On Being/Becoming Generous People

Rev. Josh Pawelek

GenerosityOur ministry theme for March is generosity. We choose this theme for this time of year quite intentionally. March is the month and today is the day we officially launch our annual appeal during which we ask each of you to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. I know I don’t have to sugar-coat this. We’ve talked enough about money, giving and financial stewardship over the years that I’m confident all of us (except those who are very new to the congregation) know that we—and by we I mean you, the members and friends of this congregation, and me, the minister, and the rest of the staff—we, all of us, want all of us to be as generous as possible when we make our financial gifts to this congregation. We take giving very seriously here, and I hope and trust each of you is reflecting now on what UUS:E means to you, and the financial gift you can pledge for the coming year.

Of course, generosity is important no matter what time of year and no matter to whom or to what institution or cause you are directing your generosity. I want us to be generous to UUS:E with our time, talents and treasure; but it is also my hope that we will be generous in all aspects of our lives—generous to our families, our friends, our neighborhoods, our towns or cities, institutions we care about, people in need, people who are suffering, people next door, people on the other side of the planet and, indeed, the planet itself. I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. With this in mind, and mindful we are launching our annual appeal, I offer three reflections on generosity:

My first reflection, perhaps somewhat oddly, is about not being generous. It stems from the recognition that at certain times I experience myself not as a generous person, but as something else. I don’t want to admit I sometimes experience myself as selfish, stingy, closed-off, but sometimes that how it feels. I don’t want to give money to everyone who approaches me with an outstretched hand. I don’t want to say ‘yes’ to every idea everyone wants to pursue with my help, or to every worthy cause everyone wants me to support. I don’t always want to call my legislators or the Governor’s office every time someone asks—that could be a full-time job if I made every call I’m asked to make. As much as I love my parents, my wife, my brothers and their wives, my kids and my nephews and nieces, I don’t always want to spend time with them. I don’t always want to help out with the PTO, chaperone the field trip or coach soccer. I don’t want serve on yet another board. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t. And, often, the act of saying “no” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it,” or “I’m sorry, there’s no cash in my wallet,” makes me feel incredibly guilty, selfish, stingy, closed. To this day, I’m not entirely sure where this comes from—especially the guilt, since it wasn’t part of my religious upbringing. But guilt is often the first thing I feel when I refuse the invitation to practice generosity.

I’ve learned to remind myself that all spiritual values have their limits when human beings put them into practice. There are practical limits to our compassion, love, wisdom, creativity, hospitality. Generosity is no exception. We cannot respond to every need. We cannot make every wounded person whole. None of us has infinite financial resources, infinite time, infinite compassion, infinite love. This is not a scarcity-mentality. It is a realistic assessment of our capacity. As much as we might want to, we cannot donate a second kidney. We cannot say “yes” to everything no matter how worthy. When we do, we risk exhausting ourselves, impoverishing ourselves, losing ourselves. We risk stressing out, checking out, burning out, disappearing, fading away. We risk becoming resentful, bitter, discouraged, depressed.

It is possible to be generous in an ungrounded way, in a way that potentially does harm to the one being generous. Over the years I have watched people impoverish themselves emotionally, spiritually and financially by giving endlessly to others. We might call them selfless, we might admire them for their sacrifice—sometimes it is truly beautiful—but more often than not, as they deplete their resources, their own life grows more and more tenuous, and their generosity loses its effectiveness. There’s a metaphor that keeps popping up in my life these days, the instructions one receives on an airplane: if the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling, put your own mask on first, prior to putting your child’s mask on. If we want our generosity to be as effective as possible, and if we want it to be sustainable—that is, if we want generosity to be an ongoing, deeply-rooted part of our identity—then we need to put our own mask on first. We need to trust that saying “no” doesn’t have to be a sign of selfishness. Saying “no” may simply mean “I’ve reached my current limit.” Saying “no” in some situations sustains us for those situations wherein we say “yes.” Saying “no” in some situations enables us to be ready for and effective in those situations wherein we say “yes.” I’m talking about self-care, which includes saying “no,” and enables us to offer grounded and sustainable generosity to those people, institutions and causes that are most important to us.

My next reflection is about spontaneous generosity or random acts of kindness. Our middle school “Popcorn Theology” class recently watched excerpts from the 2007 film, Evan Almighty, in which actor Steve Carell plays Evan, a newly elected congressman who wants to change the world, and actor Morgan Freeman plays God. God convinces Evan that he must build an ark, just like Noah did in Genesis. Evan asks God if he really intends to flood the earth and start over. God doesn’t answer the question fully, but he indicates his intent isn’t as Biblical as it may seem. In protest, Evan says, “I don’t even know where I would begin.” “Well, I hear that a lot,” says God. “People want to change the world, don’t know where to begin. You wanna know how to change the world, son? One act of random kindness at a time.” Spoiler: ‘ark’ is an abbreviation for ‘act of random kindness.’

Whether we say ‘acts of random kindness’ or ‘random acts of kindness,’ this is very familiar language in our culture, to the point where it has become a hyper cliché. If you know me at all, you know I am underwhelmed by moral and spiritual guidance delivered through clichés. I actually don’t agree that one act of random kindness at a time, even when carried out by millions of people, will change the world. I happen to think the problems facing the world—climate change, poverty, violence, war, and so on—will not evaporate in the face of widespread kindness. I happen to think solving the problems facing the world today requires not random, but highly organized, large-scale, strategic interventions aimed at transforming the local, regional, national and global social, political and economic structures that currently perpetuate those problems. Such interventions cannot be accomplished by kind individuals acting randomly on their own, but rather by multinational, multicultural, multigenerational movements acting in visionary, courageous and sustainable ways over the course of decades. Since change of this sort requires conflict, not all of it will be kind. The world needs more than random acts of kindness.

Having said that, I don’t want to become known as the minister who urged his congregation not to commit random acts of kindness. If you were getting ready to post that message on Facebook, or tweet it, please hold off. Almost all of us have opportunities—many, many opportunities—every day to be kind, compassionate, generous. And we don’t have to go far out of our way to find those opportunities. Offer an encouraging word, a compliment, an affirmation—or just ask, “how are you today?” and really mean it. Reach out to a friend or family member you haven’t heard from in a while. Say “hello,” “I’ve been thinking about you,” “I miss you.” Let the other person have the parking space, even though you got there first. Let the other person cut in front of you in the traffic jam. Lend a hand, hold a door, offer a ride, help with a project—painting a room, raking leaves, shoveling snow, packing for a move, cleaning a garage, attic or basement. Ask, “Is there anything I can do?” and, if the answer is “yes,” do it. Mentor, tutor, coach, counsel, guide. Help with homework. Remember a birthday or an anniversary—the anniversary of a marriage, a death, any significant milestone in a person’s life. Remember with a card, a phone call, a gift. If you discover someone is lonely, talk to them, take them seriously. If someone is overwhelmed, assist them. If someone is grieving, comfort them. If someone is in pain, soothe them. If someone needs to be left alone, let them be alone.

And then there’s the giving of money. So often we encounter people who need money for any number of reasons. And yes, giving money to someone in need can be tricky. When you have money to give and another needs it, it invariably creates an imbalance in the relationship, which can be hard to talk about, hard even to acknowledge. At the risk of minimizing the complexities money brings to human interactions, my hope is that in those times when we have it and others need it, we can give it with humility, with grace, with no strings attached, with no regrets. Having money to give does not make a person better or more worthy, but it does give one an avenue for kindness and generosity that can make a huge difference in another’s life. My hope is that, when we have it to give, we will give it.

Offering our generosity through random acts of kindness won’t change the world. But what a difference it can make, not only in the lives of those who receive our generosity, but in our own lives. What a difference there is between a life in which we close ourselves off to the needs of those around us, compared to a life in which we reach out, make ourselves available, offer a kind word, give money when we have it to give—thoughtfully, carefully, always within our means—but freely, without reservations or misgivings. Generosity honors life, strengthens life, builds life up. Yes, church ought to enable our participation in those larger movements for social, economic, political and environmental change, but it also ought to inspire us to be generous in our face-to-face, human interactions. What a difference generosity makes.

My final reflection, then, brings generosity back to church. Again, I want us to be generous people. And I want us to be people who are always becoming more generous. This certainly means I want us to give as generously as possible to our annual appeal. And it also means I want us to be as generous as possible in all aspects of our lives. So, what is it about church—this particular church—that creates a generous spirit in us, that keeps us not closed but open to those around us, that inspires us to give? I read to you earlier an excerpt from a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies, called “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” Sam is her son. She describes how the people of the church welcomed Sam as soon as they found out she was pregnant, and how they continued to welcome him and support their small family through hard times once he was born. She writes of receiving gifts of clothes, casseroles and baggies full of dimes. She writes of the deep and genuine love the people of the church feel for Sam and the deep and genuine love he feels for them. This story jumped out at me because it’s about multigenerational bonds within a church community. What I’ve come to recognize during this congregational year—more fully than I’ve ever recognized before—is that for multigenerational communities to work well the members must be open—intentionally and purposefully open—to a whole range of needs and gifts unique to each generation—open to the needs and gifts of elders, of our children, of our youth and young adults, of parents and of non-parenting adults;  open to all these needs and gifts, learning how they complement each other, how they conflict with each other, and how we can mash them up into a beautiful whole. Multigenerational community demands openness. And I’m convinced the more open we are, the more generous we become.

Last year many of you were able to increase your financial giving, which enabled us to support a very intentional process of enhancing the quality and experience of our multigenerational community. We have been working closely with our interim religious education consultant, Barb Greve and we are finally beginning to introduce some innovations: Everything from the new children’s nametags, to increasing the number of non-parenting adults volunteering or subbing in the children’s religious education program, to inviting small groups of adults to attend children’s worship, to piloting a variety of techniques for multigenerational worship. This spring we’re going to experiment with having children present for the beginning of adult worship on a much more regular basis, and we have many more ideas for making full-week faith a reality over the coming year. The bottom line for me is that we are slowly increasing the opportunities for interaction across the generations. This requires a new degree of openness to change and new relationships. I’m starting to see it—perhaps you are too—and I love what I see. The more open we are, the more generous we become.

Generosity is one of the most significant spiritual values we can cultivate in ourselves and our children. So much of what we do here at UUS:E seeks to instill generosity in us by opening us up—opening us up to the world around us, to pain and suffering and need in the world, to the complexity and beauty of the world, to possibilities, creativity, joy and love: Sunday morning worship, religious education, opportunities to serve—as leaders, as committee members, as stewards, as caregivers, as teachers—opportunities to participate in social justice movements, opportunities to participate in environmental justice movements, opportunities to mark and celebrate life’s milestones—birth, coming of age, marriage, death—opportunities for us to be safely and fully who we are, opportunities to share the details of our lives, to hear and be heard, to see and be seen, to know and be known, to hold and be held, to shape and be shaped, to challenge and be challenged, to soften and be softened, to care and to be cared for, to bring and receive gifts, to love and be loved. All of it opens us up, enables us to be generous people, enables us to continue becoming more generous people.

For your generous gift to this year’s annual appeal, thank you. For your generous spirit, thank you. For all your efforts to become more generous people, thank you.

Amen and blessed be.