Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Lord is Near

     Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say: Rejoice! 

I’ve never liked it when people say “smile!” As if somehow smiling will make things better. If I’m not smiling, maybe there’s a reason?

So I confess, I also don’t much enjoy the song “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” Repeat. And once again. And … again.

Yet Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, said “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say: Rejoice!” This is just a few words before that other impossible instruction: “don’t be anxious about anything.”

What interests me is that we hear the instructions, but rarely hear the reason nestled so quietly between them: “The Lord is near.”

Paul was writing from prison, or house arrest, most likely in Rome, and addressing Christians in a doubly hostile culture: a young congregation in a wealthy, isolated Roman outpost in northern Greece, struggling with opposition and disunity. But his message, repeated through the short letter, is one of joy in the face of difficulty, danger, doubts about God’s provision and purpose.

For Paul, prison, pain, persecution, all the troubles he and his friends were facing, were welcome opportunities to press in closer to Christ, to know him better, to be more like him: “The Lord is near.”

Those little words, to me, are the key to the Christian life: The Lord is near. Because Christ is with us, we’re able to obey, to walk in grace, to love people who drive us crazy, to trust in God’s abundance when we’re told, from every direction, that we need to fight for our rights, our stuff, our fragile place in a fragile economy.

We can stop fighting, stop worrying, and despite all arguments to the contrary, we can rejoice. The Lord is near. It's in his hands. He's the one in control.

If those are just words, we should give up now. If they’re just a promise of the second coming, then the life Jesus describes in the sermon on the mount is impossible, an intolerably heavy burden we should throw off fast.

But Jesus said he would be with us, in the way that God the Father was with him while he was here on earth. Actively guiding, guarding, leading. Moving in power. Speaking words of love and peace. Providing wisdom, resources, rest.

The Lord is near.

This became real for me when I was sixteen. At the time, I lived with my grandmother and two brothers - one older, one younger. We had moved several times in my high school years but had settled into a two-family house on the edge of town and things seemed to be going smoothly, even peacefully, for the first time I could remember.

The day before finals began, my junior year of high school, my grandmother had a heart attack. She was complaining of nausea, feeling uncharacteristically tired, and asked my older brother to take her to the doctor’s office. He came home late that evening to report that an ambulance had taken her to the hospital, that she was having a heart attack, and that she might die. He and my younger brother went in their room and closed the door.

I was terrified. My fragile life had become even more fragile, and I felt very much alone. I sat in my grandmother’s room, then knelt on the floor by her bed, crying, praying, sobbing, praying. I’m not sure how long I had been kneeling there when I felt a strong presence in the room. The door was closed, no sound of my brothers. Yet I felt someone very near, very warm, and I heard, very clearly, “I will be with you.” Did I hear an actual voice? I’m not sure. Were those the exact words? That’s hard to say.

What I know for sure was that God was present with me, promising to stay with me. And promising that whatever happened, it would be all right. The Lord was near.

I stopped crying, dried my face. I wasn’t sure my grandmother would live. I wasn’t sure what the weeks ahead would bring. I was almost certain my life would change again, in ways I couldn’t foresee. But my sense of despair, that heavy load of worry, was totally gone. I went to bed and slept soundly, secure that God was near.

As it turned out, my grandmother lived, although she was hospitalized for months, and out of work for almost a year.  We lost the place where we lived. I spent the fall semester living with a family I didn’t know well, in another town, attending a new school my senior year. There were some very low moments along the way. But the Lord was near.

That summer, working as a counselor at a Christian camp, I faced challenges I wasn’t prepared for. When I asked for help, God was near.

The following fall, facing questions about college, and how to pay for it, God was near: the promised Father, the needed counselor.

At another camp, another summer, I found myself in the middle of a racially-motivated fist fight. At what I felt sure was God’s prompting, I put a hand on each angry girl and started praying – out loud – and God was near, his love and peace pouring down my arms so powerfully they shook, his warmth and grace so physically present that when I said amen and dropped my arms, both startled girls said “Okay.” “Okay, what?” “Okay, we’ll be friends.” And they were.

The Lord is near. Near the day my husband waved good-bye to start a new job in a new city, while I stood on the porch of the old Victorian twin the realtors said we’d never sell, watching him go, our two-year old daughter in my arms. The next car down that one-way street held the buyers God brought to buy our house, the only people to look at it in the months it was on the market. God’s promise to a worried young mom. The Lord is near.

Near years later when our youngest baby struggled for breath in a hospital bed, and the doctors sent me from the room while they tried one last, experimental procedure. Crying alone in the hospital chapel, I felt his presence in two hospital workers, praying out loud together, and asked them to pray with me. I'll never know the names of those two women, but I know, from the x-ray results, and the doctors’ puzzled responses, that the Lord pressed in close to hear their prayers. He answered them with a sudden peace guarding my heart through the exhausting days ahead, and an unexpected recovery for our daughter.

The Lord is near.

Near the night we realized he was calling us to move from a place we’d come to love, to a lower income, less definite salary, challenges we couldn’t even imagine. The Lord was near: confirming the call, bringing his unexpected peace.

The Lord has been near, in predicaments too many to number, at times when I’ve felt so far beyond my safety zone I can’t even see what safety would look like. The Lord has been near, when asked to pray and words don’t come, when asked to serve and the gifts are beyond me, when asked to lead in places where following would be too frightening to consider.

He’s been near too many nights to mention, at 3 AM, when I’ve found myself sitting on our couch, asking yet again: Did you call me to this? Did I hear you right? Are you who you said? Will you lead me once again?

The Lord is near. 

That reality makes me rejoice. Again, and again, and again. And again.

The Lord is near.

His presence makes anxiety irrelevant. Insolent. Absurd.

The Lord is near.

And in his presence, peace that passes understanding. That transcends understanding. That takes our understanding, sets it on its head, and shows how far beyond our simple calculus the God of the universe stands.
 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  
Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Anxious in America

I’ve been thinking about what gets in the way of generous giving, of hospitality, of other spiritual practices, and I keep coming back to the idea of anxiety.

I was struck, when I began in youth ministry, at the level of anxiety among kids: school anxiety, social anxiety, worry about going away on retreats without knowing exactly who would be there, exactly what would happen. Each year that anxiety seemed greater in the new sixth graders arriving, while the level of parental anxiety also seemed to grow in ways that seemed perplexing.

Last year our local youth network hosted an area therapist specializing in teens, and I wasn't surprised when she said that anxiety is the most significant mental health challenge she currently addresses. In fact, just google “anxiety epidemic”. It seems there’s general agreement that 21st century America is the most anxiety-driven culture ever, with each generation of teens demonstrating greater levels of anxiety.

Here’s a summary from an ABC report just over a year ago:

“According to researchers, psychological problems among teens have been on the rise since the 1930s, and Americans' obsession with material gains and success may be to blame.
"We have become a culture that focuses more on material things and less on relationships," said lead researcher Jean Twenge, author of "Generation Me" and an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge said this focus is affecting mental health on a societal level. …
Drawing on self-reports from widely used psychological surveys, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, researchers found that over time, more and more students are reporting symptoms of mental illness.
Eight-five percent of college students today fall above the average mental illness "score" of students in the 1930s and 1940s.
Students today report they feel significantly more isolated, misunderstood, and emotionally sensitive or unstable than in decades past. Teens were also more likely to be narcissistic, have low self-control, and express feelings of worry, sadness, and dissatisfaction with life.
Although self-reported symptoms would not be enough to diagnose mental illness in these populations, the authors suggest that changes in students' responses over time suggest a real change in mental health levels.
"These results suggest that as American culture has increasingly valued extrinsic and self-centered goals such as money and status, while increasingly devaluing community, affiliation, and finding meaning in life, the mental health of American youth has suffered.”

Walter Brueggemann, theologian and professor of Old Testament, and auther of some of the most challenging books I’ve read in the past year, has been discussing anxiety and culture for decades. In his most recent books, The Journey to the Common Good and Out of Babylon, he describes two competing kingdoms.

The “pharoic” kingdom, “Babylon”, is a place of policy rooted in nightmare, anxiety caused by fear of scarcity, no time or energy left for the common good. Economic exploitation is essential; suffering is inevitable.

“Sinai,” on the other hand, the “prophetic” kingdom, depends on God’s abundant provision, and demonstrates generosity, divine abundance, feasting, Sabbath rest from work. Deep trust in God’s goodness replaces epidemic anxiety.

Worldy wisdom, might and wealth are the “royal triad” of Babylon. God opposes these with his own triad of steadfast love, justice and righteousness. As Brueggemann notes: “One is a triad of death, and the other is a triad of life.”

Brueggemann is outspoken in his criticism of multinational corporations and what he calls “the national security state.”  Both depend for their survival on our anxiety: we need more and more weapons and products to protect us from assailants eager for our destruction and to fend off the dangers of modern life (balding, boredom, last-year’s styles). We are schooled in dissatisfaction, trained to mistrust those around us, sold an attitude of discontent, disparagement, and competition. No wonder kids are anxious. There is no safe place. The distant threat of holocaust is balanced by the immediate threat of strangers, and at every turn, in every context, someone is better, faster, has more of the right stuff. In Babylon, no one wins.

Is this new? Not really. As Brueggemann demonstrates, Babylon and Sinai have been in opposition since the days of Moses, through the days of the prophets, through the time of Christ, and on into the present day.

What may be new is how insidious, how inescapable, how monolithic the message of Babylon has become. As kids are more and more attuned to their culture, tied to it night and day through cell phones, ipods, netbooks, it becomes harder and harder to hear another voice. And even adults, listening to the nightly news, drawn in by party rhetoric and alarmist headlines, find it hard to believe in the kingdom of God, when the kingdom of this world is so starkly, unavoidably present.   

How to escape? Brueggemainn would argue that the first step is the prophetic voice, pointing to the reality we live in. But today, as always, we dismiss the voice that’s outside our current mental construct. In a highly politicized world, prophets are hard to hear.

Hear, then, the words that come across the ages, Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 6:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

 And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers 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 that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Yes, very familiar. We’ve heard that before. Easier said than done.

As we’ve recently seen, though, revolution starts in small, symbolic acts, and every act of defiance of the current regime encourages others to join the cause. Would it help to think in terms of defiance? Of opposing the regime? What does it mean to be an agent of the kingdom of God, in nonviolent resistance to the kingdom of this world? 

For me, these are small acts of defiance:

“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  Give generously. Give first, then budget what’s left.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Try not to think about more “stuff.” Refuse to judge or be judged by material measures.

“The eye is the lamp of the body”. Limit media viewing: not just what, but how much. One or two tv shows a week, one or two movies. Devote the rest of the time to books, conversation, adventures outside.

"And why do you worry about clothes?" In an appearance-dominated culture, this is an area where I take defiance seriously. I choose not to dye my hair, spend hours on manicures, or wander in clothing stores unless I need to replace something.

I find, though, that one of the quickest ways to escape the claims of the culture around me is to fill my mind with the claims of Christ. Daily time in scripture and prayer is essential for the transforming of my mind, to bring anxiety under control, to remind me of where true power comes from.

Memorizing scripture is another route out of Babylon. With God’s word fresh inside me, I can hear much more clearly the words that don’t measure up, the lies that try to lead me into fear, or sell me things that will never satisfy. We’re told: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Memorization is one of the best tools I’ve found for allowing this kind of inner transformation.   

Brueggemann talks about neighborliness and community as paths into experience of God’s kingdom. I find this to be true, and am often stunned to see how much God has to show me through people who have seen God’s faithfulness in contexts far different from my own.

At every turn, obedience is the hardest, but most important means of stepping from the kingdom of this world into deeper experience of the kingdom of God. Jesus said “follow me.” Every step that brings me into closer alignment with his heart, his values, his kindness, grace, compassion, and welcome yields unexpected joy, peace, energy, insight. Obedience is inevitably the path to the abundance promised. Anxiety threatens each step of obedience, but with each courageous step, anxiety loses power, and before long, God’s peace sweeps anxiety away.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Law – Grace – Giving

I’ve been puzzling over the statistics I mentioned in my last post – that the average church contribution is 2.52% of income. A recent Christianity Today article suggests that church contributions are even lower – 2.43%, but evangelical Christians are giving a bit more – 4%.

I’m never sure what definition is used for “evangelical.” If it means someone with a high regard for Biblical authority and the teachings of Jesus, it’s a bit perplexing that the giving would be so low.

I know in some of the churches I’ve attended there’s a discomfort with talk of tithing: it sounds legalistic. And we’re done with the law, right?

Except, in Matthew 5, just after talking about being salt and light, Jesus says, as I noted last week:  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." “

So is it law, or grace? And does God want a consistent amount of our money, or an occasional generous impulse?

The best discussion of this I’ve seen is in Erwin Raphael McManus’ An Unstoppable Force: daring to become the church God had in mind. I first picked his book up ten years ago, and have reread it about five times since. It’s one of those books that has repeated underlines, stars in the margins, and the pages are starting to show some wear.

The last chapter is maybe the best: "A Radical Minimum Standard." Discussing the ten commandments, McManus says “They are not the standards by which the angels live. They are not God’s attempt to pull us up beyond the human into the spiritual. The Ten Commandments are the lowest standard of humane living. . .The Ten Commandments don’t call us to the extraordinary spiritual life; they call us to stop dehumanizing one another. The law is the minimum of what it means to be human.”

From there McManus goes on to discuss the relationship between grace and law: grace gives us the ability to live beyond the law: “Grace deals with the generosity of God, his gracious work in the hearts of those who would turn to him. Yet many times grace is misunderstood or even cheapened . . . Grace has been seen as the liberty to live beneath the law rather than the capacity to soar above the law.”

McManus describes a conversation with someone attending a new members’ seminar at his church:

I was sitting on the hearth of the fireplace with an individual who was considering becoming part of    Mosaic. He turned to me and asked if Mosaic was a law church or grace church. It was pretty obvious to me that he was setting a trap, so I thought I would go ahead and jump in. I said, “Well, of course we’re a grace church.” “I thought so,” he replied. “I was concerned that you were one of those law churches that told people they had to tithe.”

“Oh, no,” I said. We’re a grace church. The law says, ‘Do not murder.’ Grace says you don’t even have to have hatred in your heart; you can love your enemy. The law says, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but grace says you don’t even have to have lust in your heart for another woman. The laws says, ‘Give 10 percent,’ but grace always takes us beyond the law. You can give 20, 30, or 40 percent. We would never stop you from living by grace.”He looked at me and said, “Oh” – a profoundly theological response. (McManus, An Unstoppable Forc)

When we were first married, we read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, where he described something he called the “graduated tithe,” an intentional strategy to start with giving 10%, then increase the percentage as income increased. He’s offered details on this in several subsequent books, and the idea has been discussed and shared in various contexts.   

More recently, Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church and The Purpose Driven Life, has been talking about “reverse tithing,” giving a higher and higher percentage away until he’s living on 10% and giving away 90%.

We’ve never been as mathematically precise as Ron Sider, and we’ve never made the kind of income Rick Warren is currently enjoying, but we’ve always had a goal of giving more than 10%. Gross or net? We started with net, then were convicted, fairly early in our marriage, that God’s percentage should come before the government’s, and shifted to gross.

We’ve had set-backs along the way, including down-sized salaries, job uncertainty, and lots of college bills. At our best, we were close to 14%. Now? Closer to 12%, and hoping to find a way to grow that.

Why give numbers? To say it can be done. It’s worth doing. Even with ministry salaries. In an uncertain economy.

In 2 Corinthians 8, Pauls sasy: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.”

I’d heard the phrase “cheerful giver” more times than I can count. It always set my teeth a little on edge. I don’t like instructions to be “cheerful.” It feels a little forced.

But the following verse? When someone showed it to me a few years ago, I was stunned: all grace? all sufficiency? in all things? That’s a lot of “all”. 

Here’s how I understand that verse: If we give, generously, bountifully, well beyond the letter of the law – not just in money, but in time, in creativity, in love, in hospitality – God will give us everything we need. For every good work. Every time.

Impressive promise, but I’d have to say, in thirty-three years of marriage, we’ve found it to be true.

Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.  2 Corinthians 9:10

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Active Ingredients

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled. 

Our sermon in New Chapel this morning began in the beatitudes. Geoff Simpson reminded us that Jesus was presenting a new kingdom, a new way of living. The setting mirrored the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, but the new law is very different, and the new kingdom reverses what we’ve assumed to be true.

Later in Matthew 5, Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." That's a scary thought. But Geoff didn’t get that far. Instead, he stopped at “you are the salt of the earth . . . and you are the light of the world.”

All familiar. Yet, something in there caught me. Geoff suggested that we are the active ingredient in the kingdom of God, the ingredient like salt that flavors and preserves.

So if the salt isn’t effective, everything around it rots. (Geoff used the word “putrifaction.” Great word, although I had to laugh to  hear it used in a sermon.)

Here’s another thought, though: if the salt isn’t distributed evenly, everything rots.

I had a vision of salt sitting in the salt shaker, or the carton, as safe a gathering as it can find, muttering about the smelly world out there, beyond the shaker. That rotting unsalted world.

So - if the active ingredient isn’t active, the kingdom doesn’t happen?

That light metaphor illuminates another angle, I think. Light, as Geoff pointed out, attracts, guides, makes vision possible. So if the light isn’t lighting, the kingdom isn’t visible? Isn’t seen? Never comes into view?

Plenty to ponder there, but Geoff kept us moving, right to Isaiah 58, one of my favorite chapters. (My personal aspiration is summed up in verse 12. What title would I most like to be given? Repairer of Broken Walls. Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.)

It took me a minute to see what Geoff was saying: this kingdom Jesus proclaims becomes visible when we live as we’ve been told to live. And when we fake it, or look to the letter of the law, without understanding the heart behind it, the whole thing crumbles around us. We find ourselves praying with no response, wondering why God isn’t listening. But he’s right there, waiting for the active ingredients to activate:

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
   Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
   and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
   they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
   and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
   and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
   ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
   and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
   and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
   and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
   and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
   only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
   and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
   and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
   and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
   and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
   and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
   and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
   you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
   with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
   and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
   he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
   and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
   like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
   and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
   Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Geoff didn't read all that, just enough to help us see the point. Then he challenged us to be salt and light where we are. I’ve heard that before. But throwing that instruction into the context of Isaiah 58 ups the stakes a bit: You want God to hear you? Listen to what He’s saying. You want Him to heal you? Be an instrument of healing to the poor, the naked, the hungry. You want to see His kingdom? Stand up to the current kingdoms of injustice and oppression, and “spend yourselves” on behalf of the hungry and oppressed.

The promises are grand. Light, healing, restoration, glory. We wait on God, but apparently, He’s waiting on us, to be the active ingredient. He’s asking us to spread out, shine out past our own safe little circles of light. To move past the religious activity and live as agents of righteousness in ways that are costly and real.

I’ve been asking God why we see so little of His kingdom, why promises of healing so often go unfulfilled. In other parts of the world, miracles are common. In places of poverty and desperate need, God demonstrates His power in healing, visions, amazing answers of prayer. Why not here? Why not now?

As I read in Ron Sider’s Living Like Jesus just this morning, “In 1968 per capita income in the United States was $9, 851 and church members on average gave 3. 14 percent. By 1992, per captia income had grown to $14,515 . . . but we only gave 2.52 percent!”

A quick look for more current statistics brought a new book to my attention, Passing the Plate, by sociologists Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell.

Passing the Plate shows that few American Christians donate generously to religious and charitable causes — a parsimony that seriously undermines the work of churches and ministries. Far from the 10 percent of one’s income that tithing requires, American Christians’ financial giving typically amounts, by some measures, to less than one percent of annual earnings. And a startling one out of five self-identified Christians gives nothing at all.
In a more detailed review of Passing the Plate, Ron Sider notes that

If just the "committed Christians" (defined as those who attend church at least a few times a month or profess to be "strong" or "very strong" Christians) would tithe, there would be an extra 46 billion dollars a year available for kingdom work. To make that figure more concrete, the authors suggest dozens of different things that $46 billion would fund each year: for example, 150,000 new indigenous missionaries; 50,000 additional theological students in the developing world; 5 million more micro loans to poor entrepreneurs; the food, clothing and shelter for all 6,500,000 current refugees in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; all the money for a global campaign to prevent and treat malaria; resources to sponsor 20 million needy children worldwide. Their conclusion is surely right: "Reasonably generous financial giving of ordinary American Christians would generate staggering amounts of money that could literally change the world." 

What does it mean to spend ourselves on behalf of the poor? More than putting money in the offering plate, but apparently, we haven’t even done that. It’s sobering to think that Western Christians could change the face of poverty across the world, but we’re too busy keeping up with the world around us. If that stinks, blame the salt.

Isaiah’s words haunt me. Challenge me. Activate me.

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
   and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
   he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
   and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
   like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
   and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
   Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.