"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Thursday, December 30, 2004 On the House of Bishops and Deputies listserve, there has been a debate about whether America and Americans are generous or stingy -- a debate sparked by the fact that while we give the most money in foreign of any nation we give the smallest percentage of our GNP (0.13) of any of the wealthy nations of the world. And all this with the backdrop of the devastation in SE Asia.
And it got me thinking ...are we stingy? I really think the answer is yes ... and no ... and in many ways "wrong question." And that's where it's a tough question for us.
I've always considered myself a generous person. When I was in Ghana this past summer, I lived with an amazing guy, James Sarpei, who had founded an NGO that did great work - HIV/AIDS prevention, care for PLWHA, capacity building, etc -- and was always living hand-to-mouth. He has sunk all his own personal finances into the NGO, and still while I was there they were in danger of having their electricity cut off if a grant didn't come through.
One morning, a young man came to the house from the fishing village where James had grown up. His fishing net had been torn to shreds by some metal wreckage in the bay ... if he didn't get a new net his family faced starvation. James always brought me into these conversations because he knew that I needed to sit face to face with people like this in my wealth and in their poverty and wrestle with what to do.
So I'm sitting there, and I'm doing the mental math about how much I can afford to give him .. leaving enough money for my own expenses and to do the travel I wanted to do when my wife came over in a couple weeks. And while I wrestled with how much I could afford to give him, James walked over to the cigar box on his shelf where he kept the family's money, opened it, took the entire stack of bills inside, and handed it to the young man.
I was sent into a mental tailspin. I was at the same time amazed by what James had just done, embarrassed at what comparatively little I was prepared to do, and not sure what to do next. I ended up doubling what I had planned on giving -- more out of shame than anything else -- and that gave enough money to buy the net.
So ... was I stingy? Well, yes, there's no way to rationalize my way out of that one. But then I also know I have a generous heart. I know I give a lot of myself.
But here's what I learned. Yes, I am generous. But I am generous on MY terms. I am generous and giving when it doesn't push me to extreme sacrifice. I am generous and giving when I can still have enough left over to maintain my standard of living.
Here's the problem. Christ calls me to be generous on HIS terms. Christ calls me to love him more than anything ... more than my wealth, more than my standard of living ... more than everything. And in loving him, Christ calls me to trust him.
And that's what it's all about, really. It's not about generous or stingy ... it's about do we trust God, do we trust Christ. Before the baptismal covenant there's a series of three renunciations and three adhesions. The renunciations are about rejecting the forces of evil that draw us from the love of God, and the adhesions are about taking on Christ.
In those adhesions we pledge to turn to Christ and accept him as our savior, put our full trust in his grace and love, and follow and obey him as our Lord. That's the catch. It's that pesky "full trust" thing.
After the young man left, I asked James how he could give all that money when his NGO was in such bad shape. He said simply "it's what God would have me do." And you know, the grant came through, the lights stayed on and his own family still got fed.
I believe the American people are at the heart generous people. I believe we give greatly ... but like just about everything else, we do it on our own terms. Our poverty is not in generosity but in trust.
It's not an uncommon poverty. The first commandment is all about it. We make ourselves into our own God when we don't trust the one who creates, redeems and sustains us.
So those who say that we are stingy -- yeah, they're right ... there's no way around it. And those that say that we are generous -- well, they're right, too.
But I think that argument misses the point. What we need to work on, what we need to pray for, what we need to learn from our sisters and brothers of faith around the world is not about stinginess or generosity but about trust and discipleship.
For me as a Christian, that means when I get the ERD appeal in my inbox, I need to not think about how much I can afford to give ... I need to ask the question of Christ "what would you have me do?" And as I receive an answer ... and usually I know the right answer because it makes me really nervous ... to have the courage to say "I will, with God's help."
| Mike at 12/30/2004 06:35:00 PM
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."