The Ancient Practices Series
Over the course of the last couple of years the religious publishing house, Thomas Nelson, has published a series of books called “The Ancient Practices Series.” Each book is devoted to a spiritual practice drawn from the ancient church. It includes books on continuous prayer, keeping the Sabbath, fasting, tithing, the sacred meal, the liturgical year, and pilgrimage. The point of the series is in the first place a very contemporary one. Ours is a prosperous age, but we are looking for ways to live, how to make a meaningful life, and how to get from point A to point B in the Christian life. While there is no end of advice on this, most of it has not been very deep or very effective. Thus each author in this series draws on long and established spiritual practices from the past to help us move from the present to the future. I would like, over the course of the next few months, to use this space from time-to-time to say something about these practices.
Because the Stewardship campaign begins this month, it is appropriate to start with the practice of tithing and of giving more generally. In a previous church, the Stewardship chair and I would often talk about giving as an opportunity. This always seemed to get a laugh and to be a bit of irony as the opportunity really seemed to be the church’s and not the giver’s. Yet, we were very serious about it, as is the Stewardship Committee of this church as they, too, now talk about giving as a spiritual discipline.
How is giving a spiritual discipline? Because, very simply, in making it a habit, it shapes us and opens us to things about ourselves that we may not have seen before, or that we had difficulty keeping up with. Consider here some possibilities. The ancient church writer, Evagrius of Pontus, suggested that giving was an antidote to anger. How? Because anger is usually a matter of wounded pride, and when we give gifts to others we begin to see ourselves no longer as the center of the universe, and thus pride, and thus anger begin to disappear. But also, more positively, when we are grateful for what we have been given, it is important for us to act on it. When we see others in need, it is important to act on it. When we sense the importance and depth of worship, it is important to act on it. Giving is acting on it, and it is what makes us, in the words of the Letter of James, doers as well as hearers of the word. If we don’t act on it, if we don’t give our time, talents, and treasure, we can be sure that the feeling will go away. We can also be sure that we will not be better people for it.
Each of us has particular reasons to give; some as a way of correcting something in themselves, many as a way of expressing joy and gratitude. But in giving, we don’t give just for what delights us or helps us or what we think is important. We also give because what may be important to us may only exist because of everything else that is included in the body of Christ. Is mission and outreach important? Certainly, but its success depends upon hearts and minds being moved in worship. Is worship important? No question. But we do have to be doers as well as hearers. Do we want to teach our children values? Who doesn’t? But that only happens because of people who give their time to teach, who seek to learn themselves, whose lives are daily fed by the Word.
Giving is an all-important practice. We don’t say that to make you feel better when we get what we want. We say it because it is something that will make you a better person. It really is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to become part of something living and vital. Grab the chance!