I've been looking at the contributions I make to different charities in a new light lately. I live pretty much from paycheck to paycheck. I don't suppose my job is any more secure than anyone else's, and my retirement portfolio is unimpressive, to say the least. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a conservative approach to charitable giving would be in order.
But I've been thinking a lot about a man who once turned conventional wisdom on its ear. His name was Elijah. He trusted God. As a result, he read the signs of those times with great clarity. In his view, many of his contemporaries had neglected their spiritual obligations. Consequently, Elijah foresaw problems - specifically a severe famine.
Famine indeed came. Times were lean, food was scarce, but Elijah remained devoted to following God. At a time of need, God gave him a rather surprising message. He said that a widow in a nearby town would take him in and provide for him (see I Kings, chapter 17). Elijah found the woman easily enough, but her credentials as a patron didn't look promising. "I have not a cake," she told him, "but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die."
Elijah persisted. "Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son." That was a very bold request to make of a woman who was facing starvation. "Make me ... a little cake first!" Amazingly, she agreed. "And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah."
You could say that Elijah was pretty reckless with the woman's precious resources. Or that his demand to be fed first was rather egocentric. But I think he intentionally, and very wisely, gave her something quite priceless - an opportunity to draw on her resources of courage and hope more deeply than she had previously dared. He gave her the dignity that comes of being magnanimous, the joy of giving. Perhaps she had been needy and dependent for so long that she had forgotten what it felt like to be invited to share.
So, who gave the greater gift? Did God decree that the woman should support Elijah, or that Elijah should support the widow?
Perhaps today's charitable organizations are our Elijah. We need them as much as they need us. We need opportunities to exercise our philanthropic muscle, to contribute to something worthwhile. We need to make channels through which God's love and generosity can pour through our lives.
My dad used to say, "Don't give until it hurts. Give until it feels good." Mary Baker Eddy, Monitor founder and one who gave generously to many charities, wrote: "Philanthropy is loving, ameliorative, revolutionary; it wakens lofty desires, new possibilities, achievements, and energies;... it touches thought to spiritual issues, systematizes action, and insures success; it starts the wheels of right reason, revelation, justice, and mercy; it unselfs men and pushes on the ages" ("The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany," pgs. 287-288).
So, as I said, I am reassessing my own concept of charitable giving. I want to "unself men" (starting with myself). I want to "waken lofty desires." The old, selfish ones didn't really make me happy. I want to "touch thought to spiritual issues." Of course, I know that what Mrs. Eddy is talking about is more than just dashing off a check to ease my conscience. She's talking about giving from the heart - probably from the depths of the heart's longing to be and do good. But I just grow more and more convinced that this kind of deep, heartfelt giving is something I have needed more of in my life.
Dad was right. Giving feels good.
Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly,
or of necessity: for God loveth
a cheerful giver.
II Corinthians 9:7