Let’s Not Talk About Money (With PZ)

I’ve got stories, good ones, I mean, good ones. Working behind the scenes in church […]

Josh Retterer / 12.21.17

I’ve got stories, good ones, I mean, good ones. Working behind the scenes in church ministry for over a decade, even as a layperson, you build up a huge archive of unbelievable things you’ve seen. I’ve often thought they would make for a good book. Here are a few sample chapter titles:

I’m 99% sure the tech volunteer is in the witness relocation program.

Household idol trafficking in the church parking lot.

At this point, fewer guns in the sanctuary would be a win.

And many, many more. The thing is — I can’t tell these stories, because, honestly, I don’t want to tell those stories. I don’t want to shame people for entertainment purposes. Most of the time. Usually. Ideally. Part of it comes from the fact that I have been thinking about a verse, the one about the “unpresentable” parts of the body:

…and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty. (1 Corinthians 12:23)

This is a picture of covering, not covering-up. Covering-up is what’s caused the epic reckoning we are seeing on the news every day, scores of the mighty and powerful falling from perches built on the suffering of others. And now, for many of them, to quote Shelley’s Ozymandias, “Nothing beside remains.” I picture something far different for this idea of covering, of treating with great care those who know their need for grace, not method-acting their way into looking like they don’t. These parts of the Body are honored. It’s a good thing, too, because those unpresentable parts aren’t life-long, die-in-office appointments; we take turns. You know we do. For every story I alluded to in my Josh’s Big Book of Schadenfreude-esque Church Stories, there are three others they could tell about me! When that covering happens, it is a beautiful thing.

There is an area in the church, and in people’s spiritual lives, that seems ridiculously resistant to grace, let alone covering — the subject of money.

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, (Deuteronomy 8:17-18)

If I look at that passage, and also look at grace, they mesh pretty well. “He gives.” One way. How can grace not be present in our interactions with each other in light of that verse, and…well, the rest of the Bible? I know I can be pretty judgey in regards to how people choose to spend their money, so I know for a fact those interactions can be done in a non grace-filled manner. In the church, a person’s lifestyle, giving, investing, career, or — anything pertaining to money — is judged and weighed communally, opinions written, verdicts disseminated. Money, particularly your lack of it, is often viewed as a moral issue — because poverty is sometimes seen as an indicator of the result of a sinful lifestyle or lack of intelligence. Hey, it’s crazy, but they are also very old prejudices still going strong today.

Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on “Christian Charity” in 1732 where he points to the problem; our high anthropology, avoiding the appearance of ever needing grace — and really sucking at offering it to others. Edwards’ “object” below is a man in a state of financial embarrassment, or, in the eyes of some, at least in Edwards’ congregation, an unpresentable:

OBJECT. IX. He has brought himself to want by his own fault. — In reply, it must be considered what you mean by his fault.

First, if you mean a want of a natural faculty to manage affairs to advantage, that is to be considered as his calamity. Such a faculty is a gift that God bestows on some, and not on others. And it is not owing to themselves.

Edwards goes on to say, through the lens of someone aware of their need for grace:

If we should forever refuse to help men because of that, it would be for us to make their inconsiderateness and imprudent act, an unpardonable crime, quite contrary to the rules of the gospel, which insist so much upon forgiveness. — We should not be disposed so highly to resent such an oversight in any for whom we have a dear affection, as our children, or our friends.

So, as a minister, with this chronically hoary pre-existing condition built into the life of the church you are serving, what do you do? What could it look like in light of grace? Not to get too prescriptively granular here, but how do clergy navigate the money-issue rapids and avoid being run out by a pitchfork-wielding congregation? Or, are those two things mutually exclusive? Well, I don’t know about you, but in situations like this, I ask the Extraordinarily Reverend Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl. Here was his answer:

Well, for one thing, parish clergy need never talk about money, in order to raise it. Or rather — a little stronger — parish clergy should never talk about money, ever, ever, in order to raise it.  This is because the giving of money, to God’s work — to anything or anyone, really — is a matter of the heart and the inner compunction. Money, in church work, almost always comes from the quarters where you least expect. What happens is that a person is moved by something you say, or something you do — usually in relation to a feeling that they keep well hidden within themselves — and they, the giver, feel moved to give. On the surface, you rarely know WHY they gave the gift; but they were touched, their heart, often their “child”-self, the buried-alive memory of the person they once were, and the generosity they once received, was touched; and in fact, THEY COULDN’T GIVE ENOUGH AWAY.  Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” is the perfect illustration in literature of the man who finds himself compelled to give it all away.

As to “the rich”, try to never typify people, or categorize people. Mary and I knew a parish, quite a famous parish, in an old city of the American South, where the biggest giver in the church — a church populated by “old families”, or at least a church thought of that way — was a nurse at the local hospital. That young woman’s “widow’s mite”, which was in fact a tithe of her nurse’s salary, was the largest pledge in the parish!

Another principle by which I swear, is that the minister should never know how much ANYONE in the parish actually gives. No problem with him or her — the rector, I mean — knowing WHO is pledging. But never ask the treasurer for the amount! That will only disappoint you, maybe embitter you, and also make you start fawning over people — while carrying hate in your heart for others. (Because you take it personally — and it’s not personal.) Oh, and poor people can be tight-wads, while rich people can be incredibly giving. And vice-versa.

Those are a few of my thoughts, dear Josh. Oh, and add: Money in people’s lives is always a GRACE-issue. You give if you feel you’ve been given to. You don’t give if you feel that life’s been stinting to you. “We love because He first loved us.”

There it is. Grace in practice, literally.