Monday, March 31, 2008

Charity – Give to Get? Or, a celebratory act of total trust.

Tony Campolo came to my high school in 2000 and gave a message during our chapel service. I knew his name, I’d seen his books, and pastors had referenced this guy as far back as I could remember paying attention to sermons. In my tiny, private school, in a highly conservative town, Mr. Campolo said, "The United Nations reports that over ten thousand people starve to death each day, and most of you don't give a shit. However, what is even more tragic is that most of you are more concerned about the fact that I just said a bad word than you are about the fact that ten thousand people are going to die today." I began to applaud. Back then, I did it because I had an ax to grind with the church. I didn’t expect to continue my applause almost eight years later.

In an interview last fall, a girl asked my opinion on the first sentence of Campolo’s famous oratory twist. Here is the first paragraph of my full-page response:

“Well, for the most part, Mr. Campolo is right. Lots of people starve everyday, and our culture thinks very little about it. I mean, that is, unless a few celebrities get involved in the campaign against hunger, then just about every college kid on campus will jump on board. They'll even hold their own rallies to talk about the situation, maybe raise some donations... but giving money is such a passive gesture. It might help, yeah, but the person making the donation hasn't really donated their time or energy or even head-space. They gave five bucks to a cause so they wouldn't look like a dick, but still don't think about the cause later on.”

Charity confuses me, especially having grown up in the Christian Church. It seemed like the pastor spoke about tithing once every month. My Sunday school teachers would hold tin-can fundraisers for children I would never meet in countries I would never visit. The only reason I knew those children existed was because somebody in the church said so, and Christians never lie. But even then, I didn’t care about the starving children. I wanted the candy bar promised to the kid who raised the most money.

My new friend Jason Elkins wrote, “We live in a society that recognizes achievement. We get credit for doing things right.” His post continues with a story about expecting credit from the IRS for his tithes. Then, referring to a conversation with a friend, he says, “We talked about how much more satisfying it would be if we gave without expectations. Gave for the sake of showing Christ to others.”

One of my favorite stories comes from the Gospel of Luke 21:1-4 where Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem. “And He 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.’” My Sunday school teachers told me that the widow’s gift was significant because of the proportion of what she gave to what she owned. I think Jesus praised the widow because her gift was a sacrifice. Symbolically, she gave everything to God, trusting in His provision.

The church focuses so much on the blessings promised to those who give that they overlook the purpose of giving. It isn’t just to give the Levites something to live on, and it isn’t a way to connive a blessing from God. Tithes and offerings aren’t a game show where you’ll make a million bucks and get your dream home if you pick the right door. We give to God because He gave it to us. It’s not ours, it’s His, and the offering serves to remind us of His provision. Consider Deuteronomy 12:6-7, “There you shall bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. There also you and your households shall eat before the LORD your God, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.”

Give to rejoice in how God has blessed you. The greatest blessing in a Christian’s life came from Jesus’ death and resurrection. New life! We died to our old selves and were raised in Him. Is anything really ours anymore? Does every good and perfect thing come from God (James 1:17), or do we succeed because of our own brilliance and hard work?

So now I look at charity in this light, and I hope I always give with this attitude, “It’s yours, God, not mine. Whatever you want me to do with my possessions, just say the word. However I can show the love of Christ with my time or money, tell me how. You want me to give all of my beer money to a Salvation Army bell-ringer? Done. You want me to give my car to a single mom? No problem. Take a stranger into my home for the night? If you say so, absolutely. I give for the glory of your name.

And if my only reward is your joy and favor, that’s okay by me.”

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