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.

Profile: Mennonite Central Committee

This Advent, we are profiling four organizations that we think deserve serious consideration for your holiday giving.   Surprisingly, it’s not all that easy to find a worthy cause.  I think all of us who have ever made a charitable donation have wondered if our money is being used effectively.  From the dollar we give to the homeless guy to the online contributions we send to big relief organizations after disaster, how do we know if the sacrifice of our hard-earned money really helps those who need it most?

This difficulty is compounded if we want to direct resources toward the nearly half the planet who live on less than $2 a day.  Most of us live too far from this reality to really tell if the money we give to some organization is impactful.

That’s why for nearly ten years, every time I meet an economic development professional who actually works on the field, I ask them about which organizations they most recommend.  Within the realm of Christian non-profits, the name that most frequently comes up is Mennonite Central Committee.  I know that my inquiries are purely anecdotal and from a fairly small sample size, but I’ve been impressed at the level of universal admiration I’ve heard from practitioners of other organizations.

MCC works in the all the usual fields of development: education, emergency relief, AIDS, clean water, fair trade, etc.  But they are best known for their excellence in rural, agricultural development, with their workers typically living in the countryside alongside local farmers.  Personally, I like their approach to spirituality. They are a very explicitly Christian organization, and seek to share their faith through their work, but it seems to me that they emphasize more the demonstration of their faith, as opposed to the “preach and go” style of many Christian groups.  They also emphasize peacemaking—a reflection of their Mennonite pacifism.

Among the general public, MCC is less well known—but that’s partly because they spend far less money on advertising and promotion than nearly all the other big organizations.   Again, this is a reflection of their Mennonite ethos.  I’ve rarely found an organizational commitment to simple living that matches MCC’s.  I like that also because I know that more of my money is making an impact.

MCC is one of the four organizations we are considering supporting as part of our  Just Giving Challenge.  The week before Christmas, the readers of this blog will vote on which one they liked best, and our donation will go there!

If you want to know more about the MCC, check out their 2010 annual report video here.

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #2

I love the Lord of the Rings story, especially the struggle of Frodo against the Ring of Power.  Frodo chooses to take the Ring to the place where it can be destroyed. But as soon as he does, the Ring starts fighting him.  It tries to take him over.  It desires to put him into harm’s way.  Frodo wrestles against the Ring all the way to the volcanic fires of Mount Doom where it could be unmade.  But when he gets there, he gives in to the temptation to wield the power of the Ring.  Like others before him, he fails to destroy the evil.

That is an incomplete analogy of Jesus’ own experience.  Starting from his birth on that first Christmas, Jesus took on the same selfish, corrupted, and damaged human nature that each of us has.  John said, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).  John could have said that the Word became soma (a body) or anthropos (a man); but he used the word sarx (flesh) to denote corrupted human nature – as Paul said, “Nothing good dwells in my flesh” (Romans 7:18).  From his birth, Jesus wrestled against his own human nature.  It tried to make him take the easy road, or embrace the selfish cravings, but Jesus refused; instead, Jesus struggled victoriously against his human nature.  He never sinned; instead, he forced his flesh to comply with the love of the Father at every moment.  Unlike Frodo and the Ring, Jesus couldn’t take it off his humanity; it was himself!  And unlike Frodo, Jesus had to die himself in order to finally vanquish the sinful human nature he had taken on.  Jesus succeeded where none of us could possibly go.  He defeated the sinful nature.  But he rose new in his resurrection, as a God-soaked, God-drenched human being – a new human being.  And Jesus is able to share the Spirit of his new humanity with us, to make us into the truly human people God has always wanted us to be.

That is the central truth about Jesus’ grace towards us.  In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul gives his ultimate rationale for Christians to give their money generously to the poor:

9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.

The entire arc of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are his “grace” – χαρις, strength.  Jesus “for your sake…became poor.”  That is, he became human.  But “through his poverty” he offers us what God values most:  the new and transformed human nature of Jesus, which is soaked through with God’s love.  In fact, sharing in Jesus’ new, God-soaked humanity by his Spirit makes us “rich.”  What does that make us?  The people God has always wanted us to become – the generous, sacrificial, loving, and strong people who bear His image into the world.

By the same grace of our Lord Jesus, we are called to struggle against our own selfishness and greed.  By his strength, we fight our own weakness.  By his victory, we fight our temptation.  By his grace, we resist our own ungraciousness.  By our giving by his Spirit, we show forth Jesus’ own self-giving.  We reveal the very Jesus who was rich and became poor…so that the poor might become rich indeed.  To whom will you let Jesus give through you this Christmas?

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #1

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  I love Advent because it always draws me back to my deepest spiritual longings.  It reaffirms in me the hope that we are not alone in a cold universe; it dares me to trust that through Jesus, God is not distant or disinterested, but is our Emmanuel—“God-with-us.”

Advent is also the season of giving, inviting us to share with others as freely as God did in sending His Son.  So for Advent 2010 we want to revisit this key theme.  Each of our four weekly Advent reflections will draw from II Corinthians 8-9,  the most extensive passage in the entire Bible on giving.  Here are a couple of key points of background which will help orient us to today’s reading:

  • Paul’s goal in II Corinthians 8-9 was to persuade the Christians in Corinth to contribute to his fundraising effort for the church in Jerusalem, which had been reduced to desperate poverty by a harsh famine.
  • Paul’s collection faced the disadvantage of deep cultural, racial, and language divisions between the believers in Jersualem and Corinth. Moreover, the givers and recipients were separated my more than three weeks’ travel time, and there was little chance of them ever meeting in person.
  • This means that when Paul wrote about “giving,” he was not talking about being generous with friends, family, congregations, or local communities, but about sharing money with distant Christians who were in great poverty.

So how did Paul begin his most extensive teaching on giving?  With grace!  He mentioned χαρις (grace) three times in his opening paragraph:

1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

What did Paul mean by this Greek word χαρις (grace)?  I think the best translation in English would be something like “God’s free gift of life-giving power.”  Each appearance of χαρις teaches us something about grace-fueled giving:

  • In verses 1-5 the financially strapped followers of Jesus in Macedonia were so excited about sharing with the poor in Jerusalem that they donated generously without even being asked.  χαρις made giving not a duty or obligation, but a joy.  They wanted it. χαρις gave them a power in their souls that made them deeply desire to live generously in ways that were totally outside their rational self-interest.
  • Then in the next two verses Paul urged the Corinthians to cultivate the χαρις that they had already received.  We can clearly see that χαρις is a spiritual power that can grow or expand—it can be brought to fullness or be done more excellently.

I would imagine that most of us have a little bit of both the Macedonians and the Corinthians in us.  Like the Macedonians, we can identify places in our hearts that deeply long to share with the poor–to really make a difference, even in the lives of people we’ve never met.  If so, you can bet you’ve recieved the χαρις of giving.  Nevertheless, like the Corinthians, we often need some encouragement from others to actually pull the trigger and give as generously as our hearts call us to.  This is especially true as we consider giving to people whose suffering happens in places far from the all-consuming vortex of our daily lives.

That’s why so I’m encouraged to see that many people of faith are making intentional, creative, effective charitable giving a bigger part of their Christmas traditions.  If you’d like some excellent ideas check out the Advent Conspiracy or our friends at Highrock Church.  And of course, we’d love it if you signed up for our Just Giving Challenge.  For us, it’s a fun, motivating, and even joyful way of growing in grace together this Advent. We’ll even donate $100 for the first 100 people who join us!

However you choose to celebrate Advent this year, may it truly be a season of χαρις and peace.