Going It Alone

1 Corinthians 7:32-40 (NLT)

I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him. But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.

But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin. But if he has decided firmly not to marry and there is no urgency and he can control his passion, he does well not to marry. So the person who marries his fiancée does well, and the person who doesn’t marry does even better.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord. But in my opinion it would be better for her to stay single, and I think I am giving you counsel from God’s Spirit when I say this.

You may have heard jokes about unmarried marriage counselors not being particularly useful. As a man married for more than three decades, I similarly may not be of much use as I try to explore what Paul has to say about celibacy. I’ll do my best, though.

Perhaps the biggest problem any of us will face when processing this text is that our culture sees little value in celibacy, which is the voluntary decision to forgo a sexual relationship. As a people so deeply immersed in the idea that sexuality defines our very being, we see celibacy as a negative state rather than something positive.

Paul clearly was taking early Christians in the other direction. He certainly affirmed marriage and the sexual relationship naturally occurring within a marriage, but he also saw high value in the decision to put aside the sexual aspect of life in order to better serve God. This assumed, of course, that people choosing celibacy were convinced of their ability to live without this powerful drive taking them down the path of sin.

I wonder if that kind of certainty was more easily achieved in a time when sex was not so heavily a part of daily experience, when the world had no advertising or other media so determined to draw our attention through an appeal to our most basic drives.

That is mere speculation. I don’t know the answer. The story that Thomas Aquinas needed a special waist cord brought to him by angels so he could avoid sexual temptation might argue otherwise.

I do know this. People who find themselves drawn to celibate lives because of their love for Jesus Christ have much to offer the kingdom, and should be highly valued in any church setting. They have received a special gift from God, and they may astonish us with their works.

Lord, we thank you for the gifts you pour out on our church, especially the ones we sometimes have a hard time recognizing. Amen.

Giving and Receiving

Proverbs 3:9-10

Honor the Lord with your substance
    and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.

As we launch into the first work week of 2021, let’s think about what we plan to dedicate to the Lord this year, supporting the work of the church.

It’s good to start a new year deliberately praying about how we will participate through our tithes and offerings in the kingdom work that will happen. If we seek guidance from God, we will find clear answers, and from there we can make commitments satisfying to our souls.

In the Old Testament, a “tithe” usually is a reference to 10 percent of what a herd or field produces. That concept, of course, can apply to monetary income, too.

Mainly, I want us to understand the value of thinking in percentages—a percentage commitment can be made before we know for sure what we will receive. Wherever I have led as a pastor, I have encouraged people to write down a percentage commitment early in the year and post it where they will see it regularly, for example, on a bathroom or dresser mirror.

Once you’ve faithfully and bravely done all that, the rest is just a matter of following through.

I have to be careful with what I next say. The above proverb also promises abundance to those who make and keep such commitments. I don’t want to sound like a prosperity gospel televangelist, saying $10 will return to you for every dollar you contribute.

But simultaneously, I will always affirm that a life lived with God, a life where we conform our resources to God’s unselfish plan, is better than a life where we simply look out for ourselves. After all, we live as reflections of the God who rained manna where needed, who turned a few loaves and fishes into great abundance, and who gives us eternal life through the cross.

As we are blessed through our close walk with God, we may even find ourselves making offerings above our basic commitments, if for no other reason than to show gratitude.

Lord, guide us in regard to how we are to use our resources in 2021. We trust we will receive our daily bread; knowing that, we seek to better understand the purpose of any abundance we see. Amen.

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.

What We Desire

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 63:1-8

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.

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.

The word “desire” may evoke a powerful feeling in you, one likely tied to some important event in your life.

Maybe someone close to you had a strong desire for alcohol, ruining relationships. Or maybe it’s a positive association, your lifelong desire for someone else making you a better person.

It is easy to see that desire is neither good nor bad in and of itself. What matters is what we desire.

The psalmist here demonstrates a deep desire for God. From the psalm’s introductory heading, we know it is by or about David, the valiant shepherd and eventual king of Israel.

Despite the passion for God expressed here, we also know David had moments where he could forget about God and make terrible decisions, his baser desires overwhelming what should have been, on a rational level, easy choices.

David has been famous for thousands of years, but he’s also much like us, isn’t he? Where we choose to aim our desire can turn our lives in one direction or another very quickly. 

There is another danger where desire is concerned, too. If we suffer from a general lack of desire, we may find ourselves twirling aimlessly, like a sailboat with no wind.

It is good to be passionate in holy ways. Many Christians remember that initial passion for God and God’s word after coming to a belief in Jesus Christ. If desire has faded, it can be restored by a deliberate effort to spend time with God in his word and in prayer.

Desire propels us. We just need to be sure we are moving toward God.

Lord, where our desire is wrongly aimed, pull us back toward you, and where the flame for you has died down, fan it to new heights. Amen.

Means of Grace, Day 2

By Chuck Griffin
Editor, LifeTalk

Philippians 4:6 (NLT): Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

Like Scripture, prayer is an extremely broad subject. Again, we are talking about a many-layered discipline, one with more depth to it than we can hope to explore in a lifetime.

Prayer takes time, and that causes us to shy away from a deep commitment to it. And yet, prayer also seems to interact with time in mysterious ways, making other moments more fruitful.

In one of his great sermons, “Degrees of Power Attending the Gospel,” C.H. Spurgeon spoke in 1865  of how important the “spirit of prayerfulness” was in his church, Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.

“Let me entreat you never to lose it,” he said. Later in the sermon, Spurgeon exhorted his congregation this way: “Let us increase our praying as we increase our doing. I like that of Martin Luther, when he says, ‘I have so much business to do today, that I shall not be able to get through it with less than three hours’ prayer.’ Now most people would say, ‘I have so much business to do today, that I must only have three minutes’ prayer—I cannot afford the time.’ But Luther thought that the more he had to do the more he must pray, or else he could not get through it. That is a blessed kind of logic—may we understand it!”

Like so many spiritual activities, the only way we can understand prayer is to actually pray. If we over-intellectualize the process, seeking to understand everything before we begin, we will never give this work of piety the time it deserves.

Prayer is very much about submitting ourselves to the will of God. Too often, we see prayer as our effort to get God to do what we want, when instead we first need to be sure we are aligned with what God wants. For me, anyway, it has been important to get to a place where I’m allowing the Spirit to enter.

I am far from being an expert on prayer. All I can do is offer what has helped me as a person who has struggled with sustained prayer through the years. I certainly make sure to praise God in prayer and lift up petitions, but I have become more comfortable with prayer as I’ve combined it with Christian meditation, a deliberate effort to set my shallow desires aside so God can shape me.

I will not go into great detail about this meditative aspect of prayer—your details may differ from mine. I will say that location, posture and breathing are important. The place of prayer must be quiet and feel connected to God. The posture needs to be reverent and submissive, but also comfortable enough to not be distracting. The breathing needs to be slow, deep and deliberate.

If you feel the need to be led through prayer, there are all sorts of guides, ancient and modern, and many of them build in time for meditation or reflection. “A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God,” by Norman Shawchuck and Rueben P. Job, is one of my favorites. Combining prayer with Scripture, which go together like ice cream and hot fudge, this particular guide keeps me in the flow of the lectionary, used in particular by some preachers as they work their way through the church season.

As you commit to a deeper prayer life, promise me this: Expect something big to happen. You may find yourself shaken into a bold new life—for an example, see Acts 4:23-31.

That’s the kind of prayer experience that changes not just us, but the world around us.

Lord, bless us with a deep desire to pray, and bless us continually as we pray. Amen.