(5 + 2) x Jesus = Enough 4 All

“Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, ’Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?'” –John 6:8b-9

As school starts back and we approach Rally Day and the kick-off of our annual stewardship campaign, imagine if there were a way to multiply time. Would you believe me if I told you it’s possible?

The Bible is full of lessons on different types of sacrifices to make to God: a “broken and contrite heart” (Ps 51), “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Ps 116), “of praise” (Heb. 13), our “bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12), and money, among others. In speaking of the monetary sacrifices made “beyond their means” to financially support his ministry, Paul said, of the “churches of Macedonia,” that “they gave themselves first to the Lord.”

“They gave themselves first to the Lord,” and somehow, then, were able to give “beyond their means, of their own free will, begging earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” (2 Cor. 2:8) Wow!

Jesus has a knack of multiplying that which we first freely give to him for His service. Take the fish and loaves, for example. When I read that story in John 6, I have to stop and think “Only a child would have given his small lunch to Jesus to feed 5000 people.” Someone, probably more like Martha than Mary, had responsibly sent her son out with a small lunch. Which of us would have given it up? I’d have thought “Why should I go hungry so that everyone else can also go hungry, because if I give up this lunch you can be sure of one thing: None of us will be satisfied.”

Not that boy. He gave “first to the Lord,” and the Lord multiplied it, not just until everyone was satisfied, but until everyone was satisfied and there were leftovers to boot! In our frantic, panicked, stressed-out, overwhelmed lives do we dare to believe He can do it with time?

I think the answer is a resounding and emphatic “YES!” I firmly believe that God gives us more than enough time to do the work He’s given us to do. Sadly, we beg for enough time when He longs to give us leftovers.

Often times in our lives, when it all gets to be too much, the first thing we neglect is our relationship with God. Our personal devotions, our church attendance, and our participation in Sunday school and Bible study (that is, our personal and corporate worship and our Christian education) suffer. Our service is often maintained, because so much of our image is dependent upon it, but it’s often done with feelings of stress and frustration rather than joy and gladness.

Lord knows (and I say that literally without an ounce of irreverence) we need to rest. He knew it when he designed us; He knew it when He instituted the Sabbath; He knew it when He called us and when He commissioned us. We’re the ones who don’t seem to understand.

The Offering as Worship

A Temple Talk on stewardship I gave today at church.

My talk this morning is on giving as an act of worship.  These talks are structured around Mark Allen Powell’s wonderful book: Giving To God, the first chapter of which is “An Act of Worship.”  I can’t recommend this book highly enough, but I don’t want to recite to you what he said; I want to tell you about my reaction to the first chapter and my interaction with God through it.

I do want to give you an organizing quote, though.  Powell writes: “The Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value.”  I’ll come back to that.

Some years ago, [my wife] was reading “Our State” magazine when she saw a photo of the NC mountains in fall that she just loved.  It was a shot across rolling hills full of vibrant wild flowers.  I researched the photographer, found his web site, scoured through his prints and couldn’t find it.  I called him.  He had only recently taken the photograph, and had never made prints for sale.  He made, framed, matted and sold me a 20 x 24 print and shipped it.  I gave it to [my wife] for Christmas, and she has the first and maybe only one.  She delighted in the receiving and I in the giving.  Both our lives were enriched.

When I read that quote, “The Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value,” I thought about that picture and how excited I get about giving gifts to those I love, but I hate to give money.  I stopped to talk to God about that.

I told Him, “That’s just it God.  We put everything in terms of money today, and it’s so boring.  I wish I had something precious to give you like the Magi or that picture I gave Kerri, but I have nothing you need.” Now, don’t go call the paddy wagon and send for a straight-jacket.  I don’t see burning bushes or hear voices, but at that moment I sensed God telling me: “But, Bo…I don’t need your money either.”

We don’t give to God because He needs what we have.  All we have is already His, and He wants to give us more.  Sacrificial giving as an act of worship is one of the ways in which God allows us to exchange rusty, moth-infested rubbish for treasure in heaven. Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  When Jesus told us to store up treasure in heaven He was by no means suggesting that we could earn our way in.  Just as with our family and friends we do not give gifts to earn another’s love; likewise, we are not earning anything by giving to God.

The offering is not a free market exchange process in which we exchange labor for pay and pay for goods and services. It’s an organic, ecological process of growth.  We are like potted plants that the master gardener is preparing for a special and beautiful place in a new creation He is planting, and giving as an act of worship is part of the process by which God nourishes and feeds us so that we may grow into a plant ready to be taken from the pot and deeply rooted in good soil.

In the tangible realm we are still part of the old decaying creation.  The blessings God has given us in this world are indeed good and useful for life, and love and re-creation, and we should offer thanks for them, but unless we want to become root bound in this pot of flesh we must cease clinging to those things which are impermanent and exchange them for permanent things.

We give gifts to our children that are appropriate to their maturity.  It is in the act of giving to God in worship that He matures us and enables us to put away childish things so that we can receive even greater things.  It’s as if He is continually taking us from smaller pots and putting us in larger ones.  The seed He planted in baptism He nurtures and cultivates and nourishes in worship, all of worship from thanksgiving and confession, praying and listening, eating and drinking, giving and serving.

When we cheerfully and freely give back to God what He has first given to us we are telling Him “I get it!”  It’s a humbling, joyful and hungering process.  It’s humbling because we first have to understand that we don’t deserve any of it, not even the most simple, essential gifts necessary to sustain physical life.  It’s joyful because once we understand that we deserve none of it we don’t have to struggle to earn any of it, because we know we can’t, and we don’t have to fight to keep any of it because…we know we can’t.  It’s hungering because once we’ve had a taste of God’s grace we want more, and we want it fully, in greater measure; we humbly and joyfully thirst for it like a deer panting for water.

In giving we grow to want the things we cannot earn but which we can keep, eternally.  We give to God not because we have anything He needs but because He has everything that we will ever need, in this world and the world to come. In giving we become imitators of Christ.  It is precisely through imitation that children learn and grow.  When we do not freely and cheerfully give we are not keeping anything from God; we are keeping God’s grace from fully maturing in ourselves.

And yet, we all know that the most precious gifts we have to offer are not tangible.  Imagine a relationship in which we never gave those we love our attention, approval, or affection.  But, being the frail creatures of the tangible world of sense that we are, when we freely and joyfully give tangible gifts to one another—be it a photograph, a hug or love note—we are able, by doing so, to also give them intangible gifts.

While the offering is not a sacrament it does share this in common with them: The offering is one of the worship events in which the tangible intersects with the intangible. In giving our tangible gifts to God as an act of worship we open ourselves to receive the intangible gifts of His grace and love, and in doing so we grow, we are transformed more and more into His likeness until we are ready to be taken from our pots and planted in a garden that will glorify Him.  Thanks be to Him to whom all glory is due, now and forever.  Amen.

Seasons in the Son: Why I Am Lutheran IV

I am writing this on the eve of spring; as the northern hemisphere transits from the season of death to the season of rebirth, so too the Church transits from the season of Lent to the season of Easter. Because Easter is dated on the lunar calendar used to calculate Passover, we do not always have Easter so close to the start of spring, so it is a perfect time to write about the importance of seasons to the Christian life.

Recently I attended a men’s conference at a local church because one of the seminars offered was “Mentoring Youth.” Prior to the seminars we had a worship service in the style of that church. I am no stranger to their style of worship, and it is authentic worship of our Triune God by people who genuinely love our Lord Jesus Christ; however, my personal worship experience was jarred by the constant use of the exclamation ‘alleluia.’

Not all churches follow the practice of “burying the alleluia” during Lent, and the Sundays in Lent, like all Sundays generally, are, in a very real sense, “little Easters;” however, I have always felt that such practices heighten the awareness of the important distinctions of our church seasons. I like them, and the Lutheran church’s incorporation of the seasons of the church year—and the various liturgical practices connected to them—into its worship has a strong appeal to me.

Unless one lives in Camelot where “the climate must be perfect all the year,” we all experience temperate seasons as well as more symbolic seasons of life like the season of youth or the season of grief. Seasons of all sorts (even sports seasons!) help to regulate our lives. Church seasons reflect this natural aspect of being part of creation, and they point us to the God of seasons. They assure us that the Lord of creation is also the Lord of time, the Lord of transition, the Lord of change.

Being attuned to the changing seasons of the Church is as important as being attuned to the changing seasons of nature or of life. Rather than being quaint or archaic, seasonal practices can enrich our personal prayer and our corporate worship and also help us develop spiritual discipline by nurturing spiritual structures.

Jesus lived and suffered and rejoiced in all ways common to all people, so it is fitting and instructive that our Church seasons reflect the seasons of His life. Though extraordinary in every way, we sometimes forget He even lived quite a bit of His life in “ordinary time.” (Kathleen Norris wrote a brief and wonderful book called The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” that properly connects “ordinary time” to worship.)

Christ is found in the rhythms and patterns of life. In fact, he reconciles them as well as us for He “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

Now that it’s Easter, can I get an alleluia?

Why I Am Lutheran–Part III: Song

“Come on and sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing.” Man, do I love to sing! I took a lot of heat in the clique ridden halls of high school for listening to the kinds of music I did. Imagine a fifteen year old in 1980 walking the halls singing “Do you hear that whistle down the line, I reckon that it’s engine number forty-nine,” or “Oh give me land lots a land under starry skies above; don’t fence me in,” or even “I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande.”

Big Band and Swing, Frank and Bing—deathless music, the kind of music you can sing along with, and that’s what matters to me: participation. Garrison Keillor once wrote: “I have made fun of Lutherans for years—who wouldn’t, if you lived in Minnesota? But I have also sung with Lutherans and that is one of the main joys of life, along with hot baths and fresh sweet corn.”

So true! Most all Christians love music, but Lutherans love to sing, and we’re willing to do it in public, as long as our pew mates are singing with us. I love contemporary Christian music. I love listening to it, but in church I don’t want to just listen to other people sing; I want to follow the advice of the Amy Grant song: “Sing your praise to the lord. Come on everybody stand up and sing one more Hallelujah!” It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s scripturally sound, honors God and I get to sing along.

In the first part of this series, I wrote about the importance of the liturgy, and song is closely related to that. The primary purpose of the liturgy is to focus our attention upon Christ, and singing helps us do that. We sing hymns, like everyone else, and we have fantastic choirs, but in addition, as part of our worship, Lutherans have the “Ordinaries” (ordinary, every Sunday songs) of the liturgy: the Kyrie (“Lord have mercy”), Gloria (“Glory be to God on high”) Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) and Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”).

In other words, throughout the entire service, I get to “sing praise to my God while I have being.” (Psalm 104) Singing is a very important part of Christian worship. There are 165 references to the words ‘sing’ and ‘singing,’ in Scripture, and they are not just found in our hymnbook, The Psalms, either.

Chronicles tells us to “Sing to him, sing praises to him, tell of all his wonderful works. Zechariah commands “Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the LORD.” Samuel says “For this I will extol you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name.” Paul tells us in Ephesians to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.”

The adult Sunday school class recently watched a film (“Amazing Grace”) on the life of the evangelical Member of Parliament and anti-slavery champion William Wilberforce. He first introduced his bill calling for the end of British involvement in the slave trade in 1789. By 1797, still unsuccessful, he had worked himself to the point of illness and exhaustion. Earlier in the movie, he had stood up on a table in a gambling establishment and joyfully crooned “Amazing Grace,” the hymn written by his mentor, and former slave ship captain, John Newton. But by 1797, his voice was shot, and he said “the worst thing is that I can not sing anymore.”

At one point his friend, the Prime Minister William Pitt, asked Wilberforce: “Do you intend to use your voice to praise the Lord or change the world?” Wilberforce did both because he understood that it is in praising the Lord that we change the world. He won his fight, regained his voice and went on to champion other just causes.

In Psalm 40:3, David says “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” In five other Psalms the phrase “new song” can also be found. When we become “new creations in Christ” we sing a new song. Indeed, John tells us in his Revelation that none but the redeemed can sing that new song. (14:3)

Last month I wrote about Baptism. This is where we learn the new song, “And this must be the start of something…This could be the heart of something…This could be the start of something big.” The liturgy is where we Lutherans get to practice it, so “Come on and sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing.”