Thoughts About Offerings

December 29th, 2017 2 comments

Offering circle

The other night just before bedtime, I was reading an article in AFAR magazine by Tom Downey about his travels in Bangkok, Thailand. (1) It was a typical “what to see while you’re there” article about traveling in that country and described the writer’s experience exploring a previously unknown section of Bangkok. He decided to follow a group of locals heading down a nondescript and ever-narrowing lane and found himself in an area of shops that sold “burnable offerings” to be used at a nearby temple. He did not mention what religion or what gods might be worshipped at the temple, but did mention that the “offerings” being sold were fake money (both American dollars and Thai baht) and a cardboard pair of sneakers that were branded as “New Balance”.

The writer went on to talk of other travel related things like food and transportation and other tourist attractions but that brief sentence about the offerings caught my attention and it is still with me.

Offerings to be burned in the temple…..fake dollars and fake sneakers…..you know my thoughts about this are just jumping all over the place. Questions I have to ask are filling my mind…like who are these gods that accept fake offerings rather than real ones?

(Although a quick search on the internet tells me that the predominant religion in Thailand is Buddhism, other religious groups represented there are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’i, and Christians [about 0.9%].) (2)

But the “which gods” questions might not be as important to my mind as the “why”……like why give a well-known brand name to a cardboard pair of sneakers you plan to “sacrifice” to the gods (Shiva? Buddha?) at the temple?

Do these gods prefer “New Balance” to…say….”Nike”?  Will the gods find an offering of one cardboard shoe better than another? What blessings will you receive if you go all in and sacrifice a real pair of sneakers rather than a cardboard pair?

And, what about the fake money? Is there a reason to sell both types of fake money – American dollars and Thai baht? Is one worthless piece of paper somehow better than the other when making an offering?

And why “fake” offerings? Wouldn’t that seem to be a contradiction of the whole purpose of making a sacrifice to your gods in the first place? Economically speaking, it is probably more advantageous to burn fake money and sneakers rather than real money or shoes. You make the offering and still get to keep the goods as it were; but how do you suppose these gods would view the offering?

It seems to me (as a Christian) that this was what Cain did way back in Genesis in the Old Testament. (5) Cain (a farmer) gave an offering from his crops while Abel (a sheep herder) also brought offerings from his flock. Two offerings that were relatively similar overall that were made to God with only a note that Abel gave the firstborn and fattest of his flock.

Would giving whatever is handy, plentiful, or convenient denote a repentant heart desiring to show reverence and devotion to your god? If society allows it and seems to approve of it or maybe even requires it, is it okay to just give what you feel like giving? It certainly wasn’t okay for Cain. We all know that his offering wasn’t acceptable at all and his feelings about being rejected while Abel’s offering was accepted drove Cain to murder his brother.

I am also reminded of the widow who gave two small mites – all she had. Jesus remarked on her offering as being more acceptable than all the wealth of others making offerings at the temple that day because she didn’t just give some, she gave all she had to give and gave it with a willing heart. (3) Would her tiny nearly worthless coins have been just as acceptable if she had traded one of them for a little bit of “fake” money and offered that instead so she could at least have kept one mite for herself?

 [“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.  Luke 21:1-4 KJV ]

Is the meaning of the gift just a symbolic gesture that can be made with any old substitute or is there something more to giving that needs to be considered?

And, what of the vendors selling offerings in the temple that angered Jesus to the point that he drove them out of the temple telling them that they had made a mockery of God’s house….they had made it a place of business rather than a sacred place to worship God?

[And the Jews’ Passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem and found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” John 2:13-16 KJV] (4)

Were the vendors and money-changers chastised by Jesus any different from the vendors in Thailand who were selling fake money and cardboard sneakers?

When I studied this passage at my church in Sunday School many years ago, I was taught that Jesus said that the merchants had made his Father’s house into a “den of thieves” as noted in Mark 21:43. (4) Somehow I prefer that phrase to “house of merchandise” as it seems so much more descriptive of what was really going on there in the temple and why Jesus would find it so offensive.

The Jewish vendors and money-changers would, no doubt, have justified their activities as a necessary part of Passover. How else could people who had traveled for days obtain a proper sacrifice to atone for their sins during the past year? How else could those who came from nearby countries buy their offerings without the right currency? Why…….with a little creative thinking on the part of the vendors, justification could be made that these sellers of lambs and doves (maybe even cardboard or clay replicas) were a vital and most necessary part of the local economy and the whole offering process and they were just doing God’s work making sure every sinner who needed to repent had the proper offering to do so.

I think that Jesus certainly saw through the ruse…..saw it for what it had become….just another money-making enterprise.  Buy your doves here and God will surely forgive your sins…..wouldn’t He?

I was in a church recently that included a bookstore, a gift shop, and a coffee bar.  Is this somehow different from selling offerings in the temple? In retrospect, I think the coffee might have been free; and, I suppose you could say that selling a Bible in church is a good thing….giving it away might be better….but getting the scripture in the hands of those who need it can only be a good thing, right?

I’m not sure selling (or even giving away) a cup of coffee or a sentimental trinket in the church lobby is the same as selling “offerings”…although the concept of the profits going to the church might be blurring the lines a little bit these days. You could say that you’re only buying something to help out the church or contribute to the missions programs. Then again, no one buying a latte in church has any intention of giving it up as an offering to God. More likely, the heart-felt intent is just want to stay awake during the service.

But I digress….back to the basic question. What is giving? What is a proper offering? What is good enough to please God?  I think that it is important that we give something up….something of value. In my mind, to be relevant, an offering would require some sacrifice on my part….giving to God something you wanted to keep or money that you could have used for something else…say a new pair of sneakers. And would have to be given with all your heart….no holding back on the gift.

Otherwise, providing an offering might have just become a ritual with little or no real spiritual meaning…just throwing a few coins in the plate on Sunday morning and patting yourself on the back for having done good and made the offering just like you’re supposed to do.  But, are you giving out of obligation or because of tradition or out of reverence and love for God?

Fake money?  Cardboard sneakers?  What is the point in the overall scheme of things? It may actually be more like throwing things in the trash than making a sacrifice to the gods….your offering might as well be those cardboard sneakers or fake money. What is it, after all is said and done, that makes an offering, the gift, proper and effective?

Thinking back to the time that Jesus cleared the money-changers and vendors out of the temple, it seems to me that the temple needed to be cleared at that time.  In a way, it had to be made ready for the ultimate sacrifice, the one that would change things in this world forever, and the final offering that was provided at no cost to us whatsoever.  The temple would be prepared for the only sacrifice that would ever be acceptable.

The perfect lamb had already been provided…he had walked the earth and prepared the way. We would not need to buy doves or goats (or fake money or cardboard sneakers) to stand proxy for our sins anymore.  No longer would money-changers and vendors be needed or allowed in the temple to provide questionable offerings to those who came in repentance and devotion.  There was only one lamb that was pure of heart and free of sin who was willing to be this one true offering……only one.

Like the poor widow with only two pennies, Jesus would give all that he had to give with a willing heart…and the temple would be cleansed for good……for all time….for the good of us all.

lamb of God stained glass

Notes:

  1. Buddhism and Religion in Thailand; http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Thailand/sub5_8b/entry-3212.html
  2. Cities we Love: Bangkok”; AFAR Magazine; September/October 2017; pp 98-108; Author – Tom Downey.
  3. King James Bible; New Testament: Luke Chapter 21, Verses 1-4; https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/
  4. King James Bible: New Testament: John Chapter 2, Verses 13-16; http://biblehub.com/context/john/2-14.htm . This incident is described in all four gospels of the New Testament of the King James Bible…see also Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, and Luke 19:45-48.
  5. King James Bible; Old Testament: Genesis Chapter 3, Verses 3-8; https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Genesis-Chapter-4/

 

Grace

November 25th, 2017 3 comments

Grace BaptistI am sitting in the sanctuary at the church waiting. It is during that short break between Sunday School and the morning service. I usually take this time to check out the program for the day, the weekly announcements & birthdays and to place bits of paper in the hymnal marking the songs we’ll be singing during the service. As the noise levels around me would indicate, it’s a time for smiles and hugs and catching up on what’s been going on all week, greeting visitors, making them welcome, and doing all sorts of odds and ends that need to be done before the service gets started.

I sit quietly listening to the pleasant hum of all this activity while pondering the morning’s Sunday School lesson and wondering what topic the pastor will choose for today’s sermon. It’s Missionary Month and I read that today we’ll have a guest speaker from the Prison Missions Program.  Thinking of missionaries, I notice Eric chatting with Kim over on the “Hallelujah” side about the latest news he has received from Mlachivka. For the past ten years or so, he has led a missionary group over to this small community in the Ukraine to help out a church and an orphanage there. A staff housing building was lost in a fire recently and funds are being raised to try to help re-build it.  He is deep into details about buildings and children and already making plans for leading another team next summer.

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you hungered, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink? When saw we you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you? Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came to you? And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-39)

Little Kelly comes running up to Pastor Mark with something important to tell him. He sweeps her up into his arms…up to his level… and she chatters away, using every one of her ten fingers to emphasize the information that she needs to tell him…probably some wonderful thing she might have heard in Sunday school this morning that the Pastor should know.  Just as quickly as she arrived, she is out of his arms and chasing down the aisle after Sammy and Delia who are most assuredly trying not to see their mama’s stern look reminding them that it is time to settle down and find their seats for church. But they’re off…totally ignoring mom……streaking by the Pastor’s wife, Sarah, who comes in loaded down with two oversized tote bags filled to overflowing with pencils and crayons and books and construction paper and hand sanitizer and crackers and all the other bit and pieces she’ll need at one point or another throughout the day. Three more little ones trail behind her like wayward ducklings first going this way and that before heading to their seats up on the second row with the other kids where James is waiting patiently for them and handing out quarters and dimes so that they too will have coins for the offering plates. I find myself thinking about the special memories children will have who are raised in church…how all their lives they will remember the stories about Jesus being born and the verses they’ve memorized….. and they will know that overall feeling of acceptance that every father and mother, grandmother and grandfather, uncle and aunt in the whole congregation somehow also belonged to each of them.

“But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said to them, Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:14)

More and more people are starting to drift into the sanctuary and the noise level, though still pleasant, increases…..lots of talking and catching up going on today.  A rousing rendition of “Power in the Blood” is coming from Michele at the organ over on the “Hallelujah” side of the sanctuary. In the meantime, Marlene sits over by the piano over on the “Amen” side silently fingering the notes on her flute for the special song she will play for us right after the morning’s announcements. She studies the music sheet in front of her and nods her head in rhythm and as she mentally practices at getting everything just right. Karen moves past her and sits down at  the piano so she can spend just a few minutes going over the hymns for the songs the congregation will sing today. She stops for a moment to smile and wave at someone at the back and then gets right back to the task at hand. The music I hear provides a lovely backdrop to all the chaos and I find myself humming along as Michele changes to Because He Lives”.

“I will praise the LORD according to his righteousness: and will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high.” (Psalm 7:17)

I see one of the deacons heading up front to check to make sure the offering plates are where they’re supposed to be. His wife stops by the communion table to straighten up the autumn floral arrangement making sure all the yellow, orange, and golden chrysanthemums are arranged just so and looking their best. Her hand lightly moves across the linen table runner pulling out any wrinkles and then settles on the open Bible to smooth down the pages that have curled up in the breeze of someone just passing by. She gives the flowers one last smoosh and heads back to her seat towards the back. She stops on the way to say hello and get hug from Inez who has made a double-sized batch of cranberry conserve for Thanksgiving dinner and is busy passing out pint-sized jars of the sweet tangy relish so that others might also enjoy it with their turkey and dressing this year.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…”  (Philippians 2:3-5)

Steve heads up towards the pulpit with a hymnal in hand and I know we must be very close to the time to get things started.  As I look around at all the activity going on, I am filled with thankfulness for this joy, this love, this congregation, and above all, the shared beliefs that have brought us together on this Sunday to this place. I bow my head and reach for that still quiet place deep down inside that I know will always be there and I whisper a little prayer that all these ordinary but wonderful things going on around me, all the chaos, all the noise, all the hugging and smiling and chattering…will always be the same and that we will always come together like this in thanksgiving to remember the gift that was given and the price that was paid. And I am thankful for this grace….this very ordinary but amazing grace.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…..was blind but now I see.”

Notes:

  1. Victory in Jesus, Words and Music by E.M. Bartlett, © 1939 – Administrated by Integrated Copyright Group, Inc., All rights reserved; Lyrics – http://www.popularhymns.com/victory_in_jesus.php
  2. Amazing Grace”; Words by John Newton; 1779; Music by Virginia Harmony; Lyrics – http://www.popularhymns.com/amazing_grace.php
  3. Because He Lives”; Songwriters – Matt Maher, Jason Ingram, Ed Cash, Chris Tomlin, Daniel Carson, Bill Gaither, Gloria Gaither; © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Essential Music Publishing, Capitol Christian Music Group;1971; Lyrics – http://jesus-is-savior.com/sounds/Hymns/because_he_lives.htm

 

 

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