Last weekend I was scheduled to preach a sermon on marriage from Mark 10. I was really looking forward to it, but God had other plans for the message that night, so the marriage sermon had to be scrapped. I promised to post some of the excerpts here on the blog.

My blog has taken a back seat lately. Working a fulltime job in the marketplace has limited the amount of things I can do, and, unfortunately, I’ve had to all but eliminate two things that have been very profitable for me in the past: reading and blogging. (And don’t even get me started on blogging about reading!) I’m hoping that this will be a temporary adjustment period, and that I’ll find the time to read and blog again soon.

I suppose that’s enough of a pity party. Here is some of what I was going to say about marriage last week at Ember.

•••••

Marriage is a difficult subject for many. Divorce is even harder. Many of you may be children of divorce. You’ve watched your parents turn on each other. It’s often been said that what kids need most is not to know that their parents love them, but that their parents love each other. Divorce destroys that love foundation. So, before we look into our passage for tonight, I want to briefly lay a theological foundation of a love that never gives up, burns out, or fades away.

Because of what we see in Jesus, we can know these things: God always keeps his promises; God always follows through on his commitments; There is perfect, eternal, infinite love between the three members of the Trinity; We are invited to fully participate in the divine love of the Trinity. The Trinity will never get divorced. The love of God that exists within God is infinitely strong. It can never be broken because God is perfectly selfless, humble, and unstained by any sin.

In a world of dissipating love, it’s a comfort to know that there is a love that is stronger than life, that sustains creation, and that resides within the heart of the One that made all that exists. Our new family–the family of God–is built on a foundation of self-giving love that does not change over time.

•••••

I’ll share more on this tomorrow. There’s a much longer section that I hope will be worth reading, but I wanted to put this theological foundation up today. I hope this provides some perspective on what love is and where we can find the love that never lets us down.

About a year ago, Breena and I decided to step out in faith and move forward with planting Ember Church. Though we were surrounded with a great group of friends who were also committed to the task, we knew that I needed to find a full-time job to support my family while we planted. This is called bivocational ministry, and while most church planters and pastors don’t go this route, there are some of us who choose to minister the way Paul did. (Paul was a tentmaker and a leather worker, trades he held while establishing churches in the various cities to which God led him.)

Very early on in this process I had a serious conversation with God. It went something like this: “God, if you want me to plant Ember Church, you’ve got to get me a job. In this economy, and with my past history of job searching, it’s truly going to take a miracle for me to get a job. So I need you to move for me.” I didn’t sense God telling me anything in that moment, though the first Ember sermon ever proclaimed this truth: God is with those he calls. I believed that God would come through for me, for my family, and for this church.

Months went by with no progress on the job front. The church started on schedule, but still no job. Then Bexley was born, but still no job. Thanksgiving. Christmas. I was beginning to doubt that God was with me. I was beginning to doubt that he would come through with a job.

Sometime during the holidays I had pressed through my period of doubt and began to trust God again. I was more confident than ever that he would come through with a job, and very soon. Then came the new year, and companies started posting job openings again. There was one job posting that caught my attention for it’s unorthodox language, and I determined to give this one a little extra attention. I wrote the most audacious cover letter you’ve ever seen. My opening line read like this: “You can stop your search now, because I’m your guy.” I got a call from them the same day! After a year of submitting applications and resumes with no response, I got called back the same day.

I waited and waited to find out if I would get that first interview. On Tuesday of the following week I received an email from the HR department asking if I was still interested in the job, and whether I had gotten the email the previous Friday to set up a phone interview. “What email,” I shouted! “I never got an email!” Some technical glitch had occurred, and I never received it. The most important email of my life, and it got tied up in cyberspace. What is this, 1997?

Of course I responded right away, and had a great interview the next day. Then the waiting really began. Would I get the second interview? Would I make into the next round? Several days passed before I heard anything, but I finally got the good news. They were bringing me in for a face-to-face interview!

I called my parents and they offered to buy me a suit. (How am I this old and still don’t own a suit?) I gladly took them up on the offer, and had a really good interview. That was Friday, and they were interviewing two more candidates on Monday. So, once again, I waited. But I had been waiting for about a year for God to come through for me, so a few more days wasn’t going to be too bad.

It must have been Wednesday when I got the next call. They wanted me to come back for a third interview! This was unprecedented, for me. Not that I’ve never gotten a job anywhere, but that I’ve ever participated in this many rounds of interviews. This time, I interviewed with the team members with whom I might be working, and then with mentors within the company. Both of these interviews were to determine if I fit with the team and the culture of the company. I thought both interviews went really well, and had a strong sense that, by this point, there weren’t any other candidates being interviewed. When I got home, I told Breena, “I think I’m going to get this job.”

That was Friday, so we had another weekend of waiting. Monday came and went, so I decided to call the manager on Tuesday. When I got through to him, he dropped this bomb on me, “I was just getting ready to make you a verbal offer. Can I call you back in an hour with the details?” BAM! And like that, I had a job. A great job. At the best place to work in central Ohio.

God came through. It was his time (not mine), but he did it. He came through for me, my family, and Ember Church. I’ve only been at work for a couple days now, but I already love it. I’m excited to go there. I’m excited to get started on video production. I believe in the company and what they’re doing. I believe in the culture they’re trying to create. I simply can’t imagine how things could have turned out better for me, and I am very grateful to God for his faithfulness. I pray that he will come through for you as he has come through for me.

I’m reading a book called Belief, which is an anthology of arguments for the reasonableness of faith. It was compiled by Francis Collins, who wrote The Language of God. While I’m not a huge apologetics guy, I do enjoy reading this type of stuff from time to time. Some of it is very mentally stretching for me, making me wish I had taken a philosophy course in college.

I had this moment yesterday when reading a short entry from Anselm of Canterbury. I don’t recall reading anything from Anselm before, and while this was just a couple pages long, I could tell I would have an extremely difficult time keeping up with him over the course of an entire book. Do you enjoy apologetics? Do you like to read the classics? What’s it like for you to read a book that was written in a time very different from our own?

I’d like to lay out, as best I can, Anselm’s rational argument for the existence of God.

“God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.” In other words, whatever the greatest thing we can think and imagine in our minds, that is God.

The Bible says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” But when this person hears the description, “something than which nothing greater can be thought”, he gets a picture of that something in his mind, even though he believes that that something does not exist.

However, “something than which nothing greater can be thought” cannot merely exist in the mind, because then everything that does exist would be greater than it. If “something than which nothing greater can be thought” exists solely in the mind, then it is “something than which many greater things can be thought”, which is, of course, absurd.

Therefore, it is definite that “something than which nothing greater can be thought” must exist both in the mind and in reality.

As I understand him, Anselm is basically saying that the greatest thing you can think of must exist both in your mind and in reality, because anything that exists in reality is greater than anything that exists only in the mind. So if God is the greatest thing we can think of, he must exist in reality, otherwise he would not be the greatest thing we can think of.

Anselm wrote this about 900 years ago. What do you think? Is it a convincing argument? Does it have a fatal flaw?

This post is a response to a comment from a friend, who was responding to Tuesday’s post, Tithing.

For the issue of giving to the local church, we have to look to Paul because, as you say, Jesus was dealing with a pre-local church context. In fact, he was dealing with a Jewish context where tithing was a part of Torah, and he encouraged the people to tithe. “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Mt. 23:23)

So then, to Paul. This is from 1 Corinthians 9.

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Verse 14 is crucial because Paul declares a command directly from Jesus, that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. Paul, however, lets the Corinthians off the hook in this regard, not because he’s being magnanimous, but because of their stubborn and judgmental hearts (v. 3).

The problem is not that Paul shouldn’t be asking for money and is, it’s that the congregation is judgmental toward and offended by him when he does. The root of this problem, as I stated in the previous post, is that money is an idol for all of us.

Let me go one step further. Almost every pastor I know would do the ministry for free if it were possible. I can’t think of a single person in the ministry, that I know personally, who is doing this because it seemed like a wise career choice. They are all doing it because they believe God has called them to the task, and they are so passionate about the proclamation of the Gospel that they would forsake lucrative careers in other fields to give their whole lives to the mission of Jesus. (In case you were wondering, a Master of Divinity is the only Master degree where the typical holder earns less than those with just a Bachelor degree.)

Nobody goes into ministry for the money. I, myself, ministered for free for 2 years. I’m trying very hard to minister for free right now, and am extremely grateful for the generosity of Ember Church in the meantime. Paul ministered for free because the people in Corinth were hard-hearted and judgmental. (In fact, it’s more likely that he had to rely on the support of other, more generous and kingdom-minded churches to supplement what he lacked from his tent-making work.) But that is not God’s plan for those who preach the gospel. Again, verse 14, “The Lord [Jesus] has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.”

We could even drop down another level and talk about what Jesus commanded his disciples when he sent them out in, say, Mark 6. (Which is the passage I’m preaching from this week at Ember.) Verse 8, “Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” What is he saying? He’s saying, “Trust my Father to provide for your needs through the generosity of those to whom you preach.” So even as far back as the first commissioning of the disciples we see that Jesus’ intention is for them to “receive their living from the Gospel.”

Someone might say, “Well that’s convenient for you to say, guilting people into giving so that you can earn a salary.” But that cynicism doesn’t negate the explicit command of Jesus. While we pastors, Paul included, might walk on eggshells and put up with a lot because of this cynicism and judgmentalism, it is not what Jesus intends for his church. And the cynicism is wrong. It is, biblically, wrong. But we pastors, like Paul, put up with it for the sake of the gospel. We hem and we haw over money, and we pussyfoot around because we think that, because we earn our living by preaching, we don’t have the moral authority to preach on money. That’s simply bogus. If money is a near-universal idol, and the Gospel has something to say about all of our idols, and we’re called to preach the Gospel, then we’ve got a moral obligation and a command from Jesus himself to preach on money. If you (and this is a general you) as a Christian are offended by biblical teaching on money, then your idol is showing, and you should expect God to do something to your idol along the lines of what he did to Shiloh, and then to the Temple in Jerusalem.

[note]Warning: This post is about money.

Further warning: Money is probably the most powerful idol in your heart.[/note]

I’ve written this post because money is an important topic for Christians to talk about, but many of us pastors are afraid to talk about it because of the sins of those who have gone before us. We are afraid. But, alas, some things must be said, even at the risk of being lumped in with the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world.

In the interest of full disclosure, part of my motivation to write this post is the financial state of Ember Church. However, I have no intention of trying to motivate people in my own congregation to give so that the church can be rescued. If you were at church last week when we publicly discussed our financial circumstances you know this. (If you attend Ember and missed this information, but would like to know more, please let me know.) What Ember needs is for me to find a full-time job somewhere else in the city, something I am trying to do in earnest. However, what I’ve written below still needs to be said. As usual, I’ve tried to state things as clearly and frankly as possible.

I’m convinced that the reason we don’t like to talk about or hear about money at church is because we love money, put our faith in it, and wrap our identities around it. Let me be plain. Money is an idol. The more viscerally you respond to a sermon on money, the more likely it is that you are harboring money as a powerful idol on the throne of your heart. I know those are strong words, but I believe them, and I believe they need to be said. God hates all of our idols because they steal his rightful place in our lives, and they ultimately make us less than human.

Last week at Ember I mentioned, while talking about the church’s finances, that part of why we tithe–give to the local church–is to wage war against the idol of money that captivates our hearts. If greed is the idolatry of money, then generosity to God’s work is the antidote to our greed.

What does the New Testament say about tithing?

Oddly enough, the NT does not mention tithing, though for the earliest Jewish Christians it seems likely that they would have continued to tithe to the Temple, and then given an additional amount for the work of the Church. The Gentile Christians did not have to pay a tithe (which was really closer to a national tax for Israel) for the upkeep and operation of the Temple. So what drove them? Here is a sampling of some Scripture from the NT. (Thanks to a commenter at the Jesus Creed named Amos Paul for compiling these.)

1 Corinthians 16:1-2 • Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

Romans 15:27 • They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:11 • If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

1 Corinthians 9:14 • In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

2 Corinthians 8:12 • For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.

2 Corinthians 9:7 • Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Notice that there is no set sum, like a tithe (10%), for the NT churches. Rather, giving is governed by the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity. C.S. Lewis noticed this absence of specific direction, and concluded thusly:

“I do not believe that one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid that the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

In other words, give until it hurts. Make sacrifices for the work of God, and especially for the local family of God to which you belong. The church’s responsibility is not to make its pastors rich, but to make their work possible, and a joy. God takes very seriously the work to which he has called ministers, and his will is for them to “receive their living from the gospel.”

Should I tithe when I am in debt?

I hear this question from time to time. “Isn’t it God’s will for me to be out of debt? Shouldn’t I put that ahead of giving to the church?” In fact, it is God’s will for you to be out of debt. However, if you’re not going to give to the church because of your debt, then neither should you buy any new clothes, eat out, go to the movies, buy Christmas or birthday presents, or do anything else than the absolute, bare minimum required to survive until you have successfully paid off your debt. If you’re so concerned over your debt (and you should be concerned over it) that you would withhold from the work of God in your midst, then you should also withhold from yourself every blessing of life in modern America. No cable. No Netflix. No internet. No cell phone. And you should probably sell as much as you possibly can in order to speed up the repayment of your debt.

Have I overstated things? Maybe I have. But is it right to withhold from God’s work and indulge yourself? A cell phone might not feel like an indulgence, but when you’re giving $100 to Verizon every month and $0 to your local church, and you claim that you’re too in debt to tithe, perhaps something has gone awry in your heart. Perhaps there is an idol on the throne of your heart, the throne that rightfully belongs to Jesus.

My family is in debt. We have a mortgage. We have a car payment. We bought a new HVAC system in 2010 that we’re paying off. We had our basement waterproofed. We have a significant chunk of debt to pay off. But, despite our debt, and even though I’m the pastor of the church to which we tithe (Yes, pastors tithe too!), we give sacrificially to Ember Church. We do it because we love the local church, and believe in the power of the community of Jesus and the necessity to fund it. (Incidentally, our giving has not increased since planting Ember. We give the same percentage to Ember that we gave to Heritage.)

To answer the question, Yes, you should tithe even when you are in debt. For many of us, we are in debt because money has been an idol. Paying off your debt will not solve the idolatry problem. But I believe that generosity will.

How much should I give to the local church to which I belong?

There is no definitive number for this. Let the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity guide you. You need to work out with God just how much to give. But don’t ask, “How much can I afford?”; ask, “How much, God? How much must I give to kill the idol of money in my heart? How much will it take to starve the beast within me?” I know a family that gives 10% of their pretax income to the local church. They do pretax income because they want to make sure that God and the Church gets financial resources before the Government.

Here are some more tithing tips:

  • Don’t chop up your giving. If you’ve decided on a certain amount to give to the local church, don’t reduce that amount to support missionaries or do other charitable giving. Let the local church be your first commitment, then support missionaries from your abundance, if you are able. Also, trust the church to be able to responsibly direct the funds.
  • Never tell your pastor, “My tithe pays your salary.” If you still consider it “your tithe”, then you haven’t been gracious, willing, or generous. When you put it in the basket, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Just as “your taxes” don’t pay for every single thing the government does, so “your tithe” doesn’t pay for everything the church does.
  • Don’t withhold tithe to make a political point or express your dissatisfaction with the pastor. This is childish. Don’t let your money do the talking when you’re perfectly capable of doing the talking yourself.
  • Trust that God will provide. My family has consistently given more than we can afford, and we have consistently seen God come through for us. Because of God’s faithfulness in the past, we have faith for his continued provision in the future.

Tithing is, in the end, a discipleship issue. Tithing calls us to fully root ourselves in a particular faith community, and to follow Jesus in the most sensitive of areas–our bottom lines. It is an act of war with the idol of money. It is an exercise in faith, and God will prove himself faithful.