Beyond the call of duty

What is expected of us as Christians?

Ask a random person on the street and you'll probably hear "Go to church" and "Be nice" and "Don't do bad things."  The image I have is of a neighbor who smiles when he sees you, waves and carries plastic baggies when he walks his dog through the neighborhood.

These expectations make us chuckle.  We know there's more to being a follower of Christ.

 But what?

As I've been preparing for my sermon (I'm preaching at Crossway this Sunday), I've been thinking about God's expectations for us and what it would look like for us to go beyond the call of duty.

God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh (ch. 1).  Jonah resisted (ch. 1-2), but eventually went (ch. 3).  The story seems like it should end there.  But it doesn't.

God keeps pushing Jonah.  But to do what?

To care.

God has compassion on Nineveh and he's calling Jonah to go and do likewise. 

Why do you think God kept pushing Jonah?

How to Get Started in Your Giving

This is the final post in an 8 part series.  For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage at ... Short Series: On Giving.

Going from zero to something is often the hardest part of an endeavor. 

This is true all over life.  Going from zero hours per week in the gym to some hours per week in the gym.  Going from zero bike riding ability to some bike riding ability.  Going from zero regular writing to some regular writing.  Resistance. 

The same is true with giving.

If you want to get started in your giving - whether you've just gotten your first job, just received agreement in your marriage to begin giving, or just decided that you want to start supporting some ministry - here are some moves to help you dive in.

1) Know where your money is going

This move reflects our role in relation to our money.  All money belongs to God.  We are just stewards.  (For more on this idea, check out the first point in my post on Ignoring the Tithe).

No matter what you're doing in the realm of money - budgeting, planning, giving - knowing where your money is going is a great first step.  Ignore this step and you run the risk of undermining everything else you try.  The most generous person in the world can't give much if they're broke.  And not paying attention to where your money is going puts you on the pathway toward being broke.

2) Start small ... and build.

Figure out how much you want to start giving, but please, start small.  Start small and build.  Give yourself time to ease in to giving.  I've seen too many people jump right in at 10%, struggle to pay their bills, then stop giving.  If you aren't used to giving, it will take time to adjust to it. 

Remember, your giving should bring you joy.  It's not a burden or a duty.  God doesn't hold back his love or favor to you until you're giving your money generously.  He himself is our peace, our righteousness.  So, we can start small and build.  $10, $20, $50 ... drip, drip, drip ... small and sustainable, not binges.  We want to become generous people.  Let's pursue giving like discipline.

3) Choose to give to something exciting

This is a fun step.  Pick where you want to give.  Give to something that gets you excited, that makes you happy, that lines up with your values, that fits your relationships.  Give to something you want to give to (ie. not something you feel that you should give to).

Don't be surprised if you're already invested in whatever it is.  Our money isn't the only thing we have to give.  When I first started giving, I gave to the ministry at Duke, where I had been involved as a leader for the past several years.  I had already given hundreds of hours.  It made sense to give a few dollars.

4) Find out what type of giving best for them

What does the organization need?  What is the best way to give to the organization?  Remember, you want to be a blessing.  Often, there are simple ways to be helpful in your giving that you may not realize.

Here's a simple example of this: if you give to InterVarsity, you can save us time and money if you give through electronic funds transfer.  If you give a credit card gift (which takes about the same amount of time), the card company takes a fee.  If you mail a check, someone needs to process it.  InterVarsity runs a national budget of $60 million every year and had thousands of people giving (that's a lot of checks to keep track of ... and think about what a 3% fee means).

5) Give regularly first

I didn't do this, but I wish I had.  When I got my first job, I quickly gave a gift to the Duke chapter, a soundsystem.  It helped the ministry, but didn't get me into a pattern of giving.  It was a year before I gave another gift and another year before I was giving regularly to anyone.

Big gifts are fun to give.  Responding to needs is satisfying.  But if you want to become a giver, someone who lives a lifestyle that supports giving, start by giving regularly.  Give something out of every paycheck.

And most ministries really appreciate regular giving.  The Byczeks have given a gift toward our work every month for the past seven years.  I know I can count on them.  Our regular donors really help us plan our finances as a ministry.

6) Set and communicate a date to end / re-evaluate your gift

Don't lock yourself in for life!  This is an easy mistake to make.  Giving decisions flow out of a complex network of relationships, needs, opportunities and capacity.  Clarity in communication helps everyone.

As someone who fundraises and works at a non-profit, I understand that my donors may not give to my work forever.  Some are passionate about our work with college students because they are sending their own kids off to school.  Others, because they go to church with me.  If my life or their life changes, of course giving would change.  That's okay!

It makes me so sad when people stop giving AND start avoiding me.  I value relationships more than donations.  When I give to people, I try really hard to communicate when I'll be re-evaluating my giving and why.  So far, this has preserved all of my relationships with people and ministries to which I've stopped giving.

7) Start giving

Did you think I would forget this step?

8) Adjust to your giving

The last move to make involves adjusting to your giving.  In our age of credit cards and home-equity loans, of electronic fund transfers and Pay-Pal, giving can be disconnected from your financial reality.  If you start giving, but don't adjust your lifestyle accordingly, you can dig yourself deeply into debt.

Giving is fun ... and addictive.  People are grateful.  Lives are changed, even saved.  It's so tempting to give more than you can afford.  People have even created whole theologies to justify this (have faith to give more than you can afford and God will make up the difference).  But this can be devastating.

Debt turns us into slaves, darkens our hearts with fear, blinds us to God's goodness and generosity.  If all that my students have to show from their management of their finances in their first five years out of college is that they are free from debt, I would be so happy.  Debt-freedom is so rare, so precious.

Don't go into debt in order to give.  Know where your money is going.  Pay attention to it.  And live within your means.  It's okay if your decision to give clips Starbucks from your budget.  It's okay to take a smaller vacation, to drive a cheaper car, to live in a smaller home.  Adjust to your giving or your giving will adjust to you.

For those of you who are experienced givers, what other moves should we be thinking about?  Anything else we need to know to get started?

How We Decide Where to Give

This is the seventh post in an 8 part series.  For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage ... Short Series: On Giving.

"Nobody gives because of the tax-benefit" I remember my Dad saying as I started my fundraising to come on Staff with InterVarsity.  He helped me raise a big portion of my budget that first year and also helped me understand why people would be interested in giving to my work with college students.

Fundraisers and non-profits are constantly exploring how we decide where to give.  Some folks have created solid lists of motivations for giving.  Others have drawn up profiles of different types of givers.  The hope is that, if you understand how people decide where to give, you'll be able to get them to give more money to your cause or organization and feel happier about their giving.  Win-win.

So, how do you decide where to give?  Have you thought about your decision-making process?

Amy and I give to several different people and organizations.

In the past month, here's a sample of our giving ...

Joe Ho - the Area Director for InterVarsity's work with college students in the Shenandoah Valley.  Joe directs one of the largest teams in InterVarsity and is impacting hundreds and hundreds of students.  Before he moved to Virginia, Joe staffed the InterVarsity chapter at Duke (where he taught me how to lead Small Groups, nourished my enthusiasm for multi-ethnic witness and became a good friend).  Click on this link to learn more about Joe's ministry or donate toward his work.

Natalia Kohn - planting a new InterVarsity chapter with community college students in Pasadena, CA.  Naty's work connects with us in several ways.  She cares about community college students and cares about planting ministry on campuses that have no ministry.  She also deeply cares about multi-ethnicity and evangelism.  I worked with her on the LaFe10 planning team and she is a good friend.  On top of this, she had a matching gift given to her and was on course to end the year in the red.  Our gift could really help her.  Click on this link to support Natalia's work with students in Pasadena.

Crossway Church's missions trip to Haiti - on Saturday, a group from our church is going to Haiti to help out with an orphanage there.  The team will work on a project or two, spend time with the kids and learn about what God's doing in Haiti.  We work with a lot of Haitian students in our ministry here and I was deeply moved by Kent Annan's book After Shock (see my review of After Shock for more info).  We were really excited to have a chance to support this trip, even though we couldn't go.  Click on this link to help the team go to Haiti (any money above-and-beyond the cost of the trip will go to help the orphanage).

Now, I'm hesitant to talk about our giving patterns.  Some people think that missionaries should live hand-to-mouth and the thought that we'd also be donors strikes them as strange.  But part of the value of this blog is to be honest and transparent.

One of the things I notice when I look at our giving patterns is that almost all of our giving is relational.  Joe, Naty, the folks at Crossway (as well as Fred, Stacy and Eric, Bill, Rachel, and Deb ... who didn't get profiles written about them) ... we know, love and care about these people and the work they're doing.  We want our hearts to be with them and their work (giving and the heart are deeply connected).

Our giving is focused.  We give to missions and the church.  We focus on college students and cross-cultural ministry, thought not exclusively.  Although I'm tempted to give to Colbert's Super PAC, there's no political giving.  And there's very little giving to help the poor (this month).

Our giving has a blend of regular and one-time gifts.  Some folks get gifts from us every month.  Some get them as needed.  We like to support on-going, steady, high-impact ministries (like Joe's) and emerging, accelerating, high-potential ministries (like Naty's).  Different ministries need different kinds of gifts.

We also keep some money aside for great opportunities.  I learned this practice from Bill Hunter.  Having some wiggle-room built into your budget (or a snowballing giving fund that grows month to month) allows you to make a big impact in the face of pressing needs.  A neighbor loses a job.  A ministry loses a large donor.  An outreach opportunity comes up, but there's no time to raise funds for it.  That's where this money comes in.  You only get to use it once or twice a year, but it's exciting.

As I've looked, I can definitely see areas I need to tweak and places I need to grow.  Adjusting to being a one-income family is requiring us to re-think where we give.

What about you?  How do you decide where to give?

Working with college students, we're often surrounded by people who are thinking about giving for the first time.  Do you remember how rich you felt when you had your first job?  Tomorrow, I'll share about how to get started in your giving and that post will finish up the Short Series.

Giving and the Heart

This post is the sixth post in an 8 part series. For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage ... Short Series: On Giving.

Which comes first, the giving or the heart?

"Show me your checkbook and I'll show you what you care about" we proverbially hear. (Students, a checkbook is what people used back before we invented debit cards and electronic transfers).  Our hearts and our giving are intimately connected.

Common sense tells us that the heart comes first.  We assume that we give to people, groups and causes that we care about.  We think that we control our money.

But Jesus assumes that our hearts follow our money. 

In Matthew 6, Jesus encourages a gathered crowd to store up treasures in heaven, rather than on earth. And his reason for doing this is that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  Treasure / money / giving comes first.  Our hearts follow.

What does this mean for us?

First, we can pay attention to our money as a lie-detector.

When we know that something has gone wrong with our hearts, when something feels off, we can look at our checkbooks (or our personal finance software).  Sometimes, a look at our finances can uncover sources of disquiet we hadn't considered.  Our words may deceive us, mislead us as to our values and intentions.  Sometimes the numbers can open our eyes. 

Second, we can use our money as a steering wheel.

If your heart follows your money, you may be able to influence your priorities.  I know, this is a logical tumble.  But I've found it helpful in my own life.  Thoughtful, intentional financial investment can open doors for deeper commitment.  The same is true for all of our treasures (ie. time, property, toys, skills, etc...).

Third, we cannot move our hearts without moving our money.

Throughout the Bible, the people of God are warned over and over again not to love money too much.  Love of God and love of money are set up as opponents.  If our hearts are going to be turned toward God, our attitude toward money has to change.  And sometimes, God uses money to turn our hearts toward him.

How have you seen money influence your heart?

Walking through this material has made me re-examine my and Amy's giving patterns.  Tomorrow, I'll share some of my findings and decision-making processes.  I think it'll help you to know how we decide where to give.

Cheerfulness in Giving

This post is the fifth post in an 8 part series. For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage ... Short Series: On Giving.

Sermons on money usually make congregations cringe.  The guilt gun comes out.  The shame shingle gets hung.  The manipulation machine cranks into full gear.

But God loves a cheerful giver.  At least, according to Paul (see 2 Corinthians 9).  "Don't give reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" he says.  Reluctantly, under compulsion. No. Cheerful. Yes.

I find the contrast stunning.

Paul encourages people to give.  He isn't passive.  But he doesn't twist arms.

Now, we might be tempted to think that Paul was just a nice and gentle person, that he had a laid-back personality, but that's not true.  Paul was an in-your-face guy (see Galatians 2:11-14 and 5:11-12).  There must be another reason.  Why does cheerfulness in giving matter?

Perhaps we can find the answer earlier in the "God loves a cheerful giver" passage. 

Cheerful giving is contrasted with reluctant and compulsatory giving.  Digging into the Greek a little, cheerful giving is contrasted with giving out of sorrow, grudgingly, out of duty or custom.  There's a sense of freedom and intentionality in cheerful giving.

And cheerfulness in giving is also linked to Paul's concept of sowing and reaping.  And this isn't in a cut and dried, "claim the promise," contractual way.  But more generally.  Reluctant and compulsatory giving trends toward the minimum.  Duty focuses on the expected.  Real generosity focuses on opportunity.  Not "What must I give?" but "What can I give?" (This concept of opportunity and privilege, as opposed to duty, is central to the Good Samaritan parable).

Bottom line: Paul was willing to accept smaller, cheerful gifts rather than large, reluctant gifts.  Why is keeping us from going and doing likewise?

How and why we give connects intimately with our hearts and values.  Jesus spoke insightfully into the connection between giving and the heart: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21).  No series on giving, even a short series, would be complete without exploring this theme.  That's where I'm going next.

To the Church ... and Beyond!

This post is the fourth post in an 8 part series. For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage ... Short Series: On Giving.

Have you ever heard a sermon on giving encouraging you to bring your whole tithe into the storehouse? (lifted out of context from Malachi 3)

The idea is simple.  Israel was supposed to bring their whole tithe to the Levites in the storehouse (as commanded in Malachi).  The "storehouse" is the local church.  The staff at that local church are "Levites."  And church members get to play "Israel."  Plug.  Chug.

But this doesn't work.  The church is made up of Jew and Gentile ... no Israel here.  The staff at our local churches are allowed to own property, rarely inherit their roles and aren't all male or all Jewish ... no Levites here.  So, why should we consider the "storehouse" to be the local church?

Frankly, I don't think that we should consider the local chuch the new storehouse.

Christians are free to give their money broadly.  To a local church.  To several local churches.  To missions and ministries.  To individuals.  To charities and causes.

Look at Paul's example.  He travelled from church to church taking up a collection for the starving church in Jerusalem.  He accepted gifts from the church in Philippi and cast vision for financial support from the church in Rome.  Advancing God's kingdom and caring for God's people were priorities for Paul.  And he never mentioned the "storehouse."

Now, I understand the complexity of church finances.  I've been in conversations where church strategy was influenced by fear of "losing the tithers."  Many pastors teach the storehouse idea out of fear that people will stop giving.  But at what cost?

I believe, to paraphrase Bill Hybels, that God intends the local church to be the hope of the world.  Our call as Christians is a beautiful, compelling call.  People will give their lives, not just their tithe, to this call.

Perhaps our appeals to the storehouse reflect doubt about the beauty of our call.  Perhaps they reveal that we aren't captured by the call ourselves.  Perhaps they show a drift in our mission ... we've abandoned our first love and our primary call.  We may get money through guilt and gimmicks, but the local church needs more than our money.

Our churches need people to respond to the call of God.  He calls us to worship, to serve, to care.  He is the storehouse and we are to bring to him not just a tithe but everything.

Wise churches encourage people to give to God's mission, wherever it breaks in.  (Full disclosure: this includes parachurch-folk like me who minister to college students)  And, perhaps, at first, churches that encourage giving to mission experience a dip in the money that comes their way.  But a church that cares about God's mission first and foremost will soon draw people who are responding with their all to God's call.  And then they'll have other problems.  What do we do with all these volunteers?  What do we do with all these ideas?  What do we do with all this money?

How would you respond to a church that encouraged you to give to the church and beyond, that seemed interested in God's mission in the world and God's cause locally?

One big issue that keeps coming up for me is the biblical teaching that God loves a cheerful giver.  So much conversation around Christian giving orbits around wisdom and obligation, ignoring the impact of freedom and joy on the experience of giving.  I'll be reflecting on this next: "Cheerfulness in Giving"

Why You Should Pay Attention to the Tithe

This post is the third post in an 8 part series. For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage ... Short Series: On Giving.

I know very little about cars.  Or trucks.  Or anything with an engine for that matter.

When the gas light comes on, I know I need to stop and get gas.  When the windshield wiper light comes on, I know I need to put more fluid in.  When the oil light comes on, well, that's when I phone a friend.

The tithe works well as a warning light. 

But that's not how it's normally used.

The tithe is one of the most abused concepts in the Christian tradition (for more on this, see yesterday's post on ignoring the tithe).  But all of these abuses don't remove the value of the tithe.  In fact, in the face of all of these abuses, it's more important than ever for us to know what role the tithe has in the Christian life.

Here's what I'm thinking ...

If God really owns everything, then we have a responsibility to take care of the portions of His Everything he entrusts to us (for a great article on this, check out Alex Kirk's article on creation care).  This includes our stuff, our relationships and even our money.

If we have a responsibility to take care, we should know what's going on with our stuff, our relationships and even our money.  What's in your attic?  What's going on in your family?  What's in your wallet? 

One result of this is that we need to know where our money is going.  And we need to be actively, not just passively, directing where our money goes.  Our responsibility to be active is a direct result of our position as stewards, the inherent pull of money and our hearts' inclination toward selfishness and greed.

In this environment, the tithe stands as a warning light.  If you're paying attention to where your money is going and you find yourself keeping more than 90% of your income, the tithe blinks to catch your attention.  There may be good, reasonable reasons for your dip in giving: a job loss, a foolish mistake, a job loss caused by a foolish mistake. 

The tithe doesn't condemn those of us who are in Christ, but it does warn.

Ignoring the tithe is like ignoring warning lights on your car.  It's not a big deal, so long as none of the lights are blinking or broken.  But if your gas light comes on, you should consider getting off the interstate.  If your tithe light comes on, pay closer attention to where your money is going.

But can the tithe serve as more than a warning?

The tithe can serve as a milestone on our way toward epic generosity.
The tithe can serve as a way for a vision-strong church to project giving.
The tithe can serve as a starting place to discuss money with folks who grew up in church.
The tithe can serve as a round number for beginning budgeters.
The tithe can serve as a reminder of our historical connection to God's people.
The tithe can serve as an eye-opener in a world where 80% of people live on less than $10 per day (which, coincidentally, is a little less than 10% of the average American income).

What role does the tithe play in your thinking about your money?

Tomorrow, I'll be wrestling with the church's role as the storehouse for our giving.  Is it okay to give outside the church?  Do you have to give your first 10% to the church, before you give elsewhere?  And why does this matter?

Why You Should Ignore the Tithe

This post is the second post in an 8 part series.  For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage ... Short Series: On Giving

God owns everything.

This concept shapes how we think about life, money and success.  God owns the land that my house is built on, the land where my food was grown and processed, the land where my money is printed.  He owns the water I drink and the air I breathe.

This is the main reason you should ignore The Tithe.

A tithe is a King James-y way of saying 10% or one-tenth.  Throughout the Old Testament, God's people were instructed to give a tithe to God (ie. to their priests).  This practice predated the giving of the Law through Moses, as Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek generations earlier (see Genesis 14 and Hebrews 7).  The Tithe paid for a feast, supported the priests, helped the vulnerable (see Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy 14) ... but you should ignore it.

God owns everything, but The Tithe obscures this truth.

Conversation around The Tithe circles around "How much should I give?"  Pre-tax, post-tax?  Gross, net?  Weekly, monthly, yearly, immediately?  What if I have no income?  What if I have a huge income?  What if I have lots of assets but no income?

But these questions are the wrong questions.  We shouldn't be asking "How much should I give?" but "How much should I keep?"  Bill Hunter, my mentor and one of the most generous people I know, uses this principle to guide him and I've found it helpful.

That's the first reason you should ignore the tithe.

The Tithe is a distraction, used by churches to replace compassion. 

Now, you should be giving, giving to the local church and to missions, to your near and far neighbor, to the poor and the vulnerable.  You should be giving because your money ultimately belongs to God, not to you, and you have no right to keep all of it or spend all of it on yourself.  You should be giving because you love and care about people, because you love and care about God.  But the tithe makes giving a duty, and so distracts us.

This distraction is the second reason you should ignore the tithe. 

Three more reasons to ignore The Tithe ...

In Genesis 28, Jacob includes the tithe in an attempt to bribe God.  And we are all tempted to do this.  We feel that our tithing entitles us to more of God's favor and blessing.  What once was grace, now becomes payment.  What once had the power to stir gratitude in our hearts, now drives bitterness.  We feel that we deserve more because we give so much.

In 1 Samuel 8, a tithe is used as a sign of slavery and servitude when God's people asked for a human king to rule them.  That 10% was a weight around their necks, a burden, given without freedom and without choice and without joy.  I consider it no coincidence that the same amount Israel gave to the Levites, they were asked to give to their king.  The king replaced God.  Don't some of our churches do likewise?

In Luke 18, we see a Pharisee using his tithe as a display of righteousness, contrasted to the tax collector's humble "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  God prefers sinners who call out for mercy to sinners who think they aren't sinners because they tithe.  As a display of righteousness, a tithe is lousy.  God doesn't need the money.  And no amount of money can pay for your sins. 

What other reasons can you think of for ignoring the tithe?

Now, you might argue, aren't these five reasons all abuses of the tithe?  I mean, can't the tithe have some purpose?  God required his people to tithe for centuries, despite any confusion, distraction, bribery, enslavement and self-righteousness it caused.  Doesn't it still have some purpose?  Absolutely.  That's tomorrow's post.

Short Series: On Giving

Christians are statistically generous.  We give away more of our income than most groups in the United States ... 2.5% according to "How Evangelicals Give" in Christianity Today.

Now, 2.5% may not sound like a lot.  "What about the tithe?" you might ask.  Aren't Christians supposed to be giving 10% of their income to the work of God through the local church?

Tithes, offerings, gifts, talents ... there's so much confusion about giving.

I've been thinking about this a lot and talking about it with some of my good friends, so I thought I'd try to process some of my thoughts on the blog.  Here's an outline for this short series ...
As we get started, how do you feel when Christians start talking about giving?

Check out this post from April "Greedy or Broke?" This is the main issue around giving most of our churches and Christian communities face, but I won't repeat it in this series. 

Changing the world is too mechanical

Have you heard this classic story from the preacher's toolkit?

A man in his 20's sets out to change the world.  He sees no change.
In his 30's, he resolves to change his nation.  No change.
In his 40's, his city.
In his 50's, his family.
No change.  No change.  No change.

If he had started with himself, he might have seen change.
Change in his family.
Change in his city.
Change in his nation.
Change in the world.

All of us want to change the world.  But what if the change we want to see in the world, needs to start with us?  Small changes.  Toddler steps.  Tweaks.

God, through the church, is at work changing the world.  We struggle to participate in his work because we want to the doing the work ... active ... rather than being worked on ... passive.  Worked on.  The notion sounds mechanical and dehumanizing.  And that's why it's a good place to start.

If God changing us sounds too mechanical, maybe that's revealing.  Perhaps our thinking about change is impersonal and cold.  And perhaps this is one reason why so many of our attempts to change the world fail.

What comes to mind when you think about God changing you?

This is the Promised Land?

I wonder sometimes what Abraham thought of the Promised Land.

It can't have been that much different, that much better than home.  I don't think you ever catch Abraham waxing poetic about the size of the grapes and the quality of the honey.  He moves around a lot ... maybe because his wealth was tied up with his flocks, maybe because nothing felt comfortable ... the way you never really settle into a bicycle seat.

This is the Promised Land?

What if the Promised Land was only "better" because it was promised?  What if it was, in all other ways, a normal land, a land with difficulty and hardship and pain?  I wonder what this would mean for me.

When God calls me somewhere, I approach the new place with either Jonah-like dread or puppy-like anticipation.  I wag my tail and bark and yip and then am surprised when no one wants to feed me or take me on a walk.

I don't expect there to be difficulty in the promised land.

But difficulty doesn't remove the promise.

Who do you know that needs to be reminded of that?

Faith as trusting in specific promises

Lots of things threaten our faith.  Think of the people you know who've walked away from God, or refuse to approach Him in the first place.  I bet you can come up with a long list of their reasons: Christian hypocrisy, temptation, unanswered questions, unasked questions, etc ... The list could go on forever.

One item that belongs on that list is Disappointment.

We've all experienced it.  We expected something from God and that something didn't happen.  We feel that God didn't come through.  And our faith falters.

Even for those of us who pull through, this experience stinks.

There's something special about faith, this trust in the face of threatening disappointment.  In Romans 4, Paul talks about Abraham's faith, how he held on to God's promise of a son even as that opportunity seemed to biologically pass him by.  What do we do with this example?

While we were struggling with infertility, I took great comfort in Abraham's faith.  But should I have?  God didn't promise me a son.  He's made a lot of promises to me, but a son wasn't one of them.  Now that I'm Will's father, I'm grateful to God.  But what would have happened if Will never came to us?

In Paul's logic in Romans 4, faith needs to rest on specific promises.  Abraham was promised a son.  We are promised a Son, the Son, the only Son our Lord.  Our faith looks different from Abraham's as we have a different set of promises.  Moving forward in faith looks like trusting more and more in the specific promises we've been given. (For more on this theme, check out this previous post on promise-focus: Can you see the forest?).

If we all did this - trusted in the specific promises given to us and not lots of things that haven't been promised - we'd have clearer, strong faith and fewer disappointments.  Disappointment wouldn't go away.  Confusion wouldn't vanish.  But they'd be less and that'd be a start.

How can you tell if a biblical promise is meant for you?

Four Reasons I Keep a Notebook

I just finished filling my notebook.  For a year and a half, I've lugged it around and filled it.  It's not a journal or a diary.  There's little self-revelation there (that's part of what YoSteve is for).  But my notebook is very important.  Here're four reasons I keep a notebook ...

1) Notes

I know right, shock, notes in a notebook.

Leaders should take notes because they should expect to teach.  We should expect to need to know this stuff.  In one ear and out the other isn't an option for us.

Every sermon.  Every seminar.  Every good book.  These all deserve our best attention.  For me, this means taking notes (and occassionally reviewing them).

2) Prayer reminders

Since my notebook travels all over the place, it great for keeping track of my prayers.  I like tracking my prayers and I need lots of help being grateful.

On top of this, I use visual reminders to pray.  The Post-Its on the right are a reminder to pray for W&L students who aren't connected to God.  All year, these Post-Its in my notebook had me praying.

Any object that goes with you everywhere works for this purpose.

3) Theological reflection

Writing can make complex theological ideas more understandable.

The Trinity is a classic example.  Check out this picture of the Trinity.

In my notebook, I try to capture moments of theological insight.  They're precious because they're so rare, so I don't want them to disappear.

It can be scary to write down your theology.  We live in a culture where changing your mind is seen as a weakness, rather than a strength.  But it's hard to replace the clarity that comes from writing something down.

4) Preaching outlines

The last things you'll find, if you flip through my notebooks, are preaching outlines. I love to preach out of my notebook.  It communicates that the idea from this sermon is something I think is worth remembering and is something I've been processing myself.

I put the main idea at the top of the page, in big letters and surrounded by squiggly lines, reminding myself that this is the main thing I want people to hear.

Beneath, I have a classic point-by-point outline, occassional pictures and drawings, Bible references.  (The picture to the right was from a talk I did on Building a support team for short-term missions) Simple.  Useful.  That's what I'm looking for in my notebook.

Do you keep a notebook?  If so, what's in it?

Celebrity Preachers

Do you listen to any celebrity preachers?

With the easy accessibility of podcasts, everyone has great preaching at their fingertips.  You can listen to to John Piper and Andy Stanley and Tim Keller and CJ Mahaney ... even Steve Tamayo (so, not all the preaching online is "great preaching").  You can listen to sermons on any topic and any passage, addressed to any audience.  But should you?

A few years ago, I significantly trimmed down on my listening to celebrity preachers.  I did it for three reasons:
  1. I wanted to give my local pastor a fighting chance.  I didn't want to be constantly comparing him to these celebrities, many of which have prep teams, study sabbaticals and exclusive preaching duties.  I didn't want to be bored on Sunday.
  2. I didn't want the preaching pressure on myself.  I found myself comparing myself to and imitating preachers who had backgrounds and personalities and "congregations" that differed greatly from my own. 
  3. I wanted to use my podcast-time to "feed my learner."  I replaced sermons with history and philosophy and science podcasts.  I could still read theology.  But I'd rather listen to a science podcast than read a science book.
I'm in a new situation now, though.

My pastor is an excellent preacher.  Jon thinks well about his craft and is confident in his preaching.  I listen to his sermons when I travel (check them out at Crossway Church).  To tweak Lloyd-Jones' quote "I'd cross the street to hear him preach."

I'm also preaching much less.  From 50, 75, even 100 sermons every year, I preached twice last year.  The person I'm worried about comparing myself to now is myself from two years ago.

And I'm in the car a lot more, with a lot more time to listen to podcasts.

So, I'm revisiting my decision to stay away from celebrity preachers.

Any thoughts?

This is a light example of my idea from Sunday's post: What happens when your plans go awry?

God's Faithfulness and Our Failure

Talking with a friend this week, we found we shared a gap between our formal and lived theologies.  We believe that God saved us because of his generosity and grace.  Formal.  But we both worry that we'll mess it all up.  Lived.

This is a real problem.

It doesn't matter how Reformed my theology is.  My fear of failing refuses to fade.  The link between failing and rejection is burned so deeply across my heart.  My lived theology screams doubt about God's generosity and grace.

And try though I might, I can't correct this lived theology by hammering away on my formal theology.  But isn't this is what we all do? 

We memorize Scripture and listen to sermons and whittle and wax our formal theology until it's so sharp and so focused it's only useful as a weapon.  We turn this weapon on others, jabbing indiscriminately with our bright-edged theology until mission and abundant life collapse along with our allies.

And then we turn on ourselves.

But what if we found another way to get at our lived theology?

If God is truly free to be faithful, even when we're faithless ... then perhaps the way we correct our lived theology is through better lived theology. 

I'm trying that this month ... I'm laying practices of intimate lived theology alongside my fearful lived theology.  Prayer and journaling.  Broad Bible reading.  Risk and communion.  (Practices mentioned a "Help for application" post years ago.)

There's something incongrous ... paradoxical ... about laying these elements of an intimate lived theology alongside my fear.  My instincts tell me to focus on my fear, root it out directly, make room for prayer by "believing the gospel more," as if one can only come before the other.  Starving the fear feels too slow.

But it's working for me.  Today, at least.

What do you do when you fear your lack of faith will nullify God's faithfulness?

What happens when your plans go awry?

I took some time today to re-read Robert Burns' great poem "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plow."  You've probably never stumbled across it, but this line might be familiar:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
gang aft agley.
Or maybe this will ring a clearer bell:

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
The poem is hauntingly beautiful and simple, but having your plans go awry isn't.

Just this week, I resolved to begin getting in better shape by breaking a sweat every day.  Three straight days of hitting the basketball courts near my house and I had momentum.  Then, I broke/sprained/badly-jammed/did-something-bad-but-not-bad-enough-to-go-to-the-doctor to my big toe ... and I'm stuck on the couch.

My plan ... awry.

It was a good plan.  A simple plan.  Designed around an insightful understanding of discipline as training (see a post from a while back on spiritual disciplines and my last attempt to get in shape).  But it didn't include being stuck hobbling for a week.

When plans go awry, emotions bubble to the surface.  Frustration.  Fear.  Fatalistic apathy.  We can gloss them over with bad theology ("God must not have wanted me to _____ ").  We can plow forward, clinging to the plan even though the circumstances have changed.  Or we can do something else.

This "something" else makes a huge difference.  Some might say all the difference.

And here you might be expecting me to say something like "Pray" or "Listen to the Holy Spirit" or "Ask your wife for help."  Those are good things, but not what I have in mind.

No, my "something" is something simpler. 

When your plans go awry, remind yourself why you made the plan in the first place. 

Failing to do this does so much damage.  Imagine the family going on vacation to, ostensibly, make wonderful memories together and relax.  They plan to leave the house at 9am.  The plan goes awry.  An alarm doesn't go off.  Someone forgets to pack.  A child moves slowly.  9am slips by and becomes 9:30.  Honking horns.  Shouting.  Slamming doors.  The memories that stick are of this moment.  Not wonderful.  And no one relaxes.

A simple reminder of why the plan is in place helps us adjust our plans, renegotiate them.  Not idly.  Not on a whim.  But when they go awry, we have no other choice.

What do you do when your plans go awry?

Book Review: The Sower

The fund-raising piece of campus ministry is the number one reason people avoid our work.  It's also the number one reason people leave, exhausted.  But what can we do about it?

The Sower presents a new way of thinking about fund-raising for Christian ministry.  Not a new tactic.  Not a better process.  A new way of thinking.  And this new way of thinking makes fund-raising less scary and less exhausting.

Here's the core of their new way of thinking...
  • God is the one who raises funds for our organizations
  • We are called to teach and encourage biblical stewardship as a way to care for our organizations and our donors (not raise funds ... that's God's work!)
  • We can't give what we don't have (ie. we need to start teaching ourselves to think biblically about stewardship and money)
  • Work in seasons, with the bulk of your work focused on pastoring, not on asking
This way of thinking about fund-raising differs dramatically from our instincts.  Fund-raising, for many of us, feels like asking for handouts.  We would never dream to teach potential donors anything, for we sit in the beggar's seat.  And our reciprocal culture tells us that beggars can't be teachers.

The Sower is short, focused, practical and challenging.  The authors don't waste time and don't make things too complicated.  They have a simple idea and, since the idea could be presented in under 80 pages, they presented the idea succinctly. 

The two ideas that I found most challenging were ...
  • That you can't sow if you're not growing.  I studied the biblical basis for stewardship when I first came on Staff, but haven't given it much thought since.  I treated it as a way of boosting my confidence to ask people for money, rather than as a way of equipping myself to minister to our partners.  This needs to change!
  • We need to change what we count.  What gets measured matters.  I say this all the time in evangelism and in our discipleship practice.  Why don't I apply it to fund-raising?  Fund-raising-wise, we measure the bottom-line most: how much money has come in and how big are our deficits / surpluses.  We rarely measure the following: how many donors did you talk to this month, how many times did you pray for your donors, how many conversations have you had about biblical stewardship this month, what percentage of your donors have been thanked in the last 3 months.  This needs to change!
I would highly recommend this book to anyone in campus ministry or working in a church.  If we all took more seriously our call to teach and encourage biblical stewardship, none of us would struggle for funding (do we really believe this?).

How have you helped people better understand stewardship?

The Gospel to the Nations is the Gospel

Multi-ethnicity is a tricky value in InterVarsity.

Separated from our other values, it sounds small and trendy.  It conjures up images of quotas and awkward, forced venting sessions.  And it sounds very unspiritual.

We value multi-ethnicity in InterVarsity, celebrate it, but struggle with it.  The talk across the movement is evangelism or chapter planting or chapter building.  How does one squeeze multi-ethnicity into those conversations?

Ram Sridharan did just this.  Beautifully and well.  At our Area Director training, Ram challenged us to see that the gospel of Jesus is the gospel to the nations, evangelism and multi-ethnicity go hand in hand.

Apart from a vision and passion for reaching people in all their diversity, the gospel begins to sour.  This good news becomes self-affirming and divisive, narrow and tiny.  We confuse the gospel of Jesus and the narrative of our culture.

And the reality is that when evangelism is understood as sharing the gospel with the nations, other values follow.  Discipleship, missions, justice, community.  Even a bigger, missional vision for the church (see Ephesians 2).

What difference would it make if we refused to separate the gospel and the nations?

Inner Change

Few things provide more excitement to the Christian community than when someone becomes a Christian.  For good or ill, our hearts leap.

And in those initial moments, change begins to happen. 

But this change is usually on the surface level.  At least, that's the change that's easiest to see.  Language, weekly worship rhythms, habits around drinking and smoking ... these shift quickly.  But these aren't the most important.

In Romans 2, Paul talks about circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.  Before his time, circumcision marked people as belonging to the community.  Belonging to the community (and staying within the community) required one to live according to a set of laws.  But these laws were un-livable.

We all struggle to live by the moral and ethical demands of the Christian community.  Even our surface change fails to cover the entire surface.

Deeper change, by the Spirit, is a beacon of hope to us when the darkness of changelessness fills the horizon on the surface of our souls.  Change welling up from within is harder to spot, but beautiful when you see it.

What do you think inner change looks like?

Managing yourself

Who do you manage?

Our teachers raised this question during our Area Director training, with surprising results.

All of us knew that we needed to manage our Staff.  Some of us had thought about managing upwards.  Few of us had a vocabulary for self-management.

Joe Ho, my former Area Director first introduced me to this concept, challenging me to take time every week to work on my Staffwork.  For a year, I spent a morning every week in Barnes & Noble, reading books on teamwork and volunteer motivation.  It made a huge impact on my capacity to do my work on campus well.

Taking time for self-management proves very difficult in non-profit work, where we feel accountable to our donors for every dollar and every minute spent.  And even when we know that our short-term investment in personal development will pay long-term dividends, we fear lest we should be misunderstood.

But if we don't, we'll burn out and miss out.  Sabbath.  Sabbatical.  Training.  Mentoring.  Focus.  Study.  These keep us sharp and keep us going.  It's not enough to manage others.  You must manage yourself.

What would you do if you had time set aside to manage yourself?

Book Review: The Orange Revolution

How do you sustain a great working team?

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are experts in teamwork.  They've studied great teams and pulled their results apart.  And they've come up with a thorough, complex model.  (Seriously, 14 elements in the model) And The Orange Revolution shares some of their insights and recommendations.

Here're three elements in the model that I found helpful:

1) Wow

This element has to do with a results orientation.  Great teams are committed to achieving great results.  This really surprised me.  When I picture the keys to great teamwork, I picture hugs and high-fives and pats on the back, not a commitment to great results.

But there's something bonding about producing something special.  There's a high that comes with great performance and, when shared, this can become powerful glue for teams.

2) No surprises

This element has to do with communication.  Great teams talk honestly and openly and thoroughly.  That communication creates trust and preserves momentum.  Failures and breakdowns in communication accumulate over time, splitting teams into silos and sandbagging results.

3) Cheer

This element has to do with celebration.  And this is where Gostick and Elton really shine.  The Orange Revolution has a ton of ideas you can use to encourage your team.  And they explain clearly why cheering for each other leads to high performing teams.

Thoughts on the book ...

This book reads like someone recorded an excellent conference talk, but struggled with the change of medium.  The stories serve more like proofs than illustrations.  And the ideas ... think spaghetti on the wall.

Shape your reading of The Orange Revolution by these observations and it'll save you some headaches.  Try these one of these three approaches:
  1. Read the book very slowly, over the course of a year [this will allow you to eat all of the "spaghetti," not just the few strands that stick to the wall]
  2. Read the book, grab one idea, then move on [there are lots of other books, many that are more focused than this one ... use this one as a starting place ... you can always come back to it later]
  3. Find a way to see the authors in person (check here or watch here)

On the creation of fantasy worlds

For years I've been kicking around the idea of writing a fantasy novel.  The ideas swirl around in my head and, over time, some of them stick.  They build on each other and become something real.  Or if not quite real, something special.

The "world" is a key element in fantasy literature.  Most fantasy novels are driven by the worlds their authors have created.  The characters are important, as is the plot, but without a well-crafted world, stories fail.  You need a well-crafted world to enter into, to lose yourself in, for the fantasy project to work.

So, how do you create fantasy worlds?

1) Make one change to our world

Imagine that the world is the same as ours, except for one small change.  That change could be as simple as "Wizards are real" as in Harry Potter or "Greek gods are real" as in Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

A big part of the appeal of series like this is that the fantasy world is so similar to the world we inhabit.  Around any corner you could encounter this other world.  The small distance between the two worlds and easy passage between them makes for great storytelling.

2) Limit one resource and build a world without it

Imagine a world without death, without light, without dry land, without water.  These limitations mold and shape society and humanity, providing opportunities for new adventures and heroism.

Frank Herbert accomplished this in his Dune series, creating a planet without water, then asking why there is no water and how humans would live in a world without water and what sort of culture would arise in such a world. 

3) Build from the ground up

Begin at the beginning.  Write a creation narrative.  Create a history. 

This is what JRR Tolkien did.  From the AinulindalĂ« into the Silmarillion and then into the more familiar Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy he created and unrolled an entire world, including history and language.  A more thorough fantasy creation is hard to imagine.

What other ways can you think of to create a fantasy world?

3 Temptations on the Fourth of July

You could probably think of a dozen ways we'll be tempted on the Fourth of July: to drink too much, to set off illegal fireworks, to eat too many hot dogs (how many is too many?).

But there are other temptations, more serious temptations.

Here are three of them:
  1. The temptation to worship America
  2. The temptation to worship soldiers
  3. The temptation to worship religious freedom
For those of us born and raised in America, we should have a special love for our country.  Honor and respect.  America is a great country, unique in so many ways.  But to take that love of country to that extra step - from patriotism to nationalism - is to take a step too far. 

God's people, as the author of Hebrews said, are always longing for a better country.  In one sense, our citizenship has been transferred.  A deeper loyalty has taken root, deeper than our patriotism.  And we will be challenged.  Will we hold the flag higher than the cross?  Will we treat the cross like just another flag and God the King as just another king?

And if we resist the temptation to worship America, we still have to face the second temptation, to worship soldiers.  Their bravery and courage and sacrifice can and should move us.  Honor and respect.  I have three cousins currently serving in the armed forces and I'm so impressed with them.  But there is a step too far.

Christians do not love war.  We wish it never had to happen.  And we know it has limits.  Our deepest problems in society and global relations won't be solved by soldiers (or pastors or missionaries).  We need God and his work.  Will we continue to look to him?

Lastly, we may be tempted to worship religious freedom.  We have a great privilege in the USA to worship whenever, wherever and whoever we want.  You need not fear to go to church.  And there are places in the world where this freedom is not guaranteed, where Christians live in fear and worship in fear.  We have been privileged and we should be grateful.  Honor and respect.

But religious freedom has also created the perception that religon should be free, option-filled and optional.  We're free, but what will we do with that freedom?

Like most temptations, the temptations presented to us on the Fourth of July have, at their root, good things.  Good things taken too far become idols.  At least, they do for me.

Do you ever struggle with the Fourth of July?

Feeling forgotten by God

What do you do when you feel forgotten by God?

Some of us wander away and sulk.
Some of us respond with anger.
Some of us share our feelings to God.
Some of us deny feeling forgotten.

In Psalm 42, the sons of Korah play with this theme, leaning into that experience of feeling forgotten by God.  Surrounded by enemies, lonely and depressed, the addition of feeling forgotten by God could have been overwhelming.  But they pushed through.

They pushed through by remembering the past, the festivals and worship services.  God's presence.  These memories were rich and joy-filled.  But they weren't enough.

Alone, these memories would only cause more depression.  It's painful to remember the past when you have no hope for the future.  But where does that hope come from?

For the sons of Korah, the writers of this Psalm, their hope came from a confidence that God's character wouldn't change.  A rock.  Steadfast. 

A God who is constant and consistent doesn't forget ... won't forget you.

What do you do when you're feeling forgotten by God?