THE ELUSIVE JOY OF GIVING by Robert D. Lupton

THE ELUSIVE JOY OF GIVING by Robert D. Lupton

Note: Bob Lupton, a long-time friend of my wife’s family, founded Focused COMMUNITY Strategies over thirty years ago by moving his young family into inner-city Atlanta. He is the author of TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I thought the following, from his monthly URBAN PERSPECTIVES update, would edify you in this giving season. Reprinted by permission.

I can’t remember when Mary Phillips came to live with us. Somewhere along the journey of my father’s itinerant pastorates, Mary had attached to our family. She was like a live-in grandmother to me. I called her MeMe (a name that stuck with her the rest of her life). I remember watching out our front window for her to get off the evening bus. When I saw her coming I would run to the door to meet her, get my big hug, and wait expectantly for my “surprise.” MeMe always brought some little treat home to me. She would reach into her coat pocket and, glancing around to be sure no one else would see, slip me some little trinket or stick of gum or piece of candy, pretending that no one else in the world knew. It was our special secret.

I remember like it was yesterday (though I was only four) the day MeMe stopped giving me those daily surprises. I had run to the door to greet her as I always did, got my hug, and waited expectantly to see what she had brought for me. But for some reason on that particular day she had nothing in her pocket for me. I immediately threw a temper tantrum, creating quite an ugly, tearful scene. MeMe was obviously distressed by my behavior and vowed that she was not going to bring me any more surprises. I assumed, of course, that this was her way warning me to control such outbursts in the future. But the following day when she arrived home from work, her pockets contained no treats. The next day was the same. And the next. Her daily surprises never did resume. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why she had so abruptly stopped her daily treats.

Seven decades later, the painful lesson I learned from MeMe’s decision remains vivid in my mind. It has sensitized me to the ways joyful giving can turn ugly when it becomes an expectation. I saw it happening in our inner-city ministry at Christmas time. We received many offers of food, clothes and toys from caring friends around the city who wanted to share their abundance. I asked Zack, an emerging young community leader, if he would assume responsibility for identifying needy neighbors and distributing the donations to them. He accepted the role with eagerness. The first year was an absolute delight as Zack delivered unexpected blessings to struggling families. He felt like Santa Claus, spreading joy and good cheer. The second year, instead of receiving joyful greetings from families, Zack felt pressure from recipients for specific gifts and special favors. His enthusiasm diminished. By year three, Zack was ready to quit. Recipients grumbled about their lack of choices, made accusations of favoritism and claimed priority rights based on their longevity in the program. What began as a joyful sharing of unexpected gifts had turned into a litany of entitlement.

MeMe and Zack figured out what it takes charities and churches much longer to learn. Giving turns toxic when the recipient comes to expect it. Gratitude turns into presumption. And the benefactor, with all good intentions, ends up creating unhealthy dependency—the very thing benevolence hopes to abate. But there is a corrective to this dilemma. Reciprocal exchange.

We discovered it when we opened the Christmas Store. When a customer and a merchant meet at the bargaining table, each brings something of value to exchange. Both stand to gain in the transaction. Parents find bargains; FCS generates needed revenue. Jobless neighbors are hired; the store gains a workforce. Both enter the exchange with worth; both exit with dignity. That’s why we named our Christmas Store promotion “Pride for Parents.”

Reciprocal exchange. It is a fundamental principle of healthy relationships. It assumes that everyone has something of value to bring to the table. The responsibility, then, of stewards of resources is to develop those systems that create the opportunity for fair and authentic exchange.

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

John is a grizzled grey, mid-fifties motorcyclist who thinks most people have their heads in the sand about disaster preparedness. “My friends laugh at me, think I’m crazy,” he said, “but I’m like, ‘Dude, you buy life insurance, right? You buy health insurance. Why wouldn’t you buy a little disaster insurance by setting a few things aside and being prepared?’”

John has a “bug-out ranch” a few miles outside town fully equipped with food, water, fuel, and guns.

I met John in Austin, Texas, on assignment for a journalism course last January. We were doing post-hurricane Harvey “man on the street” interviews to see how prepared people were for disaster. The answer was, and I include my fellow motorcyclist in this, not very well.

That’s part of the reason C. R. Wiley’s Man of the House: a handbook for building a shelter that will last in a world that is falling apart, caught my eye. Guys like John—also known as “preppers”—are realists about the potential disasters we face but are mostly thinking about themselves.

Wiley is not a prepper in the strict sense. He isn’t writing about how to stock your bug-out bunker with enough food and ammo to survive a sudden catastrophe but a long slow one. And not just for yourself, but for your children and grandchildren. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the world as we know it is like a drunk that just won’t hit bottom. When things get bad, it sobers up a little and promises to change its ways—then when things get a little better it’s back to binge-drinking again. But there will come a day when we find the old boy comatose and gone for good. If we work at preparing for that day, we may find that we are more relieved than saddened by the end.”[1]

Man of the House picks up where the turn-of-the-century Christian men’s movement dropped the ball. Finally, someone has left “the elementary teachings about the Christ,” and gone on to maturity. Wiley assumes a basic understanding of the gospel and spiritual life and moves on to the practical matters of living out the faith in an increasingly unstable world. He unearths the ancient idea of the household, not as a place to eat dinner, watch a sitcom, and go to bed—a place from which we depart every day to work in the “real world”—but as it once was: a spiritual, social, economic, and political shelter that creates a world for generations of those who come under its roof.

Having given that endorsement I hasten to add that I disagreed with some of his ideas and found others not quite wrong, just over-torqued. Still, he is at least asking the right questions and offering thoughtful answers, a rarity in Christian men’s books.

Most guys don’t like to read, but this one is written to men for men. Wiley is a preacher, but unlike many of my kind he doesn’t waste words just because it comes easy (See? Those last five were superfluous. I can do this all day!). He uses what I call “man-speak.” Reading his book is like sitting around the table with Lewis and Clarke, planning their trip or a group of engineers and thinkers, planning to build a city. Serious men gathered for an interesting, challenging job, with enough humor thrown in to keep everybody’s egos in check. At twelve chapters and 135 pages it is also short. Each chapter takes about 15-20 minutes to read.

If you’re a young man trying to figure out how to navigate your family through this unstable world you would benefit from this book.

[1] From the Introduction.

REBUILDING SHALOM ONE COMMUNITY AT A TIME

REBUILDING SHALOM ONE COMMUNITY AT A TIME

The ground was thick with men as far as the eye could see, men so jam-packed the mall from the Capitol steps to the Washington Monument that it was hard to move. The year was 1997 and we were there for one purpose: to reaffirm our commitment to the seven promises of a Promise Keeper.

Promise six, reads: A Promise Keeper is committed to reach beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity. Fast-forward twenty-one years and our results are mixed. Despite our best intentions, we still self-segregate in schools, in churches, and social settings. On the national scale, Mr. Obama came to power with great promise for racial reconciliation but left a legacy of nursed grudges. Mr. Trump came to power with the support of white nationalists. As Chuck Colson said, the Kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One.

Race relations isn’t the only area where our society is fraying, cultural coherence is also unraveling. Once-strong voluntary associations like the Elks, the Masons, the Lion’s Club, Veterans’ associations, and Rotary find it more difficult every year to recruit and retain members.  Even Promise Keepers, which packed one million men into the mall that day in 1997, has waned. Robert D. Putnam’s best-selling 2000 book, BOWLING ALONE: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, explained that even though more people than ever were bowling, fewer were participating in leagues. This meant they were not nurturing the social networks and civic discourse necessary for a healthy society.

Some argue that social media and soccer moms have filled the gap, but Facebook is not equal to face-time (no, not that Facetime) when it comes to creating healthy community. In fact, I would argue the reverse.

If shalom, the God-blessed flourishing of all people in all communities, is what we want, we must stop bowling alone. And the church should lead the way. Community that builds bridges of understanding, dredges grudged-up swamps, and nurtures the common good (look it up under “love your neighbor as yourself”) is only built by people from different backgrounds and social networks talking face-to-face and working on projects together. You can’t do that on Facebook or gaming with some guy on the other side of the planet.

But you can participate in community building events and associations in your town. And no doubt your church has planned community building events for 2019. I urge you to engage in as many as possible and bring friends. Small groups focus on strengthening the bonds in the body of Christ as well. Commit to one, whether it’s Sunday morning or mid-week.

Rod Dreher, in his sobering work, THE BENEDICT OPTION: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, wrote: “The first Christians gained converts not because their arguments were better than those of the pagans but because people saw in them and their communities something good and beautiful—and they wanted it. This led them to the Truth.”[1]

May God use the beauty of our community to do the same.

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, New York: Sentinel, 2017. P. 118.

ALL ABOUT THE TEAM

ALL ABOUT THE TEAM

When Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley began talking to Billy Graham about writing a book on his leadership secrets the first thing he referred to was “The Team”. Think back on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and it’s always referred to that way. To his dying day, Billy gave credit to God and the team that committed to work with him saying: “It seems to me that the Lord took several inexperienced young men and used them in ways they had never dreamed.”

Myra and Shelley’s book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, chronicles twenty-one leadership principles that emerged from his life and ministry. None is more important than teamwork. Cliff Barrows, Billy’s chief platform partner for over sixty years, said that Billy showed, “he is a friend of the team. He always spoke of the team and team activities as ‘ours,’ not as ‘me and mine.’ ”

Given Billy’s familiarity with Scripture it is no surprise. Jesus sent his men out in pairs. The Apostle Paul never traveled without a team. We see it in the Old Testament as well, especially in Nehemiah.

Nehemiah chapter three is a detailed account of the reconstruction of the wall of Jerusalem and the names of the workers that rebuilt each section. Most likely this account formed part of a report to King Artaxerxes as all such nationally sponsored projects would have required. Many preachers and commentators overlook Nehemiah three. Chuck Swindoll in his book on Nehemiah, “Hand Me Another Brick,” skips it entirely. Others write it off as, “a meaningless list of names and assignments.”

But the truth is Nehemiah’s third chapter is a message on the triumph of teamwork.

The work can be traced on a map of Jerusalem by the naming of the gates in the text. It begins with the Sheep Gate (vs.1) and goes counter clockwise to the Fish Gate (vs. 3), then the Jeshanah Gate (vs. 6), the Valley Gate (vs.13) and so on back to the Sheep Gate.

Nehemiah is giving credit to his “team”. In fact, go down the list of workers and you will find a man named Nehemiah, but it isn’t the governor. He leaves himself out of the list which is unusual for ancient leaders. Instead, each man, each family, each craft or guild or district (goldsmiths, bakers, merchants, guards, temple workers, etc.) had a place on the wall-building team. Everyone had a part to play.

As governor Nehemiah didn’t have to do it that way. He could have taxed the whole territory and paid professionals to build the wall or pressed one group of skilled people into slavery to do it. But he knew the whole community, working with the right motivation under the direction of skilled supervisors, could do it much better and quicker and without the rancor created by doing it the other way.

The old saying is true, leaders can accomplish remarkable things if they don’t care who gets the credit. Are you part of a team yet?

PRAY WITH YOUR BOOTS ON: The National Day of Prayer

PRAY WITH YOUR BOOTS ON: The National Day of Prayer

The ruined city lay bare and defenseless before all enemies. Two miles of massive stone wall battered into tons of rubble, ten gigantic gates gouged out by fire, and perhaps more important than all, a pummeled and demoralized people waited and longed for a leader to turn it all around.

Nehemiah was that man. Against clever, well-connected political foes and threats of violence he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the morale of his people in fifty-two days.

The Book of Nehemiah is the personal memoir of the governor of Judah during the second half of the fifth century BC. It records his success in an impossible task, one that many others before him had failed to accomplish. He began his task with prayer, prayer with his boots on, we might say.  Nehemiah 4:7-9 tells the story:

“When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the repairs of the walls of Jerusalem were going so well—that the breaks in the wall were being fixed—they were absolutely furious. They put their heads together and decided to fight against Jerusalem and create as much trouble as they could. We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.[1]

Not what we normally imagine when we think of prayer, is it? We pray as a last resort, often expecting things to go downhill from there. Nehemiah prayed and posted a guard saying, ““Don’t be afraid of them. Put your minds on the Master, great and awesome, and then fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”[2]

America isn’t in the same sad state as Jerusalem was, but we face difficult problems that could quickly take us there. Massive and ever-growing national debt threatens our economic security, race continues to divide us, the epidemic breakdown of the nuclear family undermines the future, the vanguard of the new sexual orthodoxy threatens anyone who disagrees,[3] the opioid epidemic rages, and political polarization stifles effective government. All of these seem insurmountable, not to mention ISIS, North Korea, nuclear-armed Iran, and increasingly belligerent Russia. We need God’s help more than ever.

As we approach the National Day of Prayer on May 3, we would do well to follow Nehemiah’s example: pray and keep our boots on. I invite you to join me and hundreds of others from our community at Halifax County High School Auditorium at 6:30 PM this Thursday evening. Then go out and keep doing the family strengthening and community building things that will ensure our nation’s future.

[1] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ne 4:7–9). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[2] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ne 4:14). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[3] http://www.breakpoint.org/2018/04/breakpoint-california-to-ban-books/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2018/04/the-point-chick-fil-as-infiltration-of-nyc/

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

Humanity is broken and hurting. Hear some comments from hurting people:

I’m 48 years old and my wife has just filed for divorce. I never planned for this. I never thought I would be alone and have to start all over this late in life. On top of that it may bankrupt me.

I was still in rehab, just recovering from a gran mall seizure brought on by spinal meningitis that could have killed me, when we learned that our daughter, contrary to everything we had taught her, had just “come out” as gay. We read the letter and sat down in front of her old bedroom door and wept broken and bitter tears.

My first husband beat me. The man I’m married to now doesn’t love me. I am fourth or fifth on his priority list. I’m so lonely and unhappy that I’m flying to the other side of the country to find a job and a new life. My life is adrift.

We only want to know one thing when we’re hurting. We aren’t interested in the weather. We don’t care about the stock market. And we sure don’t care about politics. We only want to know how to be healed.

Psalm 147, the second in a set of five that make up the last songs in the book, is a song about healing.

Verse two gives us the context saying, “He gathers the exiles of Israel.” The Psalm was written to help the people of God worship after their return from exile in Babylon. It was good to go home, but still a time of great brokenness and sadness. Their cities and towns had been destroyed, their property given to foreigners. Their spiritual, civic, and economic infrastructure was like Houston after Hurricane Harvey: a shambles.

The psalm shows us that God heals in four ways: “The Lord builds up; The Lord gathers; The Lord heals; The Lord binds up their wounds.” (V. 2-3).

First, he rebuilds what was broken down—the walls in Israel’s case. He gives them the tools and resources and leadership (under Nehemiah) to make their city secure once again, to keep out invaders, to give them stability.

God rebuilds our walls too. Brokenhearted people are often violated people. When we are sexually abused as children; when parents lose children; when we’ve invested years and fortunes in a career and suddenly lose it, our walls are broken down. We feel violated, less secure.

The healer of broken hearts helps us rebuild our walls. He brings together the tools, and the resources, and the leadership we need to make our city secure again, to give us stability in a shaky world.

Second, God gathers what was scattered. In Israel’s case it was the people, scattered about the Babylonian empire. Bit by bit and tribe by tribe, they made the pilgrimage back to the land of promise. God opened doors for them to leave. Cyrus the king issued a decree making money available. Property was returned. Travel was protected.

How does God heal us? He gathers what was scattered. Brokenhearted people are often lonely people, disconnected from healthy relationships with others. God brings us together for strength and encouragement. The New Testament is full of references to this. (See Acts 2:44-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).

God heals us when he gathers us to his people. When we become part of the living body of Christ, the Church, we cease to be scattered. We become connected to others who dispel our loneliness and welcome us into their lives based on our common relationship with Christ.

A challenge: do you isolate yourself? If so you are missing the healing God has for you. You may not like it at first, but it’s what you need, and God has it for you in his Church.

Third, God heals the brokenhearted with the brokenhearted. He heals the addicted with the formerly addicted; the divorced with the previously divorced; the grieving with the grieved, the hope and purpose from those who’ve come through on the other side of brokenness.

But there is a catch to all of this. Or maybe it’s better to say that the path to the healing power of God is counter-intuitive.

We are tempted in our brokenness to turn away from God, even to run. That’s the worst thing we can do. When the storm blows the hardest it is time to lean into him. The Psalmist shows us how.

Embrace humility in the pain. “Sing to him with thanksgiving,” it says (V. 4-7). Praising God when we hurt is a humbling thing, completely counter-intuitive. But that’s where the healing comes from. Lean into that wind. That’s what drives the fear and insecurity away, leaning into him with worship and praise, not running.

Finally, “put your hope in him.” (V. 8-11). Remember what Jesus said to Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus had died? “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” “Look to me Mary, look to me Martha. Put your hope solely in me.” It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

Many voices vie for our attention when we are brokenhearted, many people, many philosophies promise peace and healing. Only God can give us the order we need, the comprehensive understanding that leads to healing. Only God can give us himself.

OUTGROWING POVERTY

My heart went out to the young man on the phone and the woman who had taken him in. He had fallen in love with her at work and needed a place to stay and, well, one thing led to another. He had only been out of prison for a few months, still trying to get back on his feet, and his original housing arrangement hadn’t worked out. Her power was about to be cutoff on this damp, cold night.

I had helped in enough of these situations to know that a few bucks weren’t going to keep the heat on, and it was too late in the day to involve the church or other agencies, so I went to the ATM, pulled out $350, and handed it to her in Wal-Mart so she could get the money order and pay her bill.

That’s what Christians are supposed to do right, help the poor? Then why did I feel robbed when she unceremoniously kicked him out before the next billing cycle? Well, frankly, because I had been. I was a voluntary victim of my own hyperactive empathy, unbiblical anthropology, and upside-down economic theory. The only reason I’m sharing this is so that you won’t think me a cold-hearted capitalist if you keep reading.

Nobody likes poverty. No one enjoys seeing other people suffer with only thin blankets between them and a frigid night. Everyone with a conscience informed by Jesus’s Good Samaritan wants to, and should, help in an emergency. But the only way to help people get out, and stay out, of chronic poverty is to help them outgrow it. That’s a lot harder than pulling a few hundred bucks out of an ATM on a cold November night.

Prevailing models of aid view economic resources as limited. There are the haves and the have-nots, and the only way to help the have-nots is for the haves to hand it over. That’s called wealth redistribution, which is completely different from wealth creation. If we’re going to help people get out and stay out of chronic poverty, we need to believe in the expandable economic pie. World Magazine’s Joel Belz reminds us of this in his tribute to American Catholic philosopher (and lifelong Democrat) Michael Novak, who died last month.[1]

Novak often referenced eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith, saying, “The really unusual insight of Adam Smith is in effect a theological insight—that the world is not a finished system. If it were finished, then the urgent need would be for a distributive system. But God made the world differently, with the potential for constantly creating new wealth.” Finding the causes of poverty is not difficult, but we need to find ways to help the poor create wealth.

The first way to help people outgrow poverty is to help them believe that God has given them the power to create wealth, to provide for themselves. Doing this restores their dignity as creatures made in his image who have power, some ability to determine their own destiny.

Another Novak quote corrects the unbiblical anthropology undermining our attitudes toward the poor as well as our ideas about helping them: “Socialism is a system for saints. Democratic capitalism works because it’s a system for sinners.” If we’re going to help each other, we have to be truthful about human nature–that we are prone to oppression and greed, as well as fraud, and indolence. Socialism is brilliant, if we can count on rich and poor alike to ignore economic incentives, but we cannot.

Pure, unregulated, free-market capitalism will almost always favor the strong over the weak, or uninformed. That’s why we needed, for example, some of the credit agency and loan industry reforms passed by the last administration, the “democratic” in Novak’s capitalism.

But the “sinners” part of the equation covers the poor as well as the rich. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Many single young women now see having babies in order to collect more government assistance as a de facto career path. Marrying the father is out of the question because he would be expected to provide for his own, thus reducing the monthly stipend. The result is that more children are born to more unwed mothers. Perverse economic incentives reap a cycle of increasing dependence as well as the social pathologies that arise from families without fathers.

The biblical view of human nature takes these things into account. That’s why in the Bible, help for the poor recognizes the difference between a crisis and a chronic need. Ongoing, versus emergency assistance, was always predicated on the idea that the receiver performed some kind of work (Deut. 24:17-22).

The bedraggled man at the end of the off-ramp held a crude sign: “I have a wife and child and another on the way. Will work today.” Reliable reporting tells us that these guys often pull in hundreds of untaxed dollars a day. Even so, avoiding his pleading gaze as he made his way along the line of cars was almost more than I could take. Everything in me wanted to pull out a twenty and hand it over. But he kept a respectful distance and I, feeling like an absolute shmuck, kept my wallet in my pocket.

Perhaps the hardest part of helping people outgrow poverty is overcoming our hyperactive empathy. And I don’t believe that God will ever judge us for handing a few bucks to a beggar. But I am utterly convinced that he will ask us one day, “Why did you, in the most prosperous economic system ever developed by man, allow poverty to perpetuate itself, when you knew how to help people outgrow it?”

[1] https://world.wng.org/2017/03/system_for_sinners