Thursday, July 18, 2013
The Preacher’s Corner
ATMs soon to be in church foyers?
A church lady with whom I am well acquainted asked me if I would give her a dollar bill in exchange for four quarters. In response to my puzzled glance she volunteered that she wanted the dollar to put in the collection plate at church, “since it is not the Sunday I give my monthly check.” Unfortunately, this prompted a ministerial frown and a question as to why it was necessary to give a dollar. I was instructed that “in my day I was taught it is not proper to let the offering plate pass without putting something in.” Indeed.
Actually, I knew all about this little bit of churchly etiquette, but I just wanted to hear again how Saint Paul’s word to the Corinthians has been interpreted in the Southern Presbyterian mind. The apostle’s injunction was, of course: “Upon the first day of the week, let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him…” (1 Cor. 16:2).
Many today find it convenient instead to contribute by means of a monthly check. But still the obligation is felt to do something each time the plate is passed. The requirement is highly developed. When the President of the United States goes to church, it is customary that he gives five dollars in cash, and the Queen of England contributes a 10-pound note. I wonder if people still notice?
The idea of remembering the plate each time it passes is an old one. A Holly Springs citizen, widely known and respected, would solemnly put in a penny each Sunday that was not his “check” day. But a cent was worth more in those days.
Remember the little Sunday School envelopes where you checked off the categories, receiving points for each action: Brought Bible? Witnessed during the week? Gave a tithe? Attended worship?
I wish somebody would bring me one of these, for Presbyterians gave up the point system years ago.
I have heard that there is a Jewish temple in Miami where you can pay your pledge with your credit card and where seats for the high holy days are not reserved for worshipers who are behind in their payments. It is only a matter of time until some mega-church puts an ATM machine in the lobby!
Actually, some Memphis churches now have provision in their Sunday bulletins for scanning in a contribution with a smart phone.
My home church in the Mississippi Delta allows members to order that a draft on their bank accounts be drawn each week or month by the church treasurer. It is very good for stewardship and budgetary purposes, but the offering plate goes up to the front with only a few coins or bills resting on the red velvet. The church ladies worry that visitors will think the congregation stingy, which it emphatically is not.
A church treasurer I know is mystified by the fact that the collection always adds up with some odd cents left over. I am sure that the small coins are contributed by the children. I tell him that as stretched as churches are these days, we should take any contribution that is offered, even if the member brings a wheelbarrow full of pennies. (Wouldn’t you like to see the reaction if somebody did?)
The bringing of money for the Lord was once a controversial matter in churches. To be sure, collections were raised, but the deacons or vestrymen would go around during the week, or if the funds were brought to the church, they were placed in a box by the church gate or at the door. Sometimes, on sacrament Sundays, an offering for the poor would be received as people left the Holy Table.
But when the idea first originated of treating giving as an act of worship, some sensitive souls were (and still are) put off by the sound of coins jangling in the Lord’s sanctuary. When the further innovation occurred of presenting these collections at the church’s altar, others objected to placing money on the table of Christ’s sacred body and blood. The poor widow of Jesus’ day did offer her two coins at the temple, but we ought to give our money as simply and with as little fuss as possible, lest we be guilty like the Pharisees our Lord condemned, of “sounding a trumpet” before us as we give alms.
Scotsmen who objected to laws requiring the giving of tithes in church would often put worthless foreign coins into the plate. The problem became so great that the only thing the clergy could do was to melt these down and have offering plates and communion vessels made from them. Many are still in use to this day in Scottish kirks, and bear witness to the futility of trying to compel generosity.
I hope parents still teach their children about giving. This is really too personal for me to feel comfortable speaking about as a minister, since I have a “vested interest” in the result. Like sex education, stewardship ought to be taught at home. And in this department of life, as in others, a parents’ example teaches the child without the parent having to say much. Liberality is a Christian grace, and the giving of money to religion is only a small part of what it means to be generous.
Most ministers do not wish to know precisely what members give, lest they be tempted to dispense pastoral care in line with people’s generosity or lack of. But a minister does not need to inquire too closely. Those with a grateful heart show it in a thousand ways.
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