Generous Hearts: by Kevin Prime
I'm going to talk with you about how I think about my giving as it relates to the church. I want to share what I call "four signposts" for giving. As I've been reflecting, these are things that have been a set of principles that I've developed over the years in my life as a steward and as a giver.
Signposts are important things. They point us in the direction that we need to go. That doesn't always mean that you're immediately where you set out to be if you acknowledge the signposts. They are pointing you in a direction for your journey. I remember the first time I ever drove into Iowa from Illinois on I-80, there's a giant freeway sign—like one of those exit warnings that usually say, "in one mile, get off and go to Petaluma"—and it said, "Des Moines, I-380, exit 60 miles." I thought, "OK, I'll be ready. Let's get in the right line right now. We don't want to miss that." But it's good to know it's coming, and the signposts do something else. Even though we're not always getting there or there at the moment, they're pointing us in the direction, and they give us a chance to look and say, "am I headed in the right direction?" And I think that's important. So, I have four signposts to share with you today.
Number 1: Remember who you're giving to and who you're giving through.
In my mind, when I give that check or electronic payment to Elim, I'm giving to God. And I'm doing that—not because of anything that Elim is doing—but because I'm so thankful to God for what God has already done for me. I mean, I have a beautiful and outstanding wife, wonderful kids, a great job, a good home, good health, friends, this community. I consider myself extremely blessed, although not deserving of it. And when I contemplate that, it makes me very grateful to the Lord who has showered this abundance on me and makes me feel a little bit responsible to do something with it, of course. That gratitude is what I'm trying to express by my giving to Elim.
Now, I give to Elim because, well, how do you give to God? God doesn't have a little collection booth anywhere, just sitting out there or down the street. But the church is the body of Christ. That's what we believe as Lutheran Christians. The church, the institutional church that people sometimes criticize, is God’s expression in the world, so I funnel my giving to God through the church.
It's helpful to think about it in that "to" and "through" way. Over the years, I've been involved in church leadership here and in other churches and occasionally run into situations where you get a member of the congregation saying, "I give this much money a year to the church, and by golly, I want you to stop doing this or start doing that, or I'm going to take my money elsewhere." It's tempting to do that when you give a lot, to use that money as leverage and power over the people around you. But it doesn't sound quite the same if you phrase it as "Hey, God, these people you called me into the community with aren't doing what I think they ought to be doing, so I'm cutting you off until you get them under control!" Right? That sounds pretty childish when you put it that way.
Thinking about "to" and "through" helps keep me humble about my giving. I don't change my giving based on what's going on in the community. I'm giving to God and trusting that He will put it to good use.
Number 2: Give as an act of radical trust.
I'm going to say right upfront. This is the hardest one for me, and I'll tell you why in a minute, but I want you to think about the ancient Israelites and the way they gave. Take your firstborn of your flock. Take the first ten bushels of your harvest. Whatever the amount. But take the first part of this and give it to the Lord. And before the temple came along, and there were priests to support, I think they just burned it outright, which today we would say is terribly wasteful. I don't think they would have thought the same way back then. Either way, it's an extravagant act of trust in God. These were itinerant herders and subsistence farmers. Only 150 years ago, most people were one bad harvest away from financial ruin or one parasite away from losing their herd. These people lived on the edge, yet they gave that huge chunk upfront to God. They trusted God to provide for them.
I challenge myself all the time. Do I really have that trust? I don't know how many of us think of what we give to the church as a measure of how much we trust God to take care of us if we give so much and that everything will be OK.
One of my earlier memories of childhood was of the doorbell ringing one day. I went to answer the door, and there was a sheriff's deputy in uniform standing there, and he asked to see my folks. So, I let him in. My uncle was a police officer; police are friends. He talked with my parents a little bit, and my parents looked a little bit odd, and then in front of us kids, he walked across the family room, unplugged the stereo system that my dad had bought recently, picked it up, and walked out of the house with it and took it away. And I looked at my parents while this was happening. My mother was a registered nurse, and she had on her game face that she would put on when unpleasant things were happening, and she didn't want to show it. But my father looked like I'd never seen a face look before. As I got older, I realized this was the look of a man being humiliated in front of his family. What had happened was that his business partner had taken all the company’s assets, a partnership, and disappeared, went on the run. They didn't find him for several years, by which time he'd spent all the money. So, my parents were going through bankruptcy, dealing with the company’s debts. And as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, some of that property got reclaimed. As that bankruptcy played out over several years, as a young man, I made a decision never to let that happen to my family or me. So, I'm really careful about sticking my neck out. I'm not the type of person who jumps and expects the parachute will materialize. I want to have that parachute packed and double-checked before I get anywhere near the plane. And so, this idea of giving as radical trust in God is a hard one for me, but one that I keep challenging myself with. I'm getting a little better at it over time. And as I've gotten older, I've realized that we're never in control of things, really, and that we do need to trust in God that things will work out.
Number 3: Give from your first fruits.
We hear a lot in the Lutheran church about First Fruits Giving; it’s a favorite term among Lutherans. But what is "First Fruits Giving," really?
I think of it as applying the principle of "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself." By putting God first. Even in front of the neighbor, but certainly, you are trailing behind a little bit there. Where you put your financial resources and where you make sure that the money always goes, no matter what—that's where your heart is.
Today, it's kind of hard to think about how you do first fruits giving in a mechanical way. We have a government that sticks its hand in, and Caesar gets his cut of what you earn before you even see what you've made. So, it's hard to think how to really give of our first fruits.
I do a couple of things in this area. One, when I'm being honest with myself and judging myself about how well I give, I use my gross income and not my take-home pay as the thing that I measure against, because to me, maybe it sounds silly or a minor detail, if I'm setting the percentage of my giving to the church out of what the government leaves behind, then the government comes first, not God. So, I think about it that way. Also, I use online tools like tithe.ly to make sure that my giving is planned, regular, and consistent and comes out of my bank account without thinking about it.
Number 4: Consecrate your life.
Vicki and Audrey, and Mark sang this phrase just a few minutes ago in the hymn, one of my favorites: "We, your servant, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart; consecrating to your purpose ev'ry gift which you impart." Now, the first part of that translates in my old '70's language as "We walk the walk, we don't just talk the talk." But how we walk the walk is through this thing called "consecrating to God's purpose" everything that he gives us. And how do we do that?
You know, consecrating means to make something sacred, and we live in a world where there's a lot of secular stuff, and most of us have secular jobs. I imagine if you're a health care provider or pastor or teacher or social worker, there's a lot of secular professions where you can say to yourself, "I help. I care for God's people in my work." But then, I sell IT services to pharmaceutical companies and biotechs and things like that, so I don't know where big-data platforms and agile development methodologies and things like that fall into the world of helping one's neighbor. But it did occur to me somewhere along the line—after hearing a similar talk given by one of our Thrivent reps about 25 years ago—that we can make the work that we do that get paid for in the economy sacred. We need to think about the money we give out of what we earn in our careers as a way of making the time that we spend at work during the week a sacred thing. We should think about it. If we're tithing at 10%, then Monday morning, you're working for God. Sitting through all those status meetings and customer presentations becomes sacred work. We can consecrate the mundane things we do in life by converting that effort into giving.
So that's how I'm looking at giving, in a nutshell. As I said, it's a journey. I'm not standing up here as a paragon of virtue in front of you. I have challenges along the way here, too.
So, every good speaker ends with what you should have taken from this, so here we go:
1. Remember who you're giving to and who you're giving through
2. Give as an act of radical trust
3. Give from your first fruits
4. Consecrate your life.