February 26, 2014
Dear Canaan EM’ers and friends,
A couple of quick announcements and then some thoughts:
1. This Saturday is Family Pizza and Game Night (5:30pm-8pm, Fellowship Hall) $2/person for food. If you haven’t registered yet, please contact Shirley Tai [email Shirley] immediately.
2. Christian rap artist Jason Chu will be performing a concert at Canaan on Friday, April 4 (8 pm) (sponsored by several churches). Jason is a musical artist who graduated from Yale University and is currently studying at Fuller Seminary. His ministry speaks to Asian American young adults yearning for identity and purpose. More information is forthcoming, but please come and invite your friends. We are looking for young adults to volunteer to promote the event and help out at church that evening. See:
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“Brother, can you spare a dime?” God asks us
In America and East Asia, the wealthier we get, the stingier we become. Let’s call this the Ebenezer Scrooge syndrome. By the way, “Ebenezer” comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. It originally meant “stone of help” (1 Samuel 7:12). It’s interesting that Charles Dickens gave this name to the miserly curmudgeon from his 1843 classic novel, A Christmas Carol.
The Scrooge syndrome is not just about money. It’s also about availability. As we achieve greater status, do we find less time to spend with friends and family? When we have and raise children, do we become less available to our peers? And often, it feels like we can’t control our time since our employers and children demand so much of us, right? The older we get and the more responsibilities we’re given, the more miserly we become.
And more than our private lives are affected. The social impact of the Scrooge syndrome can be seen in the increasing economical disparity and the loss of community.
So let this be a lesson to youth and young adults: cultivate generosity and availability while young – it’ll be harder to do when you are older.
The Concept of First Fruits
God knows that the Scrooge syndrome is the fruit of sin that destroys individuals and communities. He knows that when we give the leftovers of our time and money for others, it rapidly shrinks when other things become priorities in our lives. For example, many students stop going to church temporarily to prepare for SATS or other exams; couples stop connecting with friends when they become more serious about their relationship, etc. Therefore, as we become more “successful” we feel like we can spare less and less for others.
To counter the Scrooge approach of giving away left overs, God invites the people of Israel to give their “first fruits” to him (specifically, to the temple of God). In Exodus 25:4-7, God instructed his people to offer “gold, silver and bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen…” Later, he chooses Bezaiel and Oholiab to give their artistic talent to embellish the tabernacle and the priestly robes (Exodus 31:1-11). Why? The offerings of the people were collected in order to build a sanctuary and to clothe the priests (verses 8-9).
Much later, when the people of Israel returned from exile to rebuild the temple and city walls of Jerusalem, they make a covenant, i.e., a mutual commitment, to sustain the temple (Nehemiah 9:38). In Nehemiah 10:35, they agree to “assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the Lord each year the firstfruits of our crops and of every fruit tree.” In verses 36-39, they pledge to bring the firstborn of their sons and cattle to the house of God; they also promise “to bring a tithe” of their crops.
There are other instances in the Old Testament where God commands his people to give their best first. While it would be a mistake to interpret the “first fruit” concept legalistically, it is important to understand the spirit behind these commandments. Nehemiah 10:39 explains the whole point of giving “first fruits”:
We will not neglect the house of our God.
By giving their “first fruits” to the temple, the people of Israel are able to reverse the Scrooge syndrome. How? God’s priorities are to care for the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the alien – which stands in sharp contrast to the economic disparity and loss of community that results from the Scrooge syndrome. When we offer our “first fruits,” we make God and his people our highest priority. And when that happens, God’s people counter the negative effects of the Scrooge syndrome and make a positive impact on the world.
First Fruits in the Church: Availability, not ability
What does the concept of “first fruits” look like in the church? Paul tells the Corinthians that they are “God’s building” and “temple” set upon the foundation of Christ (I Cor 3:9-11, 16-17). People who build the church can use a variety of materials: “gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw” (verse 12). Paul says that in the end, “their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work (verse 13).”
As a pastor, I am responsible for building up our church by equipping God’s people for ministry (Eph 4:12). The 1 Corinthian passage suggests that my success depends on the quality of materials that are used to build up Canaan’s English Ministry.
So what are the “first fruits” (or the best quality materials) that go into building up a healthy and strong English ministry? Some may say that it is the gifts and talents of the people in our English ministry. But after four years at Canaan, I can safely conclude that our abilities are NOT the “gold, silver, or costly stones.” Rather, it is our availability that represents the “first fruits” of our sacrifice to God. So just giving our spare time to Canaan or to any kingdom-oriented activities would be equivalent to building with hay or straw.
God Sightings: Available People
This Sunday, a few of us will share testimonies of “God sightings.” We will make connections between Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17:1-9) and our observations of God’s presence. Seeing God is like whale watching. Most of the times, we don’t actually see whales even though we know that they are swimming by. But when they surface and we get a good view, it’s one of the most exciting moments in life!
For me (and every pastor I know), the most exciting God-sighting happens when people make themselves available for God. For example,
– when a member, like the Samaritan leper, is so grateful for her salvation that she takes time to thank Jesus in worship and prayer (Luke 17:11-19)
– when people don’t merely “go to church,” but take the time to “belong to church” (have a look at Christopher Smith’s blog; check out Tish Warren’s blog, too)
– when a member is available to serve and be “equipped” (i.e., takes time for deeper biblical study, training for a variety of ministry opportunities within and outside of Canaan – such as BASS, respond to invitations to volunteer)
– when a wealthy believer follows Zacchaeus’ example by making his wealth available to the poor or an important kingdom cause (Luke 19:8).
– when small groups do impactful outwardly oriented projects (e.g., start a non-profit, actively support a mission or social service, promote a kingdom cause, share the gospel with friends and co-workers)
I am so eager to see this God-sighting at Canaan English Ministry that it hurts when I don’t see it happening enough! So please pray that I’ll be frequently reminded that this God-sighting is like whale watching. It’ll all be worth it when it happens!
In turn, my prayer is that more and more of us will start giving our “first fruits” to God rather than our spare change. So when God asks us, “brother (or sister) can you spare a dime?” Our answer will be, “Take me. Take all of me.”
See you Sunday!