Thursday October 12, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
I Have Learned to Be Content “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. . . . I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
— Philippians 4:11-13
Generosity derives from a profound reorientation in our thinking about how we find contentment in life. Paul writes, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have,” but Paul was not a slacker, lacking in initiative! He was industrious, competitive, and ambitious for the work of God. Paul realized how seductive our activity and our appetite for more could become. We begin to believe that happiness depends upon outward circumstance and material comforts rather than deriving from inner spiritual qualities—love, peace, compassion, self-control, gentleness, prayerfulness. Possessing greater wealth does not mean that we experience contentedness. We can still feel panic, emptiness, striving, and isolation. We feel needy, and our appetites become insatiable. Surrounded by water, we are dying of thirst.
Breaking the cycle of conditioned discontent requires courageous soul work. Abundant living derives from generative relationships, from mutual support, and from knowing how to love and be loved.
Contentment arises from seeking that which satisfies.
Contentedness comes from personal integrity, a life aligned with high values, depth of spirit and of mind, growth in grace and peace. These grant release from agitation, from unhealthy striving, and from continual dissatisfaction. Founded on these, we may value many of the things our culture induces us to seek, but without the harmful, destructive intensity. We want to improve our conditions and standing, but we don’t embrace these objectives with the panicked intensity our society would have us do.
Primarily, contentedness is formed in us by the practice of generosity. Contentedness is learning to be happy with what we have rather than feeling distressed by what we lack. In our voluntarily giving away part of our wealth and earnings, we are saying, “I can spend all of this on myself, but I choose not to.” In that simple act, repeated and deepened with frequency and intentionality, we break the bonds of selfdestructive acquisitiveness.
Second, contentedness results from a deep, cultivated sense of gratitude. Generous people are thankful. They give thanks in all things, and their gratefulness sharpens their awareness of the deeper sources of happiness and from the spiritual awareness that God has already provided us everything we need to flourish. All is grace upon grace.
Finally, contentedness comes from persistent interior work and cooperation with the Holy Spirit to develop the personal habits that keep us from surrendering our sense of well-being, identity, and purpose to materialist measures. Living fruitfully is not merely a matter of having something to live on, but something to live for. Purpose, connection, love, service, friendship, family, generosity—these sustain contentedness.
Wednesday October 11, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
How Much Do We Need?
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
— Luke 12:15
Tolstoy, in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” writes about a man, Pakhom, who farms the land given to him by his father. He wants more, so he saves and sacrifices until he expands his acreage, and even this is not enough. He hears about another region where more land can be bought with less money, so he sells his farm and moves his family across the country to the larger spread. Still, he is dissatisfied. Finally, he hears about a place where the king is offering an extraordinary deal. If you give the king all your money, you may take possession of all the land you can personally encompass by walking around it in a single day. Pakhom imagines how far he could walk in a day, and all the land he could own. He sells all his property and pays the king in exchange for his chance to walk the perimeters of the land that will be his.
A stake is hammered into the ground before sunrise. Pakhom must return to the stake before sunset, and all the land that he circles before that time will be his. As the day dawns, he runs at full speed in order to cover as much territory as possible. As the day heats up, he slows down and begins to circle back, but he sees lush pastures that he must possess, so he extends his path to include them. As the sun moves lower, he realizes that he has miscalculated, and he fears that he may not return to his starting place in time. He runs harder to reach the stake before sunset, pushing himself beyond exhaustion. He comes within view of his destination with only minutes to go. Pushing dangerously beyond his body’s capacity to continue, he collapses and dies within reach of the stake.
How much land does a person need? Tolstoy ends his short story by saying that “six feet from head to heel” was all he needed. Why are we discontent with what we have?
Giving puts us in a healthier relationship with our possessions, and with the material world in which we live. We like making money, but we enjoy other things as well, such as the love of our family; belonging to community; a sense of meaning, accomplishment, contribution, and service. We enjoy making a positive difference in the lives of other people. But how do we maintain balance and perspective? How can we appropriately secure the basic needs of food, shelter, education, and health while also living with purpose? How do we avoid too much preoccupation with the things that do not ultimately satisfy, and cultivate those things that do? The intentional practice of generosity helps us keep our priorities straight.
Giving reflects the nature of God. We give because we are made in the image of God, whose essential nature is giving. We are created with God’s nature imprinted on our souls; we are hard-wired to be social, compassionate, connected, loving, and generous. God’s extravagant generosity is part of our essential nature as well. But we are anxious and fearful, influenced by a culture that makes us believe we never have enough. God sent Jesus Christ to bring us back to ourselves, and back to God. As we “have in us the mind that was in Christ Jesus,” we become free.
Growing in the grace of giving is part of the Christian journey of faith, a response Christian disciples offer to God’s call to make a difference in the world. Generosity enlarges the soul, realigns priorities, connects people to the body of Christ, and strengthens congregations to fulfill Christ’s ministries.
 Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need? and Other Stories (Penguin, 1993), 110.
Tuesday October 10, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
Aligned With God’s Purposes “They . . . gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”
— 2 Corinthians 8:3-4
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul commends the generosity of communities of faith, especially those who remain surprisingly extravagant in their giving during difficult travails. Writing of the churches of Macedonia, he says “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2). The notion that stewardship rightly focuses on the Christian’s need to give rather than the church’s need to receive is a spiritually powerful truth. The practice of tithing blesses and benefits the giver as much as it strengthens the mission and ministry of the church.
Still we wonder, does our giving really make a difference? What does our generosity have to do with our spiritual lives?
One reason many people give is simply because they love their church and they want the life-changing ministries of their congregation to prosper. They are themselves the beneficiaries of the church’s ministries and they do their share to pay for the bills, the salaries, the facilities, and the costs so that the church can offer outreach, children’s ministries, worship, and mission. They support the church so that others can receive what they have received. The fruit of this giving is tangible and visible; it is both immediate and long-term. Churches with generous members offer more ministry, work with greater confidence, have less conflict, and make a greater impact on their communities and on the world. Responsibility and hope for the church motivate the giver. People want their congregations to thrive.
People also give because their contribution aligns with the purposes God wants them to fulfill in the world. Helping people, relieving suffering, teaching the spiritual life, reaching young people—when we sense God’s call to make a difference, we can contribute our time or become personally involved in the day-to-day ministry. Another way to make a difference is through giving, contributing the resources that make possible the work that we feel called to support. We please God by making the difference God wants us to make.
Monday October 9, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
The Joy of Giving
“How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?”
— Psalm 116:12, NIV
Scripture is replete with examples and teachings that focus on possessions, wealth, giving, gifts, generosity, offerings, charity, and sacrifice. Christians give because they serve a giving God—the giver of every good gift, the source of life and love.
Jesus’ teachings abound with tales of rich and poor, generous and shrewd, givers and takers, charitable and selfish, faithful and fearful. He commends the poor widow putting her two coins in the treasury; giving out of her poverty, she “put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:1-4). The story upsets expectations by pointing to proportion rather than amount as the measure of extravagance.
Jesus’ unexpected love for Zacchaeus so radically changes the tax collector that he gives his wealth to the poor and to those whom he has wronged. Giving serves justice and is a fruit of Christ’s transforming grace (Luke 19:1-10).
The story of the good Samaritan highlights extraordinary generosity. The Samaritan not only binds up the wounds of the stranger left to die in the road, but he takes the stranger to an inn, pays for the stranger’s care, and commits himself to provide for the long-term well-being of the stranger (Luke 10:35).
The Samaritan’s generosity, like Christ’s compassion, knows no bounds.
And beyond all the teachings and parables, the followers of Jesus see in the gracious and costly gift of his sacrifice and death the ultimate self-revelation of God. The most memorized Scripture of the New Testament expresses the infinite nature of God’s gracious love revealed in the gift we have received in Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
In these Scriptures above—the widow giving all she had, Zacchaeus in his transformation, the
Samaritan with his compassion, and God’s self-giving in Christ—giving is always extravagant, life changing, and joyous.
God uses our practice of giving to reconfigure our interior life. By giving, we craft a different inner desire as the driving element of life. Our motivations change.
People give because generosity helps them achieve God’s purposes in themselves. By giving, we develop the inner qualities of generosity. Generosity is not a spiritual attribute someone acquires apart from the practice of giving. It becomes discernable only through visible behavior. We cannot become generous and hold on to everything we have for ourselves without letting go. The opposite of generosity is greediness, selfishness. These are not the qualities that lead to life, and so by our giving we cultivate a different nature inside ourselves.
Sunday October 8, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
First Things First “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” — Matthew 6:33, NIV
When asked how much money they would need to earn to be happy, people of all different incomes answer the same. If they could only earn about twenty percent more than they presently do, they would finally arrive at a satisfying happiness. Persons earning $10,000 dream of reaching $12,000; those earning $100,000 believe that with just $20,000 more per year they will be happy; and people earning $500,000 believe that when they earn $100,000 more they will finally arrive. We pursue a receding goal. This is a prescription for never-ending unhappiness. We can never possess enough to satiate the appetite for more. Single-minded pursuit of lifestyles highlighted by pop culture keeps us stuck on the surface of existence, captured in the material world, unhappy with what we possess, and blind to the real riches.
When we accept unreflectively the myths of money, we suffer from a self-created, culturally-fostered discontent. Forty-year-olds feel like failures because they are not millionaires; families buy houses beyond their capacity to afford; people pine for what they cannot possess. We wallow in abundance while suffering from a self-proclaimed scarcity. Despite the fact that we live in better houses, earn more money, drive nicer cars, spend more on entertainment, and enjoy greater conveniences than ninety percent of the world’s population, or than we ourselves enjoyed thirty years ago, we never have enough.
We are surrounded by inducements that make us acutely and painfully aware of what we lack, more so than of what we have. Without beliefs and intentional practices that counterbalance the influences of culture, we feel discontent no matter how much we have.
Extravagant giving is a means of putting God first, a method for declaring to God and to ourselves the rightful order of priorities. When we practice it, we live with a more relaxed posture about money, less panicked and reactive. We take possession instead of being possessed. Money becomes a servant rather than our master. By provoking us to give, God is not trying to take something from us; God is seeking to give something to us. Every time we spend money, we make a statement about what we value. All inducements to spend money (advertising, social expectation, seeking to impress people) are attempts to shape our values. When we fail to conscientiously decide what we value and align our spending habits accordingly, a thousand other inducements and voices stand ready to define our values instead. Giving provides a spiritually healthy detachment from the most harmful influences of a materialist society, an emotional distance that is otherwise unattainable. Giving protects us from the pangs of greed.
The practice of generosity opens us to deeper reflection and conversation about wealth and how it relates to purpose and happiness. Serious giving leads us to ask, What is our family’s definition of success? How wealthy do we hope we, or our children, will be, and why? What motivates us as a household, and what matters most to our happiness? What will become of the wealth we accumulate?
How much do we give, and why? What difference do we want to make in the world? How does giving influence our relationship with God? What does Extravagant Generosity mean for us? For God? These and other questions can only be asked with authenticity when they are supported by the practice of giving. Giving fosters intentionality.
Saturday October 7, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
All the Good You Can “You are familiar with the generosity of our Master, Jesus Christ. Rich as he was, he gave it all away for us—in one stroke he became poor and we became rich.”
— 2 Corinthians 8:9, The Message Where God’s Spirit is present, people give. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.
John Wesley taught extensively about the use of money, the danger of riches, and the importance of giving. For Wesley, all things belong to God. This changes how we perceive the manner by which we earn money and save money, causing us to do so in appropriate ways. And it changes how we spend money, making us more responsible, and shapes how we give money. Wesley valued industrious and productive work, but he believed that acquiring money does not provide a profound enough life purpose to sustain the human spirit. When he wrote, “Earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can,” he drew an unbreakable link between acquisition and generosity, inviting us to use our material wealth to deepen our relationship with God and to increase our positive impact for God’s purposes.
No stories from Scripture tell of people living the God-related spiritual life while fostering a greedy, self-centered, self-serving attitude. Knowing God leads to generosity.
Friday, October 6, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
Robust Ministries “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” — Matthew 6:33, NIV
It is through giving of ourselves as God has given to us that we help the body of Christ flourish. Offering our material resources to God is a fundamental activity that is so critical to the church’s mission that failure to perform it in an exemplary way leads to the decline of the church. Churches that nurture proportional giving and tithing among their members thrive. They accomplish great things for Christ, offer robust and confident ministry, and they prosper for the purposes of Christ and make a difference in the lives of people.
Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity.
We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship.
People who practice Extravagant Generosity pray for their congregations to flourish in the ministry of Christ for children, youth, adults, members, and strangers near and far. They serve the church, offering their best efforts. They push the church to offer bold and vital ministries that transform the world, relieving suffering, deepening justice, encouraging love. And they give—regularly, generously, sacrificially, faithfully, and humbly.
Extravagant Generosity is not just about the church’s need to receive, but about the Christian’s need to give. Generosity is an essential quality of spiritual maturity and growth. The practice of Extravagant Generosity changes churches.
Thursday October 5, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
Ownership “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” — James 1:17, NIV
Fundamentally, we either consider the material things in our life—our money, house, property—as owned by God and belonging to God, and we manage them for God’s purposes, or we view them as owned by us. If they are owned by God, then our tithes and offerings represent our returning to God what belongs to God already. What we keep also belongs to God, and we feel obligated to spend it wisely and not frivolously, and to invest it in ways that do not dishonor God’s purposes. We try not to waste money or to live more lavishly than we should. We spend responsibly, allowing our relationship with God to form our minds. We manage God’s resources as faithfully as we can.
But if we believe that our material resources fundamentally belong to us and that we entirely possess them ourselves, then we can do whatever we please with what we own, and our tithes and offerings are giving something that belongs to us, to God. God should be grateful for our generosity in giving a percentage for God’s purposes rather than our feeling grateful for the privilege of using what belongs to God.
Think about the possession of land. Suppose we hold legal title and own land according to civil authorities. In the larger span of the earth’s history, does our patch of soil actually belong to us, or are we temporary stewards? The land didn’t begin with us and doesn’t end with us. The land we claim to own has existed for millions of years, was used by humans for millennia before us, and will remain for eons more after we are gone. For the ordering of civil life, we rightly say we own the property and it belongs to us. But our mortality assures that we are only the temporary stewards, managers, and keepers. At our dying, what will the things we own mean to us? Whose will they be? People live and perish, but purposes are eternal. With that understanding comes a profound and humble sense of responsibility about how we use the land. It’s temporarily ours to enjoy, but we do so with respect and awe, because ultimately everything belongs to God, and not to us.
This concrete example applies to all of the temporal elements of our lives—our possessions, our wealth, even our bodies and minds. Which perspective is truer, more ethically sound, more aligned with reality? That it all belongs to us and we can do whatever we want? Or that we are the temporary beneficiaries, and we find meaning in using what God has entrusted to us to the highest purposes? Which perspective fosters better decisions and deepens a spiritually grounded sense of community and responsibility? The wisdom revealed in Scripture and tradition for more than three thousand years is that those who practice from the perspective of a steward find greater happiness.
Wednesday October 4, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
What Happens to God’s Love?
“If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears.
And you made it disappear. My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.
This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality.”
— 1 John 3:17-19, The Message
A downtown congregation in a moderately-sized community had occasional homeless persons who would ask for handouts. Sometimes street people would be found sleeping on the front steps. The staff developed rules, guidelines, and policies for how to help or where to refer those who asked for help. They had many discussions about the pros and cons of giving cash, vouchers, and addresses of other social agencies.
As the pastor was leaving the church one afternoon, he noticed the part-time custodian carrying out the garbage to the large trash bin in the alley. There was a homeless person sprawled out beside the bin, barely conscious. As the custodian approached the trash bin, he set down the garbage bag he was carrying, pulled out his wallet, and removed a few dollar bills. Without being asked, he walked over to the homeless man and gave him the money, said something, then continued his work and returned to the church. The pastor was amazed and humbled by this extraordinary display of generosity. The part-time janitor who earned less than anyone else on staff gave generously without even being asked, while the staff had spent hours trying to figure out policies and procedures.
The pastor asked the custodian why he gave the money and pressed him about whether he thought the homeless person might misuse the money for alcohol or drugs. “I always do what I can,” the janitor answered. “I give them a little money and say, God bless you, because I figure that they are some mother’s son, some father’s child, and so I give them something. What they do with the money—well, they have to answer to God about that. I have to answer to God about what I do with mine.”
Tuesday October 3, 2023 From Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving
“Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.
Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed— that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way . . .”
— Hebrews 12:2,
Ever wonder why rafters and canoeists paddle while going downstream?
I’ve spent much time canoeing and kayaking over the years, but I learned about currents, rapids, and whitewater in Central America. While studying Spanish in Costa Rica, my sons and I took a weekend break and joined a raft trip on the Pacuare River. The rapids were posted as Level Three, but the river was swollen, and the ratings didn’t match U.S. measurements. Once we got on the water it felt like we were heading over Niagara Falls, over and over again, hour after hour, frequently finding ourselves flung out of the raft and struggling for our lives in the deep and dangerous currents. I don’t wish to repeat the experience anytime soon. The T-shirt my boys bought afterward read, “Remar o Morir!” Paddle or Die!
The guide sat at the back of the raft calling out instructions about which side to paddle on, and how intensely to do so. During a period of relative calm, as the river was propelling us down toward the next deathtrap, the guide told us to paddle gently but steadily. My son asked, “Why do we have to paddle when the river is pushing us downstream anyway?” He smiled and said, “The only way we have any control over the direction we are going is for us to be moving just a little faster than the current below us. So we have to paddle constantly, or else we just get pushed along out of control.” If we want to navigate with purpose and to control our direction rather than becoming a victim to forces beyond our control, we have to keep paddling. “Remar o Morir!”
We live in a whitewater world. Things change so rapidly—communications systems, the makeup of our communities, the tastes and habits of new generations, the expectations and values of congregations, the competing claims of a secular society for our hearts and minds. This is true in our personal and family lives as well—the phases and steps of a marriage, the transitions of our children, the heartbreaks and hopes, deaths and births, losses and gains, brokenness and reconciliation. Unceasing motion. We live fast-forward lives.
Life pushes us along, and sometimes there seems little we can do; we feel like victims, vulnerable and powerless. But we can’t stop paddling. We can’t stop learning, growing, changing, adapting, and giving our best. It’s by rethinking things, praying anew each day, and by constantly recommitting to the right things that we embrace God’s will for us so that we are able to navigate through the whitewater world. It’s by depending upon friends, knowing the water, and repeatedly practicing the disciplines that keep us connected to God that we remain strong. Life requires an agility of spirit, forward movement, effort, vision, and a keen awareness of the forces at work around us and how to use them for the purposes of Christ rather than become overwhelmed by them. Keep paddling!