Turning mammon into manna (in the wilderness)

For our March 30 Wednesday evening Lenten service, the following reflection was offered by Pierre Plourde, with a poetic response written by his daughter Nadine. The reflection opened with a reading of 1 Timothy 6:6-19. We will be adding an audio version of the talk in the next week or so.

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imagine that Timothy must have been a man of some means; or at least with potential access to a life of luxury and comfort.  And hence, Paul seems to feel the need to warn his younger disciple about the dangerous allure of mammon.  According to Paul, love of mammon is so dangerous that it might even threaten our very faith and lead to “many pains”.  And so Paul’s advice to Timothy is to avoid setting his hopes on the uncertainty of riches, on the stock market or on his RRSP in more modern terms.  Instead, Paul encourages Timothy to store up his treasure in heaven by being “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.  For I sense that Paul remembered Jesus’ words that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

And so here we find ourselves in the wilderness called “Canada”, surrounded by the allure of mammon.  We buy and we keep.  But do we give or do we share?  Let us briefly look at the data.  Our federal government gives 0.33% of its GNP to poor countries (that’s better than the USA at 0.19%, but not as good as the UK at 0.6% and Scandinavian countries that give 0.8-0.9%).  By the way Canada promised the world in 2005 that we would end up giving 0.7% by 2012, but we will obviously not reach that target.

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On a more interesting note, our churches give on average 5.4% of their income to “foreign missions” to help the poor in other countries.  It’s nice to see that our churches are giving proportionately 16 times more than our secular government.  I believe that st. benedict’s table finds itself a little above average, devoting about 6% of its budget to “missions” that help the poor, with a hope and a goal to continue increasing this percentage in future.  That is a very good thing and should be encouraged.

So on average our churches for the most part give half a tithe to the poor.  That this doesn’t fulfil “the law” of a 10% tithe might bother some people.  But I am not so much concerned about “the law” as I am more worried that this amount of giving isn’t anywhere near enough to take care of our brothers and sisters in places like Haiti.  Our annual budget at st. benedict’s table is somewhere a little over $100,000; and for our modest needs that may be quite sufficient.  The challenge, however, is that the reconstruction project for one church community in Haiti who are trying to build a community ministry centre including a better church building that will not fall down with the next earthquake will cost about $100,000 a year just to fund the construction materials and labour alone.  Furthermore, to run their primary school program in the meantime costs over $70,000 a year.  And no one on staff in this church gets any income for they cannot afford to provide any salaries and are therefore entirely dependent on volunteer support and on the generosity of Canadians to help fund their projects and programs.

So how will our churches be able to give more?  One way will rest with our personal giving habits.  Surely if our churches are giving away more than 5% of their incomes to help the poor, individual church members must be doing the same.  Not so.  Data from 2000 revealed that Americans on the whole claimed on their income tax forms charitable donations equal to 1.6% of their annual income.  But that is an “average” American.  Surely Christians are doing better.  John and Sylvia Ronsvalle in their book, The State of Church Giving through 2000, revealed that among church members of 11 Protestant denominations in the USA and Canada, per member giving in 2000 was 2.6% of annual income, over 1.5 times higher than the “average” person, but down from 3.3% in 1933 during the Great Depression when people were much poorer.  Surely things must have gotten better in the 2010’s now that we have unprecedented resources at our disposal.  Well, I’m sorry to say that according to Statistics Canada data for 2009, Canadians gave approximately 0.5% of their income to help charitable causes.  Manitobans were among the more generous provinces at 0.7%, but PEI led the pack at 0.9%.  So even the best “average” citizens among the provinces barely make it to 1%.  Think about that for a moment.  How much would 1% of your annual income amount to?  And how far would that figure go to help Home Omulka in Uganda or El Shaddai Church in Haiti or Agape Table here in Winnipeg?  Probably not very far.  Now multiply that number by 10 (just to get to a basic tithe), and imagine how much that amount would help (pay a few month’s rent for Rogers and Lola in Uganda, support a whole classroom of primary school students for a year in Haiti, or purchase an industrial kitchen appliance for Agape Table).

So no matter where your giving might be, my prayer for us is that we will all be encouraged like Paul told young Timothy “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for (our)selves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that (we) may take hold of the life that really is life”.  Of course, such generous giving may only come with embracing simplicity in our lifestyles, deliberately seeking to go against our culturally engrained tendencies to consume and to move up the social and economic ladder, to buy and to keep.

Now there is very good news in all of this.  My friend, an engineer who lives and works in Haiti, gives away about 60% of his income (6-0, not 1-6).  I asked him once, “How do you do this?”  His answer surprised me.  He held out his hand formed into a fist and said, “If I come to God with my hand full of money and my hand is closed, none of that money will be given to anyone, and consequently God will also not be able to put anything more into my hand.  So if I open up my hand (and Denis then proceeded to open his hand) and empty it, God will have lots of room to fill it up again.  And that is what God has done for me time and time again”.  But my Haitian friend first had to take the bold and difficult step of opening and emptying his hand.  The wisdom of King Solomon expresses the same truth in Proverbs 11:24-25 – “There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want.  The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered”.  This is not the “prosperity Gospel”.  I am not promising riches and prosperity to those who give generously; and I don’t think this was what Solomon was trying to say.  Rather, I find it interesting that generous giving precedes prosperity, and not the other way around.  God’s economy is not the same as ours; you won’t get rich first so that you can be led to give generously.  It seems that it’s exactly the opposite; only after you empty yourself will the blessings be able to flow.  So if you are saying, “I only earn $10,000 a year or less right now and I can’t possibly give that much.  I’ll wait until I earn over $100,000 and then I can really give”, I can pretty well guarantee you that it won’t work out that way for you; for when you get rich you will not be able to fulfil your promise to give more if you have trained yourself all those years “to buy and to keep”.  To buy and to keep is just in our human nature.  It takes time, effort and tenacity to train ourselves to stop buying and to start giving.

In our spiritual wilderness that we call Canada, we are so easily caught up in the allure and empty promises of mammon.  In the material wilderness that we call Haiti, Uganda, and the cold harsh streets of Winnipeg, the poor are caught up in the want of shelter, the lack of healthy nutrition, insecurity, and the absence of dignity; and the poor are caught up in the resulting consequences consisting of violence, rape, diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV, and so forth.

And so as we reflect and ponder on these things during this season of Lent, let us pray that the Lord will guide us to a new Spirit of generosity that we could never have imagined, and let us pray that the Lord will empower us and embolden us to find ways to take our mammon in our wilderness and turn it into manna in their wilderness.

I would now like to invite our son and daughter, Daniel and Nadine to come and share with us (in a poem that Nadine has composed) how this evening’s reflection has spoken to them.

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Broke or Broken – Just Give

I’m broke, I break

I break the manna that we take

We take what’s rightfully ours

Ours to give and share

Share with no one, who would dare?

Dare leave people starving and almost dead?

Dead to me is love and faith

Faith will be the guide to your heart

Your heart pumps, it’s mammon that counts

Count your money give it away, it may come back in some other way

Way out of line is what you’re asking me here, it’s not yours

Yours and mine, are irrelevant terms, share it with the world

Worldly things are what I’ll keep

Keep only what you need

Need, want, what’s the difference?

The difference you can make in the world is huge

Huger, Bigger, More, Right? There’s enough.

There is enough, just share what you have

Have I been covetous? Do I have too much?

Too much you could do, that should have been what’s done

What’s done is done, it doesn’t matter what I do

What I do, what you do, it can help others to change

Change is big. It can be bigger then life

Lives can be saved if you give,

Just Give

Written by Nadine Plourde, and performed by Nadine and Daniel Plourde on Wednesday March 27, 2011.

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