Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A talk I gave a couple years ago on tithing

Note: This talk quotes extensively without attribution.

Though my talk is also on tithing, I'd like to adress it in the larger context of what part money plays in our lives and those of others. I'm often tempted to think that those who say money can't buy happiness aren't spending it right. We have an odd, contradictory set of beliefs about money. A survey found that 89 percent of people say "our society is much too materialistic." In the exact same survey, 84 percent also wished they had more money, and 78 percent said is was "very or fairly important" to have "a beautiful home, a new car and other nice things."
Is there a relationship between money and happiness? It's really in the last few years that economists have even begun to ask this question. They've explored the idea, hardly radical outside economics but pretty radical inside it, that people might sometimes make mistakes, and that their decisions could actually make them unhappy. What they've found is that once you get out of true poverty, once basic needs like food and shelter are provided, wealthier people report almost exactly the same levels of happiness as those with less money.
Isn't that interesting? Maybe it's not that hard to believe about other people, but it's almost impossible to accept that you, yourself, wouldn't feel happier if you had a little more money. Yet that's what study after study has found. Since 1957, for example, the average household income has nearly doubled. During the same period, the number of Americans who say they are "very happy" has declined from 35 to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has nearly tripled, the violent crime rate has nearly quadrupled (even after the recent decline), and depression has mushroomed.
Is it any surprise, considering these things, that the group with the lowest rates of depression and highest rates of satisfaction was the Pennsylvania Amish?
"Why," wondered the prophet Isaiah, "do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"
But, maybe we're looking at this the wrong way. Even if it doesn't really help much to have a lot, it can't hurt, right? There's nothing wrong with having nice things, is there? Well, consider this story, which has been widely repeated by Peter Singer:
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti.
I think we would all agree that it would be a very wrong act for Bob to allow the child to die, even though it will cost him his car. But here's the trouble: we're all in the same situation as Bob. It's not just a good thing to give to charity; not giving to charity when we have the means to do so is casting those in abject poverty to their fate in the same way that Bob would be doing if he made the wrong decision.
For the first time in history, we really have the power to end poverty of the worst sort. Not just keep it at bay, but really end it. How much would it take to rescue the 1 billion people on earth who are this poor? If everyone in the world participated, it would take less than 1% of our combined income to pay for the food and shelter for every person on the planet. That's a tithing of a tithing. We have an awesome power to do good, and a terrible responsibility as well.
Here's another story I found. In the early part of the 20th century, a man grew wealthy from oil and gave large sums to Baylor University to construct buildings and educate young Christians. He gave a great deal of money to his church and even sent his pastor, Dr. George W. Truett, to Europe to preach to the soldier boys during the First World War. Then, in the stock market crash of 1929, the man lost his fortune.
One day, a friend who saw how humbly he was living – and remembered how wealthy he had once been – asked, "When you think about all the money you gave away, do you ever wish you had it back?" He didn’t hesitate. "Friend," he said. "The only thing I have left is what I gave away."
Hopefully, with this context, it won't seem quite so much like a PBS fund drive for me to talk about paying tithing. Tithing was introduced in the old testament, and I think that wouldn't be hard to guess. The rule about 10% seems so law-of-moses, doesn't it? Actually, Christ mentions it once on the New Testament. It's interesting to note what he says.
This is in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for giving according to the law, but not according to its spirit: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faith."
Justice, mercy and faith are important, not strict rules about tenths, right?
But then I read Jesus' next statement: "These things should have been done without neglecting the others."
Did you catch that? These things should be done, without neglecting the others. In other words, the Pharisees were right to tithe. But they needed to give not just their pocketbooks, but their hearts.
I'd like to close with a personal story of how the Lord helped has helped my family when we paid our tithing. A few years ago, I was out of work, and had no income except the tiny amount coming in from the state unemployment insurance. We had rent to pay, food to buy, medical bills to pay, all the usual household expenses. It seemed impossible that we could keep from just putting everything on the credit card. And yet, somehow, things just kept working out. I got a bit of contract work. My parents offered to pay for health insurance. We got a big tax return. People purchased computer models I had made years before. I don't even know, really, how it worked-- I was afraid to look too closely in case it would go away. But by the time I got a job almost a year later, we still had very little debt. I think this is how we can depend on the Lord. It's not like we're all going to get rich if we pay our tithing. It's that we don't need to worry about having enough to get by. Somehow, things will work out, one day to the next. And it's not like it has to happen by supernatural, unexplainable ways. The point of tithes and offerings is to put this kind of safety net in place for all of us.
I know that the principle is an inspired one, and is important for all of us.

1 comment:

tithe said...

Do you think that That's a good one about the tithe always causes financial blessings? It's hard to say yes when there are so many people who do tithe that still are not making their bill payments.