About Me

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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sabbath and Giving - some musings on spiritual practice

It's one of those weeks when I feel as if I'm hearing connections between a lot of different messages, and in a bunch of roles. Some of it has to do with the connection between "church" and "spirituality," which I know a lot of people think of as pretty much separate. The other things we think of as really separate are money and spirituality, and (perhaps to a lesser degree) time management and spirituality. In the background is my current reading in Brian McLaren's good book Finding our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices -- which invites the kind of connection I've been trying to make between living daily life and engaging in spiritual practices as a way of "training" ourselves for the journey with God.

For me it's happening in a pretty traditional context, but opening some new doors.I've taken on leadership in "stewardship" at church (The word, I've been reminding myself and others, is not just church talk for "fundraising" -- it's about recognizing that we are "stewards" of what we have from God -- invited to work with God in relationship, managing and making good use of the time and money we are given).

Last night (same week so it's all been on my mind) I led a seminar for young adults about living faithfully with our time and our money. And we struggled over some Biblical passages about the practice of tithing - a practice I've been skeptical about because of the way that it can feel like a "bill" that I can't pay. So when I use the biblical word "tithe" I really mean "proportional giving" -- something I've tried to practice, both with money and with time.

We get hung up on the specificity of the 10% provision, but what jumps out at me when I look at passages like Deuteronmy 14:23ff (and into chapter 15) is the attitude toward life that this practice encouraged. For the ancient Israelites (when they were in faithful mode, which wasn't all the time), it was just a given that everything they had came from God -- and so they also took it as a given that when the harvest came in, they would take something off the top and make a feast-- basically just give it away, to remind themselves that what they had left over after the 10% would be enough, because God is a God of abundance. African members of my congregation have been helping me to see this: they are looking for ways of making public offerings in thanks-giving- and "giving back"/rendering thanks, with material contributions, to the God who blesses us. Their spirit around this is contagious, and I'm grateful for it. It's about "rendering" (giving back) to God a portion of what we have, in gratitude for the gift of abundant life.

The requirement that we aside a specific portion of what we have does also have to do with supporting the institutional gathered community. Deuteronomy offers the proviso that every 3 years, people set aside the top 10% for the support of the Levites, who run the religious establishment, because the Levites don't have resources of their own: hence the custom, observed to this day, that clergy are supported by the offerings of the people (except we've lost the grace of the "tithing" part along the way).

I was thinking that Jesus released us from the obligation of tithing by saying justice and mercy were more important, but again, when I looked back at that passage (Luke 11: 42)I saw that it's "both and" ("Woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and hte love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. Hmmm. - I hadn't noticed that "without neglecting the others" before. Jesus, like his communty, assumes that people practice proportional giving. The Pharisees are overfocused on the details - but it looks like Jesus doesn't actually let us off the hook on the basic practice. At least that's what I'm pondering.

Paul, as he advises new Christian communities, doesn't dwell on the 10% part but he invites a practice of setting aside a portion of whatever one has, each week, and doing it joyfully and in gratitude. (1Cor 15:2-3 and 2 Cor 9: 1-14) Again it's seen as a response to what God has given, and not as an oblligation that we're shamed into fulfilling. But it does seem as if in the Biblical tradition, proportional giving is a part of the Christian way of life.

What's completely absent from all of this -- and this is disturbing for us in the 21st century -- is the consumerist idea that we give in payment for what we've received -- and withold our gifts if we don't like what's going on: as if we were "tipping" God for a job well done. No. The proportional giving/tithe tradition invites what is really a pretty radical spiritual practice with regard to "our"money: We set aside a portion to remind ourselves that we don't "need" all of it. Whatever is left is always enough, that God gives us what we need. The practice of proportional giving is profoundly counter-cultural in a consumerist society. But it can also be liberating. Something to ponder.

In all of these texts, the practice of tithing is seen in addition to giving to the poor -- not instead of. Again, it's just part of being a decent society that those who have give to help those who have not. The tithe part is different: it's an "off the top" gesture acknowledging God's abundance and supporting the community/institution of temple/church.

This all gets controversial when we come up against our issues with the institutional church and what it's doing with its resources- but it's worth noticing that both tithing AND giving to the poor are held up as spiritual practices that, followed faithfully, help us to recognize more clearly what God has given us. It leads us to look at our lives from a perspective of abundance, rather than scarcity. And invites us to make our lifestyle choices around what is left over after we have given a portion, as we are able. The calculation is going to be different, perhaps, in our time -- (I suggest just leaving taxes out of it and looking at take home pay or discretionary income as we begin to discern around tithing) but the question: "what do I have? how am I using it" comes into more vivid perspective with a practice of actual proportional giving "off the top" (and wherever we decide to give it).

Here's my insight today, though. The invitation to observe Sabbath is the same principle in relation to our time. God rests on the 7th day; most of us feel we are just too busy to take a full day of rest from our wok -- so this is perhaps the most disregarded commandment among western Christians. And if we can't take a full day then the whole concept of life being a rhythm of work & rest goes out the window (just like proportional giving goes out the window with the excuse that 10% is just too much to ask).

So this is what I'm pondering: Time:Sabbath = Tithe:Money. In both cases, the Scriptural and Spiritual traditions offer us practices that help us remind ourselves that all that we have is a gift from the One who made us, loves us, and desires abundance for us. Even if we have trouble even beginning to keep these disciplines, the fact that they're there may be seen as an invitation to let go of some of our anxiety about control, status, busy-ness, and see it from a "God's eye" perspective. How much time do I have? How much money do I have? What will it take for me to see that whatever it is (unless I am in abject poverty), it is enough. The bottom line in all of this is the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:23). It's an invitation to discernment around the nitty gritty of my everyday decisions: Where is my treasure? Where is my heart? What practices will help me see that God has given me all that I need?

When I get to this point I flip into hymn-humming mode and sing a favorite:
"Great is thy faithfulness. . . Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed, thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.