Monday, July 14, 2014

The Spirituality of Giving ... Or Not Giving

It's been said we are living in a "post-Christian" era - or at least one where the institutional church is losing its influence. Notice I haven't said the Gospel is losing its influence ... not at all. The Gospel is still powerful, life changing, crazy radical and is needed now more than ever! What's waning is the idea of church as a massive, institutional structure which is heavily invested in maintaining its influence, power and wealth. Don't get me wrong, there will be some kind of Church in the future, but I'm hopeful it will be one which finds the balance between necessary organizational structures and getting out and doing what Jesus told us to do. We kid ourselves if we think we need no organizational structure! If we ditch all structures, we won't be able to organize a "piss off in a pub." But a movement towards being a Church which is more nimble and responsive to the real needs in our communities would, I believe, bring glory to God and the Gospel.

That being said, even becoming a more nimble responsive Church will still require resources for mission and ministry. These resources fall into two categories: the time/talent of people and money. Now most of us in the Church would rather talk about time/talent than money. We're pretty squeamish on talking about money and it is the primary complaint you hear from non-church goers who say all we talk about is money. Well ... Jesus talked a lot about money too! There are more teachings about our healthy relationship with money and not being fearful about God's provision for us than any other kind of teaching in the New Testament. Seriously.

As soon as I was ordained, Beloved Husband and I took the leap to tithing our income and never looked back (for the non-churchy folks who might read this, the Biblical tithe is 10% of your income given to the work of God). Not that we weren't scared to do this (we were) but I figured if I talked about the tithe from the pulpit, I better back my words with action. You know, put up or shut up ... or "don't write a check with your mouth that your ass can't cash." I have taken the message of proportional giving and the tithe into every congregation I have served - it's part of being ordained. Where I serve, we have people who are on-board with proportional financial giving and working up to a tithe, several who tithe as some who give offerings over and above the tithe. These folks have had the conversion of heart to see that "our money" is not really ours - it is God's. We are stewards of our resources and by giving first to God's work in the Church, it sets the pattern for other resource decisions we make.

What I find disturbing is when people cut their time/talent and financial giving to the church abruptly with no apparent reason.

Make no mistake: there is always a reason. Generally, I've found they fall into one of two categories, both of which are spiritual issues. The first is a genuine financial crisis: catastrophic illness or the loss of a job or business. These things happen and sadly people are often too embarrassed to tell their priest about it. If anything, this is the time to let your priest or pastor know what is happening! We can often confidentially connect you with resources to help get you through as well as help you sort out where God is in the chaos. We may or may not be able to fix the situation, but your clergy cannot do anything if we don't know.

The other main reason people cut their giving to the church is because of conflict - they are mad about something. They don't agree with a church council vote, or they are mad at the national church about a position taken on a hot button topic, or they are mad at the clergy. I won't lie - I've done it myself when I was younger. You know, "I'll show you! I'll cut my pledge!" Well, now that I'm older and living on the other side of the collar, I want to share with you what I've learned about this approach ...

It doesn't work.

That's right ... it doesn't work ... and here's why:

Say you are mad at the national church for their position on a hot button topic and you decided to stop giving to your local church. Well, at the national level, the leadership really doesn't have a clue what you've done and really never will. The amount of your local financial support that reaches this level is ... well ... minuscule. It doesn't really even register on their financial Richter scale. Now, if you were to withhold say, $10 million from a major project ... you might get somebody's attention. Short of that, you probably won't.

But let's get local and say you are mad at your clergy and you decide to withhold your financial giving. I can speak for the Episcopal Church (since I serve there) and tell you once again it doesn't really work ... at least not in the way you think it does. They way our Constitution and Canons are written, paying the priest of the parish is the first obligation of the congregation. Everything and everyone else falls in line after that. So, if you withhold your money, you really end up hurting yourself and all the people sitting next to you in the pews. Why? Because for lack of money programs will be cut, staff positions will be cut and even the utility bills will go unpaid before the priest's pay is affected. Now technically it is true that the vestry can vote to cut the priest's pay. In the almost 40 years I've been in the Episcopal Church, I have never seen this happen ... not once. I'm sure it has somewhere, but I've personally never witnessed it. Suffice it to say, this is a rare outcome. While the polity is different in other denominations, it is likely the mechanisms still favor keeping the clergy in the local congregation in some way, shape or form.

So what are you to do if you find yourself unable to support your church with time/talent or money because you are upset with its position on an issue or you have a problem with your clergy? Rather than just cutting your giving, which likely won't resolve anything, allow me to suggest a Benedictine approach which is spiritually healthier for you and the Church.

First, pray about what is really bothering you. Prayer is one of the five practices of Benedictine spirituality (the others are work, study, hospitality and renewal). I suggest this is a good time to seek out a spiritual director or counselor who can help you get clarity on what the real issue is for you. Ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Is this something worth compromising the mission and ministry this congregation?
  • Would I want to see programs which spread the Gospel be cut over this?
  • How will cutting back my giving hurt the other members of this church family?
  • If I leave here to go to a church where my position is better supported, would that place cause me to compromise deeply held beliefs on other issues?

If in your spiritual work you find it is a personality issue between you and your clergy, it may do well to consider if Christ is calling you to step beyond your ego to do what is best for your congregation and community. I know, that's a tall order, but daily dying to our selfish egos is partly what Jesus meant when he told us to take up our cross and follow him. Maybe your irritation is a stirring of the Holy Spirit indicating a call to conversion of heart. Also remember your clergy will not be in your congregation forever. We are "plug and pray" and will at some point move on.
As a side note: I am not condoning putting up with clergy abuse and, sadly, this does at times happen. If you are truly being abused, and a good spiritual director or therapist can help you sort that out, get out and report the abusive clergy to the proper authorities!
Second, once you have some clarity about what is really going on, pray about how to approach this with your leadership ... and then do so in holy conversation. If you feel like you cannot speak directly with your clergy, talk to a trusted lay leader initially. Notice I said, "a trusted lay leader" - as in the singular. The worst thing you can do is try to rally a group together to confront the clergy or governing board about your issue. Secret meetings to unseat the clergy or governing board, rants on social media, and behind the back gossip are not healthy ways to deal with anything. The widespread damage which results does not bring one ounce of glory to God! It only reinforces for non-church goers why they hate church! What kind of witness for Christ are you if you do that? Not a very good one, I'm afraid.

Be an intentional holy listener during your conversations. Remember, conversation and conversion come from the same root word in Latin: conversio. When we have real conversation, we leave ourselves open to conversion - to change and growth. Conversion of heart is part of Benedict's rule. Another part of Benedict's Rule is obedience which comes from the Latin word obedire meaning "to listen." This isn't blind obedience, but the holy listening to the counsel of another. Really listen to the other's position and try to put yourself in their shoes rather than trying to come up with your next rebuttal to what they are saying. You may not agree with them but at least try to understand it. This may challenge some of your deeply held beliefs and it will likely be uncomfortable, but stick with the process.

Third, after talking the issue over with your clergy or with a trusted lay leader, pray some more. Ask for guidance about a way forward. Do not be surprised if a way forward comes which isn't something you had imagined. Be open to creativity here - that's the Holy Spirit at work.

Finally, if after exhausting these options you feel like you cannot support your congregation with your time/talent or money, it may be time to take a break from this worshiping community for a season and find another communityThis is the last resort! Why? Because we are human and will tend to take the same old kit bag of unresolved issues to our new congregation and act out in the same ways all over again - just with different players in the game. St. Benedict knew this and it is why he made stability of life and community part of his monastic Rule. He knew that only in the messiness of sticking with relationships and working out our differences in an intimate community setting could the Holy Spirit accomplish the conversion of heart to become more like Christ. However, if this is a call to conversion, you may need another community in which to nurture that conversion for a season before you return.

We are the Church - not an institution but a living, breathing community of faith commissioned to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are all broken souls in need of the redemptive healing of Christ. But as St. Paul reminds us, "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7) and in giving of time/talent and money, we are given the means to grow in spiritual maturity and generosity. In doing that, we can follow St. Benedict's charge to welcome all as Christ himself.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Think on what things?? Friday after Last Epiphany (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 / Philippians 4:1-9 / John 17:9-19)

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. ... and the God of peace will be with you."

Paul is challenging the Philippians on where they place their attention, exhorting them to find what is life giving and right in the world around them. No small task. In fact, these words could have been written right here and now for us.

I don't know about you, but it feels increasingly hard to think about these things which Paul commends. It's almost as if we are set in a world where "whatever is false, whatever is degrading, whatever is unjust, whatever is corrupt, whatever is ugly, whatever is rude, if there is any mediocrity, if there is anything worthy of debasing" it is those things upon which our minds are enticed to think.

When I was young, the news cycle was the 6 o'clock news on television and it lasted one hour. That was it. Yes, we saw violence and bloodshed (especially during the Vietnam War), but it lasted one hour and came to us only on a television set.

Now we live in a 24/7/365 news cycle where not only do we see it on television, we are bombarded with it on our smartphones, computers, Facebook pages, Twitter. Television has had to compete with these other data streams and now attempts to pass off opinion as fact (yes, Fox News, I'm talking about you) and the more crass, obnoxious, and partisan, the better.

And this is before we consider the content of what we are seeing. Syria, Southern Sudan, Ukraine and the Crimea are at war and violence is everywhere - and we see it 24/7/365. And we are getting numb to the whole thing. One can only absorb so much before you shut down.

In Lent, we are called to self-examination and self-denial. I confess I'm at a place in life where the "low hanging fruit" is to see what is wrong with our world than what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise. Perhaps for me, it is time to fast from the constant barrage of violence and attend to what is life giving - to where the Creator is still creating.

This is not to deny evil but rather to pull back so the constant flow of images and words does not desensitize me into inaction and despair. A break to regain perspective and find love in the midst of the mess.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Repentance from Sin and Evil - the invitation to a Holy Lent

It's Shrove Tuesday: a day of feasting before the Lenten fast begins tomorrow. At Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, our youth will host our annual Pancake Supper to help raise funds for our Youth Mission Trip this summer.

I always feel like I'm standing on the brink on this day about to plunge into the abyss of Lent with its ashes and penitence. I once thought of Lent as depressing ... but I don't think that way anymore. As a cleric, it's a time of calm and reflection after the crazy, break-neck pace of the fall's activities, Advent and Christmas. Even more than Advent, it helps me slow down and focus intentionally on what needs healing and renewal in me and in the world.

I've been online today and looking at liturgical approaches to Lent from different corners of Christianity. I confess I like our Book of Common Prayer's Ash Wednesday liturgy and wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China. I did, however, run across a liturgy that looked pretty good and included Taize chant for the music. I was intrigued until I found the confession prayer which had the following phrase:
"We repent of our humanity."
Wait ... what? Repent means to "turn around" or to "change your mind." It comes from the Greek metanoia which means "turn around." Repent is what we do when we, by God's grace, acknowledge and turn away from Evil and Sin - the powers of Death which will kill not only the body but the soul.

But "repent of our humanity"?! As if being human is inherently evil or bad? As if being human is something to be rejected? And, if repent means to turn around, what is the alternative? To repent of your humanity and ... become a jellyfish? It just makes no sense. It is theologically and ontologically bankrupt. The Orthodox say that Christ became human that we might become divine. Our humanity is blessed, sanctified and honored by Christ's descent among us as one of us. This isn't something to repent of at all!

What we need to repent of is Sin. Admittedly, this is not a popular concept among some Christians who feel it sounds "too judgmental" or "too harsh" and so avoid using the "S-word" in their liturgy. Hence repenting of "our humanity" becomes some sort of cheap, sophomoric way of avoiding the real truth. Theology of the cross demands we not "call good evil and evil good" but name the thing for what it is. The thing we need to name is Sin and it is that from which we need to turn.

This reflection by Dr. Derek Olsen speaks this hard truth well. There is evil in the world. Jesus never wavered in naming it during his time on earth. We have a heavy darkness in each of us. The Church Catholic teaches that Sin comes from "the world, the flesh and the devil." Our fragile human nature falls into Sin all the time. But the good news is that the power of Sin to destroy us who are claimed by Christ in baptism has forever been broken - Sin does not claim us forever.

This does not mean, however, that Sin has ceased to be a presence in our world or in our lives. It is ever there and we are called to self-reflective vigilance as Christians to look at it clearly and unflinchingly - not just in Lent, but always. We are to acknowledge and confess the sin that has crept into the dark corners of our lives and release it to Christ who brings light and healing to us.

I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent this year. Not by repenting of the humanity you bear, but the Sin which clings closely and from which Christ longs to release you.