Stories about Giving

 

givingA few months ago, I heard a man say that if someone asks you for financial or material help, you have been placed on their path for a reason and need to render assistance. I can remember thinking to myself that he obviously had not spend a lot of time in poverty-stricken areas (like a eyes rolling emoji you know…gosh, how judgemental and self-righteous of me).

As you may know, our God has a sense of humour and quickly made me aware of my self-righteousness…I started recounting how often I rationalised not giving money to people. I have been “programmed” by people around me and the media I have consumed, “Don’t give money to beggars, they will just spend it on drugs or cigarettes.” Or “Don’t give something to a child on the street, it will just enable them to stay on the street for longer.” There may be some truth to this, but how in the world did I get to the point of thinking that I am actually the expert of people’s lives, being able to judge their character, their history and their story? (Shame on me emoji)

So I felt challenged to, for a period of time, give whatever is asked of me. I gave what I had regardless of when, where or who asked or the merit of what was being asked. I gave food, take-away foods, coins, a somewhat bigger amount to a single mom in need, taxi money, shelter money. I realised that the “experiment” was helping me become more patient and open to the humanity of people – in other words, my openness to give, has enabled me to see the humanity of the person asking something of me. (I think that when we give rather than withhold we experience the divine “flow” of God through us. Life flows when we give rather than withhold.)

One day I was having a conversation with a woman on the street, let’s call her Jo. She often asked me for coins, but I neglected spending time with her, so that time I stopped and talked to her. As we were talking and I was scratching in my wallet for coins, a man, let’s call him Bruce, came up and interrupted us. I have chatted to Bruce before. I knew that he sometimes acted a bit obnoxiously. So I asked him to hang on a second while I finish my conversation with Jo. He seemed a bit impatient and after I gave Jo some coins, he could not contain himself any longer and blurted, “I want to ask you something that is going to sound impossible, but with Jesus all things are possible!”. I said, “Yes Bruce, what do you want to ask me?” and he said, “I want your belt”. I laughed and asked why in the world he wanted my belt. He lifted up his shirt and showed us that his pants were falling down because he had lost so much weight and said that with the recent rains it got really wet and started sagging down even further (Jo’s eyes were as big as dinner plates at this point). So I said, “Of course you can have my belt Bruce!”. I took off my belt and gave it to him. This did not seem to have surprised him (maybe it was his faith!?) and he proceeded to put the belt on. Jo, on the other hand, could not believe what had happened. As I left the interaction, I chuckled thinking that our God certainly has a sense of humour.

In my thinking and praying about giving and generosity, I became aware of how often I considered myself “generous” without my giving actually reaching the point of being sacrificial. I realised (after a conversation with my clever friend Kayley) how many of us hardly ever give in a way that really costs us something. We live in a world that seats on the “heroes stage of generosity” the rich and famous who give enormous amounts of money without having to adjust their lifestyle or sacrifice anything of significance (or be transparent about the means in which they have acquired their wealth). We live in a world that has forgotten about the gogo who spend her whole pension on sustaining her grandkids or the daughter who lives in the city and sends money home every month, while her friends get to shop for clothes and buy cars. I know many people who give all the time – to their families, and people in their communities – not millions or even thousands, but relative to their income, hugely sacrificial amounts of money. Yet, the spotlight of honour for generosity never shines upon them. We live in a world where we expect others to be “as generous as we are” without realising that many of the people we are talking about are in fact way more generous than we have ever thought of being.

So, what is generosity? Despite the narratives of the world we live in, I am not convinced that generosity has much to do with the amount we are giving. Generosity is defined by the heart and the sacrifice involved in our giving.

Last week, a young boy living on the streets was standing outside a shop asking people to buy him items of food. I walked past him and stopped to make conversation. He asked me to buy him bread, milk and peanut butter. At that very moment a man handed him milk and bread without saying anything. So as per my “experiment”, I went into the store with the idea to get him a jar of peanut butter. Someone came into the shop telling me that the boy just told him that nobody has given him anything yet the whole day (even though he watched from the car as he was given the bread and milk).

I got the boy the peanut butter even though I knew he was lying and deceiving people. This was not the first time it had happened since I started the “experiment”. Giving with a cheerful heart when you know you are being deceived has been the most challenging giving I have had to do. Giving to the “undeserving” felt like a such an unwise thing to do. I was mocked and even scolded number of times for doing this during my “experiment”. How foolish I felt…

But it was this foolishness that defined Jesus’ giving, wasn’t it? He died for the sake of the world with no guarantees that we would be grateful, responsible stewards of what we received from him. Still he gave himself. Dorothy Day said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” And that is the foolish beauty of giving.

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Embracing Change…

I am not good with change. I get bored when things stay the same for too long. I take delight in innovation. I believe change is good for us. And yet I cannot say that I willingly embrace change.

So with rather significant changes in my work environment and a “big move” coming up at the end of this month (I hope to reveal more about this in future posts), I am feeling a little flustered these days and in need again (as always) of deeply connecting to the One who calls me His beloved child. One of my great allies in pursuing this connection is prolific author and humble priest, Henri Nouwen. I quote from his book, “Intimacy, Fecundity and Ecstacy”:

“For us to dare to live a life in which we continue to move out of the static places and take trusting steps in new directions – that is what faith is about. The Greek word for faith means to trust – to trust that the ground before you that you never walked on is safe ground, God’s ground, holy ground. 

Walk and don’t be afraid. Don’t want to have it all charted out for you. Let it happen. Let something new grow. That is the walk of faith – walking with the Lord, always walking away from the familiar places. “Leave your father, leave your mother, leave your brother, leave your sister. Follow me. I am the Lord of love.” And wherever there is love, fear will be wiped out. “Perfect love casts out all fear.”

You can go out and you will live. You will live eternally because Jesus is the Lord of life. That is the ecstasy. You can start participating in it every time you step out of your fear and out of the sameness. It doesn’t require big jumps, but simply small steps. 

Do you choose life? Or are you choosing death,that fearful place where you hang on to what you are most familiar with. Ecstatic living, real joy, is precisely connected with stepping onto unknown ground, trusting that you are in safe hands.”

What are you called to leave and step away from in small simple trusting steps in 2016? 

The Forgotten Act of Taking Off Our Shoes

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One of my favourite quotes of all times must be this one from Elizabeth Barret Browning:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

So often I feel the Spirit gently reminding me that I am sitting around plucking blackberries instead of taking off my shoes and noticing what God is doing around me. Anne Edwards, a fictional character in Maria Doria Russell’s Sparrow, says that when faced with the Divine, we often take refuge in the banal…”as though answering a cosmic multiple choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs or (c) recognise God?” In our awareness of what is happening around us, how often do we interpret events as emergencies or opportunities for entertainment or self-satisfaction, rather than the presence of God?

Last week in South Africa, we saw the rise of the #feesmustfall movement. And I wonder how many of responded to it as an emergency…”Oh my goodness, see what is happening with this country!”. How many of us responded to it as an opportunity for entertainment by sharing posts making fun of the whole situation, or responded to it by how it would benefit us…”I wonder if I could also claim back my university fees from way back in the 90’s…”? And how many of us saw Jesus in the midst of those crying out for justice and equality? How many of us noticed the Divine hovering above, amidst and in people to oppose that which is not right in our world…and energising imaginative dreams of what could be?

Let us as South Africans be a people who can take off their shoes and notice God in the blackberry bush.

The Forgotten Act of Faith-filled, Imaginative Living

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A morning devotional I read recently prompted the reader to “switch off the car radio while driving, look around and notice where things are not the way they are supposed to be. Then pray and ask the Lord what He would want to become a reality there.” To see the situation with God’s eyes – imagining what it would be like if His dream for the earth became a reality. As I left home that morning, I expected that I would probably see what I have seen so many times before – homeless people scratching in other people’s refuse bags for food and stuff to salvage (that certainly isn’t the ways things are supposed to be) or pollution or potholes. But this particular morning and less than a minute after I left home, I saw it. I noticed: high walls, electrified fences. Many of them. Everywhere.

Homes and streets are supposed to be places were we dwell. Nowadays it has become places where we hide, turn in upon ourselves, while we desperately search for other places to dwell in such as shopping malls and coffee shops and restaurants. No longer do we dwell and spend time in the ‘hood serving and living with our neighbours, we try to make a life and find enjoyment by joining the anonymous masses running on the same treadmill that keeps the monstrous wheel of consumerism and individualism going.

I listened to a sermon by Walter Brueggeman recently where he challenged Christians to imagine what life could be like if we had to shape our lives according to our faith, and not according to our fears. He said that societal structures are set up in a way that reinforces fear. And people who are afraid have no energy. We fear danger, we fear not belonging, we fear not having, we fear not being secure, we fear “our stuff” to be taken away from us – and how has that shaped our lives? High walls, electric fences. Our homes and neighbourhoods now resemble our fears, not our faith.

I have a memory of driving through Phoenix, (a residential area close to our own and one of the largest Indian communities in South Africa) and looking at the fences around their homes. It was quite clear that the majority of these fences were erected some time after the homes were built. And I wondered what life was like in Phoenix before the walls, before the fences. I could imagine neighbours chatting to each other from their gardens, the smell of curries in the air, kids playing cricket across neighbouring lawns. I started imagining what my (lack-of-)community / neighbourhood could look like if the way we lived was shaped by our faith and not by our fears. If we could really dwell again in our neighbourhoods…

I have a dream. I dream of buying a simple house with a big fence and a huge open porch. And when we move in we will invite all our friends and all the neighbours to come to our “break-down-the-high-wall-and-take-down-the-electric-fence” party. And as it goes down we will shout, “Hurray!”. And we will give people sandwiches and we open our arms in embrace and tell them that they are welcome. People are hungry for welcome*. And we will invite them to pop in and have coffee with us on the porch as we dream together. I imagine living boldly amidst crime in a violent society and vulnerably and openly in culture urging us to keep ourselves private and separate. I imagine planting herb gardens where neighbours and friends can help themselves; vegetables and fruits for beggars. those who are hungry and yes, the monkeys too.

I imagine a city where kids are safe to walk to school or a friend’s house. Where people cycle to work with a smile and wave at each other (rather than rush to work in their racing cars and glare/swear at each other). I imagine communal vegetable gardens and green areas becoming well maintained and safe again packed with picnicking families, playing kids and runners alike.

Our own wellness is locked up in the peace and wellness of our city. Eugene Peterson says that there is an indissoluble connection between geography and spirituality.

Let us dream again about life. Let us live again by faith.

Isaiah 58:12 (ESV):
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Let us be repairers of what is broken. Let us be restorers of streets and neighbourhoods and cities.

Holy Spirit living breath of God
Breathe new life into our souls and the places we inhabit**
Give us dreams and imaginative visions.
Give us faith for what we cannot see.
Give us boldness to break down walls.
Give us wisdom in bringing restoration.
Amen.

*Phrase from Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl

**Phrase adapted from Keith and Christy Getty’s song, Holy Spirit

The Forgotten Act of Listening

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My husband and I agreed at the beginning of the year that we would each the other to read one novel this year that we have enjoyed and felt was worth the read. I have asked him to read “Cry, the beloved country” by Alan Paton (which for the record, he still has to finish…ahem ahem). To his credit I had a hard time making up my mind which one to choose… He asked me to read “Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver which I have done (tap on the shoulder…). I enjoyed the book tremendously and can highly recommend it. It is brilliant. Without giving away too much of the plot, I want to explain a particular scene in the book that got me thinking…

The story is basically about a very driven single-tracked preacher who takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo in an attempt to evangelise a small rural village. He preached his heart out week after week, but failed to understand many of the cultural imperatives that were hindering him from having a transformative impact in the community. Some of his daughters befriended the villagers and learned from them how and why their father’s efforts had failed. For instance they learnt that nobody wanted to get baptised in the river, because a crocodile had recently devoured a member of the village who stepped into the river…Also the nuances of the language could lend itself to terrible misinterpretation..and mean quite the opposite of what it was intended to mean. She could have only learnt that by spending time with the villagers, befriending them and listening to what they were saying, and in that way learning from their experiences and cultural beliefs. It dawned on me then that the first act of evangelism for the preachers should have been listening…

Evangelism is having influence over someone’s life. In Christian belief we equate the correct application of this influence to love. In other words, we can deduce that the first act of love should be to listen. So that made me wonder, “How well are we doing with listening to the world?” “How well are we listening to the pain and the suffering around us?” Because, you see, to be truly listening (not the kind of listening we mostly do – pretending to listen, but in fact already thinking of a response…or even worse…something else we need to be doing), we need to be patient. We need to make time…But more than that, we need to be present. We need to be there with all of who we are… and listen.

I recently watched a video clip in which Stanley Hauerwas speaks about suffering and death and being with those who are dying. He says that we need to be present with those dying. Our prayers when we are with those dying should not be petitions trying to manipulate God into doing something for them. Our prayers should be acts of listening, because when we listen prayerfully, we make God present. We make God present to those who are dying, those in pain and those who are suffering. 

When we listen to those suffering and in pain in the world around us, not only do we make ourselves present to them, but we make them present in our lives…and more than that, we make God present in the situation.

I watched a Ted Talk by Julian Treasure recently about communication and how we can use our voices to communicate. He is a great steward of his voice and of communication! He ended the talk by asking some questions, including, “What would the world look like if we listened consciously?” He answered by saying that it would be a world where understanding would be the norm. I most definitely think that we can do with understanding each other a little better in this world!

So may our prayers be acts of  listening…and may our listening make us truly, vulnerably, powerfully present as we become praying, listening curators of God’s presence in the world.