The Nurturing Tree

Yet another story in the Giving Speaks series–Creating a Giving Culture–One Story at a Time–featuring guest author Dr. Jerry D. Wright*

The Nurturing Tree

Once there was a boy who really enjoyed a tree.

He enjoyed the roughness of its bark when he climbed it.

He enjoyed the springiness of its branches when he swung on them.

He enjoyed the crackle, the smell and the pillowy feeling of its leaves when he gathered them into a big pile and jumped into them, in the fall of the year.

He enjoyed the crunch and tart taste of its apples when he bit into its ripe fruit.

And when the sun was hot, he enjoyed sitting in its shade, leaning against its sturdy trunk, thinking about all the things he hoped to do and have and be as he grew older.

The tree enjoyed the boy, too.

She enjoyed watching him grow stronger, able to do more things.

She enjoyed his company.

She enjoyed being useful.

But there came a long time when the boy stayed away.

Then one day, he returned and said to the tree, “I need some money,” and the tree said, “Well, money doesn’t     grow on trees, but apples do, and you’re welcome to gather my apples and sell them for money.” The tree was delighted to have the boy climbing about, gathering the apples she’d grown. She enjoyed his company and she enjoyed feeling useful.

But then the boy stayed away for a long time, again.

One bright, sunny day the tree saw him coming toward her—older now—a young man—and she was very happy. She really enjoyed his company. She enjoyed that he was bigger and looked stronger than when she had seen him last.

“I want a house,” he told the tree. “A house to live in and raise a family. Would you give me your wood?”

“I’ll give you a few of my branches,” she said, “and you may ask my neighbors for some of theirs. If I gave you all of my branches, I’d have nothing to support my leaves. Without leaves to turn sunlight and water into food, I would die. But as long as you take only a few of my limbs, I can grow others; so, you’re welcome to a few.”

The young man thanked the tree and chose a few of her branches to make into lumber for his house. He also asked her neighbors, who gave him a few branches here and there until he had enough.

Then he built his house and enjoyed it, and was gone for several years, again, until one day the tree recognized him coming toward her—a man in his middle years now, looking healthy and having good energy—and he said to the tree, “I’ve been thinking that I’d like to have a boat to sail on the lake, and I’d like to have your trunk to use for a hull.”

The tree liked the man very much—had liked him since when he was a small boy, climbing her trunk and diving into piles of her leaves—but she liked herself, too, and she said, “I like you a lot. I’ve enjoyed you for years. But I have good reasons to say ‘No’ to your request. First, if I gave you my trunk, I would die, and while I like to give of myself and feel useful, I know better than to give myself away. Secondly, I’ve noticed that you only come around when you want something for yourself. Other than that, I never see you”

“Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a boat; you don’t have to have wood to make a boat. Fiberglass is a wonderful material for building a boat. Build yourself a boat of fiberglass. And come visit me from time to time.”

At first, the man wasn’t happy about the tree’s response. Always, before, she had given him at least some of what he had asked for. But then she was right. He did only come see her when he wanted something, and fiberglass was a perfectly good material to use for building a boat.

The more he thought about it, he realized that at first, he and the tree had been giving each other something, but that as time had gone by, the tree had been doing almost all of the giving and he had been doing almost all of the taking.

He decided to take his children to play in, on and around the tree. He also bought some seedlings and showed his children how to plant them, so that the seedlings would grow up to keep the tree company.

Like all living things, the tree grew older and older and finally died, and the keepers of the forest cut her down, leaving only her stump. The man grew older, too, and returned to the tree one day, only to discover that nothing was left of her, but her stump.

She could offer no shade to sit in—no sturdy trunk to lean against—only her stump to sit upon, so the old man sat.

He thanked her for being there when he was a boy, allowing him to climb her sturdy trunk, bounce upon her springy branches, eat her crisp, tart apples, and pounce into piles of her fallen leaves. He thanked her for the shade she had provided, and for being there to lean upon when he just wanted a place to think thoughts and dream dreams. He thanked her, too, for the limbs she spared him for building his house. And then, as he thought some more, he thanked her, most of all, for setting limits and saying “No”—for only allowing him to have some of her limbs—not so many as would have damaged her—and for telling him “No” when he wanted her trunk, which would have killed her. He also thanked her for pointing out that he had fallen into a habit of thinking only of himself—coming around only when he wanted something from her.

He thought a long time.

When it came time for the old man to go, he patted the stump and said,  “Thanks for liking yourself as well as you liked me. I think that liking yourself enough to tell me “No” was the best gift you ever gave me.”

The end.

*Dr. Jerry D. Wright preached his first UU sermon in Bloomington, IN, on merger Sunday, when the Unitarians and Universalists merged to form the UUA. Subsequent to graduation from IU, he earned his BD (later MDiv) from Crane Theological School of Tufts University. He was a member of the first class of DsRE to be granted the status of Ministers of Religious Education. In  1989, he earned his DMin from Meadville Lombard . He served in churches in Massachusetts while at Crane; after ordination, he served congregations in New York, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas, before establishing the Inter-District Office of the UUA in Indianapolis, from which he consulted with congregations in Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and western Ohio. He retired from the UU ministry in 1995, and after retiring in 2010 from doing data analysis for a hospital, amuses himself with photography and the crafting of “magic” wands (see display photo below).  To contact Dr. Jerry Wright directly:  drwright8706@sbcglobal.net

Resources for Environmental Justice & Stewardship:

Unitarian Universalist Association: What is Environmental Justice?  http://www.uua.org/environment/27663.shtml

Green Sanctuary Program:  http://www.uua.org/environment/sanctuary/index.shtml

Ethical Eating Resources:  http://www.uua.org/environment/eating/index.shtml

Climate Change & Global Warming information:  http://www.uua.org/environment/climate/index.shtml

Sustainable Local Economies:  http://www.uua.org/environment/sustainable/index.shtml

Resources for Nurturing A Healthy Culture of Giving and Generosity:                                                                                                  http://www.uua.org/finance/fundraising/generosity/index.shtml

Giving–the sacred art (book by Lauren Tyler Wright) and Study Guide for Giving–the sacred art for small groups  (by Laurel Amabile)                 http://www.uua.org/documents/stew-dev/study_guide_giving.pdf

UUA Congregational Stewardship Services:  http://www.uua.org/finance/fundraising/index.shtml

Forward Through the Ages (FORTH) Program:  http://www.uua.org/finance/fundraising/forth/index.shtml

Ecumenical Stewardship Center:  A Network For Growing Stewards   http://stewardshipresources.org/

The Offering–A Central Act of Worship in Community

The offering has been the central act of worship for human beings since ancient times. In the earliest times, sacrificial offerings of the best livestock or first fruits of the crop were ceremonially given to the gods. In modern times, money is placed in the offering plate during Sunday morning service to support the work of the faith community. Throughout time the offering has been a means by which individuals and families may contribute some of what they have to benefit their whole community. Making an offering is considered a central act of faith: faith in the community, faith is something greater than oneself, and a tangible expression of gratitude for all received in life. In its deepest and purest expression, the act of giving motivated by gratitude, is a deeply spiritual practice.

Over time, this practice of the offering has been institutionalized by religions around the world. The concepts and practices are explicitly taught in many religions. In her book Giving—the Sacred Art, Lauren Tyler Wright refers to the practice of giving that each faith tradition brings to the “table of generosity.” She continues by describing the language and expressions of giving to religion:

Each tradition brings to the table a beautiful history of sacred texts, stories, and experiences, and each faith contributes to the intricate landscape of religious giving with a beautiful assortment of expressions: stewardship, almsgiving zakat (alms tax), sadaqah (voluntary charity), dana (charity), charity, Chesed (loving kindness), Tzedakah (righteous giving), tikkun olam (repairing the world). As I write, I imagine this wide variety of religious perspectives engaging in dialogue, not debate. While we may disagree on a host of ideologies, we can all sit around the table of generosity and share our understandings of this common practice. And in doing so, I have a feeling we will discover that our spiritual journeys are more alike than we may have thought.

Though religion continues to be the beneficiary of the largest share of charitable giving, it is losing some ground as giving increases to other charitable organizations. Once the recipient of 60 percent of all charitable giving, for the first time in recorded history, giving to religion has dropped to just under 33 percent. It appears that the competition for charitable dollars is heating up and religious leaders and consultants are asking, why? What makes the difference for people in choosing where to give?

Church fundraising consultant and former parish minister, J. Clif Christopher, is convinced that religious organizations must develop appropriate fundraising strategies using current methods in order to keep pace with their missions and financial needs. These strategies and methods will need to include greater involvement by the minister and board leaders in active fundraising and teaching of stewardship. More analysis must take place for each congregation to better know and understand its donors, their patterns of giving, and their capacity for giving.

Finally, it is essential that religious leaders know how to effectively ask for contributions and to communicate with and recognize donors.

According to Christopher and others, the three primary reasons people give are:   

1) Belief in the mission of the organization,

2) Regard for the staff leadership of the organization, and

3) Fiscal responsibility.

In addition, people clearly want to make a difference in the world, to change lives for the better, to leave a legacy that reflects their desire to leave such a mark of accomplishment.

Faith communities today have a big job to do—to change lives. We must focus on the task of changing lives and making a difference in the world, beyond the doors of the congregation. This level of change cannot be accomplished by busying our members with committee work and social activities, then telling them there is not enough funding and more money is needed to keep it all going.

What fundraising and stewardship strategy will your congregation need to fulfill the task of  changing peoples’ lives      and making a difference in the world?

You are invited to participate in this Giving Speaks poll about giving away and sharing offering plate collections:

Resources:

Christopher, J. Clif.  Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate.  2008. Abingdon Press.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate Study Guide for congregation leaders:  http://www.cerguua.org/forms/Stewardship2011StudyGuide.pdf

Smith, Christian, Emerson, Michael O., with Snell, Patricia.  Passing the Plate. 2008.  Oxford University Press.

Wright, Lauren Tyler.  Giving–the sacred art.  2008.  Skylight Paths Publishing.

UU Study Guide for Giving–the sacred art.  2011.  Laurel Amabile.  Free download:                                                                                              http://www.uua.org/documents/stew-dev/study_guide_giving.pdf

A Theology of Money, Giving, and Stewardship in the Covenantal Community

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and enables our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.   As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.*

Our living tradition draws upon the wisdom and teachings of religions and human experience around the globe and throughout history.  We seek to liberate minds to search for truth and pursue deeper understanding of our world and our place in the universe.   Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to act in ways that transform lives and ultimately our world for the better.  We stand boldly on the side of love and justice, breaking through barriers of oppression and intolerance.   Our vision of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is an expansive and worthy pursuit.

As Unitarian Universalists, we dedicate ourselves to one another, to promise our mutual trust and support in and among our congregations. It takes a high level commitment of money, time, and leadership to realize our vision and sustain our ministries and programs.  One of the ways we provide support is through our financial giving.   Whether we commit ourselves to a proportion of our income, a weekly contribution through bill pay, or make a generous contribution to the weekly offering, our giving matters.

In community, money flows from and through our interconnected relationships, rich with complexity, attitudes, and motivations.   Money is another form of energy; and at its best, money is dynamic, empowering, and generative, an instrument of transformation.  We do not have to possess a lot of money in order to use what we have in ways that are beneficial and life-sustaining.  Abundance is realized when we appreciate all that comes into our lives and share what we can with intention and good will.   We are blessed and so we are called to be a blessing.

Stewardship is a ministry that involves money and giving.  However, stewardship is much broader in scope than fundraising, and requires a highly relational and pastoral approach in dealing with people and their relationships with money.  Hospitality, careful management of resources, and the pursuit of a clear vision and mission are essential practices in congregations practicing effective stewardship.

Giving and generosity are matters of the spirit and at the heart of stewardship.  Giving is a spiritual discipline, a practice that reflects one’s religious values, spiritual depth and maturity.  Becoming a generous person involves a lifelong, developmental process which begins in infancy and evolves with each experience of receiving and giving.

Giving money tends not to be a rational process; rather it is an emotional response to being asked to contribute or the impulse to give out of gratitude.

Being generous is a way to help take care others and a way to say thank you to the universe for everything we are given.

There is a direct relationship between one’s deepest held values and the motivation to give.  We contribute our time and resources to those things that matter most in our lives.  Therefore, our money and our giving have greater impact when we are intentional about how we express our beliefs and values.       

Bank ledgers and budgets are moral documents and testaments of our values.  Giving grows as commitment grows, and even more often, commitment grows as giving grows.

Our congregations are communities in which the economy of grace invites us all to do all we can with joy and gratitude to be able to offer our gifts.

May it be so.

*An excerpt from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Covenant to affirm and promote its principles and purposes.  http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles/index.shtml

With sincere appreciation to Ellen Skagerberg, Rev. Naomi King, Kelley Housman, Jim Mason, Gretchen Haley,  Kelly Belanger Harris, and Rev. Katie Farrell Norris  for the quotes used in this essay (italicized lines), and to the many participants of the UU Stewardship Lab on Facebook, who so generously contribute their ideas and resources.