Once again we find ourselves raising support, a process designed to terrify the most hardy souls. But it’s good, it really is, it’s so good! What follows is nothing new if you’ve read my book, but it’s a great reminder for me. (I find I need to preach the truth to myself time to time, don’t you?) So, to poach my own words from Thirty Thousand Days…
This is not prosperity theology, where if you love God and you pray, then prayer is a stick and God is a piñata and if you pray in faith Bentleys fall out of the sky and you get to drive the one of your favorite color. We’re learning this from a homeless guy named Jesus, who is exceedingly poor but also acknowledges that God the Father’s heart is to be generous and to give good gifts.
— Mark Driscoll
Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda starred in the 1994 movie, “It Could Happen to You,” the story of a down-on-her-luck waitress awarded a stingy tip: one-half of a lottery ticket. How amazed she was when the ticket won, and the cop who made a promise came back to give her half of the winnings. But the best part of the film is what the pair of them go on to do. Exuberantly, overflowing with amazement akin to the Prodigal Son’s, they hit the streets and begin giving their money away. The initial gift from policeman to waitress inspires dozens more gifts, from stranger to stranger, all given with infectious laughter and sweetness, none deserved.
It is more blessed to give than to receive. This too, the ability to give, is a gift from God, the very first we see in Genesis. God, as we are introduced to him for the first time, is uncontainable, lavish, joyful, creative, spontaneous, intimate, bursting with life, wit, and whim. From his fingertips spill star, Saturn, swordfish, platypus, hummingbird, cow, sunflower, live oak, seaweed, Adam. How much was required for a sustainable planet, and how much was just gravy?
God gives, gives freely, gives abundantly, teaches us abundance not by stockpiling the gifts but holding our hand to scatter them all loose in the world, regifting. To give is to spin wild in a circle, child in the father’s hands, fearless. Who fears to give when all is manna raining down, inexhaustible?
Seems to me our ability to give joyfully is closely tied to our understanding of who we are. If I see myself as one who’s scrimped and saved to rise up in the world, having worked hard for every penny I’ve earned, I am naturally going to hold on to those pennies pretty tightly. If I see myself as the child of the King, rich beyond measure, living for a little while as a commoner but on my way back to the castle, well, then I may not mind spending some of my pocket change to help someone else along the way. After all, I have an inheritance that will neither spoil nor fade, that no moth can gobble and no burglar can steal.
It is fun to give. Part of the joy of giving comes from the thankful joy of the recipients. Their joy is contagious, passing back to the giver, because, let’s be honest, receiving’s not so bad, either.
My husband and I have had the dubious privilege of living entirely on a missionary’s salary our whole married life, indeed, since before we were married. We began our lives together by spending two months in career missions training, then four months more raising support. From 1998-2005, we were on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru). It is one of the secrets of Cru’s enormous success that no one behemoth fund-raising machine is responsible for the salaries of the many thousands of people who serve in the organization. Instead, each staff member begins his or her career on the telephone, making hundreds of phone calls, dozens of personal appointments, logging countless miles to build a team of supporters who give and give and give again to keep the missionary going.
Raising support is a faith-building experience. I’ve often said that every Christian should do a stint of support-raising at least once in life. Here are a few of the benefits:
One. It becomes abundantly clear to missionaries that God is the supplier of every good thing in life. God puts it on the hearts of lonely widows to send in $10 a month. God puts it on the hearts of wealthy families to donate a car. Perhaps it is tough to remember that your paycheck is a gift of God when it has been issued by a corporation; it is not hard at all when it comes accompanied by letters expressing love and sacrifice. We have been the recipients of money saved up by elementary school children, cancer patients, and one billionaire we’ve never met. God has answered many desperate prayers when times were tight. Once, we didn’t have enough money to buy groceries. A friend appeared on the front porch with a bag of onions and beans. Dinner! Three times our car has died and been immediately replaced by the generosity of our supporters.
Our first home was a ramshackle hovel built 100 years earlier. It crouched in a seedy part of town, slowly disintegrating, before we bought it. The toilet had been leaking so long that when we ripped up the linoleum we discovered the floor rotted right through. How did we not crash to the basement? For a month, we had no toilet, and had to walk to the inner city office where we worked to go to the bathroom. Our front porch was literally falling off of the house. After we moved in, the insurance company announced they’d changed their minds about insuring us, due possibly to the porch, perhaps the crumbling foundation, maybe just the fear of the insurance agent as he drove through our neighborhood.
For a long time, I did not lose heart. We spent our date nights at Home Depot. We dreamed. But when our first son was on the way, my enthusiasm dampened a bit. How could I set a baby on that disgusting floor? We couldn’t seem to get rid of the mice. I began to pray, earnestly, for carpet. There was no money left for carpet; the money had gone to fix the toilet and the porch.
A Sunday school class in North Carolina heard about our house and sailed to the rescue. They raised $10,000, gathered a team of eager friends, and flew to Denver. Carpet was not on the agenda. They repaired our back fence, re-tiled our bathroom, painted the whole interior of the house. They brought in beautiful Spanish tile for the kitchen, donated by a contractor. They ate lunches with us on our sagging porch, laughed with us, prayed for us. They met one of our homeless friends, moved to tears when he played the guitar for them: “Shout to the Lord,” and “Amazing Grace.” And as they left, they handed us a check. For carpet, they said. They thought we might want some.
The generosity of others has taught us the exceeding value of generosity. Having received, how can we not freely give?
One of my heroes had an incredible perspective on God’s ownership of everything. His faith and his generosity were so hand-in-hand that he frequently determined to give away ridiculous amounts before he even saw a farthing of it. Over and over, George Müller saw God work monetary miracles on his behalf. Early in his ministry, Müller felt that God had called him to establish Sunday schools and provide Bibles for the poor. Already he opened his home to dozens of orphans for breakfast every day with barely enough money even to feed his own family. But this new endeavor would cost many times more than the money he had available. So Müller prayed, very specifically, for God to send him twenty pounds to purchase the first batch of Bibles to give away. The same evening, an unexpected knock on the door brought a stranger with an envelope.
“What’s this?” Müller asked, and the woman explained. God had put it on her heart and would not give her peace until she brought him this gift. “But what is it for?” he pursued. She shrugged, seeming baffled. Whatever Müller thought best? Bibles, perhaps? Without opening the envelope, Müller smiled to his wife. Unless he was mistaken, he would find twenty pounds within. He did.
Not only was George Müller a generous giver, full of faith, but God sent alongside him generous others who supplied the Müller family’s needs time and again. If God, the owner of everything, directed George to give his possessions away, George didn’t hesitate. God, owner of everything, was amply able to resupply him again.
Every good and perfect gift comes from God.
Two. It’s all grace. Living on full-time support makes you very aware of how you spend money. It is, after all, God’s money, given in the form of George and Hazel’s tithe. What kind of car should we buy? Well, what kind of car would Jesus drive? I have no idea. But I suspect he would be cautious about dropping a year’s salary lightly, especially if the choice is between luxury or feeding a town for a year.
And yet. Living on the good graces of other people also puts you in the glare of uncomfortable scrutiny. Is it OK to wear a fancy brand if you bought it at Goodwill? Is it all right to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant when you are weary and need to connect with your spouse? Is it better to save carefully for college and retirement so that we won’t have to come round, hat in hand, once again, or better to raise less support now and figure out these little bugaboos later?
I bring this up because part of giving generously is letting go of the gift. The gift is grace, unearned. Jesus didn’t choose me because of my excellent qualifications, nor do I reflect his heart when I give merit-based stipends. Whether I am giving lunch to a homeless person or part of my offering to a missions agency, I ought to give because the Holy Spirit told me to and let him use it however he wants to.
Likewise, part of living on grace is learning to set wise boundaries and reasonable budgets and let go of guilt. God gives and God takes away, blessed be his name. His gifts come with no strings attached.
And so, three. Living on support taught us to freely give.
There is a long-circulated story about a missionary overseas who received a box of used teabags in the mail. “We didn’t want to throw them away when we knew you’d be thankful for any tea at all,” said the givers. Really? Is that giving generously? Are these the acceptable extravagances for one in Christ’s service? Used tea bags, maybe a nibbled biscuit?
Giving generously, in the way that will add to your joy in life, means daydreaming before you give. What is the one gift that would make someone smile? How could I go a little further, dig a little deeper? What would delight my friend?
On a trip to Cameroon, in West Africa, my husband was greeted like a king. Everywhere he ventured, the impoverished villagers went all out to make him feel appreciated. Women would spend an entire day scraping out the meat of tiny seeds, mixing them with ground up fish –bones and all — and serving this delicacy with wide grins to the important foreigner at their table. We sophisticated Westerners do not know how to give.
What if you set out today to knock someone’s socks off, to bowl someone over? Would you crouch behind the bushes for a chance to see their face, all astonishment? Would you cherish the memory of the day you felt grace flow through you? What if you changed your giving strategy, relied less on formulas and percents and more on the Spirit, the sudden impulse of love? What if you did not automatically write a monthly check in one lump to your church, but split it around, joined the support team of a missionary or two, began to pray for them daily, began to share their joys and sorrows? What if you made a goal to flip your tithe upside down, to give 90% and live on 10? Would God provide for you? Doesn’t He now?
God himself models generosity on page after page in Scripture. Many of Jesus’ parables center on giving: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Unmerciful Servant, for example. He highlighted the giving patterns of widows and Pharisees, tax collectors and prostitutes. What was given varied from tangible, monetary gifts to service or love, grace, forgiveness, or mercy. But the heart of the Giver is always abundance. In James, we are told that God gives wisdom “generously to all, without reproach.” The gift (in this case, wisdom) is not contingent upon some quality of the recipient. Whether or not the person who asks for spare change is worthy, responsible, or respectable is beside the point. Jesus also makes this clear in the Sermon on the Mount: if someone asks for the shirt off your back, give them your coat, too.
We are too sophisticated to take Christ literally. We attend Christian Financial Principles workshops and learn the value of compounding interest. Our money, once set aside, is surely not the money Jesus would have us play around at giving away? We watch the 24-hour news outlets’ exposé of phony beggars and determine we won’t be taken in by a sob story. Get a job, we sneer at panhandlers.
But there is something magical about grace, the giving and the receiving of it. We fixate on the actual exchange of commodities, but the real story is deeper and more significant. When we give sacrificially, we echo the gospel again and again, retelling the story of One who gave everything to save a dirty, tattered human soul. Sometimes this might be evident at the moment of gift-giving, but more often, I think, that moment is just a catalyst for the real event of grace that happens in the heart in the hours and days to come. This is especially true if you give directly, not through a third party. Press your twenty dollar bill straight into a dirty and calloused hand, not into the bell-ringer’s bucket, and you will see what I mean. Maybe you will see the flash of surprise across a haggard face, the moment when, like Hagar, someone recognizes that God sees. Maybe not.
Have you read Les Misérables, or seen the play? When Monseigneur Bienvenu gives Jean Valjean not just the pile of silverware he has stolen, but the candlesticks, too, Jean Valjean simply gapes at him, too weary to react. Bienvenu did not have the luxury of seeing the transformation take place. It is only later, when Valjean wanders through the town in a fog of confusion, that he begins to understand what the old priest has done.
“Jean Valjean, my brother,” the Bishop had said, “you no longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you… I give it to God.” Valjean simply can’t comprehend this kind of gift — grace, when he deserved justice, kindness, when he’d extended hate. He staggers through the streets in a fog, wrestling with a lifetime of anger and darkness, resisting this unexpected love. In Victor Hugo’s original version, Valjean encounters a happy boy, Little Gervais, who had just unluckily dropped a 40 sous coin, and asks the miserable wretch to help him find it. Even after the old priest’s gift, Valjean, unrepentant, steals the child’s money. Only after the boy has gone, weeping, does the hardhearted criminal perceive the difference between his own actions and Bienvenu’s. His “heart burst,” Hugo says, “and he began to weep.”
As he wept, daylight penetrated more and more clearly into his soul; an extraordinary light; a light at once ravishing and terrible…. He examined his life, and it seemed horrible to him; his soul, and it seemed frightful to him. In the meantime a gentle light rested over this life and this soul. It seemed to him that he beheld Satan by the light of Paradise.
Grace is the mirror which shows our ugliness, and there, behind us in the glass, the reflection of Beauty gazing at us in compassion and love. We see how undeserving we are, and realize again that God’s gifts are completely unearned. We see Love.
Grace is a burglar that respects no locks. No sermon may sneak past a bolted heart, no lecture break down the gate, but grace is nimble with a hairpin, and before we know it, the lock is picked, hard hearts are melting, light is flooding in. Giving generously, graciously, we might just steal the captives from under the jail-keeper’s nose.
Giving generously is not an ethic you can work toward, it is a mentality that all is God’s; we are not meant to be a dammed pond but a conduit of grace.
We live simply; we give freely. While we are free to enjoy extravagances, the joy comes not from the pampering but from the taste of God’s grace, the reverberating hum, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” We can as easily find joy in a butterfly on the window sill as a Monet on the wall, as easily find entertainment sharing tacos with a few friends as buying tickets to a Broadway show. When the crazy gifts come, the key to the cabin, the time share in Cancún, we can be blown away, we can say thank you. When we have the opportunity to sell our old baseball card collection and purchase a cow for some starving village, we can be blown away again — I get to give grace!
We say thank you.
If this world were home, if this lifetime contained the only days we were given, it would make some sense to hoard our possessions. But the understanding that this is only the prelude to a life richer, fuller, forever, should free us to give generously while we are here. What do we have to lose? If your father is J.P. Morgan, you can spare a nickel. And your Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills! Give away a burger, there’s more coming.