Generosity of Spirit
September 30, 2018
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
Have you heard about the FIRE movement? F.I.R.E? It has nothing to do with actual fires. It stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early. FIRE: Financial Independence, Retire Early. It's a movement that supposedly derives in part from a book written in 1992 by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez called Your Money or Your Life. The book was intended to encourage people to value their time and to live small in order to save the planet. But instead it’s been adopted by a group of people, many of them Millenials, who have decided that a primary goal of their life is to become financially independent and retire early, as early as possible, and for some this age is as early as their late 30s or 40s.
Robin says that she's surprised how her book has become a kind of Bible to the FIRE movement, who seem to be less motivated by the kind of altruistic and aspirational goals that she and her co-author had in mind when writing their original book, and more by a simple pursuit of not having the stress of a job, a mortgage hanging overhead and a sense of insecurity in today's economy.
There has been a fair amount of coverage of FIRE in the media lately--The New York Times did a big article on it earlier this month, and in Time magazine back in the spring. I've been curious about FIRE--I do think that frugality and a careful conscious use of money is important, but I wondered what FIRE does to a person's spirit of generosity, or if people out there who are pursuing FIRE also tithe or engage in deep philanthropy.
I came across a story of a person, who, through extreme frugality and investing had achieved FIRE in midlife. He then described a journey that included traveling, then taking on an inner search for who he really was, and what makes life really worth living. First he searched for meaning through getting involved in the new homesteading movement a lifestyle described as opting out and seeking self-sufficiency. This was not wholly satisfying to him, so then, he says, he began trying to help others gain financial independence. But then, he confesses, he came to the realization that he and his team were apart from others and frankly feeling superior in that they had already achieved FIRE.
This individual then realized what he was engaged in was not a soul-sized life, a life with risk and grit and joy and real purpose, that not only wanted for others something he found valuable but that engaged with people in their own struggles, and together sought a world with an economic system based on sufficiency for all. He realized the larger problems of the larger community needed to be his north star. He realized that his financial independence would always be incomplete if others were suffering in food insecurity and housing insecurity and as he leaned into those problems, he says, "my life became happier, more satisfying to myself and inspiring to others and more of what George Bernard Shaw calls the “true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”"
I find his story remarkable because this individual not only achieved his goal, but because he achieved it early in life, he was able to see what was valuable in this goal and what was not. His was not a lifelong pursuit where the end of his life coincided with the realization that maybe what he was chasing wasn’t the right thing after all but a revelation that led him into a form of radical generosity and hope.
This man came to the realization that money itself is morally neutral. But what we do with money has ultimate moral significance. This man finally understood that his sense of well-being rested not so much in being financially independent, but in being a part of something that had a higher purpose of abundance for everyone, and in using his own resources to achieve that goal he finally achieved the well-being he sought.
For the next few weeks, we're looking at the call in scripture to give of our first fruits and to rest in the assurance of God for our sufficiency. Our scripture for today from Deuteronomy follows the scripture we looked at last week and refers to a "tithe in the third year." Biblical scholars are divided on whether this actually refers to an additional tithe or is the same tithe referenced in the law given to Moses. A "tithe" is understood to be a tenth, offered in confidence and out of gratitude for God's abundant provision, which has been demonstrated throughout history from the well of zamzam that Hagar found in the desert to the manna provided to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness to the experience of Jesus turning five loaves and two fish into enough to feed 5000.
There is ample evidence in scripture of the generous provision of God, both directly and indirectly through the giving and sharing of the community of God. And yet when we experience a week like this one, when challenges and bad news are so significant, it can be hard to trust that abundance of goodness and provision. Bad news and challenges can make us want to turn inward, protect what we have in order to keep an untrustworthy and insecure world at bay.
It has been a very difficult week with our country struggling to be courageous and to understand and exhibit true compassion and justice. I want to thank our Stephen Ministry leader and retired clergy person, Pat Bruce-Lerrigo and Charley Lerrigo for generously and care-fully holding space in the chapel this morning to lift all of this in prayer and solidarity. In times like these, it can be hard to believe in the better nature of humankind, and we can wonder about our capacity for decency, with the capacity for generosity seeming like a bridge too far for basic human behavior. But what we have experienced to be true is that it is our generous love for each other is what we need to call on when we are most deeply challenged. Our generous love for each other is the path back to wholeness and health.
A few years ago, the Fetzer Institute did a study that investigated generosity of spirit and the rewards and challenges of giving and receiving. They found that that generosity is an impulse that invokes deep and vital healing in the human family. The researchers said, “With every story we heard, we came to realize that sharing our gifts with each other, whether they be gifts of love, time, attention, skills, or money, releases a powerful force for positive change in both the giver and the receiver.”
“Generosity,” the researchers said, “is what propels us through crisis, what we call forth from within us when pressed against disaster or despair. It can transform danger into opportunity, and tragedy into hope. It is our finest quality, our shining nature as human beings. Along with our courage and our wisdom, our hope and our faith, our generosity is, simply, the best of who we are.
If basic human generosity is not fostered, a lack of generosity will quickly and deeply infect the workplace, family, and community. Fear, mistrust, isolation, and conflict grow quickly without the essential enzyme of generosity. And when we operate out of fear, we make bad choices.”
Generosity fosters generosity. It makes us human and is both a basic human desire and a skill that is learned and developed through observation and practice.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and my sister, mom and I moved out of the parsonage where my dad lived, though we were still there twice a week, and moved into an inexpensive apartment. My mom became a public school teacher, then left to work for a nonprofit, that shortly downsized, after a stint at the Boys and Girls Club, she went back to teaching when I was in high school. There were times I remember slipping the rent check for our apartment under the door of the management office on the 5th day of the month, the day that rent became due, but the longer my mom taught, the more of a buffer she had. I remember one day in high school when we were in the parking lot of Osco, the drugstore near our house. I had stayed in the car listening to music and I saw my mom come out of the drugstore, approach a laden station wagon, give the man in the driver’s seat something and have a conversation, then come back to our car. “What were you doing?” I asked. She said she had been praying for awhile for God to help her know how to use her money faithfully, and that she was moved to go to the station wagon and offer the 5 dollars she had in her wallet. She learned that this was a caravan of people from Minnesota heading to Central America in service, offering some supplies but mostly offering themselves to respond to the fallout of the violence there. They had just run out of gas and were sitting in the parking lot praying and wondering what to do next. The felt she was an answer to prayer. Now I know her $5 didn’t get them that far down the road. But the incident impressed me, in the way my mom sought guidance, listened and found a clear need for what she had to give. Her generosity inspired me to be more generous, and turned a desire I had to be helpful into a deeper understanding of what that would take.
In the Fetzer study, there was a story of a woman from Sierra Leone. “Sunday dinners were special. My mom would spend hours making delicious food for dinner and the mouth-watering aroma would fill the house. In between games, my siblings and I would anxiously check the kitchen to see if dinner was ready. When dinner was done, my mom filled several baskets of food for various families in the neighborhood. Of course, we wanted to eat first and then deliver the baskets. But my mom would gently insist that we first deliver the food and when we got back, we could all sit down and eat dinner. She pointed out that if we waited to deliver the food after we had dinner, the food we delivered would be cold. In a simple way, she taught us that giving is not just for when it’s convenient.”
I believe that we are all born with an impulse for doing good, for wanting to be generous. But for that impulse to blossom, we must engage in generosity, practicing and fostering this basic human desire, until it becomes a way of life. Our deepest challenges call for our deepest commitments. As we are confronted by the whirlwind of the world’s brokenness, may we support each other, inspire each other to give when it is not convenient, to pray for opportunities to be generous and cultivate generosity into a spirit and culture that pervades all things, and transforms the world. Amen.