Miltant Generosity

Last Tuesday's UPI column

So There I Was…

Walking down a sunny avenue in Central Africa. I was on my way to church, and I had escaped my handlers. Three weeks in country and confident of my directions, I had slipped out the gate of the compound before my driver had arrived to take me to worship. The gatekeeper shook his head at me as I left, but he did not have the power to stop me and no language to caution me. I knew I would be ratted out within minutes, but I thought I could get quite a ways before I was caught. I was wearing my third world Sunday finery, and put up my rainbow colored umbrella to protect me from the already hot sun. I had a little bag over my arm with just the basic necessities; my Kiswahili Bible, a cell phone, enough small change for a taxi, a little water and a Japanese fan for survival during the three hour service.

The day was fine. I greeted passersby with bright “bonjours.” This was in 2003 and there was still a shooting war going on in Burundi, the UN had pulled their people out, so there weren’t any women who looked like me walking about that town at liberty that day.

About half a kilometer from home the van driven by my host caught up with me.

“Peggy, why are you walking? I was on my way for you!”

“It is a beautiful morning my friend, and I know the way; I decided to stroll.”

“Please, get in and let me drive you.”

“Am I unsafe walking?”

“No, you are quite safe, I think.”

“Then, please, allow me to enjoy myself.”

“As you wish.”

And then my friend went one street over and discreetly followed me downtown.

As I neared the city center, I picked up the usual entourage of street children. They seemed more curious than hostile, and I greeted them and proceeded.

I arrived at church feeling quite triumphant. I entered the back of the bamboo sided sanctuary and noted that the Sunday School lesson was just finishing. I advanced quietly to the last empty pew, and sat down putting my bag next to my feet. I was at least forty pews from the door where I entered. A baby, just walking, came up to me from the next bench forward. I leaned forward to pick her up and then sat back on the bench. It was in that moment that I noticed that my bag was missing. I stood whirled and saw no one behind me in the church. Not trusting my own eyes, I looked about. It was gone. The babe’s mother asked me what I was looking for, and I told her. This started a genuine uproar. I was their invited guest and I had been robbed in the church. The men and boys ran into the street, the women searched all the nearby children. I tried to calm things down – but my hosts were truly shamed. I just felt stupid. It was later determined that a street child had crept into the church behind me and grabbed and evaporated in the manner that only a truly desperate urchin can do. I figured I had paid my tithe to the poor.

After church and the noon meal, there was much consternation back at the compound. The children in the family seemed especially angry, and made much talk about how those bad boys should be beaten. I was more uncomfortable by the hour. I asked the children to gather the household on the lawn. I went through my things and found a present for every member of the family. I found another copy of the gospel, and we had a reading on what Jesus said we should do when we are abused or taken advantage of. I gave out presents and said that the lesson for the day was for me. I had been a victim of theft, and I needed to remind myself that though people may steal your things that you cannot let them steal your spirit of generosity. And then I sent the children of the household out with a few francs each in their hands, and told them to give it without comment to the first homeless child they encountered in the road.

This was cheap and easy for me. A gesture, nothing more. But it was a lesson that I had learned from the many brave souls I have worked with as a trauma healer; people who have been victims of crimes as vicious and wicked as humankind can inflict - torture victims, victims of violent rape. I have noted who does well afterwards; in fact, many of these people thrive. The ones who thrive are the ones that practice the Spiritual Discipline of Generosity with a truly militant attitude. They refuse to lie down and die, they refuse to give up their hope, courage or generosity. They take back their own sense of self. They find a way to turn their tragedy into a blessing for someone else. They may seek justice, but they do not seek revenge. Sometimes those who have had the most taken from them sometimes seem to find the most to give. They save themselves by walking this path.

They are planetary heroes.

We live in a world that loves revenge, a world drunk on anger.

But those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus are supposed know a better way.

I wonder how the world would be different here in 2007 if in the fall of 2001, America had not only sought to apprehend a small group of terrorists, but had at the same time started a massive effort to make sure that every Muslim child on the planet had enough to eat for a season. What if we had responded with an outpouring of generosity, just to show ourselves that we could not be made afraid, be made miserly, be made smaller by being hurt. What if we had taken the path of militant generosity?

I wonder.

A lot.


This Week's UPI

God does not need your cash

So There I was...

On Saturday night, most of my childhood. Freshly scrubbed out of the tub, my Sunday school lesson book had no empty blanks. Sunday school came with homework back then. Mother was in the kitchen cranking off the church bulletins on the mimeograph machine – kachunk, kachunk, kachunk. Dad was in the living room ready to hand out weekly allowances to his progeny.

My allotment was one US dollar, and I got it whether I was naughty or nice – it was grace. But I received this allowance on Saturday evening for a specific purpose and in a specific form. I was given ten shiny dimes, after the candy store at the corner closed, when there was no other opportunity to spend my riches until Monday. I received it in dimes, not quarters, because my father believed in a ten percent tithe. That is off the gross not the net. When the basket came around the next morning it was expected that I would put in one of my dimes. We belonged to a church that preached tithing, but did not make it mandatory for membership or good standing, and I do not think that my dad checked up on us to see if we have put our tenth in, but he didn’t need to; he set us the example, and trusted us to follow his lead. He was a good leader.

When I was twelve I became apostate, I did not, of course, tell my parents this, but I did. And in protest I withheld from the church the tithe of my considerable babysitting revenues. I decided instead to send my small riches to a group that was saving baby harp seals in Nova Scotia. When I told my dad about this – the harp seals, not the apostasy; he was concerned, but asked only – is that what you think God would have you do? I told him that I thought that Jesus really loved the baby harp seals, and that yes, it was what I felt led to do. He accepted my decision.

I have been a religious and philanthropic donor for as long as I can remember. I believe in it. I believe it is good for the giver and good for the world. I believe in giving locally, nationally, and internationally.

I support my local church. My apostasy did not last into my twenties. This is where the ancient practice of tithing comes in. If you have ten families, and everybody gives ten percent off the gross, then the rabbi eats as well as the average member. This has worked for millennia, no reason to challenge it now. I happen to believe that for all their problems religious organizations have done more good than harm. If you sit in a pew you should support the work of that group or find another pew you can support. Hopefully they are doing more than dusting pews.

I believe in doing some giving in secret. After my father left this planet to pursue other interests, I discovered that he was giving regularly to many organizations, some of them I knew about, some of them I did not. There was a group on the north side of Chicago that helps male prostitutes; my dad was a regular and generous supporter of their work. I got a phone call from their director when I sent a last check and a note to them. He choked up on the phone talking to me, telling me about the notes of encouragement that my dad would send with his checks. He said to me “I can find other money, but where am I going to find those good words?” Yeah, me too.

I believe in doing some giving spontaneously. Mostly I like to know where my money is going. I like to see annual reports and I like to see low overhead costs. I like accountability. But sometimes, the Spirit just says “here, now” and I try and respond. I like to help the person in the grocery line in front of me when they cannot find that last buck they are looking for in the bottom of their purse. Nobody ever has to send an item back, if I am standing in the line behind them. Freaks people out – but it is a lot of fun.

But I have heard a lot of lousy preaching about giving in my life. A lot of shameless hooey. Let me debunk a bit of it.

Giving to the church is NOT the same as giving to God. This silly notion gets put out there all the time. I heard Saint Bono say once, “My God does not need your cash!” It is just so obviously true. God owns it all. Did before you came along and will after you are long gone. Because it tickles God’s cosmic fancy the Divine lets us push stuff around, but don’t kid yourself, God is not a beggar. People who tell you that giving to them or their organization is the same as giving to God have ego, or possibly blasphemy, issues going on. Shame on them.

From which follows the corollary. Giving does not make you acceptable to God. God finds you acceptable. Face it, God’s crazy about you – indulgent as all get out. This does not mean that God does not have issues with some of the stuff that you are doing, but you can’t fix that by writing a check.

Giving is not a get rich formula. Giving to that which purports to be or even is God's work does not force God to give to you. It doesn’t sway the Divine opinion of you in a way that makes God want to bless you. There is no magic here except this. When you give away some of your stuff you are freed from the slavery to stuff. You place your bet on the kindness of the universe. You trust. And that changes you and frees you from the terrible lie that says there is not enough to go around, and then you find that you have plenty. And you feel a lot richer. People who are not fearful and mistrustful are more productive.

Here are some things I have found to be true about giving.

It does not matter how much you have or how much you give. If you have ten dimes, you can part with one. It is good for you to part with one. It is good to develop the Spiritual Discipline of Generosity. It is good to start when you are young. It is good to start with your first job. It is good to revisit your giving when you have a change in fortunes. It is fun to split a windfall. It is especially important to give when you don’t feel like it, when it seems risky. It changes you, and you change your world.

My dad was never a wealthy man. He did not have a professional job or a college degree. We rented our home for most of my childhood. But he left his children a nice little bit, and when I took over his books at the very end, I discovered that he was giving 40% of his retirement income away. And that was off the gross, not the net.

Last week's UPI column

Jesus and Green Stamps

So There I was...

at the “Redemption Center.” My arms cradled the stack of eight by eight inch newsprint books, pages warped by the spit that glued the seemingly infinite number of tiny green paper squares.

Mother had despaired of ever finding the time to empty the kitchen drawer of the logjam of paper scraps acquired as a mercantile bonus at the grocery, gas station and department store. They were just slightly too valuable to toss, but rarely valuable enough to warrant the attention of my busy, creative mother. So she told me that if I did the pasting that I could benefit from the exchange. It took all of a Saturday afternoon, but in the end I had ten completed books of “S and H Green Stamps.” It was with those vast riches that I entered the land of redemption.

At that time any municipality worthy of the name had a “Redemption Center” where you could trade your books for goods. Honestly, I do not know how they covered the overhead. But in those magical places were rows and rows of shiny small home appliances, knick-knacks, sports equipment, baby supplies and toys. Things that middle class mothers desired, but could not fit into their everyday budget. A store where you could buy without money.

After an agonizing search, I walked out dragging a croquet set – fun for the whole family, and an act of altruism on my part.

But it must have been spring, near Easter, because I also remember sitting in church shortly thereafter trying to figure out what “Jesus, our Lord and Redeemer” had to do with Green Stamps.

Life can be perplexing for children in religious families.

This memory wafted up recently while I was sitting in church singing “I know that my redeemer lives,” my favorite Easter hymn.

I’ve been to seminary; I am perplexed at a much higher level than I was as a child. I know that Redeemer is a Hebrew word. It does not appear in what we call the New Testament. The word never comes out of the mouth of Jesus or off of the pen of Paul.

The statement “I know that my redeemer lives” comes instead from old father Job. The story of Job is considered to be one of the oldest stories in written human history. It is a story not just about suffering, but response to suffering – Job’s response and the crummy response of his “Who needs friends like these” friends. Job’s response is a stand of faith; faith in himself, in the God he is angry with, and in the scales of justice. He says, “I know that my redeemer lives and that I shall see him.” Job refuses to allow his friends to talk him out of his self-image of decency, and his belief in the decency of God, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The only named example we have in scripture of a functioning redeemer is in the story of Ruth. The redeemer is the good man Boaz. Naomi, a righteous widow and her daughter-in-law Ruth, have through no fault of their own, come upon very hard times. Boaz is a near kinsman with adequate resources, and thus by religious law has the right, responsibility and privilege to set things right. He does so, and has been remembered forever for his goodness.

It is for such a redeemer that Job hopes and waits. Job knows that his hope is beyond human resources, and eventually, God steps up.

I do not know who first made the connection and called Jesus Christ the redeemer. I have no argument with this. Christ, who by His birth became a near kinsman while keeping the resources of heaven, had and has the right, responsibility and privilege of redeeming a world that has fallen upon hard times. He said his mission was to bring good new, bind and heal wounds and set captives free.

But the teachings of Jesus Christ do make it clear that we are also to be redeemers. The Sermon on the Mount is all about using Heavenly resources to make things right in the world. That we are also to raise up and encourage the poor, protect the small, weak, and hurting, to set captives free. We are to be a blessing to this Earth not a curse – a force for justice. We understand that redemption comes through relationship, not through military might.

We are near kinsmen to the children of Darfur, the poor of the world, the abused, the mentally ill, the violent. We have the resources. We have the responsibility. We have the right. We have the example of the faith of Job, the actions of Boaz, the teachings of Christ.

The world is our redemption center.

Jesus Fire Dancer

So There I was...

…Enjoying the fire dancing. I am the pastor of a post-modern church, so my pastoral duties occasionally include things like fire dancing.

One of my folks invited me to come down to the riverfront park in our town and watch her spin about her head small flaming objects attached to chains. Some of her friends were dancing with sticks aflame at both ends, and the dancers were accompanied by a group of people banging on drums. All this was done after dark, of course, on this cool, early April, Easter Vigil.

It was all very tribal, very pre-Christian, or maybe post-Christian. The dancers moved to the beat we all heard, but also to melodies heard only by their spiritual ears. The fires made great “whooshy” sounds as they whizzed about, describing circles in the dark air as if some wizard was teaching geometry to an unseen class. The circles got big, the circles got small, ellipsis and figure eights appeared around the dancers heads, feet and sometimes between their legs. The attitude of the dancers seemed serene, reflective, in control. Occasionally flames from one dancer would interact with the flames of another. I saw flames lick at clothing and hair but no one ignited themselves.

All in all it was a great Holy Saturday activity. I am a Quaker and one of our testimonies is that every day is a holy day and that all activities can be sacramental, but we are free to participate an all that leads us towards God, and the Easter Story certainly does that. I have always had a fascination with the Saturday piece of the story, called by some the Harrowing of Hell. To harrow means to plow, or deeply disturb the earth; to disrupt the status quo.

It is clear that both the Apostles Peter and Paul believed that Christ was not inactive during the time between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. Sometimes He is pictured as a preacher, speaking the truth to the souls in Sheol.
Talk about a captive audience!

Sometimes he is pictured as a liberator bursting the gates of Hell open from the inside. Eastern Orthodox icons depict Hell as cold and empty with one or two chained demons and Jesus resurrected surrounded by former inmates. That’s a great picture.

Hell exists. A place separate from God must exist for free will to mean anything, but the door is open and the exit sign is clearly marked. It is the church that has rebuilt the gates of Hell and found useful the scare tactic of inescapable torment.

While sitting in the dark and cold, contemplating Holy Saturday and watching neo-pagan fire dancers, I received a new image of Jesus - Fire dancer. In my vision He shows up in the dark and cold of Hell and converses with the Adversary:

A: Welcome, Always knew you’d end up here.
JC: Thanks, I make it everywhere eventually, you know.
A: Really? I think your traveling days are over bud. Like the flames?
JC: Actually I do like the flames. Mind if I play a little?

He reaches down and picks up two handfuls of combustion and starts drawing circles in the air. A crowd appears. A drumbeat starts from somewhere deep. He steps lightly and playfully, showing his mastery, his serenity, His cool. The crowd starts dancing.

A: Cute tricks, been done before, but it’s going to get old.
JC: Anybody ever done this?
The circle of flame above his head expands explosively, and He hurls it towards the gates. Those evil old doors crack and fly outward, and Jesus the fire dancer leads a parade out, up and away.

News from my father's greenhouse

This Barrel cactus has bloomed for the first time since my father died in 2005.

This in spite of the fact that the extremely top heavy thing toppled out of its pot and bounced down a flight of stairs in 2006. (trust me - you don't want to try and reach out and catch it!)

Hi dad!