Falling Forward

Holy Land Pilgrims Map 2Last year a group from our church joined over 100 United Methodists from north Georgia who traveled to Israel. Most trips serve as enjoyable vacations that provide an extraordinary break from ordinary life. However, the Holy Land trip became a spiritual pilgrimage that transformed our souls.

Scholars describe Israel as “the Fifth Gospel.” The land plays a central role in the Scriptural story, beginning with the Abrahamic Covenant when God promised a future home to the Jewish patriarch.

After returning from Israel, I decided to reread the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Scriptures or the First Testament) one chapter per day. Most people skip over the place names as unimportant to the story. However, I determined to read with the Bible in one hand and a map in the other.

Frankly, it’s heavy wading through parts of the Old Testament. For example, genealogies of multiple generations soon blur into a mass of names on the page. Many of the Levitical laws no longer apply. And have you ever imagined the sounds and smells of the Temple as the priests sacrificed thousands of animals?

Some chapters of the story promote a profound sense of depression and melancholy. After finishing 1 and 2 Kings along with 1 and 2 Chronicles, I wondered why God didn’t wash His hands of the entire business. With depressing regularity, the author wrote about the coronation of a new king: “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”

The Israelite people didn’t fare much better. God blessed the Jews. Then they constantly went a’whoring after other gods and idols. The people deserted God. They suffered the consequences of their actions. Finally, a faithful prophet or king called the people back to accountability. The nation repented. God restored and blessed the people.

Then the whole sorry cycle started all over again.

The story sounds familiar because it forms the plot of our own spiritual lives. In theory, the Christian life should be a linear journey as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus and grow in faith. In practice, however, we echo the words of the hymn: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.”

The Lord blesses. We live faithfully. Then temptation arises, and we willfully (or thoughtlessly) wander away from God. We suffer the consequences of our actions. Finally, we “come to ourselves” like the Prodigal Son and realize what has been lost. The Holy Spirit calls us to repentance and restoration. God blesses our lives.

Then the whole sorry cycle starts all over again.

I would love to boast (humbly, of course) about a Christian life that travels steadily upward to the greater heights of God’s kingdom. Instead, a line graph of my spiritual journey resembles a profile of the Rocky Mountains with inspiring heights and depressing valleys.

Although I wish it wasn’t so, we all stumble in our Christian walk. It seems to me that the secret of sanctification is to fall FORWARD. Ask God to pick us up and brush us off. Rather than wallowing in sin and guilt, we are called ever onward as we follow one step at a time in the footsteps of Jesus.

$862 per Year

According to The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, I serve as the  “Pastor-in-Charge” at First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville.

What would a pastor’s equivalent job title be in the business world? CEO? COO? Building and Grounds Supervisor? Mailroom clerk? In the upside-down-so-that-it’s-right-side-up-world of God’s kingdom, “servant among servants” might do.

The church is both a divine creation and human institution. Paul said that the church is the body of Jesus Christ in the world. The Holy Spirit works in, thru, and sometimes despite us; but we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

As a human institution, the church is also a business. Church leaders serve as wise stewards of heavenly and earthly treasures. On our best days, we never forget that the church is GOD’S business. We don’t manufacture widgets. Instead, we make disciples of Jesus Christ.

FUMC of Lawrenceville has a $2.5 million annualized operating budget. (I made the mistake of doing the math, and it equals $6,850 a DAY!) This sounds like a lot of money because it IS a LOT of money.

The congregation has 2,900 members on paper. (Understand the phrase “on paper” serves as a huge caveat—we average about 900+/- people in Sunday worship.) Work the equation. A $2.5 million budget divided by 2,900 members equals . . .

$862 per member per year.

If everyone in our congregation tithes (gives one-tenth of our income to God), then the annual income per member equals $8,620.

Hmmmmm . . . that doesn’t sound right; and it’s not—but the figures are correct.

Here’s the bottom line: some people give generously and others begrudgingly. Still others don’t give at all. We respond in a variety of ways to God’s call to financial faithfulness.

In Exodus 36, Moses led the people in building the Tabernacle which was a mobile temple for God. So the leader issued a call for a free will offering to construct and decorate the Tabernacle. The people responded with enthusiasm. Out of their personal possessions, they donated gold, silver, gems, linen, leather, goat hair, spices, and oil.

Finally, the skilled craftsmen overseeing the project told Moses: The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done. So Moses had to RESTRAIN the people from giving any more.

This is every pastor’s DREAM! I can only imagine standing up on Sunday morning and saying: “We need to ask you to cut back on your giving. The offering plates are too heavy for the ushers to carry. The financial secretary cannot get it all counted each week. We’ve run out of offering envelopes, and the church administrator had to order more deposit envelopes. Hopefully we can get caught up in the next month, and you can start giving again.”

The Lord has given us ALL of the resources we need to do God’s work . . . and they can be found in our wallets, purses, and bank accounts. When Christian stewards practice financial faithfulness, miracles happen . . . in our lives, churches, and world.

The Birds and the Bees and the Flowers and the Trees

In grammar school, we learned the simple rhyme: April showers bring May flowers. Then one day our teacher asked: “Does anyone know what a May flower brings?” When we confessed our ignorance, she responded, “The Pilgrims!”

Get it? The MAYFLOWER was the ship that brought the PILGRIMMayflowerS to Plymouth Rock! Yeah, we didn’t think it was all that funny either.

May flowers not only bring Pilgrims but also POLLEN; and it starts way back in March. Politicians often talk about “Red” and “Blue” states; however, I think they should add a third category of “Yellow.”

During the past weeks, yellow goo has covered cars, coated lawns, clogged throats, and congested noses. The golden gunk sticks like glue. After a shower, the streets appear to be paved in heavenly gold. Our Yorkshire Terrier, Sam, possesses a brown and black coat . After a walk, however, he resembles a miniature Golden Retriever.

No one can argue that spring is a beautiful season in Georgia. The trees bud, the flowers bloom, and the grasses grow. As the days grow warmer, everyone naturally wants to spend more time outdoors. Men fire-up the grills while women plant flowers and children play on the lawn. The aroma of freshly-cut grass fills the air. Azaleas, dogwoods, daffodils, and day lilies serve as harbingers of summer’s advent.

But the beauty can also be a beast. The vast palette of buds and blooms produces a noxious cloud of allergens. Pollen AttackSooner or later, almost everyone is affected with itchy eyes, sniffly noses, sore throats, and sinus headaches.

Doctors’ offices are jammed, and any social gathering sounds like a tuberculosis’ ward. The “Cold and Allergy” aisle of local drugstores does a banner business. People pop antihistamines like Tic-Tacs and gargle Chloroseptic like water.

I understand about the birds and bees and flowers and trees. The Creator designed this intriguing, intricate process to insure the reproduction of flora. I would never dare question the Master Gardener’s plan; however, there are times that I have enjoyed just about as much as I can stand. A reading of over 120 is considered “Extremely High” on the pollen count. Many spring days feature four digit measurements.

We can pray for rain, and a good shower will briefly cleanse the air. However, the pollen quickly returns. People resort to air purifiers, dehumidifiers, HEPA filters, and more. Yet here’s the simple truth: anyone who lives in Georgia better get used to the pollen. I suppose in the long run that allergies are a small price to pay for azaleas, daffodils, dogwoods, oaks, red tips, boxwoods, daylilies, and so much more.

In Matthew 6, Jesus told his followers not to worry. Then he pointed to the natural beauty all around them and said, “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” If God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, then surely the Creator will also care for us.

So breathe deep and give God thanks for the beauty of this earth—pollen, allergies, and all.

Financial Advice

Piggy BankSeveral years ago I preached a series on financial stewardship. Members of the congregation shared advice given to them about money. I’ve listed a sampling of their fiscal wisdom below.

Do not spend more than you make each month.

Credit cards should be a convenience only. If you can’t afford to pay off credit cards at the end of the month, then don’t charge it!

If you make $1, don’t spend $2!

Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.

Compounding interest is a great thing! Learn it, love it, live it.

“Income 20 shillings. Expenditure 19 shillings and sixpence. Happiness. Expenditure 20 shillings and sixpence. Destitution.” (Charles Dickens)

Never co-sign a loan or loan money and expect to get it back. Look at it as a gift instead. If you’re not prepared to give the money as a gift, then don’t do it!

There is nothing wrong with being broke, as long as you live that way.

If you can live without it today, you can live without it!

A fool and his money are soon parted

Perform plastic surgery on yourself and your spouse.  (Dave Ramsey)

Our income should be divided three ways: 10% to God; 10% to savings, and 80% for everything else.

If you have an option to directly deposit money to a savings or retirement account, then DO IT!  It is as if you never make the money so you really don’t miss it.  If you actually have to move the money yourself to savings or a retirement account, it sometimes doesn’t make it.

Don’t use your credit card for a month.  This will get you in the habit of saying “NO” to unnecessary purchases.

When you do get a bonus or raise, use the FULL amount to deposit to savings or pay off extra on a car, etc.  Do not celebrate by purchasing something.

Baby Jesus only got 3 gifts for Christmas! Our children can do with less.

Tithe – God expects it, the Bible tells us to do so, and you will be amazed at the difference in your life when you do so!

Determine a dollar amount (for example $100) and do not make purchases exceeding that amount without first discussing them with your spouse.

Think about how many hours you have to work to earn the money before you make an extravagant purchase.

Make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”  (John Wesley)

Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid!

The most important financial lesson is to create a budget for paying bills, saving money, and the cost of leisure activities.  Use the budget as a goal, always placing an emphasis on saving so that when the unexpected expenses occur, there is a savings’ reserve to handle them.

Get out of debt as soon as possible by concentrating on paying off the smaller bills first; once that is done, then take the “extra” money toward the next smallest bill.

Never agree to an adjustable rate mortgage!

Try to have a 6 month emergency fund for hard times.

Lock your credit cards in a safe deposit box at the bank or freeze it in a container of ice in your freezer.  Your “frozen assets” aren’t easily accessible but available for emergencies.

Read Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey.

The best financial advice I ever received is simple: spend less than you make

The very best advice is to live beneath your means.

Learn the difference between speculation and investment. Then INVEST!

Spend less, save more, and avoid getting ripped off. (Clark Howard)

If your outgo exceeds your income, your upkeep will be your downfall!