The Arthur Chronicles—No. 11

Arthur called on Saturday to tell me we would not be able to meet at our regular time on Monday afternoon. His wife is a breast cancer survivor. She meets with her oncologist for follow-up exams every few months, and Arthur accompanies her. One of those regular Week planningappointments was scheduled for Monday afternoon. Arthur had forgotten about it when we met a week ago.

I thought he might be happy to have a legitimate excuse not to meet with me this week. Some of our recent conversations had taken on an unexpected intensity. That was especially true last week, and Arthur had hinted, at the time, that he might be inclined to take a week off.

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Why God Doesn’t Sell The Cattle

Have you ever noticed that our awareness of an issue or our dedication to a cause expands proportionate to the impact of the matter at hand upon our daily lives? It is an indisputable quality of human nature. The more something affects us personally, the more interested in it we become. Sometimes almost to the point of obsession.

Parents who once could barely spell “autistic,” let alone define it, develop an intense interest in the condition soon after their child begins to show signs of autism. Breast cancer survivors and their families frequently devote themselves to programs that promote early detection and the search for a cure. And the list goes on.

I have served in vocational ministry all my adult life. In that role, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois, “I have always relied on the kindness of donors.” That is, whether as a pastor, a parachurch executive, or a professor in a church-related Bible college, my salary has been tied to the generosity of my constituency. That reality has tempered my expectations regarding financial compensation and has deepened my appreciation for frugality as a spiritual discipline and liberality as a mark of spiritual maturity. It has also heightened my sensitivity to the ways churches go about formulating their budgets and the means by which Christian agencies and institutions allocate their financial resources.

I know that God is infinite and His wealth is boundless. As the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 50…

1 The Mighty One, God, the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to where it sets;
7 “Listen, my people, and I will speak…
I am God, your God.
9 I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
10 for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
12 If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.”

God needs nothing. Everything belongs to Him already. That means…

  1. Sufficient resources exist to accomplish all that God wants done in the world. If He chose to do so, He could open the windows of heaven, or sell some of the cattle on those hills, and pour out unlimited prosperity so that every Christian enterprise would be fully and generously funded from its inception.
  2. For His own reasons, God has chosen to limit the resources that are available for use in Kingdom ministry and to make them dependent, for the most part, on the faithfulness and generosity of His people.
  3. Since everything belongs to God already, we don’t actually own any of the wealth or resources in our possession. God has merely entrusted them to us for a time, and it is our privilege and responsibility to use them in ways that reflect Kingdom values and bring honor to God.

There is no more accurate measure of spiritual maturity and sensitivity to the Spirit of God, for individuals and institutions, than money—how we get it and how we use it. But Christians don’t like to talk about their personal finances. How we use our money is nobody else’s business. Bank balances and investment portfolios, like bedrooms and voting booths, are off limits to outsiders. This attitude has blinded us to the relationship between financial stewardship and spirituality.

That blindspot extends to institutional and organizational finances as well. Many Christians assume that if the leadership of their church or the board of their alma mater or their favorite televangelist authorizes an expenditure or allocates funds for a particular venture, it must therefore be the best and most prudent use of those resources. Au contraire, mon frère.

A church budget is as much a moral document as a financial one. Since the church is the agent of the Kingdom of God, a church’s budget must reflect the values of the Kingdom. Church members are obliged to ask, with regard to every penny of expenditure which the budget allocates, “Is this absolutely the best and most prudent use of these resources which God has entrusted to our stewardship? Does this budget (or even this line item) reflect Kingdom values? Will this expenditure enhance our effectiveness in advancing the Gospel of the Kingdom? Could this allocation of funds be put to better use in some other enterprise?”

It is remarkably easy to talk about Christianity in contemporary America, but it is exceedingly difficult, in this culture, to implement the characteristics of cross-bearing discipleship. One reason for that discrepancy is a fundamental flaw in our thinking about money. We have more money than most of the rest of the world, we interpret our affluence as a sign of the blessing of God, and yet we fail to recognize that this great “blessing” is also the means by which God tests the true character of our faith.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus had more to say about money and its effect—both good and bad—on Christian believers, the citizens of the Kingdom of God, than any other single subject except for the Kingdom in general. That’s one reason you read about money and financial stewardship so often in this blog. That and the fact that my future ministry depends, in large measure, on the faithfulness and generosity of fellow-believers, my compatriots in the Kingdom of God.

I hear you ask, “Why are you so drawn to this subject these days? In the old days we never noticed your near-obsession with the role of money and the importance of stewardship for Kingdom citizens. What has changed?” “Well,” I respond, “in the old days I didn’t have a blog, now did I?”

 

Tithing To Ourselves

Before I started writing this blog, I would periodically experience a “brain spasm,” brought on by something I had read or heard. Or it might have been an idea that just entered my thought processes without my conscious awareness of its origin. Often, on those occasions, I would lament the fact that I still had not started my blog. After all, reducing a “brain spasm” to writing and expanding on its implications is one major reason for having a blog in the first place.

So, I started this blog about two months ago, and almost immediately the spontaneous bursts of creativity ceased. That has been OK, though, since I had warehoused some of my earlier ideas, and I was able to dust them off and expose them to public scrutiny via my blog.

Today I experienced another of my spontaneous “brain spasms,” brought on this time by an Op-Ed column published in Monday’s edition of the Columbus Dispatch. This time, I immediately reminded myself, I do have a blog, and so I dashed (that, of course, is a relative term for a 62-year old, overweight boomer) upstairs, sat down at my computer, and what you are reading is the product of that burst of creative thinking. I had planned to devote this post to a follow-up to my last entry on radical discipleship. Look for that next time.

I am not a political activist, but I do try to be a good citizen. I don’t litter, I do vote, and I pay my taxes. (I even paid income tax back when I was fortunate enough to have an income.) Although I have been unemployed for more than three years, I have never drawn a dime of unemployment insurance or any other type of tax-funded public welfare, and we have never purchased Food Stamps, although I believe we were eligible. We have also received no assistance from any church or religious organization. Our situation has been ameliorated, however, through the generosity of a dear friend (not a wealthy man) who has taken substantial tax-benefit losses on the cash gifts he has provided that have helped make it possible for us to pay our bills.

We live frugally, on a mainly pay-as-you-go basis, and we have been able to weather the current downturn in our financial circumstances because we don’t spend a lot of money, we had some savings to draw upon, and God has been faithful to us. I have often likened our situation to that of the Widow of Zarephath, whose story is told in 1 Kings 17. It was a time of drought in the land, and when the prophet Elijah asked the woman for something to eat, she was willing to feed him although she knew it would exhaust her meager supply of flour and oil. For her faithfulness, God cared for her so that “the jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty” for the duration of the drought. That is our testimony too.

Not everyone is as fortunate as we have been. For many, during the current economic hard times or perhaps over an even longer period of time, tax-funded government assistance programs such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), etc., have been their only means of survival.

Now, I know all the arguments against tax-funded welfare programs, and I have heard the stories about people who abuse, misuse, and defraud the system. I have no doubt that some, perhaps many, who draw money from these programs could find jobs if they tried hard enough. I am not joining that argument, on either side, in this post. My gripe today is with the church.

Back to the Op-Ed piece I read this morning. I read virtually every Op-Ed column that is printed in the Dispatch, from the fairly balanced (on both sides of the political spectrum) to the lunatic fringe (again, on both sides). The author of the column to which I refer here is one of the most liberal columnists published in the Dispatch, but I mention that only in the interest of full disclosure, since it is of little consequence so far as my point is concerned.

The writer devoted Monday’s entire column to re-printing a blogpost by a 23-year old, married mother of a 15-month-old son. The young blogger is the daughter of a meth-addicted, uneducated, single mother of six children. Her blogpost, which the liberal columnist re-printed, is titled “Dear American Taxpayers,” and here is what she writes in the first paragraph.

Since 1987, you (American taxpayers) have supported me as you paid your taxes. You are the sole reason I am alive today. I am writing to thank you for doing it.

In the remainder of the post, she describes, succinctly and articulately, how tax-funded government assistance programs, like Medicaid, WIC, etc., provided her with food, health care, and education so that she became a healthy, educated adult who is now committed to contributing to the system which made it possible for her to survive and thrive. You can read her entire post here.

Once again, my purpose is not to argue the pros and cons of public welfare.  It is to ask the question, “What is the church doing to address this kind of need?” If our society is ever to wean itself off the public welfare teat, which contributes to our annual federal deficit and our growing national debt, then churches and other privately funded agencies will need to do far more than they are doing to meet these needs.

Christians need to be honest. We cannot decry the out-of-control government spending on welfare programs, which encourage waste and fraud, without recognizing the responsibility we have to help those in genuine need. And our contribution cannot be limited to food pantries and holiday gift baskets.

Whenever a church member says to me that government should not be involved in social welfare, and that care and assistance for those “less fortunate” should come from churches and other private enterprises, I want to ask, “How much of your annual budget is devoted to this kind of ministry? For that matter, how much of your annual budget is devoted to any kind of ministry, spiritual or social, outside of your own walls?”

When I see church budgets with 80% or more of their expenditures directed to mortgages, building maintenance, and liberal staff salaries, I wonder how it will ever be possible to reduce the government’s role in social welfare. And if we persist in “tithing only to ourselves,” how will the work of the Kingdom outside of our four walls ever get done?

A Modest Proposal (Part One–The Need and The Plan)

The New Testament book of James is all about the relationship between faith and works. The author was the brother of our Lord and the first ‘pastor’ of the church in Jerusalem. An exceptionally wise man, it was James who, as moderator of the “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15), brought forward a proposal that averted a rift between leaders of the new Christian movement which could have permanently damaged the church from its infancy.

In the “open letter” which bears his name, James made it clear that true faith always expresses itself in good works. What we believe has to affect the way we behave or there is reason to question the genuineness of our belief. He said it this way in chapter 2, verses 14-17.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

It is in the spirit of “Pastor James,” then, that I have the temerity to bring forward a proposal to address a potentially damaging rift between our faith and our works in the ACNA.

We have before us a challenge from the Archbishop to plant 1000 new Anglican churches during his five-year term as leader of the denomination. When I was ordained a priest last May, I was commissioned to plant one of those churches. Now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, and I certainly don’t claim to have the wisdom of James. But it seems to me there is something missing from this equation, namely the part that enables the progression from vision to reality.

When I was asked recently how the effort to plant a church in Grandview Heights was progressing, I replied, “We have everything we need for this new church… except money, people, and a place to meet. Oh, and I live thirty miles away, have been unemployed for three years, and have no means to relocate to the community wherein we hope to plant the church.” That attempt to couch my response in humor, as lame as it was, nevertheless illustrates the dilemma we face in ACNA. There is no strategic plan in place to provide the resources necessary to turn the Archbishop’s challenge into reality. At least, if there is, I’m not aware of it.

I’m growing a bit weary of good-hearted people wishing me well and assuring me of their support for my endeavors. (Remember, I told you that sooner or later I would annoy you. Perhaps it’s today.) Frankly, it has begun to remind me of the fellow James described in the passage above. You know, the guy who looked at the naked and hungry man and said to him, “Go in peace; be warmed and fed.” Nice sentiment but practically useless. That’s where my proposal comes in. I believe this could benefit the entire ACNA, but to make my point here, I will frame it in terms of my own diocese, the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes.

I propose that every parish in the diocese set aside ten percent of its gross revenues each year for the next several years and deposit those funds in an account, administered by the office of the Bishop and exclusively for the purpose of financing church plants in the diocese.

Those funds would then be disbursed according to a schedule which would underwrite 100% of the new church’s costs for the first year of its existence, two-thirds in the second year, and one-third in the third. The goal would be self-sufficiency, or something close to it, for the new church by the third anniversary of its launch.

I can’t imagine there is any parish in the diocese that is living so close to the edge of insolvency that trimming 10% of its budget for the purpose of supporting church planting would drive it over the brink.

I will address this matter more fully in my next post. (If I still have any readers, that is.)

Kingdom Stewardship

During his earthly ministry, Jesus talked a lot about money. More than he talked about heaven and hell combined. Far more than he talked about sex or marriage or even love. More, in fact, than he talked about any other subject except for the Kingdom of God. And much of what he said was a warning about the sinister and subtle ways that money can distort our thinking, pervert our values, and impede our formation as citizens of the Kingdom.

Jesus made three things very clear. One, everything we have, including our money, comes from God. We are stewards, managers if you will, of the resources God puts at our disposal. The idea that we give God a tithe (technically 10%) of our money and the rest is ours to use however we want is simply inconsistent with Kingdom stewardship. Two, money is either our servant or our master. If we do not use it wisely (and for Christians that means in the interests of the kingdom), it controls us. And three, when Jesus referred to “rich” people, he meant not just people who have money, but people whose money has them, whatever their level of affluence. It is in this sense that Jesus used the term when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And American Christians need to remember that, compared with the vast majority of people on earth, we are all wealthy.

I did not enter the Christian ministry “for the money,” and I have never been generously compensated for my ministry, nor have I expected to be.  Vocational ministry is not a profession.  I have tried to live according to the principle established by Paul in his instruction to Timothy: “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Tim. 6:8)  In a culture obsessed with materialism, adopting a frugal lifestyle not only offers an opportunity to exhibit Christian values which counteract the prevailing culture, it also frees up resources which can be used for the work of the Kingdom in other ways.

I am trying to be faithful. God led me into Anglicanism, but it has cost a lot to follow that leading.  For one thing, I lost my job.  As I write this in the fall of 2011, it has been more than three years since I have drawn a paycheck.  During that time, I walked with my wife through her battle with breast cancer, and I completed the requirements leading to Holy Orders in ACNA. Were it not for the sacrificial generosity of some longtime friends, we would be destitute. As it is, my bank account is busted, but my credit rating is still strong, and my spirit, while bruised and downcast by times, remains unbroken. God, too, has been faithful.

I mention all of this for two reasons. First, I want to make it clear that I practice what I preach in this area. Second, God may have brought me to the Anglican communion “for such a time as this.” I believe that my experience and my perspective can be particularly helpful as the ACNA takes on the challenge of finding material resources to underwrite its spiritual vision.

More anon.