Scripture reading for today:

Isaiah 12:2-6, Amos 8:4-12, 2 Corinthians 9:1-15

A Call to Change

In late October, I met with a number of colleagues who serve with an organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). We were there to reflect on ways to best resource local churches who want to serve in the midst of their neighbourhoods in ways that are just, dignified, and that honour the agency and worth of all they meet.

For so many churches, the simple answer to serving the neighbourhood has something to do with food. It’s a simple way to start, many churches are expert at sharing food, and shared food offers a natural way to break down barriers between folks who don’t usually spend time together.

And so, starting from that assumption, we began to reflect on what would be essential in a resource that would help churches to develop or redevelop their food programs to create spaces that would make it easier for each person to recognize the image of God in the other.

As I sat down, still carrying on a conversation with another member of the group, a beleaguered groan emanated from the office across the hall. A voice from the same person followed: “Why won’t they just get it?”

My friend emerged from their office and began to fill us in. Over the course of several days, they had been in conversation with the pastor of a local church who wanted to do something for the poor. Christmas is coming, after all. The pastor had decided to send shoeboxes of goods to the neighbourhood, through this organization. But what people – whether in Eritrea or Vancouver’s DTES need people’s discarded crap and dollar store finds to see them through?

The problem, of course, was that the pastor had refused to consult with the organization to see if this approach would be helpful. It was not. The organization told him as much. What the pastor wanted to give, and what the people the organization serves needed were not the same thing. Still, the pastor insisted. He insisted, and insisted, and insisted, until ultimately, the organization stopped pushing back, and started to think through what it might do to redistribute whatever was coming their way to someone who could actually use it. It was not them. And it was not the people they served.

It blew my mind that someone would decide to do something, receive feedback that it was not in fact helpful, be asked to do something that would be of actual value to people in distress, and then be stonewalled because the pastor had already decided what they were going to do, that it was Christmas, that they needed a program, and that this was going to be it.

Are we really so blind?

Prepare for the shoeboxes to arrive. We don’t much care if you need them. We don’t much care if this is helpful. What matters is that we feel good about it. And if I’ve heard anything a thousand times, it’s that God loves a cheerful giver.

In this Advent season, co-opted as it is with Candy Cane lattes and red cups and saccharine music, is there something about the way in which we seek to give from our excess that mimics this pastor’s approach? Is there something about the way in which we do charity that is on a scale of toxicity that does more to harm than to help? Is there something about our inability to listen to the needs of individuals, and the crying of these disorienting times that prevents us from responding to the needs before us?

For the longest time, I hated fundraising letters. I hated writing them, and I hated receiving them. But this moment helped me begin to see the point of writing them. Perhaps this was something the Apostle Paul was on about 1900 years ago. When people insist that they are going to help you by providing you with things you don’t need, I am coming to understand why a clear outline of “if you’d like to help us, here’s how,” might be of some benefit.

This time of year, there are endless opportunities to read fundraising letters of all sorts. The typical response of my stone cold heart is the same: to throw them in the recycling, and to hope the paper will be used for something better next time.

Letters from churches and non-profits, letters from friends who volunteer for this or that agency and want to invite a gift. Letters from those who expect that at this time of year, I will be ready to listen, and, if they ask in just the right way, I will give to help with whatever need they have carefully outlined in their letter.

In my church, each autumn marks stewardship season. Our erroneously named two minutes for stewardship are often longer, but also incredibly compelling testimonies of the way in which God has worked in a person’s life as they have sought to give of their time, talent and treasure in the name of Jesus.

My favourite talk this year concluded with these lines: “The Lord loves a cheerful giver, but will accept the gifts of a generous grump.” We laughed. We laughed because we knew it to be true. And we knew that the ministries of which we participate in and support depend on so many people generously giving of what they’ve received from God in order to serve others.

Earlier this fall, this remix of Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 1:7 brought up questions about the ways in which this passage has been used to compel and shame people to give until it hurts and even kills.

It brings up questions about the way in which we have emphasized the need to give as a form of spiritual practice.

It brings up the way in which we Christians, and especially the leaders of Christian communities can use these words to say “you ought to give, and you ought to give cheerfully – or else.”

There’s a guilt trip there, even though the previous phrase clearly gives a person autonomy to respond as they are able – not reluctantly or under compulsion – and as they have made up their own mind.

And so I wonder. I wonder as we enter these darkened days of the year. I wonder as we tread the path of cosmic battles between good and evil, between light and darkness, between fear and love.

I wonder how we might learn to give anew.
Not out of posturing.
Not out of compulsion or guilt.
Not out of trickery, smooth words, or in response to a well-edited and compelling video, but out of true love for Jesus, and the world he is about to enter.

Jesus was not born into a world either serene or pristine. We may sing it year on year, but I’m not buying that “no crying he makes.” This is a world full of suffering. This is a world full of tears. While I’d like to wish for Jesus an uncomplicated middle-class suburban childhood, this was not then and is not now his reality. The man of sorrows who died to show us how we might live began life in circumstances that would have us modern people ready to buy goats and chickens and to send shoe boxes.

While I’d like to wish for Jesus an uncomplicated middle-class suburban childhood, this was not then and is not now his reality. Click To Tweet

And yet, what Jesus invited from the beginning, was relationship. Deep, mutual relationship. Why then, do we keep others, and especially those unlike us, at such a distance? Why do we keep Jesus at a sanitized distance through our Carols and shoebox programs that dare not ask what life is really like, and how we might truly enter into the glory of our Lord – the glory of suffering that marked his life from birth to death to resurrection?

This advent may we be transformed by the one who was born without a home, and who calls us to make a home in a world hostile to connection, understanding, and the transformation of the divine-human encounter.

Thank you for reading the New Leaf Advent Reader, a collection of reflections from writers across Canada. If you are enjoying the reader, sign up to receive the readings in your inbox each day here: SIGN UP And please share this reflection with your friends and family who might also enjoy it.

photo credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia