The Heart of the Matter

This Sunday our elder who oversees finances said he needed to ask me a question about how to handle a gift in the offering, which was odd. (I am normally not involved in the offering at all)  I asked him what was up, and he gave me these:

CEC tokens
First, we all had a good laugh.  Hey, skee ball for the pastoral staff! 🙂 (okay, if you look close it’s actually 2 Chuck E. Cheese tokens and 1 Cabela’s token…so skee ball and animatronic shooting gallery!) Then I thought about it some more, and thought about how Jesus handled the same issue.

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”” (Luke 21:1–4, ESV)

I can just imagine the disciples around Jesus looking at those coins (they were worth about a half penny each) and having a good chuckle. “Awww…isn’t that sweet?” Jesus, though, thought the world of that gift.  He saw the heart behind the gift and honored it.  He knew that the amount was not the key, but the sacrificial heart that prompted it that was important.

Some little one in our congregation wanted to honor God by giving of their finances this past Sunday, and they had some tokens to give.  What is not much to most of us, to them was probably all that they had.  And I think that honors God a great deal.

If we look at the larger principle, how often do we not serve God, honor Him, obey Him, and worship Him because we think our offering is too small? How often do we look at the outside rather than the inside, the effect rather than the heart? And are we willing to look past the appearance to see how God sees?

How about you? Do you look for the heart? Are you giving God your all, no matter how small? Are you focused on the activity or on the heart behind it?

The Christmas Spirit

Holy cow it’s been difficult for me to get in “the Christmas spirit” this year.  I’m not all “humbug” or anything, but it’s been busy pretty much nonstop.  From Thanksgiving until now it seems like it’s been one thing after another, from grading final papers at school to late nights in pastoral care to making the 2010 budget and the Christmas play at church this weekend, I have been running around like mad.  We adopted a stray dog (who we found a home for today!), and I am in the final stretch of training for a half-marathon.

The past two weeks I have been trying to get some more quiet and reverence since school has been out, but it hasn’t been easy or particularly successful.  I’ve had several marriages in significant crisis that I am trying to help; the holidays increase money stress, which increases marital stress.  I have 4 sermons in the next 10 days (Christmas play, this Sunday, Christmas Eve, and the following Sunday) to prepare for, and for me sermon prep is a time-consuming process of study, prayer, writing, outlining, and thinking.  We are inviting the church to come to our house on Sunday afternoon for Christmas carols, cookies, and fellowship, which is stressful because we’ve been cleaning and de-cluttering the house in preparation.  (If you’re in town, you better come see us!  The house will NEVER look this nice again!)

I know that I am not alone in my craziness.  I took Laura out to lunch yesterday at a restaurant near a local mall, and at 11:30 on a Thursday morning the mall parking lot was completely jammed full of cars.  The consumerist cycle continues unabated in America, with news reports touting better-than-expected holiday sales and parents rushing to get the latest toy craze for the kids. (this year it’s the zhu zhu pet)  Like I said earlier I am seeing a lot of marital breakdowns right now, much of it centered around money and holiday stress.  Several good people I know are out of work right now and looking for a job that will last beyond the New Year.  I have military friends trying to cram in some family time before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.  My heart aches as a pastor when my congregants hurt, so I work hard to help them.

Throughout all of this, God has been calling me back again and again to a particular verse of Scripture that isn’t normally associated with Christmas; even though it’s not really “Christmas-y” it has spoken to me powerfully this December.  The prophet Micah wrote it during a time in Israel and Judah when they had fantastic wealth but also a smugness and contentment in their lives that took them away from the worship of God.  They had class warfare and financial ease, and since life wasn’t too bad their hearts got hard before the Lord.  In Micah 6:8 God looks at them and points a finger at their debauchery, showing them the simple yet profound demand that He has on them as His people:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

In the midst of all of the busyness, God has called me to three simple habits and attitudes.

  1. “To do justice”: I like the way that the NIV puts this: “to act justly.”  God wants me to be upright in my thoughts and conduct.  Despite the hustle and bustle He calls me to do the right thing, all the time and as an act of worship.  That means I look out for others this Christmas, be they the kid lost in the mall or the clerk who gives me too much change at the store or the friend who needs a call.  God is just and wants me to be as well.
  2. “To love kindness”: God wants me to love kindness, to be merciful and loving to people.  He wants me to share the good news of Christ with others, to help them live to honor God (how unloving to allow a friend to debase themselves in sin and never try to help!), and to be there for them when they fall.  He wants me to extend forgiveness to others just as He has to me.  So when someone cuts me off in traffic or hurts my feelings I need to forgive them in love.  I need a soft heart with thick skin!
  3. “to walk humbly with your God”: How hard it can be for a type “A” personality like me to walk humbly with God.  He is the one responsible for any success and goodness in my life.  He is the one who provides it all, and yet how often do I take the credit!  He wants humility; He wants me to know where I stand in His eyes and to shine His glory rather than my own into His world.  He wants me to be His instrument rather than use Him as a tool to build my career or the path to my own success. 

This is the call I have from God this Christmas.  It’s been a busy one, and frankly I don’t see it letting up before the New Year.  Even so, I can enjoy the spirit of Christmas by remembering the cry of the prophet Micah.  God sent His Son into the world to pay the price for my sins and yours (1 John 2:1-2), living the words of Micah to perfection.  He came not for His benefit but for mine, so this Christmas I want to focus on doing the same to the best of my ability for His glory.  My prayer is that perhaps the call on me this Christmas can help you live out the call He has in your life too.

Merry Christmas!

The Importance of Reality Checks

Note: This post comes from Alice Shoaf. Alice led worship at the church I pastored in Maricopa for 3 1/2 years and is a good friend. This post made me think and my hope is that it leads you to reflection as well.

I am a singer, first and foremost. I love poetry, I love to worship, I strive to live a life that honors God in every way that I can. I also love animals and sports and rock-climbing and being incredibly competitive. It can be an interesting mix! But singing is in my soul; and whenever my soul is out of sorts it is singing that brings me back where I need to be. So it’s not surprising that there are some really special songs that wrap me up. Here is one of those special songs:

The things that I love and hold dear to my heart

Are just borrowed, they’re not mine at all.

Jesus only let me use them to brighten my life –

So remind me, remind me, dear Lord.

Nothing good have I done to deserve God’s only Son

I’m not worthy of the scars on His hands.

Yet He chose the road to Calvary to die in my stead

Why He loves me I can’t understand.

Roll back the curtain of memory now and then

Show me what I used to be, and where I might have been

Remember, I’m human, and humans forget

So remind me, remind me dear Lord.

When I am doing pretty well, doing God’s will and striving to live a holy life, it is so easy to look around at other folks and be pleased with my performance. That’s where the trouble starts; for as long as I am really doing well, it’s not a performance. It’s a life choice, and it honors God. Even when I mess it up, which is often, it still honors God because my heart is right.

As soon as I start comparing myself to someone else, though, it becomes a performance. It is no longer God-honoring, it is self-serving. I am now honoring me. God may still be able to use what I do for good, but a lot of my effort is lost because my heart is not right at all. So now, not only am I self-serving, I am also ineffective. I’m just another busy person with nothing good to show for it.

That is why I love this song. There are times when God rolls back that curtain of memory; when I see, in my own life or someone else’s, where I used to be – or could have been – before God started changing me and making me the person He sees in me. I don’t much like that person any more, and have no wish to go down that road. Reality checks are more than good. They are necessary to continued growth. They keep us focused on where we are and who got us here. They keep life in perspective.

Next time things are going a little awry, just ask yourself: Is this a reality check? Read this song aloud, and see if your perspective comes back into line. Then thank God for rolling back the curtain of memory now and then.

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