Blessed to be Generous
I am preaching on money for the next four weeks.
I wonder if there will be people will decide to stay home from worship rather than hear the messages that we'll be sharing.
I learned early on in my ministry to students that if you were going to talk about sex with the kids during youth group, you better not tell them ahead of time what the topic was going to be. If you did, you ran the risk of half of them not showing up. Even more would come and hang out for the fellowship portion of the youth meeting and then get in their cars and leave before we started our "talk." More often than not, I ended up talking to the younger students who couldn't drive, those whose parents made them come to the meeting or to kids who were probably going to be virgins until they were 40 anyway.
The ones who needed to hear the most about what the Bible had to say about sexual relationships were always the ones with the guilty consciences who tried to find a way to get out of Dodge until we were off the topic.
I guess we'll see, won't we?
The Scripture that I have been working on this week is from Lamentations. When I picked it some weeks ago, I was thinking that it would be a timely passage considering the economic meltdown that we have all experienced in one way or another these past two years. I know that I have people in my church who are out of work. I have others who are struggling to make ends meet, make their house payments and even keep their marriages together in the midst of financial breakdown. I still think this series is timely, and I still believe that God was guiding me to preach from Lamentations. My goal was to preach a sermon that highlighted the importance of trusting in God and continuing to be generous despite our circumstances.
But this week was a tough one for other reasons. Two of my friends from high school who have been married for twenty-plus years experienced a horrible tragedy this week when their 18 year-old son committed suicide. It was senseless, pointless and unbelievably horrific. He was their only child and they adored him beyond belief. They are devout Christians who are involved in their church and who have a firm belief in God. I know that they have wondered throughout this whole ordeal where God was in the midst of it.
I was wondering the same thing.
I started reading Lamentations chapter 3, which is the chapter surrounding my key text. Here's an excerpt of what I read:
1 [a] I am the man who has seen afflictionThe person who wrote that had seen firsthand the devastation of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. He had seen the bodies lying in the streets. He had seen the Temple burned and destroyed. He had seen the ashes falling from the sky from the fires that burned everywhere. He had seen the atrocities committed on the people of God by their enemies.
by the rod of his wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.
4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones.
5 He has besieged me and surrounded me
with bitterness and hardship.
6 He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.
7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
he has weighed me down with chains.
8 Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
And he wondered where God was.
As I drove away from the memorial service for the young man who took his own life, I wept. I asked God, "Where were you? What were you doing then? Could you not have just let the parents see what he was about to do before he did it? What the________are you up to?" I railed against God in my car as I drove, pounding my steering wheel and trying to see the road through my tears.
"They buried him with his baby blanket, Man." I shouted to God. "His _________ baby blanket! What were you thinking?"
A voice came back to me: "Do you believe me?" It was almost as if there was a voice in my head, that's how clear it was to me. "Do you believe me?" the question came back again. I stopped shouting. Then there was another statement that came into my head clear as day. "You either believe or you don't. It's that simple."
You either believe or you don't.
I started thinking about that as I drove. I was still mad as hell at God. And the feeling that I got was that it was okay that I was mad as hell. But it wasn't okay to be on the fence about whether I believed God. In the end, I either believe or I don't. If I choose not to believe that might actually be pretty liberating in the short term. It would eliminate a whole bunch of questions. If everything was just left up to chance or fate or whatever that could be explained away. But if I go the other way, and throw my lot in with Belief... now that requires a certain amount of trust because there are no easy answers to the toughest questions of all.
Like why did that boy kill himself?
Or why did she leave me?
Or why am I in such a serious financial mess?
I heard the story recently of a couple in our town who owned a trucking business. The wife took care of the books for the business and had hidden from the husband the fact that they were broke. In fact, they were going to go under and lose the business unless something drastic happened. She secretly took out a life insurance policy on herself that had a suicide clause in it. Then she went out into the back yard with a gun and shot herself.
How did she get to a place where she found there was no more hope and no way out?
Could it be that she couldn't bring herself to believe God? You'll notice I am not saying "believe in God." I'm saying "believe God." There's a difference. Lots of people believe in God. It's much harder to believe that God really does mean what God says about God's love, grace, holiness, majesty and mercy. And that God actually knows what God is doing.
I think the reason why so many people find it hard to be generous is that they don't believe God. They don't believe this:
22 Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him."
25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
So many people dry up inside when they experience hardship or when they feel that God has fallen asleep at the wheel. The generosity of spirit that they once felt falls to the floor, forgotten in their loss and their grief. And there are so many things to grieve, aren't there?
A friend of mine and her husband both lost their jobs over a year ago. This year has been incredibly hard for both of them with her battling a debilitating disease and he struggling through the loss of his father and best friend.
But through everything they continued to find ways to have a generous spirit in spite of the fact that no one would have blamed them if they didn't. They reached out to friends in need and volunteered their time to their church.
And they continued to give of what little they had. My friend wrote this recently as a way of explaining how she felt about the whole generosity of spirit thing in relation to the tithe to her church:
I (We) tithe. 10% of our income. 10% of any monetary gifts we receive. 10% of any form of money that comes into this house, be it a tax refund, an escrow overage, an insurance rebate, a birthday card with $5.00 in it from Great Grandma Izzy. We tithe it. You can count on it like you can an abacus. Not going to preach to you, but since we lost our jobs, we BEGAN to tithe the full 10% and guess what? We still don't have jobs. We are still tithing. We are still 100% current on all of our bills, including our home. We still have money in the bank (not as much as we DID, but we have some nonetheless). We have NO needs at this time.We have obeyed the Lord's command, and we tithe, and he has followed through on his promise to take care of us. 'nuff said.I thought about what she wrote a bit. Both she and her husband lost their jobs. They've gone through the wringer emotionally, physically, spiritually---you name it. And it wasn't until all of that stuff started happening that they STARTED tithing, and I mean really tithing.
They realized that they had a choice to either believe God or not believe God and they decided to believe. And when you decide to believe God, you saying things like: "God, I don't know what you are doing. I have no clue what you are up to. But I am all in."
Which is what I said in the car yesterday.
It's what I am saying right now as I think about all of the things that are worrying me. "I don't get it, God. Sometimes you tick me off. But I'm all in."
I think that's where God wants us... all in. There is this passage of Scripture in Revelations where God is speaking through the prophet to a particular church that he describes as full of people who are on the fence. They are the people who aren't all in, and they aren't all out either. They are not hot or cold, but "lukewarm." And lukewarm water apparently makes God ill because God tells this church that they make God want to vomit with their lukewarm-ness.
It's almost as if he's saying to them. "Either believe me. Or don't believe me. But don't sit there halfway in between where it's comfortable and easy."
I kind of like the idea of just believing without reservation. There's no safety net in that--at least not the kind of safety that we usually look for when we jump.
Only the hand of God ready to catch, ready to save, ready to hold.