purchased. Only after it was installed did people realize the letters were so small you could not even read it from the street. At another the office phones lit up within minutes after a message that could best be described as both passive aggressive and smart-aleck was displayed by a helpful volunteer. It wasn’t long after that I decided if I had any input, the message on the church sign would always be a scripture that bolstered the current theme.

I see the signs all over town. I see them when I am traveling. Maybe I am just too harsh, but I gotta tell you that I don’t like most of the messages I see.

And then it happened…I saw the greatest church sign ever. It happened last Sunday as Lourene and I drove around in downtown St. Louis after visiting a patient in the hospital. It all happened so fast. The traffic was moving quickly. I couldn’t get to my phone in time to snap a photo. So I ventured back to the church yesterday so I could get a good shot of the sign. I was concerned the message might have been changed, but something told me that it probably had not been changed in a long, long time.

Take a good look. What could possibly be better to say about a church than that they feature Jesus?

The Gathering

“We gather for worship to remember who and whose we are. We come to recount the stories that shape our faith, stories that turn us from a collection of individuals into a community with a common source and vision. The church as a worshiping community carries our biblical faith and spiritual tradition down through the ages to each individual. We are joined to that community in Baptism, tutored in faith through the interpretation of scripture in preaching, and nourished at the Lord’s Table as a family of believers. Life in the church teaches us that we are made for a communion not only with God but with one another in Christ.”
–Marjorie J. Thompson in Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, p. 60.

Worship and Community

“While a worshipful attitude should permeate one’s entire life, the role of common worship is crucial. We delude ourselves if we imagine we can live the spiritual life in total isolation from Christian community, for it is impossible to be Christian in solitary splendor. To be Christian is to be joined in the Body of Christ. The central and visible way in which the church expresses this reality is by gathering in the Spirit to receive and respond to God’s living Word.”
–Marjorie J. Thompson in Soul Feast An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, p. 60.

Living A Life of Worship

Eternal Father of my soul, let my first thought today be of You, let my first impulse be to worship You, let my first speech be Your name, let my first action be to kneel before You in prayer.

For your perfect wisdom and perfect goodness,
For the love with which You love mankind,
For the love with which You love me,
For the great and mysterious opportunity of my life,
For the indwelling of Your Spirit in my heart,
For the sevenfold gifts of Your Spirit,
I praise and worship You, O Lord.

Yet let me not, when this morning prayer is said, think my worship ended and spend the day in forgetfulness of You. Rather from these moments of quietness let light go forth, and joy, and power, that will remain with me through all the hours of the day….

Keeping me honorable and generous in all my dealings with others,
Keeping me loyal to every hallowed memory of the past,
Keeping me mindful of my eternal destiny as a child of Yours.
Through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

–John Baillie

Public and Private Worship

“For many people, private worship is more attractive than public worship. Envisioning faith as a private affair reflects the individualism of our culture. Many ask why corporate worship should be so important when they can meditate on God in nature with far less distraction, or why they should bother to get dressed up and go to church when they can listen to an inspiring message on radio or TV.

“The reasons for gathering are many and important. Whether we are alone or with others, we need to experience our Christian life as rooted in the larger community of Faith. Even our most personal disciplines need to be supported, broadened, clarified, and sometimes corrected in the light of corporate theology and practice. Otherwise we become susceptible to privatized visions of spiritual truth. Moreover, we need the prayers of others as they need our prayers. The way God provides for our deepest hopes is usually through the hands and hearts of others.”

— Marjorie J. Thompson in Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, p. 60.

Whole-Hearted Worship

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30). When Jesus identifies this great commandment, he sets worship at the center of human life. Worship, as full-hearted love of God, is meant to permeate our lives. Private or public, it is always first and foremost a matter of the heart.

We cannot realize the richness and vitality of worship until we comprehend the meaning of heart in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Western culture, head and heart describe separate spheres. Head signifies our rational, analytic functions while heart represents our feeling capacities. But a purely emotional heart does not express its scriptural significance.

In the Jewish tradition, the heart is the seat and center of the whole person, the core of personal character, including the thought, emotion, will, intuition, and imagination. Thoughts, both good and evil, arise from the heart. When the heart is turned toward God, one is filled with grace and truth; when the heart turns away, a person dwells in delusion. The Christian church inherited this understanding of “heart” from the Jewish tradition.

True worship from the heart, then, means responding to God’s glory and love with our entire being. After all, when Spirit touches spirit, we are moved–both in feelings and commitments. Too many worshipping communities encourage only half-hearted worship. In churches that tend toward reason and order, many members yearn to express the intuitive and feeling side of faith. In churches where intellect is considered a poor cousin to emotional experiences of faith, many people are hungry for serious study and responsible action.”

–Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, pp. 58-59.

A Prayer for Sunday

God our Father,

Fearfully and wonderfully You created us.
We are creatures.
We are complex creatures.
We are Your creatures.

You created us with the ability to think and reason.
Thank You, God.
You created us with the ability to sense and feel.
Thank You, God.

Sometimes we turn off our brains and cease all thinking.
Forgive us, God.
Sometimes we will ourselves to stop expressions of emotion.
Forgive us, God.

Help us realize that worship that fails to include both thought and emotion is, at best, half-hearted.

As we gather Sunday we do so to worship whole-heartedly.
We offer You our minds.
We offer you our emotions.
We offer You our all.

Forgive us when we approach You with anything less than our all.
May we bring it all to You Sunday.
For You are worthy.

In Jesus’ name,
AMEN.