Thursday, January 18, 2018

“Currency of the Kingdom” – Gifts, Tithes and Offerings

Matthew 5:23-24:

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Well, the subject is money. That topic tends to put people on edge. So I am going to violate a rule of preaching by telling a couple of jokes at the beginning. My seminary professors said not to do that. Fortunately, they're not here.

When I was still in the Army, I found myself needing pocket change for a Coke one day at the PX. (This was back when you could get a Coke for pocket change.) A soldier was walking by, so I turned and said, "Trooper, do you have change for a dollar?"

He answered, "Sure do, buddy."

I replied, "That's no way to speak to me! I'm an officer! Now let's try it again! Do you have change for a dollar?"

And he stood at attention and said, "Sir, no sir!"

One Wednesday evening three businessmen, Tom, Dick and Harry, were on a company jet crossing the Pacific when lightning struck the plane and knocked out the radios. To avoid the fierce storm the pilot flew hundreds of miles off the planned course. They wound up ditching plane next to small, uncharted island.

The next morning the crew and Tom and Dick took stock and announced that they were all going to die. No one in the world had any idea of where to search and their only fresh water was what they had saved from the plane. They looked around and saw Harry lying beneath a palm tree, hat over his face, happy as a clam.

“What’s wrong with you?” Tom yelled. “Don’t you understand that we are all going to die?”

“Nah,” said Harry. “It’s Thursday morning. We’ll be rescued before Saturday night.”

“How on earth can you say that?” Dick demanded.

“Because,” Harry said, “I earn twenty thousand dollars every month. And I tithe. Trust me, before Sunday my church’s finance committee will find me!”

A five-dollar bill met a fifty-dollar bill and said, "Hey, where have you been? I haven't seen you around here much."

The fifty answered, "I've been hanging out at classy department stores, went on a cruise and did the rounds of the ship, came back to the United States for a while, went to a couple of Titans games, to Disney World, that kind of stuff. How about you?"

The five-dollar bill said, "Oh, you know how it is for a five-dollar bill – church, church, church."

Jesus talked more about money than he did about prayer. Jesus told thirty-six parables, and seventeen are about money and stewardship. There are more Bible verses about finances and material possessions than any other single topic. The primary subject of Jesus’ parables is the Kingdom of God, so Jesus must have thought money management was pretty important for the kingdom.

When I was growing up I remember sermons in which the preacher would pound the pulpit to make sure we all understood that it was our Christian duty to tithe. Just so everyone is on the same sheet of music, tithe means ten percent. Someone might give thousands dollars per year to a church, but if that amount is less than ten percent, it’s not a tithe even though it might be a lot of money.

I think a lot of people believe that tithing means God gets ten percent and the other ninety percent is one’s own to use as one wishes. The New Testament does not teach that. In fact, the New Testament doesn’t ever say that Christians should tithe. The New Testament teaches that everything we possess is to be devoted to building up the Kingdom of God. Therefore, our possessions are not divided into ours and God’s. It’s all God’s, who expects us to use it all for his purposes

So why do Christians make a big deal about giving ten percent? Maybe I can illustrate the value of the ten percent figure with a story about my wife. When we lived in Oklahoma from 1982-1983, Cathy decided to run a marathon. In her research on how to train for it, she read a book by the track coach of the University of Oregon, which routinely sent runners to the Olympics. He wrote, “You are not a serious runner until you can run an hour nonstop.” You see, training to run an hour nonstop takes serious devotion to running. It’s not a casual undertaking. Cathy did run the marathon, finishing second. By then she could run six hours nonstop.

The tithe, ten percent, is low enough so that we can attain it. But it is high enough to require serious attention to managing money according to our obligations to God. Tithing is not a casual undertaking. Tithing means rearranging all of one’s finances according to faith, love and trust in God.

Tithing is not an investment in the sense that you show a profit on it. There are blessings to be gained from tithing, but they are not to individuals as a return on investment. The prophet Malachi made two major points about offerings. One was this:

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse . . . and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.

There is an overflowing blessing from tithing, but it is given to the community of faith for the good of the whole church and the church's work in the world. Note what the Lord said, too: "Put me to the test" whether his blessings will pour down on us. It is the only case in the Bible where God allows us mortals to make him prove something.

In the church of my youth there were always a couple or three laymen at stewardship-campaign time who told how they used to be misers but then got convicted by the Spirit and became tithers. They always ended by saying, "I never miss that ten percent!"

I thought that was bunk then and I think it is bunk now. With mandatory retirement less than a decade away I can certainly think of other uses of that ten percent. Tithing is not painless, it’s not meant to be painless, and almost certainly will mean making hard choices to do without some things. But the Lord's work either comes first or it doesn't. We have either promised to be faithful or we haven't.

Nonetheless, based on New Testament teachings, I can't tell you that it is your Christian duty to tithe, though it is a worthy goal. It is our duty is to live completely for God, including what we do with our money. The first issue in tithes, gifts and offerings is not the money. It is our individual and communal relationship with God.

Hear Jesus again: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother or sister; then come and offer your gift.” Perhaps because Methodists partake of Holy Communion at the altar and give their offerings in the pews, a lot of folks have come to the erroneous conclusion that they can’t take communion unless they are right with their fellow men or women. But that’s not what Jesus said. What he said was that he doesn’t want our money unless we are reconciled to one another.

In the book of Galatians Paul wrote, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” In Romans, Paul quoted a few of the Ten Commandments and then wrote that all the commandments “are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’. . . love is the fulfillment of the law.”

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you love one another.” Our discipleship is blunted when we do not love one another. To love one another is our response to God’s grace and our answer to the redemption God gives our lives with the cross. The love we have for God is completed only when it is offered to others.

The first principle of Christian giving is love. God is love, so it not possible for us to manage our wealth by God’s principles without love. Jesus appears not even to want us to try to do so. His message is, “Keep your money until you love.” You see, we build the Kingdom of God mainly with love. We cannot buy our way into heaven, we have to love our way in.

The second principle of Christian stewardship is found in First John, chapter four: “There is no fear in love. . . . Perfect love drives out fear. . . . The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Fear . . .

Christian author James Hewitt told of a church member who told his Sunday School teacher, “I am afraid to give much money to the church when I have so many bills to pay.”

The teacher replied, “If I promise to make up the difference in your bills if you fall short, would you double your giving for just one month?”

After a moment’s pause, the man responded, “Sure, if you promise to make up any shortage, I guess I could double my gift for a month.”

“So,” said the teacher, “you are willing to trust a mere mortal like me who possesses not much more than you, but you are afraid to trust God, who owns the whole universe!”


I wonder whether we Americans spend our money from anxiety or fear. We worry about having enough money to repair a broken car or whether our mutual funds will beat the market. We are fearful that our retirement plans won’t sustain us through old age. We worry that if we get laid off we'll not have enough money to last until re-employment.

Even in churches, fear often governs what and how much people give. Some persons give a lot because they fear others won’t give enough. Some give a little because they fear their offerings won’t be spent wisely. We fear because we are alienated from one another. We fear because we don’t trust one another. This fear come from being out of right relationship with one another.

Scripture teaches us to live lives of love, not of fear. Love overcomes fear. Love of God leads to love of neighbor. Love leads to trust. Trust comes from right relationship with God and with one another. So Jesus tells us to be reconciled to one another, first because we must do so to be reconciled to God and second, because the Kingdom of God is corrupted when fear, alienation and mistrust are present. There are no banks in heaven. Like they say, we can’t take it with us. The only thing we can take to heaven is the love we give away here. Dollars are the currency of commerce, but love is the currency of the Kingdom.

By focusing on loving God and one another, we can be kept from loving the wrong things. And that closes the triangle between God, neighbor and money. In First Timothy we are given that famous admonishment that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

What is the relationship between money and love? Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).

I used to think that people more or less automatically spent their money on what they already loved. I have since come to believe that most people frankly don’t have a very good idea what they spend their money on for the most part. Somehow, our money slips away and for a large part of it, we don’t really know where, many of us, much of the time.

Jesus says to store up treasure in heaven because if we do that our hearts will be heavenly. Storing up treasure in heaven is a matter of obedience to the call of discipleship. And discipleship is about Christlikeness. So if love and money are related closely, as I think they are, the question, “How much can I give to church?” is the wrong question to ask at offering time. That question really asks, “How much do I love money?” But Timothy says eagerness for money can make us wander from the faith, piercing us with many griefs.

The question of how much to give to the church is really part of a much larger issue: not what we have but whose we are and who we love. These questions force us to consider how to use all our resources the way God wants us to. God is not a tyrant. God knows we have to feed our families and make our mortgages. By living in faithful trust in God and love of God’s kingdom, Christian people come to know what gifts to the church spring from their relationships with God and their brothers and sisters in Christ.

When Cathy and I were newlyweds in 1980 I bought a motorcycle to get to work. When I went to pick out my helmet there was a sign on the wall that said, "If you have a ten-dollar head, get a ten-dollar helmet." That was a stark caution against trying to save my life on the cheap so I bought an expensive, full-face helmet. Seventeen months later that helmet saved my life when I got hit by a truck.

So do we have a ten-dollar church? I don't think so. I can't tell anyone how much to give and won't try. But I will say this: Our gifts should reflect our faith in God and our love of God and of one another.

Lenten sacrifice: tithe!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

God or "Great Politics"?

A long essay by Edward T. Oakes, "Atheism and Violence," discusses and refutes the recent books of Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchen, et. al., that if all humanity would only renounce religious belief,
Friedrich Nietzsche
then violence would cease and permanent peace would result. 

Curiously enough, the rant-filled Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that "God is dead" and originated the Germanic idea of the Superman, offers the best argument against these arguments, claims Oakes. 
The point, rather, is that Nietzsche saw. However much he (usually) advocated what ought to be most abhorred, he at least recognized that true morality and Christian belief are siblings. Moreover, in tones redolent of Jeremiah he saw the consequences to civilization as a whole when its citizens lose their faith in God. For what will take the place of God will be only a passionate—and largely empty—politics:
For when truth enters the lists against the lies of millennia, we shall have convulsions, a spasm of earthquakes . . . the likes of which have never been dreamed. Then the concept of politics will be completely dissolved in a war between spirits, all authority structures of the old order will be blown into the air—one and all, they rest upon a lie; there will be wars the likes of which have never existed on earth. From my time forward earth will see Great Politics.
Such are the contradictions of atheism. With hope in progress gone, with the lessons of the twentieth century still unlearned in the twenty-first, with technology progressing, in Adorno’s words, from the slingshot to the atom bomb (a remark cited in Spe Salvi), with a resurgence of religiously motivated violence filling the headlines, all that the new atheists can manage is to hearken back to an Enlightenment-based critique of religion. But they find their way blocked, not so much by Nietzsche (whom, as we saw, they largely ignore) but by the ineluctable realities he so ruthlessly exposed. Not Nietzsche, but the history of the twentieth century has shown that godless culture is incapable of making men happier. All Nietzsche did was to point out that no civilization, however “progressive,” can dispel the terrifying character of nature; and once progress is called into question, the human condition appears in all its forsaken nakedness.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Retirement planning for long living

Are retirees living too long?

Well, no. But are they planning to live as long as they are living? Also no. More and more, late-middle-age men and women like me, and financial planners, are realizing that the old rules for financial retirement planning don't work any more. We need to do retirement planning for long living after retirement.

Click image for large, clear view
My grandfathers were both born in 1900. They both died of natural causes, the first in 1971 and the other in 1972. No one, including their wives and children, thought that they had died prematurely. I was a senior in high school for the latter's death and I remember one of his friends observing, "Well, he got his three score and ten," a reference to Psalm 19.10, which says in the King James, "The days of our years are threescore years and ten... ."

My maternal grandfather, Harry Burkitt,
1900-1972 -- a good, long life back then.
One grandfather had been retired no more than 18 months, the other less than seven years.

Saving or investing for retirement was fairly simple then. You had a pension plan, you had Social Security. You saved money in a bank account. Maybe you invested on your own in one of the relatively few mutual funds that existed then. IRAs did not exist and almost all company pension plans were defined benefit.

But no one planned to retire at 65 and fund retirement until age 90 or longer. Extremely few men or women lived that long (although one of my great-grandfathers did live to 96, 1870-1966).

Today, however, if you hear someone died at age 71 or 72, you ask, "What happened?" That is nowadays barely out of middle age. So retirement planning has to change so that people can afford to live decently well for 20 years or more of retirement.

Just two months ago, Business Insider explained

America's next retirement crisis could be that baby boomers are living too long

Therefore, a short reading list:

If you're expecting a long life, take time to adjust your financial plan on, which states:
"About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and one out of 10 will live past age 95," according to the Social Security Administration.

43 percent of retirees underestimate by at least five years, the life expectancy for someone of their age and gender, the Society of Actuaries reports.

Planning for longevity might include working longer, adjusting investment strategies, and planning for incapacitating health problems.
How long will you live? See the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator, which, to be fair, offers a very basic calculation, but can be eye opening nonetheless.

And from Seeking Alpha, How To Retire At 62 On A Meager Million. Believe it or not, $1,000,000 on hand at the first day of retirement is not a lot if it provides your only income stream, even added to Social Security. Number one priority no matter your age: get to zero credit card debt as fast as you can. Zero, as in $0.00 balance.

If you are married or will have financial dependents after you retire, remember that funding your retirement means also funding your spouse or dependents after you die. 

How to estimate how long you will live? Family history is a big part. My wife's family, for example, has darn near achieved immortality on earth. Her father is nearing 99. His cousin is going on 105. His mother lived until 96 (his father died young from surgery complications in 1927). My wife's mother lived until 86. Many of my father-in-law's family lived to advanced ages. My own mother died at 87 and my dad is 90. 

The actuary site linked above does not take family history into account but even absent that, it tells me that I have a greater-than-50-percent chance to live to 85 and a one-in-three chance to make it to 90. My wife, though, has more than a 50 percent chance to make 90; her age-expectancy does not drop to one-third until age 95 and she has a 15 percent chance of living to triple digits. That's what I have to plan for.

What this all means is this: the question of whether we can afford to live at our same standard if we retire at age 65, only year after next for me, is less important than whether we still afford to live about as well 25 years from now, and for my wife 10 years after that. If inflation averages only 2.5 percent per year (below historical average!), a $100,000 income today will have purchasing power of only $53,100 in 25 years. Which means that to retire today on, say, 100 large per year means that you'd have to bring in $185,400 in 2043 just to stay even

That is a complex problem but one that we boomers have to face.

An online estimator for how long your retirement funds and savings will last is at The  Motley Fool.

End note: Even worse, "Many older Americans are living a desperate, nomadic life" -- They live in RVs and drive from one low-wage job to another. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"Why the UMC Needs its Donald Trump"

Trump–and his avid disciples–are barbarians. They are not politicians. They don’t understand or honor the slow process of making policies. The “way we’ve always done things” cry is irrelevant to them. They are here to destroy and to rebuild the US in their image out of the ashes. And that is precisely why the UMC needs its Donald Trump.

Rethinking Marriage

What the Christian religion has to do with marriage is a huge subject, so at best this is an overview. I call it Rethinking Marriage becaus...