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Gauging Everything


    In a moment of rare impetuosity I showed my grandson the bottom line.

    Bottom line, as in a spreadsheet of personal finances.  I manage that record on a daily basis. I use the Excel program, three pages of it.  Among the items on the third page is a summary of anticipated monthly expenses.  My grandson's eyes alit on a number contained therein, our weekly contributions to church, any church, whatever church we happen to be attending.  Grandson's eyebrows raised in shock.  He didn't quite say it but I wouldn't be too far off the mark in suggesting that he calculated the amount headed to ecclesiastical bank accounts would go a long way toward paying for the lease of a Cadillac Escalade, a Detroit product he has been pushing on grandpa for the past several years.

    He tried to understand me.  He suggested I was generous in giving to the church because as a pastor I had to be.  Which is partly right.  There's always a tinge of self-serving even in our most gracious acts.  But mostly the tithe-plus is the consequence of taking Jesus at his word when he tells me, in a parable about the accounting at the end of it all, that "from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." 

    Granted, nothing specifically in these red letter words about giving to the church: Jesus summons us to generosity... in everything.  And had my grandson the time and the inclination to study my balance sheet, he could have identified other destinations for the largesse that has been provided us through and during fifty years of gainful employment and more than a few lucky breaks along the way.  Church may come first, but college, local charities, and music, music, music follow quickly after.

    I did spend those fifty years of labor attempting, among several impossible goals, to persuade other Christians to open their pocketbooks as wide as their hearts.  I was not hugely successful.  Most of us are one-talent souls who cling to that one talent for dear life, lest in giving it away we have nothing.  We just don't believe that the more we give the more we have.  Sure, there's a lot of pietistic nonsense about the miracle of giving; and, as one cynic noted about a particularly idealistic missionary couple trying to live on a pittance, that it's okay to believe "God will provide," as long as you understand that it's probably mom and dad through whom God will do the providing.  A little prudence must be mixed in with our sacrificial impulses.

    As Karl Barth observed about St. Francis of Assisi, who quite literally gave away everything he had again and again, that the poor man's saint was a better Christian than Christ. Barth said it, please understand, with a rich sense of irony.

    But such mitigating considerations do not trump the Lordly imperative to be generous... and to be generous to a fault.

    What prompts this essay is not only my grandson's curiosity about my finances.  A recent Sunday's sermon made it (almost) obligatory, that I write these thoughts for my posterity.  The preacher addressed the Gospel lection, Mark 8:27-38, in which Peter identifies Jesus as the messiah, and Jesus explains what it means: not palaces but crosses; self-giving not self-promotion.  Following the Galilean rabbi requires the acceptance of a radical agenda, which turns the standards of the world upside down.  Or as Jesus explains it to his disciples that evening they were fantasizing about the glory that would be theirs when his kingdom comes: "the greatest among you will be your servant."  The most stringent verse in that earlier Sunday lection reads: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Or, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's paraphrase of that verse in The Cost of Discipleship: "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." 

    For Bonhoeffer in his defiance of Naziism in the 1940's that sentiment was his reality.  He was hanged for participating in the plot to assassinate Hitler. For my grandson and me, however, it needs explaining. 

    First and foremost (and against an often romanticized perversion of the Gospel), Jesus is not in the business of recruiting martyrs.  His take on this mortal life is always and unrelentingly positive.  He features himself as the good shepherd who comes that we (all of us) might have life and have it abundantly.  He's the one who long ago taught us to celebrate children and women and anyone else the powers-that-be leave outside their circles of significance.  He's the one accused of being too fond of strong drink and ordinary conviviality.  His focus is on this life and the living of it, notwithstanding the contrary insistence of spiritually-minded souls.

    But the living of it to the fullest goes to those who give, not just the most, but everything.  Money is the easiest part.  Self-giving is the hard part.  Of course, it helps immensely to have something to give.  I mean your time, patience, a listening ear, and a determination to find some way, any way, to affirm the other... without being a liar. 

    Such a one will find, as the old man in our house has found, over and over again, that generosity breeds generosity.  Show me a giver and I'll show you a getter.  The preacher in Ecclesiastes (11:1) counsels us to cast our bread upon the waters and we will find it after many days.  One of Jack Paar's favorite raconteurs, Alexander King, preferred this paraphrase of that verse: "Cast your bread upon the waters and after many days it will return to you as Lorna Doones."  Wonder Bread begets shortbread, and one doesn't have to be a Scotsman to understand that's a good bargain.  In the bigger picture consider the fate of the fellow who inspired this essay, the one who gave everything, including his life blood, for you and me, up there on two crossed beams of wood.  In his self-emptying he gains the whole world, as the Apostle Paul hymns it in his Letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  

    Imagine, emptying oneself as the essence of self-fulfillment!  It's God's design for this mortal life.

    So, dear grandson, no Escalade, just the old Taurus and a crazy conviction about the necessity of giving... which someday, I pray, you will promote as passionately with your grandsons as I am with mine.    


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