Before the bill came, Pete snuck a quick look at his phone. It was the evening of his 30th birthday and he and his girlfriend were at their favorite restaurant with some friends. He was in a good mood. Until the phone flashed his account balance. Negative. Again. Another overdraft fee. Another month of skimping and scraping. He threw up his hands, “what is wrong with me? I have a good job. I don’t live extravagantly. I’m 30 years old and I can’t seem to get my financial life together! What is wrong with me?”
The next afternoon at his family birthday party, he was still bummed. He asked his parents the same question, and they just raised their eyebrows. They had told him that they didn’t think he needed such an expensive phone when he bought it, and now their “I told you so” look was all over their faces. He asked his grandparents in the next room, and they were kinder about it, but just said that they had learned to make sacrifices when they were his age. He would have to do the same thing.
That night, as he sat down to read over the lesson he was going to teach the youth group at church the next morning, he wondered what he had done wrong. The lesson was on Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Talents, and the best that he could tell, he was a failed steward. With a truckload of shame and guilt, he called his pastor to tell her that he just wasn’t the one to be teaching kids about money. Pastor June, a wise and kind soul, knew that something was going on and told Pete to make the best of the lesson, and then she would like to meet for coffee with him that afternoon.
Pete’s story is not really that surprising, is it? It definitely is not that rare in our world. When the worlds of money and faith and giving collide, there is fertile ground for loads of shame and guilt and confusion. And sometimes, the world of the church doesn’t help. We are sometimes the place where the guilt is paramount. Where shame is born. Whether we mean to or not, we associate financial health with spiritual health. That financial struggles or failure mean that there is a spiritual failure at the core. That if someone is praying hard enough, or right enough, or living correctly, that financial prosperity will be the result. Or, if we say it bluntly, the more someone gives, the more they love God.
Carol Howard Merritt tells those of us in the church, who presume this correlation and act out of it, that it’s time to back off. I read from her book last week about what she calls the Tribal Church, a way to reach out to young people with the hope of the Gospel. At the heart of the Tribal Church, she says, an understanding of the financial realities that young people face.
She paints a grim picture. The median net worth of someone over 65 is fifteen times that of someone under 35. Financially, people in the 20’s and their 30’s face unprecedented levels of debt, of underemployment, of educational expenses, of life expenses. They face the reality that Social Security will likely not be there for them when they retire. They face the reality that getting married and raising kids is more expensive than it ever has been. They face predatory lending and credit practices that simply didn’t exist when their parents or grandparents were their age. They face health insurance costs that are outstanding and only rising. And none of this looks to get better any time soon. If Paul were alive today, I fully believe that he would name these dynamics as the powers and principalities of brokenness of our world.
But when they come to church, what do we do? Ask them just start tithing? To give to missions or special projects? To support the vision of the church financially? And in some cases, they get told when they walk in the doors of the church that if they only worked harder or prayed harder or lived better, then they would be financially blessed. It’s no wonder that so many walk away from the church, believing us to be out of touch!
We have to be careful not to paint a picture of giving that is “one-size-fits-all.” We are in different places with our faith, and we are in different places in our ability to give. Of course, I believe it is appropriate to ask and challenge and push people to grow in both of these areas – that giving is a spiritual matter – but not at the expense of the message of Christ. He came to relieve guilt and shame and gracelessness. He came to proclaim release to the captives. He came to say, “God loves you, no matter what you give or save or spend. God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.” If we aren’t screaming that at the top of our lungs, then the reality is that whatever else we say will go unheard. Or worse, heard and internalized and our overall message will be one of gracelessness and guilt. The very thing Jesus came to preach against.
Let’s look at Pete’s story again. Inspired by Rusty Lewis, a wise financial and spiritual sage, and his four prayers for giving, let’s hear the rest of the story.
That Sunday afternoon, Pete sat down with June for coffee. “What’s wrong with me?” Pete repeated. He told his story: the ATM, his parents, his grandparents. He talked about wanting to be able to give more. To not have to shuffle uncomfortably during the stewardship message, or avoid the fundraising lunches because he just didn’t have the cash flow to help as he wanted. June listened. And then she talked. She did not tell him how to give. Or how to spend. Or how to save. She taught him how to pray. Over the course of several conversations – and years – she taught him four prayers.
The first prayer June encouraged him to pray was “God, what do you want me to do with my stuff?” To involve God in the conversation was different than he had ever lived before. Different than his friends were living. And it changed the way he looked at his possessions and his savings and his money. He went back to his home that night and looked around. It was the first time that he had asked such a question. Basically, as he looked around the house, he asked out loud: “what would Jesus do?” With his stuff. His possessions. His money. It had a radical effect on his life. Over time, he continued to pray and meet with June and make changes to his life. He shared with her things that he felt like he needed to give away. To keep. To share. A radical change. But it was only the beginning.
After the course of several months of praying this first prayer, she told him he was ready for a second prayer. Instead of “God, what do you want me to do with my stuff?” she invited him to pray a new prayer: “God, what do you want me to do with YOUR stuff?” He realized that he had begun with the wrong assumption. To presume that our stuff is ours, that money is ours, that we are the owners, misses the point of stewardship. It is all God’s. The earth and everything in it. Our money. Our house. The debit card in our wallet and the money that it represents. “God what do you want me to do with YOUR stuff?” A radical change. But it was only the beginning.
Over time, he continued to pray and meet and give. He moved from giving a few bucks here and there, when the mood hit him right and it happened to be in his wallet, to giving consistently. By now, Pete had married his girlfriend and the two came together to June who taught them a third prayer: “How much am I supposed to give?” And they took it seriously. At first, it was just 2% of their paychecks. But it was a start. They became intentional and consistent with his giving. Every single paycheck. 2 percent. Meanwhile, it felt like the fear and guilt were melting away. No longer did it feel like he was missing out on a significant chance to partner with their church to do some pretty cool stuff. No longer did it feel like their money was owning them. It felt like they were owning their money. Or more to the point, they were giving control back to God. And giving it away released them from its power. They moved from 2% to 3%. Then 5%. Then 8%. Then 10%. A radical change. But it was only the beginning.
Pete had now spent years in prayer and discipleship conversations with June. The prayers that she had taught them had made a significant difference in his life. Finally, she suggested they change their prayer once more. Instead of “how much am I supposed to give?” she asked them to try one more prayer: “how much am I supposed to keep?” And it changed their view of money radically once more.
They looked at each other and realized that they had assumed the 10% was the finish line. But they knew deep down that their 90% was more than they needed to live on. So they began to give more. It has been 10 years since Pete had that life-changing trip to the ATM. Now, he and his wife are regularly living off 75% of their income, while giving the other 25% away. They don’t miss it and feel blessed by their chance to give. They have traded guilt for grace. Fear for freedom. And control for generosity.
Last Sunday, June invited him to stand up in the pulpit and tell his story. He began thanking June and his church for their lack of judgment and their language of grace. He told them about their coffees and the prayers that she taught. And then he started to preach.
“Many people miss the point of Matthew 25,” he said. They look to it as an investment strategy, claiming that we should be like the first two slaves and make a bunch of money for God, or steward our money in wise and careful ways. That’s not what the passage says at all. Look at it again. The wise and careful slave was the one who got in trouble at the end. The first two slaves made a ton of money, but the bottom line is that they got lucky. They could easily have lost it all! What they did – and what Jesus was claiming is the way to live our lives – is they risked. The only way that they could have doubled their money was to make seriously risky moves. Any decent investment strategist would say that trying to double ones money that quickly was a horrible risk and that they deserved to lose their shirts.
“This is not a passage about wise investment. It is about risk. A timely message for a man who was getting ready to give his life up on the cross. To risk everything, in the name of Divine Love. And he lost much more than his shirt.
“Today, I stand up before you as a man who was challenged to risk. (he looked over at June on the chancel and smiled). How will you risk today?
“Will you risk the question: ‘God, what do you want me to do with my stuff?”
“Will you risk asking: “God, what do you want me to do with YOUR stuff…your possessions, your money, your time, your life?”
“Will you take the risk and ask God how you should give?”
“Or are you ready to ask the toughest question – how much do you really need to keep?”
Jesus led a life of risk and invites us to a life of risk.
How will you risk today?