Monday, March 17, 2014

A Case For Tithing: Making Something Beautiful

Open to give, open to receive
Growing up in Catholic church, I never heard the word "tithe." The wicker collection basket would weave its way around the pews every Sunday, and my brother and I would fight over who got to put the money in, but I had no idea what we were doing. It wasn't until my adult life when I made a friend who grew up very Christian in the Midwest that I became aware of the practice of tithing, but it bore a very negative connotation. In her church, the pastor made tithing mandatory for anyone who worked, including young people, and would demand their checks to ensure they were giving the church their proper share. I've never liked being told what to do and this disturbed me deeply.

For those unfamiliar, a tithe is one-tenth of something, paid to either a religious organization or a government. Tithing is an ancient practice present in slightly varied forms in Judaism (ma'aser kesafim), Christianity (tithe) and Islam (zakat). While the details vary, the basic premise is the same: you give up a portion of what you have that is of value to someone or something else. During more strongly agricultural times, tithes were frequently given from peoples' crops (indeed, there are many references in the Bible to tithes as "first fruits"). These days, it is far more common for people to tithe with money.

It wasn't until I attended the FREE series at Mosaic that I got a different perspective on the practice of tithing. Pastor Hank explained the history and biblical reasoning for tithing, but then took a powerful stance. He asserted that he wouldn't insist that anyone tithe money to the church, but that we should all be tithing to something which moves us. He talked about how we are all resource managers and how we have a duty to be wise and generous with what we've been entrusted. Then he said something simple that reshaped the way I will think about money forever:

"Every dollar is a paint brush to make something beautiful."

The first time I practiced tithing was a month after hearing this message. I donated 10% of my income one week to charity: water and it felt good. Four months later, I received an email update to let me know that my money was sent out into the field to help build a well in Rwanda and my heart flooded with joy. The amount I had sent was humble, but it would be responsible for some small portion of bringing clean water to a region where about a third of the population struggles daily to attain this basic necessity. What a tremendously worthwhile way for my money to be put to use!

Since then, it's been my pleasure to wisely allocate my monetary resources to non-profit projects which serve war veterans, teen filmmakers and the homeless, and provide refugee yoga, art in Haiti, solar in Nepal, and support to two different young people battling cancer. I'm deeply moved and inspired by the variety of life giving work being done by big hearted people all over this beautiful planet. While today I am unable to go to Rwanda to dig a well, my money can go there for me and assist in the effort. Money can be cold and it is certainly the source of a good deal of trouble. However, it can also build bridges (or wells, as it were), serving as a warm, loving, supportive connection between strangers who may never meet.

We're not talking about large, lavish sums of money here. My income is relatively small, so at 10%ish, so are my tithes. I used to think that you could only be generous if you had a lot of money. I'd say, "When I win the lottery, then I will give so much!" This is a trap. The likelihood of winning the lottery is infinitesimally small, making the likelihood of never participating in regular, generous giving monstrously large. I'll admit that it was scary at first to let go of any portion of the little I had, but it felt so good that I kept at it and a funny thing happened: the more joyfully and faithfully I gave, the more opportunities for income opened up, the more I had to give. It felt like I had tapped into a sort of fluid money cycle, my participation in which created smoother and more abundant financial flow in my life.

Maybe it's coincidence. Feel free to raise a skeptical eyebrow. I understand- I disliked The Secret and am beginning to turn away from the notion of manifestation entirely. But I do believe that you reap what you sow, and that living with our hands confidently outstretched in offering puts us is a great position to also receive. No, I'm not advocating that you empty your savings today giving all your money to the many amazing, worthy non-profits and causes out there. We're supposed to be wise resource managers. There is wisdom in balance and restraint. We give what we can reasonably, within our budget, and if your funds are stretched thin as is, tithing becomes even more of a discipline requiring careful thought.

Of course, there are many ways to give back and create beauty in the world. Our time and talent are invaluable- we don't have to give of our treasure to be generous. Indeed, there are times when the most generous and appropriate contribution is your physical presence and effort. But until we create a new system of commerce, money pays for land surveys and permits, and puts operators behind drilling equipment to go deep into the earth in search of water. Non-profits need money to do their good work. Plus, I don't know how to drill a well, and you probably don't either, so the best help we can give may be financial. If you do happen to have a talent or skill you enjoy sharing, volunteer work is a lovely offering. I spent a year volunteering for San Francisco Suicide Prevention, and it was one of the most enriching, rewarding experiences of my life- the sort of thing, as they say, money can't buy.

You know what money does buy? Office space. Light and heat. The salaries of the professional staff who trained me to listen carefully and compassionately to the deeply wounded. Give of your time and talent if you can- love (and people) will always trump money. Money can't talk someone through a desperately low moment. However, combining money with talented, passionate people is a sort of alchemy that makes so much magic possible- the young woman who decides to live another day, the well that makes it easier for thirsts to be quenched. Money + The Right People make Hope, give Life, create Peace, generate Sustainable Solutions. Isn't that exciting?

Money is a sensitive, emotional topic. You have to do what is right for you. I certainly wouldn't want you to tithe because I said so. I don't tithe because Pastor Hank or the Bible says so. I tithe because I love the way it feels to create something beautiful in the world with my money. I love putting the resource that money is to work doing something positive and supportive instead of something negative and destructive. If this speaks to you, perhaps it's time to make tithing a regular practice. It has totally shifted the way that I think about money, generosity and gratitude. It has changed my life. Would you like it to change yours?

Beginning this week, I will be posting a reoccurring entry entitled "The Weekly Tithe," which will highlight the cause or causes that I'm backing that week. I hope to call attention to the incredible organizations which inspire my generosity and make my heart sing. Hopefully this will inspire your generosity, as well- if not for my causes, then for the ones which you hold dear. Please join me in the flow of giving.

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