Giving in Good Times and Bad

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 John 2:15-16 (NLT)

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world.


It’s obvious that Covid-19 has impacted our ability to worship. What may not be so immediately obvious is that the pandemic also has created a stress test for the typical American approach to church giving.

Folks, at this point it is safe to say the stress test has revealed a lot of cracks.

As a pastor, I was concerned about giving patterns long before the pandemic came along. As Methodists, we do not talk about the link between money and ministry the way we should, and we certainly don’t talk enough about what our relationship with money says about our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Let me jump over hurdle number one as quickly as I can. There always will be people who complain when church leaders, particularly pastors, talk about money. But the devil had a good day when he convinced church people to behave as if money is unmentionable.

Sixteen of Jesus’ 38 parables are about how to handle money and possessions. Ten percent of all the verses in the gospels deal directly with the subject of money. How we handle money and possessions needs to be discussed in church regularly.

The Problem

Now, it’s obvious hard times can affect giving in a direct way. When people lose their jobs, it is difficult or impossible for them to give. These are people possibly in need of church assistance, and they should never feel pressured to give.

I’m convinced however, that there are other factors behind the declines in giving some churches are seeing:

First, there’s what I call the movie theater effect. Giving is treated like buying a ticket, so if you don’t go to worship, you don’t buy a ticket. We see this attitude impact giving at other times, too, for example, when there’s prolonged bad weather in the winter.

Second, there’s the impact of increased anxiety—”We had better hold on to everything we have.” If that’s your situation, I will simply ask you to consider who it is that gives you the greatest hope, and how it is he works in this world through us today.

Third, the vision for what we do as the church is fading.  We aren’t entering the building regularly and mixing in Christian community, and we can forget why the church exists. This is largely a communications challenge for church leaders.

The Prayerful Solution

Let me offer us a quick, two-part formula for how to plan our giving. The great thing about this formula is it helps us keep perspective on money and possessions in good times or bad.

Let’s begin by establishing our committed support. Don’t think in dollars, think in percentages. Nearly everyone has some form of income, regular or irregular, a paycheck or a draw taken from a retirement plan.

Make a prayerful, firm decision about what percentage you can share with the church, and then follow through. I encourage people to write the percentage down on a piece of paper and stick it in the corner of a mirror used daily. The number is between you and God.

Here’s why I like for people to think in percentages—your commitment remains the same regardless of whether your financial situation improves or worsens. Years ago, a friend of mine, a committed tither (a giver of 10 percent of his income), lost his job, and was lamenting, “It kills me that I can’t tithe.”

I asked him, “Hey, buddy, what’s 10 percent of zero?”

“Well, zero,” he replied.

“You’re tithing!” I said. “Your commitment remains the same, just as it will when you’re working again.” He’s now doing very well financially, by the way, and I’m sure he’s a tremendous blessing to his church.

We also need to ask God’s guidance regarding our special support. This is when we recognize how blessed we are and go beyond our committed giving to fund something extra we think is important to the kingdom.

When we take committed support and special support of the church seriously, we position ourselves to better understand Jesus’ teachings about the role of money and possessions in our lives. We learn from the experience of planned giving. To some degree, you’ll just have to trust me—try it, as if you’re laying a fleece to receive guidance from God.

Regarding a vision for what the church does: As a pastor, I’m working to do a better job of communicating how churches truly change the world. There are great stories out there. Help me tell them!

Lord, committed givers have sustained your global church in the brightest and darkest days, in the most affluent and in the poorest parts of the world. Help us to better understand how your Spirit provides. Amen.

Bedtime Meditation

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 63:6-8
I lie awake thinking of you,
    meditating on you through the night.
Because you are my helper,
    I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
    your strong right hand holds me securely.

Let’s continue with our meditation on Psalm 63, along the lines of what we did yesterday.

Where do we find our minds going as we drift toward sleep, or even as we sleep? There has been a lot of talk about difficulty sleeping and about “Covid-19 dreams,” those nighttime expressions of our heightened anxiety.

I’ve had my struggles at night. In the midst of the pandemic, I moved from one church appointment to another. As you might expect, I couldn’t say goodbye to the former church people the way I wanted, and I have not been able to say hello to the new church people the way I want.

I’ve had this recurring dream where I’m in the sanctuary at my new appointment. As I walk into the narthex, I see a set of stairs that don’t exist in real life, and I go up them. Upstairs, I find I’m in the sanctuary of my former church.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to figure that one out. It’s not a scary dream, just startlingly vivid, but clearly I’m lacking a sense of complete transition.

That dream is nothing compared with what a lot of you are experiencing. Maybe you have illness in your immediate family, or perhaps your ability to make a living has been impaired. The situation is enough to keep you awake at night.

Try this—I will try it too. Read just a little Scripture before falling asleep. Read something positive, like one of the resurrection stories in the gospels, or something else that gives you joy.

As you fall asleep, think about the goodness of God. Think of the great gift of salvation we have been given.

God is our helper. God does give us joy. And God will carry us through the night.

Lord, as we sleep, may we encounter you and grow in our understanding of your love. Amen.

Wilderness Meditation

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 63:1-5 (NLT)

A psalm of David, regarding a time
when David was in the wilderness of Judah.

O God, you are my God;
    I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
    my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
    where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
    and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
    how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
    lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
    I will praise you with songs of joy.

There are different kinds of wilderness, but they all have a few things in common.

While starkly beautiful, they can be unnerving, being so different from our daily experience. They even can be life-threatening if we don’t know how to navigate them. 

Some of us might feel we’re in a metaphorical wilderness right now. With a pandemic and a shift in political climate both underway, life can seem unpredictable and maybe even a little scary.

Here’s a positive thought, though. The heightened awareness the wilderness demands can bring us in touch with God.

Let’s take time to look at the first part of Psalm 63 today. I’ll raise the questions, and you consider your particular answers.

Do you still actively search for God?

Are you emotionally engaged in that search? Is the search more than theoretical—are you praying a need will be filled?

Can you say you’ve recently worshiped in a way where you have sensed God’s power and glory?

If you’ve not said “yes” so far, you may have identified why you sometimes feel as spiritually dry as a Levantine desert.

You also may have the beginnings of a strategy to move toward praise and deep satisfaction, regardless of your environment.

Lord, grow us in our awareness of your presence and our appreciation of your power and overwhelming love. Amen.

Hope!

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 78:1-7

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders.
For he issued his laws to Jacob;
    he gave his instructions to Israel.
He commanded our ancestors
    to teach them to their children,
so the next generation might know them—
    even the children not yet born—
    and they in turn will teach their own children.
So each generation should set its hope anew on God,
    not forgetting his glorious miracles
    and obeying his commands.

As I write this, election results remain unclear in several states, and I suspect this uncertainty will be ongoing as you read this. Several people have expressed to me how anxious they feel.

It helps, I think, to stay on task, to control what is actually within our sphere of influence. Regardless of the political climate, a particular responsibility remains for those of us who follow God. Having experienced hope, we pass along hope to others, something a lot of people seem to be lacking lately.

Hope in God’s plan, as expressed in Psalm 78, also is an effective sedative for those overly elated with a moment of worldly victory, and a boost for those who hang their heads, thinking political defeat spells looming disaster.

People of God carry within them big-picture hope, but we simultaneously are called to a daily kind of work. Back when Barack Obama was running for his second term, a panicked church member cornered me one day, tugging at my sleeve and saying something that made his political views obvious: “Pastor Chuck, what are we going to do if Obama wins the election?”

“Well,” I said, “I plan to do what I will do if he loses. I’m going to preach Jesus.”

Christians, more than anything else, we share the Good News. Day in and day out, we need to find ways to tell others about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Politics may have consumed our thoughts recently, but we need to focus on our most pressing, immediate problem. A new generation is failing to learn the critically important story found in Scripture, mostly because those of us who know it are not telling it deliberately and well.

This story should excite any generation. It is ancient; the psalms are ancient to us, and our psalm for today speaks of lessons from what its author considers a distant past. We work from millenia to millenia, not term to term.

Our story describes who God is: The one who has always been and always will be, holy from before time to beyond the end of time. It also explains why we are the way we are—broken, sinful and often full of regret.

Our story declares a mysterious, fundamental truth. God loves us despite our sins. He loves us so much that he came among us in flesh to redeem us from our deliberate decisions to reject our creator’s will. Believing this story draws God directly into our midst, changing how we see every aspect of our lives.

Wherever you stand politically, do all you can to inject hope into the lives of others in these coming days, weeks, months and years.

Lord, as your followers, we commit ourselves to the truth that we are yours first. Help us to tell your story of hope to people who are on edge. Amen.

Under Water

Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 107:28-30 (NRSV)
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.

In yesterday’s devotional, I explored how to breathe during prayer, particularly when we find ourselves anxious. Today, I’m going to teach you a particular visualization technique to enhance your connection with God.

Put the two techniques together, and you have a kind of meditative prayer, something a lot of people in our culture don’t practice regularly. Our other, more familiar ways of praying—where we speak our praises, thanks and petitions to God, perhaps focusing on Scripture or a devotional as part of the process—remain critically important to our prayer lives. You may find, however, that meditative prayer techniques are particularly helpful in developing a sense of God’s constant presence.

There are uncountable ways to enter a state of meditative prayer. This is just one I like. I do not remember where I first learned it.

Imagine yourself sitting (or standing or lying, depending on your preferred posture) at the bottom of a deep, clear pool of water. Here’s the good news: God has granted you the ability to breathe comfortably and freely while there. Remember to breathe as discussed yesterday.

If this were a class in Zen meditation, someone might tell you to empty your mind. We’re doing the opposite. We want to be filled with God, and only with God.

As you begin, it helps to think of a word representing what you seek in that holy relationship. I’ve heard people make all sorts of choices: “peace,” “love,” “forgiveness” or “discernment,” for example. I’ve even heard people choose “Jesus” as their word, apparently as they tried to better fathom what it means to be in a personal relationship with God through Christ.

Go ahead and accept that worries and random thoughts will intrude on this time. We’re not going to fight them. Instead, take hold of them, examine them for a brief moment, and then release them, allowing them to float to the surface, far above you. Say your chosen word as part of the next exhale, and settle back into experiencing God.

That’s the technique. Simple, huh?

By the way, the more you do this, the longer you will spend in this state before deciding to surface. In just a few tries, you may have a meditative prayer session where you are surprised at how long you’ve been “under”—half an hour or even an hour might feel like 15 or 20 minutes.

What’s important is that you find yourself deeply aware of God’s presence.

Lord, thank you for the way you meet us in the midst of storms and in quiet places. Amen.

Life and Breath

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

The Bible has a lot to say about the not-so-simple act of breathing. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, words for “breath,” “wind” and “spirit” overlap.

Genesis 2:7: Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Ezekiel 37:9: Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

John 20:21-23: Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Acts 2:2-4: And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

It’s pretty obvious that in Scripture, the source of life is God’s breath, which we also might think of as the movement of the Holy Spirit. This ethereal lesson can be lived out in very practical ways, however, particularly in times of stress.

When I’ve taught people under tremendous stress how to pray in a meditative way, the “how to breathe” part of the lesson has been critical. First, you have to position your body so you can breathe. If seated, your back and neck need to be straight, your shoulders squared and hanging from your collarbones as if on coathangers.

From here, “breath prayer” begins to line up with core techniques I’ve learned from decades of martial arts practice, principles recently confirmed in books I’ve read about how soldiers and police survive and control violent, high-stress situations. Breathing is normally automatic, but it can get out of control when the world becomes overwhelming. At such times, we have to take charge of our breathing.

Inhale through your nose deeply, slowly, expanding your lower stomach. Hold at the end of the inhale for a count equal to your time spent inhaling. Exhale through your mouth at the same rate, shrinking and pushing in your lower stomach. At the bottom of the exhale, hold for the same amount of time. Some people who teach this talk about using a “four count” at each stage.

I should warn you, if your heart is racing, if your blood pressure is up, your lungs will fight you at first, particularly as you hold at the bottom of your exhale. But if you’re feeling panicked or anxious, repeating this type of breathing will calm you, center you, and allow you to turn to God.

Biblically, it makes sense. Made in the image of God and granted the Holy Spirit through our belief in Jesus Christ, we have access to the source of life.

Think of deliberate, God-focused breathing as an unspoken prayer request: “God, renew in me what you have poured into the world.”

Peace be with you. Tomorrow, I will try to help you embed this breathing in prayerful Christian meditation.

Lord, we thank you for the life you have breathed into us. May we use our lives to glorify you and to the benefit of your dawning kingdom on earth.

On the Verge

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Kings 19:1-8: Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.


In stressful times like these, we sometimes are going to feel down. We may get so down that we think we cannot get back up. If we recognize that reality, our chances of coping when the time comes will improve dramatically.

Our verses above are just a small part of a long story in 1 Kings about a struggle between God’s prophet, Elijah, and the idolatrous Queen Jezebel. Here’s the irony: Elijah’s fear and ultimate collapse occurred right after a great victory over the Jezebel-sponsored prophets of Baal.

It’s not as strange as it sounds. Elijah had been caught up in what was, for all practical purposes, a war. There was a ritual battle to call down fire from the sky. That, and the slaughter that followed, left him as vulnerable as any soldier who has just experienced fierce fighting.

“The greatest danger is the moment of victory,” said Napoleon Bonaparte of the mental fatigue and malaise that occur when soldiers have fought and then suddenly stop. Even winning doesn’t counter the collapse that can follow.

We need to remember that once this Covid-19 virus is defeated; we may have some odd reactions once the crisis is over.

Elijah ran, but in running, he did one thing right. He cried out to God. The prayer was as simple and inappropriate as “take away my life,” but at least the prophet knew to call on God. And instead of death, he received grace, in the form of angel cake and water, allowing him to be restored and hear more from God.

If you find yourself on the verge of collapse, cry out to God with whatever is on your heart. Grace will come—after all, we worship the God who poured out saving grace, the kind of grace that allows us to keep going for all eternity.

Lord, we are a broken people, but restore to us our best lives so we may serve you better. Amen.