Good Gifts: Children and Communion

Well, I’m down to one, one child at home.† Nicole just started at UNC and David just went to Job Corps.† It hasn’t been easy.† In addition to the bittersweet joy and sadness, moment-by-moment mood swings, I suppose it’s natural to have moments of regret; at least I know I do.† “I could have done more.”† I could have done what I did good even better.”† “I did things wrong.”† “If I could do it again, I’d…”

Last week, I was reading in Matthew 7, and verses 9-11 took on a radical new meaning for me.

ďWhich of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

As a father, I have reflected on this passage often over the years.† Of course, we sometimes get confused about what “good gifts” are and focus on giving things to our children which may be ‘good’ in one sense, but perhaps not the best sense, but I think most Christian parents understand “good gifts” to be: food, nurture, spiritual formation, acceptance, love, shelter, medical care, character, education, and the like.

Sinners that we are we often fail to give the good gifts in good measure and unfortunately we sometimes give ‘stones,’ though I hope I’ve never given a ‘snake!’ ūüôā

What struck me the other day as I reflected on this in light of children leaving home and some of the regret one naturally feels about not having given good enough gifts often enough–and all parents have to face this, but it doesn’t mean wallow in it or think one can’t continue to give good gifts–was this insight from God.

What is the best gift?† What meets the true definition of Good each and every single time without fail?† Jesus Christ, of course.† That’s when, for the first time, I linked the above passage with Communion.

In John 6:48-51, Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.Ē

In Luke 22:19 we read these words we hear proclaimed each Sunday:† “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’Ē

Even before they know it, our children ask us for bread.† Even when they don’t understand what they are asking for, they ask us for bread. This includes the literal †nourishment of food and drink, of course. †A baby’s first cry after “Whatever that was that just happened to me, it hurt like crazy,” is “I am hungry.”†Nor do I believe it is a coincidence that the last words the Incarnate Son of God spoke on the cross before he said “It is finished” were “I am thirsty.”

But like so many things in the flesh, our children’s first cry for food and drink points towards God and a spiritual hunger and thirst.† They are also asking for the true Living Bread of Life and the Living Water.

I often tell people about how I loved feeding my children their bottle when they were babies.† When I did that I knew with absolute clarity and certainty that that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that moment.† Nothing else had a claim on my time.† Nothing else could take priority.† It was the perfect peace of knowing that whatever else in life was confusing or stressful or conflicted, this moment was pure.

As I reflect on my children growing up and leaving home, I now know that when Kerri and I brought them to church, when we brought them to the Lord’s Table, we were still giving them their bottle–which is both food and drink.

There is no better good gift we can ever give to our children than to take them to worship and celebrate the sacrament together.† As God’s child, when I have asked my Father for good gifts for my children, He, as always, has faithfully responded by giving them Himself, even when I haven’t seen it because I was looking for a different answer.

I give thanks to God that whatever else I might do differently if I could do it over again, this one thing I would never change.† Like us, they are really His children anyway.† The best good gift we could ever give to them is Him.† When I take them to worship, it is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.† Perfect clarity. Perfect certainty.† Perfect peace.

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 Powellís wonderful book: Giving To God, the first chapter of which is ďAn Act of Worship.Ē† I canít recommend this book highly enough, but I donít 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: ďThe 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.Ē† Iíll come back to that.

Some years ago, [my wife] was reading ďOur StateĒ 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 couldnít 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, ďThe 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,Ē 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, ďThatís just it God.† We put everything in terms of money today, and itís 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.Ē Now, donít go call the paddy wagon and send for a straight-jacket.† I donít see burning bushes or hear voices, but at that moment I sensed God telling me: ďBut, BoÖI donít need your money either.Ē

We donít 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 donít 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 anotherís 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. Itís 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.† Itís 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 ďI get it!Ē† Itís a humbling, joyful and hungering process.† Itís humbling because we first have to understand that we donít deserve any of it, not even the most simple, essential gifts necessary to sustain physical life.† Itís joyful because once we understand that we deserve none of it we donít have to struggle to earn any of it, because we know we canít, and we donít have to fight to keep any of it becauseÖwe know we canít.† Itís hungering because once weíve had a taste of Godís 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 Godís 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 anotheróbe it a photograph, a hug or love noteówe 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.