April 27, 2012

Show Me!

... let us love one another, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:18)

Whenever I read this week’s Epistle, Audrey Hepburn’s voice jumps into my head as Eliza Doolittle explodes at Freddie:

Words, words, words

I’m so sick of words!

Never do I ever want to hear another word

There isn’t one I haven’t heard…

…Say one more word and I’ll scream!

…Don’t waste my time, show me!

So….how? How do we put words into action? And just as importantly, how do we fall short? When do we withhold the love and compassion, the effort and dedication, the embodied offerings that God would have from us through our baptism? With seven billion people on the planet, how can we possibly seek and serve the Christ we see in all of them?

I tried on a number of ethical frameworks in pondering these questions. One after another, my trains of thought derailed. In some cases the path just didn’t go anywhere. At other times what I discovered was just too personal, too honest, too much looking in the mirror.

And then I got a crazy idea: I wondered if the Jewish tradition of tzedakah could apply to offerings other than money—could I test my attitudes and experiences of love in action against these progressively virtuous motivations? It wasn’t perfect, but it was an interesting exercise.

Here’s what I found:

  • Giving begrudgingly; Giving willingly but inadequately: When I think about putting love into action, I finally understand why these are sometimes called “giving in sadness.” At best these are the “Well, I suppose…” offerings, the ones I catch myself giving to save face. It makes me sad when I hear talk of “them” and “they” drowning out love, compassion, prayer, and presence in our culture of otherness.
  • Giving after being asked: Isn’t this the bane of parish leadership? “Why do I have to make phone call after phone call for the Holiday Fair? It’s been in the announcements for weeks; why don’t people step forward?” I confess this is a hard one for me. I have been through too many rounds of being a new member in a congregation and have learned hard lessons about stepping up to offer time, talent, and effort. It’s safer to wait.
  • Giving before being asked: Now we’re getting to the offerings I enjoy! In those times when I have succeeded in discerning a need and bringing my baptismal energy to bear, I have been privileged with a glimpse of what it means to love one another, to make our offerings in community, to live into the teaching of the apostles and the fellowship. Even though it falls in the middle of the scale, giving without being asked makes me feel alive in community; it shows me how God’s love abides in me.
  • Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient know your identity; Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity; and Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity. Though these are three separate modes of giving in the Judaic tzekadah, for me they work together when putting love into action.

Many years ago I was a patient at the Bennett Cancer Center in Stamford, Connecticut. Though this was a difficult time for me, I am to this day in awe of the way this facility was structured, physically and culturally, to hold the patient in an unbroken offering of love, presence, and dedication. Medical staff, support, volunteers, and donors all understood themselves to be in vocation around their shared commitment to patient and family well-being.

What is striking to me as I look back on this experience is how varied the underlying motivations to this common commitment were. Every combination of these three levels of tzedakah were visible throughout: named gifts given broadly; named gifts in honor of a named individual; anonymous gifts honoring named loved ones. All came together in a network of enacted care, with powerful results.

I think of this community often. I aspire to its example in my own expressions of dedication and compassion. I struggle with the unknown and unknowing. Sometimes it feels impersonal. Sometimes writing a check feels too easy. I’m starting to understand why these motivations are understood as progressively more difficult. And I like it that even as a fairly mature steward, I still have work to do.

Giving that enables the recipient to become self-reliant. One of the privileges of my vocation is to work with offerings that bring about transformation. I am regularly awed and humbled by the many forms of witness these faithful stewards offer: a touch, a word, a time of patience and presence, a gas card, a job lead, a major grant, a legacy gift. Lives are changed every day, in countless ways, by enacted offerings of abundance.

So no, I can’t seek and serve Christ in seven billion of my fellow human beings. But I can make generous offerings in gladness. I can work toward a better balance in the thoughts, words, and deeds that are done, and those that are left undone, praying with the author of John’s first Epistle that God’s love will abide in me and that I will grow to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.


This post originally appeared in the 'Mainestewards' blog and is reprinted with permission.