An Offering – Paying It Forward

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S (Scripture): Genesis 28:16 When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. 17 He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. 18 After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He named that sacred place Bethel, [or, House of God] though Luz was the city’s original name. 20 Jacob made a solemn promise: “If God is with me and protects me on this trip I’m taking, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, 21 and I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God. 22 This stone that I’ve set up as a sacred pillar will be God’s house, and of everything you give me I will give a tenth back to you.”

O (Observation): Jacob has fled Esau and is now in his way to a distant relative’s estate to lay low for a while. He was told to find a wife from his father’s homeland.

On the journey, God appears to Jacob in a dream, promising to remain with Jacob and to eventually bring him back to his homeland, so that God might keep good on God’s promise to make of Abraham many descendants.

Jacob’s response to God’s appearance is to set up a stone – an “Ebenezer – to tell the world and to remind himself that God was in that place. Jacob pours oil on it and promises to give 1/10 of all income to God as a result of God’s grace and mercy.

This offering is a way of giving back to God what God has given to Jacob.

A (Application): Why is giving an offering to God such a thing that is honored and expected of Jesus’ followers?

My family and I give 10% of all of our income. Even our kids give a tithe from their chore monies.

Jacob pours oil on a rock. What good is that?

Perhaps the acknowledgment of something that the world sees as precious – oil, a fine element in Jacob’s day, seen as a hearing salve amongst other things – can be poured out as if to say: “This expensive oil will not have such a hold over me that I dare not pour it out. No, I will pour out this oil, and show my thankfulness for my God.” (Remember the expensive nard poured out on Jesus’ feet, and how he said this was good and right???)

Today’s offerings are mostly financial, but donations of lands and estates are common, as well. We give out of a thankfulness, and not just out of obligation.

Today, we see more clearly how donating monies has an impact on the lives of those who receive assistance through these offerings.

The giving cycle is almost circular. A family or individual gives to the church. The church uses those funds to do God’s ministry to serve the community, train church leaders, and more. Those positively affected by the congregations serve their community and give back to the churches that once served them. And, we hope, new folks come along to know about our God of promises and mercy and grace.

How do you see God’s work helping us all to come full circle? What promises are you leaning on from our God? How are you giving? How do we respond to God’s faithfulness to us?

P (Prayer): Lord, you give so much. Help us to pay the gift of grace and mercy forward. Amen.

Giving and Receiving

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S (Scripture): 2 Corinthians 8:12 A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly. 13 It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties, but it’s a matter of equality. 14 At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality. 15 As it is written, The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little. (Ex 16:18)

O (Observation): Paul was great about getting the churches to support one another in his time. He reminded them that giving was to be done joyfully, and not out of obligation alone.

The outward focus is key here. Giving finances away to a place where you actually couldn’t really oversee the expenses was a challenge for sure.

Also note that Paul is not wanting folks to live in poverty so that others can live a plush lifestyle. He does all of this for the sake of equality. That when they are in need the others might give to them and support them.

A (Application): Over the last two decades the trend has been for congregations to retain more money within our individual churches, but less to larger missions work or to the larger denominational bodies. Paul focuses on the outward giving as important!

The ELCA has experienced this trend to be true. More money staying at the local level of the congregation and the congregation doing more local mission work, too. The trend is a struggle, since money given to our synod (our four-state region of GA, AL, MS, and TN) supports our staff who then support our congregations (think redevelopments, congregational vitality training, mission starts, etc). And in our region, half of all monies that go to our synod passes through to the ELCA, which then supports our candidates for ministry and seminaries, our teaching and worship resources, our global missions, etc.

All of this occurs not so that some might be more poor and others might be more rich. We do this so that we can share and come close to attaining equality.

A good example is this: The 2019 entering class at my alma later (Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary) will have all tuition paid for!!!! (They still need to cover housing and food and such, but what a great blessing!). I didn’t have that luxury, but perhaps you can start to see what Paul saw. You give now, so that you can receive later.

The church that receives a candidate for pastor with little debt load might have an easier time calling that pastor. If that pastor had a huge debt load, that pastor might need to seek a larger church that has more margin for pay, or a church that could work out short-term loan assistance. You can see how the challenge perpetuates.

In all, Paul encourages us to give, with no restraint. Except this: be joyful in giving, and know that this is for equality…you will receive.

P (Prayer): Lord, you make us joyful givers. Help us to celebrate this. Amen.

Stewardship is FAITH FORMING

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S (Scripture): 1 Corinthians 16:1 Concerning the collection of money for God’s people: You should do what I have directed the churches in Galatia to do. 2 On the first day of the week, each of you should set aside whatever you can afford from what you earn so that the collection won’t be delayed until I come. 3 Then when I get there, I’ll send whomever you approve to Jerusalem with letters of recommendation to bring your gift. 4 If it seems right for me to go too, they’ll travel with me.

O (Observation): As Paul continues to make his missionary travels, he is sure to help the churches care for one another. This looked practically like collecting the offering in Corinth to financially support the church in Jerusalem. So he told the church in Corinth to do what he told the church in Galatia to do: gather a weekly collection of financial gifts so that Paul might share those gifts with the other churches he serves.

But why? Shouldn’t they fund their own ministries? Well, ideally, yes. But sometimes the act of letting go of money to help another cause is a great reward…for it lays the ground work to increase one’s faith.

A (Application): What do we do with our offering? Good question! In a congregation, most of the money covers the staff salaries. After that, it depends.

Utilities and maintenance usually get the next biggest chunk.

But don’t let that be discouraging.

For what are the staff doing? Preaching, teaching, leading youth, leading music in worship, leading faith formation events, reaching out to neighbors and building relationships, visiting the sick, coordinating staff duties, overseeing stewardship practices, making more disciples, and much, much more, all in the name of Jesus Christ!

Where does this happen? Much of it happens in the facility owned by the congregation. Worship, youth group, bible study, communications, Sunday School.

Outside groups may also make use of the church’s building.

The rest of the budget supports the ministries we provide. Materials for faith formation, mostly.

But then another chunk is designated for what some churches call “missions.” Since the congregation I serve is part of the ELCA (ELCA.org), we give to “Mission Support.” That money (8% of our regular offering, in our case), is sent to the ELCA. The ELCA uses these funds to organize worship and learning resources, leadership development, missionaries around the globe and in the U.S., and much more.

Letting go is the hardest part. As individuals, we consume SO MUCH! And we typically give at the end of the month, instead of at the beginning! If we always wait, we will NEVER have enough to give. Yet if we give on the front end, we will be amazed at the fact that we will have enough at the end.

P (Prayer): Lord, give us peace in regards to our finances. Amen.

Stewardship: Faith and Science

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S (Scripture): Psalm 65

You visit the earth and make it abundant,

    enriching it greatly

        by God’s stream, full of water.

You provide people with grain

    because that is what you’ve decided.

10 

Drenching the earth’s furrows,

        leveling its ridges,

    you soften it with rain showers;

        you bless its growth.

11 

You crown the year with your goodness;

    your paths overflow with rich food.

12 

Even the desert pastures drip with it,

    and the hills are dressed in pure joy.

13 

The meadowlands are covered with flocks,

    the valleys decked out in grain—

        they shout for joy;

        they break out in song!

O (Observation): The psalmist sees God as the one responsible for watering the earth and bringing forth vegetation and life itself. And not just life, but ABUNDANT life!

God’s stream brings sustenance to the earth!

Waters flow – strong or gentle – as needed.

Result? Desert and hills get what they need. Meadows and valleys rejoice.

This is legend AND this is science to the ancient ones who wrote these psalms. Perhaps science and legend are one and the same for this author.

A (Application): We are truly children of the Enlightenment. I’m all for science, but I believe the pendulum has swung too far. We are forgetful of the stories that brought us this far along the way. We fail to see our interconnectedness with other cultures and races. We fail to see how we are one with people who look and speak different from “us.”

Now that we “know better,” we don’t tell stories of the earth crying out or the animals having stories to share.

J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis have both been influential for me and my family as they bring stories that don’t make sense : ). Odd creatures exist in their stories – both good and evil. Trees walk and talk. Portals to other worlds!

Now, it’s the Marvel Comic Universe that brings stories of far off worlds and odd creatures to light. (And yes, I’m a HUGE fan 🔷.)

But when it comes to our faith, we have very little imagination. We disconnect faith from the earth or the very things we use on a daily basis: soap, water, transportation, air, mountains, and so on.

God is revealed to us in more than just the person of Jesus. And we rejoice in this fact. And we rejoice in the abundant forms of life all around us.

One area I have found to be extremely challenging and equally rewarding: MONEY.

Science and logic tell us one thing. Faith, another. What if we joined these two together? What if we saw paying our bills and giving money away as equally important? What if we let loose of our desire to make it all work out for us, only? What if we gave our money a voice? What story would it tell us?

Would it tell us how we buy more of the same stuff for ourselves, while others go hungry? Would our money tell us we have plenty, but ignore that sentiment and use it more for ourselves?

Or would our money explain how it sustains our faith communities and homeless shelters and food pantries???

Let science and faith work together for the good of all.

P (Prayer): Lord, the stories of what we give to you are distant from our hearts and minds. Wake us up to the joy of giving once again. Amen.

Stewardship, via Paul

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S (Scripture): Romans 15:24 I’ll visit you when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while I’m passing through. And I hope you will send me on my way there, after I have first been reenergized by some time in your company.

25 But now I’m going to Jerusalem, to serve God’s people. 26 Macedonia and Achaia have been happy to make a contribution for the poor among God’s people in Jerusalem. 27 They were happy to do this, and they are actually in debt to God’s people in Jerusalem. If the Gentiles got a share of the Jewish people’s spiritual resources, they ought to minister to them with material resources. 28 So then after I have finished this job and have safely delivered the final amount of the Gentiles’ offering to them, I will leave for Spain, visiting you on the way.

O (Observation): Paul is continuing his way to Spain, but first, a stop along the way…to Jerusalem. He wishes to drop off an offering made to the Jewish Christians by Gentile Christians living in Macedonia and Achaia. Paul recognizes that all Gentile Christians are indebted to Jewish Christians (from a spiritual perspective). Without the Jewish people, Christians (especially those who were Gentiles) would still not have a home. They are the branch grafted into the tree.

So, a material offering after receiving a spiritual one.

A (Application): Offering is an essential element to one’s faith development. We receive spiritual blessing when we give and when we receive. The hurdles we have to jump over, however, can be quite daunting.

Debt – I have debt. How can I give? Carefully, that’s how. I know debt. We are still working our way out of debt, personally. It means we choose not to have too much luxury, yet still give 10% of our funds away. The blessings come back. Not in the form of a nice car, but in the peace of knowing that God provides for me and my family.

I have no money at the end of the month – God certainly doesn’t wish for us to be broke. That’s why each is called to give a portion, not a set amount. As you begin to give a portion week after week, month after month, you will notice a strange thing. You made it through the month. But this means you prioritize giving at the beginning of your budget, not “if we have any left over” at the end of the month. Try it. Just for a month. Set aside some percentage. Declare to yourself or spouse or kids: we will give X% this month, and see how it goes by the end of the month. This practice might even help you to start looking at saving some money each month, too!

I want what I give to apply to me – The folks in Macedonia and Achaia gave because the church in Jerusalem needed help. They knew they wouldn’t see direct effects from those gifts. Yet they gave anyway. When we give to God through church offerings, we apply that to the entire ministry of the congregation. The dollar you give may affect youth, publications, maintenance on the building, and more. You will definitely see some impact, but think in terms of ministries being worked on through the congregation, not just return for ministries centered around you. In the end, you will see blessing and God’s abundance.

Consider your gifts. Time and talents are noteworthy stewardship gifts. So is the treasure God has entrusted into your care. The amounts given are not what is vital; rather, your struggle with how much to give is the crucible in which faith can be formed.

P (Prayer): Lord, teach us to give and to receive. Amen.

Giving is More Than Just About Giving

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S (Scripture): Luke 11:42 “How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.”

O (Observation): If I we’re one of those Pharisees Jesus was talking to, I’d take great offense! Here I am, having worked my way all the way up to Pharisee level…and now Jesus comes down on me?!

Jesus even points out part of my obligation: donations of 1/10 of my mint, rue, and more! That’s expensive! That’s my donation we’re talking about.

So Jesus says that donation is right and necessary, yet there’s more? That’s not what they taught me in my training to become a Pharisee.

Jesus wants ALL OF ME? I have to work at “justice and love for God” AND keep up with my donations? How? That’s not in my manual.

A (Application): I’ve enjoyed transitioning my approach to the Observation section in these devotions to a first-person perspective, because it helps me get into the story a bit more. Helps me enter the joys and challenges of the Gospel.

Today, we see Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for their lack of empathy for those in need. They satisfy their own “requirements list,” but care not for the people in need. And they ignore their devotion to God.

I wonder how many times I’ve focused more on getting to the 10% level of giving, but have ignored homeless folks around me. How often have I contributed to a special need at church, but have not helped with stuffing backpacks for kids in need in our neighborhood?

A word that cuts deep into me today. I will pay attention to this.

Giving is more than just about giving. Giving is a true and necessary action of a disciple, and it is also an entry point into discerning one’s part in justice-seeking and love for God.

P (Prayer): Lord, help me to get unwrapped from my piety and more open to serving those around me. I’m sure I have a lot to learn from those you seek for me to walk alongside. Amen.

God…Is Us

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S (Scripture): Psalm 44

8

So we glory in God at all times

and give thanks to your name forever. Selah

9

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.

You no longer accompany our armies.

10

You make us retreat from the enemy;

our adversaries plunder us.

11

You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;

you’ve scattered us among the nations.

O (Observation): How fickle the psalmist is. One line, praising God (v. 8); the next, calling out God for rejecting the psalmist and the rest of God’s people (vv. 9-11).

A (Application): How frustrating. Yesterday I was praising God for being with God’s people. Yay, God! Now…what? Cursing God for not being on “our” side?

So…when in times of prospering, God is on our side… And in times of desolation and fear, God is not on our side… Does that sum it all up?

Yes. But that doesn’t make sense.

Apply that to a third world country. Is God not on the side of the starving and the poor? Is God not for the oppressed being set free?

The theology of the psalms is much less about what God is doing or “not” doing, but is much more about the human struggle with providence. Some days, we can truly sense that God is doing good and overseeing us. Some days, God seems almost absent. The struggle is to identify that God can and does work with us through all of the confidence and all of the doubt…through our “wins and losses.”

So, what can we do?

We will trust. We will trust that God will guide us. We will lean on one another in difficult times so that we can begin to identify where God is. And if we can’t sense God, we will stand together…serving and praying and giving until we realize that we are God on earth. That all this time we were looking “up” for God…when God was always around us…that God is us when we serve and pray and give.

The Spirit calls us together…equips us…that we might be God on earth. So maybe we will realize that the times we don’t see God are the times we aren’t serving, praying, giving. For in these acts of discipleship…we are indeed God’s hands and feet on this good earth.

P (Prayer): Lord, let me be a servant of your peace. Amen.

Be Rich…in Good Things


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S (Scripture): 1 Timothy 6:17 Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life.

O (Observation):  Paul shares a sentiment with Timothy that money isn’t everything.   He knows that having money (or lusting after it) is a distraction from the Gospel.   One can start feeling like God is not necessary, if you have all of the earthly comforts one desires.   Or worse, that one would forsake one’s Christian journey to pursue wealth above all else.  

Instead, Paul suggest they focus on doing good for one another.   In doing so, they pave the way for a good future.  And in the pursuit of doing good…one finds true life.  

Nothing satisfies like serving your neighbor.  

A (Application):  Houston, TX.    What a scary and devastating disaster.  We pray continuously for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.   We give thanks for the rescue workers and first responders.  We give thanks for those helping to evacuate folks who are stuck in their homes.  We pray for parents who work for their children. 

In times like these, we see that the lust for money is pretty fruitless.   The one advantage money offers in times like this is that those with resources might use them for serving their neighbor.   People opening up their homes…people using their personal boats to help rescue others…people sharing their food and clothing with others…

This sharing is true life.   Nothing soothes the soul like giving or receiving in these times of great need.  

Please consider making a financial donation to help with relief efforts.   One way to do so is through Lutheran Disaster Response.  Click here to make a donation for Hurricane Harvey Relief.  

Let us be rich in good things.  

P (Prayer): Lord, in times of disaster, we lean on you.  Help us also to lean on one another.  Amen. 

Giving – a Spiritual Gift


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S (Scripture): 2 Corinthinas 8:1 We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, 6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. 7 Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

O (Observation):   Paul urges good stewardship amongst ALL followers of Jesus.   He encourages all to take on the example of Christ:  to deny one’s self and riches for the sake of the other.   

The church in Macedonia has shown great generosity, EVEN IN THE MIDST OF THEIR “extreme poverty.”    The challenge wasn’t accepted until their bank accounts were filled, with some to spare.  No!  In the midst of their poverty, God saw fit to have the Macedonian church give DESPITE its general poverty.  And an abundance flowed forth…and all “voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means.”  This was God’s going, indeed.  

A (Application):  This kind of story strikes us as Americans.   We are a nation built on good, old-fashioned hard work.   And every penny saved is a penny earned.  Where we pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. 

Until – as individuals or families – we can’t…because of illness or old age or because we are alone and have no one by our side.  

I’m no advocate for laziness, I’m just an advocate for generosity.  Maybe you’ve been privileged enough to not need help…and if that is you, then that isolates you from about 99% of the world.  Good for you.  As for the 99%…we need help and assistance from time to time.   

I have received a LOT of help in my life – financially, and in other ways – and my wife and I are more and more incorporating into our budget ways to be generous to others.   We are not necessarily “paying back” those who have helped us.  Instead, we are paying forward to help others in need.  

Our generosity comes not from our own doing, though we have worked hard in our lives to contribute to society, but rather, our generosity comes as a gift of the Spirit.  

When our world tells us to look out for our own, we don’t stop there.  We look for our neighbor, as well.  

When our world says to hold back, we give.  

And with this generosity comes a deep satisfaction that is repaid not always in dollars, but in peace that surpasses understanding.  

P (Prayer): Lord, give us glad and generous hearts!  Amen.  I 

This Land is God’s Land…Not “Ours” – thoughts on Stewardship

S (Scripture): 1 Chronicles 29:1 King David said to the entire assembly: “My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is just an inexperienced young man, and the task is great, for this palace is not for man, but for the Lord God. 2 So I have made every effort to provide what is needed for the temple of my God, including the gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, as well as a large amount of onyx, settings of antimony and other stones, all kinds of precious stones, and alabaster. 3 Now, to show my commitment to the temple of my God, I donate my personal treasure of gold and silver to the temple of my God, in addition to all that I have already supplied for this holy temple. 4 This includes 3,000 talents of gold from Ophir and 7,000 talents of refined silver for overlaying the walls of the buildings, 5 for gold and silver items, and for all the work of the craftsmen. Who else wants to contribute to the Lord today?”

6 The leaders of the families, the leaders of the Israelite tribes, the commanders of units of a thousand and a hundred, and the supervisors of the king’s work contributed willingly…9 The people were delighted with their donations, for they contributed to the Lord with a willing attitude; King David was also very happy…

14 [David praised the Lord, saying:] “But who am I and who are my people, that we should be in a position to contribute this much? Indeed, everything comes from you, and we have simply given back to you what is yours. 15 For we are resident foreigners and nomads in your presence, like all our ancestors; our days are like a shadow on the earth, without security. 16 O Lord our God, all this wealth, which we have collected to build a temple for you to honor your holy name, comes from you; it all belongs to you. ”

O (Observation):  Some key stewardship principals lived out by King David, as God’s  people embark on the building of a new and glorious temple for God.   King David wanted to build it, himself, but was told by God that his son, Solomon, would build it.  To support this effort – like a good leader – he decided to give not only from the Israel’s treasury, but also from his personal treasures.  

King David’s generous example gives inspiration to the people to do the same. Good leaders ask their followers to do something that the leader himself or herself is willing to do.  The result: joyful givers. 

Not only does David help his people to know how to give joyfully, but also to recognize that their treasures and their land are not – and never have been – “their” land.  Instead, this is all God’s money and God’s land – and God’s people are but nomads resting in their places for a while, and they are simply temporary stewards of God’s treasures. 

A (Application):  My family is one of the top 3 giving units in our congregation for 2016.   We struggled to get here…but with an attitude such as David’s, and faith that God will see us through, we are here…and we struggle to make sure we can stay here.   It takes faith.   It takes effort.  It takes intentionality.  And even though I’m writing about it, it takes humility.  

I don’t talk about this often, but if David thinks it’s okay to worry about…then maybe it’s okay for me to discuss it here. : )

This is a joyful opportunity to recognize some excellent stewardship principals from David. We are all but nomads…yes, even God’s people.  Whether it’s Israel, North America, Scandinavia, Germany, wherever…we are all but nomads, regardless of our length of our stay.   And those who have been in places before us…some we have displaced…and how so?  In the name of God?  Well, sometimes yes, shamefully so – taking God’s name in vain to declare something “ours.”

We have what we have in this life (land, liberty, money, pursuit of happiness) not for our own selfish sake…but to give God glory and to help others in need through hospitality and generosity.  

By sharing our place in giving to the congregation I serve, in putting our treasures where our hearts are, we are saying to the congregation: this is God’s, not ours, and we trust God will continue to give to us what we need as a family…and trust that provision will come.   

How is your struggle with giving to the church, the community, to neighbors in need?   If you ever want my help to figure out how to make progress in your giving, please let me know.   I’m happy to help, and to keep your information confidential.   Pray on it.  

P (Prayer): Lord, you give us our daily bread.  Help us all to realize this.  Amen.