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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Debt,Tithing, and Generosity

Recently, (August 14, 2009) I read an article in the on-line magazine Slate which debated whether it is better to pay off debt faster by no longer tithing to a church. Now, the article was not a theological article, it was about money management, but I found the author's response to "Debbie" interesting. Basically, while admitting that "Debbie" and her husband would no doubt pay off their debt faster by using the money from their tithe, the author advised Debbie to consider what benefits she received from the tithe. Cost-Benefit analysis is the standard fare of money managers and their on-line articles, but a theological point should be made as well. This is where I might offer a suggestion or two.

First, what is the problem with "debt?" Most of us consider debt a problem because it limits our options in the present or future; that is, money we spend on debt cannot be used for food today or food tomorrow. So regardless of obligation, there are quality of life questions that enter into our understanding of debt. Many of us avoid debt simply because it limits our ability to live well in the future...the present is how most of us got into debt in the first place. (One of my favorite people says that if she could ban one thing in the world it would be giving college students credit cards!)

Although tithing may have "intangible, spiritual benefits" most people tithe out of a committment or, in reality, a relationship. As someone who garners most of his income from those who tithe (or at least give charitably), I have found that the relationship I have with someone is a better indicator of those "ISB"s than anything else. And here's something to know: any generosity I show is often matched by others. It's like paying for dinner with your best friends...each passes and each pays with the event, sometime you pay sometimes she pays, and accounting is not kept. (I suspect that relationships in which we keep accounts are probably not our most fun or favorite relationships.) So in reality what religion cultivates is not money management, nor, obedience to a tithe...no...we cultivate relationships...

We're not Don Corleone here, holding favors as a substitute for relationships, but rather trusting that if we take care of some now, they will take care of us later...in this case...with debt, it's now our turn to take care of that credit card company that took care of us when we "needed" a new TV, a new transmission, food for the week, or that get-away to the Berkshires...Sounds weird to think of it that way, but a relationship is a relationship, even with a bank or card service company...(don't get me started on the interest...perhaps we should learn to pick better friends??)

But regardless of whether you use your money to pay down debt or to tithe or some combination of both, the question pressing on us at Prairie Table is whether this is going to affect our generosity or not? Can you be generous and pay off debt? Or, can you only be generous when you give away your money as in a tithe? How does your generosity affect other parts of your life, like how you spend your time, or how you treat others? It seems to me that Christ came into this world to celebrate generous and courageous people. People who would take risks...people not afraid to let debt affect their relationships with others...people who understood that money, in the end, is not God's way. So if you tithe (10% traditionally for Christians) or give charitably, do not forget to be generous as well. And if you are generous to the point of bankruptcy, well...maybe that day of Jubilee will come when debts are to be forgiven...after all, Christ died a beggar...to my mind the most generous one the world has ever seen.

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