Paying It Forward

Lining up for water in Uganda

The movie, Pay It Forward, released in 2000—starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment—packed a powerfully, emotional message. Trevor, a seventh- grade boy, accepts his social studies teacher’s challenge to devise a plan that will change the world for the better. Trevor’s plan—Pay It Forward—was to help somebody, who would then agree to help three other people without expecting anything in return.

Sometimes simple plans are the best, aren’t they? Invest in other people. 

Jesus also shared a strategy for investing our resources wisely by paying them forward. The fact that this teaching is repeated several times in the gospels suggests it was—and is—very important.

Jesus first shared these instructions in The Sermon on The Mount—His most familiar sermon recorded in the Bible: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21, ESV). 

Jesus warned against foolish or insecure investments, and followed up with positive instructions on how to invest wisely. Everybody invests in something. Every wise person stores up or sets aside something for a rainy day, or to tide them over in their old age. The problem is, according to Jesus, there are no, absolutely secure investment this side of the grave. The stock market goes up and down. Thieves steal. And by the way, those thieves have a lot more opportunities today with the Internet, don’t they? Internet sites can swear up and down that they are secure; but eventually somebody, somewhere—with nothing constructive to do—may penetrate all the protections. It happens! Even the once “secure sites” of our federal government have been violated by hackers from other nations.

Jesus’ point is very simple: You can try to protect it, but you can’t bank on it. He adds, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:24–25, ESV).

Either we place our confidence and priority in accumulating wealth and possession here, or we pay it forward by investing in something secure—something eternal—the Kingdom of God. The latter choice removes the need to feel anxious when circumstances change. Why? Because God is intimately acquainted with all my needs and promises to provide. 

I share two incidents from the gospels that illustrate Jesus’ investment philosophy.

First, in Luke 12, Jesus responded to a request to arbitrate a dispute between two men—two brothers— over inheriting their father’s estate. Jesus’ first response to the argument was a warning about covetousness—and a strong reminder that life is more than accumulating wealth. He drove His point with a story about a very wealthy farmer that had been blessed with a bountiful harvest. His granaries were already full so he said himself, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  (By chance, did you notice he has an “I” problem?)  I imagine him saying to himself, “Well, you really did good this time! Nothin’ but blue skies ahead.”

The story, however, wasn’t over. A big surprise was waiting just around the corner. Just a few hours later, on what had seemed like a normal night, the wealthy farmer heard the voice of God Himself, breaking into his dreams. “‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:18–21, ESV).

All that he worked for and set aside to enjoy was left behind, for other people to quarrel over or squander.

Luke records another incident about paying it forward in chapter 18. Another wealthy man with social prestige asked Jesus what he had to do to be certain of inheriting eternal life. When Jesus told him to keep all the commandments, the man insisted that he had done that since he was a boy. (Sounds a bit presumptuous, doesn’t it?) His bubble burst when Jesus added these words: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:22–25, ESV).

This is the only account in Scripture where somebody came to Jesus, filled with anticipation, but left sad. Disappointed. His riches had become his security blanket—his god. Jesus’ concluding remarks offered assurance that paying it forward in this life reaps eternal results. That’s not to say good works can buy a ticket to heaven. Only God’s grace demonstrated in the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ can accomplish that. Salvation is by faith alone, not works. Authentic, saving faith, however, is demonstrated through actions, such as sharing our resources with those in need. 

God calls for His people to help the poor, the widow, the orphan and refugee. The needs in our world are great. The inequities between rich and poor—between developed and developing nations—are so wide today. Opportunities to invest some of our discretionary money abound.

A few months ago, here on the Front Porch Swing, I shared a challenge to make an eternal investment in a water project in western Uganda where I have taught. I am grateful for those who responded. Today, there is a deep-water well providing safe drinking water to three communities surrounding a local Baptist church. I share a couple of pictures of the project. Notice that the local people stepped forward to do much of the volunteer labor, such as digging the trenches to carry to water from the well to distribution sites.

Uganda Water Project- laying the pipe and one of three water stations in the community.

To each of you who invested in the project, I want to say thank you on behalf of the Ugandans who are now enjoying clean drinking water.

 Multiple opportunities to invest in kingdom work abound. I encourage you to consider becoming involved. I am not suggesting that you reroute funds that you give to your local church, but from the discretionary funds that you have, why not invest in something that makes a difference and has eternal value? 

Here is a short list of ministries that I trust to use your investments wisely:

Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Designs for Hope, Mercy Ships, Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs. The latter two prioritize meeting needs among Christians that are being persecuted and imprisoned. You can find any of these ministries on the Internet, and can research their credibility.

Thanks for reading this blog and considering if you may want to pay it forward today.

The Enemy at Home

Must I be carried to the skies on flow’ry beds of ease?

…Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me on to God?

With a thank you and an apology to Isaac Watts, I have lifted two lines from his hymn, Am I Soldier of the Cross? I deliberately juxtaposed these two lines to make a point.

Last week I tried to pull back the curtains just a little to encourage each of us to be more aware of Christians around our world who face persecution. This week, let’s pull back the curtains again to consider another potential blind spot. Unlike persecution occurring in distant places, this threat is all around us—inundating us with propaganda 24/7.

I believe the term “blind spot” is appropriate because it’s difficult to be unaware of the problem. Graphic pictures of hungry children and epidemics around the world appear on television news and the appeal letters from relief organizations.

Even so, as deplorable as these circumstances are, I believe the words from Isaac Watts’ hymn reveals a deeper problem. Note that the lines are actually questions—questions as relevant today as in 1721 when the hymn was penned.

Here is my attempt to answer those two questions.

No, it is not fair or equitable if I bask in luxury in the presence of suffering and hunger. This world, our current culture, is no “friend of grace.” Not by a long shot.

I am troubled when I discover blind spots in some of peers of Isaac Watts. For example, while reading The Essential Jonathan Edwards, I discovered that this great theologian and biblical scholar credited with the Great Awakening, like most of his peers, owned slaves. Recently, I also discovered that George Whitefield—the most influential Christian evangelist in the 18th Century—after being given a plantation, “converted” from denouncing slavery to supporting slavery. His reasoning? He felt slaves were needed to manage the plantation and, after all, the plantation helped support his orphanage ministry. Whitefield is also credited for helping change Georgia’s original ban against slavery.

If renowned Christian leaders like Whitefield and Edwards were influenced by their culture, would it be such a stretch to say that we can also be influenced by today’s culture? Could it be that we’ve been conditioned to accept the status quo as “normal” and “fair,” when it really isn’t?

In response, I offer Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 (esv):

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (emphasis mine)

Christians in Corinth were aware that the church in Jerusalem was facing famine-like conditions. Several churches in Asia Minor and Greece had stepped forward to send money to assist their hungry brothers and sisters. The Corinthian believers had also signed on to participate in the fundraising, but as time passed the sense of urgency faded. As a result, no offerings had been taken. Twice in the above passage, Paul uses a specific word to motivate the Corinthians to step up to the plate. The English Standard Version translates the word as fairness. Other translations use the term equality. Eugene Peterson in The Message summarizes the passage, “In the end you come out even.”

I prefer the word equitable.

Paul wasn’t the only biblical writer to call for fairness or justice. Several Old Testament prophets also called for equity. Perhaps Amos was the most outspoken. In his day wealthy Israelites enjoyed lavish homes and rich food while widows and orphans were neglected.

Times really haven’t changed all that much, have they?

So what is Paul asking the church in Corinth (and us) to do? Are we to give away everything to feed the hungry? Soon we would all be hungry. Are we to make certain every person in the world, especially other Christians, enjoy the same amenities we enjoy? Should my Ugandan friend Kato have the same balance in his savings account (if he had one) as me? Should I sell one of my vehicles so he can have a car? In other words, must everything be precisely equal?

Absurd! Kato make $40 a month as a teacher, assuming he gets paid each month. Depositing half of our savings account into an account for Kato or giving him a car would probably hurt him more than help him. The cultures in Bend, Oregon and western Uganda are worlds apart, and not just geographically. Trying to make everything absolutely equal would be global socialism; that hasn’t worked in Venezuela or anywhere else.

After having Kato as a student on my first trip to Uganda, we began to communicate via email. Yes, almost everyone has a cell phone and access to a computer today. I discovered Kato’s children were often forced to drop out of school for lack of funds since education is not free in Uganda. If his children have any hope of breaking out of poverty, they need to finish school. Mary and I began sending money via Western Union to cover their tuition.

Honestly, it hasn’t been that much of a burden. And no one can put a price tag on the joy we experience as we receive reports after each grading period. I could easily spend more money at Starbucks than the cost of tuition for each child. When Kato and his wife had a baby, they named him Sydney. Children in Uganda are traditionally named after relatives, not Americans.

On my second ministry trip, I visited Kato’s home where his wife had prepared dinner and invited relatives to celebrate our arrival. We discovered there were no doors on his home. When I mentioned this to Kato he affirmed that sometimes “unsafe serpents” entered the house at night. That shouts “Black Mamba” to me!

When a friend of ours heard this story she volunteered to provide doors for Kato’s home. She doesn’t even know Kato, but I suspect she has received as much satisfaction as Kato when he closes the doors each night to protect his family. His home has dirt floors with blankets as room dividers and will never be equal to our home in Bend. Should we sell our home and build a house out of handmade bricks with a dirt floor? It wouldn’t pass zoning! Our homes will never be equal, but we are striving for fairness and equality.

That being said, I don’t write to create a guilt trip on anybody. That’s not the purpose of our conversations on the Front Porch Swing. I am simply encouraging each one of us to pull back the curtain a little and catch a wider perspective. It’s way too easy for all of us to become comfortable with our status quo and assume this is norm.

I share a few thoughts for your consideration:

First: Pray. Pray for eyes to see those less fortunate. Pray for wisdom to know how to respond.

Second: Open the curtain. Subscribe to periodicals and electronic news releases from Christian ministries such as Open Doors, The Voice of the Martyrs or Samaritan’s Purse.

Third: Invest. That is a biblical term. Didn’t Jesus challenge us to lay up treasures in heaven, investing in eternal things? By any reading, the distinction between sheep and goats in the gospels is based on compassionate sharing with those in need.

Fourth: Establish relationships. If possible, establish a personal contact with the person or people you want to help. If it’s appropriate, try to visit your new friend in person. Some Christian ministries can be of assistance with this.

I close with this vision: Imagine a world where little children receive the inoculations and meds to prevent so many diseases carried by mosquitoes. Imagine the joy of people finally drinking clean water from a local well. Might it taste even better than a latte or mocha to us? Wouldn’t that be good?

It just seems fair, doesn’t it?