Tag Archives: giving

The Abundance of Self-Emptying

More, faster, richer, bigger. Go for the win. Those are the highest aspirations of our Western culture. It’s what drives a capitalist economy in which you and I are most valued, not for who we are, but for how much we buy and consume. And as consumers, we look for prosperity and happiness in the acquisition of material wealth.

That’s the reason why we Western Christians tap-dance around some of Jesus’ central teachings. When he talks about denying ourselves, losing our lives in this world, emptying ourselves, being content with being last and lowly, personally identifying with the marginalized, and bearing our cross, we have a very hard time even imaging what it would look like to embody those principles. I think some of us admire these qualities in the “super saints” we idealize (the St. Francis’s and Mother Theresa’s of the world), but we simply cannot fathom taking on these traits as our primal way of living. It turns out it’s much easier and less costly to idealize than to emulate.

That brings me to a Holy Week story from Jesus’ last days. He’s in the Temple courts with his disciples, and Luke tells it like this:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Luke 21:1-4

Let me just say right off the bat, preachers just love this passage. Oh my, do we love it. It’s a favorite go-to Bible story to turn to when we’re trying to fill up the offerings plates. Even if you’ve never sat through a “stewardship sermon”, I’m sure you can figure out how we preach from this passage.

“Now, everyone,” says the preacher, “if this poor, poor widow who had nothing else to live on could give her last two cents for the work of the Lord, then really now, what more could you give?”

After a final amen, the sermon is followed by the singing of “Take My Life and Let It Be” which contains this little gem: “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite [the widow’s mite!] would I withhold.”

Isn’t that brilliant?

You might be relieved to know that this typical approach glances off the more significant meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

Let’s look again at the timing of this story of the widow’s offering. Jesus is mere days away from his death. On that day, Jesus would demonstrate once and for all what it means to give up everything he had to live on. He gave away his entire life. Put the story of the widow’s offering in that context, and what more is he trying to say to us?

Jesus and his cross are teaching us a counterintuitive truth about life and abundance: self-emptying always leads to abundant life.

Let’s be clear, this is not abundant life the way our Western capitalist culture defines it. It’s far more profound than that. Abundant life is a pattern of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Abundant life is an intimate connection with all created things, subject to subject, enjoying it all for its own sake and inherent beauty. Abundant life is a life without ego, control needs, power-trips, self-centered wants, judgmentalism, and non-forgiveness.

The more we cling to things— to anything, really— as our private possession, the more separate we are from the rest of the world. We must then assume the stance of having things to protect, to compete for, and to differentiate from everyone else’s. It’s very difficult, it not impossible, to love unconditionally within protective, “me versus them” dynamics like these.

While shielded within our self-protective silos, giving of ourselves becomes a metered, tempered and calculated risk assessment based on merit and return instead of an ongoing, unlimited and abundantly gracious outpouring of our very best. Which of these modes do you think most resembles Christ?

Jesus was indiscriminate towards those whom he healed and gave to. He never turned away anyone (if you don’t believe me, look again), never judged anyone’s worthiness, and gave to each whether the recipient was grateful or not. The ultimate expression of this outpouring of unconditional graciousness was his death on the cross.

And just days before, an anonymous poor widow whose name we would never know, whom everyone would have missed save for Jesus, epitomized all of this in a humble act of giving.

So the rest comes down to our response. At every moment we face a choice. Will I consume and protect or will I let go and give? Will I live in full embrace and communion with all things, or will I fence off myself in the name of self-preservation? Will I judge or will I love? Will I live in the “system’s” false understanding of abundance or in Christ’s? Will I give life or withhold it (while losing it eventually anyway)?

Holy Week teaches us some invaluable, timeless human and divine truth about what it means to live, die, surrender, and thrive. We would do well to be students of the One who revealed himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), not merely as a religious precept, but as a total way of living and being. Then we will discover the abundance of self-emptying.

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Those Anonymous Gifts

Yesterday morning I came into my office to find an envelope on the floor that someone had slipped through under the door. It was a card that said, “To Our Pastor” with a moving quote from 2 Corinthians 3:3 and an inscription thanking me for my ministry and for sharing my life. There was also a gift card for a local restaurant inside, too.

This time of year is Pastor Appreciation Day/Week/Month. (Honestly, I’m not sure which! It’s whatever Hallmark says it is this year, I suppose.) Regardless of that, after a bruising couple of weeks, this thoughtful affirmation was a timely, gentle balm for a tired soul. Then I looked to see who the card was from so I’d know who to thank. No name. No recognizable handwriting.

At first I panicked a little. “Oh no,” I thought. “This person will have no way of knowing that I’ve received this gift and how grateful I am.” You know. That’s what we’ve been trained to do since we sat in diapers. When someone does something nice, you’re expected to say thank you and if at all possible, return the favor. If you don’t, well, that’s being rude and ungrateful.

This beautiful gift began to haunt me. How can I find out who the giver is so I can give my thanks and appreciation? Maybe I should say something publicly hoping the person would hear. No. Then people might think I’m clamoring for more of this kind of thing for Pastor Appreciation Day/Week/Month.

Oh well… It was time get myself going for worship services anyway. So I let the issue go, still grateful for the gift, even if I was bit uneasy about it.

This morning as I was reading, it occurred to me that the most valuable gifts are genuine gifts, no matter their size or material worth. Genuine gifts are given with no obligatory strings attached. The gift is given, and the recipient is free to respond and do with the gift as she pleases. The giver’s joy comes from dreaming up the gift, preparing the gift, and giving the gift… and that’s it. A grateful response or a good use of the gift from the recipient is nothing more than a bonus to add to the joy. But that’s it and nothing more than that.

Working with basically all volunteers and a staff who could get compensated a lot more working elsewhere, you can imagine I’ve learned how to say a lot of thank you’s. My gratefulness lets the church know that I value who they are and what they do. That’s especially crucial when I ask people to give and serve, often in sacrificial ways.

Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ve all known those people who make us cringe whenever they come around to give or serve. You know what they expect. They want to be thanked in a certain kind of way. Or they have specific outcomes in mind for their contributions.  And if you don’t follow through with the thanks they expect or use their gift as they wish, you’ll most definitely hear about it.

Those are not gifts. Those are forced loans with interest. I’m sorry, but I don’t need any more of those. Do you?

But how often do we plop down a loan with interest into the laps of our recipients while disguising these “gifts” as helpfulness and generosity? What do you expect when you give or do something for someone else?
Then another revelation came to mind: God is the one genuine Giver. Jesus once said,

[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

According to Jesus, God blesses and gives to everyone– to the evil and good, to the godly and ungodly, to the believer and unbeliever. Returning thanks and worship to God is not a condition for receiving gifts and blessings from God. It’s out of tender passion for the creatures he created that God gives to us, desiring us to share in his love and life. But that’s a far cry from the ways we often portray God in our own image: a God who stands there, arms folded with a cross look and furrowed brow, impatiently demanding our thanks, pondering when to cut us ungrateful children off. That’s not the God I know.

When I talk with my atheist or agnostic friends, once in a while I’ll venture to share how grateful to God I am for healing, peace and strength, for patiently loving family and friends, for the ways God comes through for my family and me time and again… and on and on. My atheist/agnostic friends wryly respond, “Well, I have all those things, too, and I didn’t need to ask or thank any god for it.” So true. Do you see how faithfully loving God is to all his children? God gives to his children who not even believe he exists no less than to me.

I suppose the difference for us believers is that in addition to the gifts, we have the joy of knowing Who to ultimately thank as the source of all our blessings and to feel the embrace of a divine welcome. In God, we have the model of true gift giving, of joyfully giving to others with no strings attached.

Obviously, the giver of that Sunday morning card is well on the way of being a God-like giver of gifts. And my soul is grateful.

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The Donor Who Became a Recipient

If life has a constant most of us could agree to, it’s the Forrest Gump Principle: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” How true. In my case, what began for me as an opportunity to be a live kidney donor quickly revolved into the humbling experience of becoming a recipient, not of an organ per se, but of other life-giving blessings, both spiritual and physical.

My realization of this revolution began with a conversation I had with Dave, my recipient’s husband, while I was still in the hospital recovering from kidney donation surgery. He and I were talking about the nature of serving versus being served. In my pain medication-induced mental state, I can’t recall how we got into that subject or how it resolved. But I do remember reflecting with Dave on my experiences with the story of Jesus from John 13 which tells how the Lord himself washed his disciples’ feet.
On several occasions, I’ve participated in foot-washing experiences on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week or during small group settings. It’s never a problem for me to wash someone else’s feet. Hey, if it means helping or blessing someone else, sure, I can do that. Sign me up anytime! Yet when it comes time to switch positions and place my feet into the hands of someone who will wash them… well… to be honest that’s a wholly different, and frankly, painfully uncomfortable thing to do. My gut reaction is to smile and discreetly wave it off, saying, “Please don’t bother yourself with that. I can manage for myself, thank you very much.”

But I have had to learn that sitting there while someone washes and dries my feet is a necessarily humiliating experience for me, much like it was for Jesus’ disciple Peter. It’s Jesus’ way of teaching this proudly self-sufficient alpha male that I must make room in my life for others to serve and give to me. It’s Jesus pushing me to realize that I am far more needy than I realize, and that for my soul’s sake, I must yield to the servant Christ within my sister or brother who would lovingly kneel to wash my feet.

Little would I know, the opportunity to relearn this figurative experience in real life began to happen the day after I came home from kidney donation surgery. On the afternoon of that next day, I started to get some serious GI rectal bleeding that cost me an immediate return trip to the hospital. (Side note: I won’t bore or gross you out with lots of medical details except to say that the bleeding stopped. After three major tests produced no conclusive results, I ended up back home with instructions to follow-up with my primary care doctor.) Yet those miserable five days back in the hospital shaped into a defining wilderness experience I never want to repeat, but whose lessons I hope to keep closely.

I had lost so much blood that I required two units of blood. Never having needed a blood transfusion before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that my condition was worse and even more life-threatening than I knew. As I laid there in the hospital bed gazing up at each bag of blood that was slowly draining into my body, it occurred to me that this was no manufactured IV fluid or medicine. This was created and then voluntarily taken out of someone else’s body, and now it was flowing into mine. Someone freely donated this blood and at that moment, it was saving my life.

For the next couple of hours I looked up at one unit of blood and then the other, trying to imagine the faces of those anonymous donors. Several nights later I had a strange dream about that very thing. In my dream the first unit was given by a stay-home mother of four who donates regularly to her local Red Cross donation center. Then I dreamed that the second unit was donated by an African-American man who happened to walk into a blood drive hosted by a local church. It doesn’t much matter to me how true the dream was. The dream painted a greater reality of both the diversity and the generosity of people who donate blood. Two people, each giving a pint of blood, saved my life.

If that wasn’t leveling enough, I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I experienced next. While I was in the hospital and every day since, my family and I have been bathed in a steady stream of prayers, cards, and meals. Folks have given expressions of concern and love over the phone, by e-mail, on Facebook, in good-old-fashioned hand-written notes. Occasionally, we’ve gotten warm, short visits from friends and family. We have been carried along by the hands, voices, and hearts of hundreds and hundreds of people. I’m not sure how to put into words how deeply moving all of this has been. (Even that last bit of dribble seems so hopelessly cliché!)

I even had agnostic and atheist friends tell me that they would pray for my recipient Ann and me, since they knew it would mean something to us. Spiritually speaking, it doesn’t get much more selfless than that, especially for people who don’t believe in a deity, much less any form of prayer. If only more of us believers could be so thoughtfully giving…

So, here I sit, pondering all of this, my feet being gently washed by countless people. I struggle to put into some kind of meaningful expression the impact of tables turning, of the donor who quickly became a recipient. All I can say is thank you. Thank you for breathing restorative life into me and for the profound lessons your gifts continually teach me. In you and in the giving of your very selves, I have seen the face of Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to offer his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Again, I offer my love and thanks to God and for God in you!

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