The New Liturgist and the Empirics of Generosity


There’s an unwritten rule that you’re not supposed to talk about money in public. Mainstream Evangelical pastors either don’t know this rule, or they consider themselves real rule-breakers. Thankfully, I’m from a faith community that tends to err on the other side of things. In the past fifteen years or so of our church’s existence, our leaders have shied away from anything that smacks of programming, numerical growth, building projects, or capital campaigns—money period. We don’t even pass a plate, and the tithe boxes in the back of the sanctuary are so discreet, they’re very nearly camouflaged.

That being said, our community is entering into a good and new season. Recognizing God’s call to bring our congregation into spiritual growth and material accountability, our leadership has invited us into an adventure aptly named “The Generosity Project.” In an economy of faithfulness, our posture toward finances matters. And so far, the articulation accompanying this project has been full of invitation, grace, and freedom, rather than the shame, anxiety, and judgment so common for this conversation.

Last week the sermon centered on what our pastor Tim Keel called one of the more “oft-quoted and oft-abused” verses in the church’s past.

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” (Malachi 3:10).

He rightly pointed out that just because this passage has been commandeered at the hands of a few televangelists and prosperity-gospel preachers, doesn’t mean we should discard the spirit of the text. There is a good lesson here. Generosity requires risk. And, he added, finances are the only area in which Scripture tells us to test God.

“Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven . . .”

As Tim talked, my mind wandered to an experience I had several years ago. I’d like to share the story:

In pursuit of making it as a singer-songwriter, I moved to New York City with a couple thousand dollars in my pocket.  I quickly learned, however, that a couple thousand bones won’t get you very far for very long in that bustling, expensive metropolis. A person may well spend half that for a brunch on Bedford Ave. At my lowest point, just before going broke, I landed a job. I’ll save you the details, but when I was LITERALLY down to my last few cents, on the way to pick up my first paycheck, a teenager stopped me on the subway platform and asked for a quarter so he could catch the train. If I gave it to him, I wouldn’t have enough money to transit back to work. There was something about this kid though, he looked earnest. . . . . “Are you serious, man?!” I said, completely exasperated. But then I did it. I gave him the quarter.

I spent the next half hour wondering how I was going to get back to work. I was down to pennies. (Ticket machines don’t use pennies, because, well, who uses pennies? People who say they are “down to pennies” are always being figurative. Unless they aren’t. Unless they are starving artists in Brooklyn.)

For the next thirty minutes, I kept casually glancing at the ground thinking money would magically appear, because, like, I had just given my money away and that’s what is supposed to happen to good people. At least that’s what always happened in those chicken noodle(?) soup for the soul stories. But not for me. I didn’t discover leftover change in my pocket, no wind swept a 50 dollar bill right in front of my feet; there was no chicken soup. The floodgate of heaven was not so obvious. I only had one other option: Ask someone. Ask someone for 20 or so cents needed to get on the train, in the same way someone had asked me.

I learned two things that day. The first thing I learned is that I have a lot of pride. I believed that quarter, which was securing my ride to a paycheck, made me better than the teenager who asked for money. My pride, if you can image how ridiculous it sounds, was worth exactly 25 cents.

The second thing I learned is that generosity is two sided. God calls us to give, and God calls us to receive. He calls us to answer, but he also calls us to ask. If you choose the former without ever choosing the latter, you may find, like me, that you are refusing the entirety of God’s grace. To live a generous life is to live a life of humility and interdependence.

God will open the floodgates, yes. But sometimes the floodgates will look like the face of another person.

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  • Bruce Nuffer

    Feb 28, 2014 - Reply

    Oh my gosh, this brings up so many memories. I am sure it will for most who read it.

    Throughout our marriage whenever money got tight, my wife and I would say to each other, “Well, we won’t end up living on the street because we have families on which we can impose.” It was always half in jest until we literally found ourselves jobless, homeless, and needing help in a big way. It was then I realize how HARD it is to be a good receiver. How humiliating it can be.

    It was during that season of my life I learned for the first time what the good folks at Adsideo have taught me, that what people doing without most often need is to be recognized as humans. Yes, they need physical assistance. But they also need others to look them in the eye, acknowledge their presence, and learn their names. Dropping money in their cups certainly helps, but look them in the eye and say hello as you do it. And know all the while that it’s often so much harder to take your gifts than it is for you to give them.

  • Elizabeth Perry

    Feb 28, 2014 - Reply

    SO TRUE: “it’s often so much harder to take your gift that it is for you to give them.” Even Christ going to his death needed help bearing his cross. I’m so naturally resistant to that kind of holy humiliation!! Thanks for this awesome comment, Bruce.

  • Dan Jr.

    Feb 28, 2014 - Reply

    Love this line “God will open the floodgates, yes. But sometimes the floodgates will look like the face of another person”. True, true, true.

    Thanks for this.

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