It Pays To Give

About eight and a half years ago I was a mess. I was separated, soon to be divorced, and my finances looked desperate. We’d built up a lot of debt during the marriage, and now I found myself owing tens of thousands of pounds on credit cards and personal loans. I looked at all the monthly payments, added those to the money I needed to spend to live, and realised that even though I was on a decent salary the sums just didn’t add up.

After receiving some debt advice and doing difficult calculations, I managed to agree payment arrangements with banks and credit card companies. I found that if I carefully watched my spending from week to week. I was able to get by.

Shortly after I’d made these arrangements I realised that God was speaking to me about money. He didn’t speak audibly, but instead through several different sources: yes, a message in Church, and also through podcasts I listened to, and Christian articles I received in my email. It was like a coordinated attack! I felt convicted in my heart that He wanted me to tithe.

I struggled to accept His instruction, because I couldn’t see where I could possibly find ten percent of my income to give away. But I examined my budget carefully and figured that if I cut all my spending right to the bone then maybe I could just about make it. Moreover, I felt compelled to give because I love Jesus, and this was something I wanted so much to do for Him.

So I prayed, and said to God, “Okay, I hear you, and I’ll do as you ask, but please help me because I’m going to struggle.” I decided to give it a try for six months, I set up a standing order so I was committed to the sacrifice, and then I waited to see what happened.

What happened was that from that day onward the amount of spare money I had at the end of each month just grew and grew. I couldn’t explain why. My salary stayed the same, all my major spending commitments stayed the same, and yet I was able to start saving money for a rainy day and soon I was able to lend money to friends and family. In the years since then I’ve increased my giving. On top of my tithe I make monthly donations to charities, which I add to from time to time as the Spirit leads me.

I had a rocky season when I felt it was wise to reduce my giving for a while, but I didn’t feel guilty about that because I knew God understood, and He knew my heart. Now I’m back to what I would call “full strength” tithing, and I don’t feel proud about that, just grateful and blessed that I’m able to respond to God in this way. I can see the day coming in the not-too-distant future when my debts to financial institutions will finally be cleared. My debt to Christ, for what He did for me on the cross, I can never repay. But God showed me a way to say “Thank You” and I’m so glad that listened to Him.

So I really feel that God has rewarded me for my obedience. I didn’t do it expecting a reward, in fact I didn’t expect anything. I just hoped that things would work out. But when I stepped out in faith, God made amazing things happen. And I’m convinced that He’ll do that for all of us, not just financially, but in every area of our lives if we just learn to put our trust in Him.

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Malachi 3:10-12

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God, Have Mercy

I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable admitting that I have “favourite” passages in the Bible. I know it’s not something I should be uneasy about. Clearly different books, chapters and verses will have stronger resonance during different seasons of my life. And no doubt people who have lived different lives will be drawn to different parts of scripture, or God will speak to them in different ways than He does to me with the same words.

But there are some passages that are universal, and one of my favourites is such an excerpt. It is Luke 18:9-14, known as the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. When I say “universal” I really mean it, because not only can any Christian relate to it, but so can anyone of any faith, or of none, so long as they are not so deluded as to think themselves perfect.

I doubt that a day goes by during which I don’t have thoughts that correspond to the Pharisee’s. When I see someone make a foolish driving manoeuvre, or act rudely in a shop, or just express an opinion I disagree with. Sometimes I will literally think myself “better” than the other person, but often I’ll find myself thinking the same thing in that slightly more subtle, but maybe more pernicious way… “At least I am not like that person.”

And then I’ll catch myself, and realise how far I am from the pedestal I briefly put myself on. At this point a non-believer will berate themselves for their superciliousness. So will I, before figuratively beating my breast and pleading “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Luke 18:9-14

In Memoriam

I hadn’t heard of Jo Cox MP until she died on 16 June 2016, but from her dying day until my own, I’ll never forget her.

There are two reasons why I’ll remember her. One is the brutal nature of her murder at the hands of a xenophobic far-right extremist. The other is her quote from a parliamentary speech, which was repeated often in the aftermath of her death.

…we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.

She was far from the first person to express such sentiments, but a special poignancy has been added to her words by the way her life was stolen, and those words have been running through my mind recently, triggering two thoughts that I want to share with you.

First, there is the simple, profound truth of what Jo said. How many of us can say that we’ve never made a negative judgement about someone based on a perceived difference between “us” and “them”? Whether that difference is in their race, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, mental or physical impairment, or anything else – yes there are many differences between us and them, and between you and me. Yet if we looked more deeply into our common humanity, looked with different eyes at the “other”, if we thought about the story of their life, the comedy and the tragedy in their history, the same needs, the same concerns, the same hopes and fears that drive them, and also drive us… if we could only see them as God sees them, we would surely discover love for them. I have some way to go in this area. I know I have my own prejudices. They may be different to yours, but that doesn’t make me any better or worse than you. It’s wrong, and it’s stupid. Prejudice belittles everyone (Galatians 3:28, Leviticus 19:33-34, 1 Samuel 16:7).

At the risk of sounding morbid, my second thought was this: how do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? I think this matters, and I think it should matter to you as well, whether or not you share my faith that death is not the end (John 11:25-26). It’s not a case of earning points toward a happier afterlife. It’s not particularly important for its own sake either – my ego isn’t going to be massaged by the kind words people speak about me when I’m dead. But it matters if the way you’re remembered is a reflection of the way you lived your life. It matters that people remember your kindness rather than your eloquence. It matters that people remember your generosity rather than your wealth. None of us are perfect, and the people who know us best will no doubt have plenty of uncomplimentary stories they could tell about us when we’re no longer around. But what matters is whether they will want to share those stories, or the ones that show us in our best light because they know that in our hearts we wanted to shine our best light in the world (Matthew 5:16).

Jo Cox never saw the sun on 17 June 2016, and tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us (James 4:13-14). I believe God has wonderful things in store for His children in the next life, but that doesn’t make this life any less precious, or any less important, so while we’re living it let’s give the world something beautiful to remember us by.


You might be interested in visiting the website of the Jo Cox Foundation: https://www.jocoxfoundation.org/

 

Father, Forgive Them

A few months ago a friend asked a question on Facebook. It concerned forgiveness, and the willingness of “the world” to forgive, compared with the willingness of those in the Church. It made me think. A lot. Forgiveness, seemingly such a simple concept, has become a hugely complex and difficult subject in the heart of mankind.

The Bible speaks often of forgiveness. As Christians we are exhorted to forgive one another.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

These verses are in the context of living as a Christian community. But Christ doesn’t seem to limit the scope of forgiveness when he says, immediately after teaching the Lord’s Prayer,

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

He is emphasising one verse from the prayer. Think about it. Jesus is emphasising one verse from the most famous, most widely spoken prayer in the history of the world. What does that say about the importance of forgiveness?

There is something about these verses though. Something that I think our fallen hearts focus on even if we are not aware of it. We see a transaction taking place. God forgave us and so, in return, we should forgive others. If we don’t forgive others then, in return, God will not forgive us.

And sometimes that’s how we forgive. We do so because we know we should, or worse, because we want to be seen as good Christians – or if we are not believers, to be seen as good people. Like the giving, praying and fasting of the hypocrites in Matthew 6, we forgive for show, not for love. For forgiveness to count for anything, it must come from the heart, as Christ explained in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

There’s another way our hearts lead us to misunderstand forgiveness. Consider these words of Jesus.

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. (Luke 17:3-4)

It is an unambiguous instruction. Depending on the nature of the sin, it might be a very difficult instruction to follow, but Jesus never said that following Him would be easy.

But I’m not thinking about the difficulty of forgiveness, so much as what comes before it in the verse – repentance. Repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand at various points in the Bible. And we have come to believe that repentance is a condition for forgiveness. Unless the one who has sinned against us repents, apologises, begs forgiveness, in some way admits their wrongdoing, they don’t deserve our forgiveness, and we are entitled to withhold it. (Oswald Chambers wrote a short, interesting devotional on repentance, you might like to read it.)

In this world there will be times that we feel sinned against when the “sinner” has actually done no wrong, but the hurt is based on some kind of misunderstanding or disagreement, not on any intention of harm. But even when harm is deliberate, and there is no sign of repentance, we can still forgive.

When I consider this, I remember Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987. After describing her last words to him, he said to the BBC,

But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.

Tears come to my eyes as I read his words again. This is true forgiveness, from the heart, born out of faith, unconditional.

And that brings me to Christ’s words on the cross,

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

I think about the Roman soldiers casting lots for His clothes as Jesus forgives them. I think of the people of Jerusalem who had cried out for His crucifixion, not understanding who He really was, and He forgives them as He hangs there.

It was only when I thought about His words again recently that I realised He was also speaking of me. I understood that this was the moment in history that Jesus saw all my sin and prepared Himself to suffer the full consequences of everything I will ever do in defiance of God’s will. And He knew that in my humanity I can never completely change, that every day I will sin in word or thought or deed. He knew that sometimes those sins would be wilful, and sometimes neglectful or thoughtless. And He knew that I can’t possibly truly know what I’m doing, because I can barely comprehend the cost of my sin or the depth of God’s love for me in spite of it.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Shipwrecked?

As I compose this post I’m sitting on a bench overlooking St. Thomas Bay, Malta. Traditionally, St. Paul’s Bay, where I’m staying tonight, at the north of the island, is the location of Paul’s shipwreck, described in Acts 27-28. But researchers carefully comparing the text with the geography of Malta, have concluded that St. Thomas Bay is actually the most likely place for the events to have occurred.

Looking across the calm sea in the early afternoon it’s hard to imagine a deadly storm could bring such danger and destruction here. But these waters, like so many of our lives, are only tranquil for a season.

How many of us, at times, have felt metaphorically shipwrecked? I’ve been feeling that way for quite a while. The ships that break, and in doing so can break us, are relationships. It’s not hard to see that people can live rich, meaningful and joyful lives when they are in the poorest circumstances, if they are nurtured by rich, meaningful relationships. On the other hand, someone with all the status, wealth and good health they could wish for, can be emotionally crippled and utterly miserable without the love of family and true friends.

Most of us live somewhere between those extremes. But we can find ourselves adrift in a stormy sea when a key relationship is broken for any reason. What can we do then?

Many books have been written in response to that question. I don’t have all the answers, but in reading about Paul’s shipwreck I find helpful pointers.

First, have faith.

“But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.” (Acts 27:22-26)

And let faith give you courage. God may not have spoken to you as clearly as He did to Paul, but He is surely with you nevertheless. He is at your side as you fall from the ship. He swims alongside you to the shore. He is your Rock of salvation. He loves you even when it feels like no one could.

Second, stay strong.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. (Acts 27:33-36)

Just as Paul urged his shipmates to eat, you must eat, sleep, wash, work – do all that you need to do to sustain yourself through the storm. God has good things in store for you, and you need to be fit and ready when they come.

Third, hold on.

He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely. (Acts 27:43b-44)

If you can swim then swim to safety, but if you can’t, find something to hold onto – somebody, some hope, whatever can continue to give your life meaning until you reach solid ground.

Fourth, reach out.

The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold… There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. (Acts 28:2,7)

There is someone who can help you recover from your trauma. There is someone who can understand, who can put things in perspective, who can ready you for the next stage of your journey. It might be a family member, or a friend, or a pastor or a counsellor. Maybe like Paul you will find help in the kindness of strangers. God places people in position for you at times like these, but you won’t see them unless you look.

Fifth, take your time.

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island… (Acts 28:11a)

Paul spent three months in Malta. Some of that time was spent recovering, and some was spent being useful to the islanders – healing the sick. However long it takes until you are ready to set sail again, don’t neglect your new circumstance, and the opportunities it may give you to help yourself or others.

Throughout it all, pray, give thanks, and remember – you are not alone.

When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.

The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.

Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement. So Paul warned them, “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.

When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. (Acts 27, 28:1-16)

The Mystery of Matchmaking

I want to share with you the transcript of BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” from 4 January, presented by Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer:

The Advertising Standards Authority, the ASA, has just banned an online dating agency from claiming it has a scientifically proven matchmaking system. In an advert headlined “Step aside, fate, it’s time science had a go at love,” the dating service claimed to be able to decode the mystery of compatibility and chemistry, so that you don’t have to. The ASA said that there’s no proof that those who use the service were more likely to find lasting love than those who didn’t, and ruled that the advert was misleading.

Matchmaking is a tough business. The Talmud relates how a Roman matron once asked a rabbi how God occupies His time. “He’s busy pairing couples,” answered the rabbi. “Seriously?” scoffed the matron. “Anyone can pair couples. I’ve got a thousand male slaves and a thousand female slaves and I’ll show you how easy it is to pair them up.” “It might seem easy to you,” replied the rabbi, “but I can assure you it is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” The matron paired up her slaves, but the following morning she was inundated with complaints from the misaligned and unhappy couples. “You’re right,” she confessed to the rabbi, “I had no idea how difficult matchmaking could be.”

That even God should find matchmaking taxing indicates that when it comes to matters of the heart there is no simple algorithm. Sometimes all the externals match up, and yet that elusive element we call chemistry, is absent. Other times we can’t figure out how an apparently grossly misaligned couple find themselves deeply in love. No algorithm can account for that.

Furthermore, traditional matchmakers recognise that achieving a compatible match is only the first step towards an enduring relationship, requiring much effort on the part of the couple to achieve love. The Bible, in describing Isaac’s courtship with Rebekah, states that he “brought her home, took her as a wife, and loved her.” The sequence makes it clear that in the Bible, love is not the prerequisite for marriage, but rather, it’s successful outcome.

Love is not static. You don’t fall in love with someone, and remain perpetually in that state. As anyone in a long term relationship knows, love is hard work. The root of the Hebrew word for love, ahava, is hav which means “to give.” Falling in love is something that happens to us, but being in love is the result of an active process in which we continually give of ourselves to our beloved. And it is in giving and sharing that we discover just how deep our capacity for love can really be.