Friday, December 28, 2007

Investing in Prosperity

Awhile back I came across a church that used envelopes for people to put their offering in that had two verses printed on them. They seemed to be taken completely out of context.

The first verse said, “I’m on my way to my wealthy place!” -Psalm 66:12

In my NIV Bible that verse reads, “You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.” In context this verse speaks of God testing his people and refining them through affliction and suffering and then bringing them out of it to fulfill his promise thus bringing glory to His name. I don’t see anything that suggests that God will shower us with material wealth for giving money to the church. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is being preached among churches that promote the Prosperity Doctrine.

The second verse said, “Give and it will be given to you…” -Luke 6:38

If you read verse 37 and then verse 38, it reads like this, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” Jesus was speaking about spiritual abundance and that we would be held accountable for our actions in the world when we stand before the Father. You could even read these verses to say, “Give mercy and forgiveness and it will be given to you.” In verse 35 when he is speaking about material things he says this, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Yet the teaching of these types of churches tells its members to expect wealth as a reward for their giving. It seems as though people are being asked to make a monetary investment with the promise of a greater monetary reward. How does Jesus figure into this business transaction?

When Jesus speaks to the churches in Revelation, his message contradicts any promises of material wealth or freedom from suffering. To the church in Smyrna he says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty - yet you are rich!” - Revelation 2:9. In verse 10 he says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.” “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” So Jesus is saying that even if we are poor and suffering we are rich and our promised reward comes after we have come to the point of death. If this isn’t clear enough, he says to the church in Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” - Revelation 3:17

I saw an article today that brings to light exactly the kind of hurt, anger, and bitterness these kinds of teachings can lead to. Here in Ukraine they are all too common. People who are lost, broken, and suffering flock to promises of prosperity and are willing to do just about anything to hold on to the false hope they are given that seems like an answer to their problems. The sad part is that Christianity in general gets a black eye because of what a few highly visible people are doing. The following article by Eric Gorski explains why several ministries are now under investigation. I thought it was also fitting to add John Piper’s thoughts on Prosperity Preaching after the article. He does a good job of showing what God’s Word has to say about this type of preaching.

Gospel of Wealth' Facing Scrutiny

Dec 27, 2007

By Eric Gorski

The message flickered into Cindy Fleenor's living room each night: Be faithful in how you live and how you give, the television preachers said, and God will shower you with material riches.

And so the 53-year-old accountant from the Tampa, Fla., area pledged $500 a year to Joyce Meyer, the evangelist whose frank talk about recovering from childhood sexual abuse was so inspirational. She wrote checks to flamboyant faith healer Benny Hinn and a local preacher-made-good, Paula White.

Only the blessings didn't come. Fleenor ended up borrowing money from friends and payday loan companies just to buy groceries. At first she believed the explanation given on television: Her faith wasn't strong enough.

"I wanted to believe God wanted to do something great with me like he was doing with them," she said. "I'm angry and bitter about it. Right now, I don't watch anyone on TV hardly."

All three of the groups Fleenor supported are among six major Christian television ministries under scrutiny by a senator who is asking questions about the evangelists' lavish spending and possible abuses of their tax-exempt status.

The probe by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has brought new scrutiny to the underlying belief that brings in millions of dollars and fills churches from Atlanta to Los Angeles - the "Gospel of Prosperity," or the notion that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches.
All six ministries under investigation preach the prosperity gospel to varying degrees.

Proponents call it a biblically sound message of hope. Others say it is a distortion that makes evangelists rich and preys on the vulnerable. They say it has evolved from "it's all right to make money" to it's all right for the pastor to drive a Bentley, live in an oceanside home and travel by private jet.

"More and more people are desperate and grasping at straws and want something that will alleviate their pain or financial crisis," said Michael Palmer, dean of the divinity school at Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson. "It's a growing problem."

The modern-day prosperity movement can largely be traced back to evangelist Oral Roberts' teachings. Roberts' disciples have spread his theology and vocabulary (Roberts and other evangelists, such as Meyer, call their donors "partners.") And several popular prosperity preachers, including some now under investigation, have served on the Oral Roberts University board.

Grassley is asking the ministries for financial records on salaries, spending practices, private jets and other perks. The investigation, coupled with a financial scandal at ORU that forced out Roberts' son and heir, Richard, has some wondering whether the prosperity gospel is facing a day of reckoning.

While few expect the movement to disappear, the scrutiny could force greater financial transparency and oversight in a movement known for secrecy.

Most scholars trace the origins of prosperity theology to E.W. Kenyon, an evangelical pastor from the first half of the 20th century.

But it wasn't until the postwar era - and a pair of evangelists from Tulsa, Okla. - that "health and wealth" theology became a fixture in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin - and later, Kenneth Copeland - trained tens of thousands of evangelists with a message that resonated with an emerging middle class, said David Edwin Harrell Jr., a Roberts biographer. Copeland is among those now being investigated.

"What Oral did was develop a theology that made it OK to prosper," Harrell said. "He let Pentecostals be faithful to the old-time truths their grandparents embraced and be part of the modern world, where they could have good jobs and make money."

The teachings took on various names - "Name It and Claim It,""Word of Faith," the prosperity gospel.

Prosperity preachers say that it isn't all about money - that God's blessings extend to health, relationships and being well-off enough to help others.

They have Bible verses at the ready to make their case. One oft-cited verse, in Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, reads: "Yet for your sakes he became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich."

Critics acknowledge the idea that God wants to bless his followers has a Biblical basis, but say prosperity preachers take verses out of context. The prosperity crowd also fails to acknowledge Biblical accounts that show God doesn't always reward faithful believers, Palmer said.

The Book of Job is a case study in piety unrewarded, and a chapter in the Book of Hebrews includes a litany of believers who were tortured and martyred, Palmer said.

Yet the prosperity gospel continues to draw crowds, particularly lower- and middle-income people who, critics say, have the greatest motivation and the most to lose. The prosperity message is spreading to black churches, attracting elderly people with disposable incomes, and reaching huge churches in Africa and other developing parts of the world.

One of the teaching's attractions is that it doesn't dwell on traditional Christian themes of heaven and hell but on answering pressing concerns of the here and now, said Brian McLaren, a liberal evangelical author and pastor.

But the prosperity gospel, McLaren said, not only preys on the hope of the vulnerable, it puts too much emphasis on individual success and happiness.

"We've pretty much ignored what the Bible says about systemic injustice," he said.

The checks and balances central to Christian denominations are largely lacking in prosperity churches. One of the pastors in the Grassley probe, Bishop Eddie Long of suburban Atlanta, has written that God told him to get rid of the "ungodly governmental structure" of a deacon board.

Some ministers hold up their own wealth as evidence that the teaching works. Atlanta-area pastor Creflo Dollar, who is fighting Grassley's inquiry, owns a Rolls Royce and multimillion-dollar homes and travels in a church-owned Learjet.

In a letter to Grassley, Dollar's attorney calls the prosperity gospel a "deeply held religious belief" grounded in Scripture and therefore a protected religious freedom. Grassley has said his probe is not about theology.

But even some prosperity gospel critics - like the Rev. Adam Hamilton of 15,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, Mo. - say that the investigation is entering a minefield.

"How do you determine how much money a minister like this is able to make when the basic theology is that wealth is OK?" said Hamilton, an Oral Roberts graduate who later left the charismatic movement. "That gets into theological questions."

There is evidence of change. Joyce Meyer Ministries, for one, enacted financial reforms in recent years, including making audited financial statements public.

Meyer, who has promised to cooperate fully with Grassley, issued a statement emphasizing that a prosperity gospel "that solely equates blessing with financial gain is out of balance and could damage a person's walk with God."

Prosperity Preaching: Deceitful and Deadly

February 14, 2007

By John Piper

When I read about prosperity-preaching churches, my response is: “If I were not on the inside of Christianity, I wouldn’t want in.” In other words, if this is the message of Jesus, no thank you.

Luring people to Christ to get rich is both deceitful and deadly. It’s deceitful because when Jesus himself called us, he said things like: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). And it’s deadly because the desire to be rich plunges “people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9). So here is my plea to preachers of the gospel.

1. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that makes it harder for people to get into heaven.

Jesus said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” His disciples were astonished, as many in the “prosperity” movement should be. So Jesus went on to raise their astonishment even higher by saying, “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.” They respond in disbelief: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27).

My question for prosperity preachers is: Why would you want to develop a ministry focus that makes it harder for people to enter heaven?

2. Do not develop a philosophy of ministry that kindles suicidal desires in people.

Paul said, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” But then he warned against the desire to be rich. And by implication, he warned against preachers who stir up the desire to be rich instead of helping people get rid of it. He warned, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:6-10).

So my question for prosperity preachers is: Why would you want to develop a ministry that encourages people to pierce themselves with many pangs and plunge themselves into ruin and destruction?

3. Do not develop a philosophy of ministry that encourages vulnerability to moth and rust.

Jesus warns against the effort to lay up treasures on earth. That is, he tells us to be givers, not keepers. “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” (Matthew 6:19).

Yes, we all keep something. But given the built-in tendency toward greed in all of us, why would we take the focus off Jesus and turn it upside down?

4. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that makes hard work a means of amassing wealth.

Paul said we should not steal. The alternative was hard work with our own hands. But the main purpose was not merely to hoard or even to have. The purpose was “to have to give.” “Let him labor, working with his hands, that he may have to give to him who is in need” (Ephesians 4:28). This is not a justification for being rich in order to give more. It is a call to make more and keep less so you can give more. There is no reason why a person who makes $200,000 should live any differently from the way a person who makes $80,000 lives. Find a wartime lifestyle; cap your expenditures; then give the rest away.

Why would you want to encourage people to think that they should possess wealth in order to be a lavish giver? Why not encourage them to keep their lives more simple and be an even more lavish giver? Would that not add to their generosity a strong testimony that Christ, and not possessions, is their treasure?

5. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that promotes less faith in the promises of God to be for us what money can’t be.

The reason the writer to the Hebrews tells us to be content with what we have is that the opposite implies less faith in the promises of God. He says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6).

If the Bible tells us that being content with what we have honors the promise of God never to forsake us, why would we want to teach people to want to be rich?

6. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that contributes to your people being choked to death.

Jesus warns that the word of God, which is meant to give us life, can be choked off from any effectiveness by riches. He says it is like a seed that grows up among thorns that choke it to death: “They are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the . . . riches . . . of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14).

Why would we want to encourage people to pursue the very thing that Jesus warns will choke us to death?

7. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that takes the seasoning out of the salt and puts the light under a basket.

What is it about Christians that makes them the salt of the earth and the light of the world? It is not wealth. The desire for wealth and the pursuit of wealth tastes and looks just like the world. It does not offer the world anything different from what it already believes in. The great tragedy of prosperity-preaching is that a person does not have to be spiritually awakened in order to embrace it; one needs only to be greedy. Getting rich in the name of Jesus is not the salt of the earth or the light of the world. In this, the world simply sees a reflection of itself. And if it works, they will buy it.

The context of Jesus’ saying shows us what the salt and light are. They are the joyful willingness to suffering for Christ. Here is what Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:11-14).

What will make the world taste (the salt) and see (the light) of Christ in us is not that we love wealth the same way they do. Rather, it will be the willingness and the ability of Christians to love others through suffering, all the while rejoicing because their reward is in heaven with Jesus. This is inexplicable on human terms. This is supernatural. But to attract people with promises of prosperity is simply natural. It is not the message of Jesus. It is not what he died to achieve.

Christmas in Nizhyn

Dominic, Edna, Kaylee, Ashlee, Greg, and Joshua in front of the famous Nizhyn Pickle (Огірок)
Dominic, Edna, Kaylee, Ashlee, Greg, and Joshua in front of the famous Nizhyn Pickle (Огірок)

We spent (Western) Christmas (as opposed to Orthodox Christmas on January 7th) in Nizhyn (Ніжин) (or Nezhin if you say it in Russian) with the Fournier family. Paul and Gretchen Fournier invited us to spend Christmas with them and their three children Kaylee, Ashlee, and Jesiah at their home in Nizhyn. Paul is the pastor of Calvary Chapel Nizhyn or Церква Голгофи as it's known in Ukraine. We were also joined by Tracy Groves from Chernihiv and Will and Ira McIntosh from Nizhyn. Will is from San Luis Obispo (small world) and Ira is Ukrainian, but speaks English so well that it's difficult to notice her accent.

Christmas at the Fournier's
Christmas Morning

We had such a great time while we were there. Dominic and Joshua said it was one of the best Christmases so far. All of us fell in love with their beautiful children. Dominic who has never wanted to hold a little one before, was carrying around one year old Jesiah and having fun entertaining him. The boys had it rough at night though. Paul made them sleep outside in the play structure that he built. OK, they begged him to let them stay out in the fully insulated, heated, electrically equipped, club house complete with DVD player and two beds, but they were rudely awakened in the morning by a rooster that decided to perch on the roof and crow.

Ashlee, Kaylee, and Joshua on the play structure
Ashlee, Kaylee, and Joshua on the play structure.

Joshua, Kaylee, and Ashlee in The Fort
Joshua, Kaylee, and Ashlee in The Fort

On Wednesday night we were excited to be able to attend a service at the church in Nizhyn. After studying God's Word, we hung out and talked with some of the members of the church. We felt so welcomed there and were encouraged by all that God is doing in the lives of His people. The church began as a Bible study that Paul and Gretchen led among students from the university there in Nizhyn. Their faithful work has brought about much fruit. We were blessed to hear how God has been leading Paul and Gretchen there in Nizhyn and in the time before they moved there. They are a huge encouragement to us. We are so grateful to them for opening up there home and their lives to us.

Calvary Chapel Nizhyn (Церква Голгофи) at nightIra and Edna after Wednesday night service
The walkway up to the church / Ira and Edna after the service

On Christmas night we all gathered around to watch the 1953 classic "Roman Holiday" with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. It's a story about a princess that just wants to lead a normal life. I'll leave you with what we agreed was the most memorable quote of the movie from Audrey Hepburn.

"You have permission to withdraw now."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Yulia Tymoshenko, Our New Prime Minister

Ukraine’s government realigned itself on a decidedly pro-Western course after its parliament voted Dec. 18 to return Yulia Tymoshenko to the prime minister chair by the slimmest of margins.

After her election, Tymoshenko reaffirmed her intention to radically reform the Ukrainian government; a plan that includes reducing bureaucracy, revamping the 2008 budget and reorganizing the opaque natural gas sector.

“Practically everything in this country is misbalanced,” Tymoshenko told reporters.

“Making money off politics has become the norm. Making money off government has become the norm. Chaos, indecisiveness and tactics instead of strategy have become the norm in practically every branch and sphere of our lives,” she said.

“All this must finally be defeated. I have the intention, as the newly elected prime minister, to instill order in the country quite dynamically and effectively, but without losing ties with all political forces.”

In the same session parliament approved by two votes Tymoshenko’s Cabinet of Ministers, which includes a foreign affairs minister who favors NATO membership and a physics professor and university rector as education minister. In divvying Cabinet posts, the Tymoshenko Bloc gained control of the economic sphere, Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense received humanitarian posts and the Presidential Secretariat was given the armed forces. The first moves declared by Tymoshenko included cutting bureaucracy in the government’s ministries.
-Kyiv Post

Ukraine has both a President and Prime Minister, so this doesn't mean Yulia will be suddenly calling all the shots, but it does mean that at least in theory, Yulia will be asking some tough questions of those who have been "running" the government. I can't pretend to fully understand the politics of Ukraine, but I do know that if she was running for President in the United States, I'd vote for her. She has something that most U.S. politicians lack, style. Her style includes making bold statements about her intentions and her beliefs regarding the opposition parties. The typical American politician would cringe at the thought of really saying what's on their mind or worse yet make a decisive statement about something they couldn't back peddle out of later. So for whatever faults Prime Minister Tymoshenko might have, I applaud her willingness to stand up and boldly say what she thinks. Imagine how much easier it might be to choose a candidate to vote for if the candidates weren't afraid to speak their minds for fear that they might actually have to stand on one side of the fence or the other. People might not agree with everything that Yulia does, but at least she does it with style.

During Yulia's campaign, you couldn't go anywhere without seeing some catchy Yulia logo or T-shirt. The boys even got these cool Yulia notebooks at school with a flowery, artistic picture of her on them. Kids actually wore shirts and back packs with a cartoon image of Yulia on them because she's the coolest candidate to hit the campaign trail yet. I was just wondering how a similar campaign might work for Hillary. Hmmm...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Trip to Chernihiv

The 13th Cannon in Chernihiv
Emma, Conor, Koren, Gavin, Dominic, Joshua, Edna, and Greg at the 13th cannon in Chernihiv.

On Monday we took a trip up North to visit our friends in Chernihiv for three days. We stayed with Conor and Koren McNamee and their two little ones, Gavin and Emma. They are part of a thriving church plant there in Chernihiv. We spent most of our time just talking about all of our experiences in Ukraine. It's always a treat to be able to talk with other English speakers, especially other Americans. Conor and I have a similar sense of humor, which according to our wives, could be dangerous. It made for some late nights and a lot of laughs though.

On the second night we were there, we had dinner at the home of our friend, Tracy Groves. She made us a great dinner and gave us a bag of hats and gloves that we're going to give to the orphans at the Voloshka orphanage here in Bila Tserkva. (Thank you so much Tracy!) After dinner we all walked over to where the church holds an English club. We watched an episode of The Cosby Show and then split into three groups. Tracy and Conor each led a group while Edna and I led the third group. We had fun going through some questions about what we watched and then answering the questions the group had about us. It was really cool to be able to share about how Jesus has changed our lives and to be able to discuss the Gospel so freely with so many people that have yet to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Chernihiv English Club
This is one of the three groups that we led at the Chernihiv English Club.

We ended our trip to Chernihiv with a short walk through the park and a look at the Cannons of Chernihiv with the McNamee family. We had such a great time just hanging out with them and enjoying their hospitality. We left feeling refreshed and encouraged about the work we're doing here in Bila Tserkva. (Thanks Conor and Koren for making us feel so welcome in your home.) We're looking forward to our next trip up to Chernihiv around Christmas time. Chernihiv is a beautiful city with a rich history. You can read more about it by clicking HERE.

Gavin, Emma, and Joshua chillin with Shevchenko in Chernihiv
Gavin, Emma, and Joshua with Dominic sneaking into the shot.

Edna, Dominic, Conor, and Emma in Chernihiv
Edna, Dominic, Conor, and Emma in front of Savior Cathedral. It was built in the 1030's making it the oldest in Ukraine.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

This We'll Defend

November 30th, 2007 marked the end of 9 years of military service in the Army for me. I was allowed to spend the last 10 months of that on inactive duty in order to participate in overseas missionary service here in Ukraine. It has been an adventure with many ups and downs, fun times and sacrifices, excitement and losses, but never regrets.

I joined the California Army National Guard with the idea that it would be interesting to be a part time soldier. I had heard all the stories about my father’s time in the National Guard, never imagining that I would end up serving full time on active duty for most of my enlistment and at one point in the same battalion that he served in. As an Infantry soldier I served as a sniper, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle gunner and later commander, a fire team leader, a squad leader at a youth academy, and an instructor for training troops for overseas deployments. My most memorable achievements include being qualified as Expert with the M-24 Sniper Weapon System, taking top team award during a sniper competition, and being selected as Soldier of the Year for the 40th Infantry Division.

The Army took me back and forth across the United States dealing with chemical weapons to hurricanes. I saw several different countries and met lots of interesting people because of the Army. I also was saddened to see the loss of two soldiers from my company who were Killed in Action in Iraq. SPC Daniel P. Unger and CPL Victor H. Toledo Pulido made the ultimate sacrifice.

God has used all of these experiences to prepare me as well as my family for serving the people of Ukraine and making the life giving knowledge of His son Jesus known to as many as possible.

Training Mongolian Troops for service in Iraq (That's me on the right bundled up against sub zero temperatures.)

Interestingly enough, my most cherished moment while serving in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was not when I met a former President of the United States, but when I met “Buddy”. Buddy was an 85 year old WW II veteran who settled in New Orleans after serving in the United States Marine Corps for the entire duration of the war. I volunteered with a few other soldiers to help clean up Buddy’s property after our regular duty hours had ended. Hurricane Katrina had brought trees and tree limbs down all around Buddy’s home. We spent several humid evenings getting his place cleared of debris and listening to the stories Buddy had to tell. Spending time with an American hero like Buddy made it all worth it.

Me and Buddy in New Orleans, LA

I volunteered once to serve in Iraq, as did my entire company without exception. Those of us who had served a year of duty under Operation Noble Eagle were turned down. When the soldiers from my company that were selected to go returned home from Iraq after 18 months, I was there to meet them when they landed. Some came back wounded and changed from their experience, but they all expressed a similar opinion, “We are making a difference. We’ve seen it”.

While training soldiers for deployment I met one soldier who was going back for his third time. I asked him why he was going back and he didn’t even hesitate to answer. He said he was doing it for the people of Iraq. He said the people of Iraq were thankful for what we were doing. He told me that you probably wouldn’t see it in the media, but he said the majority of Iraqi people were grateful for being liberated from the terrors that they had been subjected to under Saddam Hussein. He told me about the friends he made there and how he wanted to do his part to see that they remained free.

Serving in South Korea as part of a Joint Forces exercise

The Military Forces of the United States are all volunteers. There is no draft in place. Each member of the Armed Forces has volunteered to protect the lives and freedom of the citizens of the United States and in some cases they volunteer to protect the lives and freedom of strangers.

I’m proud to have served with all the Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines who have put the freedom of others above their own personal comfort and safety. Please remember them and honor them.