Saturday, December 24, 2011

Feliz Navidad

Christmas 2011 - my first one as a married woman. Certainly this holiday is special as my husband and I celebrate together, blending the favorite aspects of our respective families' traditions with new ones that are uniquely ours. Recently we were sharing our favorite Christmas music and why our chosen songs were meaningful to us; after reflecting on this conversation, I would like to share a piece of our hearts and our stories with you, even as we share it with each other for the first time. 

Collins has a particular affinity for O Holy Night. For him the song triggers fond childhood memories of going to church on Christmas Eve and listening to a close family friend, his 'Aunt Judy,' belting this song out in her amazing soprano voice during the annual candle light service. As he grew older, however, he began to pay attention to the lyrics and one particular verse came to hold significance for him. He explained to me that the words point to the promise that is fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ - nine brief lines sum up the gospel. Here are those words:

from 'O Holy Night'    

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

The song that speaks to my heart most powerfully is O Little Town of Bethlehem. Though I knew it from years of childhood church services, the first time I remember taking notice of it was back in the late 80's when Amy Grant released a jazzy rendition on her holiday album. It was a favorite of mine and my college friends because it was so catchy. I didn't consciously ponder the lyrics at that time, but I'm certain God used them to penetrate my heart unknowingly. It is no coincidence that, years later, after I had given my life to Christ, my church's tradition was to sing one verse of the song each week of Advent, culminating in singing the entire carol at the midnight candle light service on Christmas Eve. During those years the words took on new meaning - one verse in particular - because it speaks to the way I came into relationship with Jesus - quietly, silently, very unassumingly: 

from 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

As I have observed Advent with my Peruvian brothers and sisters this year, my heart has been filled to overflowing each Sunday as we sang Noche de Paz, the Spanish version of Silent Night. Throughout the past three years, I have heard many familiar tunes played and sung, but the words are always at least slightly different. Some of them are as close to a literal translation as possible, while other lyrics must be altered significantly to convey a meaning that can be understood by Spanish speakers. For me, the words always seem so much more powerful in Spanish - I attribute that to the fact that I am in love with the language, and, as a result, I hear the words with fresh ears because they are not in my native tongue. I am struck most by the simplicity of the words that are so heavily charged with implication for all of humanity:

from 'Noche de Paz' (Silent Night)

Noche de paz, noche de amor,
(Night of peace, night of love,)
Todo duerme en derredor;
(All around everyone sleeps;)
Sobre el santo niño Jesús
(Over the holy baby Jesus)
Una estrella esparce su luz,
(One star disperses its light)
Brilla sobre el Rey
(Shining over the King)
Brilla sobre el Rey.
(Shining over the King.)

And so I share a little piece of us (myself, Collins, and my Peruvian family) with you. As I read over this I am aware of how unbelievably blessed I am: first in the fact that God would choose to put on human skin and become part of finite time and space so that we may have opportunity to join Him in eternity, second that He has allowed me to marry a man who finds His life's meaning in the same place I find my own, and third that I am privileged to be welcomed into a culture that is not my own as though I were one of their own. This, my friends, is a true gift of Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Financial Security

No other time of the year brings my financial insecurities and issues to the foreground like Christmas does. I'll spare you the soapbox lecture on gross consumerism, abhorrent materialism, and outright greed - all of which turn me to a most brilliant shade of florescent lime green and color me 'GRINCH.' After literally spending years getting out from under a mountain of debt, I am sensitive to even the slightest bit of economic pressure. My most recent money woes began with getting married earlier this year so that there are now two people to be considered in all matters financial instead of just one (not to mention two families to buy Christmas and birthday presents for). Then they branch out to a constantly declining foreign currency exchange rate (which means the dollar is steadily losing its value against the Peruvian Nuevo Sol and effectively destroying my budget), to a loss of donors (not a good thing when 100% of your salary is based on fundraising), to rising insurance premiums (the likes of which take a bigger bite out of my budget than any other single line item), to a basically non-existent retirement account (kissed that good-bye when I left teaching). Add it all up and it amounts to absolute panic.

I have been in 'freak-out' mode for a while now. Being the chronic worrier that I am, I seldom rest in the promise of 'manna.' Thankfully my husband remains grounded and frequently talks me down off the ledge when chaos rules my brain. He reminds me of the fact that, thanks to God's supernatural provision almost twelve years ago, I became debt-free in just six years rather than the ten years my financial advisor projected. He points out, again, the evidence of God's faithfulness in my pre-mission field fundraising, making it possible for me to move to Peru a year sooner than I originally planned. And he readjusts my point of view so that there, in plain sight, are the countless little ways God meets our every need - things like that unexpected check in the mail from someone who is not a regular donor, or the women's Bible study group whose shopping spree stocks me with a year's worth of shampoo, toothpaste, dryer sheets, and blueberry muffin mix, and the list goes on. Then I feel ashamed. Why are things like this impossible to forget when times are good, but so hard to remember when things seem bleak?

God obviously knows that I've been engaged in a spiritual struggle over finances lately. Not willing to pass up an opportunity to humble me and screw my head back on straight, He orchestrated a string of 'coincidences' that have taken my eyes off of myself and lifted my gaze up and away once again. The first proverbial smack in the face was the Holy Spirit leading me into a study of the book of James:

1:27 - Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

2:5 - Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith…?

2:15-16 - Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 

4:1-3 - What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

4:13-14 - Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while then vanishes.

5:1,3 - Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you…You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

5:16 - Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

WOW! The Lord skipped right over my superficial issues and went straight to the state of my soul. As a result, Collins and I have had some pretty heavy conversations about our (well, mainly MY) attitude about money and feeling the need to hoard every penny, afraid of what unexpected expenses the future might bring, when we're already living on salaries so small that were we each living alone Collins would just be getting by and I would have already been evicted. We determined that we are holding on too tight and decided that the proper course of action is to pry our fingers off of some money and give sacrificially, trusting God to meet our needs as we meet the needs of others. This is a leap of faith, folks, but we're stepping out on that limb nonetheless - and I'm a little scared. Scratch that…I'm terrified!

But God didn't stop there. Over the course of the past week I had the pleasure of spending time with some Peruvian pastor friends. We covered a variety of topics throughout our lengthy discussions, but no matter what theme we strayed to, our conversation always seemed to come back to money. It started with a discussion centered around a pastor who was angry that his gringo friends, who visit his church several times a year, were not giving him money. His perception is that they are white and North American, therefore they are wealthy (relatively speaking he is correct!). He attempted to manipulate them (the gringos) by refusing to open the church and hold services for several weeks, then threatened to abandon the church altogether. A member of his congregation dared to approach the pastor and point out the error in his thinking. This man told his minister that their duty as Christians is to look to God, not man, for provision. Now there's an idea - trust God - look to Him to meet my needs. Hmmm...

Yet another pastor, with whom I was whiling away the morning, spoke of church members who not only refuse to tithe, but will not give any amount of money to the church. Regular home visits with his congregants yields the same story; family after family informs him that if they put change in the offering plate, then they will go hungry at least that day, possibly longer. His response? He quoted Malachi 3:10 and challenged them to put God to the test . He told them that they don't know how to give and, as a result, they don't receive; if they want to be blessed, they must first be a blessing. Ok, now God really had my attention. For the people in these jungle villages, any giving is sacrificial, so who am I to refuse to dig deeper into my pockets and give until it hurts?

And just yesterday I was reading The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn't Exist by Craig Groeschel. The chapter entitled When You Believe in God but Trust More in Money drove home the lessons God has been teaching me in recent weeks. I invite you to ponder the following statements with me:

"Instead of comparing ourselves with our neighbors, we need to compare ourselves with the rest of the world. More than half of the people on earth live on less than two dollars a day in conditions of incredible squalor and hardship. The reality is that most of us in North America are filthy rich."

"I always told myself, one day when we have a certain amount saved, then I'll feel secure. Yet each time I crossed that imaginary line of security, my line moved. What before seemed like more than enough suddenly didn't feel like close to enough. After serious prayer and reflection, I realized what I was doing. I was placing my trust in money instead of in God."

"Americans are not known for being sacrificially generous. In fact, 21 percent of consistent American church members don't give anything to their church - not a single cent. Seventy-one percent of Christians give less than 2 percent of their income. Yet the Bible is clear that Christians are called to give generously, lest they start trusting money until it becomes their god."

"Hearing that you should give a full 10 percent often induces involuntary seizures. 'What!?' people exclaim, dumbfounded. 'To give 10 percent would mean I'd have to totally rearrange my life!' Exactly! You get to rearrange your life around God!"

"The Christian Atheist justifies himself: 'Sure, I'll give…as long as it doesn't lower my standard of living.'"

And the crowning statement - the one that addresses the primary issue that drives me into 'Grinchdom' every year as the news reports millions of dollars of sales and people buy thousands of gifts for those who already have everything they could ever need or want anyway, and as I feel the financial pressure to buy those same types of gifts, spending money that, for me, is not disposable and would be better spent on things of eternal significance - is this:

"At Christmas this year…we sat down with our kids and proposed a much different plan than their usual wish lists for the latest and best toys, games, and clothes. We asked the kids if they would consider not giving or receiving presents this year. Instead, we would give what we'd normally spend to support an orphanage…After hearing about the children who have nothing, my six - who have almost everything - happily voted unanimously in favor of this decision. It was probably the best Christmas we've ever had."

It's a lot to chew on, I know. But it seems to me the choice is very simple, albeit difficult: trust God or not.

Recommended Reading

  • The Bible
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Doing Short Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence - David A. Livermore
  • Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility - Duane Elmer
  • Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) - Robert D. Lupton
  • When Helping Hurts-Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Shadow of the Almighty - Elizabeth Elliot
  • Messy Spirituality - Michael Yaconelli
  • The Irresistible Revolution - Shane Claiborne
  • Peace Child - Don Richardson
  • If God Should Choose - Kristen Stagg
  • In the Presence of My Enemies - Gracia Burnham
  • Inside Afghanistan - John Weaver
  • Same Kind of Different as Me - Ron Hall and Denver Moore
  • Through Gates of Splendor - Elizabeth Elliot
  • End of the Spear - Steve Saint