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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Faithfulness & Risk

   Children need to be informed about risk.  Their natural curiosity about the world and their lack of experience that certain activities can bring about dangerous consequences is one of the important reasons God gives them parents to guide and warn them.
   Even when we have become adults and know how to be safe from most preventable catastrophes, we tend to be averse to risks of all kinds.  Insurance policies, cellular phones and home security systems further minimize risks for those who can pay for such services.
   About a decade ago, a pastor introduced me to seeing risk in a completely different and much more positive light.  From other reading I have done since then I have begun to see a close relationship between risk and living faithfully in this world.  Here is some of that journey:
1)  In my tradition a pastor who is being considered for hire at a church comes to preach a Sunday sermon prior to the members of the congregation voting "yes" or "no."  What is typical is that this pastor will choose one of his well rehearsed sermons, one about which he or she has received encouraging feedback and presents this one to the prospective parishioners.  However, Pastor D did not do this.  He would have used a familiar sermon, but he felt compelled to write a custom-made message based on the parable of the talents.  Not only did he preach a sermon about risk, but he put that into practice in the very act of preaching it.  In this parable, the character who plays it safe and buries his talent (then a sum of money) in the ground is strongly condemned.  Those who take the talents entrusted to them and develop them are praised.  The application for us was that avoiding risk is not the way Jesus wants us to order our lives.  Making the most of opportunities He gives us will entail ventures that may not always feel "safe."
2)  Author and speaker Andy Crouch has taken the two concepts of authority and vulnerability and placed them in a chart to create four quadrants.  Low vulnerability and low authority is labelled as "withdrawing", but it could also be called safety.  An example of this can happen in the type of retirement where a person goes from cruise to excursion but does very little in the way of meaningful action.  Another form of safety comes when a person has a great deal of authority over others and because of wealth experiences very little vulnerability.  This person feels that he or she is invincible, and the result is exploitation towards those lower in status. The ideal place to be, according to Crouch is where both authority (meaningful action) and vulnerability are both high.  To be fully human we need to acknowledge and not fight against the limits placed upon us as human beings.   Something my family did in 2015 would seem risky to many people.  We opened our home to a person we knew almost nothing about: a young woman fleeing a war-torn nation as a refugee.  And yet, from oldest to youngest we all agree that the eight months she lived with us made us individually and as a family more compassionate, flexible and patient, more into the people God wants us to be. This risk led to flourishing for not only ourselves but for the person we embraced, and the ongoing relationship will continue to shape us.


3)  Clay Water Brick by Jessica Jackley, which I just finished reading, also talks about risk.  Jackley was co-founder of the non-profit organization KIVA, which allows everyday people to provide micro-loans to entrepreneurs around the world.  The stories she shares about these resourceful individuals who raise chickens, learned to bake their own bricks and operate market stalls are meant to teach all readers, business-minded or not, that opportunities are meant to be picked up.  Finding the right match between our passions and the needs around us (the definition Fredrick Buechner gives to vocation or "calling") involves becoming vulnerable.  We may not always get it right, but in the process we learn and grow.  Doing what is familiar and conventional has its place, but stepping out into uncharted territory when that is God's clear call on one's life will bring struggle and growth.
   Pursuing further education is another risk at my doorstep, but seeing it as an opportunity for growth changes my perspective and lends me courage.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Golden Rule and Giving

   We generally agree that giving is a good thing.  After all, Jesus is quoted by the Apostle Paul as having said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."  Still, it is quite easy for giving to go wrong. To avoid each pitfall below, the golden rule of doing to others what we would have them do to us is instructive.

1.  Giving can become a matter of pride
   When one is in the position of being able to give to another, it is possible to look down upon the recipient of that charity as being less valuable.  The "needy" can be made into an object rather than being seen as a human being with feelings and dignity.  The giver should call to mind that everything with which he or she has been blessed ultimately came from God and is not to be a matter of pride. In our lives we will experience times when we need the help of others and times when we can provide help for others.  Seeing everyone, no matter their level of need, as someone created in God's image will help us avoid becoming arrogant.
   An example of a good practice I am aware of is that performed by the development agency World Vision.  Every community where it seeks to work by bringing relief and development, its representatives meet with community leaders to determine what assets the community already has.  It consults them as well as to what their hopes and dreams are for the community so that a true partnership is forged based on humility and mutual respect.

2.  Giving can be thoughtless
   Thinking that people in need should be grateful for any old thing given to them can lead to thoughtless giving.  Such giving is seen during food drives when dented cans and products past the best before date are donated.  Clothing given to the needy is sometimes ripped, soiled or missing buttons.  Whatever a person plans to give should be something they themselves would be willing to receive.
   I am reminded of an episode in a radio drama where a young boy wins a new bike.  He knows of another child in need of a bike, so he plans to give him his old bike.  As a surprise, he leaves it at the curb of the needy boy's laneway only to have the garbage truck take it away.  In the end, he is convicted to give his brand new bike to this other boy, and he follows through.  It is a great story because it challenges one's natural inclinations.  It's easy to give away what one doesn't really like or need anymore.  The attitude of "What's mine is mine" can be overcome by living out the golden rule.

3.  Giving can be impersonal
   When we give a monetary donation, it can easily become another financial transaction, not unlike paying the utility bill.  When an amount of money is given through an agency, the personal impact of that gift is often brief and momentary.  A computer generated thank you letter telling how much the gift is appreciated does not genuinely allow the donor to see who benefited or how.
   The fourth grade class at my school recently learned how giving can be personal and more authentic. The framed photos of two Ugandan girls are front and centre in their classroom as a reminder of the reason they raised over $2,500 CAD: to sponsor their life-saving surgeries. Not only was money sent, but notes of encouragement and many prayers for their recovery and well-being continue to be offered.  A long-term personal connection has been made between the donors and the ones they helped.

Having the right posture when giving makes all the difference.  Humility, thoughtfulness and relationship elevates any gift from being a mere transaction.