Thursday, April 17, 2008

Safe Answers, or God as a Magic 8 Ball.

For all of the grief I give my old Sunday school lessons, I really did enjoy them. It's hard to hate flannel graphs and construction paper and cookies and swing sets. The wordless book? Does it come with M&M's? Those were good days. I liked Sunday school up until about the third or fourth grade. Thanks to the sophisticated education I received in the public school system, I learned that information needed to become increasingly complex. Mathematics went from addition and subtraction to multiplication and division. American history eventually mixed in with world history. Music lessons went from singing Raffi tunes and patriotic classics to reading simple sheet music and playing recorders. But in Sunday school, the teachers offered the same simple answers to nearly every question I asked. "It's either Jesus, the Bible, prayer, or church."

My friend Erik told an old joke last weekend at a Christian youth conference. "A Sunday school teacher asked his students, 'what's brown, with a fuzzy tail, and stores acorns for the winter?' One of the students raised his hand and said, 'Well it sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer has to be Jesus.'" We laughed. The kids laughed. Everybody felt a little righteous in knowing that they weren't like those people. But then the guest speaker stood for his half hour lecture. He talked about the common belief that God answers prayer in one of three ways, "yes, no, or in a little while." I'd heard that all through my early years in the church. I graduated high school hearing this from teachers. When the guest speaker brought this up, I leaned forward in my seat, hoping he'd go into the direction of the Holy Spirit in prayer. He was so close. Man was he close. But he left it at another safe answer. "God always wants the answer to be 'yes'. The closer you get to God, the more you'll ask for the things He already wants to give you."

My first thought was this, "You just simplified an already over-simplified answer." Why do we treat a complex, personal, and infinite God like one of those coin-operated fortune-tellers? I’m not saying that every simple explanation of faith bothers me. For example, what’s the basis of my salvation? Jesus came, died an innocent man for the guilt of humanity, and then got up. Sure, there’s more to it than that, but the simplicity of the answer is a true summary of the gospel.

It’s when people read something they don't understand in the Bible that they feel compelled to have a simple explanation. For example, the Bible says that it’s God’s will to heal people. Jesus told his disciples to pray for the sick and heal them. But when some people didn’t see this happening in their daily lives (how do you spell that one guy’s name? Warfield?), they start adding interpretations to life that don’t seem to have any basis in scripture. Suddenly, the gifts of the Spirit were “for those times, but not for now.” It’s like they gave God an easy way out of proving Himself. As if He needed one.

In terms of hearing God’s voice, allowing Him the answers “yes, no, or in a little while” presents another easy out. A person doesn’t need to hear His voice if they only ask God for something and then assume His answer based on whether or not it was given to them. But what about those times when a person is desperate and needs guidance, a solution to a problem? What if they exchange looked like this:

Man: God, what should I do?

God: Yes.

Man: Yes what? How will I ever reconcile with my dad?

God: In a little while.

Man: Okay, I guess that sort of makes sense. But what should I do when the opportunity presents itself?

God: No.

I remember having a conversation like this when I was, like, ten. But it was with one of those Magic 8 Balls. My friends were trying to tell me, “This thing can answer any question. It’s kind of spooky.” I asked questions I knew it couldn’t answer, like “who was President of the United States last year?” and, “Who is a better band, Soul Asylum or Green Jelly?” My friends protested that it couldn’t answer those types of questions. I said, “Yeah, but you can. So I guess that makes you smarter than the Magic 8 Ball."

People ask a Magic 8 Ball for an answer they know it can give. But it’s impersonal and limited. The Christian church says that God is personal (at the very least, a personality) and limitless. Still, if we don’t understand something about His personality, we come up with an answer that sounds more like an excuse on His behalf. In our brilliance, we have to bail God out of a situation He can’t handle with answers that people can’t refute.

If we never have to take the risk of trusting a God who we don’t fully understand, then we never have to risk obeying a command we don’t understand. We never have to humbly take our place as created and finite beings, giving authority to the infinite creator. We’ll never have to look stupid in front of our friends or co-workers. We can keep God at an explainable distance. And it also means that we’ll never have a real relationship with Him.

God pisses me off sometimes. Seriously, He does. I wrestle with Him all the time over things that I don’t understand. But in that struggle and in the conversations, we form a relationship. We develop intimacy and trust that couldn’t exist if I limited Him to answering Yes-or-No questions. A few years ago, I finally realized that it’s okay not to know everything about God. When someone asks me a question about my beliefs, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know yet.” It may not be a very savvy answer, but it’s better than making something up to save face.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tithing – Giving to God what He gave to us so He can give us more to give to others.

From the day I saw it and for the rest of my life, I will love Fiddler On The Roof. The father, Tevye, has a habit of weighing his decisions with the phrase, "but on the other hand…" I like the idea of balance. So instead of moving on from my last post, I'm going to give my opinion on the other side of the issue. Usually, I refer to the New American Standard Bible online, but today all of my scripture references will come from the translation I read every morning, The Complete Jewish Bible.

In his first letter to Timothy, a young church leader, the Apostle Paul makes an interesting statement about a few members of the congregation. The second paragraph of the sixth chapter begins in verse two. “Teach and exhort people about these things. If anyone teaches differently and does not agree to the sound precepts of our Lord Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah and to the doctrine that is in keeping with godliness, he is swollen with conceit and understands nothing. Instead, he has a morbid desire for controversies and word-battles, out of which come jealousy, dissention, insults, evil suspicions, and constant wrangling among people whose minds no longer function properly and who have been deprived of the truth, so that they imagine that religion is a road to riches.” This is already starting to sound like a few men I’ve seen on television. Swollen with conceit, having a morbid desire for controversy and arguments, and convincing people that religion is a surefire way to become wealthy. It’s enough to make a guy feel secure in his distaste for televangelism.

But then, to my surprise, Paul tags this bit on the end of his tirade, “Now true religion does bring great riches, but only to those who are content with what they have. For we have brought nothing into the world; and we can take nothing out of it; so if we have food and clothing, we will be satisfied with these.”

This calls to mind Jesus’ exhortation to his followers in Matthew 6:25-33. “Therefore, I tell you, don’t worry about your life – what you will eat or drink; or about your body – what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?” Then Jesus goes on to give examples of God’s provision. At the end of the chapter, He says this: “So don’t be anxious, asking, ‘What will we eat?,’ ‘What will we drink?,’ or ‘How will we be clothed?’ For it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Jesus said that God will give us everything we need to live, such as food and clothes. And Paul says that we should be content with these. But the point Jesus made in Matthew 6 was not to seek the material needs God promises to fulfill. The point is seeking after Him and His righteousness. The point is service because, as Paul said, we didn’t bring anything into this world, and we can take nothing out of it. Nothing was ours to begin with, and we don’t get to keep it as our own in the end. Every good thing comes from God (James 1:17) and we get to take care of it while we’re here on Earth.

But in a later passage, Jesus teaches the significance of a servant’s stewardship of the master’s property. Consider the parable of talents told in Matthew 25. Beginning in verse 19, the master of an estate entrusts five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and one talent to a third. I’m not sure how this converts into modern currency, but I think that one talent was at least one year’s wages. After a while, the master returns from his journey and reviews the servants’ stewardship of his property. The first two servants used their talents wisely, and the master replies to them each in verse 21 and 23, “Excellent! You are a good and trustworthy servant. You have been faithful with a small amount, so I will put you in charge of a large amount. Come and join in your master’s happiness!” The third servant doesn’t do so well. Actually, out of fear, the guy buried his master’s talent in the ground. The master punishes him for his poor stewardship and gives the one talent to the first servant, who had proven himself most faithful.

The third servant did what many people in our culture do. They hoard their money. They hide it away. They put it in secure places. They try to prevent loss and “keep what is theirs”. But if nothing is ours, and God gave us everything, then we have a responsibility to give portions of our money back to Him as a sacrifice. It’s a way for us to say, “I serve you, not money.” And the language used in Malachi 3:8-9 is pretty direct. “Can a person rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In tenths (tithes) and voluntary contributions (offerings). A curse is on you, on your whole nation, because you rob me.” Yowzer. When I read those verses, I’m pretty convinced that God means business. But then dig what God says in verse 10, “‘Bring the whole tenth into the storehouse, so that there will be food in my house, and put me to the test,’ says Adonai-Tzva’ot (The Lord of Hosts). ‘See if I won’t open for you the floodgates of heaven and pour out for you a blessing far beyond your needs.’”

In respect to my earlier post, there are conditions to giving in 2 Corinthians 9:5-13. Paul says that gifts and offerings shouldn’t be “exacted by pressure” or given “grudgingly or under compulsion”. And when God does bless us, His blessings are for the purposes of charity and generosity as well as personal needs. So in a sense, we do “give to get”. But 2 Corinthians 9 says that we should give cheerfully, not greedily. And those blessings aren’t for us to hide away and bury in the ground. We take what we need and use to rest to bless others. Verse 13 says, “In offering this service you prove to these people that you glorify God by actually doing what your acknowledgement of the Good News of the Messiah requires, namely, sharing generously with them and with everyone.”

The fact is that God does bless people who take care of what they’ve been given. It starts with a total surrender to Him. Then, maybe, the blessing starts with food and clothes. We learn how to trust and be content with His provision there. Then He blesses us with increase, more than the basic needs of food and clothes. Remember what Paul said, this increase is meant for more than our pockets. It is also meant for helping others and it enables us to glorify God.