Learning to give

Over the years, I have received a lot of requests for help. People know a little bit of Christian theology and rightly turn to the church, and to those who work there, for help. Our scriptures give us plenty of reasons to help those who have need. Sometimes I helped people who might have had a good story, but less need than others. Sometimes I turned away those in need because I couldn’t figure out how to help them. People would come to the church in need of large amounts of money to make housing deposits or to pay fees to get utilities reconnected after service shut offs. I tried my best to keep up with community programs and our church participated in several ecumenical groups that provided a wide range of assistance to those in need, but real people “fall between the cracks.” There are legitimate reasons why people are not able to access services that are available. And the need seems to always be greater than the ability to respond.

Early in my career, I visited with some people who were on a big trip and ended up in our town without money for gas or lodging or food. I listened to their story of and unplanned trip to attend the funeral of a close family member, unexpected car repair expenses and other details that I don’t now remember. I helped them get a meal, a tank of gas and a single night in a local motel. The next day the owner of the motel called me complaining about the drunken party that had taken place in the motel and the damage to the room that had resulted. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t directly provided alcohol and the people didn’t appear to be drinking when I visited with them, but I didn’t have proof other than the story I was told. And, I later reasoned, addiction to alcohol is a serious condition over which they might not have had full control.

Regardless of that specific incident, I am sure that there were times when I offered assistance to those who didn’t have as much of a need as others who were turned away. I tried to be reasonable, but I had no way of checking out the stories I was told. Later I started telling folks that sometimes I pay for fiction. I buy books and pay for a good story, so why not make a gift in response to someone who has a very good story? I certainly don’t want to waste money that could go to help those with genuine need, but I had to be a steward not only of limited funds but also of limited time. I confess that there were times when I bought a meal or a tank of gas because it was the easiest thing to do at the time.

As a result of my experiences, I find it easy to see myself in the parable of the sheep and goats. There have been times when I have seen those who are hungry and have given food, but there are other times when I have seen hungry people and not responded. I’ve visited those in hospital or in prison, but not all of them. I’ve made judgements about my resources and could easily find myself in both the camp of the “sheep” and that of the “goats.”

As we were discussing Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite last night, I reminded others in our group that the widow wasn’t completely destitute even if she put the last of her cash in the offering. She was a widow and she was on the temple grounds. The commandments about helping widows are very clear. The temple was a place where she could get food to survive. Some of the support of the widows came directly from the offering that she and the others were making. That fact, however, in no way diminished the graciousness of her gift. She trusted the temple with her survival and went all in with her offering.

Two incidents in my decades as a pastor continue to stand out in my memory that illustrate to me some important truth about generosity and giving.

Once a man with whom I was familiar and whose family members I had met came to my office and asked for me. I had helped him on numerous occasions in the past and he knew that even if I didn’t help him, I would take time to listen to his story and try to direct him towards help. On this day there was something that he wanted or needed that cost $15. He asked me directly, “Can you give me $15?” I had invested a lot more than that in him previously and was getting tired of the constant requests and the sense that whatever I was doing wasn’t solving his problems or ending his need. I began to explain about the small amount of funds that I had available in the church to help others. I kept my honoraria and occasional donations from our church trust in a special account ear marked for helping those in need. The account was, as usual, depleted. I had already put money from my own funds into the account that month. I explained that the church didn’t have a way to make cash gifts. He listened patiently to my explanation and then said, “That isn’t what I asked. I asked if YOU could give me $15.” The answer was obvious to me. Of course I could. It changed the way I thought about helping others.

Another time, a woman with two children lingered after worship and eventually asked me if I could give her a ride to the bus station. She had spent the night in a women’s shelter and they had arranged for her to get a bus ticket to go to her sister’s town. The bus station was a couple of miles away and she had the two little ones. After asking her if she would consent to them riding in my car, I gave her a ride. On the way I asked her if she had food for the 15 hour bus ride. She said, she had nothing, but that if she got to the bus they would be OK. As I dropped her off, I gave her a $20 bill for food for her and the children on the trip. She asked me if I could wait in the car for a few minutes. I thought she wanted to make sure that her bus ticked would work. In a few minutes she returned to the car and handed me two one dollar bills. “That’s my tithe,” she said.

She had turned the tables. Instead of being the donor, I blame the recipient of a gift for the church. Quite frankly I felt unworthy of the gift she had offered, but at least I had the good sense to accept the gift and thank her.

Jesus had a sense about the widow’s generosity that he pointed out to those who would listen. She has made a precious gift. It should be honored and treasured and received with as much grace as it was given.

We don’t engage in charity to solve all of the problems of the world, but to engage in the sharing of God’s love. And that love is abundant. We won’t ever run out.