What You Give and What You Get
Ron Parker – October 14, 2018
Up until about ten years ago, I had a little game that I played with myself. When I rode Bart or found myself in a waiting room, I tried to look around to see what other people were reading—magazines, books, newspapers. It was sort a of a little cultural research. Sometimes it led me to the news stand or the bookstore to buy a copy of what I saw someone else reading.
But about ten years ago, something changed. Now more people than ever were reading, but it was all on smart phones. I looked around the Bart car I was riding recently and determined that 90% of the people were looking at their phones. Not only that, walking down Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley has become downright hazardous. Hardly anyone is watching where they’re going.
Of course, the real problem with this is that I can’t tell what they are reading anymore. My research has come to an end. What could all these people possibly be reading?
But then I had a thought. A few years back, I discovered that I could download the entire New Revised Standard Version of the Bible to my iPhone. Now I’m wondering…could all those people be reading the Bible? …I suppose not.
But that led to another thought: what if all of us tithed our screen time? What if we took just ten per cent of the time that we look at our smartphone or sit in front of a computer or TV screen to expose ourselves to content that made us better people, that promoted love and generosity, that broadened the range of our view of the human family? Ten per cent, that’s not so much. It might not be easy, but I’m betting that it would make a big difference.
What if we took this a step further? What if we agreed in our homes that a tithe of our conversations would be devoted to improving our relationships, making us more responsible citizens, caring for the poor? Just a tenth.
This might be hard to keep track of, so I propose a new piece of software for Amazon Echo and Google Home, since they are already listening in on our conversations. How would it be if, once-in-a-while Alexa politely interrupted and said, “Excuse me, but you have been ranting about national politics for over an hour. May I suggest a few minutes of quiet conversation about some of the good things in your life. If you have trouble getting going, I can suggest some starter questions.” Is that too intrusive?
These ruminations remind me how easy it is to lose track of what is important in our lives, how easy it is to slide into habits of thought and attention and, indeed, actions that lead us away from what makes our life better.
So what does make our life better?
I don’t know about you, but I have come to believe that what makes my life better, more satisfying, more valuable, has more to do with what I give that what I get. Life is what we contribute not what we collect. All that we collect will come to an end when we die. What we contribute will continue to live.
Epworth’s annual rummage sale always brings that into sharp focus for me. It is an opportunity to take stock of what makes my life more satisfying. I look around my house and discover that it is full of things that I thought would make my life better. Most of them have not delivered on their promises. In fact, some of them have hindered me from the life I value most. One thing is for sure, I’m happiest when I bring more things to the rummage sale than I take home.
But the concept of stewardship takes this one step further. Stewardship is not about giving leftovers and cast-offs. It is about giving from and to the things we value most.
A few weeks ago, Christina Kellogg reminded me that I had once said in a sermon that I had heard that most ministers have about five sermons that they repeat over and over with different illustrations and in different contexts. She reminded me that I had said that that was about right for me: one on love, one on community and three on stewardship.
I think that is about right. It’s right because stewardship is about what we do with what we have been given and that’s a big part of life. So if by now you are feeling a little tired of the annual stewardship campaign, try to remember that it’s about all of your life and what you do with what you’ve been given.
Last Monday, Ruth and I were in Bhutan, a small country in the eastern end of the Himalaya range, you know, the one that tracks its Gross National Happiness. It was the day that our small group of pilgrims was to climb to the Tiger’s Nest, a small temple perched on a precipitous cliff at about 11,000 feet elevation, three thousand feet above our little hotel in Paro. It’s an easy climb for those who live there, but not for those of us who live at sea level.
The Tiger’s Nest’s attraction for pilgrims from around the world is that Padmasambhava, the founder of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is believed to have spent three months meditating in a cave there.
We set out early in the morning when the air was cool and the crowds were light. In the first hundred uphill yards, I could notice the thinness of the air and the weakness of my legs. Finding an appropriate pace was essential. As I found my own stride and settled in, I noticed something about the people around me. There were some who sped by me as if I were standing still, intent on reaching their goal as fast as possible, almost as if enlightenment were a zero-sum game. Some seemed impatient with my pace and almost pushed by on the narrow trail.
On the other hand, there were others who slowed their pace and inquired about how I was doing, even walked with me for a while to encourage me. My progress seemed more important to them than their own. I also saw families of three generations where the younger and stronger people stuck with the grandmother struggling upward with her cane.
I was thinking about this when I came to choir practice on Thursday night and Jerry suggested the anthem we just heard. He wondered if it would go with my sermon, which was still developing in my jet-lagged mind. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Did you hear the words?
“Come weary pilgrim, take my hand
I’ll lift you up and help you stand.
The path is steep, the road is long,
but with my love, I’ll keep you strong.”
Of course, this is Jesus talking. But wherever I hear Jesus reaching out to us, I hear the call for us to do the same for others.
Two attitudes: One: get mine as fast as I can, never mind those who struggle. Two: stick with the weakest one and make sure that he or she makes it.
This reflection reminded of the way that Jesus was always saying things like, “The first shall be last and the last first” and “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of my sisters and brothers, you have done it unto me.” Or the sign on the wall of my third-grade Sunday School class: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Interestingly, in the third grade, I thought that meant that even though we all knew it really was better to receive than to give, this was one of God’s arbitrary rules that we were supposed to obey to gain God’s pleasure.
It took me quite a while to mature enough in my faith to realize that my life really was more blest by giving than by receiving.
One more insight from this pilgrimage in Bhutan:
Giving — stewardship — is not a rule but a way of life. It is a quality of personhood. And becoming the kind of person we want to be requires practice, spiritual practice. Becoming the person we want to be is not just a matter of deciding. It is deciding and then practicing until it becomes second nature.
I have often heard Orgen Chowang Rinpoche, who accompanied us on this trip to Bhutan, say that Buddhism is not a religion, but a series of practices. Buddhists do not worship Buddha, but try to learn how to live from his teachings. And, importantly, for Buddhists, all of it requires practice.
We Christians could learn from that. We have too often thought that being a Christian was just a matter of deciding and neglected the fact that it also takes practice.
Next week we will turn in our annual pledges. We might think of it as simply paying another bill, but I want to suggest that, instead, we think of it as practicing being the kind of person we want to be. Try thinking about what you value in life and how you can give to that. Then keep doing it until it is second nature.
Who we are is more about what we give than what we get. When we die, the things we have gotten are lost to us. What we have given lives on.
One night while I was in Bhutan, I had a dream.
I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and I come back to Epworth. I can’t find where the choir is practicing. Finally, I go out into the sanctuary. It’s been remodeled. The pews have been removed and recliners put in their place. Some of them go all the way flat. (this is probably a residue of my business-class envy) I see several members of the choir in various states of reclining. I find an empty recliner, but can’t make it sit up at all. I am forced to lie perfectly flat. I feel suffocated and terrified.
When I woke up, I realized that, in a way, this nightmare is about having given in to receiving so much that I am no longer able to give.
There is much in our culture that tries to convince us that reclining in first class is the goal of life. I come here each Sunday to be reminded that my life is really better when I am standing up for what is right – when I am giving rather than receiving. I have to keep coming here every Sunday as part of practicing to be the kind of person I want to be and when I make my pledge, that’s part of the practice.
When I fill out my pledge card this week, I’m going to think of it as practicing being the kind of person I want to be. I’m going to think of it as a kind of radical act that goes against the dominant message of our consumer culture.
I’m going to remember that I am more blessed when I give than when I receive.