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How a Culture of Generosity Looks: Right-Sized

Series: Practicing Resurrection: In Christ-centered Generosity

Category: Generosity

Passage: 1 Peter 5:6-7

Keywords: cindy frost, generosity, right size

How a Culture of Generosity Looks: Right-Sized

Preached by Rev. Cindy Frost at FPC Fort Collins, Sept. 27, 2015

Please read: 1 Peter 5:6,7

One of my favorite movies is called About a Boy. It stars Hugh Grant who plays this independently-wealthy bachelor who spends all his time in all kinds of self-absorbed pursuits. He dates women until he tires of them but then doesn’t like that feeling of being a jerk when he breaks up with them. Early in the movie he dates a single mom and just when he’s getting tired of her, she ends up breaking up with him because she’s not ready for a serious relationship. Perfect for him, since he got to have the relationship end without feeling like a jerk! He thinks he’s onto something and so he fakes being a single dad and goes to a support group called Single Parents Alone Together to try to pick up on single moms and the movie unfolds from there.

I think one of the things that I love about the movie is how perfectly Hugh Grant plays this exaggerated version of our self-absorbed selves. At one point, his character whose name is Will displays his self-centeredness in a voice-over: “The thing is, a person’s life is like a TV show. I was the star of ‘The Will Show.’ The Will Show wasn’t an ensemble drama. Guests came and went but I was the regular. It came down to me and me alone. If Marcus’ mom couldn’t manage her own show, if her ratings were failing—it was sad but that was her problem. ” In some ways, this kind of makes sense, right?  I experience my life kind of like it’s “The Cindy Show”—I’m in every scene, I see everything from my own perspective, and experience life in terms of how people and circumstances impact me personally. We all experience the world through our own perspective and are most aware of how we’re impacted by whatever happens to us or around us. We’re the ones who have to figure out what to do and how to respond to whatever we encounter. But because we’re at the center of the lives that we live each day we’re in danger of having an exaggerated view of our own importance.

Our Scripture passage today calls us to “humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.” What does that mean? We know it does not mean acting like Hugh Grant’s character, acting as if we’re the most important person in the universe, being completely self-absorbed, not wanting anyone else to impinge on us in any way. Sometimes, though, we go the other way with humility—thinking it means to consider ourselves worthless, to act like a doormat letting anyone take advantage of us in the name of humility. I’ve appreciated this phrase that I’ve learned from Paul (pastor Paul, not the apostle Paul) describing humility as being “right-sized before God.” We see something similar from apostle Paul in Romans 12:3 when he writes, “for by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” While we’re not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, thinking with sober judgment means also not thinking of ourselves more lowly than we ought. It means recognizing our value as God’s creation, his beloved children, and as individuals who Jesus Christ believed were worth dying for. It’s not seeing ourselves as lowly worms and it’s not seeing ourselves as all-important but it’s having a right-sized view of ourselves especially in relation to God.

As I was thinking of this I couldn’t help but remember the children’s story, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where Goldilocks finds one bed “too hard” and the next “too soft” and then she found the bed that was “just right.” In a bunch of different ways, she would try something on one extreme, then on the other, and then she would find something in the middle that was “just right.” That’s kind of what we are looking for when we talk about being “right-sized”—how do we not get stuck in the two extremes but find that right-sized place in the middle that is “just right”?

We see one way in the second verse of our passage: “Cast all your anxiety on God, because he cares for you.” I’ve been watching and learning from Paul (pastor) about how this idea of being right-sized before God helps with the anxiety that comes up in everyday living. It’s so easy when I get anxious about a situation for me to think that it is all up to me to solve. I go into my super-analytic mode to see if I can come up with a solution, I bemoan the people and circumstances that seem to be getting in the way, and I’m troubled by all the unknowns that I can’t predetermine. When faced with a situation that makes me anxious, that analyze and try to control is the extreme I usually lean towards.  But at times I can lean the other way: to go into victim mode thinking I’m powerless and so I do nothing but get stuck in my worrying. Can anybody relate to either of these two reactions, or is it just me?

Being right-sized, means living into this verse. Recognizing that we are not big enough to solve everything on our own and that God is bigger than whatever situation we’re in. It means knowing God is good, that God cares for us, and that God can be trusted. It means that we can give the weight of the burden over to God, to cast our anxiety on him. To take the problem to him, to remind ourselves that we are limited but God is not, and as part of this to seek from him what he would have us do as the next right step. Not dump it on him and wash our hands of it, but seek God’s guidance for the one thing he would have us do next as we seek to cooperate with God in how he’s working in the situation. Can you see how that is the middle “just right” right-sized way? Recognizing that only God is big enough to resolve the problem, but also recognizing that God may have a part for us to play. We cast our cares, concerns and anxieties on God knowing that he is God and we are not, knowing that he is good and he cares for us, and we seek from him what he would have us do. In this way our anxiety can be somewhat of a gift because it can point us back to God and helps us recognize our need for God and prompt us to renew our trust in him.

There are so many applications to this idea of being right-sized before God and not falling on the side of either extreme.

It applies to our sense of self-esteem which can either be puffed up with grandiosity as we think of ourselves more highly than we ought, or leaning the other direction we can be filled with shame and a sense of being worthless or “not enough,”—not competent enough, not good-looking enough, not a good-enough parent or employee or student. That “just right” right-sized perspective is recognizing that although we’re not the center of the universe, we have been created by and are personally loved by the creator of this vast universe and thus have great value just as we are.

It applies to how we respond to our sin.  On one extreme we might believe that what we’ve done, who we are, or our ongoing faults are unforgiveable and render us unlovable. On the other side we might believe that our sins just aren’t that bad and shouldn’t be a big deal. That just right, right-sized perspective involves recognizing that Jesus died so that all our sins, whether they seem relatively big or relatively small, all have been forgiven and we can live with gratitude and confidence in that knowledge and in knowing that we’ve been adopted as beloved children of an all-loving Father God.

It applies to our concerns about people in our life—maybe a challenging spouse, a troubled child or a hard-to-live with parent.  One extreme can be to just decide to give up on that person, whatever that means—divorce, cut-off, or writing them off. The other extreme thinks that it is up to you to fix or change or heal that person, that if you could just say or do the right thing you’d be able to change the person or resolve the issue. But the right-sized approach is to pray and ask God to examine and change your own heart toward that person as necessary, and then to entrust this person to God, seeking God’s wisdom for what God might want you to do next.

It applies to the big problems that our world is facing, problems like the Syrian refugee crisis, sex trafficking, war, poverty, or environmental concerns. One extreme is to be overwhelmed by the magnitude and the complexity of the problem and just push it out of your mind. The other extreme is to idealistically charge ahead believing you can save the world, or at least fix this one problem. A right-sized approach is to recognize that God is already at work in that issue which allows you to prayerfully explore what is being done to address the problem, seek God’s guidance, and seek to take the part that God has for you to play.

It applies to those challenging life decisions that we face. One extreme might be to avoid making decisions wherever possible, figuring that whatever happens must be what God wanted. The other extreme is to try to make sure you’ve considered absolutely everything, done your best to foresee the unknown, and planned around every potential outcome. A right-sized approach is to prayerfully consider a decision trying to discern God’s specific leading if its there, and then move forward with the decision, trusting that God will be with you to help you through whatever unfolds.

And in this stewardship season, it applies to our giving as well. One extreme might be believing that you need all your money in order to survive or thinking that if you were to give it would be so small as to not make even a dent in the needs. The other extreme is to believe that it is all up to you to bale the church out of any financial concerns. Approaching giving in a right-sized way means I can cheerfully give what God lays on my heart to give, knowing that Jesus Christ can use even 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed a multitude. It means that I can trust that God will provide as I take new risks in giving. And it means recognizing that everything I have is a gift from God and so I can relax the tight grip I have on my money, or my time, or my energy and allow God to direct me in how he would have me give.

As I’ve been thinking about this concept of humility as being right-sized before God I’ve been aware that it is really all about a shift in perspective. {Put picture on the screen} What came to mind are those figure-ground pictures like the one up on the screen.  If your focus is on the white seeing it as the figure and the black as the background, you see a vase.  But if you see the black as the figure and the white as background you see two faces. What you see depends on where you put your focus.

We so often see ourselves as the figure and everything else in our lives make up the background. Kind of like seeing ourselves as the star of our own TV show (like Hugh Grant’s character imagines) with other people at best playing supporting roles.  One of the supporting actors in our story is God and we think about God in terms of what God does for us, how he is part of our story. I like how theologian Andrew Murray defines humility as “the displacement of self by the enthronement of God” (Murray, Humility, ch. 8). That is the kind of figure-ground shift that we are talking about. God takes the larger place in our life and becomes our point of focus.  In the words of John the Baptist about Jesus, “He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

Being right-sized means not seeing God as a supporting actor in our story, but seeing ourselves as part of God’s story. Instead of putting ourselves on the throne of our lives, as the star of our own TV show, we recognize that we get to be supporting actors in the larger story of what God is doing.

Making that shift helps us develop a culture of generosity. Instead of thinking of “what should I do with my money?” and “how much I should give God?” We start recognizing that it is God’s money and asking how whatever resources are entrusted to us can be used for accomplishing God purposes. How might God be wanting to use those resources for the work that he is doing in and through FPC Fort Collins? How might God want me to be part of how he is caring for this person who is struggling? What bigger issue might God be calling me to invest myself in?

Some of you might remember Don Simmons, who spoke at our church about 9 years ago. I remember some of us being at our third training with him and he laughingly asked us if we liked his car, which turned out to be this beautiful green, decked-out BMW, which didn’t quite seem consistent with Don who was so involved in serving the poor. So he told us the story behind the car. He had a co-worker who was living without a car and in order to get to her job she had to take 4 different buses so it would take her more than 3 hours to get to work. Plus she needed a car to do her job which was to find potential employers for at-risk youth. She asked Don to pray for a car and as Don was praying he wondered if God was prompting him to give her his car even though he didn’t have much money himself and his car was fully paid off and he was planning on driving it into the ground. But he recognized that her need for a car was much greater than his.  So he did it, trusting that if God was leading him to do this, he could trust God to provide for him with or without a car. This I think is the most amazing part of the story—that someone, especially someone living in California!, would just give up their car. But this was kind of consistent with what I’d seen in Don as a faithful servant of God who consistently recognized that his needs aren’t the most important thing in the picture and sought to be part of the larger work that God is doing in the world. He recognizes that God is bigger than his needs and so he doesn’t need to be anxious or cling tightly to make sure he is providing for himself.  And sure enough, a week later Don was walking to work and stopped by a used car dealer to look at what was available. The dealer asked him what kind of car he currently owned and was a bit puzzled when Don answered that he didn’t own one. The dealer walked Don around the back of his office, and there sat this beautiful BMW. Don laughed at him--and, the dealer said, "don't laugh, I just bought it at a drug property auction, and I need to sell it for what I bought it for."  The amount was a steal of a deal and exactly corresponded to what Don had just been given in back pay for a free-lance job.  Now, the point of this story is not “trust God and get a BMW.” And in fact, Don didn’t keep the BMW for long, he went back to the dealer and exchanged it for a car that was more fitting for his work with those who were poor. But I love this story because it shows how much bigger God is than our needs and than our anxieties. God is waiting for us to loosen our grip on what we have, thinking that we’re the biggest player in the story, thinking that it’s all up to us to take care of ourselves or our families, and to recognize his ability to provide and care for us.

I’ve seen such amazing generosity that comes from a right-sized perspective in our African partners. I think of Nigerian Dr. Chris Isichei, who working as a doctor full time, felt called by God to use his “spare time” to start a free AIDS clinic, and then who in his “spare time” gives of himself in deeply personal ways in the lives of specific individuals: letting them live in his home, mentoring them, and investing himself in making a difference in their lives.   I think of Luther and Christine Tarpeh in Liberia, church pastors and seminary teachers, who in their “spare time” have reached out to mentor at-risk youth, and then in their spare time felt called to partner with us in the Peanut Butter House nutrition project to feed malnourished children, and then in their “spare time” felt God calling them to start and run a school that provides a high-quality education that extends the possibility of schooling to some of the poorest of the poor. I jokingly call it their “spare time” but what we see is that they view all of their time as belonging to God. These individuals inspire me. They exude such humble spirits as they seek to live into the part that God has for them in the story of what he is doing in Nigeria and Liberia. As they live right-sized humbly dependent on God, they exhibit a spirit and culture of generosity that wants to give what they have to join in the work that God is doing.

Not to give too much of a spoiler to the About a Boy movie, but the other reason I really like the movie is because of the transformation that Hugh Grant’s character undergoes. As he recognizes that his is not the only story or even the most important story, as he allows other people to impinge on him, his life gets better and richer and more meaningful.  A life that was all about self and pleasure becomes more significant as he lets himself be inconvenienced by others and as he get involved in their messy lives, as he starts loving his neighbor as himself, and as he experiences love from others that was never possible before in his self-absorbed state.

When we look at this idea of being right-sized, of God’s call to humble ourselves before God, we need to recognize that it is for our benefit.  It is not that God is a narcissist who wants to make sure that we see ourselves as lower than him. It is that God wants us to see things as they are in proper perspective because seeing more clearly helps us live better lives. When we exaggerate our self-importance, when we think that we have more power or control over situations or people, when we think it is all up to us, we are seeing life in distorted ways that cause us to fall into different unhealthy extremes. When we recognize that God is good, that the God who is on the throne cares for us, we are seeing things correctly and can live in that realistic “just right,” right-sized way. When we understand that God is acting in all of human history in a way that is so much bigger than our individual stories and that he gives us the privilege to play a part in the redemptive, restorative work that he is doing in the world, our lives are given meaning and purpose which brings us joy in a way that a pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed life never could.

My prayer is that we would grow into living in this humble, just right, right-sized approach to life—not carrying the burden of anxiety that comes when we think it is all up to us. That we would recognize our limitations as they stack up against God’s mighty hand and that we would cast our cares and our burdens on him, looking for his guidance for the next right step.  That we would displace ourselves as our main focal point and instead look to Jesus Christ as king and Lord of our lives and of all creation and that we would find joy and purpose in giving our resources and ourselves to be part of the redemptive work that he is doing in and around us. May God give us the grace to live right-sized as we humble ourselves before a God who cares for us and who promises to lift us up.