Monday, November 29, 2010

Faith and Giving in Hard Times

It was Thomas Paine who, early in the history of our country, wrote “These are the times that try men's souls….” he could just as easily have been writing about the economic downturn of the past two years.

Virtually all of us have been impacted adversely in some way by the recession and rampant unemployment. As a result, giving to charities has undergone a double-digit decline.  Ministries such as ours have been impacted.

Recently former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee spoke in Birmingham. Addressing the economic downturn and its impact on support for ministries, he suggested that, although giving in our tough economy was difficult, he and his wife had decided to increase their giving.

I was reminded of the account in First Kings chapter 17 of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The Prophet had predicted a drought on Israel in response to King Ahab's wicked reign, and the prediction came true. Elijah had hidden near the Brook Cherith, east of the Jordan River, where God had supernaturally provided food from ravens twice daily, and water from the brook. But finally the brook dried up.

God's instructions to the Prophet must have seemed strange. “Go to Zarephath.”  Located near Sidon, this village was literally in the backyard of Ahab and Jezebel.

The Lord had commanded a widow to provide for the Prophet. Elijah must have realized that widows in that society, occupied the bottom of the food chain! How could a widow provide for him?

Following God's direction, the Prophet first to asked the widow for a cup of water, then for “a morsel of bread.”  Her response to his second request was graphic: “my son and I are literally down to our last meal. We will eat what we have, then die.” (v. 12, paraphrased)

Although I speak to friends of our college every week who have suffered financially over these past two years, I have not yet encountered anyone who circumstances were as dire as this widow. Yet both God and the Prophet requested that she give.

But Elijah tempered his request with a promise. “Don't be afraid… the Lord God will provide flour and oil until the drought is ended.” And according to verse 16, God's Word through Elijah was fulfilled!”

So what are the lessons we can learn from the situation?

First, consider the idolatry factor. There was a reason for the hard times everyone experienced. The drought was directly connected to pervasive idolatry.  Ahab and Jezebel had promoted the worship of Baal, the god of storm, thunder and lightning. In this way the Lord demonstrated that He, not Baal, was in sovereign control.  Perhaps our country has been judged economically because of idolatry.

But, you respond, we don't worship engraved images in our country in the 21st century. No but has money become a god? Do we routinely make sacrifices at the altar of the almighty dollar? I would suggest that many have sacrificed integrity, family and even their souls. And as Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Second consider the Faith factor.  The Prophet, under God's direction, challenged this poor widow to look beyond her means and provide for the needs of someone else-- someone in His service. If anyone could have responded by saying “I can't afford to give,” it would have been this woman.  Yet as the Prophet explained what God wanted her to do, and how he would provide for her needs, she simply obeyed.  Perhaps at the heart of his instruction was the word, “Do not fear”.  These are fearful times in which we are living, yet Elijah's words have relevance for us today. Faith and fear are like oil and water; they do not mix. May God give us the grace in these difficult times to trust him for our needs, as well as for the resources to partner with ministries that are doing God's work.

Third, consider the generosity factor.  It would not have been shocking if the widow had refused Elijah's request.  After all, she had a son to think about-- not to mention her own impending starvation. Yet verse 15 affirms that she did exactly what Elijah requested. That's generosity where the rubber meets the road. Her action reminds me of another widow, one Jesus commended for demonstrating greater generosity than all the wealthy who gave at the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12:42). I'm also reminded of the Macedonian believers who, “… and a great trial of affliction, with abundant joy, out of the poverty, abounded in the riches of their generosity.” (2 Corinthians 8:2).

So how does this relate to us? Had we been walking in the widow’s sandals we might have dismissed Elijah as a religious fanatic. Or we might have bargained—“You can have a third; but what will I get in return?” This is how many who subscribe to what we might call “name it and claim it” prosperity theology might respond.

Yet I believe God wants us to respond to our difficult circumstances with fearless faith.

May God lead us and give us the same kind of grace he gave the widow of Zarephath during these difficult times. I believe that we, like the widow, will be significantly blessed, and God's work will move forward.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Culturally Relevant

Mission statements are extremely important for any organization or ministry. Here at Southeastern Bible College we endeavor to put everything we do through the grid of our mission statement:

            The mission of Southeastern Bible College is to produce graduates who are biblically grounded, spiritually mature, and culturally relevant.

While most in our Southeastern family understand the concepts of biblically grounded and spiritually mature, lately we have had a significant amount of discussion of the third “outcome” we seek to produce in our Southeastern graduates. What exactly does it mean to be culturally relevant? For some, the phrase is an enigma.

Perhaps the best place to start is by considering what culturally relevant does not mean. It certainly does not indicate a compromise with current cultural values that would dilute our Biblical values or standards. As Jesus told His disciples, we are in the world but not of the world. (see John 15:19)

Often I found it helpful to understand a concept by defining its terms. According to the Random House online dictionary (, relevant means “Bearing upon or connected with the matter at hand, pertinent.”   The operative word in this definition, as I see it, is connected.

 Culturally is a term that means “Of or pertaining to culture”, which is defined as “…a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation, or the behaviors and beliefs of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.”  Another definition of culture is “The sum total of the ways of living built up by human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.”   In short, culture involves the world of mankind, including values, beliefs and practices.

So what we are talking about when we use the phrase culturally relevant is an ability to connect with mankind, including people’s values beliefs and practices, from our biblical perspective.

Paul addressed this issue in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he said, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” He certainly wasn’t surrendering his Christian beliefs and distinctives. Rather, he was seeking a way to connect with a culture he perceived as hostile to his faith in order to bring individuals to Christ.

Peter provides a perspective on this in 1 Peter 3:15, as he urges his readers to “… be ready always to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”   Peter’s concern was that first century Christians—and by application, those of us in the 21st century—be prepared to give a reasoned, logical response to those in our hostile culture who just don’t get it when it comes to our Christian faith.

  In short, “culturally relevant” as we use it at Southeastern, means “able to adapt to the culture without compromising convictions, and to communicate with clarity for maximum impact.” That’s precisely what we are endeavoring to equip our Southeastern students to be able to do.