“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you…?”
… “Then the king will reply to them, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” – Matthew 25:37, 40
For many years now my New Year has typically begun with a group of college students headed south for a mission trip with Habitat for Humanity. This year was no exception. But this year was exceptional. For the second Habitat trip in a row this year we were treated to a level of hospitality that was verging on excess. With the college kids we didn’t prepare dinner once! (I kind of missed our creative enterprise together in the kitchen… though the food we ate probably exceeded our on-the-road culinary capacity). Still, what we reflected on throughout the week was not the abundance of blessings, but rather the spirit in which they were offered. People kept sharing their gratitude with us for the work that we were doing. Now let’s be realistic, this trip is as much driving as it is work. With the small groups we’ve taken the last few years we certainly don’t manage to accomplish even minor miracles; we just add our faithful labor to that of those who came before and who will come after. But everyone kept showering us with thanksGIVING, and giving, and giving… I believe that what we tapped into was a joy that faithfulness encourages, but also that human hard-wiring seems to seek: the joy of giving, of sharing with others.
This year at Christmas time I was delighted by all of the extraordinary stories of generosity: the young man in Ogden, Utah, who realized that The Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Pass that he’d bought for himself would be enjoyed even more by homeless people in the area. So he started buying passes and giving them out. Or the Hells Angels who camped out on Black Friday to buy bicycles for needy local kids. Or the man who went into a Pennsylvania Wallmart to help pay off $50,000 dollars worth of lay-away accounts prior to Christmas. Or how about the Police in Lowell, Michigan, who were pulling people over prior to Christmas – while the officer questioned the people in the car about their Christmas wishes other officers listening in to the radio shopped madly to then surprise those same people with the gifts they were hoping for… the people pulled over couldn’t help but talk about how what seemed like a really bad day, getting pulled over, turned into an extraordinary day as they became recipients of unexpected generosity.
On Christmas Eve I heard another report about studies that were done measuring people’s happiness when they did something for others versus simply doing it for themselves. In two very different studies, doing something for someone else brought more pleasure then just doing something for yourself. In one study they watched the facial expressions of toddlers giving snacks to their toy playmates having been told that the stuffed-friend loved this snack, this pleased them much more than merely having the snack for themselves. With college students they gave some money to spend on themselves, and some money to do something nice for another person. In every instance the results were consistent: doing something for someone else brought more pleasure than simply doing for ourselves.
On our Habitat trip we encountered a church outside Memphis that was struggling with membership but was filled with the Holy Spirit as they fed hundreds weekly, sponsored midnight basketball, and greeted us with a hot meal and an extravagant welcome. It was the same witness that we’d received in La Porte, TX where we were staying and working, and interestingly, it was the same extravagant generosity that we had come to share.
All of the Abrahamic faiths hold at their core a value that commands us to care for our neighbor, to share what we have as a part of the blessing which God has given to us. We often talk about that sharing as a witness to justice – sharing so that all might have enough. We talk about that sharing as something that is commanded: to love our neighbor as our self, to care for the widow and the orphan, to do to ‘one of the least of these’ so that we might care as Jesus cared, or we tithe, or offer the Muslim Zakat (required offering). What we don’t honor often enough is that these faiths all treat our life as rooted in abundant blessings. And those blessings are always from God. And the greatest way that we participate in those blessings is by sharing them.
Unexpectedly, our group got caught up in a giving feast, each of us trying to share and give and thank the other… and while sometimes it was an exhausting exercise in gluttony, mostly it was a heady experience of sharing in the wrapping of the world in the love of God… delightfully we are all invited into the glory of that joy all the time. Give THANKS, and let it be gospel.