Monday, February 28, 2011

The Rule on Poverty

Last week I told you a story about a crooked landlord, so how about we change gears and begin this week with a lawyer. I attended a stewardship conference in the early 90’s where the keynote speaker recalled an event that happened when he was consulting with a vestry. He was with them to talk about stewardship and one aspect of his focus was the biblical notion of the Tithe. He went through scripture after scripture which indicate the starting point for our offering to God is 10% (or the tithe) of our wealth.

Throughout the presentation, one gentleman’s body language became more and more agitated. Finally he spoke up. “I am a lawyer,” he said, “and I make $400,000 a year.” Now that is pretty good money today, but twenty-five years ago it was really good money. “So, based on what you are saying,” the lawyer continued, “I should be giving away $40,000 a year.” “That’s right,” the speaker said, “That would be your tithe.” “Well,” the lawyer responded, “I can’t afford it.” He went on to detail how he had two mortgages, five car payments, three boat loans, college tuition, personal expenses, and on and on and on. In fact, when you tallied all of the lawyer’s financial obligations, he was actually spending more than he was making. The speaker tried to show him how scaling back could help him live within his means, focus on what is essential, be able to offer more to charity, and generally have more peace of mind, but – in the end – the lawyer would have none of it.

That story always comes back to me when I hear the words of Jesus we read just moments ago:

“You cannot serve two masters… You cannot love God and money.”

I have to confess that this teaching brings out all of my most effective defense mechanisms:

• Sure, I have some money, but there are lots of people who are wealthier than me. Obviously Jesus must be talking about them.

• Okay, I have possessions, but I am not dripping with stuff like person X over there.

•And, my new favorite, a significant portion of my tithe is distributed by Uncle Sam.

Somewhere in all these responses, I have lost sight of the truth that Jesus does not heap burdensome commands on us just to test our faithfulness, but rather as a Guide points us toward the path of life; which is to say there is wisdom in what Jesus says that blesses all who heed it. Rather than insolate ourselves from it, we should want to explore it, understand it, and incorporate it into our lives.

Before I was ordained a deacon and before I was ordained a priest, I made silent retreats with the Cowley Fathers, members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist whose monastic community is located on the Charles River just off Harvard Square in Boston. Each member of the community makes the typical monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Now, I would have thought that this would make the brothers something wholly other, different from life as I know it, and unrelated to the world as I experience. In fact, what I found was a group of people who were very much engaged with the world and who, better than me, seemed to have figured out what life is all about. They are not perfect, but they are striving to live into the wisdom that Jesus offers through His teaching.

The Cowley Fathers are guided by a Rule of Life, which speaks to the various vows they make. The Rule says that the brothers embrace poverty as a way of relating to God whose self-giving is seen in the calling forth of creation, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ (through which the Rule says “God broke all the limits of generosity”), and in the Cross, which is the ultimate expression of God’s self-giving nature. Each brother takes a vow of poverty in order to be bound to the same self-emptying nature we find in God. The Rule states that the vow of poverty creates space for God to fill each brother with the richness he needs to give himself away in “a common life of worship, hospitality, evangelism, and service.”

So here is the first insight the Rule offers to us: Either we can focus our life on the Creator or we can focus it on the creation. Think of it this way: When I attended the NSA Art Show I saw several of Betsy Brother’s paintings on display and then I ran into Betsey herself. Now Betsey’s paintings are very nice, but if all I knew of her were her paintings my life would be poorer. Wouldn’t it be strange if I ran around from show to show snatching up all of Betsey’s work, but had little or no interest in her? The Rule encourages us to enjoy the artwork, but even more to love the Artist.

The Rule goes on to describe how sharing everything allows the brothers to be “in harmony with the very being of God whose Triune life is boundless sharing.” It helps them to recognize how a focus on “my” needs, “my” fulfillment, and “my” security is a cultural trap from which we can be set free. Now, the Cowley Fathers community obviously has possessions and it is supported by a large endowment. So each brother has a personal responsibility to care for the community’s possessions and as a group they purchase only what is appropriate and necessary. The Rule even directs brothers to “seek the permission of the Superior to keep any gifts offered” to them as individuals.

All of this suggests a second insight. Each one of our households, whether we live alone or as a couple or as a family or in any number of other possible configurations, is a community. As a community, each member is related to the others. What I do has an impact on every person in the household. The Rule suggests we move from an I want this approach to one where we decide how our resources will be allocated. Each person in the household bears the responsibility of using what is in the household in an appropriate manner. What is purchased is necessary and bought for the common good of all. In a culture where consumption is king, this approach may appear to be rigid and heavy-handed, but it is not. It is a path of life designed to set us free from the clutches of our culture’s worship of material things.

Do you get a sense of how this kind of approach to wealth would begin to simplify your life? The Rule goes on to describe some of the implications of this:

“Simplicity of life finds expression in the way we enjoy and value the goodness of ordinary things and the beauty of creation. As we cherish the essential gifts of life, we grow in freedom from the compulsion to accumulate things, and cease to long for wealth. The movement towards simplicity puts us at odds with our culture, which defines human beings primarily as consumers, and gives prestige to those who have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste.”

Even brothers united in this vow experience constant pressure to conform to the ways of the world. They find strength in Jesus’ words today about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. God’s care for us is seen most clearly not as the world defines wealth, but in the things which the world deems to be of little or no value.

So here is a third and final insight. Think back to that lawyer. He had everything of the world that he could afford; in fact, he had more than he could afford. He had it all, and yet he had nothing: no real sense of peace, no real sense of happiness, no real sense of security. He had swallowed whole one of the world’s biggest lies and now he was choking on it.

I will never make as much money as he does, but I know exactly what it is like to be in his position, only on a scale more closely related to my financial means. I can tell you that as I live below my means, purchase only what I need, take care of what I have, and live generously in this world I am happier than when I don’t. I can tell you that as I learn to enjoy the world, rather than to clutch at it for all I can get, as I get free from worldly entanglements and avoid worldly snares, and as I make who I am and what I have available to others, I feel more closely connected to God and I sense I am more like what God intends for me to be as a human being created in God’s image. It is not something I decided to do one time long ago and that was that. It is a daily struggle, but certainly one worth engaging. It is also daily joy full of wonder, surprise, and blessing as I make my way on the path of life.