Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Picture of Scripture

Luke 21:1-4 - "As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 'I tell you the truth,' he said, 'this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'"

2 Corinthians 9:8 - "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work."

Luke 6:38 - "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

The story I share with you today came to me this past Sunday afternoon. I will change the name of the person in the story so that the person is not embarrassed in any way. The point of the story is to encourage your heart in your own systematic, worshipful giving to the Lord.

This past Sunday, we began a three-week emphasis on stewardship, which began by our whole church teaching the same lesson during Sunday School. It was taught from 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, and there were two lists of truths to carry away. First, the incentives to giving...those things which ought to motivate us to give. In this passage, we discovered the incentives of (1) the grace of God, (2) being an example to others, (3) spiritual growth, and (4) the sacrificial example of Christ. Second, we saw three guidelines to giving: (1) give yourself to God, (2) give yourself in service, and (3) give your money. I know that there were people in our Sunday School class who struggle with giving because of the financial strain on their families, and so I didn't know what kind of response to expect. Everything seemed fairly normal, though.

During the service, we had a normal order...worshipping through music, praying together, and worshipping through giving prior to the sermon, which was on the foundation of stewardship. It seemed to be a good service, and the Lord stirred some hearts in the area of their personal stewardship. Then, after the service, I heard a story that truly encouraged my heart as a pastor.

There is a lady in our church...we'll call her Eve. Eve has custody of her two grandchildren because of some issues with the parents. Both grandchildren have medical conditions that put additional strain on Lilly and her husband. Lilly's husband works seven days a week at two different jobs, and even with Lilly working part-time, they are barely getting by. Some in our church have helped when medicines and doctor bills piled up, and an electric bill needed to be paid. Last month, someone bought them a couple of boxes of food from the Angel Food Ministries and delivered it just before Christmas. I don't want to go on and on, but you probably get the picture...this is a family that is usually in need, and not the kind of suburbanite "need" some may conjure up...real need.

In the midst of all this, it has constantly amazed me how giving Eve is to those around her. Many times, she will feed and help her friends, though she has nothing to give. She is the Macedonian church in 2 Corinthians 8:2 - "Out of the most severe trial, [her] overflowing joy and [her] extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity" (pronouns changed).

After hearing about the Macedonian church giving "beyond their ability" during Sunday School, Eve was inspired to do the same. I don't know when her husband will get paid again, but Eve had only a 10 dollar bill to her name when she came in the building Sunday morning. During our offering, because she longs to be the kind of giver God wants her to be, she placed that $10 in the plate, trusting God to supply all of her needs. You see, as Jesus said, others gave out of their wealth that morning, and she gave all she had to live on. I don't know what might have gone through her head after that, but I can tell you what happened after our service was over...in fact, that's the whole reason I even know this story.

You see, Eve is an artist, and part of the way she makes extra money is to sell jewelry boxes that she makes in the little shop where she works. After the service was over and before Eve could leave, one of the ladies in our Sunday School class approached her. She said, "Eve, I'd like to buy one of those boxes that you make...how much do you normally charge for them?" "Ten dollars," replied Eve. The friend pulled out a ten dollar bill and handed it to Eve. Immediately, Eve was overwhelmed by the provision of God. She had given everything that she had, and the Lord provided it for her within an hour...pressed down, shaken together, and poured out into her lap. My guess is that Eve will continue to abound in every good work because of the grace God is pouring out in her life.

Sometimes, you can study and study and study to know the meaning of various texts in the Scripture. You may even hear a story about someone you don't know (or some fictional story) to illustrate it. However, when you see the Scripture portrayed before your eyes, it adds something special to all your study. My guess is that I will think of Eve when I hear the widow's story in Luke 21. My prayer is that I will give more like Eve gives.

Do you know why I chose the name Eve? It means "life giver," and today, she has been used by God to add a little more to my life. I pray that she has done the same for you. Praise be to God!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Which is better? To Be Wronged or File a Lawsuit

For those who are used to finding meditations on Scripture and theology and church life at this blog, I apologize for taking a moment to hop on a soap box. However, the soap box only comes because of the teachings of Scripture...from a conviction that the church (and individuals) ought to live the principles of Scripture, even when it means suffering financial loss. My prayer, as I type, is that you will see the same thing. (By the way, when I mention the Tennessee Baptist Convention in this blog, I want you to know...I am responding to the actions of the convention as a whole and mean, in no way, to single out a church, pastor, or leader. I have no ill will toward them as men...only a heart that breaks over recent decisions.)

I live in the state of Tennessee, where we have three Baptist universities...Carson-Newman, Union, and Belmont. Back in 2005, Belmont asked to sever ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) because they wanted to expand their board of directors to include more non-Baptists. To make a really long and boring story short, here are the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your view)...the TBC said no, Belmont was going to do it anyway, the TBC said "pay us for the property and buildings we gave you back in 1951", Belmont made an offer that was too low in the TBC's eyes, and now the TBC is taking Belmont to court over it.

Let's review the facts...true, there is a 1951 document signed by the then-president of Belmont saying that is Belmont ever decided to do this, the property and buildings would revert back to the ownership of the TBC. True, the offer of $5 million by Belmont doesn't come close to what the property and buildings are worth. True, it doesn't look like any more than that is going to be offered. True, Belmont is going ahead and severing ties anyway. These are the facts, as I understand them.

Before we pull out the box, let me clarify something...I think Belmont's desire to become a non-denominational school may be a good one for the school, and it may not. However, the method by which they are parting ways with the TBC is unethical and wrong. There is a signed document holding the school to certain responsibilities if the relationship ends. They should be willing to pay whatever the campus is worth. Belmont is in the wrong here, so don't take my following comments to mean that I think Belmont is squeaky clean in the matter. With that said...

THE BOX: The pastors and messengers of the TBC who voted for this lawsuit have approved something that the Scripture is T-totally against. It is foolish, irresponsible to the Gospel, and sinful for us to proceed. Why? Why such a strong statement? This is a lot of money we're talking about. We could use that money to support the other two schools, local missions efforts, the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home, etc. Don't you think this is a gray area?

No, it is not a gray area. For that reason, I will insert 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 in its entirety:

If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another - and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.

That seems to be pretty clear. Disputes between brothers in Christ should not be taken to secular, ungodly courts. The same men who might take a stand against a faulty legal system, where judges try to legislate from the bench, are the ones who will now put their dispute between brothers in the hands of the same legal system. It makes absolutely no sense to me.

Response #1: Well, all authorities are placed by God (Romans 13:1), and so they are entrusting their case to God's authority in the matter.

The problem I have with this is that the same man who wrote about God establishing all authorities for our good in Romans also wrote this letter to the Corinthian believers. Is He contradicting himself? The bigger question would have to be: is the Scripture contradicting itself? NO! Romans 13 deals with authorities that are put in place to punish evil and keep society from chaos. This doesn't mean that we submit all of our disputes to the established authorities for their judgment...that is what 1 Corinthians 6 is forbidding. Why? Because it only takes a conscience to know right from wrong and to punish accordingly...Paul pointed out the universal conscience of mankind to know right from wrong early on in Romans. In order to judge disputes between believers, godly wisdom (not the law of the land) is necessary, and only those who have the Spirit can have such wisdom. This response doesn't hold up.

Response #2: It would be bad stewardship on the part of the TBC to let all this money go.

First of all, let's go right back to the text and quote: "The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?" Apparently, in Paul's eyes, being wronged and cheated out of money is better than gaining all the money back through a lawsuit, even to use the money for the Kingdom in another way. Why? Because Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). Surely, we can't argue that taking Belmont to court is the loving thing to do. When you see Judge Judy or People's Court or you get sued, is love really the first attribute that comes to mind? My neighbor/friend/fellow church member/state convention loves me so much and only wants my good, but he's just suing me to get money...no hard feelings (sarcasm intended).

Why is it better to be cheated and wronged than to go to court and get the money back? Because it affects the advance of the Gospel! That's a pretty bold statement, but I think I am only echoing Paul's idea when he says "one brother goes to law against another - and this in front of unbelievers!" It seems that suing each other in front of unbelievers hinders the work of the Gospel...probably because men will not know that we are disciples of Christ through our lawsuits. So, I won't even try to present response #3: this has no impact on our mission as a church. That's ridiculous for the reasons I just expressed.

It seems that all of this is an illustration of what Jesus said in Matthew 6: "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money." You know, there are some pastors (including one famous TV preacher) that hold up there Bibles before preaching and make a kind of doctrinal statement. My fear is that in our pursuit of the money "that is rightfully ours", we, as a state convention, are changing that statement and holding up our wallet (in place of the Bible) while saying, "This is my wallet. I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do."

May God save us from such a blasphemous attitude...as a convention...as churches...and as individuals!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Ministry by Intuition or Revelation?

Thoughts on Leviticus 9:1-10:2.

How is it that ministry ought to be done? Is it fair to say that "God has given us brains and intuition", so we should follow our instincts to implement every program, strategy, idea, etc., we come up with? Or, is there a parameter in which we ought to function? Barriers which should confine the nature of our ministry in the church? Good questions...let's think about an answer.

On Sunday nights, our congregation has recently started looking at the big picture of Scripture. The purpose is to reacquaint ourselves with the overarching themes of Scripture, so that our times of personal and small group Bible study can be better informed and more meaningful. We began by spending several weeks looking at the doctrine of the Word of God...its form, canon, and characteristics. Then, beginning with Genesis, we have overviewed a book of the Bible each week. Recently, we looked at the book of Leviticus, which prompted this particular blog.

Leviticus is one of the books that people refer to when they talk about how much trouble they have in reading the Bible. January finds many eager Bible readers quickly getting through Genesis and Exodus. However, when the page turns to Leviticus, it's as if they have hit the warning strips on the side of the interstate... "Danger, danger! Potential misunderstanding and derailed reading plan!" It doesn't need to be this way! Consider this quote from Paul House: "Though it is hard to envision at first because of its unfamiliar subject matter, even simple reflection on Leviticus demonstrates that this is one of the most theologically oriented books in Scripture. After all, it covers in some detail how the holy God defines sin, forgives sin and helps people avoid sin. It discusses how God's will is revealed and how God's presence can be assured. Leviticus also describes how God's people may be declared holy or how they may be what God envisioned them from their origin." Having this kind of mindset will truly transform the way you read this book.

Within Leviticus, chapters 8-10 deal specifically with the priests, and this brings me back to the question at hand. How is it that ministry ought to be done? Having already described how the offerings were to be offered and accepted in chapters 1-7, we now see the work of the ministry beginning. The priests have been set apart (ch. 8); now, the "daily grind" begins, and what a beginning it was!

One of the key statements with regard to the work of the priests was made in 9:6 - "Then Moses said, 'This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.'" Did you catch that? Within the work of the ministry, there is potential to see the glory of the Lord! What priest wouldn't want that? What pastor wouldn't want that? What church wouldn't want that? All the blood, sweat, and tears of administering sacrifices, judging between "clean" and "unclean", the teaching of the law, etc., was laid out with the promise that "the glory of the Lord may appear to you."

First of all, check your heart. Do you want to see the glory of the Lord in the ministry of your church? In your family? Does your soul resonate with Isaiah 26:8? "Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the desire of our hearts." If not, then this is where to begin. Stop now, and ask the Lord to search your heart and renew your passion for Him.

Second, if you want the glory of the Lord to shine through the ministry of your church, then what is required? Is there anything required? Well, look at Lev. 9:6 again - "This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you." There is a condition, and it is linked to the commands of the Lord. In the Scripture, God has revealed what ministry should look like, by command, principle, and example. If the glory of the Lord is to be seen in our ministry, it will be in direct proportion to our aligning ourselves with God's divine pattern. Let's check the text to see what happens.

We find that in the rest of chapter nine, the priests do ministry exactly as they should. We see this in verse 10 ("as the Lord commanded"), verse 16 ("in the prescribed way"), and verse 21 ("as...commanded"). What was the result? "When [Moses and Aaron] came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down" (9:23b-24). The glory of God appears among them and joyful worship breaks out! What a time of ministry!

Then, as if to display the polar opposite, chapter 10 opens with Nadab and Abihu offering "unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command." What happened? Well, fire from the presence of the Lord fell again, but this time, it "consumed them, and they died before the Lord." How could it be wrong? They had good intentions...it was "before the Lord", after all. Unfortunately for these two priests, the intent of the ministry was not all that mattered...the instructions given by God mattered as well. Good intentions are not the biblical reflection of faith...obedience is the outpouring of faith. Faith would have kept Nadab and Abihu within the bounds of God's instruction, but disbelief led to the the notion that "it's the thought that counts".

What does that mean for us? It means that as we do ministry, whether as pastors or as Joe Church Member, the Scripture must instruct and conform our motives and methods. Good ideas that are not examined through the lens of Scripture can quickly lead to getting burned (pun intended). Walt Kaiser put it this way: "The point is that those who by virtue of their office are called to draw near to God constantly place themselves in a perilous, as well as privileged, position...Any act, or failure thereof, that may detract from the deity's absolute holiness, and thus tend to treat God in a light, trite, unthinking manner, would immediately expose those who draw near to possible danger."

There is great gravity in serving God as one of His ministers...let us live in that reality, and let us minister by revelation, not intuition.