Let the Counting Begin!

As a child growing up in the rural church, I remember singing the old hymn “Count Your Blessings,” written by Johnson Oatman Jr. in 1897. The words of the song urged us to “Count your blessings, name them one by one; And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

At the Mt. View Baptist Church where I was raised, we sang that song all throughout the year, and not just at Thanksgiving.  Inadvertently, this taught me that giving thanks is an ongoing daily discipline, not limited to a holiday season.  In fact, I Thessalonians 5:18 encourages us to “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Thanksgiving is a time of the year set aside for us to re-charge our gratitude by literally counting our blessings, a time to take an inventory of our resources, relationships, and opportunities.

I have discovered that thankfulness is not necessarily a default disposition, but a perspective on life that must be cultivated. In my college days, Grady Nutt encouraged us to develop “an attitude of gratitude.” William Faulkner describes such gratitude as “a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.”  So this week, in a deeper sort of way, as a spiritual exercise, I will count and name my blessings.

The practice of counting our blessings has many benefits.  First, counting our blessings enables us to treasure our blessings. Sometimes we take blessings for granted and we overlook them.  Taking a personal inventory of your blessings brings your blessings into your conscious awareness, sort of like discovering a forgotten garment hidden in the closet, and returning it to the active rotation of your wardrobe.

Second, counting our blessings reminds us to use our blessings wisely.  Our blessings are our real earthly treasures, and we are called to be good stewards or managers of these assets, carefully investing them in ways that help us to fulfill our God-given mission.

Third, counting our blessings encourages us to share our blessings generously.  Most blessings were not intended to flow into our lives, but to flow through our lives into the lives of others. We are not human reservoirs created to preserve our blessings; we are designed to be human conduits, channels through which God’s blessings flow into the lives of others, especially those in need.

Thanksgiving is time to take a count of your blessings, and then let that inventory inspire you toward sensible stewardship, cheerful generosity, and faithful living.

May our feasts and our festivities remind us of our blessings and encourage us to live our days serving, sharing, and growing.  Let the counting begin!

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Wise and Generous Discernment: Making Decisions about Charitable Holiday Giving

by Barry Howard

As the holiday season approaches, my inbox and our mailbox seems to fill quickly with Christmas greetings and with requests for money.  We love getting Christmas cards and letters. After reading them, my wife displays them around the living room with other decorations to remind us of the friendships we share around our community and around the globe.

Request letters are different, because with each request, we have a choice to make. Do we discard or delete those letters as junk mail, or do we consider the request and decide whether that particular organization is going to make the cut in this year’s holiday giving?  I believe it is possible to make both wise and generous decisions about charitable holiday giving.

Most non-profit organizations struggle for funding, even in good years.  In this season of gradual economic recovery, non-profits are in a heated competition for charitable dollars.  Therefore, this year you might want to be prepared for more numerous appeals vying for your holiday or end-of-year giving.

Many businesses and foundations have pre-determined guidelines for determining the charitable causes to which they will make contributions.  At our house, we employ the following guidelines to help us filter through the requests and determine which charities, missions, and ministries will go on our Christmas list;

1. Our first gift goes to the mission offering of our church.  Throughout the year, our tithe (the first 10% of our income) goes to support the ministries of our church.  Primarily, this is an act of obedience in response to what we believe the Bible teaches. Through the years, however, we have observed that the cumulative projects of a local church make a significant impact on improving individual lives.  So at Christmas we give an additional gift to the missions offering to support the work of missionaries around the globe.

2. We tend to give to organizations that are faith-based and focused on assisting the “least of these,” those who are disconnected, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised.

3. We aim to give to organizations that have low overhead and administrative costs.  We don’t want to give to an organization that exists to sustain itself. We want to give to organizations that provide a monumental service to people in need or that serve as conduits to get funds and resources to people in need.

4. We give to organizations that have demonstrated accountability, those who have a reputable board of advisers and a reporting mechanism to let us know where previous gifts have been used.

5. We determine not to do “guilt giving” or to respond to “arm-twisting requests.” We are motivated more by the missional pulse of a group or project than by the emotional plea of the one making the request.

6. We do not give directly to persons on the street, at intersections, or interstate ramps.  Our experience is that people are most effectively helped through missional organizations and relationships.  (We do offer to help get persons on the street to our mission center for assistance, or we offer to buy them a meal, but we do not give money, simply because of the high rate of manipulation and addiction among regular panhandlers.)

7. We recognize that some good organizations will be left out of our giving plan. There are thousands of organizations, ministries, and causes that are trustworthy, accountable, and effective, but we cannot support all of them.  There are hundreds we would like to support, but our resources are limited.  So we choose a few of those organizations or projects that fit our criteria and we give to them cheerfully.

8. We give ourselves a matching challenge that helps us to give generously and according to how we have been blessed.  We try to give an amount equal to the total of what we spend on gifts for family and friends. For example, if we spend $1200 on gifts, we will also give a matching $1200 to missions or charitable causes. Other friends of ours gift an amount equal to their season tickets for college football or an amount equivalent to their annual dues at the country club.

9. We have transitioned to electronic giving, as long as the organization provides or links to a secure web site. E-giving transfers our gift to the organization more quickly and it gives us an immediate receipt of the contribution.

10. We re-evaluate who we are giving to each year and do not automatically give this year to the same groups as last year.

As we grow and learn better stewardship practices, we realize that we are not liable for supporting every worthy cause.  However, we are accountable to God for the resources placed within our care.  We have the privilege, especially during the holidays, of generously discerning from among many worthwhile causes those projects and organizations we will support.  Then we hope and pray that other organizations receive contributions from discerning donors as well.

As you plot and plan your holiday giving, don’t be overwhelmed with guilt for not supporting every single cause. Be generous and wise.  Give to those causes that have a proven track record of ministering to spiritual, physical, and emotional needs.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola.)

Where Is God When Bad Things Happen?

by Barry Howard

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Psalm 13:1-2 NIV

Where is God when bad things happen?  Across the ages, this question has perplexed and frustrated those afflicted with suffering, grief, and pain.  Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with scriptural texts and rational thought striving to make sense of the enigma. Pastors and counselors continually search for explanations that provide encouragement and hope for those scarred by raw human experience.

Chaos comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Changing weather patterns generate dangerous storms that often wreak havoc on population centers by taking lives and destroying property.  Is this an act of nature or an act of God?  A fault line in the earth shifts and suddenly the earth trembles, causing structures to collapse and lives to be lost. Where is God in calamity?  Cells in the body begin rapidly and abnormally growing and multiplying and gradually a mass or tumor appears. Is this some sort of divine test of one’s faith and spirituality?  A drunk driver gets behind the wheel and later strikes a teenager on her way home from a ballgame. The driver survives but the teenager does not. Why doesn’t God intervene to keep such an atrocity from occurring? Where is God when bad things happen?

In one sense, the question is too big to have a simple singular answer.   Religious clichés and slogans give momentary comfort to a novice, but to the person who is hurting, such trite answers seem hollow, shallow, and often insulting. In another sense, to attempt to respond to such a challenging question can seem arrogant or presumptuous.

For me, I can only share how I am processing the question in hopes that my small insight might provide a little light for those dealing with the question from a dark place.  So, here we go…

First, life is not fair.  I wish someone had taught me this hardcore truth when I was much younger.   My early faith was predicated on some naïve assumptions:  God is good. Life is fair. If I go to church, read my Bible, say my prayers, and try to keep the commandments, I will prosper and God will protect me.  If I don’t, bad things will happen.

At this point in my life I would be inclined to say something like this: God really is good. But God never promised that life is fair. Life is tough. Go to church, read your Bible, say your prayers, and follow the ways of Jesus, because you are going to need all of the strength and courage that spiritual faith and spiritual community can offer. You are not exempt from pain, from suffering, or from a tragedy.

Second, I understand that no one is exempt from pain or suffering.  Suffering is no respecter of persons. Disease, depression, accidents, tragedies and death do not care whether I am an atheist, agnostic, or devout believer. In a world broken and scarred by human sin, chaos persists. Accidents happen, disease invades, storms blow, and wars erupt.  When a tornado touches down, it is presumptuous to think that the storm will bypass my house because I have been more spiritual than my neighbor. Faith does not exempt us from the bad stuff. Faith equips us for the journey.

Third, God is present with me at all times. If life is not fair and I am not exempt from the pain and suffering caused by the chaos, where is God when bad things happen?  I believe that God is present with me, not as the perpetrator of the chaos, but as my redeemer in the chaos. God does not necessarily rescue me from the chaos, but God is present helping me navigate the chaos.

Fourth, there is no formula or spiritual incantation to predict or mandate that God will directly intervene the way I prefer. In the Bible there are times that God seems to directly intervene in the chaos, and other times God does not. Why did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, but leave others in the grave?  Why did Jesus heal a select few, while others in his presence remained afflicted?  Was it because of their quantity of faith, or because Jesus deemed them to be less offensive sinners?

What if Jesus chose a select few to demonstrate that disease does not have the final word and will be eliminated in the eternal realm?  What if Jesus raised Lazarus as “exhibit A” in the power of resurrection, or precursor to his own unfolding story?  Interestingly, every person that Jesus healed got sick again and died.  How do we know this? They are not still around, are they?  And Lazarus is the only person in the Bible who had to endure death twice.  That’s right. Lazarus died again.

I believe in prayer and I believe that the healing process is enhanced by a multitude of contributing factors including hope, faith, medicine, exercise, diet, and a positive attitude.  But there are no guarantees, only a challenge to walk by faith with courage and perseverance.  A false premise of a “name it, claim it” approach to religion is that it makes a promise based on isolated scriptures taken out of context, mostly disregarding the suffering of people of faith throughout the Bible.  Job, despite his remarkable faith, was not exempt from compounded tragedy. There is no evidence that Moses was healed from his speech impediment. Samson did not have his eyesight restored. And Paul was not delivered from his “thorn in the flesh.”

Finally, the Bible suggests that God is present and proactive in all of our circumstances. Although God is not the perpetrator who initiates our suffering, Romans 8:28 reminds us that God “works in all things to bring about good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”

In what way is God present?  First, I believe the presence and personality of God, referred to in the Bible as the Holy Spirit, resides within me, not because I merited a holy status, but as one of many gifts of God.  The Spirit convicts, comforts and coaches me according to the conscience and character of Jesus.  It is sort of like having a spiritual mentor living inside of me. Second, I believe that God is present in the corporate Body of Christ.  When Jesus departed the earth, he said to his followers, you are now my body.

Last week, we observed the Lord’s Supper in our church. We partook of the bread and cup as a vivid reminder of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Among other things, we believe that these elements remind us that, as believers, we are now the body of Christ in the world. We are his hands, his feet, his voice, and his passion.   Therefore, God is not only at work to bring about good, but we are the human conduit through which God is at work to share love, comfort, healing, and encouragement.  And if we are distracted by other things, we have essentially tied the hands and feet of God.  But if we are on task, ministry occurs, especially in the face of chaos.

As I wrestle with the question, “Where is God when bad things happen?,” I readily admit that “now I see through a glass darkly,” but to affirm that God is present in my suffering, grief, or pain, even when I cannot fully explain the chaos, brings a little light to the dark places in my life.  And this little bit of light causes me to long for more.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)