Confessions of a Not So Cheerful Giver
By Dana Bowman | November 30, 2015
Saturday morning. I am wedged into a cleaning frenzy so intense it would take a miracle to interrupt me. And then, I hear it: “Henry, com’ere. Lemme read my Bible at you.”
It’s my miracle—my six-year-old son who has chosen this morning to become deeply spiritual. I drop the Tilex and slink around the corner for surveillance. Charlie is sitting in the playroom, brow-furrowed, paging through his newest prize, a very heavy Bible his father purchased for him a few weeks back. Charlie has been reading it for days now, slipping off on his own to pore over its glossy pages. And now, to make the moment more wonderful, he has offered to share all this godliness with his younger brother.
Four minutes later, Henry is sobbing. He had wanted to take the Bible to inspect the Goliath picture. “Was der blood? Did his head really come all the way off?”
And Charlie had whacked him over the head with the Bible.
The rest of the day was kind of downhill from there.
Children, it seems, do not like to share. I constantly plead, “Take turns! Sharing is caring! Let’s set a timer for that piece of useless plastic that you so strongly covet!” At times, I too would like to whack them over the head with the Bible. “Hey you! Romans 12:13!” Whack.
And sharing a toy, or a Bible, is simply the tip of the kind-hearted iceberg. I want my children to be givers of their time and their talents. So after the Bible event I decide to take on “charity begins at home” with the grim vehemence of a drill sergeant. “Boys!” I bark, “Report to Mommy, on the double!” Two grimy recruits appear, and I start with the basic “drop and give me twenty” drill of charity: We Must Tithe.
The drill doesn’t go well. Afterward, both boys wander off to count and stack the coins in their piggy banks like cute little Scrooges. They have completely missed the point. Talking about money has only made them want more of it.
Here’s the real problem: If charity begins at home, it probably should start with me. Convicted, I realize that I haven’t properly tithed in months. My tithe is squeezed from my bank account when I remember to do so—or when I feel like it, which, of course, is rare. To be honest, I don’t exactly float through my days with generosity for all humans just oozing out of my pores.
I pray, “Look, God, I can do a quiet time. I can even add five minutes to it tomorrow. And I can offer my prayers for friends on Facebook who are sick. I can even try reading My Utmost for His Highest again. And that book is really hard! But really? Do I have to give you my money too?”
I have a small hope that I’ll get a response along the lines of, “No, you don’t have to, Dana. I ask my followers to, yes. But you, my special one, are exempt because it freaks you out.”
Alas, there is no audible answer.
I start in on the excuses. “Well, God, I keep forgetting. And tithing is confusing. Do I have to add what I forgot to tithe last month to the next month? Are you keeping track up there? Is there anything on the Internet about this? Should I put a tithing app on my phone? Here’s one, but it costs money. And really, my paycheck is all willy-nilly because I freelance, which means I get paid, but not much, nor very often. How can I let that money go? What if we don’t have money for groceries? We need it. I need it.”
It’s easy to get immersed in how to do charity right—and then get really distracted from doing charity at all. Did you know that Pinterest has eighty-seven pages on crafting the phrase “God loves a cheerful giver”? I found a great chalkboard art project I could do with the kids, and when we finish it we’ll be all ready to go on this charity business.
But first I have to buy a glue gun, and eight yards of burlap.
It’s easy to get immersed in how to do charity right—and then get really distracted from doing charity at all.
One evening in early December my boys and I take our yearly shopping trip to fill up shoeboxes for those who have little or no presents under little or no Christmas trees. It is our great Charity Shopping Spree, and I’ve been planning it for weeks. It will be fun and educational! I will post about it later on Facebook!
Our shoebox children take on an almost mythical quality for the boys. I am reminded of Christmas Eve when they go through all the motions of setting out milk and cookies for Santa, and even a carrot for Rudolph. Now at Walmart they throw gum and coloring books and socks into a cart for the equally illusive shoebox children, playing the part of dutiful givers. They hand over their dollars with benevolent resignation when it’s time for the items to be rung up.
But then Charlie looks at me and grasps a double pack of Juicy Fruit. “I wonder…” he says, slowly, “Can I keep this? I don’t want to send it away. What if it gets lost?”
I am not sure how to answer him because, in truth, the shoebox has taken on mythical proportions for me as well. It contains such small gifts, but is so heavily weighted with meaning: it appeases my guilt. By sending out that box I have done my part. I have saved Christmas for a child. I have taught my own children about giving. It is, I reason, enough.
I let Charlie keep the gum.
But it’s not enough. As we head back to the car, we walk past the Dreaded Bell Ringer of Guilt. The boys want, of course, to drop some money into the red bucket. All I really want to do is make the incessant clanging stop, so I dig in my purse for some quarters. But before I find the change, Charlie spots a five-dollar bill in my bag, stuck between the ChapStick and receipts. And it is there in the gathering darkness that I get in touch, big time, with my inner Scrooge. I go through all five stages of grief, right there in the parking lot, for my beloved five-dollar bill.
I wanted to teach my kids about generosity but discovered my inner Scrooge instead.
I don’t want to share. There, I said it. Charity means letting go of what I treasure most: my time, and yes, my money. The money is the hardest, truly, because I feel each dollar keeps me safe. I am terrified of the discomfort of want. If I were to truly tithe, with a whole heart, I immediately assume I will be left unwhole, wanting. How hard it is to hand that over.
And that, I know, is precisely the point. It is only the hungry who are ready to be filled, after all.
As is so often the case, the generosity lesson for my children actually ends up being my own to learn. I start to realize that handing over something precious might actually mean a freedom, and a filling up. I decide to back off from my all-or-nothing SWAT team approach to charity and start with my time. I work on what it means to be available, to offer practical comfort. The church calls and asks if I can make a meal for a new mom. Charlie, Henry, and I make chicken soup and brownies, and the boys love the opportunity to cook together. I ask them, “How many brownies should we keep for us?” Charlie doesn’t hesitate, “We can have one each. Then the rest to that baby!”
When the snow falls my husband heads out early with shovel and lots of coffee to clear the sidewalks on our block. Most of our neighbors are older and might not relish going out in all this white stuff, especially since the paths are crazed and serpentine. The boys press their noses to the cold glass, watching. “Let’s go out there!” says Charlie and they follow in their ridiculous snowsuits. I take pictures as they careen up the sidewalk with their shovels, and my husband and I thank them copiously for their service. “Now the whole block can go out!” Henry waves his arms as if to set the neighborhood free. He is red-cheeked and pleased. Then, Henry adds, “Now we can make snowmen for all of them!” It’s a brilliant plan. A snowman for everyone, a harbinger of good cheer.
I also decide to just try to be more charitable to my kids. Every day, Charlie takes out the recycling. He lugs the box outside, fights with our heavy door, swats at the cat, and tosses the recycling in the container. Sometimes I follow and hand him cartons that have escaped from the box. I hold the door for him. I say, “Here, I thought I would give you a hand.” Our eyes meet and there is gratitude there. This is the smallest thing, holding that door for him, but he is watching. He is learning. And I am learning that charity is just a regular, repeated willingness to offer oneself, with no expectation of a response. Charlie nods and passes by. There is no big hug or “You’re the best, Mom!” But later, he holds the door for his brother. This is huge. This, quite simply, is a miracle.
It’s easy to fall out of practice. I find my awareness of intentional giving fades if I allow myself to pay much attention to my love of comfort. I combat this by keeping it simple. My son whines because we are going to help a family move a piano after church instead of heading to our favorite carb-coma pizza place for lunch. He sniffles, and I lean down to remind him: “They need our help, honey.”
“But why? Why us? Why can’t we eat pizza and someone else goes?”
“We help because it’s what we do. It’s who we are. That’s the church. It’s not as yummy as pizza, yes. But it is good.”
“How can I help?” is written on a chalkboard in our playroom. No, it is not written with perfect Pinterest calligraphy and there is no burlap. It was scrawled up there one afternoon to remind the boys—and me—that charity doesn’t just apply to tithing or the offering plate. It is how we need to frame our every step in this world. It is how we give to others, with our time and our gifts, with sharing a brownie, with sharing the love of Christ with others.
When I wake up, I now pray, “Lord, show me how to help you today.” Charlie and Henry start writing some letters to Ronal and Albertine, the children we sponsor through Compassion International and World Vision. We painstakingly write questions, and find relationship. We share in the letters about our cat, Steve, and soccer. Charlie asks if he can send Ronal money, and I tell him we already do. “Well, I want to send some of my money, so he can buy whatever he wants with it. You know, the fun things.” I nod, overwhelmed, and he runs for his bank. Right then I commit to write a check for our tithe on Saturdays. I turn to my calendar and write it down. It’s simple. Our letters end with why we love Jesus so much, and how we can trust him, after all, with this world that is so full of need. I know need. Those who give are so needy too.
I am learning the most about charity from my children, and from my own fears. And I lean into Jesus’s charity for reminding me so gently. CC