Silence, Beholding and Pledging

My mentor, Maggie Ross, says that silence and beholding are the natural state of a human who knows they were made in the image and likeness of God. (1) She believes that the solitary moments and periods of our life allow us to be in awe of God and that that is what we were made for.  And I agree.

To be in awe of anything, one must be aware of it.  And to be aware of anything one must take the time – stop, look, listen – to know of something – to know it exists and that it is worthy of consideration.  Too often we walk by God.

One of the problems of the spiritual life (and I mean, when I say “Spiritual Life”, all of life, for I make no distinction between human and spiritual as they are one and the same thing) – one of the problems of the spiritual life is the invisibility of God. God is not a massive statue to bow down to or sit beside. It is true that most of us view God as an image-extension of our parents, but that is how we see God, not who God is.  And for many of us, our parents were not great examples of existence. So that further troubles our perceptions of God.  And so I have a great compassion for the religious which use art to depict God or God’s attributes – the carvings of Buddha, the lithographs of Confucius, the stone carvings of island gods, the icons of Christianity, the paintings of Hindu Gods.

Show me God. I want to see God.  But No.  We have a God who will not be named, not be caged, not be summoned like some celestial butler, not be viewed except through Jesus.  And then there is the reality that the real, human, sweaty, occasionally lusty, hungry, angry, gassy, laughing, longing, questioning Jesus makes Anglicans uncomfortable – we like things to be absolute – a Book of Common Prayer – in the book, on the page, black and white, beginning and end, red cover, done.  The altar needs to stay way up there behind a short, lovely fence we call a “rail.”

When the Vestry and Stewardship Commission see the list of dollar amounts of a church’s parishioner’s pledges (not with names, just the amounts listed for metrics and analysis) they ask why they are so low. Some are low because that’s absolutely as much as they can possibly give. Some people are unemployed or on fixed incomes or have lost retirement accounts or have divorced or are paying for kids in university – I get that!  Really I do.

There are many pledges – which is good.  They have often increased – which is good. They are given kindly – which is good.  But, for many congregations whose parking lots are filled with expensive, impressive gorgeous cars, and many of whose houses are so, well, big and multiple, the pledges, in general are low in many Episcopal Churches.

Its not for the lack of trying.  Often, everything humanly possible is being done to raise money in churches.  I used to think the problem was a lack of formation but yesterday a new Christian and new parishioner gave a massive pledge compared to their income. The problem, I am convinced, is silence and beholding. And perhaps another problem is the secrecy within which we like to hold these conversations.   Silence beholding God is replaced with silence on the subject of pledges in our churches.  Keep a lock-down on our talk about money and it keeps the subject shut-down, secret, shame-based and impossible to change.  But then a visiting priest tells the truth from the pulpit and the cat is out of the bag.  And people increase their pledges.  Sometimes.

Silence and beholding – and the time taken for it will change our hearts, making them receptive to the tools we use to raise money in our churches.  When we are silent, we can sense God and then sense our place next to God.  When we can sense God we begin to see God’s glory and then the glory we reflect from God.  And then it is possible to become aware of how much we have been given and how much a part of what we have been given can be returned to God for mission.

People who take time to be in silence and people who can see Glory tend to give larger percentages of their money back to God because they see what they see – about God and about church and about life.  This is why the clergy pledges at the Cathedral are so high, compared to our salaries: $10,000, $6,000, $7,500, $5,700, … etc. … we give not because they are generous.  We give not because we are guilt-ed into it.  We give –  at those levels – at 6%, 8% and 10% ..etc. … of our income, perhaps because, as clergy,  take the time to see God’s Glory in silence and then in the gorgeous souls for whom we care.  So why do so many Episcopalian  parishioners give 1.8% or 0.17% or 1.1% of their income?

Our clergy spiritual lives are no better than those of our parishioners.  We all pray.  We all sit.  We all fail. We all light a candle or take a walk. We all go to church.

I wonder if its is just a matter of the ability to see what is real and what is false?  I wonder if it is a matter of really doing the math with our lives and asking what is important and of what we are afraid?  I wonder if the people who paid for Christ’s ministry the “women who followed” referred to in the Gospels, were the very prostitutes and tax collectors with whom Jesus spent so much time?

I believe that when we choose silence and then behold Glory, we re-orient our lives and our spending.  And when we do that, we re-orient to what and to whom we give philanthropy.  So pledge cards help.  Phone-a-thons to nudge the written pledge and its arrival in time to form a budget help.  Stewardship sermons help.  But in the end, real, robust giving to the mission of God through a church is less about seeing the church and more about seeing God.

And being stunned.

Perhaps the issue is not that we pledge more.  Perhaps the issue is that we see more. And perhaps, one day, our churches will stop trying to raise money to exist and finally be able to raise money to thrive after having given half their budget to ease human suffering outside their church walls. Again…seeing.  Vision. Perhaps if our churches were more generous, her people would be too.

(1) Writing the Icon of the Heart in silence and beholding, Maggie Ross, The Bible Reading Fellowship, Oxford, England, 2011

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