Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tithe and Sabbath

I dropped off students at a Youth Workers Convention recently and then drove around for a while trying to find parking for a large van in downtown Vancouver. So by the time I arrived back at the hotel, all the morning seminars had started. I stood there wondering which direction to go and realized that my-favorite-camp-speaker-of-all-time was the seminar speaker in the room right in front of me. I walked in, took one of many empty seats and as I listened began to wish the room was full, or that Jon Imbeau had the opportunity to be the keynote convention speaker.

When I sat down he was talking about tithing. Really. At a convention where the janitors cleaning our toilets make more money than most of the paid youth workers, and where any volunteers are young and also probably not wealthy, this seemed rather audacious. But that's how Jon usually talks and why we love him so much. After he talked for quite a while, someone brought up the inevitable "ten percent in the Old Testament" question and if it applied today. Uh, uh, uh... replied Jon, and he pointed out that he had never said anything about ten percent. It was the principle of tithing that he was concerned about, not the amount or percentage given.

Then he talked about Sabbath. I think I saw some people looking wildly around to see if they were at the right convention. But really he was talking about the same principle applied to a different issue, the stewardship of time. Time and money, the two things our world chases after more than any other, that in practice most people consider of more value than any other; the things we are most bummed about if we lose them, and most stressed about if we don't have them.

As various people began to speak up, my mind wandered and I realized that the principle Jon was giving us is absolutely critical to people of ministry. Not only do I need to pass this principle on, but I need to think it through some more, and especially I need to start living by it. So here goes.

I have never been a wealthy man, according to Western standards of course. My 23 year old son starts a job in January as a junior draftsman in an engineering firm, and he will make nearly what I do, and I'm making more than I have ever made in my life. I say that not by way of complaint; long ago I took to myself the words of Agur son of Jakeh, in the book of Proverbs:
    Two things I ask of you, O Lord;
    do not refuse me before I die:

    Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.

    Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, 'Who is the Lord?'
    Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.
So that's how we live, and we always have enough to live on, though we generally walk a fine line. And we have usually been able to be generous in our giving, but not so much in the past few years. I think I have justified giving less by the fact that we walk this fine line, which doesn't seem to get any broader. In fact, it has become tighter. But I now think that our current financial difficulty is not about the small amount of money we receive; it has everything to do with the increasingly small amount of money we give.

Before I explain, with the help of my friend Jon, let's talk about time, which I wrote about in my last blog as one of my big frustrations in life. Here too, I walk a very fine line. I never seem to have enough time, and the situation if anything has become worse, not better, in the past few years. I sometimes feel that apart from the very cool time I spend with Kaleo, I don't have much time for a life for myself and my family or my community. But I now think that my current difficulty with time is not about the small amount of time I am given; it has everything to do with the increasingly small amount of time I give.

Some of you who know me will stop me here and say, "Hey Jim, don't be silly. You are always giving! You pour heart and soul into your ministry, your home is always full of people, you always take time to listen to us; everyone thinks of you and Sarah as generous." So I need now to explain Jon's principle and how my apparent current generosity misses the point.

Jon said (and I may embellish here) that God gave us things like tithing and the Sabbath to place us in a position where we would have to trust God in order to live in this world.
  • By tithing we give to God to the point where we don't have enough money to live on, so that we must trust him and allow him to provide for us.
  • By keeping the Sabbath, we give to God to the point where we do not have enough time to get everything done, so that we must trust him and allow him to do what we cannot.
Tithe and Sabbath free us from prideful or rebellious independence and allow us to rely on him alone and not on our own means. It is what the poor of this world learn naturally, and what the wealthy of this world must learn by giving to God until it hurts.

This also means that when we don't tithe and don't keep the Sabbath, we are bound to become frustrated with time and money.

Furthermore, I think it proves that the "prosperity gospel" is out to lunch, this idea that if we give enough, God will bless us with material abundance. That too misses the point entirely.

But wow, I really don't know what this will mean for me and my family personally. I know that as a leader in God's kingdom I need to live and model these two disciplines I have misunderstood and neglected. If I thought New Year's resolutions were useful, these would be mine. What I probably need is simply "long obedience in the same direction," to quote Eugene Peterson (who was quoting, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche). Your suggestions and comments, encouragements and admonishments, are most welcome. I will add to this post as I come to understand this concept better.