Friday, November 5, 2010

the BIG tithe

This morning I was eating breakfast, chattering happily to Richard about the growth of my new ministry to mothers of newborns. I digressed a bit to bask verbally in my excitement about the last meetings of Girls & God - and my small Handmaids discipleship class  - and ended up dwelling blissfully on how much I truly enjoy these ultra-feminine forms of ministry.

Then, all of a sudden, a horrible, sickening thought struck. Actually, in retrospect, I'm quite surprised that this thought never suggested itself to me at any time prior to our departure for New Zealand. But now it had, and there was nothing to do but grapple with it.

In short, I realized that if I were any one of the clergy at any one of the parishes that Richard and I have belonged to over the course of our five year marriage, I would be a bit miffed. I would wonder, "Why could this couple not have done one single tiny form of ministry in my parish?!"

It's not that I think that we Sealys are so talented and so gifted and SO WONDERFUL that everyone must now be feeling that they really got short-changed. No, I assure you not. It's simply that this is our first time in a very close working relationship with a pastor. We see Fr. Michael bursting with his own ideas to enrich parish life and very receptive to parishioners' suggestions towards the same end...but without the manpower to follow through. Finally we're understanding what it takes for a pastor to offer any kind of ministry within a church setting. We've been extremely close friends with Fr. Mike for seven years, but we never talked turkey too much with him. As with our other priest friends - and our unordained friends too, for that matter - we never got too deeply into the ins and outs of their "work" in our personal conversations. Now that we are living at the church and our front door is virtually a revolving door of ministry & parish business, the conversational lines have all blurred. When we relax and watch a rugby game with Fr. Mike, parish business inevitably comes up; during "serious" work meetings, we also talk about silly things our daughters said at lunch. Our friendship has become one with our working relationship and ministerial partnership. Seeing the totality of a pastor's life has finally connected the dots for me about how much a pastor depends on ordinary parishioners stepping up and offering to put talent or time at the service of the entire Church.
We've participated a bit in this drama as well, experiencing the logistical nightmare of trying to run youth events without any drivers or chaperones -  or with our key adult helpers pulling out. And we've felt the incredible rush of gratitude a pastor must feel towards those dependable individuals who do generously give of their time, even at no small inconvenience to themselves. Two to whom we are particularly indebted are teenaged girls who babysit for us, refusing pay, every week during youth group. Another is an American woman living in New Zealand, who even calls to offer her assistance with youth events while suffering from effects of a chronic illness.

Most people think that their pastor really needs money to put on events & ministries. Money, in actuality, just may be the least of his worries. Don't get me wrong -  our tithes are very much needed and appreciated - but money alone is not enough.  A vibrant parish life is completely and utterly dependent on church members tithing of things much more costly and elusive: their time & talent, their energy & enthusiasm.

Part of the problem is that we, as parishioners, don't really "see" the urgency of the need. We look around - there seem to be enough lectors and ushers - what more could be needed? Or, we do hear announcements about the shortage of Sunday school teachers, but we underestimate our own usefulness, assuming that we do not have the skills necessary. Sometimes we never even ask ourselves if we have a skill that the parish could benefit from. We might wish that "the church" offered such-and-such, never dreaming that we could be the one that organized & offered it! Lastly - and this was where Richard and I got caught- we know of the needs and we even know of the abilities the Lord has given us - but we honestly think, "I'd love to! I really just don't have the time....."

just daily life is exhausting! 
 where do we find energy left over for the Church?

I used to miss being involved in parish life the way I had been when I was single. I also missed teaching (my pre-motherhood career) - and so whenever I heard that our home parish was in need of catechists for the children, I was really drawn to the idea. But each time I ultimately decided not to heed that call because I worried that with my own babies to care for, I would not have time. Rich and I twice presented to engaged couples on married sexuality and I felt a nudge from the Lord in the direction of a fuller involvement in the diocesan Pre-Cana program, but found the above excuse quite handy again. Ditto after we appeared as guest speakers at our parish youth group. We both enjoyed the experience so much that I began to seriously consider asking permission to begin a small group for the teenage girls of the parish. But...I had tried to do full-time youth ministry as a brand-new mom (and failed) and the fear of having to pull out of something again stayed my good impulse.

I'm regretting now that I did not pick one of the above and "just do it". And I'm firmly resolved that upon my return to the States, I will not fade off into the congregation at large. I'll be coming home with 3 children under the age of 5 and I won't be living in the church building any more. I probably will not be able to be nearly as involved as I currently am, but nor will I drift back into my old comfortable anonymity. The Lord has clearly convicted me that if right now I am able to juggle all these ministries while in a foreign culture, while raising two tiny girls, while pregnant, without many of the housekeeping conveniences I was accustomed to in America (like clothes dryers & bathtubs), without any of the privacy, quiet, schedule or routine that previously defined our home life, without any family nearby....and sustain it all, without a blip, through several children's illnesses, sleep-deprived nights of teething, a near miscarriage, seasonal affect disorder, two cases of severe mastitis, an ER trip for Bernadette's slashed face and the "terrible threes" (just some of the excitement of the past 5 months!)....then is it really honest for me to say that I could not really serve my church in a smaller capacity in my "normal" life?

As the Lord would have it, about fifteen minutes after I made that resolution this morning, I went to Mass. And there, Fr. Michael (completely oblivious to my inner drama) preached on how very badly a priest needs ordinary parishioners to come and ask, "Father, what can I do for the church?" He urged each of us present to consider the talents, skills, abilities and experience the Lord has entrusted to our stewardship and to pray about how these could be offered to build up the parish. These do not have to be "churchy" skills. One older woman in our parish tends faithfully to the 25 gorgeous rose bushes outside the church door. Several families take turns cleaning the sanctuary each week. One mother organizes a weekly church playgroup for stay-at-home mothers of preschoolers. Some people make it their ministry to simply invite non-churchgoers at work to attend weekend services with them; that is a fantastic ministry! Fr. Mike reminded us that if we couldn't figure anything out we could ask him what was needed. He insisted that even if we only had a little bit of "free time" to offer, there would be a job small enough (or big enough) to suit the time we could give. His message was clear: Christians are not just obligated to tithe of our treasure, but of our time and talent as well. And a "tithe", by definition, is given of the firstfruits, not of the leftovers. In other words, we don't offer to the holy God whatever scraps of free time we have left after our hobbies & recreations are fulfilled. First we give to the Lord and then we build our social lives.

I don't believe in coincidence. That homily this morning was God nodding at me. I love when He does that. Perhaps He wants to nod at someone else today too through this blog. And if I may reverently paraphrase a well-known Scripture verse....."If today you see His nod, harden not your heart."

our "bathtub" doesn't seem sub-par to bernadette!
we can fit both girls in at once (just barely)
but unless Freckle is VERY skinny and VERY tough, we think 2's the limit.