Thursday, November 11, 2010
Traveling Incognito: A Modern Parable on Stewardship
There are a few reasons for that. First, I wanted to be known and clearly identified as one of the "local" clergy. I considered it a form of evangelism.
However, the NE Corridor is heavily populated by the Roman Catholic Church. It seemed important, as a woman, to be clearly identified as an ordained member of the church. See also: evangelism.
Now that I live in Lower, Slower Delaware, I rarely wear my clergy shirt or collar. Oh, it's unavoidable if I'm heading off to a church meeting or service and have to stop into the local convenience store or pick up my mail.
For the most part, however, when I'm in "the hood," I'm usually dressed in "civilian" clothes.
There are benefits, I'm discovering, to traveling incognito.
Just the other day, I was over to Perry's One Stop, the local "mom and pop" convenience store at the top of the street in the community development where I live. I was looking for something . . . don't even remember what it was . . . that might save me the 10 minute drive to the local Harris Teeter's Supermarket.
What I got was a "view from the pew" about Stewardship. It was the kind of stuff they never tell you about in seminary - or in those evangelism workshops.
There's a little luncheonette near the deli which is part of the store. There are three small tables with some chairs, and one picnic table where some of the folk gather to have breakfast or lunch. I think it's called "The Nook".
The tables are near the bank of shelves with coffee, cake mixes, and toiletries, which block off a bank of large refrigerators filled with milk, soda, juice, yogurt, eggs, etc.
I was over in this section when I caught a bit of a conversation being held by three men who were sitting at the picnic table. They don't know who I am and were, in fact, oblivious to my presence.
"I don't know," said one, clearly perplexed "I've always been taught to support the church, but. . . . this year. . . . I don't know . . . ."
"I know," said another, "I mean ten percent. He's talking TEN percent of my income."
A third man chimed in, "Right. And this one wants us to take 10% off the top - before we pay our rent or food or clothing for the kids. I never heard THAT before."
"First fruits!" the two chimed in, their voices dripping with sarcasm.
"What the hell is that?"
"Something about what the Bible says about how it used to be . . . people would bring the 'first fruits' of their crop to the Temple."
"What would happen then?"
"Well, I suppose they would give some of it to the Temple ministers, but most of it to those who were hungry."
"Yeah, right. Like that's going to happen today."
"First of all," said one, "you better believe that the pastor doesn't figure his tithe that way."
"Right," said another, "he doesn't have to pay rent or a mortgage. Or electricity or heat. He lives in the parsonage." They chortled softly.
"Even so, I'm betting that the wife figures out how much they need for food and clothing and insurance and a vacation and THEN figures out the tithe."
"Well, that only makes sense," said the first man, the man who was clearly still trying to figure this out. "I don't think that's what the pastor was saying."
"Yes it was!" his two friends chimed in.
"He said - from the pulpit - that we need to give our FIRST FRUITS to the church. Then, he read from that passage in the bible. Then, he said that we should go home and figure out the first fruits of our budget and give it to the church so the church could take care of those who didn't have as much as we do."
"Well, that may have been the way it was in the days of the Bible, but that's not the way it is today. The church isn't the 'United Way'. It can't provide all the services that the community needs."
"We do our part. We contribute to the Food Pantry. The Men's Group brings scriptures to the prisons with our Bible Study. The Ladies Auxiliary does a wonderful job raising money for various charities. The kids do a yearly Mission Trip. We have Global Mission Sunday where we help people in Africa or Asia. But, that's just the tip of the iceberg of the world's needs."
"He's right, you know," said the other man. "If you look at the budget, most of our money goes to the pastor's salary and benefits, and to running the church, and keeping up with the building. That's not taking care of the world."
"Yeah, and the pastor does pretty good. Drives that Subaru Wagon. Wears fancy suits and always smells of cologne. At least our last pastor drove an American car - that beat up old Chevy - and I used to see him buying his suits at Sears, just were I get mine."
"Why should we sacrifice and keep things from our own families just to support him and his lifestyle? I mean, what does he do all day? No, really. Can you tell me? Just what does he do all day? Except go to committee meetings? Spend time holding hands with old people? Maybe visit a few people in the hospital but when was the last time any one of us was in the hospital? Really, I'd feel better if I knew the man broke an honest sweat once in a while."
"I don't know," said the first man, "he's a real stand-up guy. He's always there whenever we need him. It's like, he's on call 24/7/365. Truth is, we really don't know what he does, do we? I mean, I heard he counsels lots of people. He can't really talk about that. Besides, I heard some of the ladies fussing about his suits, how he needed better ones. Shortly after, he got some nice suits. The wife told me that his in-laws have money and that they help them out some. I mean, the guy really can't win."
"Yeah, well I don't have no in-laws helping me. We're on our own out here. And, if you hadn't noticed, it's rough out there. Where will the church be if I lose my job? Where were they when Harry lost his job? Had to give up their home and move in with his in-laws. Was the church there for them?"
"Well," said one of the men,"I don't know about you, but the most generous thing I can do is keep my tithe the same this year as it was last. That's still going to be a stretch, but I'll do it."
"Not me," said the third,"I'm cutting my tithe. Cost of living has gone up and I know I'm not getting a raise. Lucky to keep my job. I'm going to have to cut mine just so I can break even. We'll make it up in other ways - I'll do some extra "time and talent" and a little less on the treasure."
"I don't know what I'm going to do yet," said the first man, "but whatever I do won't be about the pastor's suit or car and it won't be about what the church does or doesn't do."
"Then, what is it about, if it's not that?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to have to pray about this some more. Bottom line: this is about me and God. That's what it's about for me."
The other guys mumbled something about him being a "really good guy" and "you're a better man than I am" and "that's what I call a real Christians" and "I guess I'm not a very good Christian."
He said, "Hey, this isn't about you. This is about me. I told you, I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I may have to cut my offering to the church just to make ends meet. But, whatever I do, it's going to be about me and God. Then, whatever I do, I can look myself in the mirror in the morning."
I wanted to drop the roll of paper towels I was holding, run over and give that guy a big hug.
But, I couldn't of course. I was traveling incognito. Not to mention, eavesdropping.
I don't know what Stewardship message you've heard in church, or what Stewardship message you've been preaching, but I think his bottom line IS the bottom line of Stewardship.
It's not about keeping the church running - although that's an important benefit. It's certainly not about the clergy - a raise for good performance or a demerit for saying or doing what you don't what to hear or see.
Bottom line: A tithe is a personal covenant between a person and God. It's a reflection of your relationship with God and a mark of your personal character.
Turns out, a tithe does not depend on the size of your wallet but the contents of your soul. It's not about how you budget, but how you love.
The bottom line for you of the Church Stewardship Campaign may have a dollar sign, but for God, there's a mark of your baptism in Christ sitting right there, staring right back at you.
As Terry Parsons, who used head up the Stewardship and Evangelism Desk for the Episcopal Church, would ask, "What do you do with all that you have after you say, 'I believe'?"
Time to get that question out of the pulpit, beyond the pews, over the deli counter and onto the picnic tables at the local convenience stores in our neighborhoods.
Then, travel incognito and listen to the answers.