We’re halfway there! So far we have talked about the meaning of life (meaningless, meaningless– or is it?), seeing eternally, wholeheartedness, walking with purpose, compassion, and generosity. Next on the docket, Hold Loosely. (Feel free to sing the 38 Special version if you grew up rollerskating to it.)
Last night we peered into chapter 5 of Ecclesiastes, which ends with this little pearl: “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”
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 training, then four months more raising support. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about our supporters as we look back on a year of gifts, receive daily extravagant offers of kindness. I have 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?
Two. 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. And 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?
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 river 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 Cancun, we can be blown away, we can say thank you. When we have the opportunity to sell our old paperbacks and unused appliances, purchase a cow for some starving village, we can be blown away again — I get to give grace!
So our daughter has been saving her pennies for Christmas gifts — a $2 rubber band ball for her brother (spot-on for the little inventor), a ballcap, perhaps, for dear old dad. She is too cute, so excited to give her hard-earned allowance for the thrill of making someone smile.
Nicholas 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. Even this, 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, 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?
We always struggle to reign in the holiday spending, but maybe just as important is to savor the giving, really pause and feel it, remembering God who freely gives, who freely gave — this is how I am loved! Extravagantly.