Book Review – The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing

Have you ever bought anything in an airport Duty-Free Store (DFS)?  I never have.  I’ve walked by plenty of them, wondering who purchases expensive cognac and cases of cigarettes to have them mailed home.  Now after reading this book, I know the answer: Japanese tourists during the 70’s and 80’s.

I would never have thought of DFS as a business opportunity, but Chuck Feeney did.  Together with a few partners, he built it from scratch into a company that sold for $6 billion.  Not many people can claim that feat.  But even more remarkably, he gave away over 99% of his wealth while still alive.  He lives a modest lifestyle, wearing a plastic watch, flying economy class, and not owning a house.  Who is this guy?  For most of his life, that was difficult to answer because he was so incredibly secretive.  DFS made its money by opening stores in airports where the bidding was done in secret.  To know a competitor’s bid would give you the power to outbid him by $1, and win the right to operate a storefront on prime real estate.  The book notes that Feeney got his start in secrecy in the US Air Force, working on coded radio transmissions.  But the way I read it, he was just a shrewd businessman.  While in the military, he got access to the travel logs of navy ships and used them to run a retail operation, taking orders to have goods sent home — a precursor to DFS.  Naturally his secret knowledge of the logs were critical to his business and kept competitors at bay, not to mention the authorities who would have stopped his access to that information.  Secretly skirting lax international tax laws was another core strategy for DFS.

His desire for secrecy and anonymity carried into his philanthropy as well.  Instead of having buildings named after himself, he didn’t even let grantees know who made the donation!  Naturally that made some people nervous, thinking they were getting laundered money.  So Feeney established The Atlantic Philanthropies and built a network of respected leaders who would vouch that the money was legitimate while keeping his privacy.

Many of us wonder and perhaps fantasize about what it would be like to be incredibly wealthy.  But Chuck Feeney lived it and saw the dangers face-to-face.  A rich friend of his lost a daughter to suicide.  And many others were in constant fear of kidnapping.  Even the good sides — the mansions, the yachts, and the parties — bored Chuck.  He thought it a terribly superficial way to live and retreated into his work, traveling constantly.  His wife thought differently and enjoyed the high-class lifestyle.  Unfortunately they divorced, and he gave her all of the mansions.

When the Iraq war started, tourism plummeted and brought down DFS revenues as well.  By then Feeney had secretly put most of his holdings in Atlantic Philanthopies which had made long-term giving pledges.  He became aware that a fluctuating revenue stream couldn’t support constant giving, so he decided to sell his share of DFS.  That created many complications, including bitter fights with his DFS partners, breaking life-long friendships.  In addition, his sale made public all of the details of his business and philanthropy, tearing away his valued privacy.  He decided to control the PR flow by offering an exclusive article for the New York Times, which eventually led to this book.

In his early years, Chuck would often help kids by paying for their summer camp or school tuitions.  He was known for taking kids in to live with his family on occasion.  Later on, through his foundation, Feeney helped Ireland by stabilizing its politics and investing in education.  The book profiled many of his other philanthropic projects, and his hands-on approach with gradually increasing grants.  But the best summary of his giving philosophy is found here:

In summary, Chuck Feeney made a lot of money because he was smart, hard-working, opportunistic, and had good partners.  He didn’t want to keep his money because it enjoyed making it more than holding it or spending it.  He didn’t want to be known for being rich.  He liked the ordinary lifestyle.  And he had a lifelong gift of helping the needy, particularly young people.

“You can only wear one pair of shoes” — Chuck Feeney

Compassion Renewal or Compassion Fatigue?

We’ve all seen it before—the pattern is always the same.  A natural disaster tragically devastates an already-poor country.  For a week it’s front page news. Politicians make speeches. Reporters flood the scene.  Governments promise aid.  People send money.

But then something happens. Reporters go home.  Governments send a fraction of the promised aid. “Compassion fatigue” sets in. People forget.

That’s why I’m encouraged to find that today, on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, so much media coverage is again being devoted to the continued suffering of the Haitian people.  The Economist, the New York Times, the BBC, and the Boston Globe, among others, all have written detailed updates on the stalled recovery of the US’s oldest neighbor.

For me, the grim message of these reports has been a call to move from compassion fatigue to compassion renewal.  Whenever any of us encounters stories of intractable suffering, we have two choices:

  • Surrender to the temptation to be overwhelmed, choose numbness, and subconsciously avoid such emotional disturbances in the future.
  • Choose hope, renew our compassion, and do our part, even if it is very small compared to the magnitude of the problem.

So why not join me in remembering our brothers and sisters in Haiti today, before you get up from your computer?  If you have a favorite charity, chances are they’re in Haiti.  If you’re not sure who to give to, just take my word for it and give through Partners in Health, who supplied the video above.  They’ve been renowned for their excellent work in Haiti for more than 20 years.

O Lord, we ask that you would give us a compassion as steady and generous as Yours. We pray that You would move Your Body to stand with our brothers and sisters in Haiti so that the justice and redemption of Your Kingdom might come to that devastated island.  Amen.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.    –Galatians 5:9

Think of the Children

One of the hard parts of doing effective social justice work is the balance between freedom and fairness.  This is most easily seen in the treatment of children.  In my last post, I alluded to different viewpoints of causes and blame for inequality.  But no one can blame infants for making poor choices.  Instead, what makes children poor is simply poor parents.  To remedy this, we would have to balance out wealth levels of the entire family, which brings us back to the question of fairness.  As a specific example, let’s say that a teenage girl makes an unwise choice and gets pregnant.  On one hand, you don’t want to reward her for that choice by making her better off.  On the other hand, you don’t want to penalize the child because he is not to blame.  The extreme-freedom solution is to do nothing and let them both live tough lives as a result of her choice.  The extreme-fairness solution is to take her child away and raise him in a boarding school with all children to make sure every child gets an equal opportunity.  As a logical extension, my child and your children must also be taken away from us to attend this boarding school, lest they be given any unfair advantages of living in a richer household.

The TV show Mad Men provides some more examples of the trade-off between freedom and fairness, with regards to children.  In one show you see a kid punished by being slapped in the face at a party.  No calls to Child Protective Services.  In another episode you notice kids crawling around the inside of a moving car.  Some readers might be old enough to remember that only a few decades ago, there were no car seat laws, and as a kid you could happily sleep stretched across the back seat.  Nowadays that’s illegal, and they continue to increase the age and height requirements.  Quoting from, “Currently, there is a major push to enact laws that require children to be in a booster seat until the age of 8 or 80 lbs.”  As a late grower, I’m pretty sure I was less than 80 lbs *in high school*…

So if taking children away from their parents reeks too much of government dystopia, and letting them suffer in poor homes seems heartless, what can we do?  I can think of two broad categories of help:

  • Child-based When kids are apart from their parents, there is an opportunity to help them directly.  Schools are the obvious venue, but there are also camps and organizations for tutoring and mentoring.  Christina recently profiled Tools for the Mind which aims at helping poor pre-schoolers catch up by learning emotional skills.
  • Family-based I know of organizations that help teenage moms, and ones that provide homeless families with temporary housing.  But I don’t have any direct experience with them, and I’m not sure what to do about recipient dignity and power dynamics.  Does anyone have more experience or thoughts with helping families, or do you recommend focusing on helping kids directly?

Different Ways of Giving

It’s close to the end of 2010, and time for New Year’s resolutions.  On the physical side, some of us might resolve to eat less and exercise more.  On the spiritual side, it might be to spend less and give more.  While you can set giving goals in terms of percentages and absolute amounts, I’d also like to encourage you to broaden your idea of what constitutes “giving.”

Giving money is great, but without a personal connection it can feel empty.  I believe there must be a personal connection for giving to be fulfilling.  One way to begin establishing such connections is to volunteer.  You can get to know both the organization and the people it helps.  And an organization can help defuse the potentially awkward power dynamics of giving money directly to people in need.

If you want direct deep person-to-person interactions in your volunteering, you might consider mentoring.  Big Brother and Big Sisters is probably the most well-known mentoring organization.  Or if you live in a community with these needs, or know people through work or church, you might do more informal mentoring.  Alternatively, consider the flip side by finding a mentor for yourself, a pastor or other respected leader who can help teach you how to live simply and give joyfully.

Maybe you feel the need to tell others and help propagate the message of economic discipleship.  We set up this blog as a space for people to comment and write posts.  Do you have any stories or thoughts to share?  We’d be happy to hear from you.  Or perhaps you’d like to advocate by leading a Giving Group in the area where you live.  Or maybe ask your pastor to preach on the subject in the coming months.  Or organize a charity benefit with your friends, which can both collect money and educate participants.

Finally, you might consider how your vocation fits into giving.  Many people who believe in the principles of economic discipleship find themselves in professions where they don’t make a lot of money but are able to help the needy directly.  If you’re in this category, great!  You’re giving your life already, and any financial giving is above and beyond.  If on the other hand, you find yourself in a profession where making money is the primary goal, you have a larger obligation to donate money.  “From those who are given much, much will be asked.”  The world needs donors as well as workers on the front lines.  Finally, you might find yourself in the fortunate position of being both a donor and a front-line worker.  Kudos to my friend Grace who is a doctor with 3 kids and still finds time to volunteer overseas.

In summary, I’d like you to consider giving in many ways as you make your New Year’s resolutions.  And if you think of other ones I haven’t listed, please leave a comment and let us know.  Happy New Year!

Just Giving Challenge: The results are in!

We’d like to thank everyone who participated in the 2010 Just Giving Challenge! It was our first experiment in using this blog to create space for giving together, in a sort of mini-online-community.   We’re grateful for the privilege of celebrating Jesus’ coming in a way that he would have wanted.

Whether you were able to participate this year or not, I think you might find the results interesting.

Impact by the numbers

Participants:  33

Matching Grant: $3300

Reported Giving: $8800

Total Impact: $12,100.00

Of the four organizations we profiled, Mennonite Central Committee was the winner!  They have received our Matching Grant of $3300.00, and we will be writing more about how those funds were used.

Impact in our hearts

Several participants wrote reflections on their experience.  Here’s a selection of their thoughts:

I was definitely more aware of what we spent this Christmas.  The following thought has mixed emotions:  If I spend more, I spend twice as much because I’m matching every dollar.  But it’s going to something I believe in, and, at the same time it is limiting my consumerism.  Since everything I spend costs twice as much, my instinct was “spend less”.  Wondering how this might lessen my consumer mindset if I did this year round – match every dollar I spent at a store (clothing, electronics, basically everything but a grocery store), at a restaurant, or on entertainment.  Also want to balance it by being a joyful giver.

Our family gave to an organization that provides clean water for villages without wells.  In front of the computer screen we placed two glasses of water: one clear and sparkling, one dirty and brown.  We watched a video on the impact of clean water and prayed for the recipients as we clicked the “Donate” button.  It was the most spiritual experience we’ve ever had involving a computer.

We were both struck by how simple it was to sit down by the computer, learn about these organizations, and donate. By contrast, this Christmas was so full of running around getting gifts for people and then returning unnecessary gifts from other people, that spending time thinking about this challenge was a welcomed respite.  Matching our Christmas giving seems like a great family tradition to have every year.

I did my usual end-of-year giving to organizations I support, but I also used the Advent season as an opportunity to reflect deliberately on how I use my material resources. I’ve been feeling distanced from my deeper beliefs about the issue, so I revisited old journal entries I wrote around ten years ago when things felt much clearer to me. On an intellectual level, I still completely agree with my younger self, and in terms of external manifestations little is different. But I have to admit that, on a gut or spiritual level, I don’t feel as convicted as I once did — the choices I make now feel more like a matter of habit than principle. Perhaps this mellowing is inevitable with time and age, but I find myself wondering if in fact I’ve sold-out or lost my way…

This Challenge allowed me to experience a deep joy in my holiday shopping and gave me a wonderful excuse to research new organizations that are doing God’s work in inaugurating His kingdom on Earth. I hope this Challenge returns for a second year!

Impact on others

We were amazed at the variety of different organizations to which people gave. People gave to 28 different NGOs, with only one being mentioned more than once.  Just a brief visit to these organizations’ websites is quite an education on the wide variety of creative work being done among the poor.  I encourage you to google just one that’s new to you!

  • Boston Project
  • Common Hope for Health
  • Compassion International
  • Edna Adan University Hospital (obstetric fistula work)
  • International Medical Corps
  • Joshua Fund
  • Kolkata City Mission
  • Lifewater International
  • Mennonite Central Committee
  • Mother’s Choice
  • My New Red Shoes
  • Project Muso Ladamunen
  • Room to Read
  • Samaritan’s Purse
  • Samasource
  • Shanghai Qing Cong Quan Autism School
  • Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village
  • Stop TB Partnership
  • Turkmenistan Youth & Civic Values Foundation
  • Umbrella Initiatives
  • Urban Promise Ministries, Camden NJ
  • Village Reach
  • Vipani
  • Voice of the Martyrs
  • World Vision

Motivated by Grief

After World War II, the U.S. set out to control much of the world’s wealth.  One of the chief architects of this order said, “[The U.S. has] about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”  (George Kennan, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948. Report by the Policy Planning Staff, Washington, DC: General Printing Office, 1976, pp 524-525.)  Thus began a subtle, new kind of Empire.  In 1953, the CIA helped organize a coup in Iran to overthrow a democratically elected president to ensure that Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would have access to oil fields.  The oil company renamed itself British Petroleum.  Intense anti-Western sentiment built in Iran as the CIA installed a dictator, the Shah of Iran.

The CIA opposed democracy and installed dictators in Guatemala in 1954, Hungary in 1956, Laos in 1957, Haiti in 1959, Ecuador and Congo in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1963, Indonesia in 1965, etc.  The list is depressingly long.  American business interests spread like a cancer over Latin America and Southeast Asia.

I give because I want to be generous, and because I want to express my grief in love.  “But that sounds like being motivated by guilt.”  No, I’m not motivated by guilt.  True guilt requires direct action to the people I directly hurt.  But in the political-economic context in which we live, neither the hurt nor the recompense is so direct.  So I give because the system is unfair and because I grieve it.  A good deal of the money we have was built on the suffering of other people.

Jesus called the rich ruler to give up all he had (Lk.18:18-30).  The ruler could not.  Then Jesus met Zaccheus (Lk.19:1-10), the filthy rich chief tax collector whose wealth flowed from the reality of Empire.  He sat at the top of a pyramid of lower ranking tax collectors; they got their wealth by collecting taxes for the oppressive Romans and skimming off of the Jewish people.  Zaccheus was able to give up his wealth.  Perhaps he was motivated by an appropriate guilt, to some degree, since he promised to give back four times the amount he had defrauded people; it was a direct action towards specific people he had wronged.  But perhaps he was also motivated by grief, since he also gave half his money to the poor, right off the bat.  Was he able to do so because he knew his money came from an unjust system?  Because he was already uncomfortable?  Was he already growing in his conviction that Empire was wrong?  Did a new identity with Jesus empower him to act on what was already gnawing on his conscience?

This kind of grief is one aspect of love.  “You were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!”  (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, grieve and mourn?  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, long for the comfort of the poor?

Profile: Tools of the Mind

This entry profiles the 4th of the 4 organizations to be considered in the Just Giving Challenge pooled donation.  Christina Jenq is a doctoral student in economics at the University of Chicago and attends Cityview Presbyterian Church. The views expressed in this entry do not necessarily reflect the views of University of Chicago faculty or Cityview Presbyterian Church.

On Human Capital

I believe that U.S. income inequality (as a proxy for the inequality of well-being in America) has its roots in the inequality of human capital development at young ages.

You may have noticed that I used the word human capital rather than education. What is human capital?

In economics,  “capital” is usually modeled as any stock of goods that can be used repeatedly in future periods to contribute to generating income future periods of time (in other words, it is durable). It is often categorized into physical capital (i.e. machines, computers, real estate) and human capital, which is anything a human possesses that can contribute to producing income repeatedly in future periods. Examples of human capital include computer programming skills, business skills, physical health, your social network, etc. Each of these examples can often be proxied by educational attainment.

Many nonprofits, including the ones promoted by this blog’s authors, are in the business of providing free or subsidized capital, whether physical or human, to the poor. For example, Samasource, which Ed Chang profiled, subsidizes training in programming skills (among other functions) for vulnerable workers in developing countries; and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) runs many projects that subsidize both physical and human capital.

In developed countries like the U.S., physical capital such as machines and electronic gadgets is in enough supply such that human capital has now become relatively scarcer.  This implies that investing in human capital will generally be a more effective means of fighting poverty in the U.S. than investing in physical capital; for example, I think that poor urban U.S. neighborhoods don’t need more laptops and cellphones (especially since they’ve become so cheap!), but more skills, education, and health. In fact, the test results coming out of international educational assessments tell a story of the U.S. falling far behind other developed and developing countries in critical thinking skills in language and math.

The Argument for Early Intervention

And if investing in forms of human capital like education and health is more effective, then what’s the best way of investing in human capital?  Experimental research from psychology, economics, and child development has pointed to the effectiveness of early childhood intervention relative to later intervention through the mechanism of nurturing socio-emotional skills.  (See this study, this study, and this study.)

Economics Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago argues that these results are consistent with a framework in which skills beget other skills, so that there is a “snowballing” effect in which the encouragement of learning skills early in life will have a greater lifetime impact than the encouragement of skills later on in life.  These skills are not just test-taking skills. There is a growing body of research showing that “non-cognitive” skills like perseverance and sociability are more predictive of health and income in adult life than IQ.  A website publicizing Heckman’s research features this chart:



Quite simply, the earlier one invests, the greater the impact per dollar.[1]

Therefore I believe one of the best ways to bring justice to America’s poor while fulfilling the biblical call to look out for the widows and orphans of society is to provide quality, cost-effective early childhood programs that nurture both learning and social skills to disadvantaged children at no or little cost to their families. Not only will this help children, it will also help their often over burdened parents.

Introducing Tools of the Mind

While there are several high quality early childhood programs that are both cost-effective with proven results (i.e. Nurse Family Partnership), I would like to profile a lesser-known early childhood program that has not yet generated too much publicity in the nonprofit donor world. (It has generated quite a lot of buzz in the educational world though.) It’s an innovative preschool program called Tools of the Mind  (read about it here and here) with an unconventional philosophy of teaching. Through a curriculum of individualized “dramatic play” and socially mediated learning, it focuses on developing what psychologists call “executive function” (defined as self control, working memory, and mental flexibility) to best prepare children for future learning. The research on their program (done in low-income school districts) has yielded results promising enough to be published in the prestigious journal Science.

I like Tools of the Mind not only because of its innovative approach to preschool education, but also because the program was developed with under-funded public school classrooms and disadvantaged minority children in mind. Their model is to send trainers and coaches to classrooms to train existing teachers in a public school system in the Tools of the Mind methods (No need to stir up anger with unionized teachers and such!) Further, they’ve developed curricula for Hispanic children, a fast-growing demographic, and consider themselves especially capable at working with special education children with a variety of learning disabilities. They’ve also developed a parenting curriculum to supplement the school curriculum.

And it’s cost-effective; while Montessori style methods cost about $7,000-$10,000 per child Tools of the Mind costs about $7000-$10,000 per classroom of 15 children.

I’ve met the co-founder Deborah Leong personally and seen enough examples of their classroom teaching methods to be convinced that this is a unique program with a fresh approach and perspective.  I hope you would take a closer look at this program, and please feel free to comment on this blog or contact me at christina [dot] jenq [at] gmail [dot] com if you have more questions.

[1] This does not mean that job and skill-training programs targeted towards older adolescents and adults have little impact and should not be funded; rather, the argument is that perhaps society needs to spend more money towards early childhood programs than it already does if one were to take into account the gains from quality early childhood programs.

Profile: Bread for the World

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.”
Leo Tolstoy

As you think about what organization to give to this season, consider this:  One of the best ways to help the poor around the world is for Americans to dismantle our own power.  Twenty billion of our tax dollars go to support mostly large agribusinesses.  In turn, they overproduce crops (watch the documentary King Corn) and then outprice Third World farmers in their own markets.  A legacy of the Great Depression when we wanted to help small farmers (which made sense then), farm subsidies now support huge farm companies (which doesn’t make sense now).  A Nov 2005 report says that 62 cents of every dollar that a U.S. farmer makes is funded by a government subsidy. In the last decade, recipients of the farm subsidies (in the five and six digits) included John Hancock Life Insurance Co., Chevron, banker David Rockefeller, basketball star Scottie Pippen, and former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay. Yes, these guys are “farmers.”

You would think that Democrats and Republicans would unite to get rid of these subsidies.  Democrats because they are for the poor and against corporate welfare, and Republicans because they are against government interference in the free market.  But those who benefit from the U.S. Farm Bill have been tenacious.

That’s one reason I support Bread for the World.  BTFW is a Christian political advocacy group whose goal is to end hunger.  They do excellent research and mobilization.  They help congregations and other groups write to their elected officials.  For example, Boston College’s Asian Christian Fellowship decided to do a letter writing campaign to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, asking him reform U.S. foreign aid policy so that it would be independent of U.S. military goals and truly attentive to the world’s poorest nations. And they take stands against the current U.S. Farm Bill, which will come up for a vote again in 2012.

BTFW also focuses on domestic poverty and hunger.  On Dec. 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law.  It reauthorizes funding for national child nutrition programs such as school lunches—the subject of BTFW’s advocacy during the last two years.

In many ways, giving towards political advocacy like BTFW is less “sexy” than giving to a charity or economic development organization doing direct service.  I’m less sure exactly how money is being spent.  I’m less sure whether the money I give is “making a difference.”  And yet, perhaps this is a reason to summon even more spiritual discipline (e.g. like giving in secret from Matthew 6:1 – 18) and Jesus’ love.  Let’s face it:  Sometimes we feel more powerful and “in control” when we give money to people “charitably”, even if we know we sit on the backs of those very people in the first place.

For more information, visit the BTFW website at  It’s a great resource with up to date statistics, policy analysis, and Bible studies on God’s command to care for the poor.

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #4

It’s one of the most socially awkward moments of the Christmas holiday:  you’ve just torn the wrapping off a totally lame gift. It’s a sweater you’d never wear, a book you’d never read, a useless gadget whose only destiny is to be re-gifted at a white elephant party.  Everyone is watching you. Can you muster up a believable “Thank you?” Can you look the giver in the eye and deliver a convincing “It’s just what I’ve always wanted?”

Now imagine this: you’re a middle-aged woman with four kids. Since you were a teenager you’ve spent six hours a day fetching water, trudging uphill on dusty sun-baked paths with a 50-pound jug on your head.  By the time you get home, you’re so thirsty you wish you could drink the whole jug yourself.  But today, because somebody you’ll never meet clicked a button in cyberspace, they’re drilling for a well right in the middle of the village. Fetching water will now take ten minutes.   The moment that water gushes up for the first time, your whole lifestyle is changed.  Thanksgiving and joy overflows in your heart, in tandem with the water now pouring out on the cracked earth.

I think that’s the kind of heartfelt thanksgiving that Paul said would accompany genuine giving to the poor in II Corinthians 8-9.  So far, he has told them that giving can be empowered by grace, shaped by Jesus’ own example, and motivated by equality and justice.  Now, as Paul closes his letter, he reminds them that the ultimate goal of their giving is praise and thanks to God himself:

Through [this collection for the poor], your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of gift-giving I can get excited about this Advent.  Can you remember the last time you gave a Christmas gift that literally caused someone to “overflow in many expressions of thanks to God?”

If you do decide to make a contribution to those who need it most this Saturday, let me encourage you to make it an integral part of your Christmas celebration.  Just as our family gathers around the tree to give gifts to each other, we will also gather around the computer as we give to the organization of our choice.  As we click the button, we’ll pray for those who are receiving our gift, and ask that God will be the One to get the glory and receive the thanks.

What are your ideas for including God’s poor in your Christmas celebration?


Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #3

Christmas is the season for giving. That’s why this Advent, we’ve been seeking to “prepare Him room” in our hearts by reflecting on II Corinthians 8-9, the most extensive passage in the entire Bible on giving.  As you may remember, in this letter Paul was urging followers of Jesus in Corinth to share financially with their impoverished brothers and sisters in faraway Jerusalem.  Paul was full of reasons for them to give. He first portrayed generous giving as something that overflows when we are touched by God’s empowering grace.  Then he reminded them that since we now share an entirely new humanity with Jesus himself, we have the power to identify with the poor just as Jesus did when He was born in a manger.

Now, in this third week of Advent, we encounter yet another motivation for genuine grace-full giving. In II Corinthinans 8:13-15, Paul writes,

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be ἰσότης (equality).  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is ἰσότης (equality), as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.

Paul here says that the goal of his collection was not merely charity but  ἰσότης (equality or fairness). God is a God who loves equality and justice. God hates it when some of his children have lots while others go hungry.  Therefore, like the miracle of manna in the desert (Exodus 16:13-17), the “miracle” of giving is that it can help to make right situations of inequality that do not reflect God’s desire of enough for all.

We should pause a moment to consider how astonishing this passage was.  The ramifications for us this Advent are challenging and exciting.  Paul was assuming that Christians should be concerned about all economic inequality within the family of God—even for those living halfway around the world.  In the words of one New Testament scholar,

It is difficult to imagine how such an assumption—so radical in the present situation of enormous disparities in wealth between Christian communities—could function in the contemporary church without being literally revolutionary.

So this Christmas, let’s not limit our generosity to a few friends and family members.   Let’s each do our small part to reflect the justice that Jesus came to bring by participating in our Redeemer’s revolution of ἰσότης in this world of inequality.  Now that’s not just giving–it’s Just Giving.