Giving that changes me

by Stephen Kriss

The powerful words of Advent readings from Isaiah tend to get lost in this feel-good season of tinsel and twinkling lights. Familiar music, family gatherings and special worship times mark the holiday with a sense of holy regularity.

Steve KrissBut echoes of the prophet’s words linger in our yearning at this time of year to make things right. There’s a sense that Advent and Christmas shouldn’t pass anyone by. There are more efforts in church and culture to be mindful of those who will struggle this season. Sensitivities are pricked by those who ring bells for the Salvation Army and year-end appeal letters from charitable causes.

When I pastored in the Allegheny Mountains, our congregation had an annual Christmas Sharing Fund. It was an attempt at mutuality within our congregation of diverse income levels. Within and sometimes beyond this season it felt that “no one among us lacked anything.” It was one of my favorite times of the pastoral year. I miss those intimate moments of sharing, knowing that some who contributed to the fund could at times be those who received from it.

I’ve been challenged by my friend Mark Van Steenwyk of the Mennonite Worker, an intentional community in Minneapolis. Settled into a middle-class life­style, I’ve learned to trust the mediating work of organizations to handle my charitable giving, which also provides a tax write-off. This popular path of generosity adds a step between giver and receiver that I think usually honors the relationship, allowing a sense of respect to be maintained.

But Van Steenwyk, out of his own reading of Scripture and walking alongside the poor in community, suggests mediated giving doesn’t readily allow transformative relationships to develop between givers and receivers.

My tax-deductible check takes away the receiver’s sense of indebtedness but does little to cultivate the community and connectivity with the poor, whom Isaiah suggests are chosen to receive the Messiah’s good news.

I remember the intimacy of the Christmas fund, knowing the holy bonds created within the church community from that sharing. Though given anonymously, the gifts directly from the church communicated love and offered those who struggled a sense of being in the struggle together rather than getting a handout.

Those intimate gifts demonstrated care rather than creating a sense of dependency.

I wonder how congregations can do more mutual work like that. It requires us to know and trust each other.

I live in a city where I am asked on a weekly basis to contribute money to someone who is homeless, lost, addicted, struggling. Even after living in large cities for 15 years, I can’t quite look away. I wonder if every encounter might render me the priestly character in the story of the Good Samaritan. I rarely respond anymore. And usually I don’t feel guilty.

But Van Steenwyk’s invitation to step out from behind the comfort of charitable check-writing at this time of the year rings in my ears. Giving is ultimately about God, who gives freely, but also about my redemption and transformation.

This season of tinsel and twinkling commingles with the profound invitation of a Hebrew prophet to give and respond out of the call of the One who sustains all human dignity.

This piece first appeared in Mennonite World Review. Reposted with permission. 

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