What Costs Me Nothing…

We’re coming up to Thanksgiving in the U.S. next week. Many families will sit down to sumptuous meals–turkey with dressing/stuffing (depending on what region you live in), pumpkin pies, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, rolls or muffins, salads, mac and cheese, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and more. Some will settle in front of big screen televisions to watch American football, and parades crowded with giant balloons and marching bands. Some will have modest gatherings with family and friends.

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And the following day– Black Friday– they will rush to malls and giant box stores to take advantage of the spectacular sales. People will buy hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts, all with the satisfaction that they might have spent a lot more if they had not braved the crowds and the 4 a.m. opening times (some will begin shopping on Thanksgiving Day for the “head start.” Others will stay comfortably and safely indoors and spend their money shopping on-line).

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All of this costs money, of course. But for many Americans, it is not a real pinch to celebrate Thanksgiving. And we will say “Thanks,” and count our many blessings. We will also give. Charities and organizations are already taking donations. We can give $10 at the store to help buy meals for the hungry. We can buy small gifts to be sent overseas or to be given to the children of those in prison, or those who are homeless. We can buy coats (or hats or mittens, etc.) for those who have none. These efforts cost some money, too.

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But how much of these efforts comes from true “thankfulness” and how much from other sources– pride or guilt or a sense of duty? For what am I truly grateful at Thanksgiving? Thankful that I have so much? Thankful that I have the power to help others? Thankful that I have the day off to go shopping?

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It is easy for some of us to be thankful and generous–in our own eyes. I can give with the click of a button, and money I barely know I have is taken from my bank account and deposited in the account of a charity I may know very little about. I never have to see the people who are helped, and I never have to see what they have suffered or how my gift makes a difference. In fact, I don’t really have to see whether my gift even arrives where I imagine or does what the charity has promised. Some organizations are more transparent than others, and more reputable or honest than others, but I can feel good just by giving. In some cases, I can “make a difference” without any cost at all– just “like” a certain site, or fill out a survey. I can “give” without even giving!

In recent years, however, I have been surprised by those who have tried to make me feel bad about giving. They are not angry because I have not given, or have given very little, or given to dishonest charities. No. One lady was outraged that I should give to an organization that sends toys, hygiene items, and school supplies to needy children in countries around the world. What caused her outrage? Three things–the toys were “too American”–the instructions were printed in English, or they were “frivolous” toys like jump ropes and “matchbox” sized cars and trucks. Also, some of the boxes and wrapping were printed with cartoon-like children, which she felt were “racist” in their depiction. Finally, the spokesperson for the organization had been portrayed by the media as narrow-minded and “hateful” toward the issue of gay marriage. Her solution: she was never going to give to such an organization. She was urging people to give to groups that were providing livestock, instead. Here, she felt, was a useful gift. Chickens, goats, cows–these were gifts that would truly make a difference. And such gifts can and do make a difference– in rural areas, where there is space and enough grass or other food to sustain such animals. Her gift will have little impact on a child living in Nairobi, or Tegucigalpa, or Kosovo. I am glad she has the means and the desire to give and to help. And the organizations who provide such gifts are worthy–I mean no disrespect to any of them. But giving should be a joyous outpouring of love and thankfulness, of compassion and humility. If that means helping a rural community get milk and meat, that’s wonderful. If it means sending a stuffed animal, some silly socks, and some soap and washcloths to Lebanon, that’s great, too. Even if I don’t like the wrapping paper…

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My point is that a lot of our “giving” has become more about virtue signaling than joyously sharing with others to meet their needs. It costs a lot more in money to send a goat to Peru. But it may cost a lot more in time and energy to spend a day serving meals at a homeless shelter, or volunteer to rebuild in a community hit by a tornado or hurricane. And even though there may be a monetary cost to some of our gifts, in some ways, our “giving” costs us nothing. Not just little or nothing in dollars and cents, but little in emotion or thought or effort. There is nothing personal, or heartfelt, or sacrificial about some of our giving.

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And if that is true of our giving to strangers, what does that say about what we “give” to our families, our neighbors, and to God?

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During the reign of King David, there are many instances of celebration and thanksgiving. But there are also stories of heartbreak, loss, and repentance. In one of these incidents, King David angered God by taking a census. His conscience caused him to ask God’s forgiveness and ask what could be done to take away the guilt. God sent the prophet Gad to give David three choices, but David left it in God’s hands. God sent a vicious plague that swept toward Jerusalem. When the angel of death reached the threshing floor of a man named Araunah the Jebusite, God told him to stop. David could actually see where God had stopped the plague, and immediately went to buy the threshing floor, so he could build an alter and sacrifice to the Lord in repentance and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy.

Read more about the story of David in 2 Samuel 24
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King David had plenty of money. He also had authority, and the respect of his people. Araunah offered to give David not only the field, but the oxen to make the sacrifice. As the king, David could have taken the land and oxen– he could even have demanded them of Araunah. But David paid for it all, saying that he would not give to God that which had cost him nothing.

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In this season of giving, it can be tempting to measure the value of our gift by the monetary cost, or by the value WE receive from giving. But true giving should involve a willing and joyful sacrifice of our pride and our time. Sometimes, this may mean NOT giving a toy or a goat–it may mean giving an apology, or a second chance, or being willing to give up a turkey dinner or a shopping trip, in order to visit a shut-in, or spend some much needed time on our knees.

Having said that, there are plenty of things we can give that cost us “nothing”–smiles, a warm welcome, a listening ear, reaching out for reconciliation, and most of all, a heart-felt “Thank You.” Sometimes, these gestures cost us nothing– sometimes, they are a sacrifice. But they are gifts that really make a difference.

..And Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

How can I please God? What does He require of me? I’ve been exploring the most basic answer to this question by looking at Jesus’ answer to the related question, “What is the greatest of all the commandments?” (See Matthew 22: 34-40) Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy (6:5) as He gave His two-part answer– Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself! He went on to say that ALL of the commandments and laws hang on these two concepts.

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So today, I want to look closer at the last of these– Love your neighbor as yourself. In another gospel, we see that Jesus is challenged to clarify, “Who is my neighbor?” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2010%3A25-37&version=NIV When we want to justify ourselves, or narrow the letter of the law, we often stall obedience by seeking to “clarify” God’s commands. Jesus’ words are broad, but perfectly clear– Love your neighbor as yourself–love the next person you meet; the person closest to you, as if they were YOU.

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This doesn’t give us room to reject anyone or exclude anyone from our love, compassion, or respect as a child of God. Nor does it give us the right to live someone else’s life, or take away their God-given free will to think and act for themselves. I have been guilty of both offenses, and I don’t think I am alone.

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Two of the great mistakes we make in failing to “love our neighbor” come through fear and pride. In the story of the “Good Samaritan,” we see two examples of a priest and a Levite, who fail to show love to their fellow Jew. They act in fear– fear of being the next victim, perhaps, but also fear of being inconvenienced or pulled away from their plans and purposes, and fear of being “defiled.” How many times do I let fear keep me from reaching out? How often do I fear that people, even God, will think less of me for associating with those who need help? Yet Jesus was known for interacting with sinners, lepers, and other outcasts. How can I act differently, and please God more than His own son?

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The other great mistake I have made is to “love” out of pride. Sometimes, I think I have more wisdom, or more material wealth, or greater skills, and that it is my right to “help” my neighbor in my own way and at my own convenience. I think I know how they should live, what they should do, and what they need– more than they do; sometimes even more than God knows! But I cannot love where I am not willing to be humble. This is true with God, and it is equally true with others.

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That doesn’t mean that I love others best when I let them take advantage to my harm or to their own harm. And it doesn’t mean that I must agree with them completely or deny what I know to be right. But it means that I must value their well-being and worth in God’s eyes as equal to (and often greater) than my own. It makes me feel good to “fix” someone else by fixing their circumstances, or demanding that they accept my help, but their greater need may be to take control of their own circumstances and attitudes. My need to be “right” or “righteous” or “charitable” needs to take a back seat to whatever their greater need may be. I need to listen more than I speak; wait when I would rather act (or vice versa); to take direction rather than give it; and to give advice rather than orders.

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The Apostle Paul spoke at length about love:

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13: 1-7 NIV (via biblegateway.com)
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I can “care” about others; I can be generous; I can be knowledgeable; I can volunteer, and make sacrifices; I can “feel” deeply, and empathize with others– and still NOT love them. Conversely, I can disagree with them about a number of things, including their life choices, political views, and spending habits, and still love them as Christ loves them. I can love those who like me, or ignore me; those who hate me, as well as those who love me back. But I cannot do this in pride or in my own emotions and thoughts. This kind of love can only be sustained by the source of true Love– God Himself.

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This is why it is so important to learn from Jesus’ example. His perfect Love casts out fear and pride, and allows us to see others (and ourselves!) in the proper perspective.

What a Wonderful World

Years ago, Louis Armstrong recorded a song, called “What a Wonderful World.”  Video and lyrics here.  It’s a pleasant song, pointing out all the wonderful things to see and hear in the world around us…people sharing greetings, day and night, rainbows, children…but it is also a wistful song.  Armstrong sings it as an observer, more than a participant.  He sees all the wonder of the world around him, and he sees hope for the future.  The flowers and rainbows are there for all to see; but the greetings are not for him; the children are not his and will surpass him in knowledge and opportunity.

man beside window wearing black jacket
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I could name a dozen other songs or poems with similarly ambivalent messages; songs about smiling, hiding one’s tears, hoping for tomorrow and happy days returning.  Such songs acknowledge that our world is filled with wonder, beauty, and joy; they also acknowledge that sprinkled amid the wonder there is heartache and disappointment.

city man person people
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It is tempting in times of hardship to focus on the negative and miss the wonder that still exists around us.  It can also be tempting to resent the joy others experience as they soak in the wonder that seems to taunt us.

Some people ask, “How can you believe in God when you see all the pain and suffering and evil in the world?”  And others answer, almost flippantly, “How can you doubt God when you see all the beauty and grandeur in the world?”  To someone who is in pain, this is the kind of answer that rubs salt in open wounds.  It’s not that the answer lacks logic or merit, but it is devoid of compassion.

The truth is, that even in the midst of extreme suffering, we DO live in a wonderful world.  The sun still shines, there are still rainbows, and happy children, and, most of all, HOPE.

The Bible speaks of hope as one of the “remaining” virtues– Faith, Hope, and Charity (or Love).  We hear this, and study it, and recite it, but do we really appreciate it for the wonder it is?  Hope may fade in the midst of chaos, but it is not easily suppressed or smothered.  Hope gives us strength when we are struggling; it gives us a reason to look up from the ashes and see the sun.  Hope gives us the motivation to work and build after a disaster; to risk new adventures; to plan for a future.

adult bridal bride brunette
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Our world needs hope–we need encouragement to reach out; to build and rebuild our communities; to look forward with vision, and set goals to reach that vision.  And we need hope to turn our eyes to the source of that hope– for we do not hope in vain!

big wooden cross on green grass field under the white clouds
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Even in our fallen world, God is wooing us with wonder, beauty, joy, and HOPE.  What we will find in the redeemed world is beyond our wildest imagination

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