As most of you know we hope to move to Philadelphia in the next few months. This site was set up specifically for our ministry in Baltimore. Since it is coming to an end this site will also end. We will hopefully set up a new site once we are established in Philly. Until then I have created “The Land of Confusion” where you can keep up-to-date with things.
Grace and peace,
Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business.
I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.
1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.
2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?
3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself — gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?
4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.
We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.
Reformed Theological Seminary’s Ministry and Leadership has an incredible interview with Notre Dame sociologist, Dr. Christian Smith, about American Christians and giving (or the lack thereof). Smith, along with Michael O. Emerson and Patricia Snell, have written a book titled, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t give Away More Money. When asked “How would you summarize your conclusions? He says,
If American Christians gave generously, they could generate unbelievable amounts of resources and make a huge influence in the world. But for the most part they don’t. Most American Christians give very little; a significant minority gives nothing. The vast majority of the entire American Christian enterprise, organizationally speaking, is funded by a small minority of generous people. If the number of generous givers was expanded to include most American Christians, they could virtually change the world.
Why do American Christians give so little?
For one, many people have little perspective on how wealthy they are, and view themselves as just getting by. They objectively have the resources to give generously, but subjectively think they don’t. Part of this is that most Americans are not great with finances generally — most people just spend and get into debt. Giving generously requires principled decisions up front, rather than saying, “Let’s just live our lives, and if there’s anything left over, maybe we’ll put it in the offering plate.”
The second factor is that a lot of churches are not as forthright and bold about teaching about these matters as they could be. A lot of pastors are incredibly uncomfortable with the topic, partly because their own salaries are being paid by what’s being given, so it’s seen as selfish fundraising. Some pastors have uneasy consciences about how much they give.
Also, a significant minority of American Christians don’t trust where their money’s going to, or if they do, they never hear what it has accomplished. For people to give generously, it helps them to know, see and hear what they are helping contribute toward. There are so many scandals, so the more transparency and accountability, the better.
In our culture, money is sacred; for some people it can replace God. This is exemplified by a cartoon I’ve seen where a person being baptized by full submersion is all the way under the water except he is holding his wallet above the water. The idea is of somebody becoming a Christian in every part of their life except for their money. But if you read Scripture, the sacredness of money and income in our culture is something that Christianity challenges.
Another question: “What are the implications of your findings on the fulfillment of the church’s gospel mission?”
If American Christians gave generously, it would produce more than $100 billion a year to do whatever the givers wanted to do with it. Any number of things could be done that are not being done now because it’s being spent on other things, some of passing value.
Whether they realize it or not, American Christians have been blessed with unbelievable amounts of wealth compared to Christians throughout church history and the world today. It’s clear scripturally that money matters for people’s lives of faith, and God calls people to good stewardship for His kingdom and not just their own pleasure. There’s a lot of falling down on the job and failing to be faithful, which is a matter of people’s hearts and their basic life commitments. This isn’t a peripheral issue for the soul of American Christianity.
Paul Meier and David L. Henderson, Finding Purpose Beyond Our Pain: Uncovering the hidden potential in life’s most common struggles (Thomas Nelson, 2009).
NOTE: I am reviewing this book as a member of Thomas Nelson’s Book Review Blogger program (http://brb.thomasnelson.com/).
Pain is not the enemy. It is more like a good friend, a bit rough around the edges; someone who is willing to kick us in the rear on occasion for our own good. In the words of Meier and Henderson, pain is “consecrating.” Pain always has a purpose and a plan. In answering the question, “Is there a purpose beyond my pain?” Meier and Henderson respond: “With God the answer is always yes. God can use any circumstance, even our pain, to bring about good things in our lives. The darkness may be exactly what we need in order to see the light of His presence and purpose shining all around us” (xiv).
The authors proceed to look at seven different struggles common to all: injustice, rejection, loneliness, loss, discipline, failure, and death. Their argument throughout all seven struggles is simply that God works through these aspects of our personal suffering for our good. The very things that break us are the means God uses to complete and perfect us, shaping us into the image of Christ. I am not going to look at all seven. These are great topics which Christians need to discuss. I agree and appreciate their emphasis on God using pain and suffering. My only concern is that I don’t think they went far enough. A few thoughts:
Pain is the enemy. While I understand the authors’ intent to argue that pain is used by God for our good I still want to maintain that pain is evil. The fall in Eden (Genesis 3) brought about pain and suffering. While God, in his grace and mercy, uses pain and suffering for good they are nonetheless products of the fall. Pain and suffering are real enemies. This is why believers in Christ long for the day of redemption when Jesus Christ will make all things new (Romans 8) thereby reversing the effects of the fall (pain and suffering).
Sin destroys. The Gospel saves. Throughout the books I was left with the impression that sin is not as radical as the Bible describes it. While they dealt with some of the effects of sin they did not get to the root of the issue: sin residing and eating away the human heart. There is hope that God will use evil for good, but this is accomplished primarily through God recreating a people; changing sinful hearts of stone into believing hearts of flesh. The good news of Jesus Christ will only be completely realized when the depths of sin are revealed.
Gospel Framework. I would argue that pain and suffering can only be understood within the framework offered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Injustice meets justice at the cross. Rejection finds hope in our adoption. Loneliness finds friendship in a relationship with Christ and his body, the church. Loss finds meaning in our future restoration. Discipline is necessary for our sanctification (growth in Christ). Failure finds grace in Christ’s success. And we have hope because death, the final enemy, is destroyed by Christ.
Good thoughts on the proper distribution of funds for church planters in America’s urban centers. Amen, amen, and amen.
“And as the spirit of charity, or Christian love is opposed to a selfish spirit, in that it is merciful and liberal so it is in this, also, that it disposes a person to be public-spirited. A man of a right spirit is not a man of narrow and private views, but is greatly interested and concerned for the good of the community to which he belongs, and particularly of the city or village in which he resides, and for the true welfare of the society of which he is a member.”
Jonathan Edwards, Charity and It’s Fruits, 169.
First, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.
Secondly, that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.
Thirdly, that we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand.
Fourthly, moreover, that, having obtained what we were seeking, and being convinced that he has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.
And fifthly, that at the same time we embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers.
Finally, that use and experience may, according to the measure of our feebleness, confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at the very point of necessity, but also that he ever extends his hand to help his own, not wet-nursing them with words but defending them with present help.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.XX.3