What is the Secret to Being Content?

I was thinking last week, as we celebrated Thanksgiving, that contentedness seems in short supply these days.

I admit, it’s hard to be content when the marketing geniuses on Madison Avenue produce alluring advertisements that promise us immediate happiness, robust health and so forth if we only buy their products. And it’s hard to be content when for decades the Rolling Stones have powerfully expressed a feeling so easy to parrot: “I can’t get no … satisfaction.” But even the poorest among us here in the US, compared to many (if not most) people in many other countries, actually have quite a lot for which we can be thankful and with which we might … just might … be content.

One approach to contentment was suggested by St. Paul to the church in Philippi:

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

And in Richard III Shakespeare poetically expressed how discontentment can be alleviated by the arrival and ascendance to prominence of a cherished friend or loved one: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.” It’s not that the winter of Richard’s discontent is now occurring, but that it’s now been turned to glorious summer — though Richard clearly does not know the secret to true contentedness, as his discontent returns and his ambition asserts itself.

“Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” LAO TZU .. (Explore )

(Image: “Be content with what you have…,” by Nick Kenrick, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

I saw a “meme” on Facebook a few weeks ago that said, “… be content with what you’ve done and be proud of who you are.” It’s available with a variety of background images, and sometimes attributed to mainstream writer Steve Almond, but that idea seems backward to me.

To me, it’s better to be content with who we are and proud of what we’ve done.

The other formulation puffs us up, gives us inflated egos or overlarge senses of self-importance even if we have done very little. It seems healthier to approach life with as clear an image of ourselves and our capabilities as we can develop, and to put in the effort to produce things we can be proud of, whether things we do for hire or sale, or things we undertake out of love or enjoyment — not perfect things, not necessarily “great” things or “better” things than what others have done, but things we can look upon with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

But beyond that, and part of why I’ve been thinking about all this for the past few days, it seems best to be thankful for who we are and what we can do — to look back at what we’ve done and be proud of it, yes, but to continue to live with gratitude in the present and look forward with anticipation to the future.

I don’t know if that’s the secret to being content, but I’m giving it a try.

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Thankful for All the Nouns

Good Thanksgiving morning to you and yours!

Every day I try to find things to be thankful for, but I’m glad our nation sets aside a special day for expressing thankfulness. In the spirit of the day, I sat down this morning to make a list of things for which I’m thankful, and realized that I could work for hours if not days trying to remember every individual person, place, or thing for which I could rightly say, “Thank you.”

I would never run out of nouns, and so I’d never run out of thanks.

I hope you can say the same.

Thanking God, 2016

(Image: “Thanking God, 2016,” by Martin LaBar, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

Whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m thankful for you — and I hope you have a fantastic day!

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Monday Morning Insight: Proclaiming National Thanksgiving

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

On this date in 1789, President George Washington — based on a resolution passed in the Congress — proclaimed that Thursday, 26 November 1789, would be set aside for the people of the nation to unite in devotion to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The proclamation began with a statement that seems quite bold today, especially for a public official:

… it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.

Congress had recommended “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” Washington’s proclamation enjoined the people to offer “sincere and humble thanks” to God for several things, including:

  • “His providence in the course and conclusion of” the Revolutionary War,
  • “the great degree of tranquillity [sic], union, and plenty” they enjoyed,
  • “their civil and religious liberty,” and
  • “all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

Gratitude changes the way we look at the world

(Image: “Gratitude changes the way we look at the world,” by BK, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

President Washington also encouraged the people to beseech “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” to forgive “our national and other trangressions [sic],” and, in particular,

to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.

It seems a shame that we have let our government get so out of control, and that we seem unable to place people in positions of trust who are wise and just, who respect the Constitution, and who are able to “discreetly and faithfully” execute the nation’s laws. Perhaps if we used Thanksgiving for giving thanks, and for reflecting on our freedom and what it takes to maintain it, we might have less trouble in that regard.

___
P.S. The full proclamation is available here.

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Monday Morning Insight: God and Mathematics

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

Today is British physicist Paul Dirac’s birthday (8 August 1902 – 20 October 1984). Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger, and is known as one of the founders of quantum physics.

Dirac was a rather famous atheist — his colleague Wolfgang Pauli was said to have remarked, “Our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is ‘God does not exist and Dirac is His prophet'” — but later in life he wrote a quite eloquent statement about God and the mathematical relations that describe our universe. In a piece in the May 1963 issue of Scientific American entitled “The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature,” he wrote (emphasis added):

It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of a mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it. You may wonder: Why is nature constructed along these lines? One can only answer that our present knowledge seems to show that nature is so constructed. We simply have to accept it. One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe. Our feeble attempts at mathematics enable us to understand a bit of the universe, and as we proceed to develop higher and higher mathematics we can hope to understand the universe better.

Later still, Dirac was quoted as having said simply, “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.”

Are we to conclude that Dirac, who in 1927 said, “If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination,” found God in later life? Did something in the nature of quantum mechanics point him toward the divine?

The Beauty of Mathematics

The language of mathematics … it’s more than a little Greek. (Image: “The Beauty of Mathematics” by Peter Rosbjerg, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

It would seem not. Instead of coming to believe in the existence of God, Dirac accepted the possibility of God’s existence, and even the necessity of God in certain circumstances:

I would like … to set up this connexion between the existence of a god and the physical laws: if physical laws are such that to start off life involves an excessively small chance, so that it will not be reasonable to suppose that life would have started just by blind chance, then there must be a god, and such a god would probably be showing his influence in the quantum jumps which are taking place later on. On the other hand, if life can start very easily and does not need any divine influence, then I will say that there is no god.

That’s an interesting idea, though I wonder (a bit playfully, perhaps) if the physical laws of our universe are such that to produce a Paul Dirac (or a you, or a me) involves “an excessively small chance.” There have been, after all, only one of each of us in all the universe.

Even as powerful a mind as Dirac’s could not solve all the equations of the universe, and I certainly can’t. So I am content to let God be God and handle the beautiful and mysterious mathematics of creation.

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Should We Tear Down the Stage?

This is something of a sequel to — or maybe a tangent from — my post about Choir Lofts and Orchestra Pits.

Does your church have a stage?

Some churches have built impressive stages, with elaborate lighting and backdrops and such. Some churches can’t help but have a stage, because they rent space in a theater or a school auditorium or amphitheater or whatever. Our old church had a choir loft in front of the sanctuary — our pastor was always careful to call it a “platform,” because as singers and musicians we weren’t supposed to be performers on a stage — and we rearranged it to put the musicians together, but if you read my last post on this subject you’d be right in guessing that I think now that was probably a mistake.

Anyway, yesterday while worshiping at a small church I wondered how the worship leader, singers and musicians would react if someone from the congregation just walked up on stage while they were playing. Would they panic? Would they stop playing, or keep going?

Worship Set

(Image: “Worship Set,” by David Amsler, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

When I was a worship leader, I think I would have been stupefied. I expect I would have gotten flustered and missed more than a couple of beats, whether I was playing guitar myself or just conducting the rest of the musicians; certainly my attention would have been drawn to the person rather than to what I was doing. I hope that eventually I would have settled back into the singing, and I hope I would have come across as more surprised than irritated (though probably not; I have an unfortunate tendency to radiate my annoyance).

But the more I consider the question, the more I think that the best reaction would be to welcome that new person and keep on worshiping together.

The point of a worship service is not for the congregation to enjoy worship, but for them to experience it — to participate in it. It’s the difference between being a part of and being apart from the worship experience.

I feel more and more strongly that placing musicians and singers in front — and especially separating them from the congregation by having them on a stage (no matter what we call it) — skews the congregation’s experience in favor of observing rather than contributing. From my observations over the last couple of years, often the worship team performs while the congregation watches.

What do you think? If you’re a worship leader, a singer, or a musician in a church, and normally you’re separated from the congregation, would you welcome any worshiper onto the stage, any time? Is your worship team exclusive, and have you made worship the exclusive province of a few people?

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Day of Despair

On this darkest day of the Christian calendar, I think about the disciples’ misery, their fear, and the hopelessness they must have felt.

They had no idea what the next day would bring, and how much better and brighter it would be.

I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us when we mourn, when we are afraid, and when we lose hope.

Opening of roadside tomb_0654

(Image: “Opening of roadside tomb,” by James Emery, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)
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The Gift Church: Choir Loft, or Orchestra Pit?

This is the fourth entry in an on-again, off-again series. Links to the first three are at the end.

It’s Holy Week, which seems a good time to re-visit the idea I floated last year of “The Gift Church” — a Christian church that would practice radical generosity on a regular basis by spending more on the needy than it did on itself. This week, as we commemorate the central event around which the entire Christian faith revolves, the question is: how might worship be different at The Gift Church?

Over the past couple of years, as my wife and I have attended different churches here and there, I’ve observed an all-too-common sight in contemporary churches: worship musicians who seem to be performing for the benefit of the people in the seats rather than leading those people into a worship encounter with the living God. (I observed this so often when we first moved south that in 2009 I wrote a short essay about it that you can download, entitled “Ignore the Tour Guides, If You Can.”)

Easter Saturday at Destiny

Church service, or concert? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. (Image: “Easter Saturday at Destiny,” by Andy Rennie, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Then two weeks ago I began to think that the design of most of our contemporary Protestant churches makes it too easy for worship leaders — musicians and singers — to become performers, and thereby too easy for congregations to become passive recipients instead of active worship participants. My first thought as I walked out of the service that morning was that instead of choir lofts, our churches might do better to have orchestra pits.

Consider how the choir loft in many Protestant churches differs from the choir in, say, many cathedrals. In cathedrals, the choir area is often built such that the singers face the central aisle with their backs to the outer wall, leaving the area open so the congregation can see all the way to the apse, which often faces the rising sun and presents a beautiful if not inspiring display of stained glass. In contrast, a choir loft, platform, or stage, often backed by nondescript decor, has dominated the front of many of the churches we’ve visited, placing the choir or worship leaders under bright lights and face-to-face with the congregants.

But worship is not meant to bring congregants face-to-face with stage-lit people: it’s meant to bring them face-to-face with God.

(Yes, I know that some churches seat the choir in the back, in a balcony. From what I’ve observed, that’s relatively rare. Permit me to continue with the contrasting idea.)

Consider, in contrast, the orchestra pit. In many performance venues, only those who sit in balconies can see much of the orchestra in the pit, because a pit orchestra is not meant to be the center of attention. That orchestra is in place to augment, supplement, and set the mood for the action on the stage; likewise, worship musicians are there to augment, supplement, and set the mood for worship. They are not there to be worshiped, nor to attract attention to themselves, but to make it possible for the congregation to worship.

If the worship team — whether an acoustic combo, a power band, or a full orchestra — were below congregants’ line-of-sight, rather than between the congregation and the cross or between the people and the altar, would it help the people worship better? Maybe not: maybe people want the spectacle; maybe they want to be entertained.

But it would remind the musicians that they are not there to be the center of attention. They are there to serve the Lord and the congregation — it is a worship service, after all — and not just a chance to show off their musical chops.

(Yes, there is a place for special presentations, whether solos or duets or quartets or choirs; whether instrumental or vocal, accompanied or acapella; whether songs or readings or full-on dramas; and in those cases putting the presenters on a stage works so everyone can see them. But those are not intended to draw the congregation into worship.)

There just might be an even better arrangement than either choir lofts or orchestra pits.

I’ve never seen this tried anywhere, but what if church was conducted “in the round,” so to speak, with the worship musicians gathered in the center of the worship space and the congregation ranged around them. Instead of being on risers or on stage, singers could be spaced out among the congregation to help the people sing (which seems infinitely preferable to those worship teams in which soloists sing almost all of the songs, such that the congregation seems unsure if they should be singing or not). In this arrangement, the musicians and singers in the worship team would be worshipers along with the congregation, inviting the rest of the attendees to sing along because they are close to the music, almost part of it themselves.

Maybe that wouldn’t work — maybe the sound would be too uncontrolled, too inconsistent. Maybe it would work. But maybe what really matters is paying attention to the fact that it’s a worship service, not a concert.

Which brings me back to the question posed above: how might worship be different at The Gift Church?

In putting down my thoughts on how The Gift Church might operate, I wrote this:

Worship. The Church shall present worship opportunities that emphasize reverence for God’s holiness, majesty, and power, and gratitude for God’s presence, protection, and salvation. Worship services shall respect but not be bound by Christian traditions and, when practical, shall incorporate elements of prayer (Philippians 4:6), music (Colossians 3:16), teaching and exhortation (1 Timothy 4:13), and fellowship (Hebrews 10:23-5). Worship leaders shall, to the best of their abilities, focus attention on God rather than on themselves or the congregation. The worship environment shall, to the extent possible, be designed, built, and/or arranged to minimize distractions and to concentrate attention on the object of worship, i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ, more than on worship leaders. The Elders and others responsible for planning and presenting worship shall develop a rotating calendar of worship services, suited to the needs of the congregation and the community, to celebrate all major Christian holy days and such additional festivals and holy days as they may see fit.

Most of that I wrote last year, because I wanted to emphasize that The Gift Church would not be a church built to entertain itself — and certainly not to indulge itself. Worship would be an important element of The Gift Church, but the church would not exist just to provide a space for worship. The church would exist to serve: purposed to spread the Gospel not by just talking about it — “God bless you, go in peace,” as Keith Green sang, “while all Heaven just weeps” — but by living the Gospel, denying itself and taking up the cross and channeling its contributions to the needy.

As I’ve noted in earlier installments, maybe a church with that purpose wouldn’t survive for very long. But it might make a difference while it lasted.

Anyway, I just added the line about the worship environment last week, when I started thinking about choir lofts and orchestra pits.

What about you? When do you feel the most engaged in worship? Would a different worship environment, or worship approach, help you feel closer to God? Do you want to be invited to participate in worship, to take an active part in the praise to the extent you feel comfortable? Or do you want to be sung to, talked to … entertained?

And if you are a worship leader, what are you doing to keep the attention off yourself and on the Lord?

Or am I the only one who cares about these things?

___
Previously in this series:
The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle
The Gift Church: How It Might Work

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On Epiphany, a Prayer for an Epiphany

God of all that is, and was, and will be,
God of what is plain and what is mystery,
God of worlds beyond the wonders we see,
Hear this humble prayer

Help me find a purpose that is worthwhile
And ample peace, to live devoid of guile,
With power enough to go the extra mile —
Hear this humble prayer

What dreams should I abandon, and which pursue?
What thoughts examine to verify they’re true?
What truths to learn, and unlearn ones I knew?
Hear this humble prayer

God of all I will be, was, and am,
Hear this prayer and help me understand

Pray
(Image: “Pray,” by Esteban Chiner, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

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The Gift Church: How It Might Work

This is the third entry in what has become a series. Links to the first two are at the end.

A few months ago on one of my walks, I started thinking about the idea of a church that would practice radical generosity on a regular basis. I had been reading about charities that were accused of not spending much of their collected funds on their target audiences (for instance, the Wounded Warrior Project apparently spends much more on its television commercials and executive salaries than it does to actually help wounded veterans), and I began to wonder about churches and their use of collected funds.

I’ve been active in many different churches over the years, in mainline denominations (e.g., Baptist, Presbyterian), in nondenominational churches, and in what I liked to call the “multi-denominational” environment of the chapels on various Air Force bases. I’ve visited many more churches, from the East Coast to the West Coast, many places in between, and even a few churches in other countries. In comparing all those churches, it should come as no surprise that some of the churches did more to serve the needy than others.

This past year in particular, I began to suspect that the donations we’ve made to local rescue missions did more to directly help the needy than the donations we’ve ever made to a local church, of whatever type. Why? Because the local churches’ receipts went almost entirely to cover their own operating expenses, and those expenses were not usually devoted to serving the needy. So I began to think about how a church might work if serving the less fortunate was its primary purpose for being.

Jesus Feeds the Hungry (5 of 12)
Serving the needy, two Saturdays out of the month. (Image: “Jesus Feeds the Hungry (5 of 12),” by Tony Fischer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Gradually a picture formed in my head of a church — I called it The Gift Church — that would spend more money on helping others than it spent on itself. I outlined that purpose and the guiding principle behind it in the previous two posts on this subject. If you missed those installments, here’s how I put it:

Purpose. The purpose of the Church is to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ through service to the community and the world. The Church has been given gifts that are meant to be shared.

Central Tenet. Believing that the Lord Jesus Christ’s declaration is true (as reported by Paul the Apostle to the Ephesian church leaders in Acts 20:35), that it is indeed more blessed to give than it is to receive, the Church shall devote more of its monetary resources to serving the needy than it does to its own internal obligations, needs or desires.

Guiding Principle. In the same way that the Lord Jesus Christ did not select disciples so that they could serve only one another or that He could serve only them, the Church does not exist so its members can serve only one another or keep His blessings to themselves. If the Church ceases to serve others, or serves itself to the exclusion of others, it shall not have fulfilled its purpose, because the observation that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, and especially Luke 12:33-4) can be understood to apply to the corporate Church as well as to individual believers, and so can the Lord’s teaching that service to the poor and downtrodden is, in effect, service to Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How might that work in practice? First, I should admit that it might not. But if it could, I envision a few elements of its operating as:

  • Regular Charitable Support. The Church would donate regularly to organized charities that directly serve the needy (and/or give money directly to people in need), such that for every dollar the church spent on itself, it would spend a little more than a dollar on the needy. If the Church spent $100 on, say, office supplies, it would then donate $101 to charitable work, and so forth. The Church would have to keep its own expenses reasonable in order for its receipts to cover its own needs and its charitable donations.
  • At a Minimum, a Tithe. If the Church kept its expenses very low in relation to its receipts, it could conceivably retain a great deal of money as a surplus. That would not be bad, as Scripture encourages frugality and planning for lean times — and once some of the surplus was spent on church expenses, a charitable donation would still have to be made. However, it would seem appropriate for the Church to donate at least a tenth of its total receipts, regardless of its expenses.
  • Meeting Needs As They Arise. At any time, members may become aware of needs in the community or the wider world, so any member of the Church could propose a charity (or person) to receive a donation from the Church. The decision-making authority, however, would rest with the assembly of Deacons since that’s why the office of deacon was established.
  • Meeting a Mix of Needs. To keep its focus from becoming too narrow, the Church would distribute its donations to a variety of local and non-local charities. The actual mix might vary from year to year, but the Church would give more than a fourth of its donations to non-local charities. Of the remainder that stayed in the local area, the Church would ensure that no more than a fourth of its donations directly benefited its own needy members. But even a balance like that could be changed if the Elders and Deacons became aware of specific needs that the Church could help meet.
  • Charitable Missions. To maintain its focus on helping the needy, the Church would only count donations to missions as “charitable” if those missions themselves involved direct service to needy people.
  • Provisions for Large Donations or Expenses. From time to time, starting in the early church, people have liquidated property and given the proceeds to the church; most churches could receive such a large gift easily, but under the “tithe” provision above a large gift could stress The Gift Church’s ability to live up to its own central tenet if it did not have funds on hand to donate one-tenth of the gift’s value to charity. Likewise, sometimes a church is faced with a large expense for which making a more-than-matching lump-sum donation would be impractical. In these events, the Church would have the leeway to make its charitable donations in installments.
  • Reporting and Accountability. The Elders would report the cumulative receipts, expenses, and donations to the congregation at intervals throughout the year, and provide a detailed report at year’s end. In this way, the members could be sure the Church was living up to its stated purpose — and if for some reason the Church failed to do so, could take corrective action.

Do you think a church like that might be able to function for very long?

Would it be able to keep its expenses reasonable and encourage its members to give sufficiently to cover the expenses and its charitable work?

I don’t know.

What I believe is this: When Scripture tells us to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10), the implication is not that all the food in the storehouse is intended to stay there. It is intended for the Levites and the needs of the Temple, yes, but not for the worshipers. And any excess is not meant to be left in the storehouse to rot.

But maybe I’m the only person who thinks that.

___
Previously in this series:
The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle

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The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle

In late October, I posted about The Church I’d Like to Start: a church that, more than anything else, would serve others more than it served itself. As I noted then, I would call it The Gift Church, or The Gift for short.

In this season of giving, it seems appropriate to revisit the idea.

Pablo Picasso The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away
(“Pablo Picasso: The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away,” by BK, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

In that earlier post I laid out what I see as the purpose and the central tenet of such a church, a congregation that would make “giving its most fundamental reason for being.” Basically, the church would commit itself to spending more on the needy than it spent on itself.

How could a church begin to do such a thing? Obviously (perhaps), all who joined it would have to agree on the importance of service to others. But it seems important for the church to develop a clear statement of why they consider it important, such that even those who might just think about joining could understand.

In my musings on the subject, I put it down like this:

Guiding Principle. In the same way that the Lord Jesus Christ did not select disciples so that they could serve only one another or that He could serve only them, the Church does not exist so its members can serve only one another or keep His blessings to themselves. If the Church ceases to serve others, or serves itself to the exclusion of others, it shall not have fulfilled its purpose, because the observation that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, and especially Luke 12:33-4) can be understood to apply to the corporate Church as well as to individual believers, and so can the Lord’s teaching that service to the poor and downtrodden is, in effect, service to Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How does that break down?

In the same way that the Lord Jesus Christ did not select disciples so that they could serve only one another or that He could serve only them, the Church does not exist so its members can serve only one another or keep His blessings to themselves. What did He say to the fishermen? That if they came with Him, He would make them “fishers of men.” Once they were gathered together, did the disciples settle down and have weekly Bible studies and monthly family night suppers with one another? Maybe they did, but if so it wasn’t important to the Gospel writers to record it.

What we do have from the Gospel record is that Jesus sent disciples out into the towns and villages, and to do what? To serve (primarily to heal the sick). And when that phase of the ministry was over, He continued to lead his core group from place to place as he taught and healed and inspired the multitudes.

If the Church ceases to serve others, or serves itself to the exclusion of others, it shall not have fulfilled its purpose…. It seems that statement could — emphasis on could — be true of the church as a whole: the small-c catholic or “universal” church. But it would certainly be true of the specific church as visualized here, the church that would adopt this Guiding Principle. The “Gift” would be a church with a clear purpose, and definite call, to serve others more than it served itself; and if it failed in that purpose, then it should disband and free its members to serve in other places to accomplish other purposes.

… the observation that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, and especially Luke 12:33-4) can be understood to apply to the corporate Church as well as to individual believers…. What do those passages teach? That “you can’t take it with you.”

Those passages encourage believers to make themselves ready for the coming kingdom of God by “laying up … treasures in Heaven” rather than accumulating treasures on Earth. On Earth, treasures lose their value, can be destroyed or stolen; not so treasures in Heaven. And while the passages are almost always discussed in personal terms, i.e., with respect to what individuals might treasure, have you ever thought of the church as having a heart that reflects what it treasures?

Have you been to churches that have laid up for themselves treasures here on Earth? Churches, for example, that treasure their facilities, their buildings and yards, their parking lots and playgrounds, their stained glass windows and sound systems, etc., etc., more than they seem to treasure the people that use them? (As a point of reference, I was once told I couldn’t have a bottle of water in the sanctuary of a church, because I might spill some on the carpet.) That’s not to say those things are bad, or that they should be taken for granted, only that the perception of their worth can be out of proportion.

Consider that the passage in Luke’s Gospel goes further than that in Matthew’s, in that it quotes Jesus as telling his listeners to sell their possessions and give to charity. In that context, it is hard enough to justify as individuals the accumulation of wealth; how can a Christian church justify it?

Have you been to churches that seem as if they devote more money to the parishioners’ creature comforts, whether air conditioning or cushy chairs or flatscreen TVs, than they do to helping other people? The sanctuary, classrooms, and furnishings in many churches are usually used only a few hours a week (as an exercise, drive by almost any mainline church at 2 p.m. on Thursday afternoon and count the cars in the parking lot), and even if the cost per attendee per hour was low, do those things amount to Heavenly treasures?

In contrast, have you been to churches that denied themselves in order to more fully serve others, in order to lay up treasures in Heaven? Or at least tried to serve others to the same degree they served themselves? I’m not sure I have.

I’m not sure such a church could long survive.

… so can the Lord’s teaching that service to the poor and downtrodden is, in effect, service to Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

This Scripture, about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, etc., is also usually invoked in reference to individuals. But the Church is a group of individuals that considers itself one body; why can’t the instructions directed at people be taken to include the collective Church itself? Should the Church exclude itself from opportunities to serve Christ by serving those in need, or should it seek out those opportunities?

Some churches do this very well, by operating food pantries or soup kitchens or job programs or a myriad of other services. Some, however, seem to offer little more than platitudes; and Christ is quite clear that when the day of reckoning comes the King’s response to those who failed to tend to the thirsty, the strangers, the prisoners, etc., will be, “Depart from me.”

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That’s what I came up with as the guiding principle behind The Gift Church, a congregation that would take “it is more blessed to give than it is to receive” (Acts 20:35) seriously.

Do you think such a church could operate long enough to make a difference in the world? Does the idea resonate with you at all? Or am I the only one?

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Previously on this topic: The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES

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