During my time in India a few years ago I spent the majority of my time in the poorest neighborhoods I could find. As it turns out, these neighborhoods were among the poorest, not only within India, but the entire world. Truthfully I don’t know if I have ever seen poverty like I did that summer. In the states there are certainly some pretty horrific scenes of paucity but in most circumstances an individual could drive thirty minutes and the scenery would change. When we arrived in India I stared silently out the window of our bus for a little over four hours – the scene of heartache and famine unchanging before me. It was almost too much to take in. Or even cope with, for that matter. I didn’t speak much to anyone that day.
Later in this trip my travels brought to one particular village that was indescribably destitute. It was requested that I meet with one local family in their home. As I approached their abode, I realized that this space – intended to house a family of four – could not have been larger than 6’ x 8’ total. As we sat on the dirt floor I noticed the unstable metal walls propped against each other and an incomplete roof above us made of some collection of branches and material. I was having a hard time really coming to grips that this was their home – all of it.
As we chatted and shared stories, someone asked me in broken English, “Where are you from, sir?” When I responded that I was from the United States, the mother, with watery eyes grabbed my shoulder and said the words that have haunted me ever since.
“Oh my, America? We pray for you in America. We can’t imagine how difficult it must be to truly serve someone like Jesus in a place like America.”
Now, be honest. What would have your reaction been in this situation? As I looked around the room once again I thought to myself “You pray for me? How on Earth does that make sense?”
It took me months to realize how right this mother really was.
I’ve been wrestling a lot with some of the notions raised in my previous post regarding our “stuff” and the position it often takes in our lives, and I don’t think I’m done dissecting it all just yet.
In the passage I talked about (2 Corinthians 9:5-15), Paul changes the church in Corinth to a new mindset of Harvest Theology which means that we see our generosity not as an expense or even as an investment, but rather as sowing – because God sowed love, mercy, truth and forgiveness in us.
And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
Think about a hanging potted plant that didn’t have holes in the bottom to drain the water. What would happen? The plant would become water –logged and eventually die. The bodies of water that are the least safe to drink from are the ones that only take in water without an outlet to pass it along. Merely receiving eventually leads to decay.
The Proverbs talk about this principle a good deal. One such such passage reads:
24 One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. 25 A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed. – Proverbs 11:24-25
This is why the book of Acts says “it is more blessed to give than receive” and we are given stories like that of a poor widow who, in contrast to all the large gifts and donations, gives her very last two copper coins and Jesus says “this woman has put more in the treasury than anyone else today because she gave out of her poverty – all that she had” (paraphrased). This woman went all in. Are we that committed? If God were to call any one of us to that level of radical giving, how many of us would rationalize it away as impractical?
In verse 7 of 2 Corinthians 9 most of our Bibles will use the word “give” but this is a different word than the one commonly used for gifts. It is of the word koinonia which where we get our words “fellowship” and “sharing.” This is meant to be not simply a box we check or a chore we complete but a spirit of fellowship that we adopt. And notice that this act of giving comes after the decision is made to do so. It is not a flippant, circumstantial decision. It is premeditated and deliberate. We forgive because He first forgave us. We love because He first loved us. We extend mercy because He is merciful to us. And we give because we recognize the incredible GIFT that has been given to us!
In contrast to the one who gives grudgingly verse seven calls us to be cheerful in our giving. If you’re like me “cheerful” has always been a diluted church word for moderate happiness at best. But the truth is that the root of this word here is where we get our English word hilarious. Really? Hilarious? The level of cheerfulness that Paul is talking about here is that gut-busting, tear-evoking joy you get from laughing so hard your stomach hurts because, for him, he understands that there is no greater joy.
I’ll be honest, being the child that convinced his little brother to trade all of his dimes for my nickels because “my nickels were worth more since they were bigger”, it is difficult to imagine this level of joy in giving of my possessions. It almost seems counter-intuitive, actually.
But when a Christian starts to think of excuses for not giving, he automatically moves out of the sphere of grace giving. Grace never looks for a reason; it only looks for an opportunity.
In verse 13 and 14 of 2 Corinthians 9 we see that the generosity of the Corinthian church creates a greater joy all over the place. People praise God and are moved to pray as a result of their intentionality. Instead of complaining that their group didn’t get more they are rejoicing that other communities are able to be helped as well. Their joy is crossing cultural and linguistic barriers at an unbelievable speed
And this section ends a bit abruptly, as Paul often does, exactly where is began in chapter eight verse one – with grace.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! –2 Corinthians 9:15
The word “thanks” here is the word “charis” which means grace or favor. We are to bestow favor on God because His favors already rest on us. Then Paul coins the phrase “indescribable gift” which some commentators read as “wonder beyond description, unable to recount or tell fully.”
And this is really the thrust of what Paul is saying. So much so that he can’t stop himself from blurting it out here in a manner that almost doesn’t make sense. I don’t know if you’ve ever read 2 Corinthians, but as far as letters I’ve ever received in the mail – this is one massive correspondence. But even after the countless pages I’m sure he’s filled, Paul still concludes that this gift is utterly beyond words. His lexicon is exhausted and he still hasn’t yet begun to scratch the surface of the new life he’s found in Jesus. And for him, that is precisely why he lives the way he does. I can imagine him saying:
“You need this? Are you kidding me? It’s yours! It’s only stuff. Physical, material, stuff. It seems ridiculous of me to exert any more energy worrying about these mere possessions when the truth of life has been revealed to me and my heart of stone has been replaced with a heart of flesh. I don’t want a single thing to distract me from what I know is the real deal.”
And it’s not a matter of simply being more concise with your giving either. Jesus has some hash words for those who were meticulous in this way:
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. – Luke 11:42
Giving that is God honoring is never from the wallet. It’s always from the heart.
So I would ask, “Is your seed still in the barn?”
And if so, what are you afraid of?
I believe that fear is the main component that keeps Christians from stepping out in faith to give.
Fear cannot be avoided, but it can be leveraged – replaced by another. For example fear of college is often replaced by the fear of not having a good financial future. Fear of dentists often outweighs the fear of losing your teeth.
The famous psychiatrist, Karl Menninger has stated that one sign of mental health is the ability to release money – give it away. Think about it- how many generous people do you know who exhibit mental instability?
What do you honestly fear most; not having enough, or not having God involved enough?
This is what I’m driving at. I think that if we’re really honest with ourselves, many of us are far more like the scared servant in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, who was so scared he might fail he, instead of investing like the two other servants, merely buried his coins in the ground and waited for the master to return. Fear called the shots in his life and how he viewed possessions.
I remember in 2006 I went on a glorious road trip with two of my best friends from college. We drove straight from Chicago to Seattle with nothing more than a song in our heart and a pocket full of dreams. Literally. We didn’t even have a car of our own to drive. For that, we borrowed another one of our best friend’s car while he was out of state being a superhero.
Not only was I going to be traveling through some of the most beautiful landscape this country has to offer with two dear friends to a city I had always wanted to visit – but I had also made the decision to kick it old-school and shoot in black and white film for the first time in years. Armed with my 30 year-old Pentax K1000 and 15 rolls of black and white film, I was one eager beaver.
The trip itself was hilarious and full of adventures that I will perhaps include in another post. But the important thing to note is that I spent almost the entirety of our time in Seattle taking pictures. I probably didn’t even spend as much time with my friends as I should have. I was completely engrossed with the notion of capturing such a unique city through the lens of a beat-up device older than I was. It was enthralling.
When we returned I didn’t have time to develop the film myself, so I went to a location that I knew still handled black and white processing. When I arrived, I pulled out my bag of film and inquired of the clerk, just to make sure. “Ya’ll still process black and white film, right?” He assured me that they indeed still did, so I dropped off the nine rolls I had and went on my way. When I returned a week later, I was greeted by a woman holding two handfuls of unraveled negatives. “Are you Ian?” she asked?
Now, my previous experience as a ruffian taught me to never answer honestly to a question like that, but I decided to risk it. “I am” I responded.
She said, “I have some bad news. The gentlemen you gave your film to didn’t know the difference between color processing and black and white processing.” She went on to say, “Color processing doesn’t merely damage black and white film – it erases it completely. We’re so sorry.”
And just as I am envisioning what it would look like to hop the counter, find the kid I gave my film to, and initiate a Detroit-style party in there, she slides a piece of paper across the countertop and says “But here is a coupon for two free film developments and two rolls of film.”
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take everything within me to keep from shouting all sorts of socially unacceptable phrases, stealing a bag of trail mix, and sprinting out of this store. But instead, I grit my teeth, politely took the slip of paper, and walked out the door. The truth is, I was devastated.
I would imagine all of the shots I took, all of the incredible people I had met, and how beautifully each picture looked. I would fantasize about winning awards and accolades for mu unparalleled work. And then the reality of al that was lost would come crashing down on me again. It sounds dramatic in hindsight, but I felt utterly dismantled.
Years went by and I refused to take photos of anything, anywhere. Photos with film, at least. I was so gripped with anger and sadness at that situation that I literally let it cripple my desire and ability to be creative in that way.
I eventually put on my big-boy pants, got over it, and starting taking pictures again. About a year ago I found one of the little coupon for free film development that I was given four years prior. I suppose the word “found” is a bit misleading as I had kept it in the top drawer of my desk ever since. But I noticed it one day, was feeling particularly ambitious that day (despite my trip to the hospital the day before) and decided to mount my bicycle, ride the 11 miles to this house of broken hearts and finally redeem my now weathered and worn coupon. I was going to get what was mine.
I arrived a bit exhausted but feeling the mighty power of Thor in my hand as I walked through the massive automatic doors if this great castle of doom. Armed with my little green coupon and a couple rolls of film I made my way to the film-processing counter. But I could not find it. Anywhere.
After a quick analysis of my surroundings to make sure that I didn’t find myself in a Flight of the Navigator kind of situation, I eventually approached the woman behind the Customer Service desk.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Where is the film processing center?” She giggled quietly until she realized that I wasn’t joking and said, “Oh sir, we stopped processing film here months ago.” And that same feeling of defeat washed over me all over again. Only this time it was a bit more humiliating since I was wearing spandex shorts and covered in sweat. The mighty dragon defeated this oddly dressed knight once again.
You can imagine how dumb I felt staring at this dumb piece of paper in my hand as I walked subjugated out of this store. I’m sure it was a pitiful scene. I have to laugh even imagining it now.
But I allowed that fear to not only keep me from art that I loved to create for so many years but also from redeeming what I thought was rightfully mine. Like the terrified servant, I simply dug it into a hole. My stinginess robbed me of so many possibilities.
Which reminded me of a story I had read years earlier:
Amedeo Obici was born in 1876 in a small village near Venice, Italy. His widowed mother read him letters from his uncle in America, and Amedeo told everyone he was going to America one day. Everyone knew he was an exceptionally bright and enterprising child.
By the time he was 11 years old, his family had helped him save enough money for an immigrant’s ticket to America, and he set sail by himself.
One story says Amedeo had no money for food, so his mother gave him a bag of peanuts, which was all he had to eat for the 10-day trip across the ocean. In this land of opportunity, Amedeo, at 11 years of age, went to work as a bellhop and a helper at a fruit stand. He worked hard and saved his money as he had promised his mother.
Amedeo soon learned that Americans liked the peanuts he shared with them; but few, if any, were growing them here. So, he found a place to plant the handful of peanuts he had left. While his peanuts were growing, he saved enough money to buy a horse and wagon. When his peanut crop came in, he drove around calling himself “The Peanut Specialist” selling roasted peanuts.
By 1906 he had developed his own method of blanching and roasting peanuts and founded a little company called Planters Peanuts -headquartered in Suffolk, VA.
He became wealthy enough to send money to his family in Italy; and, years later, he gave to the city of Suffolk the Louise Obici Hospital named after his wife.
Now I’m not at all saying that if you are generous that God will make you monetarily rich beyond your wildest dreams. Not at all. That is a frial and faulty theology to say the very least. But I can’t help but think of the Matthew 6 passage where Jesus dismantles the logic of the worrier. “Look at the flowers of the field and the birds high above. Do you really think I care more about them than you? Stop allowing fear to paralyze your heart. I’m not interested in spiritual crutches, I want you to sprint with all that’s within you.”
What if hat reality penetrated our philosophy of generosity? What if you got up tomorrow and instead of thinking about making a living, you thought about giving?
“I am thinking about taking another job so we can support more missionaries, and oh yeah, we did have some money left over, so we’re gonna buy some food with it.”
Bill Graham once said:
“God has given us two hands, one to receive with, and the other to give with. We are not cisterns made for hoarding; we are channels made for sharing.”
And with power and authority, Jesus proclaims:
Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously. –Matthew 10:7-8
Is giving a passionate act of worship for you? Does it bring you joy?
I believe that God wants to draw you in on a journey where it brings you untold, immeasurable joy.
There are three kinds of giving: grudge giving, duty giving, and thanksgiving. Grudge giving says, “I have to”; duty giving says, “I ought to”; thanksgiving says, “I want to.” – Robert Rodenmeyer
Which are you?