Trinity Sunday, 2018
Dan West is known as the “voice of God” in his congregation. When a robust reading of scripture includes God’s voice, the congregation often calls on Dan’s resonant timbre. Dan is also the epitome of the gentle grandfather with a warm smile, hearty laugh and billowy, milky-white beard.
On this day Dan found himself in front of a daycare center with a sign that read: Naptime 1-2:30. Please do not ring the bell. Knock quietly. A couple of hours earlier, Dan had started meandering through the neighborhood with $500 in $20’s in his pocket. He was giving $20s away. He had $20 left.
A few months earlier, Dan’s downtown, struggling, church had received notice of the sale of a property it had invested in years earlier. They were to receive $1.6 million, double their annual budget. It was a fortuitous time. A month earlier church leadership had announced a $60,000 deficit. Operating expenses had been cut, and they were considering cutting staff hours. Prudence suggested the windfall should not be used to plug a hole in the budget or mask unsustainable aspirations.
Church leadership spent several weeks in discernment and discussion about the money. During that time a wild idea emerged, and hung on: Why not give some of the money away? Not just a token amount, but fully 10%, $160,000. It is not uncommon for churches to hear “The only time the church every contacts me is when they want money.” So what a surprising sign of grace it would show. Then the idea really got good. Why not give that first 10%, the first fruits, to the people of the congregation and ask them to do whatever they thought God wanted them to do with it?
As the idea coalesced, leadership began to see the exercise as a way of showing the congregation they trusted them to do good with the gifts they never sought or expected to receive. They saw it as a metaphor for God’s trusting humanity by placing the world into our hands in the first place. The exercise in tithing was a metaphor for what God does daily in each of our lives. We all have gifts far more valuable than money, and God asks us to us to do something good with them.
So, one Sunday in late September, every member of Dan’s church received a check for $500 and was encouraged to do something good with it. After weeks of reflecting, Dan felt compelled to give away his money in person, $20 at a time, with his own hands.
A middle-aged woman opened the door after Dan’s gentle knock. She had a spit-up stain on her shoulder, and her weary countenance suggested she needed a nap as much as the children in her care. Dan explained why he had come: “I thought maybe you would know of someone among the parents of these children who really needs it.”
“Nah. I don’t know nobody like that,” she responded as she began to close the door. Determined, Dan held out the $20, insisting he didn’t want anything in return, he wasn’t selling something, he just wanted the money to do some good.
What makes us suspicious of a grandfatherly figure who comes to the door offering money? Why does our fear radar activate, setting off warnings to be vigilant in the face of danger? When someone comes to the door offering $20, we presume he or she expects $20 worth of something in return. But Dan was peddling grace, and he expected nothing but the connection that grace creates.
Our longing for connection and relationship contrasts with the typical transactions of life. Think about it, most of the time we avoid establishing connections. Thanks to ATMs, self-service grocery check-out, banking by phone or APP, shopping on Amazon Smile (sign up for CPC!), we no longer need to know the person on the other end of a transaction. In homes and offices we communicate via text or email with people several feet away. Given the ease with which we can avoid interactions, it is easy to wonder if any attempt to live relationally is fighting a losing battle. But in the generous life, in the Jesus life, proximity and relationship matter.
The thing of it is, money itself has a distancing effect. To understand the subconscious role of money in our lives, psychologist Kathleen Vohs carried out experiments in which some participants were primed with the idea of money, and others were not. Participants were then given questionnaires. Upon completing the surveys, each was to set up two chairs, one for themselves and another for a second participant for a get-acquainted conversation.
Those primed with the brief, subconscious image of money placed their chairs more than one foot farther apart, almost 50% farther apart than unprimed participants. The point: exposure to the mere image of money distances us physically from others, without our conscious awareness. In each experiment, money-primed participants acted more independently than unprimed subjects.
The childcare worker who answered Dan’s gentle knock tried to close the door on him because her subconscious mind-set prevented her from seeing Dan for who he was – one beggar showing another where to find food.
Dan’s encounter reveals how the mention of money increases our likelihood to want to keep our distance from others. It also demonstrates an insidious assumption we make in the presence of money, someone wins and someone loses – a zero-sum approach.
Zero-sum games keep score like this: If our company gives year-end bonuses, we know that if the guy down the hall gets more, then we get less; high school seniors applying to college recognize that if a classmate wins a spot, they’re more likely to be on the losing end of the admissions lottery. Even children, breaking open a piñata at a birthday party realize that every piece of candy snatched by another preschooler, means one fewer treat for them.
Of course a part of us likes keeping score. We like to know where we stand. We like the concrete, definitive nature of wins and loses. We like setting targets for ourselves and for our lives. At the heart of it, we like keeping score because scores tell a story. And in the zero-sum world, the story features winners and losers. Haves and have nots. Us and them.
Keeping score is nothing new. Consider David, called a “man after God’s own heart.” When we first meet him he tends the family flock. Despite his humble beginnings he catapults into leadership with victories over Goliath and invading armies and becomes king of a united Israel. In the zero-sum world, David is a winner. He deserves to feel proud of how far he and his nation have come.
Yet in psalm after psalm, David sings God’s praises. He thanks God repeatedly and unabashedly for the graces and gifts he has received. David’s consistent message in every breath: “Not by my hand but by yours, Lord, have these blessings come.”
That is until David begins to wonder. In II Samuel 24, he tells his commander Joab to take a census of the people. David has a hunch he can tell an epic story with numbers. By keeping score he can document the story he believes the figures will tell: Your kingdom, David, is huge. Massive. Well done. After the counting is complete, David awakens to his hubris. “Stricken to the heart,” he pleads with God for forgiveness, acknowledging I let the story become about me.
Eric Larson was another member of Dan’s church. As he pondered how to do something good with his $500 he read a post from a missionary in Africa pleading for a woman named Ada. She had been abandoned by husband and family because a leg injury kept her from doing typical woman’s work. For 13-years she had travelled her country looking for various cures to no avail. Her exodus had led her to the town where Eric’s contact served. With the missionary’s help, Ada found medical treatment. The doctors determined that amputation was the sole option to save Ada’s life. The missionary appealed for donations to help with the cost of the surgery.
Eric reached out asking how much was needed for the operation. The response: $500. That got Eric’s attention and Ada received her amputation.
A month later Ada was recovered from the surgery. She spent much time with her new friends in the missionary community, sharing her story of grace. After 13-years of exile, Ada lived fully and happily.
But in the last two weeks of December, Ada’s health took a devastating turn. In early January she fell into a coma and died. When he heard the news, Eric wrote: “I felt like I failed because the funds didn’t buy a cure.” Because Eric works in a rehab hospital, he knew how long recovery would take. He envisioned what the rehab process would be like. He estimated when Ada would be healthy enough for a prosthetic leg. He imagined a future for her, including worthy work and perhaps a new or reunited family.
In his moment of feeling like a failure, Eric’s transactional framework prevailed. This was not a storybook ending: Ada lost her life. He lost a nobly desired outcome for her. He also felt he had lost face at church because other folks would come back with grand tales of the impacts of their $500.
Even when living generously, we are tempted to keep score.
Yet living generously has a bigger story. What looks like failure is recast. After some reflection, Eric saw tremendous victory in the final chapter. Ada might have died alone and desperate. Instead she died in a community of people whom she loved and who loved her back. Our transactional, zero-sum rules fall short when measuring what really counts, living generous lives.
Eric never met Ada, nor even the missionaries who helped her. Yet through giving, he had a fledgling connection that he wanted to nurture. Generosity brought close what was far off.
After Dan pleaded with the woman at the child-care center, she kept the door open. She listened to Dan, leaning in as he repeated his purpose. He only wanted to give the money to someone who could use it, and surely she knew a family in need. She hesitated. She paused. Silence filled the seconds.
Finally, she asked, “Could I keep it and use it myself?”
It wasn’t the response Dan expected. “Well, are you really the person who needs it most?” he asked.
“Yes, I believe I am,” she replied.
So Dan leaned in and put the $20 into her hands. She blessed him and called him an angel, saying she never thought she would see an angel. With tears in his eyes, Dan blessed her back and walked home with an empty pocket.
When givers interact, the ground rules change. A transaction becomes more than a simple exchange: the value gets amplified. We may be primed to keep score, but generosity brings us close and alters our perspective. As disciples of Jesus, Give Generously. Lean in and try it.