Grace Begets Grace

"Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking." – 2 Corinthians 8:7

Perhaps you’ve seen the Liberty Mutual television commercial that depicts ordinary people performing random acts of kindness. A group of weary travelers crowd around the luggage carousel, watching hawkishly for their suitcases, duffel bags and backpacks, ready to dive and swoop them up and be quickly on their way.

Suddenly, one of the waiting men realizes, too late, that his luggage is passing in front of him, and by the time he bends to retrieve it, the suitcase has moved beyond his reach.  We can all imagine his sinking feeling – anyone who has checked baggage knows that if you don’t retrieve your bag it when it first appears, it can be a long wait until it circles round again. By then most of your fellow passengers will be gone, while you, a lone figure, remain wearily waiting.

But, just as it appears that the poor traveler’s fate is sealed, another waiting passenger, further around the carousel, notices the man’s misfortune and quickly scoops up his suitcase and hands it down to him. Meanwhile, another passenger, a woman who had observed the kind intercession of a stranger on behalf of another, is deeply impressed. Later that day, as she waits at an intersection before entering the crosswalk, she quickly moves to prevent another pedestrian from blindly stepping out in front of an oncoming car. In turn, that person goes on to help someone at his workplace who is struggling to retrieve items from a high shelf.

You’ve gotten the idea. Each random act of kindness begets another, and we are left with the impression that the chain of kind events will continue to propagate long after the commercial ends. The announcer says, “When people do the right thing, they call it being responsible.”

It is clear that the people depicted in the commercial did the right thing. But did they do it out of a sense of responsibility? I have not observed that most human beings feel responsible for another person with whom they have no relationship through kinship or friendship. More prevalent are the notions of taking responsibility for oneself and “pulling your self up by your bootstraps.”  Those who are less fortunate are often thought of as having made poor choices in their lives, while those who fall on hard times are accused of not planning ahead. Yet, despite these broadly accepted societal beliefs, many of us do perform small acts of kindness, often called “courtesy,” and even greater acts of kindness, recognized as “generosity.” Some people choose to feel responsibility for others, while others choose not to.

As Christians we have no choice in the matter. We are, each of us, responsible for our fellow human beings. If we are indeed to be Christians, then that is a fact of our calling by our Savior. In 2 Corinthians 8, St. Paul writes about the churches of Macedonia, describing a people who have shown the grace of God through an abundance of generosity despite affliction and extreme poverty.  Their joy at being saved by the grace of our Lord has filled them to overflow and show gracious generosity to others. Paul writes that the Macedonians were so filled with the joy of salvation that they felt compelled to show others the grace that God had shown toward them. So, they gave in accordance with their means and at times beyond their means, insisting on making donations to other struggling churches. Paul commends this example to the Corinthians, even as he recognizes their excellence in faith, sincerity and love for one another. But he challenges them to also excel in the grace of giving.

Grace begets grace. As Christians we lovingly accept responsibility for our brothers and sisters so that we may show forth to them the grace that was shown to us through love. Much as the random acts of kindness we passed along and multiplied, we are inspired to magnify God’s grace to his people not only by giving of our time and talent, but also by giving of our treasure for the work of his church. 

Sharon Gray

Posted on November 18, 2017 .

Godly, Gothic, Gritty and Giving

My best friend, Steven,  collects transformers. I suppose he’s a big kid, really; and while I lack his enthusiasm for these toys, there is something fascinating about their ability to change their substance. I once sat in the nave of Saint Mark’s with a nine-year-old boy named Silas. Silas, too, loved transformers. I asked him to tell me — in his wildest imagination — what he saw when he looked up at the roof of the nave of Saint Mark’s. His answer: “A ship at sea!” Yes, yes, Silas, a ship! Today it is a ship at sea!

Saint Mark’s is not just a product of gothic revivalism. It was born out of the Oxford movement and built during the industrial revolution. Sometimes, in my imagination, the nave is, as Silas said, like a ship at sea whose destination lie east toward God’s kingdom. But other times, I imagine that the nave is more like an industrial steam engine, nose to the wind, pushing through a world of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.

We are graceful, and built for worship, yes; but, make no mistake, we are also gritty and made for God’s work. We are both things! A little bit Mary and a little bit Martha. Give us a hymn to sing and we can challenge the angels with our voices; but when prayer has ended, give us work to do. Give us a coffer to fill. Give us a project in Christ’s name. This is when our lives are best — when we are worshipping and working together toward the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. There is so much that we can accomplish here when the prayer is finished and the work begins. The evidence this year alone is staggering!

So I challenge you, brothers and sisters, pray on your pledge. Imagine what we can accomplish! Here’s how I do it. I close my eyes and envision myself at the west doors of Saint Marks looking east at a candle that never goes out, on a journey toward Paradise, full steam ahead and for the good of all mankind. What is my part? How much is my share in this enterprise? There is a screeching sound even when the pipes are silent.  That is no steam whistle; that is the sandstone singing to me, one hundred and seventy years of prayer ricocheting off the stone and through my heart. The saints are so noisy! “Stay as long as you need,” they say, “then carry on!”

Ken Pearlstein

Posted on November 9, 2017 .

Stewards Who Are Blessed

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” – Malachi 3:10

In this season of stewardship, a verse kept coming to mind that I think speaks so much to what we are called to do as stewards, and what we can hope for as a result of our faithfulness. The thing that was strange about this verse, though, is how obscure it is. We think often about verses from the Gospels, Paul’s letters, or select books from the Old Testament that tend to stick with us and give us guidance in terms of how to live as Christians. However, it is not common for us to remember a verse from a book from the Minor Prophets, particularly from Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. However, as I look back on experiences that deepened my understanding of what stewardship should look like in my life, this particular verse kept ringing in my brain.

It is a verse that encourages us to bring our compete offerings to the Lord, not just a part of it, and not just the part that we are comfortable with. As someone who has gone through periods of financial uncertainty in my life, the concept of setting aside a portion of my earnings was challenging at first. Particularly when there are increasing financial responsibilities and questions as to whether at times we can meet those responsibilities, the temptation to hold on to what we have can get strong, and the tendency to not give as much can become more entrenched. I think it is important to be honest about how uncomfortable that can make us, and to not be afraid to be honest with God about this discomfort. By admitting this, we take a giant step that paradoxically makes it easier for us to give to Him.

In taking this step, we realize that God is an important part of the equation of stewardship, and this verse reminds us as much. The focus of the tithes is His house, His sanctuary. He desires that we give so that His sanctuary may be full, and I believe there is an underlying reason for this: it is to His sanctuary that we go. It is in His sanctuary that we find hope and comfort, and it is in His sanctuary that we seek spiritual nourishment and refuge from a turbulent world. In order for this sanctuary, or His house, to provide for us, it needs to flourish in a way that makes provision possible. God can provide for us without having to involve us, but He chooses to involve us because He knows that ultimately it is for our good and for our ultimate blessing.

Ultimately, by acting as good stewards, the promise of blessing beyond our comprehension is emphasized. To be honest, this is a bold promise from the Lord: that if we are faithful in our giving, He will be faithful to us in providing for us. He calls us to test Him, to challenge Him to see if He is who He says He is. In a way, in that invitation to test Him, He is asking us if we believe Him to be as generous as He says He is.

In the grand scheme of things, that was the question that confronted me when I looked at my financial situation to determine how much I was willing to give. But in those internal questions, the image of His house would come to mind, and I would think about how much His house had blessed me. Through the faithfulness of the people in that house, and through other beautiful things in that house such as the music and the liturgy, I was getting closer to God without realizing it. I realized that for my spiritual growth, His house needed to be provided for; through how He organized it, the provision of the house depended on my own provision. I realized that my blessing depended on my giving.

I think that ultimately, this is what this verse is about: a reminder that our blessing is tied to our giving. Our blessing comes from the church providing for us and realizing how important the church is to our lives. Our blessing comes from realizing that in the church, we come face to face with God in a way that strengthens us for the challenges that await us. Our blessing comes from realizing that through the church, our love for God and for each other deepens.

For the church to thrive, it depends on our stewardship through our willingness to give back to it financially. When we look at the other verses surrounding this particular verse, the preceding verses emphasize the importance of us continuing to return to God, and the following verses emphasize that other people inside and outside of the church will see us as blessed. I don’t think it is an accident that in these verses, we see that how we think about stewardship will affect our ability to continue following God and will also affect the types of blessings that could potentially come into our lives. May we ultimately choose to test God in our stewardship, so that we continue returning to Him. Then all nations will call us blessed.

Chiduzie Madubata

Posted on November 2, 2017 .

New Pots and Pans

When I was just past 30, having been in graduate school for a long time and finally getting on with my adult life, I moved into what would be my last, but largest, apartment while living in Manhattan. It was large and felt like it could be home for years and years. And it was when I moved into this apartment that I bought my first whole set of kitchenware—new, not used.

Until that purchase, I either ate out or did minimal cooking with used pots and pans inherited from this or that friend. In my mind, the purchase of my own kitchenware signaled a commitment finally to be an adult. You would think that signing the lease on a large Manhattan apartment would have done that, but it was this smaller, seemingly insignificant act that did.

What might this have to do with Christian stewardship? I will not write anything you haven’t heard before—that stewardship is about being grateful for what God has given us, that in response we give back our time, talent and money to further God’s kingdom, the work of the Church and the needs of the parish. All this is true and important. But, paradoxically, I learned to feel gratitude by giving, not the other way around.

I committed to my adult life when I made that purchase of pots and pans. Likewise, committing to stewardship of the parish in time, talent and money signaled my commitment to my parish life as well as my spiritual life. Growing up Episcopalian, pledging was expected. It is what adults do when they cared about the work of the parish. At the time, such expectations seemed contrived. However, committing to the purchase of those pots and pans brought to me a sense of permanence about my adult life in an unexpected way. So too has my commitment to supporting the life of the Church and parish brought a sense of permanence of my life as a Christian.

During periods when I have been saturated with work, or when was less than flush because I was in graduate school, I suspended my stewardship. But when I could return to giving of myself (financially and in other ways), I became aware that my spiritual life changed for the better. Stewardship became a spiritual practice, not just a practical one. And spiritual practice, it turns out, requires regularity and commitment.

The pots and pans were both a practical and spiritual commitment to an adult life. So it is with giving to the Church—it’s a commitment to an ongoing spiritual practice of gratitude and the commitment to be connected. It has been the act of giving that evokes a greater sense of gratitude.

You should have seen how I felt when I committed to my first new sofa!

Kevin Daugherty Hook

Posted on October 26, 2017 .

Excelling in the grace of giving

But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” - 2 Corinthians 8:7

Many of us remember the days when people used to sell things door to door. You never knew what the a ring of the doorbell might bring—a Girl Scout selling cookies or a kid from the high school band hawking magazine subscriptions.

On Saturdays, when my dad was home from work, Mom very specifically instructed us that he was never to answer the doorbell alone. When the inevitable “ding-dong!” would chime, Mom would call out, “Don’t let your father answer it!” The simple reason: Dad would buy anything from a kid with a big smile and a winning story. And we would end up with something that we didn’t need.

When it came to giving at church, Dad was also susceptible to an emotional appeal. If there was a special collection in response to a natural disaster, or to help someone whose house burned down, Dad would give generously. But perhaps more importantly, he and my mom also gave systematically. Dad gave to the United Way through payroll deductions. And they gave a tithe of both of their incomes to our church each month.

Because they were systematic, the “church check” was written before any other bills were paid. Putting the check in the collection was an important spiritual discipline for them, and it’s something that they modeled to their children. When I received shiny silver dollar for my birthday, they showed me that I should put an equally shiny dime into the offering as my gift to God. When I started babysitting and doing chores for neighbors, a tenth of my meager earnings went into the offering. I never thought of this as a burden! It was a joy to give. It was a way that I was becoming an adult, and a way that I could express appropriate thanks to God for his indescribable gifts.

Generosity was easy enough when I had almost no bills to pay, and it definitely became harder when I was out on my own, barely getting by, eating beans and rice while paying off loans. I bounced a few checks and held back my offering until the next payday plenty of times. But I still kept giving to church, trying to keep my giving as close to 10 percent as possible.

Why? For several reasons:

1.       Honor. The way I see it, giving to church is a way to honor the example of my parents, who themselves saw giving as a way to honor the God who deserves all honor. Giving is a form of worship to the One who is the source of all our life and deserves all our generosity. I often think of a verse from 2 Samuel 24. David is going to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, but someone wants to give him, free of charge, the animals for the sacrifice. “No,” says David, “but I will buy them from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” I feel that way too. I want to offer something that costs me something.

2.       Blessing. Back in 2002, after I’d been attending Saint Mark’s for a few months, I wasn’t sure if I should stay or find another parish. I didn’t feel settled, so I prayed for guidance. And, remarkably, I felt God reply to my prayers. I was expecting a gentle prompt to find another parish, but what I got instead were these words: “If you plant your feet here, I can bless you.” Those words have been an anchor for me over the last 15 years. “Plant your feet, take part, get involved, give to God through this particular place, and the blessings can come.” There have been many sorrows and challenges over the last 15 years—these “blessings” have not made me rich, or lucky in love, or handsome. But the blessings have included a community of support to accompany me through sorrows, and they’ve included multiple opportunities to serve the needy. They’ve included the experience of, and participation in, beautiful music and challenging preaching.

3.       Celebration. I’ve purchased a lot of things that I regret. I have clothes that I bought but hate too much to wear. I have a bike I never ride (in addition to one that I do ride). I have books still wrapped in plastic. But I’ve never once regretted a dollar given to God’s work. Does that mean that Saint Mark’s uses my funds perfectly? As Rector’s Warden, I can assure you that the parish financials are overseen carefully by the Vestry, which takes its fiduciary responsibilities very seriously. There’s not any waste that I can see. But the main reason that I don’t regret giving is that it gives me such joy! I genuinely love being a part of a giving community—people who are generous in their time and resources. And I love that we have a celebratory brunch every year just to say, “Thanks be to God!” and to celebrate his goodness toward us.

Now that my mom and dad are gone, I can appreciate both Dad’s excellence in generosity and also mom’s exasperated reaction to his open hand. I can also tell you that as they grew older, Mom came around. She outdid even Dad in her giving spirit. On the day Mom died, a young Latina woman sat in a chair in the nursing home. She had come to be present with and to honor her friend, but this lady was lingering, apparently wanting to tell me something.

Finally she told me why. She wanted to tell me how much my mom had given her over the years—friendship, food, money, time, and wisdom. She had been a blessing in ways that I had never known. She had excelled in the grace of giving.

My parents gave 10 percent of their income to church for their entire lives. In retirement, when their income declined, so did their giving in absolute dollars, but the percentage remained the same. It wasn’t a chore to give—it was a joy. The “church check” came first.

But excellence in giving wasn’t just about calculating a percentage. It was also about those emotional appeals, unlikely friendships, and unnecessary Girl Scout cookies. My parents never wished that they’d been less generous. They only tried to figure out how to give more.

That’s a difficult legacy to uphold, but I’m trying to follow in their footsteps. I’m not buying magazine subscriptions from door-to-door vendors, but I’m trying to excel in the grace of giving in my own way, the way God has called me to do. And I’m doing that in the context of our Christian community at Saint Mark’s. 

Jay Blossom

Posted on October 19, 2017 .