Reflection - October 24, 2017

By Darren McClellan

published 10/24/2017
Dear Friends,
The reoccurring theme that arises from much of our charge conference reporting this year is generosity.    It is a great encouragement to hear of the support our district churches toward UMCOR, the United Methodist Children’s Home, and conference apportionments and to imagine the lives that have been blessed by God through such gifts.    Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, this trend of generosity is moving upward in the Baypines District.  This is good news for our churches as it is for those we seek to serve with the love of God in Christ. 

With the traditional harvest time approaching, I have also heard some optimism from our pastors and lay leaders during this season of stewardship cultivation and commitment.  Many are working on sermon series or other strategic ways to refresh our call to discipleship through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Admittedly, there are pastors who are uncomfortable talking about money, just as there are churches wary of hearing about it.  In my own ministry, I confess that I too have had to do a fair amount of interior work to understand the roots of my occasional reticence, and to explore why it may be an issue for others as well.

Here are just a few of the resources that have helped me to plow the ground in this particular field of my soul:

In her book Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It is Necessary to Give, Julie Salamon asks, “why for some people does it require a cataclysm to set off a charitable response, and why do others automatically reach into their pockets when they see a homeless person approaching?  What kind of giving satisfies the need of a particular giver and where does that need come from?  What are the rules?” (p. 1).

In seeking to understand what makes a giver give, or the perceived virtue of such action, Salamon turns to the 12th century wisdom of a particular Jewish philosopher.  Consider this “Ladder of Charity” by Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (a.k.a. Maimonides or “RamBam”).

His rules (or ‘rungs,’ if you will) went like this:

8. At the top of the ladder is to hand someone a gift or loan, or to enter into a partnership with someone, or to find work for someone, so that they will never have to beg again.  This is the gift of self-reliance.

7. Just below that is to give to someone you don’t know, and to do so anonymously.

6. Below that is to give to someone you know, but who doesn’t know that she/he is receiving help.

5. Below that is to give to someone you don’t know, but allow your name to be known.

4. Below that is to hand money to the poor before being asked, but risk making the recipient feel shame.

3. Below that is to hand money to the poor after being asked.

2. Below that is to give less to the poor than is proper, but to do so cheerfully.

1. Lowest of all is to give begrudgingly.

And here I thought that the lowest was to not give at all! 

In his commentary on Paul’s “Letter to the Philippians,” Martin Luther explained that the apostle urges Christians to devote themselves to others because every Christian “has such abundant riches in his faith that all his other works and his whole life are a surplus” that can be used to “serve and do good to his neighbor.”  Luther conceded the challenge this poses to people who fear that caring for others will tax their own resources.  He replied that caring for others adds to our own faith. In giving to others, Luther claimed, we find a surplus for ourselves (Schervish and Whitaker, Wealth and the Will of God, 2010).

When John Wesley died in 1791 at the age of 87, the only money mentioned in his will was the coins to be found in his pockets and dresser. Most of the 30,000 pounds he had earned in his life had been given away. He wrote,

“I cannot help leaving my books behind me whenever God calls me hence; but in every other respect, my own hands will be my executors.”

Perhaps the single most useful resource I have enjoyed in recent years on this subject has been The Spirituality of Fundraising by Henri Nouwen.  This is a tiny book.  It would be worth buying a few dozen copies and spreading them throughout the entryways and hallways of your church facility.

I will leave you with this pearl from Nouwen:

“From the perspective of the gospel, fundraising is not a response to crisis.  Fundraising is, first and foremost, a form of ministry.  It is a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission.  Vision and mission are so central to the life of God’s people that without vision we perish and without mission we lose our way (Prov. 29:18; 2 Kings 21:1-9).  Vision brings together needs and resources to meet those needs (Acts 9:1-19).  Vision also shows us new directions and opportunities for our mission (Acts 16:9-10).  Vision gives us courage to speak when we might want to remain silent (Acts 18:9).

Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission.  Fundraising is precisely the opposite of begging.  When we seek to raise funds we are not saying, ‘Please, could you help us out because lately it’s been hard.’  Rather, we are declaring, ‘we have a vision that is amazing and exciting.  We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you—your energy, your prayers, and your money—in this work to which God has called us.’  Our invitation is clear and confident because we trust that our vision and mission are like ‘trees planted by streams of water, and their leaves do not wither’ (Ps. 1:3).”

Ultimately, said Nouwen, fundraising is a call to conversion.  Surely this is an idea the church (and pastors) can get behind!
Grace to You,