Lent: Giving Out, not just Giving Up

Lent isn’t just for Catholics anymore. It seems like every year I hear even self-described nonreligious friends musing about what to give up for Lent. Check out the 100 top choices people made last year according to their Twitter feeds.  It’s an interesting mix, from the sarcastic (“virginity” or “Christianity”) to the sublime (“smoking” or “negativity”).

The point of today’s Ash Wednesday post is not to add yet another suggestion to this list. I figure if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already considered what to give up this year. Instead I want to simply propose that Lent is not just about “giving up” but “giving out” too.  If you’re giving up Starbucks for Lent, why not calculate the amount you would have spent on your morning java and give that to the poor on Easter? If you’re giving up Facebook or Pinterest or ESPN.com, why not invest the time you would have spent surfing learning about poverty and injustice–and then give to the cause that most inspired you?

Best of all, why not supersize Lent by gathering a few friends together in order to “give up” and “give out” together? My favorite story of Lent-in-community remains my 8 friends  who one year “gave up” all drinks except tap water and creatively raised more than $40k to fund clean water wells in Haiti. This year they’re doing it again, except now they’re going for $100k!

My goals for Lent this year are more modest. Since we recently moved to a new city, we don’t yet have a small group of friends with whom we can grow in economic discipleship. Even though I blog and think and speak about this stuff all the time, I am not regularly gathering with anyone to support each other in living simply for the sake of giving generously. I’m in that stage of transition where I still don’t really have local friends I can go to a baseball game with, let alone talk about the challenging issues of living a just economic lifestyle. So this Lent, all I’m hoping for is to find a couple friends to form a Giving Group that meets 4 times a year.

If you’re doing any “giving out” this year, please comment! (And if you are doing a Lazarus at the Gate group, I’d especially love to hear about it.) I always find it very encouraging to hear what creative steps of faith groups of friends are taking. May you have a holy Ash Wednesday!

Effective Giving: Emmanuel Ministries Calcutta

One of the biggest obstacles to effective giving to the global poor is simply lack of data.  In traditional investing, even those of us who know nothing about finance have access to scores of mutual funds that pick the “best” stocks for us and package them in a portfolio that minimizes our risk. And of course there is always the most basic feedback loop of all: the bottom line. Your investments either go up or they go down.

But if your goal is make investments that reduce poverty for others, things are not quite so simple. In this case our data points are typically limited to what organizations tell us about themselves through their appeal letters, websites and marketing campaigns. There are few independent evaluators of organizations that tackle poverty to help us choose where to invest (givewell.org is one excellent exception—look for an upcoming blog post on them.) This lack of data is even more pronounced when it comes to social entrepreneurs who work within newer or smaller organizations—many of whom are doing exciting, effective work, as I wrote in my last post.

What we need much more of is a kind Rottentomatoes for relief and development organizations. So what follows is one Yelp-style review of an exciting organization we supported this Christmas.

I recently spent some time in Kolkata, India getting to know various organizations that work with the poorest of the poor. I was especially impressed with Emmanuel Ministries, which is right down the street from the headquarters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Founded in 1971 by social entrepreneurs Vijayan and Premila Pavamani, they work to empower street children, addicts, the unemployed, and slum dwellers, all of which you can read about on their website. Here’s why I was impressed by them:

  • As I talked to their leadership and staff, they all articulated a holistic approach to their work which integrated a deeply Christian worldview with a sophisticated grasp of recent scholarship in community organizing, vocational training, addiction recovery, etc.
  • Several acquaintances in InterVarsity and Word Made Flesh with experience in Kolkata spoke very highly of Emmanuel and their reputation in the community, as did leaders from local churches and other NGOs. They have worked successfully with organizations I respect like TEAR fund and Compassion International.
  • I was especially impressed by my visit to their Christian school, Calcutta Emmanuel School. Uniquely, its students come from among the poorest families in Kolkata, but the school has achieved India’s highest accreditation standards. The principal and other school leaders claim that nearly 100% of graduates go on to college. I talked to more than ten high school students and indeed, they all had detailed plans for their college careers.

If you have any knowledge of Emmanuel Ministries, please add your thoughts below.

Effective Giving: Social Entrepreneurs

The holidays are finally over. Yesterday Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) brought an end to the twelve days of Christmas. We decided to really go for it this year, giving little presents to our kids most every day of the mini-season. (Bonus: the stream of stuff really helped to alleviate school vacation boredom.)  But according to family tradition, on Christmas Day we gave not to each other but to Jesus, since it was His birthday. This year we chose to fund social entrepreneurs whose organizations serve the poorest of the poor, which we explained to the kids are just the kind of presents Jesus most wants (Matt 25:31-40).

Why social entrepreneurs? In recent years foundations and philanthropists have emphasized investing in promising local startup NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in order to help them scale up. Just as business entrepreneurs have changed the marketplace through innovation, social entrepreneurs around the world have combined their creativity, commitment, and knowledge of local culture to more effectively impact those who experience poverty and injustice in their communities. Perhaps the best introduction to this phenomenon is David Bornstein’s How to Change the World, which tells the stories of social entrepreneurs who tackled issues like electrification in rural Brazil, home-based AIDS care in South Africa, and empowerment of street children in Indian megacities. Many economists claim that local organizations are often more effective and efficient than bureaucratic government programs or bloated international agencies with offices in Geneva.

However, as is the case in for-profit investing, the problem is figuring out who to fund. India alone as over a million locally founded NGOs.  Until relatively recently, we’ve given primarily to large, established, international organizations simply because I don’t know how to find smaller, local NGOs that I’m confident are effective. But this year we found that the three organizations we’ve been most excited about supporting are all in the social entrepreneur category.  My next couple blog posts will profile them. I hope they serve as a mini-How to Change the World, helping us give more effectively in this new year.  How about you? Do you prefer giving to the Fortune 500 of poverty relief, or smaller start-ups? Why?

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?  What if the Son of God and His disciples were in charge of all your saving, spending, investing, and giving?  At first glance, the idea seems a bit silly, perhaps even disrespectful.  Jesus came to die for our sins, not dispense advice on mutual funds, right?

But actually, the New Testament turns out to contain an awful lot of financial insight.  In fact, Jesus and the apostles talked about it way more than other important ethical issues, such as sexuality.  Today I did little experiment to shed some light on what Jesus’ meta-message as our financial advisor would be.  First, building on several years of previous study, I decided to identify every passage in the New Testament that is directly relevant to the way we manage our money.  After a full morning’s work, I highlighted seventy-five passages (not including about 30 additional parallel texts).  Then I noted the basic theme of each text and put them all on an Excel spreadsheet.  Here’s a summary of the results:

As you can see, by far the most prominent theme in the New Testament is that our wealth is intended to be shared with the poor.  A close second was the idea, variously expressed, that money is somehow dangerous or at least distracting to our spiritual life.  Those themes make up more than TWO THIRDS of the New Testament’s teaching on money.  A final prominent theme is basically to not worry too much about money, because God will provide.

Surprisingly, less than eight percent of the relevant passages spoke about giving to support the pastor or the local church—which is the topic of the vast majority of “stewardship” sermons.  And there was almost nothing on budgeting, saving, or investing—topics that make up the vast majority of Christian financial stewardship books.

In summary, here’s what the two Great Commandments of Jesus’ financial advice look like to me:

  • You shall intentionally, generously, and regularly share your resources with the poor.
  • And a second is like it: you shall become free of consumerism and the need to find your identity in your possessions, instead trusting that God will provide what you actually need.

Now that is some weird financial advice.  You definitely won’t hear anything like that from Prudential or Charles Schwab.  For me, spending almost an entire day poring over these teachings really drove home just how radical and counter-cultural Jesus is, especially for those of us coming from a society that reveres material accumulation like no other in history.

But why not check out the Jesus’ advice for yourself?  I’d like to invite you to reflect personally on the wisdom in my spreadsheet.  If you just do about ten passages a day, it will only take a week.  And it just might be good news for your (financial) life.

Abstinence and Abundance

Funny Easter Ecard: Let's resume everything we gave up for Lent without any newfound spiritual insights.One month ago it was Lent. I was coming to the end of my commitment to drink only tap water for forty days. Now it is Eastertide, a time of rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection. And as part of the celebration, I can drink anything I want. Orange juice, cranberry juice, two-buck Chuck, Newcastle brown ale, soy milk—it’s all there, just waiting to be enjoyed.

In the past, I’ve been suspicious of giving up things for Lent because I feared that it didn’t really promote spiritual growth. Instead, it seemed to be  just a temporary exercise in giving up some sin, excess, vice, or bad habit—only to return to it with a vengeance after Easter. Christ is risen: pass the high fructose corn syrup! So now that we are on the other side of the resurrection, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my Lenten fast. After a month, was there any lasting spiritual value in completing the Simple Living Challenge?

Actually, at least for this month, I have seen some valuable benefits. I’m still much more conscious of those without clean water, and was inspired to do something about it. So far, the habit of turning to a glass of water when I’m thirsty still endures. I’m spending less on expensive and unhealthy drinks.

But most importantly, I think I gained a firmer grasp of the role of abstinence in cultivating a lifestyle of abundance. Here’s what I mean:  although am more content just drinking tap water, when I do decide to enjoy something else—like a simple glass of orange juice—it’s SO AWESOME! After 40 days of only water, when I take a swallow of that golden liquid with extra pulp, it tastes like the nectar of the gods.

About a month ago, another kind of “Lent” also came to an end for me. After almost three years in Central America, I moved back to my home state of California. Instead of being an immigrant in a country not my own, I am now surrounded by familiar friends, tranquil places to think and work, an abundance of wonderful food from all around the world, and (thanks to Amazon) any consumer good I could want delivered right to my door for about half of what it would cost in Costa Rica.

Before my time abroad, I took all this stuff for granted—it was just part of my birthright as a middle-class American. None of these things are especially luxurious by American standards. But now it feels like the tremendous wealth it is. Because of three years of abstinence, everything seems so abundant.

Yet I know that soon the wonder will wear off. After about the fifth time I eat a taco truck burrito or a Vietnamese sandwich, I’ll still enjoy it, but it will no longer seem like such a feast. The glories of being able to flush toilet paper will cease. Such novelties will wane, and the impulse to get MORE stuff and BETTER stuff will grow stronger. Contentment will fade and covetousness will follow.

Obviously, this is a familiar pattern: getting bored with what we have, and then wanting something better. We expect and need to be constantly “better off” as our life progresses. It seems to me that there are at least two possible responses to this phenomenon. The default is to take the well-travelled path of the American Dream, centering our lives around the pursuit of more, slowly strangulating our desire for the simple, generous lifestyle to which Jesus calls us.

But there is also another approach. We can allow our lives to be guided by the historic rhythms of the church, in which time undulates between seasons of feasting and fasting, abstinence and abundance, Lent and Easter. In this model, when we become bored of food or drink or cars or other stuff, instead of trading them in for something better, we fast from some of these things for a time, so when we return to them, it is with a new sense of appreciation and abundance. At least I think that’s what I appreciate about my recent experiences of Lent.  It seems trite to say it, but I now believe just a little bit more that true abundance is found in wanting what I have instead of getting what I want.

How about you? Anyone want to share the long-term impact of your Lenten practice?

Fasting and Feasting

My first date with my future wife was a group backpacking trip to Kings Canyon in California.   One of the highlights of that weekend—besides launching our marriage—was dinner the night we arrived.  We had hiked in 11 miles and had brought scarce snack food for the trail to minimize weight.  It had taken forever to set up the campsite. We were almost shaking with hunger by the time we got the fire going. So we got out our freeze-dried dinners, added some boiling water, waited two and a half minutes instead of the three you’re supposed to, and dived right in.  Sitting out there in the open air, gazing dreamily (but subtly) at Jodi, savoring every tongue-burning bite—it truly deserves to be called a feast.

About ten years later I was on a retreat at the the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Emery House in rural Massachusetts..  It was one of my infrequent experiences of fasting, and after a full day and night I dined with the monks.  We ate without speaking, only spoons scraping plates to break the silence.  It was corn from the farm next door, homemade bread, and squash soup, all prepared very simply.  As my food preferences generally lean toward the “massive carne asada  burrito with lots of hot sauce” kind of thing, I was not expecting anything spectacular.  But I was wrong.  The bright, fresh tastes, savored without distraction, were perhaps the purest joy I’ve experienced through food.

These are two of my most wonderful memories of eating.   It surprises me that they came to mind first because objectively they are not my favorite tastes.  In fact,  one time we had a leftover freeze-dried backpacking meal, so we ate it around the kitchen table just as an experiment. It was horrible. We couldn’t even finish it.  And to this day I still don’t like squash.  But both meals took place in the context of fasting, and I think they were unforgettable because my hunger made me so fully appreciate every nuance of the taste.

Right now I am two weeks into my Lenten commitment to drink only tap water, and I think I’m experiencing some of the same dynamic.  First, because I can’t have them, I’m appreciating much more the awesomeness of orange juice, tea, and cas (a kiwi-like fruit juice only available in Central America.)  I’ve noticed how often during the day I absent-mindedly go to the refrigerator for a little shot of liquid tastiness.  So I think I’m learning to really savor the privilege of access to such luxuries.  That big, cold glass of high pulp orange juice on Easter is going to be spectacular.  But I don’t want to underestimate plain old water either.  Despite all the shelves and shelves of manufactured thirst quenchers, it’s hard to beat the original.

So for me, I think this Lent’s Simple Living Challenge is deepening my sense of what God meant when he created water and fruit and tea leaves and said “It is good.”  When my life is just an all-you-can eat buffet or an unlimited refills large drink, I begin to experience diminishing returns in terms of taste and thankfulness.  I know that the rhythm of feast and fast that marks the traditional Christian calendar means more than just deeper appreciation of food and drink, but it certainly does not mean less.

How about you?  How’s your experience of fasting (tap water or otherwise) this Lent?

World Water Day

Every Tuesday in Lent we’re highlighting a different aspect of the global water crisis, so it’s very convenient that today is World Water Day.  (I wish I could say I planned that, but I can’t.)  Since the UN and every respectable NGO out there are doing their part to raise awareness, I thought I’d just post a few of the best links I found.  I’ve arranged them in a kind of Easy Ten Minute Guide to World Water Day.

Learn

 

Pray

from Sojourners:

In commemorating World Water Day, we pray especially for the millions who do not have access to clean water or who face regular water shortages. Millions of children die every year from preventable water-borne diseases, and it should not be so. On behalf of those who lack important resources, stir us to righteous anger and propel us to action, Lord. For your kingdom and for your glory, amen.

from the Ursuline order:

Creator God, whose Spirit moved over the face of the waters, who gathers the seas into their places and directs the courses of the rivers, who sends rain upon the earth that it should bring forth life; we praise you for the gift of water. We believe that water belongs to the earth and to all species. We believe that water must be conserved for all time. We believe that polluted water must be reclaimed.  We believe that water is a public trust to be guarded at all levels of government.  We believe that an adequate supply of clean water is a basic human right.  Create in us a sense of wonder and delight in this and all your gifts, that we might receive them with gratitude, care for them with love and generously share them with all your creatures, to the honour and glory of your holy name. Amen

from the WCC:

God of life, God of all those who walk miles for water, God of those whose only supply is contaminated, bringing death, not life: May water, clean and lifegiving, be available toevery living creature. May that vision move forward. May your will be done. Amen.


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