Thursday, February 28, 2013

Impossible to Exploit

God told me to give a homeless guy twenty bucks. Now, you don't have to be down with the whole "word from above" thing to recognize the feeling of urgency. We all, whether through divine intervention, conscience, or a chemical imbalance can understand what it means to feel a sense of calling. Often it's something out of the ordinary that catches us off-guard.

I don't often give money to homeless people; I'm more likely to buy them lunch and sit and talk - hopefully it helps them to feel valued as a person and not an object or a charity case. This time it was different. All my training in American Evangelicalism had told me I must be efficient and responsible with my money. Giving it to a homeless person who may use it for drugs or booze was a waste of money. After all, I'm responsible to God for that twenty bucks, responsible to use it well.

Still, the compulsion was almost overwhelming. I gave the money. I gained something more. I had an epiphany. God does entrust things to us for our use - and we are responsible for how we use it. However, God was telling me to give - and that means unconditionally. Something is not a gift if it comes with strings attached. My gift to that man was God's way of entrusting him with something. Whom am I to stand in the way of that?*

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says a lot of difficult things. Most of my teaching on these difficult things growing up was people trying to explain why Jesus didn't really mean what he seems to mean in those chapters. Towards the end of Matthew, chapter 5, we get the famous phrase "turn the other cheek" as Jesus' radical command to non-violence. It's followed by some lesser known words:

And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Luke's version of these words includes an admonition to "lend without expecting to get anything back," which is an awful lot like giving. The underlying theme here is that nothing is really yours, but deeper still is this response to being taken advantage of. That's what's happening. There's a bully trying to sue you for everything you've got - and Jesus says, don't fight it, give him literally the shirt off your back. The way to keep from being taken advantage of is not to bully the bully, but to refuse to be the victim. If there is no victim, there is also no bully. You're saving both parties - you and him - from being in damaging positions.

It's not about being naive, it's about placing trust in someone, perhaps someone who doesn't deserve it. It's not about being naive, it's about recognizing that no one owns anything; everything belongs to God. I don't deserve this thing (whatever it is) more because I have it and he doesn't or because I worked for it and he didn't.

Life might seem to work that way, but reality is different. It's all part of this scarcity myth. There is some idea out there that there's not enough for everyone, and therefore we must hoard and protect what we have. We might run out or someone else could hoard it all and refuse to share. You see where this is going? In protecting ourselves from the greedy or selfish, we become greedy and selfish.

I give because giving is good. I trust because trusting is good. If someone seeks to abuse my trust or to take advantage of my generosity, I give more. You can't take advantage of me if I refuse to be a victim.

It hurts, of course. Giving costs us something - usually comfort and often peace of mind. It almost always costs standing or reputation. You look weak because you're not conforming to the patterns of the world.

Today, in our town, there is a school board referendum to raise property taxes to support the school. It's become a pretty contentious issue. Most people who oppose the increase think it's too high. We all agree the school needs more money, but some think they're asking too much. They don't trust the school district to spend it wisely or to spend it in the way they think best.

This is a perfectly natural response, one that fits completely with the way our world seems to work. People with power tend to abuse it, so why give them more? I don't begrudge anyone voting their conscience and I would certainly not wish to impose my worldview on anyone.

I'm voting for it - mostly because of what I've said above. I choose to trust. It's not as if these people are nameless, faceless politicians somewhere. Our town has 18,000 people - these are our friends and neighbors. The Superintendent, someone I've known to have integrity and good judgment, said this is what they need to do a good job educating students. He may be right, he may be wrong, he may be ignorant, he may be downright lying. I choose to trust.

This money isn't my money. I didn't earn it (despite what the paycheck says) and I'm not going to prioritize it's importance over a commitment to lend without expecting something in return.

I hope and pray the funding is there to bring back some of the support structures that have been cut. My wife and her co-workers are under serious stress this year, much more than the normal stress of teaching in a public school. They're doing more with less and if it continues, it will effect her ability to teach well and our overall quality of life.

If this doesn't work out. If the funding isn't there or even if the doubters prove correct and nothing gets better - I'll be sad, but I won't be surprised. It might mean a lot of tough changes for us - but they'll be worth it.

I won't be the victim, and I won't be the bully. I'm happy to trust, not naively, but with eyes wide open.

*Quick side note: My friend and former boss, Oliver Phillips, tells a great story about relating that same responsibility to homeless man once. I can't do it justice, but he said something along the line of "God has entrusted me with this money, to use it wisely and be responsible. One day I will answer to God for how I've used it. I'm giving it to you - and now you have the same responsibility and one day you'll answer to God for how you use it." And the guy gave it back. I can't tell you how often I heard that story, but it cracks me up every time.

1 comment:

Marsha Lynn said...

Some good thoughts, Ryan. Thanks for sharing them.