Posts Tagged With: first fruits

Stewardship I: Time

Many people make commitments, at different times, to improve themselves. New Year’s Day brings a new rush of resolutions. Many of us repeat the same resolutions we made the previous year. Many Christians give up something, perhaps a particular comfort food or habit, during the season of Lent, but are no better the following year. Major life transitions may also challenge us to review our priorities and desire to be a better person.

Ironically, most of our resolutions and recommitments are self-centered. They focus on how we can make our own lives better or how we can feel better about ourselves. Few people really think about how they can make the world a better place or truly draw closer to God.

This is the first of a three-part series about stewardship. As you read each part, I challenge you to take a different approach than you may have in the past. Many of us are trying to find way to improve our physical health. Instead, why not commit to improving the health of the body of Christ?

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, ESV).

Paul goes on to describe how each part has its own distinct function. Different parts need to be connected to the body, and each contributes to its overall health. Likewise, every Christian has a blessing to offer to the body of Christ.  We each have different spiritual gifts, natural abilities, interests and passions that equip us to bless the church in different ways.

In this three-part series, I will encourage you to consider how you can bless God’s Kingdom by giving of your time, talents, and treasures.

The Bible often mentions the importance of giving our first fruits to God. This term comes from the Old Testament, where worshipers were expected to bring the first crops they harvested as an offering to the Lord. The term first fruits expanded to include other “firsts”: the firstborn son was consecrated to the Lord; other first blessings were given over to God.

Many Christians are quick to think of first fruits in terms of finances. True disciples pay tithes as a priority, even if there are other pressing financial needs or wants. However, first fruits is not merely a reference to money: It is a principle that applies to all aspects of Christian stewardship. Giving to God is always a priority item. We do not worship God as an afterthought or give Him our leftovers: We give Him the best we can offer.

English: Sacrifice of Cain and Abel

Image via Wikipedia

The Bible’s first account of sacrificial worship bears this out. When Cain and Abel offered sacrifices, Abel offered the first fruits of his flock, while Cain seems to have haphazardly pulled some of his produce together (see Gen. 4:3-4). God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Was it because Abel offered a blood sacrifice and Cain did not? This is a popular explanation, but it is weak.  Many explain God’s displeasure with Cain’s offering by citing Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Yet, there is no indication in Genesis 4 that Cain and Abel were seeking forgiveness at that point. Some fellowship and peace offerings in the Old Testament were vegetables and grain. It seems as though the attitude was what mattered: first fruits represented not only the first, but the best. Abel gave his best, while Cain just gave haphazardly.

God wants and deserves our best. He wants worship and fellowship to be a priority. However, many Christians fit corporate worship in when it is convenient. Favorite television shows, hobbies, the children’s weekend sports activities, and other diversions may keep us from church. If we truly love God and are excited about our salvation, we should be eager to give Him our time. Yet, many Christians give the first fruits of their time and energy to the world (their jobs, leisure activities) instead of to God. Some come to church only if nothing else is going on.

Our time at church goes beyond singing a few upbeat songs and listening to an inspiring sermon. True fellowship involves looking for ways to be an encouragement to others: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). We should seek opportunities to bless others.

We should also bless the body of Christ with our prayers. A serious disciple of our Lord will choose to make time for prayer. Prayer comes before television, not when there is nothing to watch. If we decide to pray “when I get around to it,” we will never commune with God.

My current goal is to pray the four Daily Offices of prayer indicated in the Book of Common Prayer [morning, noon, evening and compline (before bed)]. I usually succeed in praying three of them (I have to confess, I can get lazy around compline time). Getting those prayer times in is not easy: I have to choose to sit down and pray the morning office before work. I have to turn my eyes from my computer at lunch time to pray the noon office. I have to really force myself to pray the evening office. These do not come easily. It starts with a decision that “This is important.” Sure, I can find a TV show to watch or a website to visit, but if I want to pray, I will make the time.

If you are serious about giving God the first fruits of your time, chart your course. How much time will I spend in prayer every day? When will it be? How much of it will be Bible reading, and how much will be prayer? Where will I pray? (This last one is important: You need to find a place where you will not be distracted or interrupted.) Then, based on these decisions, make a commitment to pray. Write it in your planner as an urgent appointment. Eventually, it will become a habit, like eating three meals per day.

It is interesting to note that Paul mentions prayer at the end of his description of the full armor of God in Ephesians 6. He says that we should pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18). He urges his readers to pray for him. This should remind us to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially our spiritual leaders. Your pastor needs your prayers. If your church does not publish a prayer list or notify members about prayer requests, ask you pastor how you can pray for the church. Commit to being a prayer warrior for your church.

If the word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), then prayer is our spiritual missile. It is the weapon that can engage in spiritual warfare across great spans of space and time. Prayer for the church and its members is a vital ministry that all believers, regardless of skills, gifts, or spiritual maturity level, can participate in.

Categories: Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Finding Time for God

One of the greatest challenges for Christians in our busy society is finding quiet time alone with the Lord. More distractions scream for our attention with each passing day. As I started writing this article, I received a Facebook alert as one of my online friends declared his love for his Blackberry. Ten years ago, “blackberry” was a fruit, not a cell phone with gazillions of “apps” to keep one occupied wherever he went. Social networking sites were likewise nonexistent. These days, such technology gives us the illusion of being connected to one another, but at the same time, they create the reality of relational distance from God.

High-tech wireless devices and websites are not the only things demanding our attention like never before. Many companies expect their employees to work in a state of non-stop multitasking, thereby eliminating even the opportunity to pray a silent one-minute petition to God between tasks. Many employees work overtime—sometimes without pay—to accomplish their tasks and keep their jobs. Parents of school-aged children chauffeur them to all sorts of sports-team practices and games, leaving few quiet afternoons or evenings at home. Many churches fill their calendars with so many events that the most committed members find it difficult to set time alone to meet with the Lord. In this article, I will offer some advice to help believers find time for God.

Recognize Prayer as a Priority

In the Gospel of Luke, we read the story of two sisters. Both of them loved Jesus, but he commended the way one showed her love for him over how the other one did so.

“Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her'” (Luke 10:38–42, NASB).

How easy it is for Christians to be like Martha! Those who have ministry responsibilities in the church can relate to her. The church tends to glorify the “Marthas” in its midst. It seems as if some Christians measure one another’s spirituality not so much by how much time they spend praying and reading God’s word, but by how busy they are “doing things for the Lord.” Mary had chosen the most important way to relate to Jesus; she was the one who had chosen the “good part.”

The lesson is clear: Prayer and hearing from the Lord (especially study of his word) should take priority over ministry and other activity, no matter how urgent it may seem. If you are not meeting your deadlines, the solution is not neglecting prayer. If you are not able to keep up with your various responsibilities, time with God is not the area where you should make sacrifices. At times like this, the solution is not less prayer, but more prayer. As a matter of fact, if you are active in any ministry, prayer is the most important job you have in the church. Pastors must pray for the members of their congregations. Sunday school teachers must pray for their students. Church musicians should worship God throughout the week, so that it flows naturally during the church service. No matter what role you serve in the church, God calls you to pray. In fact, some of the most effective ministries seek prayer supporters even more zealously than they seek financial donors! That is how important prayer is to them.

Set Aside Time

Jesus in Pray

Jesus in prayer. Image via Wikipedia

Many mature Christians suggest that you should pray at least one hour per day. They cite Matthew 26:40, where Jesus asked his disciples why they could not tarry in prayer with him for one hour, shortly before he was betrayed and arrested. Many will cite the morning as the best time to pray. Personally, I make an effort to get up at 5:30 AM every weekday morning, so that I can spend at least 30 minutes praying before I leave for work. I will usually add one to three more prayer sessions throughout the day. Many great men of God, including Jesus himself, would pray in the morning.

There is no passage in the Bible that gives a strict command to pray first thing in the morning. Quite a few passages testify to the importance of praying in the morning, but many of those passages will mention other times of day for prayer. Perhaps the strongest command specifying when we should pray is First Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.” So, if morning prayers are a fantasy for you, do not lose heart. While many Christians are especially blessed during early-morning prayer, God will honor your prayers whenever you say them.

More important than the exact time is the priority we place on prayer. The biblical principle of first fruits is very helpful when making decisions about any area of spiritual stewardship, whether it be our treasures (money), talents, or time. The principle is known as “first fruits” because, for several Old Testament sacrifices, God commanded the Israelites to bring some of the first crops received during the harvest (Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 18:4). In fact, they were not supposed to eat any of the harvest until they had presented the first fruits as an offering (Leviticus 23:9–14).

Many Christians think the principle of first fruits applies only to their finances. They might say, “First I write my tithe check to the church; then I pay my bills and buy groceries.” However, first fruits is not just a financial budgeting guideline. It is a principle of giving God our highest-quality resources, including our time. Genesis 4:3–4 tells us that “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” God rejected Cain’s offering but accepted Abel’s. Many Bible teachers claim that God rejected Cain’s offering because it was not a blood sacrifice. They cite Hebrews 9:22, which says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” However, that would assume that Cain and Abel were offering a sacrifice for sin, which Genesis does not specify. The Old Testament mandated several different kinds of offerings, and some had nothing to do with sin. In several kinds of sacrifices, plants would have been an acceptable offering.

The source of God’s displeasure is more obvious in the Hebrew than it is in many English translations, but if   we look closely, we can still see the major distinction between the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. In other words, he chose the best and healthiest animals he could offer. He gave God the best he could. Cain, however, offered some of the fruits of the soil. Nothing special here: he probably grabbed some stuff at random. Maybe he gave God the things he did not want (like many people who donate to a thrift store or food pantry). Even if he did not give God his junk, he made no real effort to give his best.

When it comes to giving God your time, do you give him your best or just whatever you can find? Do you give God the best of your time, or do you pray whenever you get around to it? If you wait until you have “nothing better to do” before you pray, you will never develop a regular habit of prayer. You will never know the joy and blessedness of an intimate, growing relationship with Christ. There will always be another television show to watch, another ball game, or another gathering with friends that will keep you from praying.

Since first fruits is our best, morning may not necessarily be the ideal time for you to pray. While I am blessed by my morning prayers, sometimes my best times are at night. Over the last year or so, my morning prayer time has evolved into “marching orders from God”; I do not lift up too many of my petitions at that time, but I get my day off on a spiritual angle, and the Lord speaks to me through his Word and his Spirit in a way that sets the tone for my day. Nights, though, can be times for really deep prayer for me. Unhurried prayer, after the day’s duties have been fulfilled, can allow me to spend relaxed time meditating on God’s word, getting to know him better, and devoting ample time to prayer for the needs which burden me most.

What is most important, though, is that you treat your prayer time as a priority. Don’t wait to “find time” for prayer. Make time for prayer, and then guard it as if it matters. If you plan to pray when you get home from work in the evening, don’t sit down and turn on the television. Find your place of prayer and get started.

Several passages, including First Peter 2:2, compare prayer and Bible reading with food. Our souls need spiritual nourishment, just like our bodies do. A good goal would be to seek three spiritual meals per day, just like we eat three meals of food per day. This will reduce the risk of getting “run down” spiritually. The Book of Common Prayer provides prayers for four different times of the day: morning, noon, evening, and “Compline” (bedtime prayers). In addition, it is helpful to set aside “spiritual snack” prayer times: praying or meditating on scripture during times when we are not otherwise mentally preoccupied. Sometimes, I will spend a few minutes with God while driving, or during a coffee break at work, and so on.

Your primary prayer time should be treated with the same urgency you would ascribe to other high-priority aspects of your schedule. Think about it this way: Do you skip work just because your favorite television show is on, or because you would rather go shopping? Probably not. Well then, why should we show more respect to a human boss, than to the Creator and Lord of the entire universe?

Set aside a time and place where you will not be easily distracted. Many people prefer morning prayers because there are fewer distractions in the morning: very rarely will someone call me on the phone at 7:00 AM! A place of prayer is important too. Usually, I like to say my morning prayers in a spare room in my apartment (at one time it was my son’s bedroom, but now that he is grown up and starting a family, it has become my “prayer closet”). Find a place where you can spend some time alone with God, with few distractions.

Come Prepared

Finally, come ready to both talk to and hear from God. I keep a prayer list handy, specifying people and circumstances that I am praying for. I also keep my Day-Timer handy. It provides two purposes. First, I keep a list of Bible readings for each day in it. Second, if I start thinking of things I need to do, I can scribble them down very quickly and move along. Before I started doing that, one of Satan’s most effective distractions was to make me obsess about things I need to do. Now if, during my prayer time, I think of something I need to do, it is usually God’s directive for addressing one of the needs I have prayed about! The power of demonic distraction is gone.

Most importantly, bring your Bible. Prayer is not just a time to tell God what you want. It is a time to ask God what he wants to tell you. Usually, he will speak through his word before he speaks in any other way. Prayer is a dialogue with God, not a monologue with the air.

Conclusion

Most of the guidelines above are really basic principles of time management. Many people allow time to become their master. They surrender to temporal passivity, and allow circumstances to dictate how they spend their time. Good time managers recognize the need to set priorities. You must choose to allocate time for the things that are most important to you. The Bible tells us that a wise disciple of Jesus will “redeem the time,” making the most of it (Ephesians 5:16). This begins by setting aside time to commune with God. Then, you need to allocate time for the important responsibilities of your life. When you manage your time properly, you can enjoy your leisure time with peace of mind, knowing that you have not squandered an irreplaceable commodity.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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