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TITHINGTest Me in This
By Douglas LeBlanc
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Douglas LeBlanc
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCONTINUITY IN THE TRADITION
Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green
In the summer of 1991, Frederica Mathewes-Green attended the Episcopal Church's 69th General Convention, which met that year in Phoenix. I had admired Frederica's witty articles in the national newsletter of Feminists for Life, which she edited for a few years, and this convention was my first opportunity to meet a woman who was quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. From a distance, I saw Frederica handing out free copies of a document printed on a modern imitation of parchment. The document was the Baltimore Declaration, an effort by six Episcopal priests-including Frederica's husband, Father Gregory-to identify ten points of theological struggle for the church. The closest the declaration came to causing any change in the Episcopal Church was the publication of a thoughtful and largely ignored book, Reclaiming Faith: Essays on Orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church and the Baltimore Declaration.
I interviewed Frederica during that convention, and I have forgotten most of what we talked about. What I remember, though, is her crying. That year's convention featured a daily morning Bible study combined with the Holy Eucharist. Deputies, bishops,journalists, and visitors gathered together at round tables in a vast and gloomy exhibit hall to read Scripture together and discuss what they thought God might be saying to the convention on any given day.
One morning the text told the wonderful story of John the Baptist leaping for joy, in utero, merely upon hearing the voice of the pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary as she greeted her cousin Elizabeth. Frederica, who was attending convention not only to help promote the Baltimore Declaration but also to volunteer with NOEL (the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life), pointed out the clear pro-life lessons to be drawn from this passage. Frederica's tablemates disagreed with this plain-sense reading of the text. As Frederica told me about this encounter, she cried, explaining that she was not crying because her feelings were hurt but because she was so heartbroken for the church. Frederica and I have been friends ever since.
The General Convention of 1991 was the final national convention that Frederica attended as an Episcopalian. The convention's anemic response to the Baltimore Declaration, and its refusal to affirm that Episcopal clergy ought to limit their sexual activity to the covenant of marriage, convinced the Mathewes-Greens that they should think about serving in another Christian church. They considered the Roman Catholic Church and what are called continuing Anglican churches-bodies that broke away from the Episcopal Church after it decided to ordain women to the priesthood and adopted a modern version of the Book of Common Prayer (1979). Frederica had attended Virginia Theological Seminary at the same time as her husband, as they both explored whether to become Episcopal priests. When the Mathewes-Greens decided to leave the Episcopal Church, they ultimately joined the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, a branch of Orthodoxy that has been most pastoral toward Protestants-evangelical Protestants in particular-whose search for a deeper spiritual life has led them toward the East. Frederica told her family's story in her book Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy.
During their childhoods, Gregory was Episcopalian and Frederica was Catholic. They made no pretense of Christian faith when they met each other, and Frederica read a Hindu prayer during their wedding. They were hippies, Frederica was a self-described hairy-legged feminist, and their spirituality was syncretic. On their honeymoon, however, Frederica found herself kneeling before a statue of Jesus and hearing the unmistakable yelps of the Hound of Heaven. When they attended seminary together in 1974 and 1975, they were still zealously renewed Christians-and they began tithing. It was not an easy commitment to make, but it would shape the rest of their life together as Christian disciples.
"We were both new Christians, new to seminary, and, for me, new to the Episcopal Church," Frederica said. "I'm not sure what it was that inspired us to begin tithing. I remember that we were doing it right from the beginning, during our seminary years. We were janitors at Church of the Resurrection; we each got twenty dollars a week, and that was our only income, apart from our being on work-study scholarship. We might have gotten a little bit of income from the work we did at the seminary. So for each twenty dollars, we put two dollars in the basket."
Gregory said, "We knew it was one of those things that committed Christians, biblical Christians, did, and obviously it said something about our commitment of our material things to God."
Frederica recalled their financial struggles during their time in seminary: "Our rent was one hundred dollars a month, and our weekly food budget was ten dollars. I remember it was a splurge to get a container of yogurt. We were vegetarians that year. That helped us save a little bit of money, that first year in seminary. We were extremely poor, poorer than most people would admit. I remember they had just invented ziplock bags, and I was at a school picnic or something, and I was saving the bags and washing them out and putting them out to dry. One of the other students teased me about exaggeratedly acting like I was poor, but I was poor. We hadn't bought a box of ziplock bags. My dad had sent us something in several bags, so we saved those bags and kept rewashing them. I didn't buy a mop, because it was eight dollars, and I could mop the floor with a sponge. It was a real sacrifice-to give 10 percent of twenty dollars is a large sacrifice-but we felt very determined about it from the beginning. In thirty-four years of marriage, we have never not tithed. Every month we've given 10 percent or more."
"I think we were aware that being truly committed Christians was going to be a life-changing thing, and there wasn't going to be any part of our lives that wasn't touched by that, so it had to mean something for our pocketbooks," Gregory said. "We certainly were biblically literate enough to know what the tithe was."
"I remember a little controversy we were in at the time," Frederica said of her senior year, when she was a part-time student. "We were on campus a couple of days a week, and I didn't want to pay two dollars for the campus lunch. In the cafeteria it was family style; everybody put in two dollars and they put the dishes on the table, but I wanted to bring food from home. The fear was that I hadn't paid and that I might eat some of the food out of the bowls as I sat there eating my sandwich. The administration was very insistent that I put in my two dollars. 'It's just two dollars, that's all you've got to pay.' But I was the one paying the bills, and I knew that we just didn't have an extra two dollars, so I wanted to bring my peanut-butter sandwich. The decision, I guess to force my hand, was that I was not allowed to come into the dining room unless I paid two dollars. So I'd go to classes, talk to my classmates, say good-bye, and then sit in the lobby and eat my sandwich. I think eventually they decided it was safe to let me back in. I think I was allowed to have some of the coffee, but none of the food."
Frederica laughs heartily as she recalls the resolution of this standoff. Gregory describes her as "holding court" while eating in the spacious lobby of the refectory, as her fellow students often gathered around to commiserate with her.
A SECOND POVERTY
Gregory and Frederica speak fondly of this time, as they believe it established patterns of generosity and trust in God that served them well, especially when Gregory made the financially costly decision to leave a well-paying career as an Episcopal priest and to plant Holy Cross, a new Antiochian Orthodox mission in metropolitan Baltimore. Gregory refers to that period as "our second poverty."
Frederica landed a full-time job in 1992 in which she helped work on a pro-life referendum for Maryland. Knowing the financial sacrifices that lay ahead, Gregory and Frederica saved all the income from Frederica's job so they could use it as a cushion in the future. "As we were looking toward becoming Orthodox, we were quite nervous about it, because we had three children, and we'd have to find health insurance somehow, and we'd have to move out of the rectory," Frederica said. "I kept saying, 'Lord, if you give us ten tithers, we will have our church.' We were surprised, as we kind of canvassed the Episcopal parish, that not very many people wanted to join us. We thought that in a high Episcopal church, you just jump off that onto the escalator and go to the slightly higher Orthodox Church. We were surprised that we didn't get very many takers-more arrived as the year went by, but not right away. I kept saying, 'Ten tithers make one income.' I kept praying, 'Give us ten tithers,' and we got five.
"It was very threadbare there for a while. Right from the start, the church decided what Gregory's income was going to be, and it was $1,500 a month or something. It was quite low. They determined that this was our income from February 14, 1993, the first day we had worship, but they couldn't pay it, so month after month went by and we would draw on our savings to pay him the salary, and the church would still owe us. But we kept tabs of how much was owed, and within those first three years it was all paid off. They got to where they could pay a salary and then pay a little bit more to make up the prior shortfall. It's another example of how God brings things together. If it hadn't been for that job with the referendum, I don't know what we would have done. But everything was arriving at the time it was needed, not before, and we were able to make it work."
Gregory wondered during some weeks and months whether he should drive a truck for United Parcel Service. "Looking back, you can see it so much clearer. But as we all know, sometimes being in the midst of creative activity, you don't always know that it's increasingly getting better," he said.
"We insisted that the church tithe to the diocese, and the diocese at that point was providing very little financial support for mission priests," Frederica said. "They sent us $200 a month, and our mission's income was about $2,000 a month, so we sent them $200 a month back. These identical checks would cross in the mail as they supported us and we paid our tithe to the diocese."
For the first several years of its life, Holy Cross met in a community center near Catonsville. In 1997 it bought a church building in Linthicum, near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The Mathewes-Greens live just around the corner from the church. The building they bought was constructed for a Methodist congregation and had become Full Gospel Mission Church, a Korean congregation, by the time Holy Cross purchased it. The members of Holy Cross poured hundreds of hours into transforming it from a Pentecostal worship space into the icon-rich and incense-friendly church it is today.
As Holy Cross has grown, Gregory has worked his way back toward a reliable income and Frederica has developed a vocation as a prolific author (nine books) and speaker (pro-life groups, churches, college lectures). "As things have gotten better, as Holy Cross Church has put down roots and thrived, I decided (I think it was a year and a half ago) to actually break through the wall to 20 percent," she said. "We gave 20 percent for a year, kind of nervous, but turned out great. It's so true that you can't outgive God."
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
In Eastern Orthodox theology, the Mathewes-Greens have found an anchor for a spiritual discipline they had begun in the mid-1970s, and a deeper explanation for what that spiritual discipline is meant to achieve. "When we became Orthodox, it didn't feel like a radical departure from our sense of what tithing was about and stewardship questions," Gregory said. "It felt like a deepening of it, and we could see much more continuity in the tradition. We could see almost immediately the connection with the whole idea of spiritual disciplines, of the Orthodox emphasis on theosis-being like God, growing into the image of God.
"Since clearly one of God's characteristics is generosity-the overflowing of his compassion, his love, and his self-giving-there are different ways the church gifts us in exercising that in ourselves. When we give, the muscle grows, the God-likeness. In the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks about prayer and fasting and almsgiving, those three seem to have a special connection-not just because Jesus talked about them in the same sermon, but also because they're three facets of the Christian life that demonstrate our commitment to the dominion of God over everything and also give us ways to internalize that work.
"By all that, I mean that the dominion of God is over the whole material world. We're given some control over it, but we demonstrate that we know he has the lordship and the dominion, because we tithe. It's even kind of a sacramental illustration, I think."
"The Orthodox continuity with the ancient practices was something we frankly didn't believe until we had been in the church for a while, and we saw that they really fasted on Wednesday and Friday, and maintained other practices from the first century onward. You can just drop into the devotional literature or the records at any point in history, in all of these different ethnic backgrounds, out of touch with each other for centuries, and find that the practices are still the same," Frederica said.
Gregory cites author Randy Alcorn's image of tithing as a set of training wheels for Christians who want to become serious about their giving. He believes the same is true of fasting. "All these practices are training wheels for learning how to live fully in the kingdom," he said. "At this point in our lives, we need the training wheels, for the most part. Tithing is a really good example, because it may feel like a constriction at first, like training wheels, but after a while grace does move a person to a place where, in a sense, you can take those wheels off and feel truly more generous in your heart, not having to worry so much at the end of the month, 'Did we give the 10 percent?' It's less about the mechanics of it than the growth that really does happen into grace.
"I would say it's really the same dynamic in most of the spiritual disciplines. We come into a fallen world as fallen people, and our relationship to the fallen world is just not as it was meant to be by God. I don't get it right in relation to money; I don't get it right in relation to my stomach; I don't get it right in relation to the use of time or any of these things. In the tradition, there are these great mechanisms and disciplines that help me get it right."
Looking back on their decades of tithing, Gregory and Frederica see consistent evidence of God's faithfulness and his call on them to grow in generosity. "Things have been tougher sometimes, financially, but there's never really been a strong temptation to stop tithing," Gregory said. "What there has been is a realization that we really can give more. God has given us so much, not just financially but in so many different ways, that one of the ways we can clearly give back is by supporting various ministries and outreach and so forth beyond the tithe, which we always give to 'the storehouse,' which we understand as being the church."
"Even at the beginning, we could see that tithing did not make us impoverished," Frederica said. "In fact, somehow we ended up having more money. There were a couple of times, that first year in seminary, we went and looked in the savings account and mysteriously found an extra fifty dollars there that we hadn't put in. That happened at least twice, and we were never able to discover where it came from. (That was in the day when you actually would give them the bank book, and they would stamp it and give it back.) We would get unexpected refunds, bonuses, or things we were never looking for.
Excerpted from TITHING by Douglas LeBlanc Copyright © 2010 by Douglas LeBlanc. Excerpted by permission.
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