Generous Giving

Generous Giving

September 03, 2017 | Mike LaBahn
Julie LaBahn: First, I’d like to thank Mark and Dave for giving Mike and I this opportunity to get up here and share our story with you this morning. It really is quite an honor and a privilege to do so. I want to start by asking you a question. Has God ever asked you to trust Him with something really big? Something that seemed impossible to do from the human standpoint? And what would happen in your life if you said, “Yes”? You see, that’s what happened with Mike and I. We said, “Yes”. We just celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary last month. And Mike often says we’ve been happily married for 30 years (laughter). We have five kids, ages 33-22, and we just had our second grandchild last week. Congratulations to Joanna and Nathan. I have to say, I love being a Grandma. It is the best thing in the world. But you see, we didn’t start off this way. Where we are now is a direct result of us taking God at His word and being obedient to Him. By the way, this is something that every Christian can do, whether it’s with money or not. There’s a verse, Zechariah 4:10 that says, “Do not despise the days of small things”, and another translation says “small beginnings”. And this is the theme of Mike’s and my life. You see, we came from very small beginnings. We both came from divorced, single-parent homes, from rather dysfunctional families. So, we entered into marriage quite broken and not whole. Soon after being married we became Christians, and we started going to church. One of the first sermons we heard was on tithing. The pastor had said, “If you earn a dollar, you give God a dime. That’s what tithing is.” I distinctly remember him saying, “If God can go through you with money, He will.” We didn’t have much at the time, but we started to tithe with the little bit that we had.

Mike LaBahn: So, the state of our finances was this when we started giving God a dime out of every dollar. I was very close to getting kicked out of the bank, because I had bounced so many checks that the bank no longer wanted me. Without a bank account, you’re not in business. Not long after that, our starter broke on our truck. And for two weeks, I was pushing the truck, and my only employee, Julie, who didn’t really like me too much at the time, would pop the clutch. And for two weeks we went from job to job waiting for someone to pay us, that’s how broke we were, so we could buy a starter. After that, the IRS levied our account because we were behind on taxes. We couldn’t get supplies from our suppliers because we were on credit hold. When you’re on credit hold, you have to pay cash, and we didn’t have cash. Julie was pregnant during part of this journey, and she would work at Grossmont Hospital as a nurse on the graveyard shift, come home, take a shower, and go work with me, mowing lawns, in weather like this. We did that for a number of years. About four weeks after we started tithing, (keep in mind we were barely functioning financially, and actually, in every way) our accountant called a meeting with us to explain to us that we couldn’t afford to tithe. We explained to him the message we’d just heard. The preacher said, “If you tithe, your finances will be under a blessing. And if you didn’t, your finances will be under a curse.” I’m not the smartest guy in town, but I figured a blessing was better, so we just kept on doing it. The preacher also said that if you’re not tithing you were robbing God. I just didn’t think robbing God was the way to build a financial legacy. So, we just continued to tithe. We made a commitment that we would tithe in the good days and in the bad, and we’ve had plenty of both. About four weeks after we start tithing, Julie and I are sitting in a taco shop. I write on a napkin that I have a desire for this business that currently has two unpaid employees, I want to give a million dollars to the Kingdom of God above our tithe. I don’t say a word to her. I write it on a napkin. I spin the napkin around. I slide it over to Julie. And I can tell you, she was not impressed with me.

Julie: So, he slides this napkin over, and it says “I want to give a million dollars away, above our tithe, to the Kingdom of God.” And I’m really not feeling it. I literally said, “What the heck?” We could barely purchase the starter for our truck. So, you see, I’m really caught in looking at our financial condition, and all I’m seeing is, this is an impossible thing to do. So, I’m just looking at the impossibility of it. I struggled for quite awhile to get my head around this vision. And then I remembered the words of the pastor that said, “If God can go through you, He will.” So, we said, “Yes.” Here we are, two people that have this desire to give. We don’t really have any money to give, but we knew that we could give what we could, so we could give of ourselves. And we knew that we could be faithful with what was right in front of us. Well, there was a single mom in front of us. We both came from single-parent families, so we knew the heartache and the difficulty that single moms live with. So, we started helping the single mom. We helped in whatever practical way they needed, which took everything from babysitting, to buying gas for her car. If she had car repairs we helped her with that. If her kids needed to be transported to any kind of activities, we did that. Whatever practical need she had, we were helping. What’s interesting is pretty soon we had four single moms that we were helping. We didn’t even know it at the time, but we were practicing the principle in Luke 16:10 that says “If you’re faithful with little, you’ll be faithful with much.” At this time, we were only giving in the way that we could. Giving is not a financial issue, it’s a heart issue.

Mike: The next thing that happened was, I lost an eyeball. I ended up in Kaiser Hospital, where the doctor explained to me that he could fix my eye. He would take my eye out of my head, put a buckle on my eye, put my eye back in my head and six weeks later I could go back to work. I was to lay in the hospital for two weeks and not get out of bed for any reason because my eye was bleeding internally. Those of you that know me know that I’ve never really been good about following rules, and so I stayed in the bed for one day. On day two, I was looking out the window and I saw all this landscaping. I got to thinking; I’m in the landscape business, so what the heck? I asked the nurse, “Who is in charge of the landscaping?” and she tells me. She leaves my room and turns right, I leave my room and turn left. I snuck out of the hospital, went into Tom Fennell’s office in a nightgown, with a patch on my eye, without an appointment, explaining to him why he should hire me to take care of the Kaiser Hospitals. Two-and-a-half years later, he calls us up, and we begin negotiating. The negotiations get tricky, because I have no money and they’re starting to figure that out. Also, I have six employees, and I’m bidding against companies that have three and four hundred employees, and they’re making fun of me. That’s what guys do. So, we’re negotiating, and the negotiator asked me over the phone if I had a Dun and Bradstreet report, and I said, “I do.” She said, “I need you to fax it to me in the morning.” I said, “OK.” So, I called my accountant and said, “What’s a Dun and Bradstreet report?” He explained that it would take 10 days to arrive, and that meant that I was going to lose this opportunity before it ever got started. So, I called her back knowing that there’s no way that she’s going to wait 10 days and I’ve lost the deal before it ever got started. Her assistant comes on the phone and lets me know that she’s been called out of town. Would anybody care to guess how long? (Audience: “10 days!”) We didn’t realize it at the time, but God was at work. We had a God-sized vision, a God-sized goal. A God-sized goal requires God’s intervention. He was intervening. So, we’re negotiating, and I still have a problem, I’ve got no money. I’m going to have to buy several trucks, lawn mowers, and hire about 20 employees. I’m opposed to going back into debt because we had spent the last three years systematically and strategically working ourselves out of debt. Because part of our giving plan is, the less debt you have, the more money you have to give away. So, here’s what happened. The negotiator said, “How about we pay you quarterly, in advance?” God was at work. I’ve been in business 34 years. Nobody’s ever paid me in advance. So, we indeed signed the contract, we got the Kaiser contract, which meant that we’d be taking care of 23 Kaiser Hospitals. Then I was making fun of those guys that were making fun of me, because that’s what guys do.

We lived in Eugene, Oregon, and we had an opportunity to write some big checks. So, I’m going to ask two things as I get ready to tell you these stories; one, we feel apprehensive about telling this story here, because we go here (Foothills). When we do this at other churches, we don’t feel nervous. But we’re apprehensive. And we’re going to describe some amounts, and the amounts have nothing to do with anything, it’s just the amount that we had at the time. As I tell the story, you could be tempted to say, “Oh yeah, if I was making lots of money, then I would write big checks.” And that’s actually true if while you’re making a little money, you’re practicing tithing and you’re practicing writing small checks. Because, all money does is reveal who you are, and if you’re cheap and you get more money, guess what? You get cheaper. And if you’re generous and you get more money, you become more generous. So, we get ready to start giving away money, and at this point of our life, we have a personality exchange. I am a big thinker. I’m an outside-of-the-box thinker. I can’t even stay in the box. I hate the box. Julie stays in the box. She’s gentle. She’s kind. She doesn’t wake up with ideas about giving away a million dollars to the Kingdom of God when you’re push-starting your truck. She doesn’t do that. She’s normal—until it’s time to give away money and then she becomes an out-of-the-box thinker and I get in the box and I get consumed with our circumstances. So, we’re now back at Foothills, and we’ve relocated to San Diego, it’s 2004. The housing market is just starting to dip, the recession is just starting, our business had been embezzled out of about $100,000, and we were once again broke. And Foothills is now doing a building pledge and we have no money. When we were in Oregon and we had the opportunity to write three big checks, we had the money. So that meant we would deplete our business savings account but we had the money. And we did that three times. Now we’re back at Foothills and it’s a different situation. We don’t have the money, but we have the desire. So, Foothills is doing a building campaign because we’re growing. And it’s going to be a three-year building pledge. Every single time we get ready to give away large sums of money, Julie always bumps it up 50%. She gets out of the box, and she doesn’t see the circumstances, and I get in the box and I see the circumstances. Just as when we were in Oregon, each time we wrote a check, she doubled it, and it worked. One time it was $50,000 and it depleted our account. One time it was $100,000, and it depleted our account. Another time it was $50,000 and it depleted our account. The amount is not the important thing. The important thing is, we had the money and we were willing to spend it. So now we’re back at Foothills, and we’re doing a building campaign, but the recession has started, and we’re broke. It’s going to be a three-year campaign. I’m thinking, $30,000, maybe $40,000. Julie says $100,000. We pledge $100,000. We’ve got no money. The recession has begun, we’re not making profit, but we have three years to do this. I remember… I was younger then but I remember thinking, “I got this. I’m a good business man, I’ll figure it out.” And what I learned was, when you have a God-sized goal, you don’t have to figure it out. Your job is to have a God-sized goal and put yourself in a position where you actually can’t do it on your own. And then God goes to work. So, the recession is on, there are no extra jobs. We get two extra jobs, and we make almost $50,000 on each of those jobs. That has never happened before. It has never happened since. None of my colleagues had extra jobs. Within six months, we earned $100,000 that had nothing to do with our actions. Again, that was where I learned, it’s not up to me to figure it out. It’s up to me to put myself in the position to trust the Lord, which we did. And we paid that building pledge off. It was pretty painless. The pain started a couple years later, we were doing another building campaign because we continued to grow. This was going to be a one-year campaign. The recession is full-on right now. There were no extra jobs and we were forced to lower all of our prices. We were losing money some months. Unemployment was at 10.4%. I don’t know if you guys remember, but America was freaking. Nobody wanted to spend money for anything. (Julie told me whatever I do, don’t go off my notes. I told her, “Well, when Dave Hoffman goes off his notes, that’s when he’s at his best.” And she said, “You’re no Dave Hoffman” (laughter). I haven’t figured out if that’s good or bad). So, we’ve got a one-year building campaign, and we’re in the midst of the worst recession America has seen in years. We did a three-year campaign, we did $100,000. So, I thought we should do around $30,000, because that is about a third, and it’s a one-year amount of time, so logically speaking we should do about $30,000. Julie is having nothing to do with that because that’s not exercising any faith in her mind. So, this is where I made a very serious mistake and decided to manipulate her. I had an inside track on how much I thought the church would raise and I thought it would be about $300,000. 10% of $300,000 is $30,000. I told Julie, “Let’s be people of faith and let’s pledge 10% of what the church raises and see what happens” figuring they would raise about $300,000 and I would get out of it for $30,000. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Foothills raised $1.6 million, and I’m now on the hook for $160,000. In the middle of a recession, I’ve got one year to pay it off. Eight months into the building campaign, I had not made one payment. So, I called a meeting with my “former” friend Don Bastrom to explain to him why I wouldn’t be able to honor my pledge. Don told me, “Don’t tell me, tell God.” What are you going to do with that? So, we started making small payments. And a number of years later- a number of years later – we paid the pledge off. We paid the $160,000 off. A little while after that, we realized that the goal that we had set, to give away a million dollars to the Kingdom of God, the goal we had set three decades ago, back when I had hair, it was just us, that goal to give away a million dollars, though it took three decades, we realized with the completion of our building pledge, we had actually achieved the goal to give away a million dollars to the Kingdom of God from a landscaping business. Its 30 years later, and people now often ask me how many people work for us. And I usually say, “About half of them” (laughter). But the truth is, we employ over 100 people, and my daughter now runs the company that I started, and she has instituted profit sharing into our business. We are the only landscape company in San Diego County that’s attempting to share the profit with all of the employees. So, we’re kind of interested to see, what is God going to do through that? Because the profit is so small in our business, percentage wise, that nobody shares it. We’re going to see what happens. I have to tell you, it took Joanna three years to talk me into it. It was her idea. So, what I want to say is wherever you are in your finances, wherever you are in your marriage- we had a failing marriage, we had failing finances- that your condition is not your conclusion. You have to remember that. Do not give up. God is going to do more. Your condition is not your conclusion. This couple that was driving a truck that I spray painted with spray cans- that’s how poor I was- hit the goal to give away a million dollars to the Kingdom of God.

Julie: So please don’t get hung up on the amount of money because it’s really not about the money. It’s about putting yourself in a position to let God move on your behalf. That’s really what this is about. You know, this vision to give away the money, it started with Mike having the faith, and honestly, I didn’t really have much faith in the beginning. But my faith became engaged as I began to see God work. It was pretty obvious that God was working, and that it wasn’t really Mike’s and my ability. The thing is, there’s nothing special about Mike and me. We’re just very ordinary. But that’s when God works at His best. With very ordinary people. Because God works in a realm of the impossible. That’s His domain. What would God do when you’re alive if you asked Him for a vision to do something impossible in your life? Or, if you set yourself up to be in a position to have to rely on Him, to really move and intervene in your life. What are the possibilities that God could do in your life? Because you see, God doesn’t need much. All He needs is an open and a willing heart. And He can do very extraordinary things with that.

Mike: 2 Corinthians 8:1-5. We’re going to take a look at the Macedonian church, and what we’re going to discover is the Macedonian church wasn’t concerned about their circumstances, and that the Macedonian church gave their heart to the Lord. We’re going to see through this story that giving is not a financial issue, giving is a heart issue. Whatever we love, our money follows, and our time is right behind it.
Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.

2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NASB</cite

The whole key is found in verse 5. They first gave their heart to the Lord and their money followed. The Macedonian church was broke. They were the worst kind of broke. They were rock bottom broke. Their circumstances were not going to change. They were not going to pull out of a recession like we do here in America. They were broke and it wasn’t going to improve. But even though they were broke, they did what they could. They gave according to their ability. How to you give according to your ability? You do that by doing what you can. When we were in Oregon and we were able to write those checks; that was according to our ability because we had the money. We didn’t really have to trust much of anything. That was giving according to our ability. The Macedonian church didn’t stop at that. They gave beyond their ability. How do you give beyond your ability? You give beyond your ability when you recognize that God isn’t limited by your ability, which He gave you by the way. He is not limited by your ability. He is limited by you putting yourself in a position to trust Him to see what He can do in your situation. We gave beyond our ability by the two building campaigns that we did here at Foothills. We gave beyond our ability because we didn’t have the money and we couldn’t see where it would come from. And if we did another building campaign today, we would be giving the same exact way, because we don’t have the money sitting around in the bank. But that’s how you give beyond your ability. I found the most interesting part of this Scripture, was that they were begging to participate. I’ve never seen that. They were broke, and they were begging to participate. They didn’t let their circumstances control them. Obviously, their circumstances would control the amount they could give but it didn’t control them from giving. The key is in verse 5, “and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.” That’s the key. Remember, giving is not a financial issue, giving is a heart issue. Warren Wiersbe put it the best I think I’ve heard it put. He said, “If we give ourselves to God, we will have little problem giving our substance to God. If we give ourselves to God, we also give ourselves to others.” Giving is no problem when you love what you’re giving to. Can we have the next slide please? (Photo of child eating frozen yogurt is shown) That’s my granddaughter. Grace and I like yogurt. Now we obviously don’t like it too much, but we like it. Grace likes chocolate and sprinkles, but what she really likes is what I really like: chocolate and peanut butter together. We go out for yogurt and we’re out for yogurt one day, and we share, and she has slowly scooted all the topping over to her side. I found that interesting. And then I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Mine, Papa.” I found that to be interesting too because I’m the provider of the yogurt. And yet, she’s got herself convinced that it’s hers. And that’s perfectly normal behavior if you’re two years old. That’s normal. Then I got to thinking, I didn’t want much of that topping, for obvious reasons, but I only wanted a little bit. I was thinking I wanted about, oh, 10%. That’s a good place to start. I think you see where I’m going. Good. I’m the provider, and she thinks it’s hers. Psalm 24:1 says “the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains.” What that means is, the Lord is the provider, and all He asks for, as a good starting point for our giving, is 10%. And yet, often times, we think it’s ours.

Can I have the next picture? (Photo of two young girls is shown). It’s 1993, the girls are approximately 8 and 6. It’s the beginning of the year, and we are selling the World’s Finest Chocolate. The girls determined that they wanted to win the championship this year. So, I had a principle with the girls that they could decide how much chocolate they wanted to sell but I would not let them go home until they hit the goal. Sometimes we went home after it was dark. Some people were thinking I was hard on these cute little precious girls. But I wasn’t. I was teaching them the principle of perseverance. Newt Gingrich said, “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you’re already tired from the hard work you’ve done.” Anything of any value in life that is going to be accomplished by us, you’re going to have to have perseverance. So, we’re struggling along and we’re not selling any candy. And I came up with two very creative ideas on how to sell candy. Julie will only let me tell one of them. So, one afternoon, we’re out selling candy, we’re not getting anywhere. I drug the girls into a bar on Main St. In sales, you’ve to go where people don’t have resistance. If you’re drinking at 2 o’clock…I’m just saying (laughter). So, Jenny asked the bartender if we could sell candy, and the guy was rude to her. So, Joanna took over. They sold candy to every single person that was on the bar stools. And as we were leaving, the girls are high-fiving, or low-fiving, all the customers. Jenny, with her hair in pigtails, because we always did that for the cute factor, and missing her two front teeth, she gave the bartender a thumbs-up. The bartender said “Oh, what the ‘heck’”, this is church, “what the ‘heck’”, hits the cash register, opens it up, takes out a $20 and buys the rest of the candy. And we leave. And we are excited. That excitement ended when we got home and the girls told their mother what I had done. (laughter) I just told you the tame story. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that “God loves a cheerful giver.” And it says “don’t give under compulsion”, and “don’t give grudgingly.” God loves a cheerful giver. The girls won the candy championship. The truth is, they won it every year. But they won the candy selling championship, and they made $90. I wish you could’ve been in church the day that the offering bag was getting closer and closer to the girls, and they each had nine $1 bills in their hand. Little girls, they do something when they’re excited. They don’t jump, they don’t skip, they don’t do jumping jacks. They do all that. They were excited because the offering bag was coming their way. God loves a cheerful giver. Now the interesting part about this is, we never taught them about tithing. Somebody has said that your children don’t listen to everything you say, but they watch everything you do. Our children, as adults now, all five of them, all tithe. They all practice generosity. They all have a heart for the underdog. One of the single moms who we helped out many years ago, her granddaughter became homeless. One of our daughters took her into her house. They’ve imitated what we’ve done. So, the girls won the candy championship. They practiced cheerful giving. And it’s important to realize that giving is a heart issue. It’s not a financial issue.

It’s also important to realize that there are lots of ways to be generous that don’t involve money. Our son Daniel came home from school one day, heard a message about Africa. He comes home, he’s 17 years old, he says, “Dad, I’m moving to Africa.” Which I found interesting, because Daniel is an introvert by nature, he’d never been to Santee. But Daniel fell in love with the African people, and he’s in Africa to this day. In fact, this morning, he’s baptizing a Muslim kid who just came to the Lord. There are several families in our church that are on their way to Houston right now. Giving is a heart issue. It’s not a financial issue. One particular family in our church weathered a very scary health issue last year. What are they doing? They’re just getting ready to adopt a baby, and her husband is on the way to Houston right now on his money, burning up his vacation time. He’s an EMT. Giving is a heart issue. Giving is not a financial issue. There are lots of ways to be generous.

A couple of questions. Am I giving at my ability? Am I giving beyond my ability? You don’t have to be rich to be generous. You have to be generous to be generous. Many years ago, I read an article in the Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, which told a story about a man who wanted to donate his kidney to his daughter. There was only one reason why he wasn’t able to do so. Well, there were a hundred reasons. He was a hundred pounds overweight. Doctors will not operate on you on optional surgery if you’re a hundred pounds overweight for fear they will kill you. But if this man didn’t lose a hundred pounds, which he did the next year, his daughter would’ve died. So, this man, because long ago he gave his heart to his daughter, when her life was on the line, he lost, in one year, one hundred pounds so that his daughter could live. Why did he do that? Because giving is not a financial issue. Giving is a heart issue.