Budget time in my church comes during the approach of Christmas, for our fiscal year begins January 1. The juxtaposition is simply jarring.
Christmas in church is the dreamiest of times, when we rejoice in song as we never do otherwise, when the staunchest of iconoclasts welcome at least some decoration (a few pine boughs, perhaps) into the sanctuary, when our memories of childhood get tangled with the story of the birth of Jesus. That story has proven its strength to rekindle people's deepest hopes, whether they believe it or not. We who do believe it almost burst with hope at Christmastime.
But then we face the budget, the antithesis of the star atop the Christmas tree. The budget embodies dreary materialism, with all its inevitable disappointments. It is hard to synchronize this with Christmas; hard to harmonize the reedy sound of children practicing "Silent Night" with the anguished comments of the small committee of tired elders working late into the night to make the numbered columns come out right.
Not that budgets are entirely uninspiring. At my church, we begin the process in various committees by seeing visions and dreaming dreams. The Christian education committee envisions buying a complete library of Christian videos. The outreach and membership committee (with the pastor's enthusiastic concurrence) dreams of hiring a retired pastor to call on the sick and homebound. For the plant committee, paradise would be a repaved parking lot.
Ordinary though our dreams may sound, they are offspring of a wider vision: to live and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. When we work through the logistics of making our dreams come true, our dreams grow sharper. We are lifted out of our routines and, almost inevitably, inspired. We begin not merely to wish, but to hope.
But it is hard to transfer that hope to a budget. Most people grow weary just looking over the relentless columns of numbers. The budget categories ("operating expenses," "capital debt") speak openly as a clam; the figures bury intelligence in an avalanche of facts. The mind grows numb. Five minutes after beginning a budget confab, a $48.83 item seems as important as one costing $48,483.83. That is why people talk so much about "the bottom line." Above the bottom line grows an impenetrable jungle.
Yet we try. We dream our budgets and then present our dreams, carefully wrapped in numbers and logic, to the congregation. Members fill out pledge cards, and we who are designated leaders use those pledges to decide what we can do and what we cannot. Every year, our dreams are returned to us in pledge-sized fragments. We are given the money to do a few new things, but not half of what we dreamed.
So we will make do. And then try to forget it as we sing Christmas carols.
Last year, however, as I read the Christmas story and worked on the budget, a different perspective came to me, for the original Christmas was also a make-do affair.
There was, first, the matter of explaining the unexpected pregnancy. Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth knew the truth, but how could they make their neighbors believe it? Perhaps only God's opinion really counts, but judging from my own experience, those who love God still care what their neighbors think.
Then came the incredibly inconvenient summons to Bethlehem. When you are about to have a baby, you want relatives around to help. You desperately want your own home and your own things. Joseph and Mary made do in a crowded, strange town.
They could not even find a proper room. They had to make do with a stable, making a baby's bed out of whatever was at hand. No number of angel visitations could take away the wearying inconvenience of that lonesome birth. Surely this was not their dream-neither their dream of a first son, not their dream of welcoming a Savior.
Yet it was in those make-do circumstances that God came. We truly sing of that baby in his thrown-together bed, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
"To each of us a task is given. They had to watch their neighbors' eyes grow skeptical as they heard the circumstances of the pregnancy; I have to try convincing a dubious congregation that the extra money is really needed. They made do with a room paved in sheep dung; I may make do with a potholed parking lot. Neither situation seems to have much to do with the glory of God. Yet both sets of circumstances may welcome and nurture new, supernatural life. It happens particularly when we respond like Mary: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, Proverbs tells us. In Bethlehem he concealed his Son in a manger. In my church he conceals his gospel in the budget. Often God fulfills our hopes in such ways, which seem in their untidiness to mock our hopes. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. This article as originally published in the December 15, 1989 issue of Christianity Today. Tim Stafford is currently Senior Writer for Christianity Today, and author of Stamp of Glory: A Novel of the Abolitionist Movement (Thomas Nelson).
See today's other Christmas-related articles by Philip Yancey, Kathryn Lindskoog, and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Earlier Tim Stafford articles include:
"The Business of the Kingdom | Management guru Peter Drucker thinks the future of America is in the hands of churches" (Nov. 8, 1999)
"Anatomy of a Giver | American Christians are the nation's most generous givers, but we aren't exactly sacrificing." (May 19, 1997)
"God's Green Acres | How DeWitt is helping Dunn, Wisconsin, reflect the glory of God's good creation." (June 15, 1998)
"God Is in the Blueprints | Our deepest beliefs are reflected in the ways we construct our houses of worship." (Sept. 7, 1998)
"The New Theologians | These top scholars are believers who want to speak to the church" (Feb. 8, 1999)
"The Criminologist Who Discovered Churches | Political scientist John DiIulio followed the data to see what would save America's urban youth." (June 14, 1999)
Stafford also had two articles about abolitionism in the September/October 1999 issue of our sister publication, Books & Culture: "Abolition's Hidden History | How black argument led to white commitment," and "The Puzzle of John Brown"
Stafford also writes the "Love, Sex, and Real Life" column for Campus Life magazine, another Christianity Today, Inc. publication.
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