Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Published online

An article I wrote about being robbed in San Francisco has been published on IV's student web site, Student Soul. Look for the article "Tenderloin Adventure."

Monday, June 18, 2007

A helpful link dealing with our identity in Christ

In my previous post I talked about the Believer's being identified with Christ and Christ living His life through us. This link is a concise article that explains this very well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Giving out of grace, not law

OK, so let's get first things first. Why do (notice I didn't say "should") Christians give? We give because it's our nature. We are give-ers because we are in Christ, new creations who have the very life of Christ living in us (2 Corinthians 5:17). Who is more giving than our God, who did not spare His own son but generously gave Him for us (Romans 8:32)? Who is more giving than Jesus, who though He was rich for our sakes became poor so that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9)? The Lord does not change, and this same Jesus lives in us and has given us His very life and nature. So I am, by nature, a give-er.

So why don't I/we give more, then? Because we have been taught from birth to fend for ourselves, to depend on ourselves. It's the way of the world and the only way people who don't know Jesus can make life work. It's called "the flesh", and the flesh is any way that we make life work apart from dependence on Jesus. Once a person comes to Christ, they receive a new nature, but their flesh is still there. So Christ in me longs to give and be generous, but my natural instincts are to take what's mine, hang on to what is valuable, to save just in case I need it later. Living this way is self-provision, which is, more simply, sin. (Note: this does not mean that I do not have a savings account or that I am not planning for retirement or that saving is sinful. It does mean that perhaps I should worry about these things less and put my hope in them less).

Giving generously is a declaration of dependence on God, acknowledging that all we are and all that we have are from Him, and that we do not have to provide for ourselves. Its is an opportunity to live in freedom from our own efforts, freedom from materialism. It is an act of worship, declaring that we love God more than our stuff, and that we seek to honor Him by passing on the blessings that He gives us in order that others might be blessed.

Giving is also an act of grace - Paul prays that the Corinthians might excel in the grace of giving and even puts giving on par with faith, knowledge, earnestness, speech, and love (2 Corinthians 8:7). Giving is a spirit-empowered, grace-empowered act that reveals the goodness of God in our lives. It is a reminder that God is always the give-er, we always the receive-er. We would have nothing to give if it were not for God. We would not have life or breath or being if it were not for God the give-er (Acts 17:28). This not to say that we need to feel guilty about what we have but rather be thankful and from that thankful place, enter into the joy of our giving God by participating in this act of blessing.

To me, this is a grace-empowered, Spirit-led call to giving, and it is the place where we must begin.

Thoughts on giving

I've been thinking a lot about giving lately, and am not exactly sure how to post about it, so I figured I would just start writing and see what comes out. First off, I have to say that were it not for generous and sacrificial men and women, I would not be able to have the job that I have. Over my ten years on IV staff, many thousands of dollars have been given to enable me to minister to students and others full-time. Because people are generous givers, I have all of my needs and many of my wants, and I get to do a job that I love.

That said, I feel like I need to issue a call, a challenge to the Church (and myself) to reconsider how we give and how we live. We've fallen prey to the lie of Western consumerism and have allowed it to infiltrate our faith and how we practice it. This is a tricky issue, because I do not always practice what I preach in terms of simplicity and generosity. Also, money seems to be one of those things that we can't talk about or challenge each other on - it's our own private business and who is anyone to judge or tell us what to do with our finances.

But I think that the Bible inconveniently tells us a great deal about what to do with our money and what purpose it is given to us, yet we can be very selective in our reading and appplication of those verses and passages.

Before getting into those, let me outline my hopes for this little series. One is to call us to rethink how to live and how to give not from a position of guilt, shame, or law. I struggle mightily with living from those places, and can motivate myself and others from spiritual principles that are not rooted in grace and love. The New Testament does not set a specific guideline for giving, for instance. The tithe is a part of the Old Testament law, which all Christians are freed from following as a means of righteousness or finding favor with God. What we are called to give in the NT is what God puts on our hearts to give, and we are called to be generous and give joyfully. As Christ lives in us, He fulfills the law through us, and actually we often exceed the law's expectations (for example, the Law forbids adultery, but Jesus said that this extends past a purely physical act into the realm of what we look at and think about).

Second, I hope to bring Scriptures to the forefront which call us to generosity and sharing. My friend Alex Kirk has been blogging recently about the plethora of Scriptures dealing with justice, contrasting those with the verses dealing with sexual purity and suggesting that we overemphasize sex, though the weight of Scripture would call us to give more time and attention to justice. I think that a similar argument for simplicity and generosity can be made.

Third, I would like to share some strategies that have helped me and Diane to live more generously than is comfortable for us. A tension here is that I do not want to seem to be flaunting a form of self-righteousness or lifting myself up as a standard. The struggle is there, because one of the ways that I deal with my personal frustrations with the overall lack of giving in the Church is to become self-righteous in my anger. That is not living by the Spirit and it is not offering the grace and love that I have received from Jesus.

So, comments are welcome and I look forward to sharing more in the coming days!

Rent "The Boys of Baraka"

Last night my family and I watched a PBS documentary called The Boys of Baraka, which follows some boys from Baltimore's inner city to a school in Kenya for one year. The program is designed to prepare 20 middle schoolers to apply for and get into better public high schools and help them escape the cycles of poverty and crime that are rampant in their neighborhoods.

For Diane, it was the perfect movie, combining her life in Glenwood and her African roots, and there was so much familiar to her about both settings. It was amazing how similar the things that the boys said and how they responded to life were to what I hear from kids in Glenwood. Of course our neighborhood is nowhere near those parts of Baltimore in terms of violence and poverty, but the influences of hopelessness, seeing only a small portion of the world, lack of educational opportunities, and absentee parents (fathers and mothers in jail, out of the picture) are eerily familiar.

It's only 84 minutes long and they leave you wanting more of the story. While seeing the situations (and final destinations) of some of these boys is hard to watch, there are also moments of hope and lots of laughter watching these boys finally get to truly be kids as they play in their African home.

Not sure if you can just roll up to Blockbuster and rent this, but it available on Netflix and Blockbuster Online. (Side note: If you are not a member of either, I would suggest the Blockbuster $9.99 a month plan - movies are still mailed to you, and you get the option of taking them back and exchanging them for another movie in the store while you wait for your next mailer, and the movies get to you just as quickly as Netflix. To me it's a no-brainer about choosing Blockbuster over Netflix. We can get 8 movies a months for $10, and could get even more than that if we had time to watch them. OK, commercial over.)

Monday, June 04, 2007

What do you do with "grumpy Jesus"?

Today I attended a day of retreat for IV staff led by one of our senior staff in the region. Usually when you go on a guided retreat like this, you look at a passage like the prodigal son or the Jesus blessing the children or feeding the 5,000. But for this day, God led our director to Matthew 17:14-20 (click here to read it).

This is not warm and fuzzy Jesus. Instead, this is "grumpy Jesus", tired of dealing with people who time after time do not catch what He is teaching. He has just returned from being on the mountaintop talking with Moses and Elijah, and He finds a crowd of people around his disciples who are trying without success to cast out a demon. He calls them a "faithless and perverse generation," heals the boy, and tells the disciples that they failed to bring healing because they lacked faith. We all wondered how Jesus managed to be grumpy and yet not sin in the midst of that frustration.

All of us at the retreat would prefer to skip this passage. To skip the places where Jesus seems disappointed with the disciples, because for us it hits close to home. I often feel like Jesus ought to be disappointed in me and how little I "get it", despite being taught time and again. And I fear that He is grumpy with me because I just don't have enough faith, and passages like this tend to confirm that, if read without a lens of grace.

After putting on the grace goggles, the best I could do with settling this unsettling picture of Jesus is to guess that the disciples' problem was not so much an improper amount of faith, but rather faith that was misplaced, and thus useless. A mustard seed is not very much, and surely they believed to some degree that this boy could be healed. But was their belief placed in God or in themselves? They had done the healing/casting out thing before when Jesus sent them two by two, and I am sure that during that time, they were depending on God like crazy and they saw Him do things through them that they never imagined. So here is round two and the subtle temptation is to go through the motions, trust their experience, and have faith in their ability to get the job done while Jesus was on the mountain. A mustard seed of dependent faith in God can indeed move a mountain, but a mountain of self-reliant faith will produce little lasting fruit besides frustration.

As for whether Jesus is grumpy with us now, I think that He is not. We have been transformed, made into new creations, and we enjoy all the favor and blessing of His righteousness and Right-standing with the Father. He longs for us to have a dependent faith, and urges us to that place of constant trust in the Father, disciplining us and exhorting us from a position of love.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Things I learned at the grocery store

Today I went shopping (we had no food after our beach trip, and so our girls ate peanut butter toast for breakfast and peanut butter and jelly for lunch), and because Diane and I have decided to take part in the Grocery Game, I went to three stores.

I started at Aldi, which mostly has its own brand of food (i.e. does not sell the name brands), doesn't have shelves (the items are stacked on pallets) and you bag your own groceries. You also have to deposit a quarter to get a shopping cart and get the quarter back when you return the cart. The cashier scans your items and drops them in a waiting cart, which you wheel to the side when you are done to bag your items. For a family on a budget, I've found no place better for quality and price, and we have certain staples that we always get there (once we figured out which Aldi-brand foods we liked just as well as name-brand). While I was there I saw people from at least four different countries, and you could tell that the people there were thrifty and intent on saving money.

Next I went to Food Lion, the one near my house. This store is OK - it's not lightning fast at checkout, but usually has what you need. The mix at this store was much like the mix of our neighborhood - mostly African American and Hispanic, and the whites who were shopping there were either elderly or seemed to be poor-er. I also bagged my own groceries here (because there was no available bagger, and it gave me a chance to show off my skills honed at the Statesville Food Lion as a bagboy in high school).

Finally I went to the local Taj MaTeeter (Harris Teeter + Taj Mahal = Taj MaTeeter). Their produce section alone was nearly as big as the entier Aldi store. 95% of the shoppers were white, middle-to-upper class. Many of them sipped coffees from the Starbucks in the store as they shopped. At the seafood and fresh meats station, free samples of hot chicken stir fry were being given away, and two butchers stood by to cut meats to your specifications. This was not a grocery store, it was a sensory experience with shopping thrown in. The cashier and bag-girl each talked with me, asked me how my day was and how I was doing, were excited with me to see how much I saved, and urged me to come back again. (I could have picked out my items online, paid for them with a credit card, and had them bagged and waiting for me to pick up, too).

I was struck by the progression of service and quality of experience from one store to the next, and I think I was learning something about values and privilege in our country. If you have plenty of money, you can afford to value a sensory shopping experience over saving money. You can afford to value having your groceries bagged in a courteous and swift manner. It's not wrong to be able to afford that (I certainly was able to, obviously).

As I thought about why I was even in Harris Teeter to begin with (I usually only go there to buy orange Gatorade mix and the buy one-get one bags of chicken), I realized it was due to another small privilege that I take for granted - the ability to play the Grocery Game. I have an internet connection at my house (high speed), the ability to pay $10 every 8 weeks for the Grocery Game service (which you access online), the transportation and time to shop at three different stores in order to get the best deal, and access to simple information, such as the fact that there is such a thing as "the Grocery Game" out there. I am quite confident that if one looked at the demographics of who was using the Grocery Game, it would be largely white, middle-class (and up). There is nothing wrong with that. It's just that the poor are not even aware that this thing exists or have access to the resources to make it happen.

I've even thought about being able to shop at Aldi as being a privilege - there are many in Glenwood who go to Food Lion because it's reachable on foot. Aldi is several miles up the road, meaning a long bus ride or paying for a cab.

I'm not here to make a judgment on those who shop at Harris Teeter or condemn the affluent. I'm not even sure that I have a point except to say that there are all kinds of things we can learn about race and class in all sorts of places, even the grocery store, and I think that there are bigger things at play than I can put my finger on right now.