Love Life Live Advent – 9th December – give a free gift

Today’s action is possibly the most quandary-inducing of the whole four weeks’ worth. We are to give a Christmas gift to someone who will not be expecting it, and who will not be giving one to us. Ah, free grace and generosity are fraught with such dilemmas of social ettiquette! What if our gift induces a flurry of last minute reciprocation? Or guilt at failing to reciprocate? Would an anonymous gift solve the problem or intensify it, as generosity goes unthanked, or is mistakenly thought to be more than it is – a simple act of kindness?

Unless I am the only person in the world who worries about such things, then this action could be hugely important, not so much in the act of giving but in the act of receiving. For it may well be more blessed to give than to receive, but it is often far harder to receive gracefully than to give gracefully: This action could teach us how to receive that which we have not earned. And there it is: a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

Love life live Lent: be more giving

Deciding to give your small change to charity is a great way to kickstart or boost your charitable giving.

Small change may seem like only a drop in the ocean, but as it has been pointed out, an ocean is made up of many drops, and when many people all do the same simple thing, such as the 5p rule (ie coins worth 5p or under go to charity) it can really mount up.  In my village quite a lot of people keep collection boxes for The Children’s Society, and every year they hand them in and all that small change is counted.  I think last time my own box total was about £14 – not hugely impressive – but I was astonished to read in the village magazine that all the boxes together that year, just from our village,  had raised a whopping £1500!

That’s one good reason already for adopting the 5p rule, but there’s another reason, too.

Lent is a great time for learning to sit more lightly to material things, our possessions and our money – the things that make this life good, but don’t last for ever.  In preparation for our Big Move in the summer (we’re leaving the country, for a year!) we’ve been getting rid of a lot of stuff, and it’s been strangely liberating to consider what we actually need, and what we can quite happily live without. The process has made me look at the things I own in a different light, and I find that the things I really do value, I appreciate all the more, and when I consider the things that are just ‘there’, I now find I am happier to distribute them (to friends, to charity shops etc).  Admittedly, is a sad reality for increasing numbers of people in the UK, that 1p, 2p and 5p coins are, genuinely making the difference between being able to afford to eat properly or not.  But for those of us for whom those smaller coins are not a matter of life and death, we probably don’t value them all that much.  We may own them, we may have earned them, but they should be really easy to let go of and give away.  And as I know from my own life at the moment, stripping down the stuff we own and the clutter around us (and even small change can feel like clutter) can be immensely liberating.

Today’s task is about learning to give away freely that which we own, but do not really value.  It’s a good thing to do in itself, and helps us sit more lightly to the things we own. But it’s also a good step towards the much harder challenge of giving away and sharing that which we really do value and depend on.

Love life live Lent – Wednesday of week 3 – be more generous

I thought I had this action covered first thing this morning: after an exhausting but very worthwhile school RE day in church yesterday, I bought a big box of choccies for the school staffroom to say thank you for all the teachers’ and teaching assistants’ willingness to engage with the day and go the extra mile.

But here we have a problem: the action today is to be more generous, but there can be many other motivations for giving other than generosity. Did I buy the chocolates to be generous? Or perhaps as a retrospective bribe to keep people’s goodwill, implying that I didn’t trust them to be motivated by anything ‘higher’? Or as a reward for making everyone work harder than they should have to, or making them do things that were out of their comfort zone? Or to assuage my own guilt for the things during the day that didn’t go quite right? Or out of a sense that it is my institutional duty to thank them?

It can be good to question our motivations, which may often be very mixed and complex. In the end, though, our actions really do count for a lot. For one thing, they are real and quantifiable, even if our motivations may be hard to define.

But our actions are also important because they affect who we are.  I think it was C S Lewis who was asked once by someone, ‘How can I become more generous?’ To which he replied, ‘Give.’ He didn’t just mean that because we give things away we are de facto generous (I’ve already said that I’m not sure that giving is the same as generosity). Rather, giving things away, whatever our motivation, gets us into a habit of giving which, over time, can make us into generous people for whom giving, out of our generosity, is second nature.

So many of the actions in Love Life Live Lent work on this basis: by taking some simple actions and ‘practising virtue’ we not only change the world around us, we also change ourselves.

Love Life Live Lent – day three: be more giving

Today’s action is to start a small change jar – in aid of any suitable charity – and add to it all through Lent.  A very excellent thing to do – even copper coins and 5p pieces add up over time to make a decent pot of money to hand over to somewhere where it can make far more difference that it would have done in our purses.

As it happens, I already have a rule that all 1p, 2p and 5p coins go in our Children’s Society box, but reading today’s task reminded me that for some reason I couldn’t find the box the other day, and I still can’t. This is worrying – not because it means the Children’s Society won’t get their money (they already have – I’ve done a £20 donation in lieu of the box of small change, just in case) but because the box is usually in the front hall, next to the phone, where I see it every time I pass, and therefore remember to check my purse.  If the box has been put somewhere else, or if it’s fallen down behind something, or got buried in a pile of junk mail, then this is a Very Bad Sign.  It’s a bad sign because it means that just possibly being generous has stopped being a daily (or many times a day) activity.

Someone once told me when I was a member of a church youth club that I should keep my bible out, and not on a shelf, but that I should also pay attention to what gets put on top of it.  The idea of this is that the stuff that ends up on top of the Bible, obscuring it from sight (and therefore risking putting it out of mind) is also the stuff that may be getting in the way of my faith, my Christian life.  I’m not sure that this is a foolproof way of discerning one’s main barriers to a growing relationship with God, but there must be something in it for it to have stayed with me.

Which brings me back to the Children’s Society Box.  I still don’t know where it is.  But every day that it’s not in plain sight, right in front of my face, there are 5p, 2p and 1p coins accumulating in my purse (or worse still, being spent by me) and therefore missing their true vocation.  They are like the ‘gleanings’ (the spare crops at the edges of the field) that rightfully belong to those who need them more than I do.  If the Children’s Society box doesn’t turn up when I tidy up tomorrow morning, then I’m going to start my jam jar. And I’m going to set it going with some nice fat 10p coins. And I’m going to paint it pink, or yellow, or something else that’s so bright and colourful that it will stick out like a sore thumb and make generosity prominent again on our hallway table.

(Oh yes, and it’s well worth checking down behind the sofa cushions – it’s amazing how much money is sometimes lurking there!)

Camels and needles – Mark 10.17-31

It’s another of those gospel readings that’s slightly odd and difficult to understand, and in which the bits we do understand make for challenging reading.

First, I’m not going to explain away the thing about the camel going through the eye of a needle by saying that ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the smaller gates into the city of Jerusalem, large enough only for a camel on its own, not one laden with possessions. This may well be the case, but it’s not the point. At least, I don’t think it’s the point.

So what is? Well, there are a few things that are well worth pursuing.

Let’s start with what Jesus says just after the camel bit, namely that what looks impossible turns out not to be, because God is not limited by what we can imagine, and by what we think the normal rules set out.  ‘For people it is impossible, but not for God, everything is possible for God.’ The other famous time in the gospels which talks about what is possible and what is not is when the angel speaks to Mary in Luke chapter 1 – the proof that God can do the unlikely thing of giving her a child while she is still a virgin is that God has already given a child to her elderly cousin Elizabeth, after years of the older woman and her husband trying to conceive. ‘For nothing will be impossible with God,’ concludes the angel.  We might well try and find ways of explaining away that bit of divine intervention too – many people do – but sometimes the gospels do present us with a miracle. Jesus does them all the time. If God can perform the miracle of a virgin birth, which human beings consider to be impossible, perhaps he can also thread camels through needles, and indeed grant a place in heaven to someone rich.  Indeed, anything is possible with God.

So far, so good.

So is the rich man doomed or isn’t he? He certainly seems to think so, as he goes away despondent. But is he really?  Remember that lovely line, ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him,’ or words to that effect. Is the rich young man, whom Jesus loved, condemned by his wealth, or is there something less simplistic going on?

Remember the famous phrase, that money is the root of all evil?  I can see some of you longing to correct me, that it is not money itself, but the love of money that leads us into sin (that’s from 1 Timothy chapter 6). Perhaps it is not ownership of wealth itself that is problematic,  but rather the miserliness and selfishness that clings onto it, that will not let it go, that gets obsessed by it.  Is Jesus testing the young man’s ability to let go?  To be generous?  Contrast this story with the encounter between Jesus and Zaccheus: the man was a crook, but Jesus did not ask him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – Zaccheus himself demonstrated that he was no longer a slave to his money by repaying with interest the people he had defrauded, and by making a generous donation to the poor from what was left over. But at no point did Jesus require him to give everything.

So why does he ask for such an enormous act of generosity and selflessness from this young man in today’s gospel?  Is it at least in part to test the man’s attachment to his wealth?  That’s certainly part of is. Great wealth brings great responsibility. All of us here are wealthy in comparison with so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world.  We all bear great responsibility in the way that we use and spend and give away our wealth, and we all need to spend time thinking about praying about how our possessions and our money can be a blessing to ourselves and to those around us, to God’s church, to the charities that are close to our heart, and to God’s world and people. The more we have, the more decisions we are called to make when it comes to how our generosity is going to find expression.

All of that goes without saying, but it’s not all that is going on.  Remember how the story starts. The man approaches Jesus, and asks him what he must do to get to heaven. When Jesus replies, reminding him of the commandments, the young man is able to reply that he’s always kept them all. Unlikely? Maybe, but even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really has led a super-virtuous life, it does rather seem as if the man is asking the wrong question. If he’s kept all the commandments, the likelihood is that he already thought he’d done enough to earn his way into heaven. Was he asking just to be sure? Or to get a nice pat on the back from the traveling Rabbi? Or was it yet another trick question, and had the young man been put up to it by the Pharisees? We don’t know.

But what we do have is Jesus’ answer. He loves the young man, but takes his question at face value. You want to guarantee yourself a place in heaven? Well, the price is more than you thought. In fact, it’s more than the law demands. Jewish law had plenty in it that encouraged, even demanded generosity but it didn’t ask people to give everything. What Jesus is saying is that getting a place in heaven isn’t something that is a matter of dotting every i and crossing every t. You can’t get to heaven by keeping your nose clean and obeying the law. He deliberately asks what feels unreasonable and unjustifiable because getting a place into heaven isn’t about reason and justice, it’s about the generosity and mercy and grace of God.

That’s why Jesus’ response to the young man only makes sense in the light of what he goes on to say to the disciples: all things are possible with God. We don’t know what became of the young man. We hope that he reflected on his wealth, and learned how to be generous, to exercise good stewardship over this possessions, to sit more lightly to them, to use them for good. But like so many of the walk-on characters in the gospels, as far as we know we never see him again.

But that’s not the end of the story. Not for him, and not for us. Because a young man who thinks he’s done everything right is like a red rag to a bull for Jesus.  Even though the young man is probably a very nice chap, his attitude is that of a pharisee-in-the-making: he thinks everything is about keeping the law, and that if he tries really hard and ticks all the right boxes, he’ll be OK. That’s how the Pharisees knew were they were in the religious and social pecking order. That’s how they could be confident about their status before the people and before God.  But that wasn’t how Jesus saw them.

The reading ends with ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’. If this is a parable about the relationship between our earthly life and the life of heaven, then I’m strangely comforted by it. The rich young man, by the miraculous grace and mercy of God, may well find himself in heaven when he dies. But he’ll find himself there not at the head of the queue, having earned his place, but somewhere in the crowd, perhaps towards the back, with the poor and destitute going in ahead of him.  And that is the real test for him.  When he sees that his place in the earthly pecking order doesn’t translate into the life of heaven, will he still want that eternal life that he was pestering Jesus about? That’s Jesus’ test. And it’s a test to any of us who have things that we cling to here, any of us who have ideas about our status, our importance.  Any of us who fall into the trap of trying to earn our way into God’s favour.

Eternal life, a place in heaven, involves being willing to relinquish any kind of status, either in terms of what we’re born into, or what we’ve earned. Quite simply, we can’t take it with us. If there’s a hierarchy in heaven at all, Jesus is quite clear on how it goes: the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  We may read this story and imagine that the young man’s moment of choice was in his conversation with Jesus: will he give everything away to buy his way into heaven or won’t he?  But in reality the man’s true moment of choice comes much later. When the time comes for him to find out if he made the cut, if he was good enough, if he really did earn his place, he’ll find that God isn’t sitting in state like a judge at all, but instead is welcoming all and sundry, including the unwashed, the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowly, the poor and the lame.  Does the young man want to join the queue behind them in order to receive the mercy that God is offering so freely?  That’s the real test of whether he’s willing to give up everything.

But, you know, it wouldn’t do him any harm to start practicing while he’s still alive.