I love preaching at my church – it opens up so much thoughtful dialogue.
This week we tackled the Advent theme of peace in relation to charitable giving.
It had been the week of a photo of a NYPD cop buying a pair of shoes for a homeless vagabond. It had gone viral. Something of the juxtaposition of officialdom, destitution and the approaching season of good will touched our collective hearts. Within a few days investigative journalism had done a number on the homeless guy, raising cynical questions of his worthiness and the naivety of the “do-gooder” charity dollar.
But Advent Peace, announced in the words of John the son of Zechariah, comes in the phrases “Prepare the way of the Lord… make his paths straight…” – and those who hear have to work out an immediate response when need confronts them.
Will I be ripped off? And if so, does it matter?
The question exercised our very generous congregation somewhat as we examined the protective measures in our charity giving and whether they diminished or enhanced the spirit of hospitality without which charity is simply an exercise in condescension. This was the topic of post-sermon coffee conversations.
This morning, a church member sent me a link, part of which follows:
James Doty, neurosurgeon and philanthropist, discussing the science of compassion on Radio Australia, speaks of the need to keep an open heart
James Doty: To put it in context, I had made a donation, a significant donation, to a charity that had misused my donation and I was so infuriated by that that I actually sued them. At the time this incident occurred I’d just left this lawyer’s office, and I was actually chastising myself because I gave this money away, these people misused it, am I just a fool? I always believe in people and I’ve been taken advantage of and now I have to deal with this situation which is creating my own stress. And I was walking along in this not so great neighbourhood with my head down actually contemplating about how foolish I was, and I was tapped on the shoulder by an Afro/American young man in his 20s who was not dressed particularly well, and this was in an Afro/American area, an area of poverty. And whether any of us like it or not we have prejudices and my immediate response was this is probably a drug addict who’s trying to get money, who’s just going to take it and spend it on drugs. And the individual said to me, ‘You know my car broke down and could you give me money for the bus, so I can take my mum and I so we can get home?’ And I saw no mum, I saw no car. So now I’m stuck with another dilemma because I’ve just beaten myself up for giving this money away and I’ve got this kid in front of me who I’ve already decided is a drug addict and I think to myself for a few seconds and I go, you know, am I going to believe in the innate goodness of people and just give him the money, and giving him the money regardless of how he uses it, is it going to change my life? No.
So I went ahead and gave him money, and then he thanked me and walked away and then I started the walk to this restaurant where I was having lunch and I was going again through the whole exercise—now I’m doubly beating myself up because I’m saying I’m even more of a fool because I’ve been used by this one group of people and now I’ve just given money away that’s going to be obviously misused.. And then I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn round and this young man is there and he’s got his mother, and he says to me, ‘You know, I just wanted to introduce you to my mother, I’m so thankful to you for giving me that money.’
You know, so it reinforced of course my basic belief in humanity, you know it brought a tear to my eye, but I think you can always try to keep an open heart as much as possible.
Peace is always linked with the figure of John, the son of Zechariah (aka John the Baptist) during the Advent season. The “peace” associated with his stormy transforming ministry that called for repentance and cleansing is based on the Hebrew concept of shalom – wholeness in relationship with others, oneself and the Divine.
Donating a pair of shoes or a bus fare, no questions asked, may be naive in the eyes of the cynical – but it may also be a nudge from the Divine!