“Gifted” by Tracy Johnson
First Parish of Watertown – Sunday, October 13, 2013
Reading: excerpted from “To Ask Is to Give” by Jeffrey Lockwood in A Guest of the World
It was not that many weeks ago that there was much to-do on the news about a homeless man who had found a backpack containing upwards of $42 thousand dollars and he had returned it to its rightful owner. Now, why this was news I am not certain. What, after all, does it say about our perceptions of the homeless, if it is national news when they do the right thing? But, that is not what I am wanting to talk about today. It was the follow-up piece that interests me. Suddenly, through the miracle of social media, hundreds of people were donating money to a fund for this man and thousands of dollars had already been contributed in what seemed like an instant. There were two young children, a sister and brother, who donated the sum total of their material wealth – $183.71 – which they had saved up from doing household chores and the like. When interviewed they claimed that they had wanted to buy the man a house, but realized they didn’t have quite enough money for that. So they gave, freely, all that they had. Like the biblical story of the widow who gave from a seeming lack of abundance, these two children were saying something about what they believed; what was of value to them: Everyone should have a place to live. And so they gave toward that end.
Is this willingness to share innate in us as human beings, or is it true that we really do learn everything we need to know by the time we finish kindergarten? It’s the nature versus nurture question again, which I have always answered by concluding that it takes a healthy dose of each to create any given behavior pattern. There is some research, however, that backs up the nature argument. The Oxford University Press reported that a 2010 German study assessed the altruistic behavior of its participants by looking at human donation behavior and found that genetics does actually play a role. Altruism was herein defined as a selfless concern for the welfare of others. After collecting DNA samples for comparison, the study had three parts: first, the participants were paid five euros for their part in a working memory experiment; second, they had a chance to increase their endowment in a gambling experiment and, finally, they were given the option of keeping their money or donating it to poor children in a developing country which the scientists showed them photos of. The research focused on a gene that “contains the building instructions for an enzyme which inactivates certain messengers in the brain,” the most notable of these being dopamine, a player in our brain’s motivation and reward systems. The upshot of the research was that people with a certain variant ended up donating twice as much as those with an alternate variant. Thus, the nature connection. While all of us have some level of inherent altruism, there are still others who seem to be genetically predisposed toward giving and are inclined to do so more often when given the opportunity.
I have a friend who I would consider the epitome of altruism. She takes selflessness to new heights. She is a woman of modest means, but there is barely a good cause that she comes into contact with that she can’t find some reason to make a donation to. This is how I ended up with a certificate of adoption for some species of endangered turtles! She had apparently donated in my name as a gift to me, which, of course, I think is a lovely idea! And she is generous with her estimation of people as well, always first to make a good explanation of a bad situation. But the problem with my friend is that she has a hard time receiving. She can’t easily let others do for her; always concerned that someone is putting themselves out on her behalf. It takes a fair amount of convincing to do for her.
As Jeffrey Lockwood points out in our reading this morning, when we allow others to do for us, when we are willing to receive, we offer them the blessed opportunity to give. But receiving; asking, does leave us vulnerable and that is not a popular way to be in our world. It requires that we let down the protective walls of self-sufficiency and allow others to enter into our very personal space. It requires trust and a feeling that we are safe. In the best of scenarios we know this in our homes with those we hold most dear, but it is risky business to take it outside those doors. What Lockwood posits, though, is that the reward can far outweigh the discomfort we may initially harbor.
I have been doing a fair amount of reading about giving lately, particularly in church settings, and more specifically in Christian church settings. Most often I find that giving is attached to receiving in the form of a response. So it doesn’t come from that place of giving just because we are hardwired to do so. How much we give might be effected by that, but the giving itself is triggered by something first having been done for us. We are compelled to give because we have received and this makes sense, after all. Most of us have experienced the desire to return a favor, to pay back or even to pay forward some gesture that has touched us. It’s only natural we would say.
The rub for me personally comes when the reading suggests that we are giving in church in response to what God, in the form of Jesus, has already done for us – namely ransomed himself through the death of his son so that I may be free from sin and obtain eternal glory. For some people this makes perfect sense and I am certainly not one to criticize a person over what gives meaning to their lives. Those are things we each need to wrestle with in our own hearts. But the standard Christian story does not work for me. So I have set about considering a theology of giving that I find meaningful. And not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I decided to begin with Jesus, but to flip it and look at his life rather than his death, because for me that is what matters. What has the man, Jesus, offered that I may learn from and respond to?
I have found an important piece of the answer in the writings of the philosopher and theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, who wrote in the mid-sixties that, “Nothing can transform man unless it operates in human life. Therefore, in human life, in the actual processes of human existence, must be found the saving and transforming power which religious inquiry seeks and which faith must apprehend.” Wieman wrote about Jesus as he appeared in relationship and how that way of being perpetuated a change in the humanity that his life touched which has been carried forward to the present. It has much to do with the intercommunication that Jesus engaged in; so deep and profound it was that it became transformative. Individuals became known to one another at such an intimate level that it had the effect of virtually remaking all their future interactions with each other and with their world. Jesus, in this scenario, is seen as a catalyst for the creative power that arose out of their coming together; a power that broke through the exclusivity of the individual, making way for a unique brand of responsiveness. Wieman suggests that “Each became more of a mind and a person, with more capacity to understand, to appreciate, to act with power and insight; for this is the way human personality is generated and magnified and life rendered more human.” This concept of creative interchange is about the kind of knowing that occurs in community when we speak and act from the depths of our beings. It is about both giving and receiving and in the process making a way for our humanity to be expanded.
So, if Wieman is correct, I can certainly find a Jesus to which I am grateful, a Jesus who set about reordering relationship in just ways, and who serves as an exemplar. And out of that place of gratitude I can respond to a church that is a container for what he lived and professed.
This idea of gratitude is found in most religious traditions and ours is no different. If you read down in the by-laws of our great association; down below the principles and further down below the sources, in that place where most of us rarely take the time to venture, you find this statement, and notice how it begins, “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” It is out of gratitude that we deepen, expand, and grow. It is gratitude that spurs us on in asking the hard questions about why we are here and how we should respond. The Rev. Tom Owen-Towle, in his recent work entitled Theology Ablaze, offers us the idea that we are pilgrims on this life journey who make passage, not on literal oceans like the early settlers here, but rather passages that span interior and relational gulfs, and that we have the responsibility, that is, the ability to respond in times of hardship and uncertainty. We live in a time surrounded by deep need and our response, our giving in relationship, our filling a void in each other’s lives serves to calm the seas of doubt and indecision that we all encounter.
There is a Hafiz quote that I have come to love. He writes, “Wherever you have dreamed of going, I have camped there, and left firewood for when you arrive.” This is, of course, a love poem, but I am drawn to the total “other-directed-ness” of this concept. Inherent in it is an acknowledgement of the gift of another’s life to us and a response that not only shows gratitude, but also creates opportunity for the other to be all that they can be; supports the other in their endeavors, unrelated to any benefit for the self. This is the kind of relationship that Wieman suggests Jesus was in the midst of cultivating. It is other-directed; focused on reaching in to another being; learning what they struggle with; hope for; dream about, and then honoring that presence and companionship. It asks us to take the other as they come, whatever their physical, social, or emotional location; to hold them gently in our embracing circle of love; to know them deeply and in the process for each to become more fully human.
So, what does all this have to do with us here at First Parish? I said in the newsletter that I would get around to this question and I touched on it in my column – you are reading my column, right? You see, I have the advantage of being new here; of first impressions. You all have been here, steeped in what I would call a generosity of being and you are so in it that you may not even any more be able to see it as I can from my place at the window peering in.
The concept of being generous derives from the same root that means to give birth or bring to life; to create something new, make something new happen. It gives life and hope, energy and spirit, touching our heartfelt desire to make a difference; to give of heart and mind and soul and even possessions.
What I see from my vantage point is a people bent on community who care passionately about each other and about the city and world in which they find themselves. We opened this morning with our mission statement. It says that we seek to honor our liberal religious heritage – that’s out of gratitude that we do that – by providing a spiritual home whose doors are open to all who wish to enter into caring community! Now, having become a staunch “Wiemanite” I can see you are engaging in that creative interchange which he talked about in the first community of disciples who caught the bug from Jesus. And you are doing so intentionally. With open hearts you enter into deep places of knowing; relate with profound intimacy; do the hard work of sorting out differences lovingly. In this safe and sacred space you have birthed a spirit of right relationship and you work hard to maintain it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that I have encountered some utopia here, but truly you have cultivated something special in this faith community and you mean for it to continue! So much so that you have made it a part of your mission. You may breeze over that first line in favor of the social justice piece, but I would encourage you to re-engage with the shared sentiment that created the opening statement. It is not just a key piece of what makes the second part possible. It is a goal unto itself. It talks about what you value here at First Parish. And I know you spent some time together here thinking about what that really was; what about this community is of value to you.
Like that brother and sister who valued physical shelter for everyone and responded out of what little they had – with what was actually a big investment on their part – I would ask that you think again, each of you individually, about what is valuable to you in this place. If all else failed, what would you want to see carried forward? Maybe it is something practical like just knowing that we have a sacred space in which to do our seeking together; to gather in our best attempts at beloved community. Perhaps you have been touched by the care and companionship that I see going on each week in those social hour “communions” I talked about in my column; those dyads and triads that rise to meet the deepest needs we find in one another. As we prepare to think about our future here at First Parish; prepare to make personal statements about what we value, I ask you, simply this, “How will you respond?”
Blessed be and Amen.