SEVEN SPIRITUAL PRACTICES: Sabbatical Reflections
# 5: Giving (away)
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing:
go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor….then come, follow me.”
– Mark 10:21
It is “the duty of all Christians
…to work, pray and give for the spread of God’s (kindom)…”
– The Catechism (altered), The Book of Common Prayer
[During my sabbatical I want to reflect on seven practices for spiritual growth, common to all three Abrahamic traditions. Jews, Christians and Muslims share these ancient practices, which are the basis for Brian McLaren’s book “Finding Our Way Again.”
I am asking everyone at the church I serve (and anyone else!) to read it this summer.
I believe the seven practices found in McLaren’s book are so important, so useful that I will be blogging about them during my sabbatical. This first entries were about Sabbath, Prayer, Fasting and Feasting. This, the fifth, is on “Giving” or “Giving away.”]
While preparing to host a second dialogue originally inspired and led by members of a local Muslim community, I suggested to my new interfaith friends that we hold our next meeting over dinner. I knew that “sacred meal” (or “feasting,” as I called it in an earlier blog posting) was a spiritual practice we Christians share with Muslims and Jews. As time had passed in planning those dialogues, our growing friendship began to feel more and more sacred to me. It seemed that having a conversation while breaking bread together could make this even more of “a meal of peace and fellowship…of inclusion and of reconciliation” (Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again, p. 26).
What I didn’t expect was that, instead of just two Muslim guests for dinner, I would be entertaining two others, including their new imam. I found our time together more interesting than I had hoped for – even exciting! As we talked through dinner, I began to realize: here are people who care about me. My respect for them and my trust was growing. As dinner ended, one man asked, “Could you please show us your church?” And when it came time to pay the bill, their imam said, “Please. Allow us. We would be honored if you would be OUR guest.” They had become my hosts, and I had been entertained by them.
In the 14th chapter of Genesis we learn about Abraham’s encounter with the priest of Salem, King Melchizedec. Melchizedec was a stranger to Abraham, a foreign “other.” He wasn’t a member of Abraham’s family, culture or religion. Perhaps, McLaren says, “in the otherness of Abraham and Melchizedec, there is a lesson for us: that we discover practices for our own faith in an encounter with someone of another faith who comes to us, not with argument or attack, but blessing and hospitality. “King Melchizedec of Salem…a priest of God…blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth….” And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:18-20).
The spiritual practice of giving proportionally with the goal of tithing (ten percent) is a response to a gift. Throughout all Scriptures, the people of God learn that all we have, all we are is a gift from God. God created us because God first loved us (I John 4:19) and gave us life out of that love. How else, then, shall we respond to God, except with gratitude? Sacred, Abrahamic giving becomes not just a duty but a joy, not a veiled threat about what I’ll do if I don’t get what I want, but a sacred promise of delight, freely giving back and giving away, no matter what. One priest tells a childhood story about his father getting upset with his church (and his priest) from time to time. Each time the boy’s father got angry, he would come home and say, “I’m not happy with the church. But I’m happy with God, and I’m thankful. It’s time again to increase my pledge!” This kind of lived stewardship by his father turned my priest friend into a tither. It models for me and for all of us the spirit of true “thanks-giving.”
As a priest I tithe and make special offerings to the church I serve, not because I ought to but because I choose to, with love for the God who is worshiped by countless traditions. For the gifts I give I do expect in return some kind of accountability. But the “no strings attached” approach – God’s approach, I suggest – is one I constantly need to learn, one which others model and about which they remind me. I need reminding, because I practice my giving in the same kind of human way I practice anything that is spiritual: imperfectly.
If our giving is truly in the spirit of Abraham, we will learn to “let it go.” Jesus reminds us that at our giving does need to be directed toward those made poor and marginalized by societies around the world. And McLaren reminds us that some of our giving also “sustains priestly people such as King Melchizedec, people whose lives are devoted to sustaining the spiritual life of the people who give” (ibid). This sabbatical has been just such a time of spiritual sustenance for me. I am deeply grateful to God, the giver of all good gifts, and to the generous people of All Saints’ for making it possible. – Peace, Tom