To Steal, Perchance to Tithe

Sometimes art imitates life, but sometimes it’s the other way around. Those of you who have already read Lost Mission may remember Tucker Rue, the founder of a storefront mission in a poor Southern California barrio. Tucker is concerned about the American church's tithing problem, and I think he’s got good reason to be worried. A survey by the Barna Group famously determined that only 6 percent of Americans who called themselves “born again Christians” gave 10 percent or more of their income to churches and charities during the recession of 2002. (For more on stingy people who claim to follow Jesus, see Ron Sider’s 1977 classic, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.) I haven’t seen statistics on what the current recession has done to Christian giving, but this is an age old problem, which surely will remain with us until the end of days. In Lost Mission, Tucker Rue decides to resolve it by stealing from rich Christians to give to the poor.

A missionary who steals to help the poor . . . does that shock you?

That was certainly my intention when I wrote the Tucker Rue character. In Flannery O'Conner's classic book on writing Christian fiction, Mystery and Manners, she said a novelist must sometimes use “violent literary means to get his vision across to a hostile audience, and the images and actions he creates may seem distorted and exaggerated.” Following that strategy I invented Tucker Rue as a wild exaggeration, a larger-than-life example of the bad mistake we Christians often make by trying to solve spiritual problems with earthly strategies. But a Christian minister who steals from those who will not tithe . . . even with O’Connor’s advice in mind I wondered if readers would consider it too outrageous.

Now it turns out Tucker Rue may not have been violent enough, or distorted or exaggerated or outrageous enough, because believe it or not, there’s a Christian minister in the real world who is advocating much the same approach. Check it out.

At first I watched that video and marveled that a vicar would seriously suggest shoplifting for the poor, but after giving it some thought I decided there isn’t much difference between that and hoarding God’s blessings for myself. In Matthew 25, Jesus makes it crystal clear that God has blessed me so I can bless the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. Jesus says to the extent that I give to needy people I give to God, and to the extent that I withhold blessings from them, I withhold from God.

In other words, a stingy Christian steals from God.

With countless blessings in my life, as I consider year-end giving during this final week of 2009, that thought really hit home.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:55 AM 7 comments  

Hope During Advent

Feelings of loss and loneliness tend to well up in me at this time of year, which is ironic. For a Christian, next to Easter this should be the most joyous season. But I find my thoughts straying back to Christmas past, and longer dinner tables flanked by laughing loved ones, now absent.

Something a friend said to me today reminded me of a TV show about D-day I once saw. There were interviews with old veterans who had survived that terrible slaughter, interspaced with film clips shot in the midst of battle. One old man described being on the beach, taking shelter from deadly machine gun fire behind a tiny obstruction. Another soldier beside him began to crack up. The old man in the interview said, “I just told him, ‘Think positive, man,’ and we kept going.”

The remarkable courage of that statement has always stayed with me. In the end, it really is that simple. You think positive, and keep going. And in a Christian’s case of course, thinking positive is thinking Jesus. I am so grateful for the hope found in the manger, and in the empty tomb.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

Happy birthday Jesus!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:26 AM 3 comments  

Peace During Advent

During the Advent season I think about the angels’ announcement to the shepherds tending their flocks in Luke 2:13-14 “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” These angels aren’t talking about some cheap, bumper sticker kind of peace. Real peace isn’t about us visualizing anything; it’s a gift from God. In John 14:27 Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Notice Jesus contrasts his gift of peace with a troubled heart and fear. In Philippians 4:6&7 Paul does the same: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, 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.” I’ve learned that peace, not courage, is the opposite of fear. Brave people can act in spite of fear, but our hearts cannot contain both fear and peace.

One day last spring, when I went to the bathroom my urine was bright red with blood. The doctor said it could be cancer of the kidneys, liver, or prostate, or else a fourth undetermined cause. So the odds were three-to-one that it was cancer. He also said usually by the time one has bloody urine it’s pretty far along so my chances would not be good. Then he said we wouldn’t know until he some tests were done, so in the meantime I shouldn’t worry.

Being of little faith, I ignored his advice. I was afraid. Since God obviously knew that already, I thought I might as well admit it. So as Paul said, by prayer and petition I asked God to help me past my fear so I could desire His will with thanksgiving, even if it meant a painful death in my near future. And being afraid, I prayed the prayer in Mark 9:24 where a desperate man cries out to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

I had to wait two weeks for the test results, two weeks knowing it was likely I had advanced cancer. But what a wonderful two weeks that was! I learned the Lord will always answer a prayer for faith with “Yes!” even in the valley of the shadow of death. He answered by filling my mind with an eagerness for heaven I had never felt before. I watched the sun set over the Pacific, and as beautiful as that sunset was, instead of worrying about cancer I couldn’t stop thinking that sunsets would be a million times more beautiful in heaven. And I can honestly say when the doctor told me it wasn’t cancer, my relief was bittersweet, because as Isaiah says in 57:1&2: “...the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.” And as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:55&57: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? ...thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Rarely, but sometimes, things are so bad we can’t find the words to pray. I had such a day, many years ago. After fighting leukemia for months it was my father’s time to go. He was like a baby, lying naked on his bed, unable to talk, unable to control his bowels, bald from chemotherapy, going home in much the same way we come into life. It broke my heart to see my mother wiping his bottom, this man who had always been so strong. As I helped her by bringing in clean towels and carrying soiled towels out, I wasn’t praying. I was beyond all words. I was just too deep in grief, totally numb.

Then, as I crossed my parent’s bedroom with a filthy towel in my hand, all of a sudden the heavens opened up and God’s holy presence came shining down on me. I don’t care if this sounds like a cliché or not: it was like standing in a beam of light. God’s warming love flowed over me and all my grief and pain was simply washed away. Just for a moment there was no room for anything but glorious peace from head to toe. And I want to make this clear: in His infinite mercy, God’s peace came without any prayer on my part. In Romans 8:26 Paul makes a promise that was certainly true for me. He says, “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Although God's gift of total peace lasted only a few seconds, and then my grief returned as was only right and proper, after all these years that moment remains a rock solid promise. Even when I’m so overwhelmed I can’t find the words to beg for help, I’ve learned my loving Father will be here with me.

Another thing I’ve learned is this: Peace cannot be possessed. Imagine if you were so greedy for air that you took in breaths but refused to exhale. You’d end up gasping for the very thing you tried to hoard up for yourself. In Isaiah God speaks of “peace like a river,” and I think He chose that simile because peace cannot be stagnant; it must always flow. God expects you and me to be the riverbed through which His peace flows into the world.

Jesus tells us how to do this in his Sermon on the Mount. Turn the other cheek, he commands. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” That noun, peacemakers, includes an action verb. It means we who follow Jesus have a job to do. We are to obey Jesus, to make peace, to be His hands and feet to a fearful world. Our own peace is impossible if it doesn’t flow on through us to help fulfill the angel’s Advent promise of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

This doesn’t mean obedience to Jesus’ commands causes God to give us peace. It’s completely wrong to think any action on our part imposes some kind of reaction on God’s part. The Lord is the cause and we’re the effect, and it’s never, ever the other way around. It’s impossible to obtain the peace of Christ by trying to be good. Peace cannot be earned. Our obedience has no effect on God (except of course to please Him). God requires obedience for our sake, to turn our thoughts away from ourselves, away from our pain, our troubles, our fear, so we can be capable of accepting His gift of peace that transcends understanding.

As we cannot possess peace, so God’s peace must possess us. We must surrender ourselves to peace as we surrender ourselves to Christ. To the extent that we trust Him, we will receive peace, by grace, through faith and not through our good works.

I was reminded of that recently. As many of you know, I am a novelist. Last September, my eighth book was published. It was a disaster. Due to illness on the part of a key person, and a badly managed corporate restructuring, the publisher forgot to promote the novel. Normally they would send advance copies to several hundred influencers—newspapers, magazines, bloggers and so forth—but for the first time in my career, not one advance copy was mailed. Unbelievable as it sounds, they simply forgot. Bookstores stock novels based largely on the advance buzz in the press. Since there was no buzz, the stores bought only about a third of the usual number of copies. So, unless God wills otherwise, this novel is dead on arrival.

It means I’ve lost over a year’s worth of hard work. That’s how long it takes me to write a novel. And it’s not something I do in my spare time; it’s my full time job. So you can imagine how devastating this was. Since I’m far from perfect, I was furious at first, and then I was depressed. I lost a lot of sleep, and I felt like a failure. There was certainly no peace in my heart.

Then one night my pastor asked some men to pray for me, and in his own prayer the pastor spoke about the Lord’s book. Not my book. The Lord’s book. It was such a simple concept, it had escaped me, but that prayer reminded me that what I write is not my own. I write to serve my Savior. I write to spread His peace on earth, His goodwill to men. And so long as I surrender my life to God, no matter what the world may do there can be no such thing as failure. It’s really just that simple, because as it says in 1 John 5:3&4: “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world....”

Here’s another delicious quote, from Psalm 85:10: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” As a writer, I think those words are particularly beautiful. Righteousness and peace kiss each other. As a follower of Jesus, I know the Psalmist speaks here about God’s righteousness, not mine. I can no more possess peace than I breathe without exhaling. To be at peace, I must surrender to it, be possessed by it, and pass it on. So I’m not dwelling in grief or anger about my last book anymore. On the contrary, I’m hard at work on another novel for the Lord, about a troubled man who finds peace in the end.

When you’re troubled and need to find peace, admit your fear and ask the Lord to help your unbelief. But if you are too overwhelmed to even think to ask, never fear; even then the miracle of peace is given to those who love the Lord. Just don’t try to possess God’s peace. Be possessed by it instead. Resist the temptation to turn it inward. Look for someone you can share it with, and the gift of peace that transcends understanding will surely flow through you like a river, no matter what your circumstances.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:45 PM 11 comments