Making Room, part 5: Finances

 

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If you’re just joining us, this is the final post in a series discussing Making Room for God in our lives. You can catch up on parts one, two, three, and four here. 

It’s Sunday, we’re sitting in church, and the offering basket is coming our way. I nudge my husband and pointedly suggest with my eyes: “The offering basket is coming! Get the offering money out of your wallet!” He raises one eyebrow and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Whoa, now! That was my job this morning?” I give him a blank stare. “REALLY?!?!” my eyes scream at him. “AGAIN?!” Sighing as dramatically as one can manage to sigh in absolute silence, I dig through my purse and rummage up a quarter, three pennies, and a stick of chewing gum. I hope God likes Juicy Fruit.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who occasionally (ok, frequently) gives to God only as an afterthought. What can I say? I live a busy life! I have three young children. Making it to church on time with all three of them wearing some type of clothing is an accomplishment. Bonus points if I’m able to comb my hair before walking out the door! Remembering to add offering money to my diaper bag is frankly the last thing on my mind Sunday morning. So sometimes I forget! God won’t hold it against me. I’ll remember next week. Not the biggest deal in the world, am I right?

You know what I don’t forget though? The credit card when I’m headed out the door on my way to Starbucks. No way would I forget money when my enjoyment of a Grande Iced Mocha is on the line! When those much needed shoes for my kids go on sale, I’m on it. If I owe a friend twenty bucks, you can bet I’ll have cash in hand the next time I see them. Date night with my husband? THAT’s important. We can’t skimp on that because our very relationship depends on our enjoyment of our alone time together. The car needs a crucial repair again and I’m headed to the mechanic, checkbook in hand. This piece of furniture is an investment, right? The tickets to the baseball game were practically free so may as well indulge in some overpriced hot dogs! Library fines, student loan payments, rent, groceries, gas, zoo pass renewal, a frugal vacation, utilities, clothing, shoes, Internet, Netflix, fast food, paint for the bedroom, farmer’s market, kids' activities, a new rug, savings, thrifting, Dr. bills, vet bills, car insurance, haircut, and suddenly it’s the end of the month and we have no money left over to give to God.

Sometimes we as Christians get caught up in the details when it comes to giving to God. We want to know exactly “how much” is expected of us, so that we can give just enough to feel good about ourselves without giving more than we have to give. What exactly do you want from us, God? Isn't ten percent of our income the magical required amount? Is that before taxes or after taxes? If I give nine percent am I still going to heaven? Is it justifiable to give less if I volunteer at church a lot? Can I just do nice things for people and call it good for now? I kind of have a lot of debt I’m trying to pay off here, God.

I feel like in all this reluctant mental bargaining we do with God when it comes to tithing, we’re kind of missing the point of giving to God entirely. God doesn’t want our begrudging guilt money packaged in an even 10 percent with an extra .5% to spare any more than he wants the change from the bottom of our purses presented as an afterthought. The money itself isn’t important to God.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

What God wants is the FIRST and BEST of us.

Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (proverbs 3:9-10)

He wants us to give to him FIRST. He wants our BEST. Most of us no longer have choice cows or sheep to sacrifice to the Lord as they did in Old Testament times, so it can be tricky to define what our first and best is, exactly. In the modern era, giving God our first and best may mean deciding at the beginning of a pay period what to give to God. God ought to be the most important line item in our budget. Every other item should be weighed in light of that importance. If I sit down with my budget, reflect, and pray over how I’ve been spending my money, it’s usually pretty clear to my conscience which spending habits I have been prioritizing over giving. A month that ends with no money left over for God probably did not need to include quite so many iced mochas.

When attempting to make room for God in your budget, don’t start by listing everything you’d like to spend your money on for the month and giving to God only what is left over at the end of that list. Instead, try listing first what your heart feels called to give to God, and see if you can make sacrifices in other areas of your budget in order to make that happen. Had I prioritized giving to God this month, I might have made a thousand different spending choices in order to make that gift possible. (Fewer mochas, no new rug, a cheaper date night, a stricter grocery budget, no vacation, to name a few). Instead, I intentionally used that money to glorify only myself and my family instead of God.

God doesn’t just want our first fruits. He wants us to give them to him cheerfully.

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Believe it or not, as easy as it is to place giving to God on the proverbial back burner, it’s just as easy to employ a reluctant over-diligence. Maybe you’re someone who prefers to pay several months worth of tithing at a time, just so you don’t have to think about doing so for awhile. Or maybe you’ve set your giving to an auto-withdrawal system and it’s so simple that you don’t think a single thought about those gifts until tax time. While this type of auto pilot giving is not a bad thing in and of itself, it can reduce the opportunities we are given to come before God presenting our gifts with joy in our hearts. Scheduling advance payments just so we don’t have to think about them isn’t a fantastic motive for doing so. We should think about the gifts we are giving the Lord and should rejoice often in our God-given ability to give them! If you have an auto-withdrawal system in place, consider setting an alarm on your phone or writing a reminder on your calendar to stop, reflect, and pray to the Lord with joyful gratitude whenever that payment goes through.

This joyful gratitude business--it isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have months (or years!) when our budget is absolutely stretched to its limits, and that’s only including the costs of the most basic of human needs. In difficult financial times, giving to God can feel like an unnecessary chore. How can we possibly make room for giving when we feel He isn’t providing?

Yet God promises He will take care of us. In fact, He challenges us to “test (him) in this.” Give freely, and stand in awe at the capacity of his ability to bless us.

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:8-12)

This week’s challenge: 1. If you haven’t already, sit down and plan your budget with giving to God your FIRST and BEST at the top of your priorities this month. Then stick to that plan. What else can you eliminate or reduce in your budget in order to meet your desired giving goal this month?

2. When you bring a gift to God (or when your auto-payment goes through), take a moment to say a silent prayer of joyful Thanksgiving for the blessings God has given you. Ask God to accept your gift and pray that it will be used to his glory.

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Making Room, Part 4: Media

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If you’re just joining us, this is the fourth post in a series discussing Making Room for God in our lives. You can catch up on parts onetwothree, and five here. 

A few Sundays ago, I was sitting in church with my family when my 8-month-old son started crying inconsolably. He was hungry and needed a diaper change, so I took him back to the mother’s room, changed his diaper, and settled in to nurse him. Once we were both settled into the rocking chair, I glanced at his sweet baby face staring back at mine for a few seconds. He smiled at me. Then his eyelids shut slightly as he drifted into a happy milk coma. With the baby no longer interacting with me, I glanced around the room instead. Nothing much to see. For a brief moment, I was bored.

My response to this slight boredom was automatic. I reached a hand into my diaper bag, pulled out my phone, and seconds later found myself surfing Facebook.

Only after I had replied to a few emails and checked up on my blog reader did I remember: I’m at church right now! In fact, my Pastor is giving a sermon! I can hear this sermon over the speakers! What in the world am I doing on my phone!?

Media in its various forms has become such an automatic distraction in my life, I hardly register it as a distraction. Instead, I view it as a good thing: my life line. My phone and my computer keep me in touch with the outside world on the days when I am otherwise stuck at home with my three small children. My television allows me to entertain the children during that half hour before dinner when I just need them to sit still and be quiet so I can get things done. The internet is a never-ending source of inspiration for projects, and recipes. It allows me to get any needed shopping done at a discount without ever leaving my house.

So what’s the problem here?

The problem is that media is such an easy source of fun, entertainment, inspiration, and human interaction, that I often find myself automatically and unwittingly allowing it to fill time that should be better spent. Maybe I should have a really good conversation with my husband, but it’s way easier for us to spend the evening staring at our separate glowing rectangles. Maybe I should fold this laundry, but look! A new blog post is up on my favorite blog! Maybe I should spend this relatively unexciting downtime thinking, dreaming, and brainstorming, but an instagram feed full of pretty pictures is right at my fingertips. The more I am in the habit of filling every single still moment with media, the more automatic this behavior becomes. The next thing I know, I’m checking my phone during the sermon at church without even realizing I’m doing so.

The Bible talks a lot about being “still” and “calm” before God, practicing patience and quiet as we seek to know Him.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)

Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. (Psalm 62:5)

But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:2)

The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. (Isaiah 32:17)

Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.(1 Peter 3:4)

it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (Lamentations 3:26)

Having grown accustomed to instant gratification entertainment, I find it difficult to practice stillness and quiet as i go about my days. Those moments I could spend in quiet communion with God are far too easy to fill with readymade distractions like my computer or television.

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:6)

Do you struggle with managing the time you spend on media?

This week’s challenge: Replace a time you would normally surf the internet or watch a movie with silent thought and prayer. 

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Making Room, Part 3 - Activities

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If you’re just joining us, this is the third post in a series discussing Making Room for God in our lives. You can read parts onetwofour, and five here. 

When my first daughter was born, I was so excited to get her involved with activities! As soon as she could sit up on her own, we started attending library story time on a weekly basis. When she turned one, we enrolled her in a toddler music class. From there we went on to try out a gymnastics class, swim lessons, and several different play groups. We had a zoo pass, a museum membership, and attended two different Bible Studies every week. Then my second daughter was born and we enrolled her in several of these activities as well. By the time I got pregnant with my third child, it seemed we had a different activity on our schedule every day of the week. Mondays we did swim lessons. Tuesdays my husband hung out with friends. Wednesdays was library story time and I went to an evening Bible study. Thursdays I attended a maternity aerobics class. Fridays I took the kids to Bible study/play group. Saturdays we took the kids to music class. In addition to our already full schedule, my husband worked full time, I worked part time, my daughter took violin lessons from her grandmother, and we attempted to start a preschool curriculum with her at home.

Despite how overwhelming this all sounds when written down, we didn’t consider our lives particularly busy. It seemed other families we knew were far busier! We felt pretty average, like we could stand to handle a few more activities. In fact, as I neared the birth of our third child last fall, I thumbed excitedly through the park district’s Autumn brochure and mentally selected the activities we would try next. My oldest daughter would be turning three soon, which meant many more classes would become available to her. We could sign her up for ballet! Or maybe soccer! She could start attending some summer day camps! Maybe preschool once or twice a week? This was going to be too much fun!

A month before my third child was born, we had to unexpectedly sell one of our vehicles. The car was due for an emissions test it wouldn’t pass and would cost far more than its worth to fix. So we opted instead to sell the car, use the money to pay down some debts, and to operate as a one car family “just for a little while.” With two toddlers and a brand new baby on the way, I had already quit my part time job. Since my husband needed the car for work every day, however, I also had to quit something else. Activities. With just one car, it was no longer logistically possible to partake in so many of them.

We dropped the music classes, swim lessons, and athletic activities. We replaced library story time with a few more reading sessions at home. We kept our zoo pass, but used it far less often. After my son was born, we dropped other things too. Instead of attempting to keep up with a homeschool curriculum, I let my children learn through free play and occasional impromptu activities every day. With the exception of Bible study  one morning a week, my children and I kept it simple. We walked to nearby parks, read books, baked cookies, and played with toys at home.

This was all supposed to be temporary. I was expecting to take a semester “off” in order to adjust to life with three children.

Instead, I think I accidentally created a new lifestyle for my family. My youngest is now eight months old and I still have no desire to go back to so many scheduled activities. Good things happened when I cut back on them. Quitting my part time job enabled me to be physically present for dinner with my family every single day of the week. I started to cook real food, as opposed to the perpetual Mac n‘ Cheese and pizza we used to survive on when it was my turn to prepare dinner. When we cut back on evening activities, our evenings grew more peaceful. We no longer snarf down our dinner in order to rush to swim class on time. Instead, we eat leisurely while discussing our day and then enjoy time outside with our kids or a movie and a book before tucking our kids into bed. These days most of our mornings are filled with a big breakfast followed by sidewalk chalk, imaginitive play, coffee, and the hum of the dish washer and the clothes dryer instead of frantic preparation for the day’s activities.

When we eliminated several activities from our family‘s schedule, we created room. It has been such a blessing to fill this room with the things in life that truly matter: quality time with friends and family and, of course, quality time with my Savior. I’ve been able to attend an extra Bible study several times this year and to contribute to this blog on a weekly basis. My daughter started attending sunday school this winter and my Bible has seen a bit more personal devotion action lately. I’m not sure I would be able to enjoy these things as thoroughly if at all if I hadn’t made room in which to do so.

It’s not a bad thing to participate in activities we enjoy

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

But we need to make sure we have our priorities straight.

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. (Ephesians 5:15-17)

We should not be filling our schedules so full that there is no room left for Jesus.

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. (Haggai 1:7-9)

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in our busy lives and all of our many responsibilities and obligations.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-11:4)

Just remember:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

Do you have plenty of room for Jesus in your life right now, or do your many activities and responsibilities eat up all of your time?

This week’s challenge: take an honest look at your schedule. If you find time for Jesus is lacking, eliminate one worldly activity or obligation and replace it with time for prayer, a personal devotion, a Bible study with friends, or serving others in Christian love. 

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Making Room, Part 1

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If you’re just joining us, this post is part 1 in a series discussing Making Room for God in our lives. You can read parts twothree, four, and five here

Anticipating a move to a new home soon, I am spending the next few weeks elbow deep in unused kids toys, outgrown clothes, and unwanted knickknacks, sorting, tossing, and donating. I try to pare down my possessions at least once each season, but with an impending move, I’m tackling more than I usually do. No unused item is safe from the donation bag as I mercilessly weed through desk drawers and closets, reorganizing storage systems and questioning the existence of my VHS tape collection. Somewhere between vacuuming the dust off the unused picture frames under my bed and deciding that no, that souvenir whoopie cushion will NOT, in fact, come in handy some day, the inevitable question occurs: “How did I end up with so much STUFF?!”

While I’d like to exclusively blame “Santa Clause” or other well-meaning holiday gift givers for the slow but relentless expanse in the size of my hoard, I know I play a part too. If I’m honest with myself, I often live my life in cycles of gathering and purging. I go through stages where it feels as though I don’t have enough. My life is lacking something and I attempt to fill the void with a slight inflation in some area of my life. Suddenly, I’m treating myself to little purchases or gathering things out in the world to bring home with me to increase the beauty and therefore happiness (I reason) within my home. This doesn’t always mean shopping. Stuff enters my home in other ways. Thrifting, bartering, or soliciting donations or gifts, to name a few.

I allow things to enter my home in order to improve the beauty or lifestyle of those living in it. After all, creating a nice place where my family can live is one of many priorities I have as a wife and mother. Inevitably, however, I find that the things I bring into my home add up until I reach a point where I have too much. Caring for my possessions starts to encroach on the vast majority of my time and brain power. When I spend all of my time and mental energy shuffling my things around, moving them out of the way so I can reach other things,  “stuff-shuffling” becomes one of my main functions in life.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a little kid, I never said I wanted to grow up to be a stuff-shuffler.

I don’t think “stuff-shuffling” was in God’s “Great Commission” to us as Christians either.

Rather, God wants us to focus on sharing the Good News of Jesus. Jesus isn’t just the “reason for the season” (are you listening, Santa?) but the reason for life itself!

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20

I don’t think I share a whole lot of good news with my kids’ stuffed animal collection or the junk drawer in the kitchen ;) My mind is hardly focused on Jesus' love when I’m pining after the latest gadget I think i want or the perfect paint color for the new kitchen. These things are fun, but temporal, and should be far down the list of my priorities below God and family, not occupying the bulk of my time and thoughts.

As spring is a natural time to dust out the unwanted cobwebs, during the month of May I’d like to focus on “Making Room” in our homes, hearts, and minds. I will be running a series that will discuss ways in which we can reclaim the time and space currently leaking into various distractions in our lives. We will then aim to use the extra room in our lives to exercise our command to love God and love our neighbor, and our mission to share this love with others. This will involve some decluttering, yes, but we’ll go far beyond closets and junk drawers. Could it be that our physical “stuff” is just one of many distractions that keep us from devoting ourselves fully to God’s mission for us?

If you’d like to participate in this series, I will include little assignments each week. This week’s assignment is to reflect (and share, if you’d like!):

What are some distractions in your life you feel get in the way of living as God wants you to live?

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