Giving

The Good News of Re-gifting

Photo by  Lina Trochez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

Re-gifting has gotten a bad wrap (pun intended) for a while now. I know it is propaganda of the capitalist system that says that you should not give anything to anyone unless you bought it specifically for that person. As though the only possession that is worth giving to someone else are virgin dollars on a new gift. It is silly, but powerful on us. Many of us feel a sense of shame with re-gifting that we would never do it.

The irony is that there is Good News in re-gifting.

Christianity teaches that all things are from God and that humans are stewards of these gifts. We are stewards of money, stewards of natural resources, stewards of animals, and stewards of our sisters and brothers. All that we have is a gift.

As such, anything you give to another is a re-gift. The money you use to buy a “new gift” is a re-gift.

The Good News of re-gifting is that all of life is a gift. And in re-gifting we are reminded of that.

The eight degrees of charity

Maimonides was a 12th century Jewish teacher who is new to me but old hat for those who know anything about Judaism and philosophy. While he writes on a wide breath of topics, it is some of his writing on charity that stands out to me this time of year. It was brought to my attention on the podcast "Question of the Day" (trailer below).

Here are the eight degrees of charity that Maimonides puts forth. Just a note that each degree is "greater" than the preceding degree.

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor's identity, but the donor still doesn't know the specific identity of the recipient.

3. Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds, administered by responsible people are also in this category.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

What is interesting to me is degree number two. I have heard much of my time in church work that many people value giving in a way that they know what the money will be used for and they will not give or not give as much if they do not know what the money will be used for. That is to say that for our time it seems we do not value Maimonides' degree #2 as highly has he did.

Could it be that we are missing something in our persistent insistence in having the final say on where the money we donate goes? Could we it be that we are eroding away social Trust when we push aside the second degree for a "lesser" degree? 

It is better to give than to receive? Shenanigans.

6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? 9For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ 10But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
— Matthew 26:6-13

How can Jesus be a generous guy and then say it is okay for this woman to pour expensive oil on his head when it could have been sold and proceeds given to the poor? That does not sound very generous at all.

And yet this story may be one of the great stories of Jesus teaching about true generosity in any Gospel.

It is worth noting that generosity is often understood as when we give. We talk about being generous givers of which we generally are good at especially this time of year. But there is also the idea of being a generous receiver.

We tend to think that it is better to give than to receive, however it really is just as important to be able to give as it is to receive.

If we cannot receive something from another person, if we think we don’t need anything from anyone, if we are uncomfortable when someone gives us something and we don’t have anything to give back to them - then we are not very generous receivers.

Giving is an act of grace and receiving is an act of humility. It is humbling when someone gives us a gift is it not? We have been conditioned to think that we are not worthy of receiving gifts. We say things like, “I don’t need anything.” or “You really shouldn’t have.”

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We say things like this, I think, in part because we don’t want to feel that humbling feeling we have when we know that someone went out of their way, used their resources, in order to give us a gift to say, “I was thinking about you and I wanted to give this to you and say I love you.” It is humbling when someone looks you in the eyes and shows you that they love you.

In the story of the woman anointing Jesus we get Jesus teaching his disciples both how to give and receive generously.

First, when Jesus says “For you will always have the poor with you.” He is alluding to Deuteronomy 15 - specifically the verses where God commands the people how to give generously:

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour.8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’

 

When Jesus says, “For the poor will always be with you” he is using one line to invoke the entire teaching. It is like if I say, “she was a Good Samaritan”. If you know the parable of the Good Samaritan then you know what I mean. Through didactic teaching Jesus is articulating how to be a generous giver.

But like I said, it really is just as important to be able to give as it is to receive. And Jesus was a generous receiver.

Jesus does not turn the gift away. He does not say to the woman, “Hey, I am the Son of God, I don’t need anything.” or “You shouldn’t have. I did not get you anything.”

No.

Jesus recognizes that this woman went out of her way, used her resources, in order to give him a gift to say, “I was thinking about you and I wanted to give this to you and say I love you.”

It is humbling when someone looks you in the eyes and shows you that they love you.

Because it is just as important to be able to give as it is to receive.

 

 

Why most money talk makes the throw up

There is a lot of talk these days among the UMC circles that I move in and out of about the decline of money and membership among the UMC. I find myself in conversations with other clergy (old and young) and we swap stories about how to better raise money.

We share personal stories as well as little "tips" and "tricks" we have learned along the way. We attend training sessions to hear from experts on how we can raise more money for our ministry. We read books that articulate the best practices of asking people for money.

We pull from the world of business in some ways, but lately business models are beginning to meet some resistance. So we pull from other philanthropic organizations to hear how they do what they do. 

In all the conversation and commotion, I fear we in the UMC are loosing sight of something critical. And more money talk in the Church makes me throw up.

The Church is not a fundraising organization. We are not seeking to "break into the giving market". We are not in competition with other non-profits or great causes. There is not a scarcity of resources in our pews that we have to scrap and fight for every penny. (These are symptoms of a theology of scarcity, which is in direct contradiction to the theology of enough.)

We are not called to get more money or find more people to give. 

We are called to cultivate generosity in the world.  

I don't care about deploying the latest tricks to get people to give money. I am not interested in learning best practices on getting people to open their wallets. I am not interested in more money.

I am interested in cultivating generous hearts. Overflowing spirits. Abundant love. Faith in knowing there is enough to do what God is calling us to do.  

It is easy to get people to give money - read and hear from the experts. But just because we can get people to give money does not mean we have generous people. With all the knowledge and technology around us these days, it is easy to get people to give. It is far more difficult to foster the spiritual disciplines of generosity - hospitality, openness, flexibility, simplicity, etc.

So to all my UMC friends and leaders, I want to ask you: "How do you cultivate generosity?"