Think of a church that is well known for its generosity to those in need, especially at Christmas. Would it surprise you to know that this church nearly tears itself apart each year in wrestling over how much to give to whom, and who gets to solicit for what gifts on which Sundays in December? The logistics of organizing Christmas appeals can overwhelm a church of any size. Therein lies the deeper questions.
What should we give?
To whom should we give?
How much should we give?
In what spirit should we give?
These are questions asked by church boards all the time. They are questions asked by church folk, too, especially at this time. How can you open up these questions in a way that acknowledges the complexity of giving and frees your board to talk and give well?
In a 1993 reflection on “the sweetness of charity,” Maya Angelou writes in part:
The New Testament informs the reader that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver. The size and substance of the gift should be important to the recipient, but not to the donor save that the best thing one can give is that which is appreciated. The giver is as enriched as is the recipient, and more important, that intangible but very real psychic force of good in the world is increased.
When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift
While our gifts and the recipients should be considered, our bounty, once decided upon, should be without concern, overflowing one minute and forgotten the next.
Recently I was asked to speak before a group of philanthropists and was astonished at their self-consciousness. The gathered donors give tens of millions of dollars annually to medical research, educational development, art support, and social reform. Yet to a person they seemed a little, just a little, ashamed of themselves. I pondered their behavior and realized that someone had told someone that not only was it degrading to accept charity but it was equally debasing to give it. And sad to say, someone had believed that statement. Hence, many preferred to have it known that they dispense philanthropy rather than charity.
I like charitable people and like to think of myself as charitable, as being of a generous heart and a giving nature—of being a friend indeed to anyone in need. Why, I pondered, did the benefactors not feel as I?
It is sad when people who give to the needy feel estranged from the objects of their generosity. They can take little, if any, relish from their acts of charity; therefore, are generous out of duty rather than delight.
If we change the way we think of charity, our personal lives will be richer and the larger world will be improved. When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed. “Charity . . . is kind; . . . envieth not; . . . vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.”
- Can you think of an example from your own life when your giving has ‘liberated your soul?’ What happened?
- Why might the givers Angelou describes feel self-conscious and even ashamed of themselves?
- Should our church presume that “someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action?” Should we accept the facelessness of the beneficiary and even embrace it, as Angelou does?
- How do we as a congregation feel about our giving?
The most challenging text on giving (let’s face it, among many in the Bible) may be the encounter an unnamed woman had with Jesus at Simon’s house near the very end of the Mark’s Gospel.
Mark 14:3-9 (NRSV):
3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[b] as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,[c] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news[d] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
- What is the best case you can make for the woman’s action?
- What is the best case you can make against what the woman does?
- How are we to understand the “poor you always have with you” line, since we can safely assume from the whole of Jesus’ ministry he didn’t mean for us to overlook those in need?
- How instrumental – or effective – does a gift need to be?