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Odd and peculiar?

Wednesday February 4 2015

Many of our extended family members think my husband and I are distinctly odd. Strange. Maybe peculiar.

Some of the things we do because we’re Christians seem baffling them. We keep a Sabbath, which appears lazy. In many cases, we pray about things before we act, which seems irresponsible and a bit wacky. We give away at least 10% or our income, which seems totally crazy. We refer to the Bible as God’s word and we love Jesus, which evidently mark us as unthinking and blind to the realities of life.

Not too long ago I came across the word “peculiar” as a positive attribute in the hymn, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun.” The first verse of the hymn describes the extent of Jesus’ coming reign as encompassing all creation. The second and third verses describe widespread praise of God, and the fourth verse lists blessings humans receive when Jesus reigns. Then the fifth verse  invites us to respond to the good news that Jesus will reign and that his reign will be so wonderful:

“Let every creature rise and bring / peculiar honors to our king.”

When Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote the words to this hymn, “peculiar” could be used to mean particular or unique. With these words, he’s inviting all creatures to bring to God the offerings that are particular to their own gifts or attributes, the honors that they are uniquely able to bring. The verse is a wonderful call to pay attention to the unique gifts and characteristics that God has blessed us with and then bring to God our lives, our gifts, our abilities, and our praises in the utterly unique form that only we can bring.

I wonder if we would be wise also to think about “peculiar” in this verse as odd or strange, to think about bringing to God the offerings and honors that seem peculiar to the rest of the world. Practices like Sabbath keeping, tithing, prayer, Bible study and many other habits and patterns of life that Christians engage in seem bizarre, even incomprehensible, to many who do not know Christ.

Certainly the church of Jesus Christ needs to proclaim the gospel in ways that are culturally relevant. I worry, though, that we have become so culturally relevant that we are virtually identical to the wider culture. I think we need to speak up about the peculiar things we do because we are Christians.

I feel awkward talking about tithing, the fact that we give away at least 10% of our income. Shouldn’t that be private? I have come to believe that the fact that my husband and I tithe is one of the ways we proclaim with our actions that Christ is Lord of our lives to the people who know us. Specifically, that Christ is Lord of our money, which in Western culture is such a significant indicator of values.

I don’t like being told by family members that we are odd, strange or peculiar. That our faith has blinded us to the realities of life. That we are a bit brainless. But I do like bringing to Jesus the “peculiar honors” that I can bring, the unique and particular things I can offer. And if that means people view me as peculiar in the odd sense, maybe that’s a good thing.

Lent begins this year on February 18, and Lent is a great time to try a new faith-related habit that might look peculiar to others but that also might enable us to bring our own “peculiar honors” to God.

(This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a new post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Money, generosity and transformation into Christ’s image

Friday January 16 2015

Money, generosity and transformation into Christ’s image

Money was my father’s joy in life. He loved earning it, and he especially loved investing it and managing it. My bedtime stories in elementary school involved tales of how compound interest works and why it is so wonderful. Dinner conversation in my teen years involved lessons about the Fed and how its actions impact inflation. When I took economics 101 in college, I was bored out of my mind. Doesn’t everybody know this stuff, I wondered. Don’t their fathers teach them?

As you can imagine, my father’s teaching about money impacted me profoundly. In my teen years, I was very, very careful with money, tracking every penny I earned, spent and saved. After I became a Christian at 19, I learned that financial generosity is a part of Christian living. I learned that Jesus said we cannot serve God and money. I felt that my world view was being subjected to an earthquake.

I can vividly remember the first time I put a ten dollar bill into an offering basket. I was 20 or 21. The offering was being taken at a student conference, and it would go for student missionary work overseas. As I put the money in the basket, I felt as if my heart was being torn out of my chest.  

At 22 I got my first full time job. I felt led by God to tithe, to give away 10% of what earned before taxes. I had a very small salary, so 10% wasn’t a very big sum of money (a good thing), but it felt like I was breaking everything I learned from my father about money (a painful thing). Two years later, I got married. My husband and I made the same decision about tithing.

We have tended to give 5% of our income to our local church and the other 5% to friends who missionaries and to microloans through Opportunity International. For a period of time in the early 2000s, we had a much higher income than we had ever had before, so we gave away more than 10%.

I have learned that many New Testament scholars and theologians do not believe that the Bible instructs Christian to tithe. Perhaps not. But the regular and consistent giving away of a set percentage of my income has shaped me. I still enjoy managing money, just like my father taught me. But I see clearly that generosity with money (and with time and possessions as well) reflects the generous heart of God revealed in Jesus. I’m so grateful that the selfish and self-absorbed girl who once struggled to put $10 into an offering basket has been transformed into a woman who enjoys acts of generosity, at least some of the time.

Part of the reason why we can’t serve God and money is that focusing on money too much removes generosity from our hearts, and generosity is close to the heart of God. “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” (2 Corinthians 8:9, NRSV). When we serve or worship money, we are not allowing ourselves to be transformed into the image of Christ the Generous One. Tithing, more than any other thing I have done, has shaped me into a person who has moments of reflecting Christ’s generosity.

In addition, as my friend Steve Simon told me one time, God tells us to give because it builds our trust in God as our provider and because it keeps us from being enslaved to the god of More. I believe tithing sets up a structure that shapes us into people who trust God to provide and who resist the power of the god of More. At any time, a structure can become an end in itself and a source of pride and arrogance, and I’m sure in some cases tithing gets warped that way. However, if we tithe with the goal of growing in reflecting God’s generosity, increasing in trusting God and resisting the powers that tell us more is better, over the long haul this spiritual practice can be a significant source of transformation into the image of Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s been in my life.

Tithing is a spiritual practice or a spiritual discipline, and Lent, which begins February 18, is a great time to think about trying new spiritual practices. I encourage you to think about experimenting with a new spiritual discipline during Lent this year. You might enjoy an article I wrote entitled “I’m excited about spiritual disciplines.”

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I put a new post on this blog, please sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)