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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Faithful Financial Freedom Part Four: Giving Thanks

Today is the last message in a four-part series of messages on Faithful Financial Freedom. At the root of this series is this question: “How do you live on the upside when the economy is on the downside?” We have realized that most people are responding to what’s happening in the economy out of the twin emotions of fear and worry. But as Christians, there’s a better way to respond. Fear and worry are not God’s plan for our lives. There is something better.

Hopefully you have learned a lot, and the learning continues today, so go ahead and take the sermon notes out of your bulletin. Most of us learn best when we take notes, so write down anything of interest we discuss.

Disclaimer here – yes, this is the money sermon. Today’s the day I will talk about your giving for the coming year. So, if you’re visiting with us, I apologize. You’ll probably learn a lot by listening in, but if you’re visiting, please don’t think we’re after your money or are going to hound you to make some sort of a commitment. Or, if you’re here and you just needed a word of hope and encouragement and I’m up here talking about money, you might be thinking, “That’s the last thing I needed to hear today,” let me tell you how this sermon is for you. This church exists to be the hands and feet of Christ right here in this corner of the world. We are here to love and value all people unconditionally with the love of God, and to help everyone in their journey of growing closer toward God. And so, we’re talking about money today because I want to be sure that this church continues to be here for each of you, and for people who will come after you.

The first week’s message was “God’s Perspective.” Then we focused on “Rebalancing Life Investments.” We realized that right priorities + right actions = right results. Last week we talked about the importance of starting today; because the seeds we plant today will determine the harvest we reap tomorrow. Today, we focus on what it means to give thanks, and how when we do, we are actually making an investment in God’s future harvest. May we pray.

When I think of a harvest, I inevitably think of Thanksgiving. 42.2 million people will travel 50 miles or more this week to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with people who are important to them. Ashley and I are driving to the northwest part of Pennsylvania to spend the holiday with my mom’s family. Across the country, 690 million pounds of turkey will be consumed, we will indulge in 1.9 billion pounds of sweet potatoes and 50 million pumpkin pies.

You know the story of the first American Thanksgiving. In 1621, Pilgrim settlers engaged in a religious celebration that proclaimed their faith in God’s providence. They had lost over half their population in a year’s time, and they were sure to lose many more as they faced a winter of severe famine. Yet, they chose to pause and give thanks to God. Friends, our times are also uncertain, but one of the most important things we can do is give thanks as an act of faith. Let’s look at three important ways we can invest all that God has given us into God’s future harvest.

Live and give thankfully

First, we must live and give thankfully, even in the midst of difficult, trying, and stressful circumstances. To unpack what this means, let’s go to the book of James, Chapter 1, verses 1-3: From James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ; to the twelve tribes scattered across the nations: Greetings, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

James writes to Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the known world. They were dealing with two incredible hardships. First, they had left their homes – they had left behind their job, their possessions, their friends and family, their support network, everything – they had left all that behind and only had whatever they could carry on their backs. They were homeless and hopeless. Their second hardship was persecution.

In light of these two hardships, James writes, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3). Trials can actually be opportunities that test our faith, and testing our faith produces endurance.

Now, trials aren’t orchestrated by God. They simply happen because that’s the way life is, but when they do, they provide an opportunity to grow. Now, maybe that opportunity is a difficult one, but have you ever noticed that so many things worth doing only come on the opposite side of struggle? Resurrection is a great thing, but do you know what you have to go through if you really want to experience a resurrection? You have to die.

James says that we should be thankful in all things, because even what seems like a great ordeal may provide us the opportunity to grow. Growth is a good thing, and we should be thankful for it. Granted, it takes a lot of discipline to do. It’s an attitude shift to approach everything in life, even the things that are difficult, with thankfulness. Ever complain about your job? Who hasn’t, right? We complain about our job, our working conditions, our boss, our co-workers, our salary, our hours – who doesn’t love to complain about their job?

Well, you might think differently if you lived in Jamaica. Did you know there are two Jamaicas? One is resort Jamaica – this is the one most of us will see if we go for a visit. It’s a land of bright colors, great food, pristine beaches, luxurious hotels, strong drinks with little umbrellas in them served by courteous waiters in white shorts. But then there’s also real Jamaica – where the unemployment rate is 70%.

Friends, you and I are blessed. If you have a job and have the ability work, you are blessed. If you have a roof over your head and food to eat, you are wealthier than 2/3 of the world. Comparatively speaking, we are wealthy people. But we often compare ourselves to those who have more, and this fuels the appetite to spend and get ourselves in debt. We’re unhappy with what we have because we see those who have more, and we want what they have. But can I tell you something? Just having more stuff in our lives doesn’t make us happy. Contentment makes us happy, and contentment is key to living and giving thankfully, and living and giving thankfully is just one way we invest in God’s future harvest.

Live and give faithfully

In addition to living and giving thankfully, we must live and give faithfully. The last couple years have been hard on businesses, on the government, on organizations, and on individuals. The story found in Jeremiah 32 can help us to see the necessity of faithfulness during our most difficult times.

It was 588 BC, and Jerusalem is surrounded by the armies of Babylon. The king arrested the prophet Jeremiah because he was irritated with him. What was so irritating? Jeremiah had been prophesying against his own people, telling them they were the problem, not the outside armies. They were their own worst enemy. Why? They had turned their backs on God and were serving idols made with human hands.

What has happened in our economy is more than an economic correction; it is also a spiritual correction because we, too, have served idols of our own hands, and in so doing, turned our backs on the living God. Despite our advances, the truth is that we are not much different than the people of Jeremiah’s day.

Then, the people were about to be taken away into slavery by the Babylonians, and everything they possess, including the land itself, will soon belong to Babylon. It will be 50 years before the first wave of people come back, Jeremiah will never come back, and he has only two weeks before he is to leave. That’s when the story gets crazy. God tells Jeremiah to do something that sounds insane: take the money in his hand and buy a piece of land. Faith doesn’t always make sense. This is why we must live and give faithfully, not according to what makes sense.

Jeremiah told God that God was obviously crazy. Why should he buy real estate when the title to the land will be worthless in two weeks? But here’s what God was doing: God was telling Jeremiah to take the money in his hand and invest it in the place where God would produce a future harvest.

Sometimes, I think the greatest mistake the church makes is when we live sensibly and not faithfully. We make decisions based on what makes sense rather than what demonstrates faith. We clutch so tightly to what we have that we fail to plant it as seed in the ground, and we miss out on the blessings of the harvest God would have brought from that seed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the tighter we hang onto what we have, the less we have to hang onto. The looser we hold what we have, and the greater our willingness to plant it where God directs, the more we seem to have as a great harvest of blessing results.

That’s the paradox of faith. God tells us to take what’s in our hand and use it as seed in the ground today for God’s harvest tomorrow. To the spiritually immature, this makes no sense and seems irrational. Sometimes God’s directives don’t make sense to us, but we are called to live by faith and not by sight. Living by faith requires us to take a leap beyond our own abilities, beyond our own ingenuity, beyond the limits of what we can do on our own. Living by faith requires us to trust God and believe nothing is impossible with God. When we live and give this way, we experience the blessings of God’s future harvest. God has given you or put within your reach all the resources you need. And if you’re faithful and obedient with what God has given you, God will multiply it for God’s purpose.

Live and give sacrificially

Finally, we must live and give sacrificially. Listen up. Many Christians have forgotten who we are. Many Christians seem to have amnesia. Well, it’s time to wake up and remember who we are. We are the living, breathing, body of Christ. We are the only hands and feet that God has to do God’s work in the world. You and I are God’s economic delivery system. We are God’s bank account.

Have you ever heard a pastor say, “God doesn’t need your money. God can do it without your money.” That’s not true. In reality, the church as an organization doesn’t need your money. However, the church as the living, breathing body of Christ does need your money. God not only needs your money; God needs your hands and feet, too. God needs your time. In fact, God needs all of you. If God’s will is going to happen in the world, God needs all you have to give.

We give God everything as a way of recognizing that it was God who gave us everything we have in the first place. Let me tell you about the parable of the french fries, with credit to Dr. Jody Seymour, who is the senior pastor at Davidson United Methodist Church. There once was a father who had a son. More than anything, the son’s favorite food were McDonald’s french fries. The father loved his son deeply, and one afternoon he picked him up from school and surprised him by stopping at McDonald’s on the way home for some french fries. They went back to the table and the son began to devour the hot, golden fries dusted with just the right amount of salt. The father reached across the table to grab a few fries out of the box when his son grabbed the fries, pulled them away, and said, “Back off, old man.” The father pleaded, “But son, I bought you those fries; I gave them to you.” “Well,” replied the son, “they’re mine now.”

This is the difference between stewardship and ownership. A culture of ownership is driven by one word: “mine.” But as Christians, we need to embrace a culture of stewardship – recognizing that everything we have is a gift from God, and we are called to be good stewards of the resources God has given us. Each of us needs to take stock of where we find ourselves. Are our attitudes and actions consistent with those of an owner or a steward? For the people of God, there is really one possible answer.

God loves us and so God gives – God blesses us with grace long before we have done anything for God, and God does this simply because God is love. And those who love God give back to God because that’s just the way love works. We give freely and abundantly and sacrificially when we love; God gives that way to us because God loves us. Those who truly love God give the same way back to God – freely, abundantly, sacrificially, joyfully.

When we live and give sacrificially to God’s kingdom work, we are helping to bring people to new life in Jesus Christ, and that should be the basis of what we’re about as followers of Christ. Transformation in the lives of others should be the foundation of everything we do. If it’s not what we’re about, we may as well not even bother. If that doesn’t drive everything we do as a church, there is no point in any of the rest of it.

Friends, we are called to make an investment in God’s future harvest. We are the body of Christ, the only hands and feet Jesus has in the world to accomplish his purpose, and we are called to sacrificial living and giving. Jesus asks us to give everything—our very lives. He said we must lose our lives in order to find them. He told us that if we want to follow him, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily. Despite the risk, a true follower of Jesus continues to live and risk outside his or her comfort zone.

Think of the person in the world whom you love the most. When you give love to them, do you run out? Do you end up with a negative balance in your love account? There’s only so much love to go around, right, and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, right? Of course not. Love is one of those things that the more you give, the more you seem to have.

Because our giving to God is based in love, it works the same way. Jesus himself said our lives are like a seed. If all we do is hold onto that seed and use it for ourselves, it remains nothing more than a wasted seed that rots. But if we’re willing to give it up and risk it to the ground of God’s future harvest, it will yield a return for the kingdom of God that is thirty, sixty, or even one hundred times greater. This is why it is so important for every follower of Jesus Christ to live and give sacrificially. The salvation of others depends on every one of us choosing to live and give sacrificially—giving not only our money but our very lives, planting our seeds in God’s ground so God’s kingdom purposes may be accomplished, so that others may know the eternal life which begins today and continues forever.

This morning, everyone is invited to make an investment in God’s future harvest. We have all been blessed with so much in our lives, and everything we have is a gift and a blessing from God. And so, God is asking you to be God’s partner in bringing about God’s purposes in the world through this church.

This week, you should have received a letter with a giving guide and an estimate of giving card for your giving in 2011. In a few moments, we’ll enter into a time of prayer for you to consider and write down your commitment on the card. If you forgot to bring yours from home, there are extras in the back of the pew in front of you.

You’ll get to turn in that card as an act of thanks to God for all the ways you have been blessed. That card is confidential and will only be seen by our financial secretary. The card is simply an estimate. You can change your commitment at any time as your financial situation changes. You will never receive a “bill” asking you to pay your commitment, though you will receive periodic statements of our financial secretary’s record of your giving for your own information.

The goal in giving is 10% of our income. And I realize that may be a stretch for you. Perhaps you’re new in your faith, or you’re already giving at a level you feel you can manage, and you look at the goal of 10% of your income and you think, “There’s no way.” And I want to be clear here: your acceptance at St. Paul United Methodist Church is not tied to your ability to give. Everyone is valued regardless of their ability to give.

But I’m also aware that as we grow in our faith, we grow in our capacity for giving. If you are not yet giving 10% of your income to God’s work, I want to challenge you to take a step in the direction of tithing. Try increasing your commitment for next year by one percentage point. Keep doing this year by year until you hit the goal. That’s how most people begin to tithe – growing in their Christian living, they also grow in their Christian giving until they reach 10%.

I would especially encourage you to consider online banking. I personally do this, and it’s great. I use the online bill pay feature, and I have set it up on a schedule whereby every week, my tithe is deducted from my checking account and the bank automatically mails the check to the church. I never have to remember my checkbook, and I feel good knowing that whether I am in town or not, the church still receives my tithe.

So, we will have a time of prayer and discernment, and I want you to write down on the card what you honestly believe God wants to give through you in the coming year. First, think about all the ways you have been blessed. And then, think about how you want to express your thanks to God for all the blessings in your life, knowing that you are planting seeds that God will cause to grow a great harvest of blessing in your life and in the lives of others. After you have filled out your card, I invite you to come forward and place your card in the basket. When you fill out your card and bring it forward, I only want you to do it as an act of love and gratitude toward God. If you’re filling it out just to look good or keep up appearances, don’t bother filling it out.

Everyone who fills out a commitment card is welcome to take a St. Paul sticker as our small gift to you. You can put it on your car or in your office or somewhere else to let everyone know that you are part of a great church. Even if you turn in a card with a limited commitment or with an amount of zero, please take the sticker; it’s our way of saying “Thanks” for a commitment of any kind.

God is preparing to gather a harvest, and the seeds we plant today will determine the size of that harvest. When we give generously, the unmistakable blessings of God flow into our lives.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Faithful Financial Freedom Part Three: Start Today

Today is the third in a four-part series of messages on Faithful Financial Freedom. At the root of this series is this question: “How do you live on the upside when the economy is on the downside?” We have realized that most people are responding to what’s happening in the economy out of the twin emotions of fear and worry. But as Christians, there’s a better way to respond. Fear and worry are not God’s plan for our lives. There is something better.

You are going to learn a lot in this series, so go ahead and take the sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil. Most of us learn best when we take notes, so write down anything of interest we discuss.

The first week’s message was “God’s Perspective.” Building sound financial health first requires us to seek God’s perspective. Last week’s message was “Rebalancing Life Investments.” We were reminded of the formula for doing this, realizing that right priorities + right actions = right results. This requires us to submit to God and do in our lives what God would want us to do.

Once we are ready to commit ourselves to right action, the next step is putting together a plan for how we’re going to practice those actions. And the best day to start is today. May we pray.

Every time I visit the dentist, we have a very similar conversation. First he says, “You drink a lot of coffee, don’t you?” “Yes, I do.” Then he says, “You don’t brush after every meal, do you?” “No, I don’t.” Then he says, “How often do you floss?” Not completely forthcoming, I say, “Probably not as often as I should.” Then I get the lecture about how I need to cut back on my consumption of coffee and other staining beverages, how I need to brush after every meal, and that I need to floss more. I say thank you, get in the car, and stop by Caribou Coffee on the way back to the office.

Now here’s the thing; I already have the right information! But just having the right information doesn’t necessarily lead to the right action. I have to actually start practicing those habits, not just know what they are. Today we are reaping the harvest of seeds we planted yesterday. Think about that for a moment. What does that mean for you personally? The seeds you plant today will determine the harvest you reap tomorrow. Think about that, too.

You choose your spouse or partner. You made a decision in the past, and today you are reaping the blessings or perhaps the curses that have come from that choice. When I got serious about following Jesus, I made a commitment that I would give God the first 10 percent of everything that came into my hands. Even when I was in college and graduate school. God blessed that – a harvest was brought about in my life because of the seeds I had planted.

Although none of us can change the past, there’s good news if you’re feeling lost or trapped: The commitments and actions you make today will become the seeds that create your harvest tomorrow. But you need to put some things into action. It’s critical that we make strategic plans for the future. The way to begin experiencing success is to strategically plan for a purposeful future, and this is certainly true in the area of your finances.

Plan according to God’s will

One of the most important things about planning for tomorrow is realizing we are not in control. If we’re not in control, how do we respond? How do we plan? Turn with me to James 4:13-17: Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will love and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin.

Life is fragile. James says that our life is like a mist that appears and then vanishes in a moment. Have you ever been beside a pond or another calm body of water on a cool morning in fall, and watched the mist come off the surface of the water? That’s how short life is. If we want our lives to count for something, we have a very limited window in which to do it. Tomorrow isn’t a guarantee. That’s why now is the time to do the right thing.

God wants to bless people financially, but it’s always for God’s purpose. We are in trouble when we forget God gives us the ability to make wealth. We must always ask ourselves: Does my financial strategy align with God’s will? Am I using these resources in ways that would please God, and be consistent with what God wants in my life and through my life?

Activate the fundamental life principles of sowing and reaping

A lot of people have plans but fail to act on them. Once we have a plan, we must take action. In every area of life, and especially in the area of finances, we must activate the fundamental life principles of sowing and reaping.

1. You reap what you sow

Plant apple seeds, get apple trees. Plant dandelion seeds, get dandelions. Likewise your attitudes and actions are the seeds that will create your future harvest, so you’d better be sure you’re planting right attitudes and good actions.

Answer this for me – do seeds work best in the ground or on the shelf? The Bible says that the seeds that are left on the shelf dry up and die. We keep planting the right seeds – we keep planting right attitudes and right actions so those good things will grow and so that we’ll have a harvest in the future. The Bible puts it this way: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). If you want a tiny harvest, put a tiny amount of seeds in the ground. If you want a big harvest, put a lot of seeds in the ground.

Not only will you determine the size of the harvest at the time of planting; you will also reap more than you sow. In telling the parable of the sower, Jesus said some seeds “fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8).

2. The harvest comes in a later season than the sowing

A farmer plants seeds and harvests crops immediately, right? Of course not. We wait between planting and harvesting. The same is true in the area of finances. It takes time to save and to invest and to watch money grow. The problem is that we don’t like to wait. We want it now, which leads to debt, and when we’re in debt, our creditors are the ones harvesting instead of us. When we do it God’s way, the harvest comes in at a later season than the sowing.

3. You are responsible for the work of sowing; God is responsible for the harvest

As we are faithful to do the hard work of planting, God will be faithful in the harvest. Much of the hard work of planting comes in creating a sound strategy for your financial future based on biblical principles. In other words, it is creating a financial plan. When you make a commitment to create a financial plan based on God’s principles and then follow through on it, God will bless it. God will bring in the harvest.

God gives us grace and wisdom, and gives us the tools we need to manage our finances according to God’s principles. We then have some work to do, and God blesses that work. But we can’t begin the work until we have a plan. Procrastination is the great robber of life. Don’t put it off! Don’t be a slave to debt anymore! Don’t let creditors get rich at your expense! Make a commitment to create a financial plan and follow it through, and God will bring the harvest!

Steps in Creating a Financial Plan

But how do you create a financial plan? If you’re going somewhere, it’s always a good idea to have a plan. Today’s the day to start. Today is the day to put principle into action so you can experience true faithful financial freedom.

1. Financial Analysis

The first step in creating a financial plan is to sit down and do a financial analysis. The Bible says we must be sure to know the condition of our herds and crops, in other words, it helps you to see exactly where you are.

First, list on paper all of your debt. Include everything . Most people underestimate their debt by about 2/3 – if you think you have $9,000 in consumer debt, you may actually have $27,000. Add it all up, but don’t pass out when you see the figure because we have a big God! God is bigger than our debt or our stupidity! Don’t get overwhelmed; you do know how you eat an elephant, right? One bite at a time.

Next, list on paper all of your assets. Assets include things such as bank accounts, investments, possessions, and insurance. This will give you the total value of your money and property—your revenue and resources.

Then, subtract the debts from the assets to determine your net worth. This will give you a picture of where you are financially and help you to pinpoint areas where adjustments need to be made.

2. Look at your giving

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). I think there are two treasured commodities in our society: money and time. How you spend money and how you spend time will show the things that are most important to you. So in your financial plan, it’s important to prayerfully identify the gap between what you are currently giving and what you believe God wants to give through you. Then you must determine how you can close that gap. The goal is to give God 10% of everything that comes into our hands, demonstrating that our trust is not in our own means. Our trust is not in our own success. Our trust is in the Lord.

Last week we looked at a basic budget outline for figuring out how to give. We committed to following the 10-10-80 formula. 10% is invested in our future. 80% goes to cover our living expenses. But the first 10% is the tithe – it’s the part we give to God, it represents our Biblical giving.

Some Christians ask if giving to organizations like the United Way or police boosters or other non-profits is counted in Biblical giving. No, and here’s why. Biblical giving has some key components and characteristics. First, it must honor God by making God more visible. Others see it and think or say what Jesus observed in Matthew 5:16: “They may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Biblical giving won’t honor you; it will honor God. Second, it will be a blessing to other people. Third, we trust God with it, meaning we release the strings, the hold, and the control we might want to exercise over it. Charitable giving is not a bad thing, either, I only suggest that you should consider it an offering above the 10% of your income that you consider Biblical giving.

3. Begin an aggressive program of debt reduction

Step three is an aggressive debt reduction program built on an intentional plan. Remember, last week we performed plastic surgery; we made a commitment to stop using credit cards to pay for everything. If you’re going to reduce your debt, this is critical. It’s hard to get yourself out of debt if you continue to get yourself into debt.

And, I said something about finding extra money to pay down debt with – where does that come from? Well, remember our budget formula – the 10-10-80 formula. The first 10 percent is what? Giving to God. The second 10 percent is what? Investing in our future. And the remaining 80%? That’s to cover our living expenses. And it’s the remaining 80% that provides the place where we can find the extra money to pay down debt.

Now, it’s about to get personal, because this is about our lifestyle and our toys. Take a good look at things that are not actual necessities. Paying $150 a month for cable is a luxury. You really can live without it. Not only will your finances improve, your relationships will improve as you spend less time watching TV. Or, you could get rid of your landline telephone – there’s another $50 a month to use toward debt reduction.

Think of the places you blow money without even thinking about it. A pound of coffee makes approximately 32 eight ounce cups of coffee depending on if you make it weak or strong. If you spend $10 for a pound of coffee and make it at home, you save about $30 over buying 32 tall coffees at Starbucks!

I think another place many of us blow money is in eating out. I admit, I’m a bad one on this. But, let’s just say you eat out only at lunch – well, that’s $10 a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year – that’s $2600 a year just on lunch. Do you think you could reduce that amount by planning ahead and bringing your lunch from home? There’s another $200 a month for debt. I’m not saying never eat out, but most of us could save a lot of money by cooking at home. When you do eat out, be smart. Right now Ashley and I don’t eat anywhere unless we have a buy-one-get-one-free coupon.

With those simple things – cable getting rid of the landline, making coffee at home, brownbagging your lunch – we’ve already found potentially $430 a month. Go out to dinner one time less each week – there’s another $160 a month. We’ve already found $590 a month without huge lifestyle changes – that’s $7000 less debt you can be experiencing in just one year. Do you think that would help you begin to experience financial freedom?

Start with the smaller debts. Some people want to start with the debt with the highest interest rate, but I have found starting with the smallest debt is effective for a couple reasons. First, it’s manageable. Second, you’ll be able to pay it off quicker, which yields a sense of accomplishment. Then, you can roll that amount you were using to reduce that smaller debt into reducing the next largest debt, and you continue that momentum until you are debt-free.

Or, remember that list of assets you put together? Was there anything on that list you rarely use that you could sell and use the money toward debt reduction? Since you cut the cable, maybe you could sell a few of those TVs. If you’re really serious about this, take stock of the house you’re living in. Is it really more house than you need and can perhaps afford? Can you function with a car that’s cheaper than the one you drive? If we’re honest, most of us have more than we need, and many of us are in debt to pay for those luxury items and toys.

Let me explain how interest works in favor of your creditor if you are in debt, and how it works in your favor when you’re out of debt.

On a whim, a family of four takes a trip to Disney World followed by a three-day cruise. They hadn’t saved, and they put the entire cost of the trip on their credit card – all $5,560. Their credit card has an interest rate of 18% - that’s a guaranteed rate of return of 18% for the credit card company. So they pay $1000 a year in interest on the amount that has a minimum payment of $80 a month, and most people pay only the minimum, so even at the end of forty years, that family still owes the original amount. They took a trip to Disney World forty years ago and are still paying for it. Meanwhile, the credit card company charged 18% interest and made $40,000 off that family over 40 years.

$80 a month – that’s the credit card payment, right? Let’s say they skipped the trip to Disney World and invested $80 a month in a fund that gave them an annual rate of return of 12%, which over the long-term of forty years is an honest return. Because of the magic of compound interest, at the end of forty years, that family would have roughly $952,000 from the same $80 a month that had been going to a credit card company. Do you see why debt is not our friend?

Depending on how much debt you have, your plan will vary in length, but that plan creates something very important – light at the end of the tunnel. Put your plan down on paper. Getting rid of debt is liberating. I looked at some of my records; this time last year, I was carrying $5,500 in credit card debt and I realized I was still paying for drinks and movies I enjoyed ten years ago in college, and I thought, “What a waste.” So I began an aggressive plan of debt reduction and eliminated my credit card debt. Do you know what it’s like to not have that debt hanging over my head? I started saving for Ashley’s engagement ring and paid cash for it. In the last year I knocked down credit card debt and saved for something very special.

I still have other debts I want gone. So this week I put a plan on paper. If I stick to it, I will pay off a significant chunk of debt over the next 18 months, and beginning July of 2012, I will have an extra $638 a month that is currently going toward debt suddenly available for other things. Do you know how good that feels? Do you see why I want all of you to experience financial freedom?

4. Create an emergency fund

Your credit card is not your emergency fund – again, do you really want to pay 18% interest on an emergency? Things are going to come up that you haven’t planned for and have no control over. Having an emergency fund keeps you from getting caught back in the debt cycle. Most financial advisors recommend that you start by saving $1000 in your emergency fund, and from there, continue saving until you have set aside three months’ worth of income.

5. Write a will

The death rate among humans remains very close to 100%. At some point in our lives – probably very close to the end – most of us are going to die. Most people either do not have a will, or the will they have is invalid. Perhaps the witnesses are deceased or state laws have changed, making the document invalid. Everyone needs a will. There are websites and software programs out there to help you get started, but you should always have a will examined by an attorney who is familiar with the laws of the state in which you reside who can ensure that the document is provable in court.

I need some help from someone in the congregation on this one. Does anyone have a dollar bill I can use? We can do better than a single, does anyone have a twenty? Actually, does anyone have a hundred-dollar bill on them?

This bill represents your entire estate. If you don’t have a valid will, if you were to die today, the state would divide your assets among your surviving heirs as they see fit, after extracting court costs, state inheritance taxes, and federal inheritance taxes. We’re going to call those taxes your “contribution to society,” leaving about half your estate in tact.

One way or another, up to half of everything you have will be your contribution to society. If you don’t designate how it will be spent, the government will decide for you through estate taxes. Or, you can decide by designating the causes that will benefit from your estate.

And here’s what I suggest – if this church is important to you, consider making an estate gift to St. Paul. Again, I’m not a professional financial advisor – you’d need to meet with one to see what option is best for your situation, but my hope would be that every member of this church would continue tithing even after you have entered the Church Triumphant by designating at least 10% of your estate to St. Paul, and some of you may find it beneficial to even leave 50% or more of your estate to the church.

There are a lot of ways you can do this, too. You can give toward one of our endowed funds. We currently have three endowed funds set up – missions endowment, building endowment, and general endowment. These funds are invested in a way so that they continue to grow, and the church benefits from the income these funds produce without touching principal, except in cases of extreme emergency. But, you can also give a gift to the church generally and not specifically to one of our endowed funds. You can choose whether to designate this gift or give it with no strings, for its use to be decided by church leadership. If you’re wondering where to designate a gift, talk to me; I currently have about $500,000 in potential projects sitting in files in my office that we could start tomorrow if we had the funds available.

Let me be clear here. My goal is not to find ways to get more money for the church. My goal is to help you experience financial freedom. But I’m also aware that as you experience financial freedom that is based on God’s directives, generosity is necessarily going to be one of the byproducts. And it only stands to good reason that your church will benefit from the generosity you’re able to express when you experience true financial freedom.

Friends, God calls us to exceed the limits of our comfort zone and to grow in our giving. This requires living by the Spirit, which is doing the right thing rather than the self-satisfying or easy thing. My hope is that every one of us will put together a plan that brings us closer to God’s intent for our lives, including God’s intent for our finances. We are living today in the harvest of seeds we planted yesterday. But tomorrow’s harvest is determined by the seeds we plant today.

Close your eyes and put your hands on your lap, palm side up. We all reap what we sow. Are you satisfied with the fruit in your life? If not, ask God to help you plant some better seeds. Where in your financial life do you still need to do some work? In your giving? In your debt? In your saving? In your long-term planning? Wherever you are and whatever the issue, make a commitment that you’re going to start working on it today. Plant the seeds today that will produce the harvest you want tomorrow. Ask God to bless your commitment, to give you the grace to meet it, and the perseverance to keep working on it.

God, we thank you that fear and worry are not your plan for our lives. We thank you for the great mystical work you do between planting and harvesting, how you multiply and provide more than we could ever imagine. You make good on every one of your promises, so help us always to trust you. Help us to be faithful in planting good seeds, and we thank you in advance for the harvest that is yet to come. Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Faithful Financial Freedom Part Two: Rebalancing Life Investments

Today is the second in a four-part series of messages on Faithful Financial Freedom. At the root of this series is this question: “How do you live on the upside when the economy is on the downside?” We have realized that most people are responding to what’s happening in the economy out of the twin emotions of fear and worry. But as Christians, there’s a better way to respond. Fear and worry are not God’s plan for our lives. There is something better.

You are going to learn a lot in this series, so go ahead and take the sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil. Most of us learn best when we take notes, so write down anything of interest we discuss.

Last week’s message was “God’s Perspective.” Building sound financial health first requires us to seek God’s perspective. We considered God’s character, and we were reminded that Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father” because God is a loving parent who is concerned with our well-being. Further, God owns everything in the universe, so God has no shortage of resources. Then we realized that God wants us to put God first in all areas of our lives, including our finances. Then we took a look at our own motive in relation to our finances – are we using our money selfishly or in ways that are consistent with God’ desires? Then, we remembered to check our sources; rather than listening to negative influences in our lives, we made a commitment to only listen to people who are bearing fruit in their own lives.

Asking and answering those questions prepares us to rebalance our life investments in accordance with God’s perspective. That’s what we’ll explore today. May we pray.

Rebalancing

Have you ever been driving down the road at about 35 miles per hour, and you feel that shimmy in the steering wheel? You know, where it feels like your wheels are fighting against your desire to keep the car headed straight? That may mean you need a front-end alignment, or it could mean your tires are out of balance.

Or, you notice that after several months of eating anything and everything you want, your pants are a little tighter and this week at work, your shirt was working overtime to stay around your enlarged physique and one of the buttons couldn’t take the pressure anymore and popped off and hit one of the interns sending him to the hospital for observation. That may mean that your diet is out of balance.

Likewise, many of us may find our life investments out of balance. Where we are spending our time and money may not be producing the results we desire. So what do we do? We re-balance. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re gonna keep getting what you’ve always got. If the outcome in your life is not what you expect or desire, if you are dissatisfied with the fruit being produced in your life, then it’s time to re-balance your life investments.

There is a strong correlation between money and spirituality. It is amazing how many verses in the Bible deal with money. Of the 43 parables Jesus told, 27 – in some way – deal with money or possessions. There are other places, of course, where the Bible deals with being wise with money – Proverbs and Psalms being two places that come to mind immediately. Another place is James – a book of practical living for hard times. So turn with me to James 4:7-10:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, & he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning & your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, & he will exalt you.

Here is an important principle, so write it down: Right priorities + right actions = right results. When we have the right priorities and commit to right actions, we’re going to realize right results. This is certainly true in the area of money management. In fact, this is how we rebalance our life investments.

Right Priorities

First, setting right priorities begins with submitting to God. James states boldly, “Submit yourselves to God” (4:7). Submit is a strong word here, meaning “defer, surrender, or yield.” When you walk into this space, it’s not about any of us – we surrender our will here and submit to God’s will because church is about God. To think anything else is both spiritual immaturity and evidence that we’ve missed the point entirely.

Next, James says “resist the devil, and he will flee from [us]” (4:7). Submitting to God and resisting evil go hand-in-hand. Anywhere God is working – anywhere we are submitting to God’s will – evil will attack. Resisting, however – which is standing firm in what is true – defeats temptation. James says that by drawing near to God, God draws near to us.

The problem is that we human beings are sinful and double-minded. Earlier, James has said that the double-minded should not expect to receive anything from God (James 1:7-8). Here, he is telling those of us who are double-minded to purify our hearts (4:9). James calls us to repent, which literally means to “turn and go another way.”

James outlines a three-step process for us to sift through what we value and embrace right priorities: submitting to God, resisting evil, and repenting. These steps are integral to the process of rebalancing our lives and our priorities.

Current economics have caused many of us to rebalance our life investments. We’ve had to take a hard look at what our priorities are, and perhaps cut back on some things and exercise a little more self-control and discipline. But, there’s a silver lining in all of this – when we make a financial correction, it’s also a great time to make a spiritual correction. Now is a great time to examine and rebalance our life investments as well as our budgets and bank accounts. This kind of spiritual exercise causes us to humble ourselves and take God’s Word seriously.

We all know people who claim to believe in God but who don’t practice God’s directives. James calls them “double-minded.” They try to live with their feet in two different places – with two conflicting worldviews. These two opposing worldviews are hedonism and Christianity.

We were introduced to the worldview of hedonism last week – it sets the pursuit of pleasure as the primary goal in life. While it’s an old philosophy, it’s still very dominant in our culture, and sometimes we call it by other words – materialism and consumerism. While Christianity puts God at the center of everything we do and makes God our number one priority, hedonism is a worldview that places self and self-want at the center.

Now, if you don’t think this philosophy is dominant and deeply ingrained in our psyche, try this experiment. Place four toddlers in the corners of an empty room, and then place one toy and one toy only in the exact center of the room. If you want to see deeply-ingrained selfishness at work, just watch what happens. Those kids are going to scream and hit and fight for possession of that toy and show you how we struggle with each other when we define the word, MINE.

And do you know what I realized? Deep down, we are all two-year-olds. I determine my own priorities, my own values, my own wants, and my own directions; I do what I want, I go where I want, and I buy what I want. If there’s anything left over, I may give some to God and others, but I make the decision. In contemporary terms, hedonism is a materialistic worldview that creates in us a consumer identity.

Consider Christmas in our culture today. What does Christmas celebrate? Jesus’ birthday, right? Yet, Christmas has become a hedonistic feast of materialistic gluttony. According to the American Consumer Credit Council, the average American family will spend $935 on Christmas gifts this year, and most of those gifts are purchased on credit cards, meaning that we will pay for those gifts over and over. And here’s the thing – Christmas is not our birthday; it’s Jesus’ birthday. We should stop acting as if it’s our birthday. We should honor ourselves and our children on our respective birthdays, but we should honor Jesus on Jesus’ birthday.

But that’s not what it looks like. Parents spend hours in line with screaming kids to tell Santa what they want for Christmas – they pull out a list of their materialistic desires, vomit their wishes all over the guy in the rented red velvet suit, who in turn promises Timmy or Sallie that they’ll get everything they want and more, and parents are muttering under their breath, “Oh crap, now I have to buy that!”

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine that’s how God intended we would celebrate God becoming flesh. Christmas isn’t our birthday, it’s Jesus’ birthday; so we’re going to celebrate it by doing something that would please Jesus instead of self-focused practices that fulfill the materialistic desires of our friends and family. You’ll be hearing more from me about that as Christmas draws closer, but for now, think about cutting back significantly on your Christmas spending.

Anytime we say “yes” to Jesus, we making a commitment to follow in all his ways. His values become our values, his priorities become our priorities, and his worldview becomes our worldview. We can be sure that when we make this commitment, to submit ourselves to Jesus Christ, evil is going to come against us. So we must resist the force that would attempt to paralyze us from fulfilling the purpose of God in our lives, and most of the time, that paralyzing force is the selfish desire to pursue our own desires and not those of God.

The bottom line is that anything less than the will of God in every dimension of our financial lives is not an option. We submit our wills to God, we say, “Lord, not what I want, but what you want. By your grace, I’m willing to work at it until I do it.” That’s what it means to stand firm. Defeat is not an option. We must choose to submit to God’s directives! That is re-balancing our priorities, and the result is right priorities!

Right Actions

Once we have right priorities based on God’s directives, we must add right actions. James says that faith without action is useless (2:26). Faith that is not applied in works is powerless. So, let’s consider some right actions related to managing money that are rooted in Scripture. Notice, I didn’t say principles, I said actions. Principles do us no good if we don’t commit them to action. The following seven actions will lead to right results in our lives and our finances. Remember, right priorities + right actions = right results!

1. Planned giving to God. Before you do anything else in life, the first “right” thing is planned giving toward God’s kingdom work. This action recognizes God’s rightful ownership of all we have. The Bible says the earth and everything it contains belong to the Lord (Psalm 89:11). What we hold in our hands is not our own. It belongs to the Lord and is entrusted to us, and we are accountable to God for everything we have. When our first action in the area of finances is giving to God, we demonstrate our trust in God’s promise to provide.

Let me insert the disclaimer here and just name the elephant in the room, okay? If I’m talking about planned giving to God, yes, I’m talking about the money you give to the church. And, there are some of you here today that this part of the sermon is the last thing you need to hear. Maybe you walked in today really struggling and hurting with something and you needed a word of hope and encouragement, and now you’re afraid I’m going to make you feel even worse by making you feel guilty about your finances. Or, maybe you’re really struggling in the area of your finances, because of your job situation or bills that are piling up or a tragedy in your life, and now you’re afraid I’m going to put even more pressure on your situation. Or, maybe you’re visiting with us, perhaps even for the first time today, and you’re thinking, “Great, they’re after my money already.”

If you found yourself in any of the above-named categories, this part of the sermon isn’t for you, at least not directly. I understand the struggles and the difficulties you may be having, so let me tell you how this part of the sermon is for you. We want this church to be here for you, no matter what you’re going through. So the funds that people give here support God’s work in this place so that we can be here for you, so this place can continue to exist as a community who embraces and who helps those in need.

So, if you’re a member of this church, this part of the sermon is for you. In particular, if you’re a leader in this church – if you’re on the Council, if you serve on a committee, if you teach, this part of the sermon is especially for you, because you have taken a front-line role in helping this church fulfill its mission. When you made that commitment, you took on some very specific responsibilities, so listen up!

In the third chapter of Malachi, we read about the importance of giving to God the biblical tithe, which is the first 10% of our income. God tells the people to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house” (Malachi 3:10). Some people today think a tithe is anything you put in the offering plate. Actually, the tithe is still ten percent of your income, and God tells us to do it so there will be food in God’s house.

One of the problems I have with a lot of Christians today is that we pray for God to save starving children. Some people will say, “Well, if God is so all-powerful and loving, why does God allow children to starve?” Folks, God doesn’t allow children to starve. WE allow children to starve! You see, God’s economy is such that if all God’s people bring a tenth of what they possess, there will be enough to go around for everyone around the world.

God continues in Malachi 3:10, saying, “Test me in this . . . and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” Where else in Scripture does God say, “Test me.” The promise is that if we will tithe, there will not be enough room to store all the blessings we will have.

Those of you who practice tithing understand this. The tighter we hang onto what we have, the more money seems to disappear. But the looser we hang onto what we have, have you noticed that there always seems to be more to hang on to? When we are stingy with God, it’s like we shut off the faucet that pours blessing into our lives. But when we are generous, blessings just seem to flow. People sometimes ask, “Is that 10% of the gross or net?” Folks, if you’re looking for a loophole, then you’re obviously not spiritually mature enough for tithing! Don’t look for a loophole on this one – we are foolish if we try to cheat God! Do we want a net blessing or a gross blessing from God?

You see, we never give to God out of guilt or obligation. If you are giving out of guilt or obligation, please don’t give your money here. We give out of joy and gratitude. We take stock of what God has blessed us with, be it great or small in the eyes of the world, and our gift to God is a way of saying “Thank you, God, for the good things in my life.” It says, “God, all that I have is yours. Everything I have is a gift from you! And so, I am going to give you back a portion of what you have already given me.” What’s interesting is that the more we give away, the more we seem to have.

All right, continuing with right actions. 2. Write or rework a budget. You can’t spend what you don’t have. A budget is a commitment to know where your money goes and thereby spend less than what you make. One simple way to start a budget is to use the 10-10-80 method. The first 10% of what you make goes to God, as we’ve already discussed. The next 10% is invested in your future. You pay yourself after you pay God. The remaining 80% covers your living expenses. Following this method will likely simplify your lifestyle. The average American household lives on 107% of their annual income, which explains why people are in so much debt. Moving from 107% to 80% is a significant change in lifestyle.

Another helpful budgeting tool is the envelope method. In this method, you designate an envelope for every category in your budget, such as tithing, giving, mortgage, utilities, car, entertainment, so forth. Then, you designate money in each envelope to pay those expenses. Once that money is gone, it’s gone! Using plastic isn’t an option. You can only use the money in the envelopes, and you can’t borrow from one envelope to pad another. Some people budget using computer software, which is basically an electronic version of the envelope method.

Your budget should be flexible for a bit as you figure out where exactly things are going. Certain expenses may be higher or lower than you anticipated. This doesn’t represent a budget failure; it simply represents a budget in need of reworking. Your budget may also need to be reworked when either your income or necessary expenses change significantly. But, the idea behind a budget is that you’re not going to spend what you don’t have. Stick to that.

3. Perform plastic surgery and reduce your debt. Plastic surgery—cutting up your credit cards—is a commitment to an aggressive debt-reduction plan. Debt is not God’s will for your life. Proverbs 22:5 says “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” Jesus died to set you free, but as long as you owe even a dollar to someone, you will always be a slave to that person.

When you perform plastic surgery, the idea is to get rid of every card you don’t need. Some people argue that a credit card is necessary for “emergencies only.” Do you really want to pay 18% interest on an emergency? Instead, set up an emergency fund for emergencies and cut the plastic. We’ll talk more about setting up an emergency fund next week, as well as beginning an aggressive debt-reduction program.

4. Set future goals and practice delayed gratification. If there is something you want, make a goal for yourself to save up for it until you can pay for it in cash. One of the most powerful disciplines of faith is the discipline of delayed gratification. The Bible tells us “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). When we want instant gratification and use plastic to achieve it, we’re essentially saying, “I don’t want to wait for a future blessing; I want it now!” In our world of instant everything, practicing delayed gratification is counter-cultural.

And sometimes when we practice delayed gratification, we change our minds in the meantime. This keeps us from wasting our money on stuff we later would decide we didn’t want or need. So whether we save for a future goal or change our minds and decide to use the money on something else, delayed gratification plays a critical role.

5. Pray, pray, pray. The most important right action you can take is prayer – I’ve put it here last because it’s the glue that holds the whole thing together. Go back with me to James 4:8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” That’s a promise! But what does it mean to draw near to God?

I need another volunteer for this one. If this person and I were to stand on opposite sides of the room, and I decided to walk over and stand beside them, my focus would be on one thing – them. I would be looking at them, and all my actions would be taking me closer to them. Prayer is very similar. It is not just making a casual nod at God, as we often are accustomed to doing. It literally is directing all our energy toward God.

In the tenth verse, James writes “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” This is the act of putting ourselves in the place of total submission and humility before God. When we humble ourselves before the Lord in prayer, he exalts us – he lifts us up. Instead of relying on our own abilities and ideas and energy, prayer appeals to our powerful parent who has promised to provide. Prayer acknowledges that we are dependent upon God and that we trust God to lead, guide, and provide. As we live in the place of total humility, submission, and dependence on God, it just makes sense that the right results – God’s results – will be brought about in our lives.

Right priorities + right actions = right results. It’s a proven formula. Re-balancing your life investments as God directs not only means freedom from debt and better financial health, it also means improved family dynamics, stronger relationships, and spiritual growth.

Remember, faith without works – right principles without right actions – is dead. So I invite you to a two-step challenge.

Go ahead and close your eyes and put your hands on your lap, palm side-up. First, identify where you need to adjust your priorities. Are you trying to live with a foot in two conflicting worldviews? Ask God to shape the desires of your heart so the things you want line up with the things God wants, so that you priorities line up with God’s priorities. Second, identify where you need to make corrective action. Which of the five right actions are you not currently practicing? Ask God for the grace you need to practice right actions.

God, we thank you that fear and worry are not your plan for our lives. Constantly pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, so that our desires may be shaped to the things you desire, and our actions may be those which produce the fruit in our lives you so desire for us. We know that right priorities and right actions come together to produce right results – thank you for the harvest of results we will enjoy from the seeds we are planting today. Amen.