Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wisdom of Giving (April 17, 2011)

When I first joined my very first church as an adult, I knew that pledging was something every member was expected to do. I had grown up in a Unitarian Universalist church, and watched my parents pledge like clock work every year. As an older child I had even gotten my own little box of numbered envelopes to put my dollar in every week. But now that I was an adult I had a difficult question to answer. What was a responsible adult amount to give? I remembered that when I was young my parent’s church did a person to person canvas, which meant that someone would call them up, or even come visit, to talk to them about their pledge to the church. Now that I was an adult too, I wanted that conversation. I needed that conversation. I was afraid of that conversation. I wanted to be conscientious and do the right thing, but I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge.

The fear is that we will be asked to give more than we can give, whether it is to the church at Pledge time, to a loved one whose health is failing, or to a cause, like protecting the local water table from hydro-fracking chemicals. When we think about the poverty in the world, we almost instantly realize that we could give away everything we own and it would be barely a drop in the ocean. Sometimes I am afraid of being too stingy with both my money and time and love, and at the same time I am afraid of giving so much that I give myself away.

When I had been exposed to the rules in the Jewish and Christian scriptures as a teen-ager, I thought of them as an imposition on personal conscience and individual liberty. But after groping around how much to give, the idea of tithing started to seem somehow comforting and stable. Even the Hebrew scriptures, strict as they are some times, were not asking me to give away all my wealth, instead the book of Deuteronomy says [14:22] 22"You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year.” At the time the book of Deuteronomy was written they were talking about literally giving ten percent of your crops, but in recent centuries tithing has been understood in terms of annual income.

One of the 5 pillars of Islam is Zakāt - giving of 2.5% of one's possessions to charity each year. Zakat is expected of “every adult, mentally stable, free, and financially able Muslim, male and female.” The Muslim community also is responsible for making sure that these donations make their way to the folks who need it. It says in the Qur’an "The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and (for) the wayfarers; a duty imposed by Allah." (The Holy Qur'an 9:60). Islam offers a clear benchmark so observant Muslims can know when they have done their duty.

But you very rarely hear Unitarian Universalists talk about the biblical tithe, so how are we to know what is right and good? Well our UUA has created a “fare share giving guide” available on their website. It’s much less poetic than the Jewish or Islamic scriptural passages, but it generally ends up being between 2-7% of our adjusted gross income depending on how strongly you feel about this faith tradition. The first year I learned about this fair share guideline, I want to confess to you that it was a stretch for me to reach even that bottom rung—to contribute 2% of my family income to the church--but I also want to tell you that it felt great. It was a challenging but reasonable number, and it made me feel like I was supporting my church in a substantive way.

Then I head a colleague of mine explain, during a special fund drive, that he and his family had recently become tithers. Not just fare share givers, but tithers in the biblical sense. It blew my mind. Here he was, a young UU minister, still probably carrying his student loans from seminary, and he had committed himself to that ancient tradition of giving ten percent. Now I freely admit that this is still only a goal for me. But it is a goal. I challenge myself in good times and in bad to creep closer and closer to tithing myself.

Of course that dollar amount is higher in good times than in tight times, but we work hard to make sure that the percentage of our income that we give does not go down. I am encouraged in this by my favorite story about giving from the Christian Tradition. It is found in the Gospel of Luke:
[Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, 'Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.'
(Luke 21:1-4)

This story reassures me when I worry that my small contribution doesn’t matter. According to the words of Jesus- and he was a man of few words- my pennies, your pennies are precious and important, even when they seem ridiculously small next to whatever Bill and Melinda Gates have been up to recently. The value of a gift can be determined not by how many zeros are at the end of it, but by what it means to you the giver, like the gift of the Widow’s mite, or the how the squirrel got his stripes. The size of our generosity is measured by what is in our hearts, not by the size of the check.

Furthermore, all of the religions traditions we’ve mentioned today are clear that there are many important ways of giving that do not involve money. In addition to Zakāt in the Islamic tradition, which is a required giving, there is also the concept of Saddka which means "voluntary charity". Saddka describes any time we give freely out of compassion, friendship or generosity. Abu Hurairah ,who was a companion of the prophet Muhammad, reported that the prophet said, "Every day the sun rises, charity is due on every joint of a person. Administering justice between two people is a charity; and assisting a man to mount his beast, or helping him load his luggage on it is a charity; and a good word is a charity; and every step that you take (towards a mosque) for daily prayers is a charity; and removing harmful things from the road is a charity."

Jesus also spoke about what are often called “acts of mercy.” His disciple Matthew tells of a time when [Matthew 25], Jesus was talking to his followers about the day of judgment:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father… 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.

In this spirit we at the Athens UU Church enter into our pledge season, trying to lift up the great variety of gifts that we offer on another. Of course we need all our members and friends to make a pledge to the ongoing health of the church: we need to keep the heat and lights on. We need crayons and construction paper and books for our children’s program. Our congregation needs our financial support to build and grow. But that is not enough to sustain a beloved community. When we take a casserole to one of our members who is going through a rough time, when we celebrate a young person’s success at the science Olympiad, or when we visit a member recovering from surgery in the hospital, these are the gifts we give that make us a beloved community.

Think of the great diversity of gifts which are necessary to keep the heart of this congregation beating. We need the gifts of those who patiently wash our mugs after coffee hour. We need folks who balance the Church’s accounts. We need folks who can lead worship, and folks who understand plumbing. We need folks who know how we can help bring justice to our world and we need folks who listen compassionately when we are troubled or in pain. We need folks who will sleep in bunk-beds so our youth can play flashlight tag and go on a silent vigil for their coming of age. We could not be the beloved community we are without all our great diversity of gifts.

Finally I want to think for a moment about why we give. The passage from the gospel of Matthew we talked about before implies that we help our fellows because on Judgment day we want to be found worthy, to sit at the right hand. In the UU tradition, especially as we are informed by our Humanist roots, we are not usually motivated to give because we hope for a reward in a future life, whether that be a place in heaven, or a better life in reincarnation, so let’s turn to the Anguttara Nikaya, (the gradual collection of the discourses of the Buddha) which lists a total of eight motives for giving, in the order from lowest to highest:

1. one gives with annoyance, or as a way of offending the recipient, or with the idea of insulting him.
2. fear also can motivate a person to make an offering.
3. one gives in return for a favor done to oneself in the past.
4. one also may give with the hope of getting a similar favor for oneself in the future.
5. one gives because giving is considered good.
6. "I cook, they do not cook. It is not proper for me who cooks not to give to those who do not cook." Some give urged by such altruistic motives.
7. some give alms to gain a good reputation.
8. still others give alms to adorn and beautify the mind.

By giving without attachment to how our gift is used or how the favor might be returned some day, by giving unconditionally we cultivate generosity, we cultivate a beautiful mind. Generosity is thought, in all of these great religions, to be one of the best tools on the spiritual path; As Sri Swami Sivananda (A 20th century yogic master) writes:
“By daily doing such acts of kindness and sympathy…His hard egoistic heart is gradually softened. He cultivates cosmic love. His heart expands. He has a wider outlook on life. He tries to feel his oneness with all beings. He learns that he can be happy only by making others happy, by serving others, by helping others, by removing the sufferings of others and by sharing what he has with others.”
If you are, like me, someone who has struggled to know the best ways to share your gifts with the world, always wondering if it is enough, you are not alone. But giving is not just a fiscal question, it is a spiritual question and by struggling with it truly, we come closer to knowing our own hearts, and knowing what things are important in this life. We give our gifts not only because sharing makes the world a better place for ourselves and for others, but because it is a powerful path to spiritual growth. We Unitarian Universalists are called to give not because we are commanded to do so, nor because of some future reward, but because we know that cultivating a generous heart is its own reward.

(From Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim - one of the Six major collections of the hadith in Sunni Islam, oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad.)