When I lead retreats about simplicity, solitude, and Sabbath I usually do an exercise like this.
I ask those in attendance to help me make two lists. We start with the American Dream. What does that make you think about? I ask them. We make a list together. It goes something like this . . .
“The American Dream”
* pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – work hard!
* own your own home (and land if possible) and don’t forget the cars
* achieve more and live better than your parents and grandparents
* go for the gusto, get all you can
* you can be anything you want to be
* claim your freedom to come and go as you please
* if it takes going into debt to make all of this possible – no problem!
After making this list, we turn to the next one . . . What do you think of when you imagine the “gospel vision”? I ask. We start spelling out the words and activities of God in Christ . . .
“The Gospel Vision”
* sell all you have and give to the poor
* take up a cross and follow me (Jesus)
* announce good news to the poor, blind, sick and hurting
* grace is sufficient
* don’t worry about what you wear or where your next meal will come from
* blessed are the hungry, thirsty, poor in spirit
* if you love me, feed my sheep
Both lists grow longer and the differences become increasingly stark. How do we live with one foot in each of these worlds? Simple rejection of either the dream or the vision is not possible. We live here and now. To complicate matters further, more Americans in the present economy are struggling to meet basic needs, much less pursue the dreams of financial wealth and material security. Evoking blessings for the poor sounds like cold comfort in the face of unemployment, homelessness and growling stomachs.
How does one practice generosity this context? How does one live toward the vision laid out by Jesus for living lightly with stuff and placing trust in God’s goodness, provision and abundance? And why would I recommend tithing to someone starting out in ministry?
Tonight, I’m unpacking this piece of advice*:
3. Tithe. Now. Not later. Start your practice of giving away your hard-earned money today. You cannot ask church members to support what you yourself do not have a track record of supporting. Jesus said give more and society says spend it on yourself, but if you will start now by giving away a portion of your stuff and your money, then generosity will come more easily and more genuinely to you sooner.
Tithing, as you might notice from my wording here, is not merely an end in itself or even the primary goal. Living generously and attuned to the goodness and abundance of God is the goal. Giving away one tenth (tithe) of your earnings and goods is a starting place for most people living in a wealthy western nation and possessing enough leisure time to read this post.
I learned this starting place when I was a child. Giving away money, time and abilities to church, schools and other charitable causes was unquestioned in our home. It was a part of the fabric of our everyday lives. I gave away some portion of my allowance regularly. I can’t claim that I was always faithful in this practice. I simply don’t remember, but probably not. I didn’t learn the practice by force, but by example and conversation. I was also fairly driven by saving for things I wanted. Then buying them.
As I went to work and a regular pay check came along, I took my practice of tithing more seriously. When I decided to be married my spouse and I were open in our conversation with each other about money and determined that part of our commitment to each other would include continuing our childhood habits of sharing our money with others, particularly through the church. After a few years of marriage, and when we were both employed we began thinking out loud about reaching beyond giving away ten percent.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve been heroic. It is a struggle to make a habit stick, to practice giving away and money, stuff and personal time and abilities. Too few people are willing to talk openly about the practice or how they learned it, or to invite or advise others to do the same, or even have a conversation. So I’m saying it was not always easy in the beginning. And after many years it is part of our everyday lives, but still needs cultivation and reflection, because it is so counter-cultural to live within one’s means, to share one’s hard earned stuff, to follow Jesus in anything, or to seek generosity as a major value. Pitfalls lie in every direction.
As for new leaders in ministry, I think it is rare that anyone will say to you: this matters; you need to struggle with this issue; you need to begin or continue the habit and practice of generously giving if you are going to lead others in the community of faith. Because in my experience is is so central to effective leadership, I want to risk saying it. Because Jesus said in scores of ways, this matters, I want to risk repeating it.
*Note: This post is part of a series of personal stories which unpack the list of advice, which I compiled for those considering ministry as a vocation, at the request of Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.