Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Giving by a New and Living Way - the Beginning

I recently wrote an article about how Christians have responded to the current recession. Like some of you, in addition, I have heard about the $15 million settlement between Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and four young men who accused him of sexual misconduct. These two events, along with my becoming more open about my thoughts regarding Christian giving, have caused me to give thought to answering the questions that I have been fielding, so as to make my position clear. Above all, I want the Word of God to be understood, and rightly applied.

The Bible, especially the New Testament, is clear that we are to treat our fellow-Christians as if they were our own family (Gal 6:10). We are to love one another, showing that love, not only by what we say, but by how we treat one another (James 2). Scriptures abound that call us to care for one another, share with one another, and help one another. I believe that even the passages which talk about supporting those who are in ministry are rooted in this concern, rather than in any sort of entitlement that those in ministry may have because of their position or status. After all, if a person is committed to preaching the Gospel to the point that he or she forgoes the normal economic activities that could allow them to prosper economically, offering themselves as an instrument in God's hands to spread the message of the Kingdom, should not the rest of us, who are able to pursue the regular economic opportunities, sustain them in order that they might continue without care?

Recently, the practice of tithing has come under the light of scrutiny as some have questioned whether the Old Testament practice is binding upon Christians, and, if so, how? At one end are those who take the words of Malachi 3:6-12 as directly applicable to Christians, including the offer of blessing and cursing that are included. As a result, pastors and teachers encourage their congregants to set aside 10% of their gross income for the church, in order to reap financial and other blessings and avoid the specter of God cursing them with poverty. At the other end are those who argue that the teaching is flawed and inapplicable to Christians, who are encouraged instead to give generously as an act of ministry to help others, support their local church, and other ministries, as they have been blessed, but only after having met their family needs, and while living a lifestyle that is modest rather than extravagant.

I am not going to write anything today that will give cover for covetousness or an apologetic for avarice. If you are so in love with the money in your possession that the only way you will give it away is when "they pry it away from your cold, dead fingers," I cannot support you, and I implore you to repent immediately. I am suggesting that we have looked at the issue of money in a way that swallows a camel and strains out a gnat, when God has given us everything that pertains to life and godliness through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us (Col 2:8-10). Instead of allowing the Spirit to lead us in the grace of giving (2 Cor 8:5), we pull out our calculators, demand to see w-2 statements, and make promises and utter threats in God's name that we will one day have to answer to Him for.

We are told in the New Testament that we are to be motivated by faith working through love (Gal 5:6), or not at all(1 Cor 13:1-3). This applies to our teaching, preaching, worship, prayer, and giving. The debate over tithing, however, seldom delves into this area, but instead is mostly focused on our obligation, the ministry's entitlement, and God's enforcement. In it, God becomes a loan shark, who loaned money to us, demanding that protection money be paid to His appointed agents in order to avoid horrific economic consequences.

I remember a conversation that I had with a pastor who told me that my questioning on this subject was putting my son in danger. Knowing how close I am to my son, he thought that the possibility of my son suffering behind my exploration would stop me dead in my tracks. It did stop our conversation, and I never brought it up with him again. It didn't stop my research, however. I have seen friends separate over this, people get rejected from service because they dared question it, and people engage in illegal activities in support of it (writing checks by "faith" is still writing bad checks when you know that the money is not there to cover it, saints). I believe that there is a more excellent way.

I will explore this issue over the next series of articles, and I want to hear from you. Pressent your view with your best arguments, avoiding personal attacks, questions of personal integrity, etc, and I shall do the same. In so doing, I hope to look at the impact that the Church has in the Community, and how people view the involvement, or lack thereof, by their local churches and its connection to the financial resources that members make available. I also want to look at the idea that the church gets to play surrogate for us in terms of reaching out to others who are in any trouble. It is this idea that undergirds many appeals to our generosity by both local and television ministries, but is it legitimate? Let's search it out together. The end result should be that we are better representatives of Christ's presence, walking in love, and supporting our ministries out of love rather than by compulsion.

It is my aim to present the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, regardless of the impact of that truth upon traditions, habits, practices and other relics to which we have grown accustomed and comfortable. Walking "by faith and not by sight" applies to everyone, both in the pulpit and in the pew. Above all, I want to help us to "grow in grace," and in the "knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue." This is part of the practical aspect of fellowship, pressing towards the mark of God's upward call. So "don't be skerred," as I promise that I will still esteem you when we are done here, regardless of where we end up on this issue.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jumping the Broom: Cinema Verite, or an Urban Gospel Fairy Tale?

I don't often discuss movies - in fact, I have never done so before today. I read an interesting article by film maker Tariq Alexander, discussing the film, "Jumping the Broom." Produced by prolific pastor/author/entrepreneur Bishop T.D. Jakes, the film deals with the issues of marriage, sexual purity, and the class struggle as expressed in the context of the African American experience. The cast includes veteran actors Loretta Devine, Angela Bassett, Mike Epps, Tasha Smith, and Meagan Goode, along with lesser known actors Paula Patton and Laz Alonzo. The combination of themes, talent, and the beautiful scenery of Martha's Vineyard makes it a pleasant virtual vacation for a couple of hours at the matinee.

One responder to Alexander's piece argued that the movie's premise of class-based black-on-black crime was so unrealistic as to be comedic all by itself. Even though we know that there are wealthy African Americans - you know, Oprah, P-Diddy, MJ (Jordan, not Jackson) and T.D. himself - still, few of us personally know any, no matter how often we claim to be related to one (yeah, me and Tisha Campbell - wait, she isn't one of them). As a result, the images portrayed in this movie, at least as it relates to the family of the bride, can be seen as an unrealistic mockery of our grinding, unending struggle to at least appear to be "movin' on up to the East Side."

The movie never discusses how the Watson family achieved its status, excepting a brief reference by the mother to the effect that their family history puts them in the category of slave owners rather than slaves. It is clear that the distance between Watson and Taylor families is greater than the drive time from the island to the post office place of employment for Pam Taylor, mother of Jason Taylor, the lucky(?) guy who is about to marry the alleged woman of every black man's dreams, cute, sexy, and successful Sabrina Watson. Throw in the added spice of the light-skinned sistah/dark-skinned brothah romance, and you have a movie that seems tailor-made to give us something to talk about.

Ahhh, so much to say, so little time... Is it realistic to expect a guy to go 5 months subsisting on smokey kisses and longing looks? Can a guy from the Hood make the ultimate connection with a girl from the Hamptons? Can you really have a wedding reception without doing the Electric Slide? I guess you'll have to spend your $7.50 and find out. What I would like to know, right now, is how I can find the kind of job, opportunity, inheritance - something - that will allow me to drink fancy breakfast drinks that contain something more carbonated than Sprite. I have been reading and listening, and one thing I think I have learned, some sistahs may not know how to cook like momma, but they still want you to take care of them like daddy. Like many men, I relish the role of the Handsome Prince, but I don't own a kingdom yet. I am still seeking that fortune that will put me over the top, and make me the most eligible bachelor in America, although, hopefully, not for long. I have tried MLM, writing with advertizements (don't forget to click one of the links for me), working from home, and applying to everything that Monster.com sends my way.

It seems to me that, while we wait for Jesus to return, we have to live, love, and eat. We would prefer to do those things comfortably. We live in what is claimed to be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, but a lot of people seem to be feeling rather weak since the the real estate collapse that took hold by 2007. If there are keys to prosperity, should those who may have found them keep that info to themselves, or should charity, having done well at home, begin to spread abroad? Can I learn the secret to wealth without having to spend $799 for a video series, live phone support, and the opportunity to buy the next hot new product that promises to be more of a game changer than was the last one?

"Jesus is the answer for the world today," and "the Bible is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth," but I have not yet found the chapter that tells me how to get a piece of the pie without taking it out of a Mrs. Smith's box. Of course, I am not the most prolific Bible scholar on the planet, so someone might know where that chapter can be found, so that I can get busy putting it into practice. Trust me, if it works for me, I'll be happy to share the info without taking four easy payments from you. I just want to know what is achievable, and how it becomes achievable, if I am willing to become, "not just a hearer of the word, but a doer of the word." Can Jesus take me from Brooklyn to Martha's Vineyard, without my having to marry into it? Perhaps a better question might be, "Should He?" This inquiring mind really wants to know!

I'm just sayin'...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Not losing salvation, just throwing it away...

A recent online discussion led to some serious introspection regarding a belief that I have held without much examination for some time. For a long time, I had looked at the issue of eternal security as being a question regarding whether a Christian could lose his or her salvation. Believing that allowing my salvation to be dependent upon my vigilance at avoiding an accidental loss of faith would make my salvation extremely tenuous, I argued against such a possibility with vigor and confidence that my position was fully supported by the Scriptures. No passages of warning shook my confidence regarding this, because my confidence was in the ability of the Lord to keep me from falling and present me faultless before His throne.

Something happened to me on the way to the Second Coming. I firmly believe that God gave us the Scriptures for a reason, instead of allowing Christianity to be spread and framed totally by oral historians. In God’s wisdom, words matter, so much so that His only-begotten Son is identified as the Word of God, and, He sent His Word into the world, transformed into a human being, in order to save the world by His Word.

What does this have to do with Eternal Security? I think that we have been arguing the wrong thing, and, as a consequence, we may have been guarding the wrong gate. The Bible says nothing about “losing” your salvation, but it says a lot about “rejecting” it (1 Tim 1:19), “turning from” it (Gal 1:6), and “drawing back” from it (Heb 10:38-39). The difference is significant, because it deals with intention. Losses happen through circumstance, accident, or negligence, but in general, you only throw something away because you do not value it enough to keep it, and, instead, think that it is worthless.

When we choose the works of the flesh over walking in the Spirit, we really make a choice. We know from the Word of God that there is a difference between the two, and we even know the eternal consequences, because the Word tells them plainly. “Whoever does these things,” Paul wrote in Galatians 5:21, “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Nevertheless, to indulge the flesh is appealing, comfortable, and familiar, while the consequences are vague to us, since few of us have ever died, experienced the wrath of God, and returned to talk about it, and there is no consensus regarding the stories of those who say that they have had such an experience. For this reason, many if us have become inclined to put off being concerned about our actual position before God, believing that He won’t allow our foolish humanity to thwart His divine desire to save us from the eternal consequences of the “passing pleasures of sin.” We were wrong to do so.

The problem here is not that we could accidentally stumble into the wrath of God, but rather, that we will stubbornly choose to believe that God does not mean it when He says we must obey Him, and that it is so important that we do so, that He even, in the person of the Holy Spirit, comes to live inside of us – our humanity and fleshly history notwithstanding. God, who is Holy, in order to deliver us from His wrath, not only pays our debt, but takes up residence within us, to enable us to do what we all agree we cannot do – obey Him. With such a huge investment in our lives, what excuse do we have when we fight against Him, willfully walk contrary to Him, stop our ears to His word, and come up with clever arguments as to why we owe Him nothing more than lip service?
My moment of clarity came from reading the close of Hebrews 10. Just before launching into Chapter 11’s discussion regarding faith, the author says ““NOW THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH; BUT IF ANYONE DRAWS BACK, MY SOUL HAS NO PLEASURE IN HIM." But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:38-39). God offers both comfort and warning; comfort, in that my ability to live is anchored “by faith, not of works,” and warning, that if I pull back, He will take no pleasure in me, and that the end result of my doing so will be destruction. I can monitor my will much better than I can keep up with my emotions. My choices, I can control, even better than I can keep up with my glasses, car keys, and wallet.

Therefore, starting today, I will say to everyone who asks of me a reason for the hope that lies within me, that, by God’s grace, I have been enabled to see clearly the choices that I have been given, and the eternal consequences, and have chosen life. I am confident that my choice will, in fact, hold up, because God has empowered me by His presence, so that I can live consistent with that choice, and that I will not reverse that decision for any reason, for there is no reason which merits my doing so. I know that this is true, because, while once I was blind, He opened my eyes, and now I see. Like that other man who was born blind in order that the works of God might be displayed in him, I decided to worship the Son of God as soon as I found out who He was, and I shall continue to worship Him, for there is none other. I invite you, if your eyes are opened, to do the same.