Calendared amidst the commercial craze of Black Friday and Cyber Monday comes #GivingTuesday, a timely reminder that life is more about giving than getting. It is a verifiable fact that generosity enhances our well-being.[i] #GivingTuesday is celebrated the week following Thanksgiving and kicks-off the year-end charitable season. About 40 percent of all charitable giving occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
As I paused to reflect on the many #GivingTuesday promotions I found on the internet, two questions popped into my mind: Why do I give? How did I first learn to give? My answer caught me by surprise. Most everything I needed to know about giving I learned in Sunday school.
As a small child in Sunday school, we celebrated birthdays in a memorable way. On a table at the front of the room stood a small lighthouse. When it came time to celebrate birthdays, the lights in the room were turned off as those of us who had birthdays that month walked to the front, pennies clutched in our hand. What followed was magical. As we put our pennies in the mouth of the lighthouse, the beacon began to flash, and while it illuminated the darkness, we began to sing: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. What happened to those pennies? At the end of the year, all the pennies collected were sent to a missionary who served children in Africa. And a simple but profound theological maxim was forever etched in my mind. It is via our giving that God’s light shines brighter in the world.
Flash forward five years. I’m a 10-year-old newspaper delivery boy. Every weekday, I got up at 5:30 a.m., and my mother drove me to the newspaper’s branch office to collect the papers I was to deliver. Most boys did not have a parent driving them to their routes. They rode their bicycles, but I did not have a bicycle to ride. So, for several months I saved what I earned until I had enough to buy the fire-engine red Schwinn bicycle standing in the store window. One day, money in hand, I ran to inform my mom that no longer would she have to drive me to my paper route. Smiling, she said: “And Billy, have you given your firstfruits, your thank offering to God?” Firstfruits! It was a Christian practice she had learned as a girl growing up on a farm. The first thing you do come harvest time is to give a thank offering to God. First things first! God grows crops, so say, “Thank you!” Lesson learned, I proudly brought my firstfruits offering to church and saved for two more weeks before buying my new bike.
Today, when I think theologically about giving and why I give, I think of the parable Jesus told of the sheep and the goats. Scholars call Matthew 25 “the most important text for the early Christians” because it reshaped their understanding of charitable giving.[ii] Via our giving, something beyond our imagination happens. God shows up and we find ourselves incognito in places we’ve never been, caring for people we’ve never met. The parable suggests that it is in our giving that we meet Christ, and God’s light shines for the hungry, the homeless and the hurting.
A friend of mine finishing his Ph.D. in philanthropic studies has been asking two questions of focus groups across America. (1) Who taught you to be generous? (2) What institutions taught you to be generous? He has discovered that overwhelmingly the answer to the first question focuses on the family and the answer to the second question on the church. For me, #GivingTuesday provides me with the opportunity to express my gratitude to my church by contributing to the many faces of our worldwide Presbyterian Mission. After all, most everything I needed to know about giving I learned in Sunday school.
[i] Christian Smith & Hilary Davidson, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.
[ii] Gary Anderson, Charity.
Guest post by Wm. G. Enright, pastor emeritus of Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, and founding director emeritus of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. This piece was originally published in 2018.
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