Saddlebag Stewardship #4

prosperity-gospel1Almost everyone in our society would agree that poverty is a bad thing.  Poverty is something that even we in the church have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than ourselves to “get out of.”  Poverty is bad, and having money is good, right?  Well, Francis Asbury wouldn’t have necessarily agreed with our culture’s analysis of poverty.  John Wigger writes:

The only acceptable course was to live in a state of voluntary poverty, or as close to it as decency allowed.  Writing to an English correspondent in August 1788, Asbury noted with satisfaction that he could hardly afford “one coat on my yearly allowance.”  “Our connection is very poor, and our preachers on the frontiers labor the whole year for 6 to 8 pounds,” which, in Asbury’s mind, was a good thing.  His belief in the virtue of poverty was one of the reasons he clung to the practice of paying all of the preachers the same salary ($64 a year), whether probationers or bishops.  This had the virtue of reducing competition for more affluent, usually urban, circuits, since the preachers assigned to those circuits couldn’t expect to benefit much from the relative wealth of their congregations.  Offering better salaries on circuits that could support them would have drawn more candidates into the ministry and kept others from locating, but only at the risk of making money a motivation for preaching.  (American Saint, 176).

I was intrigued by what John Wigger terms Asbury’s belief in the “virtue of poverty.”  This seems to fly in the face of many mega-church pastors like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren who make millions of dollars a year, and other similar pastors who tout what has become known as “the prosperity gospel.”  This is a belief that if we live faithful lives that God will bless us with lots of money.  However, when I read the gospels I have never heard Jesus say, “Follow me…and I will make you rich.”  Though, I do recall at least one instance where Jesus told a wealthy young man to sell his possessions and follow him.

My Greek professor at Duke, Dr. James Efird, always had some useful comments about money and the church.  “Do you want the pagans to have all the money!” he once remarked.  I have to say that no, I don’t want the pagans to have all the money.  However, I think Asbury might be on to something when speaking about the virtue of poverty.   Asbury didn’t worry about money.  His worries were about the church and the fate of the souls of sinners.  Many churches in our day and time have it backwards–they worry more about money and less about people.  We would do well to worry more about such things as occupied Asbury’s thoughts and prayers, and to worry less about money and more about people.  I think that there is much for us to learn from Asbury and his belief in the virtue of poverty.  However, there can also be virtuous ways to use wealth.  Perhaps that is part of our task as the church today–to use our wealth virtuously without forgetting the virtues of poverty.


Saddlebag Stewardship #3

Brattonsville 130524-05Francis Asbury spent the majority of his life traveling and he never had a home to call his own.  As John Wigger writes,

Rather than sticking to places with established Methodist societies, he often chose to visit settlements that Methodism hadn’t yet reached.  “We must suffer with, if we labour for the poor,” he wrote to Wesley in March 1784, after describing the difficulties preachers met with in their travels: “being often obliged to dwell in dirty cabins, to sleep in poor beds, and for retirement [in other words, privacy], to go into the woods.”  Yet how else would they find the people who most needed the gospel?  “O how many thousands of poor souls have we to seek out in the wilds of America, who are but one remove from the Indians in the comforts of civilized society, and considering that they have the Bible in their hands, comparatively worse in their morals than the savages themselves,” Asbury wrote while in western Virginia (American Saint, 127).

I am struck by just how little Asbury concerned himself with his physical surroundings.  Most modern residents of Asheville look around them at their house and see what comforts the house does not have instead of all the comforts that it does have.  For instance, in my own home I can flip a switch and I instantly have a fire glowing in my fireplace, yet we often talk about how we have yet to purchase curtains for the downstairs.  I imagine it isn’t that much different in your home either.

Yet, rather than concentrating on what comforts he didn’t have, Asbury saw his lack of comfort as a way of reaching more people with the gospel, writing to John Wesley in his comfortable London manse that “we must suffer with, if we labour for the poor.”  That is one of the reasons why I think Room in the Inn, Habitat for Humanity, MANNA Food Bank, and other similar programs that our church supports are so important.  It is not enough for us from a stewardship perspective to simply throw money at a problem and wash our hands of the situation, patting ourselves on the back for helping out.  Like Francis Asbury, we must get our own hands dirty sometimes if we are to bring the gospel to places where it is needed the most.

We concern ourselves too frequently with our physical comforts, often at the cost of our spiritual well-being.  Take some time this week to appreciate the comforts we all enjoy: a roof over our heads, food on our tables, comfortable beds in which to sleep.  And, take some time this week to think about ways in which we might individually and as a church “suffer with, if we are to labour for the poor.”  I, for one, vow to stop worrying about the comforts and luxuries I don’t have, and to be thankful for the things I do have–even toilets!

Saddlebag Stewardship #2

beggingIn this second blog posting on Francis Asbury and stewardship, I’d like to offer for your consideration the words of some preachers who traveled with Asbury and the impression he made upon them when it came to money:

Once, in Ohio, Asbury and Boehm came across a widow whose only cow was about to be sold for debt.  Determining that, “It must not be,” Asbury gave what he had and solicited enough from bystanders to pay the woman’s bills.  “His charity knew no bounds but the limits of its resources; nor did I ever know him let an object of charity pass without contributing something for their relief,” Bond wrote.  He recalled that Asbury often gave money to strangers he met on the road whose circumstances seemed dire, especially widows.  He had his share of failings, but the love of money wasn’t one of them.  This won him a great deal of respect from everyone who knew him…

…Notice that in the story of the widow’s cow, people gave in Asbury’s presence when they presumably would not have otherwise.  Particularly later in his career, when Methodists were becoming more affluent, he knew that his reputation for charity and asceticism could be used as a shield against all kinds of criticism.  If money is power, then Asbury was powerless.  But of course money is not the only source of power in a religious movement (American Saint, 12).

I’ve been very convicted in the course of reading about Francis Asbury and money.  In the story above, Asbury gave all that he had to help the widow keep her cow.  I don’t know many people with enough faith to drain everything in their checking account to help out a stranger in need.  I feel pretty good about myself when I hand a bag of food to someone on the corner in need, but I don’t think I would be inclined to put myself in their place and beg on their behalf in the way that Asbury did!

One of the main things that I take away from this story is that no matter how faithful we may be, we can always do more.  But there is something more for us to learn yet from this story.  Asbury didn’t have enough money to pay the woman’s debt in full.  Often we find ourselves in situations where we don’t have enough money to cover everything that is needed in a situation.  When that happens, we can offer ourselves, our time, our abilities, and our presence to help in the situation.  When Asbury didn’t have enough money to pay the widow’s debt, he then took it upon himself to help her by asking others on her behalf.  Remember, our membership vows remind us to support the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts (money), our service, and our witness.  If you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to give as much money, then try to give more in other ways that are not financial.  As Dr. John Wigger reminds us, “money is not the only source of power in a religious movement.”