Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dividing to Multiply

Our church recently finished a series of messages entitled, "Multiply," which focused on God's call to his followers to present themselves and all that they have as an offering and to allow God to multiply it for His Kingdom. Whether it is the command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth or Jesus' example of taking two fish and five loaves and multiplying them to feed five thousand men, plus women and children, we see evidence throughout the Bible that God is able to take our meager offerings and multiply them to achieve more than we can even imagine. This lesson was applied not only to our finances and giving, but also to our service, our prayers, our very lives.

I was reminded of my father's mother who was a fantastic gardener. Her flowers filled the yard this time of year with fragrant blooms and I recall that she would often do something she called "culling" them. In essence, when the irises became too prolific, she would dig up about half to two-thirds of them and give them to us or to other friends and family. Although I have an absolutely black thumb when it comes to gardening, I could toss a few of the bulbs from her irises in the ground and brush some dirt over them and they would spread and multiply to cover the bed.

Sometimes God does the same thing with his people. Acts 15:36-41 tells us of a time when God used this same principle of dividing in order to multiply: "36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches."

We often get caught up when examining this story with the notion of who was right and who was wrong. Was Paul being unforgiving and judgmental of John Mark's previous decision to "desert them"? Or is Barnabas being foolish in trusting someone who proved untrustworthy in the past? 

Instead, let's consider God's sovereignty in this situation. God allowed them to have different viewpoints in order to send not one group of missionaries out, but two! Later we read about how Paul and Mark have apparently been reconciled as Paul asks in 2 Timothy 4:11 that John Mark be brought to him as he is helpful to Paul's ministry.

Serving in ministry is often a transient role. God places us in a church for a season and often moves us between several different churches over the course of ministry. These transitions are hard and often painful, sometimes even, as with Paul and John Mark, they may be the result of sharp disagreements, disappointment in other believers, or different visions for the ministry. 

But we should never lose sight of the fact that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a single purpose - the Kingdom of God and His Glory. As painful as it is, sometimes that singular purpose requires that He divide us in order to multiply His word and His work. His word admonishes us that "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 12:18) Like plants grown too densely, God may need to separate us in order to allow for continued growth and development.

When circumstances divide brother and sisters in Christ, recognize the hand of God at work - not in choosing a "winner" and a "loser" or "right" and "wrong" - but rather transplanting some to other soil so that His Kingdom would flourish through the multiplied efforts of both.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why Not Play the Lottery?

Maybe the more important question is why play the lottery? The answer seems to be obvious: to win. Why do you want to win? To get money, to pay off debt, to do things I want to do or have things I want to have or go places I want to go. In essence, to HAVE what I do not HAVE.

And there is the rub.

When we approach life through the lens of faith in Christ, we claim the scripture that says, “All good and perfect gifts come from above, coming down from the Father of Lights with whom there is no shadow of turning.” We embrace the Bible as the Word of God – including the part that says, “Do not covet your neighbors….” Whatever. And the crux of our reason for playing the lottery is just that: We covet that which we do not have.

It’s very tempting to think of all the good we could do – we could give away 90% and live richly on only a small portion of the winnings. But let’s be real, at least with ourselves. We want to play because we want more stuff.

It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter heaven. Regardless of what urban legend you embrace that explains this proverb, the meaning is clear: Having great wealth makes it more difficult to follow God, not easier.

The news just reported that Americans are buying lottery tickets at a rate of $13,000 per second. Shortly before that they reported that, at least in North Carolina, the counties with the highest participation in the lottery are also among the ones with the highest numbers of citizens living below the poverty line. Coincidence?

According to Journalists Resource ( ), the people most likely to play the lottery are those with the most to gain and the least resources to invest. Sadly, they are also likely to lack the education to understand the odds of them winning make this a very poor investment indeed. In fact, they are more likely to be struck by lightning or eaten by a shark than to win $1.5 Billion.

So if the poorest people are the most likely to play and their odds of winning are so low, why have a lottery? Isn't it taking advantage of their lack of strong math skills? The answer is simple: While those who play are unlikely to win big, there are plenty of people who are winning big. The administrators, officials, advertisers, even the retail outlets that sell them. But what about schools? Aren’t they winning big? Not as much as you think. In reality, even according to lottery officials, the amount given to education is a drop in the bucket of the total education budget.

The lottery is a tool for wealth redistribution – in reverse. It takes money from those least likely to have it to spare, and gives it to others. It’s a tax on those who are bad at math. A system that takes advantage of desperate people longing for the hope they attach to financial wealth, who don’t realize they are being exploited, by those who profit from their desperation.

As a Christian, we are called to look after the widow and orphan – to help the least of these. Not to take advantage and profit off of them. By buying a ticket, I would be contributing to the jackpot…and increasing the temptation for the least of these to gamble their last $2 on the vain hope that this time they will be the big winner. If I won, the vast majority of the dollars I received would come from people struggling financially far more than I do. Just because they gave up those dollars willingly, is this really different than me taking whatever cash I can get from the homeless man on the corner? Is this different than those who send an elderly person an email claiming to be an African prince who will send them millions if they only provide the account information to deposit it into? Just because it has the government backing it, retailers selling it, advertisers hawking it – it doesn’t mean that it is right.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so much like “playing,” does it?