Merry Christmas Everyone – Whatever that Means!

adventcandlesI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the true meaning of Christmas. I’m not going to claim that I hate the secular aspects of Christmas, because that would just be an outright lie.

I don’t like just how commercial it has become, but I definitely can’t claim to hate all of the secular traditions.

However, I do dislike how the true meaning of Christmas often gets entirely overlooked. But to just remind people that it’s really about the birth of Jesus Christ seems somewhat pointless. While often overlooked, this fact is not exactly unknown. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t know what the real meaning of Christmas actually is.

So, again, saying the true meaning of Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ seems kinda pointless. “It’s about the birth of Jesus Christ.” Really? Don’t want to offend, but, so what? A more relevant question might be “what is the true meaning of Jesus Christ?”

Or, to put it another way, just what was this Jesus dude all about?

That question can be answered in any number of ways, but I think its fitting to look at it from the perspective of the Advent season.

During Advent, a candle is lit on each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day. Each has a particular theme: hope, joy, peace and love.

These word, these concepts, are actually very useful in helping us understand what Christ stood for, and what he advocated.

Christ Brings Hope

One of Christ’s many titles is Immanuel, which means “God is with us”. The name Jesus means “God is Salvation”. Both remind us that God does not forsake us. They help us remember that we are never alone. When I think of Christ as a beacon of hope, I’m reminded of one of my favorite scriptures:

“And you shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings; but you shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.”

This passage helps us understand that Christ wants us to turn our concerns and troubles, whatever our burdens might be, over to him. And knowing that is defiantly a good reason to have hope.

Christ Fosters Joy

Another of my favorite verses of scriptures is:

“Adam fell, that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”

I love this because it directly answers the greatest question of all: “what is the meaning of life?” – that makes it an extremely profound verse, all the more so because of how simple it is.

We are born, and we live, to have joy. That’s it. That is why Christ, who is God, created us in the first place. That is what he wants for each of us. And if we follow his examples, putting others before ourselves, helping each other, we tend to find a deeper meaning to our purpose, and in doing so, things tend to happen that result in joy being more abundant. Its when we become too self-focused, too materialistic, and take others for granted, that we undermine our own potential to experience joy.

Christ Seeks Peace

Not just global peace, but individual peace. A lot of Christians talk about converting people to Christ. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But for a while, I’ve been thinking that what we should also be striving to convert people to peace, and to the things that Christ sought to convert people to, such as compassion and charity. Everybody needs some form of tranquility, and we each have the potential to be generous and caring. What would the world be like if we focused some of our time on helping people find what they may be missing, helping them to find peace, and to be more generous and compassionate?

Christ Promotes Love

Love is perhaps Christ’s greatest cause. And love is the basis for all of the above: hope, joy, peace, and also compassion & charity. Love is the foundation for building and sustaining holistic communities; and its also the means to establishing and nurturing sincere relationships with one another – whatever those relationships might be.

The more free we are with our love, the more likely we are to see everything else that Christ advocated explode! But our capacity to love people is often undermined by various circumstances, including our own fears.

So, how can we grow our capacity to love people, and express our love in ways that will have a positive impact on each other and people we don’t even know?

It has to begin by allowing ourselves to be loved. Allow yourself to be loved, and your own capacity to love others will increase.  Do not be afraid to be loved.  Do not be afraid to love others.

***

Its all a circle.

And as we become more comfortable being loved and loving others, everything else will be magnified…our joy, our peace, our hope, his joy, her peace, your hope, etc.; and in turn, these fuel love, and it just goes on and on.

This is what Christ was, and is, all about. And therefore, this is the deeper meaning behind Christmas.

So, my hope for everyone I know, and everyone you know, is that during this Christmas season, and beyond, you will never lose hope, that you’ll always find ways of having joy, that you’ll ensure that from time to time that you’ll enjoy some peaceful moments, and that you’ll love life, yourself, and everyone else; that you’ll allow yourself to be loved and in turn love others.

God bless!

Balanced Stewardship

“Stewardship is the response of my people to the ministry of my Son…”
-Doctrine and Covenants Section 147:5a (CofC)

This blog is based on a sermon I preached, which you can read here.

A few years ago my congregation decided to identify six ministries that we would focus on.  After an extended period of consideration,  the team that spearheaded this initiative decided that one of these six ministries had to be stewardship.

However, we recognized that the term stewardship has some baggage in our church, and is also limited in scope.  We therefore wanted to rejuvenate and expand the meaning of stewardship.

As a result, we decided to give this particular ministry, as we envisioned it, the term “balanced stewardship”.  The aim of this ministry was defined as follows:

“Focus the careful and responsible management of time, talent, and resources to support the long term plan of the congregation…”

We also attached two primary objectives to this ministry:

1) To be a congregation made up of people who are individually and collectively inspired to joyfully offer their gifts in response to God’s grace.
2) Embracing a whole-life stewardship that is not limited to monetary responses.

However, I felt that it would be a challenge for many of our members, even with the above statements, to get their heads around the concept of stewardship being an aspect of all expressions of their discipleship, not just generosity.

Therefore, in a sermon I preached, I described five *possible* forms of balanced stewardship, which are as follows:

One: Fiscal Stewardship (A Disciple’s Generous Response)

This is the traditional understanding of stewardship.  Financial contributions to the church…because as much as we felt that the concept of stewardship needed to be expanded, tithing and offerings, etc., are still critically important.

Fiscal stewardship is of vital importance to the mission of the church, both locally and globally, and it’s reflective of our generous response to the needs of others.  Additionally, generosity is an expression of charity, and charity is an expression of love.

Your loving and generous contributions to your congregation, to your mission center, and to World Church, and to various programs such as World Accord, touch the lives of people all around the world, truly having a beneficial impact on those whose ministerial needs outweigh our own.

Our current tithing program is termed “A Disciple’s Generous Response”.  This program teaches us that generosity is a spiritual discipline.  It also encourages us to respond faithfully, spend responsibly, save wisely, and give generously.

These are all wise words, and we need to embrace them.  Yet in a system that promotes balanced stewardship, fiscal stewardship is but one form of our call to be good stewards.  And its important to remember that fiscal stewardship is not about guilt.  No one is expected to give beyond their means, or to give when they can’t.

Two: Earth Stewardship (Environmental/Conservation issues)

This is perhaps a more recent expression of stewardship, at least, for many of us, but it is an ancient discipline among aboriginal communities. Yet now the rest of the world has finally caught on; and God is encouraging us to embrace our call to be custodians of the whole world.

One of my favourite scriptures is the following :

“The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.”
–Doctrine and Covenants 163:4b (CofC version).

This passage truly resonates with me, and I am eager to explore ways in which our church, and our congregation can help protect the world on which we live.  This planet is a gift from God, as are all things in creation.  We can’t take anything, even the world itself, for granted.

Three:  Zionic Stewardship (Peace & Justice)

This is the responsibility that we have, beyond our charitable gifts, to help improve the conditions of all people throughout the world.  To care for one another.

A very, very, very, long time ago, God asked a rather short and simple question: “where is your brother” and the reply that He received was this: “am I my brother’s keeper?”  The answer to that question is “yes!” you *are* your brother’s keeper!  You are a keeper of all children of God.

We are reminded of this calling, this aspect of our stewardship, by another verse from Section 163:

“God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.” -4a

So you see, God has charged us with the task of helping to improve the lot of others, building a better world, living our mission of proclaiming Jesus Christ, and promoting communities of joy, hope, love, and peace.  This is Zionic stewardship.

Four: Ministerial Stewardship (time, energy, resource management)

This is sort of a catchall.   This is the stewardship of our own blessings; or, to put it another way, our time, energy, gifts and talents, and how we use them, our willingness to use them, our willingness to risk; to move beyond our comfort zones.

This type of stewardship could also be understood as an expression of our discipleship; and it deals with our willingness to identify those things that we are passionate about, and finding opportunities to give expression to those things in a church context.

Five: Temple Stewardship (physical, emotional & spiritual wellbeing)

The name of this form of stewardship comes from First Corinthians, in which we read the following:

“…do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own?” -19 IV (adapted)

This verse reminds us that our bodies are gifts from God.  They are temples of the Lord.  They are not ours, but His.  As such, we would do well to take very good care of them.  Therefore, we must always be attentive to our personal health, in all it’s many forms.  Our health is multi-dimensional, and therefore, so must be our efforts to take care of our health, our temples of the Lord.

And this also includes our spiritual wellbeing.  We must be careful to ensure that we don’t experience burnout.  And if we do, then we need to recognize it, and appropriately cope with it.  This is also a key aspect of our temple stewardship.

***

A member of my congregation decided to use the five examples of balanced stewardship by creating a “spring cleaning challenge” for our membership, which was as follows:

IT’S TIME FOR SOME SPRING CLEANING!
spring

Free yourself up to connect with God! (via the following five goals)

1. Earth Stewardship
Set a goal to find a way to look after the earth. Achieve the goal!

2. Fiscal Stewardship
Set a goal to manage your money better. Achieve the goal!

3. Ministerial Stewardship
Set a goal to cultivate your blessings. Develop your use of your time, talents, energy, and gifts. Achieve the goal!

4. Temple Stewardship
Set a goal to improve your health and lifestyle. Achieve the goal!

5. Zionic Stewardship
Set a goal to find a way to improve the lives of others. Achieve the goal!

Breathe Clearly Again!

***

I hope, after prayerful consideration, that you will agree that balanced stewardship, however one might define it, is important.  There are many reasons.  For example, it could be neglectful, or even maladaptive, to focus on only one expression of stewardship.

Plus, we are encouraged to broaden our ministry, to become more diverse in our witness of Jesus Christ.  This promotes our own spiritual growth, not to mention the positive impact that may transpire in the lives of those to whom we minister, which may not occur if we are not willing to render new forms of ministry.

The church needs balanced stewardship.  From each of us.  That need has never been more urgent.  Our discipleship and stewardship must be flexible, and relevant.  We must be open to change, because the church has changed, and the church has changed because the world has changed, and that is perhaps the most important reason why balanced stewardship is so vitally important.

***

What does stewardship mean to you?  Is it appropriate to envision stewardship in a broader manner than previously understood?  Do the five examples above resonate with you?  How do you envision balanced stewardship?

Are We Not All Beggars?

“though ye believe not me, believe the works” –John 10:38 (I.V.)

Beggar in London
This blog is part of my ZionBound series.  The full series can be read in post order here.

I have not always been in a position where I can give to the church. And, on those occasions where I could, I often forgot to bring money. I have the good fortune to live in a first world nation, but to be honest, I almost don’t carry cash anymore. If I need to make a purchase, I use my debit card. So, unfortunately, when I go to church, I often don’t have any cash left over to contribute. Those are habits I need to fix; but there are larger issues.

When I do remember to bring money, or a check, it always feels good to put it in the offering plate. Its something I enjoy; but for much of my life, I only contributed to my home congregation. I overlooked giving to World Church. I always felt that I only had so much money to give, and my local branch needed the money more. I could see the immediate needs. The leaky roof. The broken tap. The payments for lawn mowing and snow ploughing.

I’ve always known about the efforts of World Church to help make the world a better place, but such ventures were out of sight, and therefore, sadly, out of mind.

However, in recent years, I have been more inclined to support both my local congregation, and World Church; and it feels very good to do so. It feels like an additional form of ministry. I’m still working on my habits, but, sadly, again, there are larger issues…

As a conservative member with many traditional beliefs, I have come to regard supporting World Church as part of my personal stewardship. I have been called by Jesus Christ to be one of His disciples, and supporting World Church is one of my responses to that call.

Knowing that generosity is part of our discipleship, I have been greatly saddened and troubled at times, over the years, to learn that some of my fellow conservative church members have made the decision to stop supporting World Church as a response to some of the changes that have taken place, or are expected to take place. This attitude completely baffles me, it shocks me and it is, quite simply, wrong.

No matter how frustrated you might be with the church, no matter how much you may resent some things that have transpired, withholding your tithes is not the answer! In fact, as we will see further below, doing so will probably only accelerate the things that conservatives don’t want to see transpire! Now that’s ironic!

But first, a reminder.

Whatever we have in this life, it came from God. There are no exceptions. I once gave expression to this reality in a poem. I am not a poet, but, despite that fact, I feel compelled to share it here.

The poem is entitled “I Owe God a lot of Money” and I wrote it to be included in the camp log of the senior high camp I attended in 1997.

***

“I owe God a lot of money. Every dime I have ever had. Every penny I have ever made.
I owe it all to God.
I owe God a soda. Every drink I have ever had. Every meal I have ever enjoyed.
I owe these all to God.
I owe God a new shirt. Every coat I have ever worn. Every pair of shoes I have ever used.
I owe them all to God.
I owe God a tent. Every bed I have ever had. Every roof I have ever slept under.
I owe each and all to God.
I owe God a hug. Every friend I have ever known. Every relative I have ever had.
I owe every one to God.
I owe God a lot of stuff. Everything I have ever owned. Every item I have ever found.
I owe so much to God.
I owe God ever more. Every day that I have lived. All the tomorrows I shall ever have.
I owe no less than all to God”

***

What do you owe God? Do you owe any less than I? All the blessings we have ever received are granted to us from our Lord. Therefore, it does not truly belong to us, but instead, it belongs to God.

If we withhold our offerings, then we are withholding them from our Redeemer. How can we call ourselves true Christians, true disciples of Jesus Christ if we decide to punish the church by withholding our contributions from the One who gave it to us in the first place?

Again, everything we have, including every dime, is a gift to us from God. We are all beggars; and we are reminded of that in the second chapter of the Book of Mosiah:

29 And ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
30 Perhaps thou shalt say, The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance, that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just.
31 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done, he perisheth for ever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
32 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same being, even God, for all the substance which we have; for both food, and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
33 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins.
34 And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain?
35 Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped, that ye could not find utterance, so exceeding great was your joy.
36 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives, and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how had ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have, one to another?
37 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance, that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation, for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you, but to God, to whom also, your life belongeth;
38 And yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.
39 I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich, as pertaining to the things of this world.

Yes, we are all beggars. Yet, God has freely given to us. We in turn must freely give. Even when we disagree with some of the changes that have been made. In fact, especially when we disagree. Such things test our faith.

The passage above from Mosiah teaches us in verses 30 and 31 that we are not to pass judgement on the beggar. We are told that if we do so, we will bring judgement upon us, for, we are also beggars (verse 32).

Likewise, we should not pass judgement on the church for the faults we find with it. For does God not find fault in each of us?

Other verses in the above passage remind us that we turn to God when we are in need; and, despite our faults and failings, despite our sins and transgressions, God provides for us; and God has called us to tithe, to give generously. Will we ignore that call because we have issues with the church? If we do so, would God’s judgement on us not be just?

To put it simply, the fact that the church may have made changes that we might not be comfortable with in no way exempts us from our duty to tithe. However, that duty alone should not be the sole reason for why we should want to contribute generously.

At the end of World Conference 2010, President David Schaal preached a sermon in which he talked about the importance of giving to World Church. This is what he said:

“Friends, lets pay our tithing. The reason I say “let’s pay our tithing” is simply this: I am not motivated to pay my tithing simply so that the world church budget can be in some manner healthy on the balance sheet. I am motivated to pay my tithing because right now, missionaries, ministers, who are funded by World Church tithing dollars, in many places in this world, are helping young people learn how to avoid the ravages of the HIV virus, and because of your generosity there are children who are being spared that heartache. Its because not far from where I am standing right now there is a man who said to me not long ago, “I love this church – because of this church I get to be with my family, because I don’t do cocaine anymore” And he’s not doing cocaine anymore because of ministries that came his way funded by tithing dollars made possible by your generosity.”

President Schaal continued by saying:

“Friends let me be candid. there are times in which I hear people say “Well I don’t know if I want to pay tithing to the World Church because I just don’t see my congregation getting that much in return.” Brothers and sisters, its not about me or my congregation! Its about the values I hold dear! And because I do not want those children to get AIDS, because I want other Daddies to be reunited with their children, because I want children all over the world to learn about the enduring principles of Community of Christ, and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ, as interpreted by our unique vision and unique pastoral and prophetic call. That’s why I pay tithing! I don’t care if I get anything in return! I pay because its in alignment with what I care for and what I value.”

Brother Schaal concluded by stating:

“Plus, its just down right fun, to right that check, and to know, that my doing so is making a difference in my world. It is an intimate act of worship.”

An intimate act of worship. O how I wish all church members felt the same way.

When conservative church members refuse to pay tithes, they are shooting themselves in the foot. If there are changes that we, as traditionalists, don’t like, is the proper response “I’ll hold back my funding”? No! In fact, that is really actually quite absurd.

The proper response is to give consideration to how we can help prevent other changes that we might not like from taking place.

As a foundationalist, I have a deep passion for, and faith in, the foundational principles and events on which the entire Latter Day Restoration movement is based on.

Therefore, I feel a lot of sorrow when church members with similar views leave the church because of changes. That is not the proper response! Neither is refusing to pay tithes.

The proper response is to carry on. Seek ways to ensure that any other potential changes that you might not like do not come to pass. How can we do this? There are many ways, but it seems one avenue is never considered, which is this:

Become even more active in church life. Become part of the decision making process. Help guide the church by becoming church leaders. Take on volunteer positions in the church. Seek out and find church employment.

If you think that things are “becoming worse” in the church, than instead of shunning the church, position yourself to become part of the church’s leadership, so that you can be in a position to do something about it. If you have no interest in working for the church than at least help empower other conservatives who might want to do just that.   Trust me, they do exist.

It is my sincere conviction that the church truly needs active and passionate church members with conservative theological and doctrinal perspectives to seek opportunities for church employment. This is what conservative church members need to do! We need to bring balance to the church, by working for the church! Forsaking the church is *never* the answer.

However, if you don’t financially support the church than any conservative church members who might be out there with a sincere desire to work for the church, along with other people who desire to do likewise, won’t have nearly as many (if any) opportunities to do so, as their won’t be funding.

Therefore, if you want the church to shift in a direction that you desire then you truly need to empower the church to be in a position in which it can hire more people. Running away or punishing the church is not the answer.

So the next time you think to yourself “I’m not going to financially support World Church because I disagree with some of the changes that have been made”, please give consideration to those conservative church members who might actually be hoping to one day work for the church, who might actually be desirous to prevent other changes from taking place, who might wish to see the church once again more fully embrace its Restoration heritage! We all have to be partners in this endeavor.

There are other great reasons to continue to pay tithes. The church is doing some wonderful things all over the world. We have great programs that are sustained by the financial gifts received from generous members everywhere.

Punishing the church only results in these programs being punished. Programs that help keep kids off the street, programs that help protect battered women, programs that take the gospel into all the world.

If you are not familiar with how the church spends its financial gifts please check out the generosity stories here.

I also strongly encourage everyone to become familiar with the mission initiatives of the church, which can be found here:

http://www.cofchrist.org/mission-initiatives

Finally, consider enrolling in the PAT system so that you can make contributions to World Church without even thinking about it:

https://www.cofchrist.org/give-now

May God bless you as you magnify your discipleship by responding generously.

Questions to Ponder:

In what ways are you dependent on God?
If we punish the church by witholding tithes, how might that impact those who are in need?
What matters most?