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First Fruits: The Giving of the Harvest
"Behold I am Doing a New Thing" - A Vision of Harvest
Giving in Abundance
I recently ran into an interesting series of religious trading cards for children depicting some heroes of the Hebrew Testament including King Hezekiah. These do come in a series, but only old Hunky Hez got the sexy, lounging on the bed, pose. I'm not completely sure why. In the chapters from 2 Kings he does put on sack cloth, but there's nothing in there about him reclining suggestively on a bed. It seems they would show him cleansing the temple or gladly accepting the abundant tithes of the people, but no, apparently, Hezekiah's exploits were so great that he was an ancient Hebrew pinup!
I can tell you without hesitation that every pastor and non-profit organization leader who reads about King Hezekiah dreams about having his kind of authority. All Hezekiah had to do was send out a decree and as soon as the people heard it they "gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything." Wouldn't it be nice if the pastor or organization leader could just say, "Give" and people did? But, we live in a democracy where such decrees would be met with a well-deserved, "Who do you think you are, the king?"
But, Hezekiah did more than just send out a decree about tithing. What made him such a great king was that he cleansed the temple and returned Israel to proper worship of God. In the days before Hezekiah ascended to the throne, the people had strayed from God and had turned to idol worship. Hezekiah changed all that - he destroyed the idols and returned the people to right relationship with God. In short, he led the people out of spiritual bondage.
Can you think of any place in the world today that has personally freed you from spiritual bondage? I'll give you a minute to think about it. I'll give you a minute to browse through the links on this page or perhaps take a look at our issues page that shows all the issues we've published over the past ten years. I'm sure you'll come up with some place that has helped you to come into a closer relationship with God and smash the idols of the world that you may have been worshipping and that have held you in spiritual bondage.
What was it exactly, other than a kingly decree that made the people give in such abundance? Gratitude. Hezekiah's story is full of references to how the people rejoiced (2 Chronicles 29:36, 30:25) and gave thanks (2 Chronicles 30:22). After years of spiritual bondage, bowing down to graven images and giving their allegiance to things of this world, the people were so grateful to be delivered from spiritual bondage and returned to a right relationship with God that they gave in abundance out of everything they had. They gave not just money but the first fruits of their harvests - they tithed on everything they had - not just what was in their wallets at the moment. They gave in abundance, not just because the king ordered it, but because they felt blessed.
V. Gene Robinson, the controversial Anglican bishop of New Hampshire understands this attitude of gratitude. He says that his own practice of tithing comes from his deep feelings of being blessed. The Kentucky native grew up poor, the son of sharecroppers who grew tobacco. The house they lived in didn't even have running water until Robinson was ten years old. Before that they had to crank water out of cistern and heat it on the stove if they wanted hot water.
Robinson weighed ten pounds when he was born. Because his mother had a rare blood type, the doctors decided against a C-section and instead delivered the future bishop with forceps. He was completely paralyzed on his right side and his head was crushed in. The doctors asked his father for a name for both the birth and death certificates. Bishop Robinson's parents had already picked out a name for a girl, so they just changed the spelling, figuring it wouldn't matter on a tombstone. So, the good bishop's name is "Vicky Gene" - spelled V-I-C-K-Y G-E-N-E. Robinson says he still can't use his credit cards without someone saying, "I'm sorry, sir. You can't use your wife's credit card."
Robinson writes: "As I hope is obvious, I did live. I was paralyzed for about a month and then they gave me to my parents to take me home. They were told I would never walk or talk or have any use of myself. On the night before my consecration as a bishop, my mother -- who had always said to me that she believed God had saved me for something -- gave me a little card, and all it said was 'Now I guess we know what it was.'"
Robinson says his practice of giving is directly tied to his gratitude for simply being alive. Now, he is blessing many others and helping to free many GLBT Christians from spiritual bondage through his ministry in the Episcopal Church. God had a dream for Bishop Robinson, and as his mother said, "Now I guess we know what it was."
Hear the good news - God has a dream for your life as well. In Jeremiah 29:11 God assures us, "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." Jesus assures us that God will give us life abundantly. I'm sorry to have to tell you that abundance doesn't always equal material wealth - instead abundance can mean many things. Bishop Robinson isn't a rich man, but I would call his life abundant - full of the fruit of the spirit. It's certainly full of challenges as the Episcopal Church debates is future since his installation - but what an abundant life he's living, all because he allowed God's dream for his life - God's plans - to be put ahead of his own.
I understand this. As I told my spiritual director recently, this is not the life I had dreamed for myself. About five years ago, my dreams included continuing a career in journalism, finishing seminary and if I happened to fall and hit my head, I probably would have pursued a PhD. Most of all, every single one of my dreams prominently featured me living in Atlanta. But, God's dreams are so much bigger than my dreams.
A woman came into my life - a woman I believe God sent to me. She became my home - I'd follow her anywhere - even out of my beloved Atlanta - even into South Carolina. Here, God dreamed big dreams for me and gave me community, a church, a ministry and an opportunity within a new denomination to find even bigger and more abundant dreams to dream. My cup runneth over - my gratitude knows no bounds.
That verse I gave you from Jeremiah - it's interesting to look at the verses that come before it. The people of Israel have been exiled to Babylon - they're being held in bondage. What does God tell them? He tells them to settle in - build homes, get married, raise families - because this is not God's dream for them. God had bigger plans, but for now, God tells them, grow where you're planted. Become joyous, grateful people, because God's dreams for them were coming to fruition. Eventually, they do - the exiles return to Israel - they are freed from the literal and spiritual bondage that held them.
What is holding you in bondage? What is keeping you from living a grateful life - a life full of abundance, a life relying on God's dreams to come true in your life? Check in with yourself - are you in the midst of God's dream coming true in your life right now? Perhaps there have been disappointments and set backs - things just don't seem to be going right. Your plans have been destroyed. Your ideas have fallen flat. Can you see a bigger hand a work? Can you find evidence in your life of God's dreams beginning to take hold? Opportunities you didn't seek, people in you life helping you in ways you didn't expect, the right things coming together at the right time? Perhaps you feel like you're in exile - wanting God's dreams to come true for you right now. You're feeling restless, you want to return home now - you don't like feeling exiled. God tells us to settle in - don't worry, be happy! God has plans. Continue on the path that you feel God has set before you, live your life in gratitude and enjoy the abundance that God has already given to you.
Again, that may not be material wealth - we're not promised worldly riches, we're promised abundance, and abundance takes many forms. In our capitalist society we're told from birth that unless we have a big bank account, we're not blessed - we're not experiencing abundance. I'm here to tell you, that's not true. When Hezekiah's people gave abundantly they gave out of everything they had - not just their bank account. There are many people who read Whosoever who have tiny bank accounts - but they are living some of the most abundant lives I have ever seen. What's more, they give abundantly out of what they do have - time, talent and a dedication to this ministry. They write for the magazine, they serve on its board of directors, they volunteer to help out when they are needed, they join our mailing lists and are active in its ministry. They find ways to serve that don't involve giving money. They give abundantly out of everything they have.
Why do they do it? Gratitude. They have found a place that has set them free from spiritual bondage. They have learned how to grow where they are planted and in their gratitude they give in abundance.
This is the part of the stewardship essay where I'm supposed to make you feel guilty if you don't give abundantly to our church. But, I'm not going to do that. Instead, I want to give you a couple of tools that you can use if you're just not feeling the abundance in your life. The first tool is that little Hezekiah trading card. I want you to think about old Hunky Hez whenever you're feeling like an exile, held in any sort of spiritual bondage to remind you of that place that helps you to feel free - that incredible, ten year old Web site that sprouts seeds of peace within to your soul - that online community of love that welcomes you and accepts you without judgment. And feel gratitude - thank God for the blessing of this place in your life.
The second tool I want to give you is an exercise in gratitude. I've found this exercise to be most helpful to me when I'm having a bad day and am feeling like all my dreams are falling apart and God's dream for me isn't being realized fast enough. When you're feeling this way I want you to go on a Rampage of Appreciation. Esther and Jerry Hicks talk about this exercise in their book "Ask and it is Given." They write:
"Every time you appreciate something, every time you praise something, every time you feel good about something, you are telling [God]: 'More of this, please.' You need never make another verbal statement of this intent, and if you are mostly in a state of appreciation, all good things will flow to you."
Paul has similar advice in Philippians 4:8:
"...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
In other words, find more reasons to say 'thank you' for things and people in your life. As your practice of appreciation grows, "then you attract something else to appreciate, until, in time, you are experiencing a Rampage of Appreciation."
This rampage can be done anywhere, even on your drive to work - where I find it challenging to appreciate anything except when other drivers get out of my way. Instead of being irritated at other drivers I try a rampage of appreciation.
I love my car. I love that my car gets 50 miles to the gallon! I'm grateful for my job. I love watching the leaves change along my route. I'm grateful when other drivers are courteous.
When you look around there's so much to be grateful for. I'm grateful that God led me to begin this ministry ten years ago. I'm grateful to the writers who have contributed their time and talent to make this magazine a success. I'm grateful for the readers who come here and find peace and joy in the words they read here. I'm grateful for the Internet which lets our message to be spread around the globe. I'm grateful for those who find our ministry so important that they dig deep in their pockets and send us financial support. I'm grateful for those who have never given a dime but continue to use us as a source for their spiritual growth and renewal. I'm grateful that we can be here for everyone to use and enjoy.
You see how addicting it can be to be grateful and how soon it can turn into a rampage of appreciation?
Will we face disappointment, loss, grief and challenges? Yes. Definitely. You can count on it. But, as grateful people we understand that no matter what the challenges are, no matter what the loss, the grief or the disappointment, God has a plan for us - a plan to prosper us, to give us hope and a future. Even in the disappointment, loss, grief and challenges that come our way, we understand that God's dreams are bigger than our own, and we're grateful that ultimately our lives are in God's hands and not our own.
It is out of that knowledge - that gratefulness that God has freed us from all spiritual bondage - that we give. We give abundantly from everything we have. Let us dedicate ourselves to cultivating a keen sense of gratitude. Let us always be on a rampage of appreciation because we understand that God is at work, dreaming dreams of abundance for our future.
But most of all, let Whosoever be a place where whenever the electronic collection plate is whipped out, instead of dispersing a frenzied crowd, it draws a frenzied crowd of grateful, abundant givers.
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. She is an ordained minister and holds a master's in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. She currently serves as assistant pastor at Garden of Grace United Church in Columbia, S.C. She is also a spiritual director, trained through the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism and public relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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