Generosity? It’s complicated.

The other night I couldn’t sleep.

This is rare for me as I am a good sleeper.  I go to bed directly after I kiss my children good night.  I want to read.  I drift off many nights before ten o’clock.  But Saturday night I kept waking up feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Additionally I felt anxious about something that I could not name.  This happens to me sometimes.  My asthma acts up from years of smoking.  It was never the less keeping me awake.

As noxious thoughts began to swell and demand attention, circling like buzzards above me, I finally threw back the covers in frustration.  I got up.

I don’t do the middle of the night very well.

Sleepers generally don’t I think as we are not used to how different it is being awake in the middle of the night.  I was aware of all the fears I managed to push away which tend to take over during the nocturnal hours.

Gone is rationality.  Gone is perspective and patience.

And so, I found myself awake, breathing with difficulty at three in the morning and I finally decided to get up.

Creeping down the stairs and into the kitchen, I was going to use my inhaler and then write.  I find writing is the best way for me to sort out what is bothering me.

There were people in my living room!

I was shocked, though it is not as if it was totally unlikely.  Molly is often coming in from work or being out and it is usually in the hours long past midnight.  But she was sitting there idly chatting with our two guests at three in the morning.  They looked at me like I was crazy (for being up) and I looked at them the same way.  I quickly high tailed it out of there!  As I scuttled back to bed, pissed off and feeling as if I had done something wrong, I recalled the two young people who had slept in our basement off and on for the last week or so.

When we returned from Seattle, we found out that friends of Molly were “homeless” and living in their car.  They had stayed a few nights in our basement while we were away, but had cleared out when we returned.  So I invited them back again.

For months, years, I have tried to resolve where to step in to the tragedy of the homeless here in Madison.

I want to do something.  I want to be intelligent and compassionate about it.  We all do the various things like offer a ride or or give money to the person with a sign outside the mall. Bring a bag of food when our church asks.   But those are band aids (and some would say giving money to transients is wrong.  In Madison it is considered breaking the law).

But I want to help real people advance in their life situation.

And so, it was easy to take these two people in and allow them to sleep on our futon in the basement and eat a few meals. When I pursued their situation further, it turns out they are “intentionally without a home, off the grid, dependent on no-one.” Okay, I think.  Why not? We had no idea what their short and long-term plans were.  One more night quickly turned into a week, more…

We have so much.

As the week progressed, it became less convenient to have them in the basement where Tom’s studio is and where we have and do our laundry.  Dare I say inconvenient?  And we soon learned that our guests slept until two in the afternoon and stayed up all night, as I discovered when I wanted to use my computer in the middle of the night.

One day, as Tom and I cleaned toilets, washed dishes and laundry, they woke up late and laid about on the back porch. What had begun as an easy kindness had quickly become something else.  Something you hate to think, much less say out loud to one another in whispered annoyance.

I caught myself thinking “they’re just freeloaders.”  To be sure, by the end of the week, if they had not made their intentions clear to us we were going to ask, to clarify how long they would need our help.

I woke this morning to a note.  They are moving on — going to live with his parents for a while in Cleveland, work and pay off debt.  And though they were polite, and picked up after themselves, and were extremely appreciative, I was kind of relieved to see them go.

Generosity is quickly complicated when it involves real people.

And all too quickly I saw how small my heart is.  I felt willing to be generous as long as it didn’t infringe too much on my comforts and needs, my daily schedule or priorities.  I have to keep asking what’s next for us?  I let them stay with us because I wanted to “do something” for the homelessness.  They were just two people, fairly affluent with a car, cell phones, a laptop and other luxuries but they have no home.   I was surprised to learn that only 18% of the homeless are chronically homeless.  Perhaps more people on the street are like them?  I don’t know.

Generosity — yes it’s complicated.

Understanding homelessness requires a grasp of several social issues: poverty, affordable housing, disabilities, and others.

Having these kids living in our basement brought up all sorts of complicated feelings and thoughts.  Why aren’t they working?  And yet how can I not share the warmth and shelter that we are blessed with?

In a letter to our mayor Paul Soglin’s assistant, Brenda Konkel recently wrote:

Over the years a great many who live homeless in Madison have found daily shelter in either the basement of the State Capitol, or the Public Library on W. MIfflin St. As it currently stands soon neither will be available. Word from the State is that there are no plans to reopen the basement of the State Capitol to the public, and the downtown Public Library at its current location on Mifflin will close in October for approximately two years. The library’s temporary location will offer very limit seating and space.

The consequence of these two factors is to cast out many of our neighbors to the dangers and sufferings of winter.

This will be a grave time in Madison especially downtown if the people of our city do not take note.    What is being done?  What needs to be done?

Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”

It’s a heavy thing all this knowledge–the question is what do we do with our knowledge and our power?  Do we have open generous hearts.  Are we willing to have our lives disrupted and changed by others who are less fortunate than we?

Selah. Yes, stop and listen.  No answers today, just hard questions.

Melody

PS I did not take a photo of our guests.  This photograph was taken downtown Madison of a homeless woman.

Something God has slowly wrestled away from me one finger at a time …

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

— Henry David Thoreau

For many years now Tom and I have felt like we’re playing the Game of the American Dream.

Although it looks perfectly delightful on the outside, the conspicuous consumption of our lives keeps us awake at night.  It’s no secret that we must make pretty good money, since I don’t have to work but we’re not even very careful with our money.  We know we are lucky to have a such a good income and we have our retirement funds, and because of his business we’re insured up to our eye balls.   But at the same time have no short-term savings and live month-to-month.  And we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble a few times wanting a vacation or bedroom furniture or to build out a studio and putting it on credit because we don’t save for those eventualities.

I shop compulsively — like I do so many things — with more than twenty years of bad spending choices and not living deliberately.  I confess to my own addictive spending habits which have taken years to reform and I must say I am not fully there.  It has been an area where I have had a two-fisted grip on that “need” to have things and this is something God has slowly wrestled away from me one finger at a time.

In 2008 we decided enough was enough and with the help of a family member stopped spending on credit (for good we hope) by getting a personal loan to end the endless high interest chase of debt.  And we are paying that off at low-interest over several years.   So far, as it comes to credit, we are reformed.

But we are continuously asking how do we live more deliberately?

We have begun to ask each other hard questions about cultural expectations, the influence of media on our world view and our children’s minds and souls, asking what is “life-giving, important, and meaningful?” and how should that change the way we spend our money.  A recent series at church on Generosity (aptly titled Let’s Get Fiscal) has also had interesting timing  for us.  And right in the midst of this sermon series and our personal discussion and prayer about fiscal irresponsibility and generosity we had someone in our life that really needs our financial help.   We have to face that we don’t have money on hand to help.  Because of our financial irresponsibility we cannot help someone that we love and whom we want to help.  That hurts and convicts and fits right in to what God’s doing. The timing is striking and as we have sought to listen to God, because he is clearly speaking to us.  The sermon series told us startlingly that 3.6 billion people in the world live on $2 or less a day. (Passing the Plate, by Smith, Emerson and Snell)  And I heard recently on NPR that more than half of the Egyptians now protesting for a better life live on $2 a day.

I am the “Rich Man.”

As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’e Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.” Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hardf to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”  The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”  Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said. “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.g” (Mark 10, New Living Translation)

Now more than ever, we are thinking about living intentionally and thinking it through carefully.  What we do and how we do it impacts, or should, how we spend, how generous we are, how we are able to make choices deliberately and carefully.  A recently blog entry by Rachel Held Evans talked about our purpose and essential living in this way:

“It seems to me that there are all of these voices telling me that I need certain things—privacy, boundaries, a 3-bedroom house, a two-car garage, clean neighbors, cool friends, fashionable clothes, TV, junk food, exercise equipment, a plan, a religion, a career, certainty, approval, stacks and stacks of books, and lotion that gives my skin a healthy-looking glow.  Rarely do I stop, take stock of how I spend my money and my time, and ask myself—Do I really need this? Is this really essential? What is its purpose?

Donald Miller, in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, put this way:

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuüm cleaner, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life. 

Why do I write about this?  I believe it is a defining sin — conspicuous consumption and the love of money.  It is a lack of contentment — my pastor calls it a “cancer of discontentment.” He also reminded us of the prayer of Agur in Proverbs 30.  It says:  

Surely I am more stupid than any man,  And I do not have the understanding of a man.  Neither have I learned wisdom,  Nor do I have the knowledge of the Holy One.   Who has ascended into heaven and descended?  Who has gathered the wind in His fists?  Who has wrapped the waters in His garment?  Who has established all the ends of the earth?  What is His name or His son’s name?  Surely you know!  Every word of God is tested;  He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.  Do not add to His words  Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.

Two things I asked of You,  Do not refuse me before I die:  Keep deception and lies far from me,  Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion,  That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the LORD?”  Or that I not be in want and steal,  And profane the name of my God.

Tom and I begin a journey tonight, taking a Financial Peace University by Dave Ramsey.  I don’t know where it will lead.  I don’t know what God is doing.  But I invite you to follow along, because surely, I believe, we are not alone. I am tired of this heavy and oppressive way of life.

Are you too suffocating from the weight of the “American Dream?”  Are you burdened by consumption without knowing what to do about it?

I invite you to follow along and see what we learn.