Why Give?

Celebration Sunday

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, May 1, 2005 – 

It was just 6 years ago that I made the decision to pursue ministry as my vocation. Not that I hadn’t thought about it before. Many times. And every time it did, I managed to push it down again. There were lots of reasons that I resisted that big step – and one of the biggest was … money. Or rather, the lack thereof. I knew to pursue ministry would mean another masters degree – and that cost money. I knew if I truly dedicated myself to my studies, I would have to work less … and therefore, earn less money. I knew that scholarships and financial aid for those preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry was pretty slim. The question of money loomed large – I was daunted by it.

But six years ago, when the call of ministry rose up again, somehow its insistence was stronger than before. And so, though my financial situation hadn’t changed a whit, I decided to at least take the next step – to say out loud “this is what I plan to do” – and see what would happen … next.

The next thing I did was to send a letter to my friends and my colleagues in historic preservation. I told them that I planned to prepare for the ministry, and that I didn’t really know what that meant – whether I would eventually become a minister or not, whether I would even be able to complete my studies, or not … but that my sense of call had become too strong to ignore anymore. All together, I sent about 50 letters – they went to friends all over the world.

By return mail came a small envelope from my friend Karen, a former roommate and friend. Inside was a short note – something like “so glad…” – and a check for $500. In the “memo” section of the check were the words “sofa rental.” I laughed out loud. It was clearly a reference to my old love seat we had shared when we lived together. When it had come time for me to move, I couldn’t imagine a place for the sofa in the house I was to share with Pat. Karen had volunteered to give the sofa a good home until I called for it … that happened at least 10 years before she sent her note and check. I imagine the sofa was long gone by then. I called Karen and blubbered my thanks. She was nonchalant. “I have some extra money right now,” she said. “I don’t always, but I do now, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than help you pursue this dream.”

That check did far more than start a savings account for my seminary expenses. Call it a shift in attitude. Or seeing the world as one of abundance rather than scarcity. Or even pulling my light out from under the bushel and letting it shine, shine, shine … Call it any or none of these. Karen’s gift had a profound effect. Karen’s check served as the first bit of what was to become a marvelous kaleidoscope of help. And many of you sitting in this room are a part of that magical design through the contributions you offered to help my expenses. People who know about such things tell me I have a most interesting, diverse and successful tale about financing a seminary education. In fact, by my last semester in school, Pat and I had not only finished paying off my education, but we were able to support another student’s studies as well. Karen’s single act of generosity moved well beyond me and the moment at hand.

Generosity is a well-worn word this time of year when congregations ask their members to make their annual pledge for the coming year. “Please be generous,” we say. “Please carefully consider what this congregation means to you, and give generously of yourself, and your resources.” These are good and necessary things to say. But there is an inherent risk in this business of appealing to one’s generous nature in raising funds. Sometimes this idea of generosity gets tied, on the one hand, with a sense of obligation, and on the other, with money alone. The phrase “to be generous” might end up really meaning that one feels compelled to give so that the congregation can meet its expenses.

Now, before our treasurer Mark has a heart attack right here and now, let me quickly say – yes, we do need your pledges of financial support – and yes, we encourage you to give “until it feels good” when making your commitment to this congregation. But right now, I invite you to consider this word “generosity” in all its fullness and power – as something more than the equal sign in an equation of need and resources – much in the same way that a $500 check was about more than a start on tuition expenses. This morning I’d like to invite you into these questions – What is generosity? How do acts of generosity change the giver – the receiver – even the world around us? In short, why give?

The more I consider these questions, the more I realize their complexity. First, generosity is about more than a single individual. Acts of generosity involve creating, building and deepening relationships. Yet acts of generosity are often accomplished anonymously, sometimes between strangers, and even at times without words. Think of a time when you received a gift completely unexpectedly – or from a completely unknown person. Or a note of thanks that came out of the blue. Being on the receiving end of such moments is more than flattering – more than a reminder of the kindness of others. It lets us know that generosity can actually be a way of life, living in such a way that hands are open to both offering and receiving. Closed hands are symbols of closed hearts. Acts of generosity coax open both stubborn hands and hardened hearts.

Or at least, that’s the hope. I vividly remember spending a day with someone who offered to drive me around the English countryside to show me some of his favorite churches. As we darted from one town to another all over West Yorkshire, we encountered surprisingly heavy traffic. My guide was an excellent – and most gracious – driver. He was the first to let someone waiting at a side road pull out in front of him, or to back up when we met another car at a spot too narrow for two cars to pass, or to jump out of the car to help someone else with a heavy gate. He continued to do this all day, even though others rarely seemed to return – or even acknowledge – his favors. I remember at the end of that very long day, we sat and waited, and waited, for someone to let us in to a long line of traffic. No one gave an inch. No one made eye contact. And yet my friend continued to carry on our conversation while waiting patiently, while I could only think of the anger I felt rising in my own body. I wanted to scream out my window, “this guy has been nice all day – give us a break here!” It took me a long time to understand that what he had done all day long was truly generous. He gave space on the road without any expectation of reward, without a thought of what was “fair.” It was simply his way of being in the world – he was someone who gifted others with a break. And it was in that moment that I realized all his small acts of generosity had been more than gifts to others – they had been the work of his spirit.

Which came first, his practice of generously yielding space to others he met on the road, or his gracious spirit? I’ll never know. It is true that the great religious people of history urge us to give generously. Jesus said “go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” Buddha and St. Francis threw down their rich-man robes and went over to the side of the poor. Most every world religion beseeches its followers to give freely of one’s plenty, extolling the pleasures and rewards of giving. But I believe these calls are more than injunctions to help those who are less privileged, more needy. These calls are for generosity as a spiritual practice. To give of ourselves – through money, material goods, our time – yes, even space on a country road – means to practice opening our hands, and therefore our hearts, to one another. When we let go of stuff, we can more fully embrace what really matters.

I have often wondered if generosity is intuitive or learned behavior.

We have all known children who seem to offer their toys to a new playmate easily – and we’ve also known those who must be taught to share, who don’t seem to have that impulse. Depending on the situation, acting generously might mean we must somehow overcome – or set aside – our personal desires to act for the good of others.

Perhaps that’s what I observed in my friend while driving around Yorkshire. Perhaps he was so habituated to setting aside his own desire to be first that his driving had become an expression of his giving personality. Or was it the other way ’round? Did his practice – his driving habits – giving the other car the lead – actually shape his personality?

Even with such examination, generosity refuses be easily defined or analyzed. William Kittredge reflects this complexity in his book, “The Nature of Generosity.” He says:

“Humans are clearly capable of both selfishness and generosity in the same gesture. We give in order to feel good, or in an attempt to ensure successful lives for our progeny and species – all of which can be thought of as an ultimately selfish motive… Most of what we do, in fact, is both sweet and sour…

Because such behaviors are a result of both our genetic makeup and social conditioning, institutional generosity – the idea that generosity should be a primary consideration in making all of our most urgent private and public decisions – will be a tough sell. Most of us have lived our lives committed to win-lose models of economic behavior and social justice, and we are in thrall to the idea that we control our own fates, and that power – over people, life, nature, things –

will quiet our uncertainties and fend off our most profound fears. It would be silly to claim that many of us would voluntarily act against our best interests. Still, we could manage to rethink our strategies, maybe even understand generosity as both an individual and societal route toward survival. Can we and the rest of our citizenry learn to enjoy the pleasures of caring for the entire world as if it were a commons?… Can we understand that generosity toward others is also a measure taken on behalf of ourselves?”

Kittredge goes on to suggest that we live in a time of “institutionalized selfishness,” a time of rampant greed and individuality that threatens our very survival as a planet. “A culture based on institutionalized selfishness is going literally insane,” he says. And I agree. Part of being a healthy being is the ability to give.

It is time to understand that generosity is a viable option to greed in more ways than just “being nice.” Too often the word “greed” is associated with security – as in “I need to hold on to what I have, even to stockpile more, in order to feel – to be – secure.” We have become a people piling up assets against the door of looming insecurity. When will we understand that it is only in our acts of generosity that true security is found, because it is in giving we find ourselves to be related, interdependent, useful, even powerful? It is a power that does not diminish when the stock market dips, or when the national security alert goes to orange.

I’ll admit, these are not easy times to preach, “give to feel secure” and “power isn’t dependent on money.” Indeed, we are surrounded by messages to the contrary from every source imaginable. The weekly, even hourly reports on the state of the economy … the downslide of the middle class … the skyrocketing costs of providing security for our country … and the big money of politics. And as for greed, well, even with the recent rush of indictments of CEOs and CFOs, it still seems that the corporate brass get what they want, living high on the people who work for them.

In fact, to preach generosity in these times is to suggest an act of defiance – of swimming against the mainstream. But in proposing that we practice generosity as a counter to today’s culture – of going against the current of “institutionalized selfishness” – I want to suggest when we engage in acts of generosity, we are in alignment with the grain of the universe – of God – of what we are called to do on this good earth. Is there indifference to our giving? I don’t think so. I think our generosity is needed now more than ever before. That’s because the greed and selfishness of our species has penetrated every corner of this planet. It is now our work to help restore the balance, to give of our riches into the aching, starving and longing of this world. Kittredge suggests that when we put aside our personal desires, when we transcend such inclinations as greed, we are not simply “acting for the good of others in our family or community. [G]enerosity,” he says, “is ordinary, and [yet] can also grow wild, like roses in the fencerows.”

Roses, wild, in the fencerows. generosity can – and does – beget generosity – widely and wildly.

I close with this story that I know to be true. There was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that launched a capital campaign – a major fundraising effort – that asked members to make a pledge that would be paid over several years. There was one member, an older woman, who was in a quandary. She wanted to support her congregation’s efforts, but she had few assets. She was retired, and lived on a small pension. Though her income was small, so were her needs and expenses. Problem was, there just wasn’t much for the church. She studied all her expenses, trying to decide what she might be able to do … and then she saw it. Every Friday, for most of her adult life, she had had her hair done at the beauty parlor. Just a trim and set – nothing fancy. It was her small luxury – her gift to herself. But after much thought – and no little anguish – she decided that, for now, she would care for her hair herself, and pledge the money she would have spent each Friday to the church. And so she did, letting her hair grow for the years of the capital campaign. No one had ever seen her with long hair, and they admired her new look when it grew in full and white and silky. The old woman actually enjoyed trying it in different styles, twisting it this way, curling it like that.

At the end of the campaign, she headed straight to her beauty parlor to have her hair cut in its old style again. When her hairdresser saw the woman’s long, beautiful hair, she tried to convince her to keep it – she told the old woman how lovely she looked. “No,” she said, “it was a nice change, but I’m ready to be my old self again. Cut it off.”

But the hairdresser had still another idea – did the woman know that she could donate her hair to make a wig for someone going through chemotherapy, someone who had lost her own hair? Would she be willing to donate her long, white hair? The woman caught her breath – she had never thought of her hair as something someone else would want – or as something she could give away. And so she said yes. And after having her hair cut in its usual style, she walked out of the salon, and didn’t return again until her hair was once again long enough to donate for a wig for someone living with cancer.

Generosity. It has the power to change – everything. You, me, the world around us. Why give … a check for a dream, a little extra space on the highway to a stranger, a lock of hair to a survivor – or a pledge of support for a vision? Because we are spirits who grow when we give, whose hearts are enlarged when we open our fists.

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