First Baptist Church Laurens
August 10, 2014
MJ Ryan, the author of the book The Giving Heart tells the story of a friend of his who had struggled with lupus for over 20 years. With each passing year, life became more and more difficult for her. Once a successful graphic artist, the combination of pain, medication and side effects had left her almost completely dependent on other people. As a result, it was easy for her to be down on herself and her life.
On day, however, she made an unexpected decision. She decided to go and begin to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. In spite of her limitations, she felt that this was something that she could do. The results were astounding. Beyond the positive impact that she had on others, her willingness to give, profoundly impacted her. Unexpectedly, she began to feel better — both physically and emotionally. Her arthritis didn’t seem to be as bad as it once was and she felt as though she had more energy than she had experienced in a long time. All of this progress, she attributed to her decision to find a way to take all of her focus off of herself by beginning to do something for others. (The Giving Heart, MJ Ryan, 2000)
Major universities have also discovered and written about similar benefits of generosity. Harvard, Cornell, Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and UNC Chapel Hill, just to name a few, have all published reports in recent years based on their own research showing that the more we give to others and the more we live beyond ourselves the better life is not only for those that we touch but the better life is for us too. According to the work of these schools, those who are generous are happier, have less stress, help build better working environments and have stronger marriages. In fact, according to a study from the University of Buffalo, those who are generous even live longer on average than those who are not. (7 Science Backed Reasons Why Generosity is Good for Your Health, The Huffington Post, 12.1.2013)
In a fascinating study from Harvard, students were asked to sit and watch a film about Mother Teresa and her care for the sick in Calcutta. According to the story, those observing the students in the aftermath of the film, were able to observe and to document positive change in those students just by their having watched someone else express a giving example. (The Giving Heart, MJ Ryan, 2000)
I say all of this to point out that what our verse from Proverbs for this morning pointed out long ago is very much in keeping with what science and research is documenting today. Living generously, being people who give freely and regularly is a key ingredient in our attempts to live and to experience the best life. Again, here is how our Proverb says it, “it is possible to give more freely and become more wealthy, but those who are stingy will loose everything.” (NLT)
At the same time, what I also want us to affirm this morning is that being generous people not only benefits us physically, emotionally and as a society, but, most importantly, generosity also benefits us spiritually in profound ways too.
How? Being generous benefits us directly as people of faith because it always keeps in front of us two incredible critical truths. On the one hand, generosity reminds us that what we have doesn’t start with us and on the other hand, generosity reminds us that we have should never end with us either. Allow me if you will, to dissect these two ideas for just a few moments.
First, being generous keeps in front of us the crucial truth that what we have doesn’t start with us. In other words, none of us are self-made. Despite what we may think and no matter what others have led us to believe, no matter how successful, smart of talented we might be, the good things that are ours in this life to enjoy are gifts from God — all of them — period. They are ours because of God’s grace not because of our hard work or ingenuity.
In turn, sharing what we have with others is a critical way in which we are reminded that our possessions, our time and our talents are not ours to horde but they are ours to share because they don’t really belong to us anyway. They are simply ours to enjoy, use and be good stewards of for the season that is our lives.
Last fall, as a staff, we enjoyed a set of tickets to Presbyterian College for the football season. There were two tickets to each home game and a parking pass. No one on staff had to pay a dime to use them — they were given to us. Though they were kept in a folder in my desk, the tickets didn’t belong to me, they belonged to all of us. Over the course of the season, several of us used the tickets and a few of you used them too. The only real stipulation was that we found a way to share them and never see them as our own private or personal possession. Those tickets provided a good simple weekly lesson. They were a gift. And, since they really belonged to none of us, they were freed up to be able to be used and enjoyed by all of us.
I wish we could all find a way to look at all of our lives and all of our resources in a similar fashion. What we have all been blessed with really doesn’t belong to us. Sure it is ours to enjoy and to use for a season, but it is not ours. It doesn’t have our name on it. It is a gift that is only ours to use. And, like those tickets, the more we can realize that our resources don’t belong to us, the more likely we are to free ourselves to allow others to enjoy them too.
I heard something not long ago about children of wealthy people. I have tried to no avail this week to document this, so, hear what I am about to say knowing that I cannot find proof of this claim and yet I want to share it with you because it is compelling in light of what we are talking about this morning. What I heard was that the children of wealthy individuals on average are relatively generous people. The reason given was that many of them recognize that the resources they now possess have not come their way because of anything they have done. They have not worked for them and they have not merited them. Their possessions are simply the result, by and large, of being born into the right family at the right time. They are thus much freer in giving away what they have simply because they recognize where it came from and how it came into their possession.
Again, being generous reminds us constantly of this truth. We are who we are and we have what we have because of God’s abundance not because of our rights of receiving our just desserts. Living out of this understanding gives us a much better perspective on life.
On the other hand, generosity also teaches us that since it doesn’t start with us, it can’t end with us either. The point here is that each time we show generosity, we constantly remind ourselves that God’s endgame for our possessions is that we share them with others. Each time we are generous we are reminded that using our gifts to benefit others is exactly in keeping with how God wants us to live out our lives.
Now, I am not suggesting we shouldn’t meet our needs. Likewise I am not suggesting that we should not buy things for ourselves to enjoy or that we should not save for retirement. No, I affirm all of those things as good and fine uses of our money as long as we also do our best to be generous at the very same time.
Our world is full of great examples of this today — Truett Cathy of Chick Fil A, William Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Bill & Melinda Gates of Microsoft are all sterling examples of people who more than enjoy their resources but who have also committed themselves to recognizing that they are to constantly share their resources with others.
I like the story about the author Anne Lamott. Though a successful writer, Lamott is not what you would call incredibly wealthy. She supports herself and her family totally based on the royalties from her books. One day in an interview, she was asked about the struggles of trying to be a successful writer while also meeting the basic needs of her family. Her response was compelling. Lamott admitted that yes, sometimes she struggles to get by but that what she has discovered is that the best thing for her to do when things get tight is to give some of her money away. Mysteriously, this always helps her to put things in perspective and to remember how we should truly relate to our resources.
This morning, let me end by saying that in 2014, the importance of generosity is not only an important lesson for us to hear, it is also a critical issue to teach our children and grandchildren. I mean this as it relates to both the world in general and quite frankly to the church in particular. I have no trouble in saying that we are quickly losing the art of generosity with each passing generation. In many ways, our older generations are carrying us in churches and in other charitable giving. In turn, this reality must be changed if such organizations and ministries are going to exist into the future. Where does the teaching begin? It begins by all of us modeling generosity and teaching as a key principle for not only life, but for the life of faith and as the best life for us and for others.
I can honestly say, that the call to be generous is not something I learned in seminary or from key stakeholders in my life. Rather I learned it from my mom and dad who modeled generosity. It was a critical teaching in our house. Every Sunday, I remember one of those pink envelopes on our buffet table ready to be tucked in the Bible and taken to church. Every year I remember people that they helped with their time and resources. And I’ll bet you remember the same in many of your own homes.
It’s our time now to model the same type of life. Why? Because it is what God calls us to do, but, also, because it creates for others and for us the best life possible. Amen.