Archive | January 2019

Christian Generosity: Some Ground Rules from the Bible and the Early Church

Image: lincolnparks.com

Image: lincolnparks.com

I came across this article on The Generosity of the Early Church, which gives a good overview of the principles and practical application of generosity in the churches of the New Testament.

It makes sense to start with what the New Testament really says about true generosity. What comes out looks rather different from the almost unquestioned acceptance by evangelical Christians today of tithing (giving 10 percent of your income) as a guide for financial giving. What follows are my own ponderings and interpretations, but they tally very well with those of the article linked to above.

God loves a cheerful giver is still the guiding principle [2 Corinthians 9:7]. Human beings are creatures of habit. Drift easily sets in and we lose the freshness of sacrificial giving and the joy of generosity. Many Christians then find convenient ways of justifying personal wealth by giving a bit here and there.

In the gospels, there are examples of ‘giving to charity‘ in today’s sense, e.g. John 13:29. Yet chiefly we are urged to show justice to the poor by identifying with them and sharing with them in the new, classless society that is the Church. That’s why the first Church in Jerusalem shared meals in homes with glad and generous hearts, and met each other’s financial needs by sacrificial giving [Acts 2:45-46].

Everyone should be a giver, out of gratitude for God’s generosity to us in salvation. How much to give? As Stuart Murray Williams cogently shows in Beyond Tithing, the tithe is an Old Testament practice which is not laid on Christians. It can be a start, but Jesus, the pioneer of a new covenant, shows a new way: give everything you can – which is usually more than you think you can.

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The Apostle Paul gives some helpful guidelines:

* Give as much as you can [2 Corinthians 8:3];
* Give freely, without pressure [ibid, v.3,8];
* Give cheerfully, not grudgingly [chap.9:5-8];
* Give as an expression of care and unity in the kingdom of God [chap.8:4];
* Give, trusting God to bless and reward the lavish heart [chap.8:4].
* Give as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and be blessed in blessing others [chap.9:14-15].

Several articles have caught my attention on the subject of generosity.

Larry Jones writes about “Is Giving Really Giving?”. He questions the supposed absolute of not expecting to receive anything in return (Luke 6:35). Through the act of giving we do experience an equivalent or reward. I believe that God has created a “universal law”, whereby when we give back to Him and others, He opens up at least the possibility for equivalent rewards.

David Matthias offers an inspiring testimony of generous giving which did not involve any money changing hands! Read about how several people’s pressing needs were met by sharing possessions.

Zach Nielsen offers some challenging insights on “financial peace” – the contentment that comes through being generous and unselfish with what has been entrusted to us. His post is particularly useful in that he links to various articles for and against the notion that money is by nature a danger to faith.

Here Nielsen puts his finger on the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face vis-à-vis our wealth:

‘I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders “how far is too far” with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual?

‘The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning to exhaustion. We are all tempted to be proud about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t.’

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

So, what do we do about this? How do we start to effect change in our giving? Operation Church offer the graphic above. It makes thought-provoking reading, but any Christian who is conscientiously exercised to build generosity into their life ought to look hard at the paradigm shift it advocates.

One early Christian text can help us here. The ‘Didache‘ (Greek for “teaching”) is of uncertain date, but internal evidence leads most commentators to place it at the latest AD 100. It is a short handbook of moral and practical governance for churches, perhaps in Syria, and it is anonymous.

Here are some quotations on generosity (and meanness) which carry the freshness of Early Church clarity.

Let your money sweat in your hands until you know to whom you should give it.

Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving.

Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give; remember who is the good Paymaster of the reward [i.e. God].

Share everything with your brother, and do not say it is your own; for if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in perishable things?

 


Another early Christian writing gives us valuable insights. It is the Apology (reasoned defence of the faith) by Marcianus Aristides, a converted philosopher from Athens. Some authorities suggest he had sat at the feet of the Apostle John. In all likelihood, he prepared this Apology in AD 125, because the emperor Hadrian visited Athens that year.

Here are some sentences on generosity from Aristides. His style of writing is heavy and rhetorical, and so is the Victorian English of the translation! Here I have at times modernised the phrasing without (I trust) altering the sense of what was written.

“Christians live in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. So they do not embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. If one or other of them has servants or slaves, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.

They love one another, esteem widows, and rescue orphans from any who ill-treat them. Whoever has [wealth] gives to him who has not, without boasting. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.

“Whenever one of their number who was poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability contributes to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. If there is among them any that is poor and needy, and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to have food which they can supply to the needy one.”


The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman, representing the Church.

One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure – which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.

As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: “These are intended as an example for the servants of God.

“The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.

“This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich.” “How so, sir?” said I; “explain the matter to me.” “Listen,” he said: “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.

Harvesting vines grown on elm trellis in Italy

Harvesting vines grown on elm trellis in Italy

So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.

“Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.”

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“All-Beclouding Hopelessness”: What Preacher Charles Spurgeon Learned from Depression

Image: getfesty.com

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) hit the headlines young and never left them. He could quote whole sections of the New Testament from memory. He had a library of 10,000 books and had read them all. In his teens he could understand deep theological points that confused many adults.  At only 19 years of age, he was invited to pastor a respected Baptist church in London.

Large crowds came to hear him. His biblical prowess was obvious but his style unorthodox, his sermons more like stories. He quoted from the newspapers and took everyday situations, making spiritual points out of them, so that anyone could understand his message. He became a sensation, becoming known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’.

Disaster was to strike, however. In 1856, when he was preaching at the 10,000-seat music hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens, a prankster shouted “Fire!”. In the stampede, 7 people were trampled to death. Spurgeon was devastated. ‘Perhaps never a soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity,‘ he wrote later, ‘yet came away unharmed. ‘From that day on, he knew bouts of dark depression.

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Spurgeon at the height of his ministry

What’s more, he suffered from Bright’s disease, rheumatism and gout, so severe that, in his final years, he was regularly too ill to preach and had to go the South of France to convalesce. Even so, Spurgeon continued to pour himself into God’s work, not least through his magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and his many books (which are still widely read today). He stood as a bulwark against Higher Criticism, the rationalist theology coming from Germany, which threatened to undermine the true biblical faith.

One fruit of Spurgeon’s battle with depression is that he wrote about it. When a Preacher is Downcast was one sermon, pregnant with his own experience.

Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited with it at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts on it…

Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically… As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off balance? These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of serviceWhere in body and mind there are predisposing causes to lowness of spirit, it is no marvel if in dark moments the heart succumbs to them.

The preacher’s work has much to try the soul. The loneliness of God’s prophet tends to depression. How often do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us? After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.

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In 1858, at the age of 24, he wrote: “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.” In his ‘Lectures to My Students’, he made this observation:

Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discourses. One would as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.

Yet even here he can sound a note of hope: The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back. It was to this heavenly hand that Spurgeon constantly looked, as we will see in a following post.

John Piper, in a perceptive article on Spurgeon and adversity, sees several contributing factors to Spurgeon’s depression.

Overwork. His friend, missionary David Livingstone, said he did the work of two men every day: running his orphanage (Spurgeons, still a leading charity today) and a church of 4,000 members (the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London); editing a magazine, writing books, answering several hundred letters a week – the list goes on. Spurgeon saw this as a virtue (“If we die early because of excessive labour, there is more of heaven“). Today, many would seriously question his ‘work – life balance’.

Pain and sorrow. He married Susannah in 1856. Their twin sons were born the day after the horrific stampede at a service where he was preaching in 1856, where seven people were trampled to death. So for Spurgeon, even the gift of fatherhood was a mixed blessing. They had no more children. When Susannah was 33, she became an invalid and remained so until she died, 27 years later. Spurgeon himself suffered so badly from gout that he felt he was being bitten by snakes. He was known to say that the pain would be the end of him.

Hostile criticism. Perhaps because he was a larger than life figure and popular, Spurgeon was attacked from all quarters of the Church.  In 1857 he wrote: “Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.”

Yet it was the trauma of the seven people trampled to death in the Royal Surrey Gardens that broke something in him, at only 22 and newly wed. In his first book, The Saint and His Saviour, he described his agony:

When the storm was over, a kind of stupor of grief ministered a mournful medicine to me. I sought solitude, where I could tell my griefs to flowers and the dew could weep with me. Here my mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My thoughts, which had been to me a cup of delights, were like pieces of broken glass, the piercing and cutting miseries of my pilgrimage.

Image: mflikie.com

Image: mflikie.com

In time, Spurgeon learned to rise from this deep pit of ‘shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness‘ and make his mark on church and nation. Eventually, he could even see divine providence behind it.

By nature a fighter, Spurgeon initially refused to accept depression. He called it his “worst feature.” “Despondency is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.” With the passing years, as bouts of depression continued to lay him low, he came through to various conclusions, which may be of help to anyone who struggles with the ‘all-beclouding hopelessness.’

In an early (1859) sermon, ‘The Sweet Uses of Adversity‘, he writes: Perhaps in your own person you are the continual subject of a sad depression of spirit? and offers some thoughts. These could be seen as the standard Christian answers, even a little pat.

  • It may be that God is contending with you that he may show his own power in upholding you (much as the parent of a gifted child delights to see it put through hard questions, because he knows the child can answer them all).
  • Perhaps, O tried soul, the Lord is doing this to develop graces in you. Afflictions are often the black mounts in which God sets the jewels of his children’s graces, to make them shine the better.
  • God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.
Spurgeon in later years

Spurgeon in later years

We sense two things emerging. First, an undefensive acceptance that bad and painful things happen, and we may never know why. The great preacher who could analyse most things in life and present them in a 3-heading sermon, could not analyse pain and depression.

Second, a more mature response to the issue of depression, born of his experience. In a later sermon, ‘When a Preacher is Downcast‘, he stresses the need for wisdom, recreation, for time spent enjoying nature, and for vacations to maintain a healthy soul. He also brings in the positives of his experience in the dark valleys of depression.

  • This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry. The cloud is black before it breaks and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy.
  • Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer blessing. So have far better men than I found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn.

 

 

 

 

Women on Fire: the “Hallelujah Lasses” of the Early Salvation Army

Some of my best men are women“, said William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army.  The Army recognised spiritual gifting and cared nothing for gender. The Booths’ own fearsomely talented and God-loving daughters led the way. William himself was known to give over the platform to his teenage daughter Kate, who could often reach people’s hearts better than he could.

Similarly, if the Army was looking to plant a new church (in their jargon, ‘start a corps’), they frequently sent in a team of young, sometimes teen-aged women. And they did the job! Here is one example among many.

The great question in most churches which are at all earnest in their work, is how to reach the masses. Sounds relevant? This isn’t some present-day church growth report; it comes from an English newspaper, the Northern Daily Express, of 4th March 1879, and concerns events in Gateshead.

The journalist comments that the section of the community that lies outside the usual compass of religious life comprised most of the audience. More unusual still, the work which experienced ministers and the ordinary agencies of churches had failed in, has been attempted by a few young women. These were the “Hallelujah Lasses”, the stormtroopers of the early Salvation Army.

Some six or eight weeks ago, about half-a-dozen young women made a raid under the banner of a Gospel mission among the lowest classes in the town, and they have succeeded in the most remarkable manner… They have got such a hold upon the masses as to tame some of the worst of the characters. A thorough transformation has been effected in the lives of some of the most thoughtless, depraved and criminal.

These women, most in their twenties, hired music-halls for their meetings. Despite the sneers from all sides, within a short time these places were filled to overflowing for three hours, and hundreds are unable to gain admission.

In China today, many evangelists are women Image: evangelismnews.net

In China today, with many pastors in prison, leading evangelists are often women Image: evangelismnews.net

What can have enabled these Salvation Army girls to achieve such breakthroughs? Much comes down to the ‘first love’ fire of a new movement in the flower of its vigour. But we must see in action here the twin elements of BLOOD and FIRE that were to become the Army’s motto. A total conviction of the power of Jesus’ redeeming blood to save even the worst, together with the freshness of the Holy Spirit’s filling (for which Salvationists spent whole nights of prayer) kept them pressing into territory where other feared to go, and expecting results.

They also used the power of personal testimony. The journalist tells of the roughest and most criminal of people glorifying God for their soul’s salvation. And the Army used the passion of youth: One youth, who is evidently not more than fourteen, is quite a phenomenon, and certainly has a marvellous utterance for one so young and inexperienced. On Saturday night, we were told, he spoke for twenty minutes, and carried the audience so fully away with him, that in the midst of his address three or four persons went up to the penitent form [benches placed at the front of the hall, where people could come and kneel, pray, repent and receive personal prayer].

A contemporary caricature

The journalist concludes, perceptively, that what is needed in the work now is consolidation – some agency to carry the converts beyond the few simple truths they have got hold of, and to give them an interest in the work when the excitement of the change and the effort has passed away.

For further information about the Hallelujah Lasses, and the example of ‘Happy Eliza’, follow this link to The Victorian Web.

Prepare to Meet Thy Dome? Some Mediaeval Christian Attitudes to Baldness

A Greek philosopher, 4th century BC

Synesius of Cyrene (died AD 414), was a North African aristocrat and a Neo-Platonist philosopher. He married a Christian woman and embraced her faith, in time becoming bishop of Ptolemais (in modern Libya). He enjoyed debate and, it appears, humour. In the latter vein is his short essay entitled Eulogy of Baldness. Aptly, a eulogy is a speech in praise, typically of one now departed!

He bills it as a riposte to Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40-115), a Greek orator, philosopher and historian who led a colourful life in the highest circles of Imperial Rome. He had produced an Encomium on Hair. An encomium was a celebratory speech. Here we read: After rising in the morning and praying to the gods, as is my custom, I attended to my hair. I happened to be in poor health at the time, and it had been too long neglected. Most of it had become knotted and entangled, like that which hangs about a sheep’s legs, but much coarser than this, for it is tangled with fine hairs.

What had led Dio to embrace grooming? Consideration of the importance of hair to human beauty and dignity. Homer rarely mentions anyone’s eyes (except Agamemnon’s), he reflects, while Achilles, Odysseus, Menelaus and more are specifically praised for their hair. Dio also considers those around him who love beauty and give their hair great importance, and who not merely give it serious attention but even keep a sort of reed in the hair itself, with which they comb it when they are at leisure… They think much more of keeping their hair clean than of sleeping agreeably. 

A splendidly hirsute Spartan warrior

Synesius admits the Encomium is “so brilliant a work that the bald man, in the face of its arguments, must be covered with shame.” Even so, he jumps to the defence of the follicly challenged. His Eulogy is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. Besides taking issue with Dio’s reading of Homer, Synesius makes points like these:

Wild animals are hairy; bald animals are intelligent
The most intelligent of all people, the philosophers, are all bald
A sphere is a perfect, even divine form
The glimmer of a bald head is a source of light

He includes a riotous account of a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia, where the Persians found they could seize a Greek by his long hair and beard and dispatch him with ease. Alexander was forced to retreat and set the barbers loose on his troops. Thereafter, the Persians, the campaign no longer proceeding according to their hopes, as there was no longer anything to hold on to, were condemned to struggle in armour against much superior adversaries.

A mediaeval tonsured monk

Quite where the tonsure, the shaved bald patch of monks, fitted into this scenario, I have yet to find out. ‘All things to all men’?

Fast forward to the 12th century and we find no less than Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), abbess, writer, composer, philosopher and general polymath, with things to say about baldness. In her On Natural Philosophy and Medicine she sees a link between male head hair and facial hair and male fertility – one of the first to do so. And as for male pattern baldness, she even lists a cure.

Take bear fat, a small quantity of ashes from wheat straw or from winter wheat straw, mix this together and anoint the entire head with it, especially those areas on the head where the hair is beginning to fall out. Afterwards, he should not wash this ointment off for a long while… When these ingredients are mixed as described, they will hold a person’s hair for a long time so that it does not fall out.

No doubt the sheer smell and unpleasantness would also have appealed to the contemporary love of penance and punishing the flesh?

 

From St Basil to Richard Foster: in Praise of Simplicity

 

A ‘minimalist’ living room today                                            Image: design-milk.com

Basil of Caesarea wrote his sermon To the Rich sixteen centuries ago, but the context was strikingly similar to today.  ‘Those who have recently grown rich desire more of the same,’ he writes. ‘They ought to be happy and contented, but immediately they yearn to be equal with the super-rich.’  Meanwhile, the hungry poor huddled in misery in doorways.

A time of crisis had struck in the form of a great famine. Everyone was afraid of what might come. Social structures were under threat, established patterns of life could not be trusted. Not unlike the global threat of terrorism today.

Basil used the opportunity to press for justice, mercy and equality, but above all for simplicity.

“The soul becomes like the things it gives itself to,” he writes in his Homily on Humility, “and takes the character and appearance of what it does. So let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your manner, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.”And let your speech, your singing, the way you relate to your neighbour, be in accord with humility rather than with vanity. In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excess sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing. In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.”

 

Image: latexsens.com

Image: latexsens.com

Most of all, Basil pressed for a voluntary redistribution of wealth and resources, as in the first Church at Jerusalem. As this writer sees it, Basil ‘saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the Scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor.’

To Basil, a refusal to embrace simplicity and sustainability is a crime. “Someone who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.” (Homily I Will Tear Down My Barns)

Image: iquim.org

Image: iquim.org

Readers today may be more familiar with Richard Foster’s seminal work, Celebration of Discipline, which first appeared in 1978. Here are a few of the practical disciplines for a simpler life that are advocated there. The echoes of Basil sixteen centuries earlier are unmistakable.

* Buy things for their usefulness rather than for status. Basil: ‘When I enter a house and see it shimmering with every kind of crass trinket, I realise that the owner may have given what was soulless a facelift, but he has an unbeautified soul‘.

* Develop a habit of giving things away. Basil attacks the ‘strange madness’ whereby, ‘when wealth overflows, it gets buried in the ground in secret places, “in case they need it one day”.’ And this, while the poor and hungry clamour at their gate.

* Reject anything that will breed oppression of others. Basil castigates the rich: ‘How many people could one of your gold-encrusted fingers release from debt? How many broken-down homes could be rebuilt? You say you are doing no-one an injustice, yet you plunder so much for yourselves!

* Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Basil: ‘The world was created for the common benefit of all. The animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth, and all living creatures permit each other to satisfy their need for food. But we hoard that which is common, and keep for ourselves what belongs to many others.’

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