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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: Unnatural Gratitude

October 14, 2011

"Christians are made, not born," said Tertullian. No Christian virtues are innate. Nothing about following Jesus comes naturally. Therefore, so much that the church does for us is formational, educational, and transformational.

Take the virtue of gratitude. Don't let anybody tell you that gratitude is innate. Why else would parents need to instruct their child, "Say thanks to the nice lady for the candy - or you will be punished?"

A primary task of the church is to take otherwise normal, innate, American tendencies and to re-form them in the light of Jesus.

What comes naturally in our culture are words like "mine," and "I earned it and deserve it."

Thus I found to be one of the most moving worship moments in Duke Chapel was when, as people come forward at Communion, we taught communicants to hold out empty hands for the blessed bread. What's natural is tight-fisted gripping of what we think is ours. What's Christian is open-handed generosity.

It's natural for us to grip what we've got rather than to give. Americans and American churches are keeping a larger percentage of their income than in previous decades. About a fourth of our congregations find it impossible to part with about 13% of their intake for the benevolent, mission, and administrative work of the church. It is completely natural for people to say, "Let's keep most of our money here in our church, why pay our share of Connectional Giving?"

This is unsurprising in a culture that has a too expansive view of what's "mine." What is remarkable and can only be attributed to the activity of the Holy Spirit is that three-fourths of our congregations expend more than a fourth of their income on those outside their church. Amid all the legitimate needs they have within their congregation, they know that the purpose of the church and its ministry is beyond the bounds of the congregation.

Thus, one of the requirements listed for a District Superintendent in North Alabama is to tithe. Clergy lead congregational giving through their own giving. Actually a tithe is a job requirement for every follower of Jesus!

The church teaches us in various ways that most of what we have came to us, not through our hard work, but as a gift of God, grace. We have what we have in trust. We are assigned responsibility for others beyond our immediate family. None of us is a self-made person. We're all connected in a web of Christ-given responsibility.

These are strikingly unnatural truths that only a loving church can teach. Thus on Sunday at your church, the offering may well be the most demanding (and revealing!) act of worship.

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog at North Alabama Conference website, United Methodist Church.]

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