Online Savings Accounts & Smaller Churches

While I have never in my life desired to be an accountant I do have a strange fascination with filing taxes. I organize for it pretty much all year long and I file as soon as I possibly can (except for the rare occasions where we have owed the government – in which case, I wait as long as I can – and don’t get me started on getting a return equaling giving an interest free loan to the government, I know that is the case, but there are other reasons that we try to make sure we get a return). Then once I have finished our returns I look to see if the boys or mom need/want/will allow me to help them. I’m not looking for any others because I fear it will turn the process from enjoyable to burdensome, so don’t view this post as an open invitation for me to do your taxes. 🙂 I should probably add here that I am not a tax professional and nothing in this post should be construed as actual professional advice – if you want tax advice you should go to a professional rather than me.

Anyhow, this wonderful time of the year has begun and tax forms are beginning to head our way. One of these coming forms is what I am now going to write about because the 1099-INT points to a subject that I would like to discuss. Since we were married twenty-nine years ago Pam and I have tried (sometimes more successfully than others) to maintain a savings account that contains an emergency fund. The purpose of this account is to quickly be available for when we face financial emergencies, not so much to actually increase in value. It is good that the purpose was about preparation rather than a substantial increase in valuation because, as you probably know, the annual percentage yields on most savings accounts have been so low that you really didn’t make any real money on them. For us this has meant that since the IRS changed the rule concerning the amount of interest at which the bank has to send you a 1099-INT (if you earn less than $10 interest in a year they don’t have to send you one) we have not receive a 1099-INT from our main bank (though you are still supposed to report your earned interest on your tax forms). In fact, I already know we won’t receive one this year either because we earned a grand total of $4.03 in interest this year on the largest of our emergency accounts. The the annual percentage yield on our banks savings accounts is a whopping 0.03%.

We also are members of a credit union that pays significantly more at 0.25% APY, which is significantly more than our bank but still not enough for them to need to send to us a 1099-INT.

Then along came the online banks and FinTech companies. This past year we started savings accounts with three online banks/FinTechs. These companies pay much higher rates of interest since they don’t have branches. Here’s what we are receiving rate-wise.

  • online bank #1 – 2.02%
  • online bank #2 – 1.75%
  • FinTech company – 1.80%

The reason I am writing about all this is because of the disruption that these online banks and FinTechs are making in the financial services industry. You see in the first month of being a part of online bank #1 Pam and I earned more interest, on less money, than we had in the previous four years total at our traditional bank. This wasn’t a huge amount (about $20), but still it was 48 times more than my traditional bank had paid me each month. I am pretty sure by the end of 2020 we will have earn more interest in our online bank #1 account than we have cumulatively in our traditional banks’ savings accounts for all of 29 years of our marital life.

Every now and then you need some disruption. We’ve seen it in other industries – 10 years ago who would have thought that you would have jumped into a stranger’s car instead of hailing a taxi (Uber and Lyft), or that I would randomly stay at a stranger’s house instead of a hotel or motel (AirBnB and VRBO) – and it is happening now in the financial services industry. This is why you are beginning to see the big banks do some of this too. For example, Capital One now offers 1.70% APY on their 360 savings accounts, and Goldman Sachs and American Express are doing the same thing. Smaller banks and credit unions have done this for awhile but you know when the big banks change is coming – they don’t do something unless they have to do so to stay competitive.

It is a reminder to me that just because I have always done something a certain way doesn’t mean that is the best way for it to be done any longer, or ever. This isn’t just true for savings account, transportation, lodging, and the other industries that have been disrupted in the past 10 years, and it isn’t always something big happening. Sometimes the disruption is a move to something smaller. Read about the phenomenon over the past few years of local, independent bookstores reviving – here’s a quick search of related articles. These independent bookstores offer something that people want and isn’t being offered by the big book stores and Amazon don’t/won’t/can’t offer. It is also why some small coffee roasters are producing coffee that is widely recognized as amazing (I’m looking at you Ruby).

I wouldn’t be surprised if small churches aren’t this disruption in modern Christian faith in the near future. For the longest time in American Christianity (specifically, but not exclusively, Evangelical Christianity) the mega-church model has been the goal for so many churches. I’ve heard the saying “if you aren’t growing, you’re dying” or “healthy things grow” in various church conferences and events more times than I can remember. I’ve discussed before some of my struggles with such a mindset (HERE), but it can basically be summed in the mindset that healthy things mature, rather than necessarily grow. There are a lot things about big churches that can offer a great deal to help people mature as disciples of Jesus Christ, but there is also much that smaller churches can offer that larger churches don’t/won’t/can’t. Being a small church may be an advantage that Christianity in America needs right now. So many of the voices that I admire in Christian writing and thinking right now, voices that I believe are speaking prophetically, producing maturity, and calling disciples to deep faith, are involved in small communities of faith. This could just be me connecting to people from smaller churches, BUT it might be something about smaller churches that is more conductive to producing this type of mature faith. Just because the big church has been the model of success in the church for the past 60 years doesn’t mean that it should be the model now, and that model may be being disrupted during our present age.

As I have written before small churches are wonderful things.

The Center of the Crucifixion Story is God Asking Where God Is

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ).

Matthew 27:46

It amazes me that at the center of Christian faith, the death of Christ, is God the Son crying out that God isn’t there with Him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

He didn’t respond in some super “manly” manner. He isn’t like Mel Gibson’s William Wallace crying with his last breathe “FREEDOM!” Or Russell Crowe’s Maximus in the moving Gladiator saying that he will have his vengeance in this life or the next. No “give me liberty or give me death” from the Son of Man. No, instead of dramatic heroism by Jesus, we see the God of Christianity hanging on a shameful cross pleading “God why aren’t you here?” By Jesus being there to ask that question Jesus has placed God in the middle of our suffering and our questions of God’s presence.

“Where was God when this happened?” It’s a phrase that runs true with so much of life. I am sure you have heard it before. I think most of us have asked it.

C.S. Lewis wrote:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

“The Problem of Pain”, p. 90

I think He is “rous[ing] a deaf world” to the fact that He is in the pain with us. We just often don’t know He is there already. Maybe it is because we are hoping for movie heroics rather than the God Who defeats evil by bearing the pain of its best shots. Maybe it is because we are so overwhelmed by the suffering that we can’t tell the face of the One Who freely chose to enter the suffering with us. I don’t know why I often can’t tell He is there in the midst of the pain. I just trust that He is there, and from what I have experienced in the passed I have every reason for that trust in Him being with me. Ebeneezer, thus far has the Lord brought us. He is Emmanuel, God with us, even when we suffer, hurt, and even when we shout “where are you?” The God Who has gone deep into the pain and evil in the world to say “where are you God,” has made it where He is with us when we asked that same question.

The Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel put it very well in his classic memoir “Night“:

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

For God’s sake, where is God?

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

Where is He?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows…

Night“, p. 86

Where are you God? I believe He is even in that question.

The Threat of Resurrection – Parker Palmer

Pam introduced me to the thought of Parker Palmer a while back. I am really glad she did. Awhile back at Tapestry I referenced a seldom discussed story of Lazarus the disciple whom Jesus raised from the dead.  After Jesus brought him back to life there were some who viewed his continued existence as a threat. John 12:9 records.

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

Lazarus was breathing, walking, and talking proof that Jesus had power of Death and therefore Lazarus was a threat to the powers that be. Life in the land of Death is a threat to power. In the video above Parker Palmer does a great job of discussing the threat of resurrection.

Idolatry in the Modern Church

I don’t feel like the modern church does well with its own idolatry. The church points out the false gods of those outside of the bride of Christ but I don’t think we do a good job of pointing out our own false gods. This is partially because we have mistaken the role of the prophet. We tend to think that the prophet goes to those who are not followers of God and shouts “you are sinning and not following God.” That does happen. It is what Jonah reluctantly does. The beginning of the book of Amos is another example of a prophet doing just this. Amos looks to the nations surrounded Israel and says:

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Damascus,
even for four, I will not relent.
Because she threshed Gilead
with sledges having iron teeth,
I will send fire on the house of Hazael
that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad.
I will break down the gate of Damascus;
I will destroy the king who is in the Valley of Aven
and the one who holds the scepter in Beth Eden.
The people of Aram will go into exile to Kir,”
says the Lord. (Amos 1:3-5)

HOWEVER preaching about the sins of those who aren’t followers of YHWH isn’t the primary role that the prophet fills. Typically the prophet goes to the people of God and says “Hey you’re supposed to be acting like the people of God and you’re not.” The prophet primarily confronts those who claim to be the faithful.

Which is why I think the church struggles with its own idolatry. The church doesn’t confront its own false gods. We would rather preach against other people’s false gods. Here are some of the idols that I believe are inside the church being worshiped instead of God.

Celebrity – Celebrity is the cultural currency of the world outside the church, and unfortunately it is also the cultural currency of the church. The celebrity pastor is a pretty big thing and it isn’t even really a new thing. Of course, pastors aren’t the only ones being turned into celebrities. Bloggers, bible study leaders, and others are turned into idols that Christians flock too. We have established a culture within the Bride of Christ that lifts up celebrity status as the goal, we just say we’re going to use our celebrity status to tell people about Jesus. Therefore Pastors aim to be writers and speakers rather than pastors.

Power /Success – Just like the world around us we love success and power. Our love of success and power often leads to us idolizing them. Somehow a successful person must be holier than an unsuccessful person. If they are powerful God must have honored them with the power and if they are weak it is probably because of immoral choices. So we treat weakness as those it is the result of sin and power as if it is the result of holiness. You doubt this? When is the last time you heard someone demand drug testing of corporate executives before their companies could receive government subsidies (corporate welfare) versus when you heard the same request concerning the weak and the poor? We proclaim the weak messiah to be Lord but we lift up power in our churches.

Relevance – This one might be a stretch but I feel like many in the church feel the need to make sure that the gospel relates and connects with “real” life. So we lead parenting classes, financial courses, etc. etc. These are good things but they aren’t the main thing. Still we put our trust for church growth in our ability to show that the message of Jesus relates to better lives. Christianity isn’t about people living their best lives. It is about Jesus making the way inviting us to be a part of His kingdom of grace. We don’t shape the gospel to fit “real” life, we allow the gospel to shape our lives around it. I doubt the apostles lived “their best lives”, but they did live faithful, kingdom lives, which cost them everything.

Size – Bigger is better. We all know that. So many things in the world around us point to this. So we live it out in our churches too. If you aren’t growing then you aren’t being faithful. After all, healthy things grow. At least that’s the analogy we often use in the church, never stopping to think that it is actually healthy things mature, not necessarily grow. How many 10′ tall people do you know? If you met one do you think they would be very healthy or riddled with health issues because humans weren’t meant to grow to such height? Jesus’s ministry shrank from possibly 25,000 followers to around 300 at the point of his death and resurrection. Was His ministry healthy? I think so! 

There are so many other things I could mention. Money. Beauty (look at the beautiful people we put on our stages). Etc. Etc. We sing and talk a lot about being so different from the world but most of the time our churches live out the same values as the world. We trust in strength and power. We shout down and hate our enemies. We show favoritism to the rich and powerful. And so on and so on.

Our Lord won His victory on the cross through weakness, suffering, and apparent defeat. Maybe our churches should be more like that. Are you looking for a church right now, maybe consider finding a weak one.

Goading Hope

Sunday was the Hope candle (or in our case Hope lamp) in our advent wreath. I spoke briefly about Christian Hope being an invasion of the future into our present. Thus I really like this quote from Dr. Moltmann.

“Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 21.

We get our English word “advent” from the Latin “adventus” which means “arrival”. We prepare to remember the Lord’s arrival and a large part of that preparation is hope, because hope leads to action. Wishing may be passive, but hope is active.

Hope welcomes the stranger in because we know that when Jesus arrived another world was made possible. Hope takes care of the widows and the orphans because as followers of the incarnate Messiah we can’t live in a world that doesn’t. Hope pushes for justice in this world because we are “goaded” to by a God Who is just. Hope is active.

SIDE NOTE – When Pamela says “I need to grade tonight so watch something I won’t be interested in”, it means it is time to watch “The Outlaw Josey Wales” once again.  This is going to be a good night. 🙂

The Terrell Family Message Thread as an Example

Recently while talking with a group of guys that I regularly meet with to discuss our faith we broached the following question.

What example would you use for your relationship with God as it is right now?

Now the pastor in me wanted to discuss the two biblical examples that God Himself uses again and again for His relationship with us. These are:

  • The relationship of a spouse with another spouse
  • The relationship of a parent with a child

Over and over again God uses these examples. For example, you can interpret the Song of Solomon as a love song between God and His people, much like a love song between two lovers. Smoother example is quite possibly Jesus’s most well known parable, the parable of the prodigal son (which is really more about the Father’s love than the son). In this parable God is described as a father who runs to his son who has left him home but now begun to return.  You will see examples all throughout scripture of these two analogies for God’s relationship with us. These are main interpretive motifs for me for understanding what God says through scripture, He talks as a spouse and as a father.

Still neither the relationship of spouses nor parents and children were initially what came to me when I thought of what my relationship with God was at present. Instead I thought of the Terrell Family Facebook Message Thread.

Oh how I loved Homestar Runner and Teen Girls Squad.

I’m not sure when we started our family message thread, which Noah renamed “The Terrell Girl Squad!” in a nod to Strong Bad‘s “Teen Girl Squad” (which we as a family love). I assume it started when Adam went to college as a way for our family to talk throughout the day, but the message thread is so long that I’m having a hard time finding the end of it. I know it goes back at least 4 years – I stopped going backwards after that the fourth year.

We use this thread to talk about what we are experiencing around us, to get each other’s opinions and wisdom  concerning subjects, to share info, to raze each other a little, and to talk about serious and deep subjects throughout our day. I’ve never tried to average how many messages we exchange a day but it is 11:52 a.m. as I am writing this and we have sent 45 messages (many of them very brief – one or two words) thus far today. This message thread shapes how I experience a large part of my day.  I get excited about sharing parts of my day within the family message thread and hearing about what has happened around my family. I interpret much of my day based on the conversations that happen in this thread.

  • If a project I have been working on gets a little closer to fulfillment, I look forward to sharing it with the Terrell Girl Squad. (For example, we added Christmas wreath lights to the house today and the family had input into what color these should be – the answer is boring white.)
  • If I read something interesting, I look forward to sharing it with the Terrell Girl Squad.
  • If I just saw WISCONSIN MAN (a guy in our neighborhood who always dresses from head to toe in Wisconsin Badger gear and we shout in heroic voices “WISCONISIN MAN” whenever we see him), I look forward to sharing it with the Terrell Girl Squad.
  • If I have a question that I am struggling with, I look forward to sharing it with the Terrell Girl Squad.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

My family, through the constant conversation of the “Terrell Girl Squad” message thread, shapes how I experience and understand my day. It is like my family is with me throughout my day. This is why it helps me to understand my relationship with God.

Paul encourages us to “pray continually“. I believe part of praying continually is this ongoing dialogue with God concerning what is happening in our days.

    • Jesus, I just read this fascinating statement in the book “White Trash” that states that national myths don’t develop without us forgetting parts of our history. What parts of my life have I turned into myths and what parts have I forgotten.
    • Jesus, I’m feeling pretty (insert emotion here). Why is that and died it mean anything?
    • Jesus, I haven’t seen WISCONSIN MAN in a long time. I hope he’s ok.
    • Etc.., Etc., Etc.

In such a way we begin to be see and interpret our day through Christ. We recognize that God is involved in all that is going on around us and we see things through His eyes.

Thus my family’s constant conversation through a Facebook message thread is helping me to understand how my relationship with God should be. Who says Facebook is good for nothing. 😉

The Hum of Friendship

First, At the moment I’m having a hard time not broadly smiling and thereby looking a little creepy. I’m at Emy J’s finalizing my message PowerPoint slides for Tapestry tomorrow while listening to a Christmas playlist that Noah put together. Over the Sinatra influenced playlist I can hear the constant hum of indistinguishable conversation between friends. Tomorrow I am talking from the Creation story about us being created in the image of God (the Imago Dei), and I am convinced that the Image is that we were created for community by the God Who is community in and of Himself. Therefore, friends smiling, talking, and laughing together is a pretty good soundtrack for finalizing thoughts on a message related to the Imago Dei. I am sure that the music of the domain of God will be praise directed toward our Creator, but I tend to believe that the background Muzak of the presence of God will be a steady hum of loved ones talking and laughing together. I think that sound makes God smile.

Second, there is a young lady here who is wearing a fanny pack.

I Confess I Can’t Remember Verse References

I don’t know why but I often find it difficult to remember Bible verse references – the chapter and verse numbers that we use to signify where a particular verse is found in scripture. This is only important because it is basically a part of church culture that when you quote a verse of scripture the church culture mindset is that you add the reference to it.

Have a friend who is dealing with worry and you want to encourage them? Well Matthew 6:34 is a great verse to remember (the first verse of scripture I ever memorized)  Therefore, you would tell your friend, “Well Matthew 6:34 says, ‘ Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.'” Struggling with feeling content in a situation? Philippians 4:13 (one of the most misused verses of scripture there is) is a good verse to share. “Have you considered Philippians 4:13? “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

When I started getting serious about studying the Bible and therefore started memorizing scripture I learned in a culture where you quote the reference at the beginning and the end of the quote. So you would say:

John 14:6
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”
John 14:6

We quoted the reference twice, while the verse only once – I’m not really sure what message quoting the reference twice and the actual verse once actually sent (and I may not want to know).

Anyhow my problem is that I have always been,and still am, lousy at remembering the verse references of the scripture I memorize. I am good at remembering the actual verses, really good at remembering the content around the verse itself, and even better at remembering whole stories from scripture. In fact, when I try to lift up myself or someone else with scripture I usually go to the stories of scripture. “You’re struggling with God’s presence? Let me tell you about a time in a garden when Jesus felt that same way.” “You don’t feel like God can use you? Can I tell you a story about a man named Ehud?” Still remembering verse references is a pain for me.

Earlier this week I was with a group of men that I study the Bible with each week. We each were discussing one verse that really hit us from one of the chapters of the study. When it was my turn I brought up, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.“. I was immediately asked “What’s the address” (this is the cool kid way of saying “what’s the reference?”) and I had to admit that I couldn’t remember other than it was in the Psalms.  Once again I felt the pang of shame.

These are guys that I love and I know love me, so I’m not bringing this up to say they did anything wrong, they didn’t. Instead I bring up this example in order to admit that at one time in my life I would have felt shame over the fact that I remembered the verse (the actual inspired text) and not the reference (the non-inspired text). In fact, at one time in my life I would have preferred to have the reference memorized rather than the verse, because if you had the reference memorized you could always look up the verse and make sure you had it right.

When they came around references were a huge help. Suddenly you knew exactly were a statement was because of the book name, chapter, and verse numbers. This was a huge step forward. Yet with a miniature super computer in your pocket that can search the whole Bible in less than a second those chapter and verse numbers really aren’t as important anymore. It is more important that we know what is actually in the verse. So why do I let myself feel shamed for not knowing something that I’m not really sure actually helps my faith?

Maybe this is just my own problem and no one else struggles with this, but at one time I seriously struggled, and every now and then I still do,  with feeling guilty about this. I’m a pastor, after all, I should have these references memorized. What type of example was I setting by not knowing the reference? Funny, I never asked myself what type of example I was setting by worrying to the point of shame about the non-inspired portion of the Bible more than the inspired portion. Jesus didn’t quote the references … well … because He didn’t have them. Our chapter and verse references didn’t develop until the mid-16th century (chapter numbers started appearing by themselves in the 13th century). Sometimes He referenced the author, others times He just said the passage with no reference to the author, and other times still He merely alluded to the passage. If Jesus did this then why do I feel bad when I can’t remember a reference that wasn’t added to the Bible till the mid-16th century and is by no means inspired by God. For the Lord did not say “AND THIS A VERSE NUMBER WILL BE PLACED HERE!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes a wonderful statement in one of his letters from prison. He writes:

We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives. (Emphasis added by me – Robert)

“More pious than God”. Yep I can relate to that temptation.

It is very important that we hide God’s word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11😁) because it helps us to follow Him, but we (or maybe just me) have to remember what is inspired and what isn’t. For we have an enemy, the Accuser, who will try to use anything to shame us as we follow Christ.

Me: I quoted the verse.

The Accuser: But you didn’t quote the reference.

Jesus: Ahem, I didn’t say the reference anyway and Robert has a cellphone and can look up the non-inspired reference in about 2 seconds, so shut your mouth.