kingdom principles for handling money

This blog’s been something of a ‘desert blog’ recently, and for this I apologise. There are three reasons. Firstly, I feel you’re probably still recovering from the deluge of posts that was Sabbath week. Secondly, I’ve been flapping about trying to prepare a couple of talks I’ve been asked to give. (Two in two days! Even my husband rarely does that, and he’s a paid-up preacher man.) Thirdly – I won’t lie – The Apprentice is back on.

Back to the talks. On Monday night I was privileged to go and speak to the wonderful students at my church on the tricky subject of money. God challenged me hugely as I was preparing it so, generous soul that I am, I thought I’d share the challenge here so you can all feel as uncomfortable about your riches as I’m feeling about mine right now. What follows is a slightly-adapted summary of what I spoke about last night.

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The passage was Matthew 6:19-34. I strongly encourage you to take a look before reading the following!

Jesus spoke these words as part of his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Essentially, this sermon is his teaching about the Kingdom of heaven, giving us principles for Kingdom living here on earth – so it’s no surprise that money and possessions make an appearance, being something central to our lives. Sadly, whilst this is an incredibly famous passage, it’s one which we Christians don’t often take literally in our own lives.

1. Live Simply – “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (v.19)

What are your treasures, the things close to your heart? Fashion? Travel? Gadgets? Your home? It’s not wrong to enjoy the blessings God gives us, but this passage suggests that a proactive attitude towards the accumulation of possessions – storing them up for ourselves – is dangerous because it’s not secure. These things don’t last even on earth – they certainly don’t amount to anything in heaven, and this is where our treasure needs to be. A godly life is one of a lack of concern over possessions; it is to understand they they don’t satisfy us – only God does.

It might be easy to live simply now if you’re a student, or on a low income – you have no choice. But what about if/when your income is raised? What about when everyone around you is living a particular lifestyle? When it’s commonplace to have a designer wardrobe, or regularly eat out at expensive restaurants? How do we survive then? By trusting God to satisfy our souls. Get into habits of simple living now so that the temptation is easier to avoid later on. Plan what you need to live on, and stick to it. Don’t assume God wants you to spend all your income on yourself – if your life is God’s, then your money is too.

For this reason, avoid unnecessary debt (store cards, buying on credit, etc – not student loans/mortgages, which usually aren’t avoidable!) – debt assumes a future which, as a Christian, you can’t predict. You don’t know what God has planned for your next step – but debt can limit what He wants to do with you.*

A year ago, Al and I reviewed our finances. From a human perspective, there was no need – we were happy with the amount we were giving, and there was plenty left for us. But God prompted us to raise our giving, so we did. However we didn’t alter our lifestyle – with the result that our bank balance tipped into the red a few times over the year. A ‘logical’, human perspective would say: “You’re giving too much. Lower your giving.” But God says: “You’re spending too much. Live more simply.” So now we live on a much-reduced budget than one year ago. I don’t tell you this story to show off, as if we were a brilliant model of simple living, because I know that millions around the world would weep if they saw our lifestyle. I’m utterly convinced that God will continue to call us to live more simply in the future. But I tell you this story to demonstrate how careful we need to be that we don’t use our money to ‘store up treasures on earth’ just because we can afford to.

The preacher and church leader Charles Simeon, who ministered around 200 years ago, had a great attitude to spending: he aimed to “practise frugality with himself, generosity to friends and family, and liberality to the poor”. What an excellent model!

2) Give Generously – “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (v. 20)

What are treasures in heaven? They are the things which matter to God. Exodus 36 tells a fantastic story of generous giving. God has commanded the Israelites, under Moses’ leadership, to build a temple for him. So they contribute everything needed: the precious metals, rich fabrics, etc. Then this happens:

[The skilled workers] received from Moses all the offerings the Israelites had brought to carry out the work of constructing the sanctuary. And the people continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning. So all the skilled workers who were doing all the work on the sanctuary left what they were doing and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done.’ Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: ‘No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.’ And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work.

(Exodus 36:3-7)

Can you imagine your church leader pleading with people not to give any more for this financial year because they had more money than they knew what to do with?! It would be quite different from the begging/pleading that often takes place. But if we were really storing up treasures in heaven, allowing God to release our finances into Kingdom purposes, then perhaps we’d never need to ask or beg.

The trouble is that we hold on to our money, we store it up here on earth – and what for? What good could be done if Christians were generous? Churches would be restored and fit for the purpose of serving their communities. Those working for churches and Christian organisations would receive a proper salary. There would always be food in the foodbanks, furniture at Besom and debt advisors at CAP centres – and the poor in our communities would never be without. People would be falling over themselves to come to know the God who lovingly and generously provides for them. Around the world, everyone would have access to clean water. Every child would be in school, not work. The Bible could be translated into every known language. There could be a Christian presence in every city, town, suburb and village across the world. Small co-operatives of workers being paid fairly would flourish, blossoming under the weight of demand from rich Westerners, keen to shop ethically. These aren’t accurate financial statements – they’re just me dreaming! But you get the idea.

Or, of course, we could just go on filling our homes with things we don’t need, things which even secular studies show only make us miserable and stressed out.

Now I realise that financial giving is tricky when you’re a student. You’re living off a loan which will eventually be paid back, so you may not feel it’s appropriate to give out of that. But you can look for other ways to give and be generous. Be aware of how God has blessed you. But when you start earning an income…PLAN your giving. Do it immediately, in the first month, otherwise it’ll be harder to start.

Begin with 10% – a good Biblical principle – but don’t expect this to stay fixed.
Rick Warren, an American church leader, found himself enormously wealthy after his book “The Purpose-Driven Life” became the most translated book in history and the best-selling book in English besides the Bible. But many years previously, he and his wife Kay had made a commitment to increase their financial giving, percentage-wise, every year.

“On years that we got a raise and things were good, we’d raise it 3 or 4 per cent, but on years when we were flat broke and the cupboards were bare, we’d raise it a quarter [of a percent]. We didn’t do it to show off. I didn’t tell anybody about it for thirty years but we kept raising it… Now Kay and I give away 91% of our income and live off 9%.

“People ask ‘why’ God chose me to write the book. I say ‘Because God knew what I’d do with the money’. They say that if God gave them tens of millions, they’d give it away too. I say “No you wouldn’t, because you’re not doing it now”. I had a 25-year track record in being generous in poverty.” (For the full article, find the Stewardship magazine here, then you’re looking for magazine no.22.)

You may not have very much now, but start a habit of giving. When you next receive an income, start off tithing 10% and see how God provides for you through the remaining 90%. It’s not always easy, particularly if we’ve never planned our giving before. We may start to worry that we won’t have enough to meet our needs, that we’ll not be able to eat or pay for basic necessities. Jesus knew this, which is why he went on to say “Do not worry”.

3) Don’t Worry – “Do not worry about your life” (v.25) 

How, Jesus? If you’re calling us to live simply and give generously, how can we not worry? The answer lies in verse 32 and it’s not rocket science: “your heavenly Father knows that you need [these things]” This is easy to say but harder to live out. Like so many aspects of our discipleship, we have to take the first step. Giving reflects our faith in a God who knows what we need and who provides – and, as we give, we see that faith increase.

The summer before I started university, I worked in a spice factory. I built up funds for my first term – but spent them before I thought to tithe. Over the Christmas holidays I didn’t find much paid work, and my bank balance was looking ropey – but I felt God prompting me to tithe my summer earnings, which would have wiped me out completely. I’d love to say I had the faith to give – but I didn’t. I gave half. Within a few days, however, I was unexpectedly offered a well-paid job to fit around my studies. God provides! A month or two later I felt Him prompting me to give the rest of that tithe, and this was followed by a gift of money from a relative.
4) Kingdom First – “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (v.33)

Kingdom economy is not about storing up treasures for ourselves. That’s the world’s way. The world says “look out for your own priorities”. Kingdom economy says “look out for God’s priorities”. It’s about giving, giving, giving – allowing God to bless others through what He’s given us – and allowing Him to bless us through others. “Seek first God’s kingdom…then all these things will be added to you.” Jesus is saying if we put God first, He will be sure to provide for all our needs. But the onus is on us – there’s a definite order to that statement: we seek God’s Kingdom, then He provides.

A few years ago, when we were moving from two salaries to one, we felt God call us to tithe our savings. It seemed a huge amount to us at the time but, none the less, we did it. Shortly afterwards, our car insurance company reimbursed us – we were moving to a ‘safer’ postcode and therefore had overpaid our insurance for that year. We then received two surprise cheques from a relative and a godparent. Then we sold something on eBay that turned out to be a bit rare and worth more than we’d thought. Adding this all up, it came to exactly the amount we’d given away at the start of the summer! We didn’t give in order to receive back – but it was God’s way of assuring us that He knew our situation and our concerns, and He wasn’t going to stop providing for us.

God knows our needs – we don’t have to grab for them, or store up our treasures. He knows and He will provide.

Rick Warren ends by saying: “For 37 years, God and I have playing this game. He says “OK Rick, you give to me, and I’ll give to you, and we’ll see who wins”. I have lost that game for 37 years. You cannot out-give God. I dare you…”

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* This talk was aimed at students who, I assumed, didn’t yet have ‘unnecessary’ debt. If you’re reading this and are in debt, please don’t take it as a judgement, but an encouragement that God wants to help you pay off those debts! And if you’re in serious debt, please get in touch with CAP.

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parenthood and ministry

This is part of an originally small, but now bordering on self-indulgent, series about discipleship as a parent of tiny children. Missed it? You can catch up here. Go on! Go on, go on, go on!

A year ago, my friend was praying and had a very clear, if initially bizarre, picture for me. I was in a pear orchard (like, how normal is that? Do they even exist??), and I picked two pears. I ate one, and put the other in my pocket ‘for later’.

It took several weeks for my frazzled little brain to work out the significance of this, but then I got it. The pears were different ‘ministries’ God had put on my heart. One (ministry to mums and young families) was for now; the other (worship leading) was ‘for later’.

Now I’d been involved in leading worship, one way or another, since I was 11. In some churches I’d had significant responsibility for the development of musical worship. Of course this had taken a backseat since having children, but I’d had some opportunities to be involved in worship leading between the two kids arriving, and was looking forward to returning to the worship team in the autumn, once Missy was weaned. It appeared, however, that God had other ideas.

In hindsight, it all makes sense. What my friend was really praying for, as she was given the picture, was the future of outreach to mums and families in our city. Little were we to know that, just weeks later, God would begin to lay the foundations of a brand-new toddler group – and call me to be heavily involved. At the time I was peaceful, if slightly perplexed, by the picture. Now, I’m massively grateful that God was calling me to slow down: there’s no way I could have continued with both ‘pears’ the way things turned out.

Sometimes parenthood can leave us feeling out-of-the-loop, ministry-wise. We long to use our God-given resources to serve the church, and it’s not like we feel un-talented anymore, it’s just that parenting kind of eats at those resources until we feel we have nothing left for others. When I’m in and out of the cell group I apparently lead, because my boy won’t settle in creche without me, how can I possibly facilitate a Bible study or develop deep relationships with other members? When I’m nervously glancing at the clock, wondering how much more milk my baby can possibly extract from me, because we need to get out of bed and rush into town to set up toddler group, how can I then bear to show my face in front of a large group of mums and their kids, knowing that I’ve impatiently rushed my own daughter through her morning feed?

Ministering to others outside my own family has, in the past, felt like a massive juggling act, where I end up dropping all the balls, and prioritising the additional ones rather than the basic three I’d been given to handle. It has left me feeling guilty for putting my family second, then jubilant for finding ways to involve my kids in service to others – and then just flippin’ drained.

But God is teaching me the beauty of these well-worn verses in 2 Corinthians:

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

(2 Corinthians 12:9)

When we insist on struggling forward in our own strength – which, let’s face it, is hardly at its peak during early parenthood – it’s like we’ve forgotten to call on the power of the risen Christ to act in all situations. But when we take a break from using our gifts because we’re just too exhausted – well, perhaps we’ve forgotten that we can call on the power of the risen Christ to act in all situations.

So why tell you about the pears? Because this was God’s confirmation to me that He still has stuff for me to do: that I’m not defunct just because I have two tiny people to care for. They are my main ministry, but they have also opened up other opportunities which God has called me into.

Now, a year on from any sort of worship leading, I find myself preparing to lead a slot this week at the Burn 100-hour prayer and worship event. The following week I’ll be giving two separate talks on two separate challenging subjects to two separate groups of students. Do I feel equipped for any of this?

Paul had his weaknesses – mine are a lack of sleep, time, coherent thought, completed conversations: need I go on? But, like Paul, I’ll ‘boast all the more gladly’ because, however much of an idiot I look, if God’s power and glory are displayed through this frail, shattered, incoherent mess of a desertmum, then that’s good enough for me.

Is this a good series? Are you enjoying it? Any of it? Be honest! I have a couple more ideas then will probably wrap it up. Is that a good idea? Are you bored yet?

sabbath week day 7: the end (or is it the beginning?)

It’s been a few days since I blogged, so let me first bring you up to speed with how Sabbath week has ended, before I share a few thoughts on the whole experience.

On Friday, the fridge was starting to look pretty bare – but we still managed cheese sandwiches for lunch. In the evening there was enough left over from Thursday evening to feed the kids – while we were treated by friends to a wonderful meal in a lovely Italian restaurant. I won’t go into it in too much depth here as it was on my Bucket List, so you’ll hear about it soon – but we enjoyed it very much. When we’d planned the date I didn’t realise it was going to be Sabbath week – just another way God has provided for us this week. (And we were able to leave a couple of meals for our kind babysitters.)

On Saturday, we wanted to be generous. We still had things to use up from the freezer, as well as some other bits and bobs which we figured could make a good meal. Al’s in his element when using up random foodstuffs, so I gave him the opportunity to play ‘Ready Steady Cook’, and we invited four friends to come share our ‘smorgasbord’ (the ‘smorgiest bord I’ve ever seen’, said one of them). The appetizer (yes! there was an appetizer!) was homemade taramasalata with pitta bread. This was followed by pork and cider stew (from the freezer); chicken, bacon and potato stew (freezer); onion tart and a tasty concoction of chicken thighs, tinned tomatoes, sour cream, olives, mushrooms and capers. Pudding was a frozen Bailey’s cheesecake, made prior to Sabbath week.

2013-05-04 20.15.11

Today we had our roast beef (one of only two items I’d allowed myself to buy in advance), roast potatoes, no Yorkshires, and a slightly bizarre but none-the-less tasty mix of roasted squash, carrots and onions. For pudding, I used up the last bit of a packet of pudding rice, made it with part coconut milk, and served it with caramelised pineapple (a gift from a friend). Two friends joined us for this Sabbath feast.

There was gravy too...don't know what possessed me to snap this plateful before gravy had been applied.
There was gravy too…don’t know what possessed me to snap this plateful before gravy had been applied.

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So now what? Does anything change regarding our cooking or shopping habits? Was Sabbath week a success? Was it right to accept gifts of food?

A wise friend, after reading Wednesday’s blog post, wrote this to me: “I reckon in the sabbath year there would have been lots of sharing to ensure everyone could celebrate God’s love and goodness; now you are living that out as the recipients. Be Glad. Know that God wants to bless you through his people…Rather than sabotage these gifts are a sacramental act in their significance. There will be many more opportunities…for you to share God’s love and goodness with [others] during their sabbaths or periods of need.”

Some have suggested that it would have been more interesting to blog after Sabbath week, to see how God provided, rather than blog during the week, when people would give us food because they knew what we were doing. But this is kind of missing the point. Our intention in having a Sabbath week was not to try surviving on less. That would be confusing our week with the sort of experiment Jen Hatmaker undertook in her book Seven, or the challenge that several friends have got involved with recently to live off £1 a day. Surviving on less may have been an expected outcome but it was not the point. If you refer back to my original post, our intentions were:

* to exercise more trust in God

* to give ourselves a rest (Sabbath) from shopping for food

* to give our bank balance a rest (Sabbath) and potentially release money for other uses

* to reduce unnecessary food waste

I’ll let you into a secret. Even if we’d been given no food by others, we were never going to starve during Sabbath week. In some ways, I was hoping that Al and I would be living off plain rice by the end of the week, just to have a great story for the blog. But, deep down, I knew that we’d have plenty of variety for the whole week – not because we’d planned it that way (we deliberately didn’t stock up for the week) but because we’re typical Western consumers who store up treasures on earth, and that includes storing up ridiculous amounts of food in our cupboards. I expected that this final blog post would tell of how we are indulgent over-consumers, and how ashamed this makes me feel. I expected to write about deep guilt, leading to deep repentance, over how little I consider others in the world who have far less. I expected to abandon my persistent drive to find new recipes, new ingredients, new cuisines. I expected to renounce my supposed food ‘needs’ (“I must have my 5-a-day”, “I must eat more fish”, “I must eat less red meat”) as if they were a right shared by everyone, and not simply a luxury afforded by a few.

I expected to do all these things – and, in a way, I have. Or, rather, I am doing – for none of these changes can happen overnight.

But actually what this week really taught me, what I really wanted to share with you, was about God’s economy. At the start of the week, we had two planned-in-advance occasions for being hospitable: Tuesday night and Sunday lunchtime. Was I going to invite anyone else? Are you kidding? Without a supermarket trip? No – I was selfishly going to keep the food we did have to ourselves.

God had a better plan. He always does. His plan was that we would share what we had with others – rather than close our door on guests for the week. My shame is that He had to make the first move – giving us food via friends – in order to prompt us into giving to others.

But then again, He’s good at making the first move: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

God’s economy: whatever we have – give it away. Next Sabbath week will be different: I’ll enter it with more thoughts of hospitality and sharing – then we’ll see what God does!

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Next Sabbath week for us will be 17th-23rd June. Do join us! Feel free to create your own guidelines which work for you and your family. I may or may not blog about it, so don’t rely on a reminder: get the dates in your diary!

sabbath week day 4: cake

Today I was due to take cake to Mums ‘n’ Tots. When I signed up a few weeks ago, I hadn’t realised that this would be Sabbath week. And we have no eggs in the house. No problem – I love a challenge.

I started with an easy no-bake treat which didn’t need eggs. Fortunately I had all the ingredients from a couple of weeks back, when I’d hoped to make this particular treat with Mister. I forgot, of course, that as soon as the temperature hit double figures, he’d be wanting to spend all his time playing ball games outside. Silly me. (I don’t know if our garden’s become bushier or Mister’s improved his kick, or both, but I seem to be spending a much larger proportion of my days inside a hedge, retrieving lost balls, than I was last summer. Mental note: get hayfever tablets.)

So, anyway, Mister’s lack of interest in cooking fared me well for making these delish chocolate honeycomb crunchies. And there were lots of positive comments at the group this morning too. Win!

2013-05-01 21.26.54

But I felt I needed a second contribution – the crunchies alone wouldn’t feed many mums or tots. (Certainly not this tot, who spends the first half of Thursday mornings playing disinterestedly with the toys whilst keeping a watchful eye on the cake table, alerting me when the cakes have been laid out and a queue is forming. And, as if that weren’t embarrassing enough, she then proceeds to queue-jump, and stand, drooling, by the table until I catch up with her. I starve her, you know. The only reason she goes to toddler groups is for the cake.)

I turned to the Pink Whisk for inspiration and, lo and behold, an egg-less cake which would fit the bill for the group (no icing, not too messy, not too indulgent, not too boring, no nuts for choking, no alcohol for getting tipsy, etc etc): golden syrup cake. It tasted good – no melt-in-the-mouth quality like egg-rich cakes, but not unpalatable. I was very pleased to be able to use one of Ruth’s recipes – I was a big fan when she was on the Bake-Off t’other year, and don’t use her blog nearly as much as I should. The recipe makes two, so instead of taking one to the group and freezing one (which would inevitably have been for us, hence contributing to our already overly-abundant stock of food), I took everything to the group: the crunchies, and two golden syrup loaf cakes.

Why take one cake when you can take three?

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If you’re thinking you only spy two cakes, that’s because you do – the third ‘cake’ being the crunchies mentioned earlier. Stop scanning and read properly, you corner-cutter.

In the spirit of being generous with what others have given us, I then had lunch with a friend who’s just had a baby, and was able to take a good selection of fruit, veg, fresh bread and chocolate fingers. Tonight we feasted on beef, potato wedges, garlic mushrooms and roasted celery, courgettes and peppers.

Tomorrow, we shall eat like Kings…but you’ll have to wait to find out why.

I will blog more on the unexpected turn in our Sabbath week mentioned yesterday, I will, but today is for cake. I hope you understand.

sabbath week day 3: sabotage

We are nearing the end of day 3 of Sabbath week and have already been given (not bought): oranges, a pineapple, sour cream, chocolates (Thornton’s and Ferrero Rocher), chocolate fingers, courgettes, peppers, cherry tomatoes, a cucumber, mushrooms, potato wedges, bananas, a butternut squash, roast beef, Easter eggs, pitta bread, pancakes, hot chocolate, Babybel cheese and cereal bars. To top it all off, we were bought an Indian takeaway last night. (In my defense, I already had a lamb goulash prepared, using leftover Easter roast lamb from the freezer and the aforementioned sour cream.)

A selection of Sabbath week abundance. Forgive poor photo quality - just using my phone at the moment, as I've totally failed to buy a camera for the last five months.
A selection of Sabbath week abundance. Forgive poor photo quality – just using my phone at the moment, as I’ve totally failed to buy a camera for the last five months.

Something is going wrong.

Sabbath week was supposed to be about living more simply, empathising with the poor, using what we had and being creative. Instead it’s turned into something of a minor Food Festival, minus the crowds of foodies traipsing through, comparing differently infused breadcrumbs.

Sabbath week is being sabotaged.

I don’t know much about the rules of sabotage (can anyone help me?), but having spent the last 24 hours mulling things over, it would appear that my only option is to foil the sabotage by planning an even more generous attack than that which has fallen on our fridge.

It’s time to start giving it away. For the rest of Sabbath week, we’ll be inviting people round for meals, taking contributions when we go to friends’ houses, cooking up what we have and giving it to others in as many different contexts as we can.

Let’s see whether anyone can sabotage that, eh?