Choosing Generosity When Scarcity Beckons

What kind of risky generosity is calling for us at this time? The kind of generosity that makes us bigger people, stronger people, more loving people, more patient people, more determined people even as we become more vulnerable people.  The kind of generosity that maybe even asks us to risk what we understand as security, so that in the face of our fear that everything could be lost, we will still hold out an open hand?

This message was delivered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI in February 2020.

Reading –   On Generosity by Walter Brueggemann

[Spirit of Life and Love]   On our own, we conclude:
there is not enough to go around
we are going to run short
of money
of love
of grades
of publications…
of beer
of members
of years
of life
we should seize the day
seize our goods
seize our neighbors goods
because there is not enough to go around
and in the midst of our perceived deficit
you come
you come giving bread in the wilderness
you come giving children at the 11th hour
you come giving homes to exiles
you come giving futures to the shutdown
…you come – …
and we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing
we watch
and we take food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbors who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.
It dawns on us – late rather than soon-
that you “give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy—blessing upon blessing.
Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give
so that the world may be made …new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder,
without coercive need but only love,
without destructive greed but only praise
without aggression and invasiveness….
all things …new…..
all around us, toward us and by us
…Finish your creation, in wonder, love and praise. Amen.

Message

This past week, knowing I was going to talk about generosity with you, I spent some time surfing GofundMe, a website that is heavily used because it provides a clear way for people to be generous with each other.  Gofundme is available to anyone who wants to raise money for good causes.  You identify how much money you need and you write your pitch.  If your pitch resonates with enough people, you will often reach your goal.  GofundMe is used by many non-profits to raise money for specific projects. This week, for instance, there were multiple fundraisers responding to the Coronavirus epidemic. One was for medical supplies for Wuhan, China.  As of yesterday, $650,000 of the $1 million goal had been raised.

Most of the fundraisers at Gofundme aren’t for nonprofit projects. They are started by individuals to help raise money for memorials and medical costs. The top two fundraisers this week were for families who lost someone in the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant.  Over $600 000 has been raised for two families.

The presumption of Gofundme, and why it is so successful, is that most people want to be generous.  The desire we have to give and by our giving make a difference is so deep in us. We want to be generous people, we want to believe that we are generous, and we want to be seen by others as generous. Gofundme gives us a clear way to do that.  You can experience your small contribution being part of something bigger.  We can feel like we are helping people half way around the world or just around the corner.

There are great things happening because of Gofundme, but there is a problem with it.  The generosity is rarely accompanied by any kind of real time relationship.  You read a pitch, it touches your heart, you plug in a credit card number, and the exchange is over.  So while Gofundme is great for creating moments of generosity, I don’t know how successful it is at creating a sustained culture of generosity that generates lasting change.  When the primary use of a platform is to raise money for medical costs, one has to wonder why it’s so much easier give to a specific individual when we could work together to collectively eradicate medical debt for everyone and make health care universally accessible!  Then we wouldn’t need something like Gofundme.   Families wouldn’t be depending on the generosity of strangers to survive an illness.

The tragedies that unfold on Gofundme, that beg for our attention, are often created because we live in a society that is addicted to a scarcity mentality mindset, which is a deep set belief that there is only so much to go around.  If we’re too generous, there won’t be enough for us.  Our medical crisis is a creation of a scarcity mentality.

Today I want to talk about how we choose generosity when this scarcity mentality is all around us.  We are constantly being fed the message that there isn’t enough, that we have to cling tightly to what we have or we will lose it and have nothing.  We definitely see the power of this mentality in our political system. But in all truth, this mentality isn’t just in those who differ politically, it is in all of us, just in different degrees and manifesting in different ways.

It certainly lives in me.  I grew up in a farming family and we almost went into foreclosure during the early 1980s when interest rates skyrocketed.  I started suffering from insomnia at 12 years old, imagining losing our home and our farm.  Long after I’d left home, I would check in with my Dad every fall during the harvest to make sure that they were going to pay down enough of the operating loan to stay in business.  Even now, almost 40 years later, if I’m ever surprised by a cost, when a bill comes in that I wasn’t expecting, or the credit card statement seems a bit higher than I thought it would be, I have to catch myself.  The same fear that invaded my 12 year old self comes right back.  My sleep suffers.  I have visions of losing my home.  When I get into a scarcity mentality panic, I have put off buying things I need because I have to feel like I have some control, and the way to gain control is by not spending any money, even on groceries, sometimes for days.

If any of you have grown up with economic insecurity, even if you’ve managed to create a new life for yourself as an adult and you don’t have worry about where grocery money is coming from, how many years has it taken for you to recover from this hyper vigilance and reactivity?

But what I’ve learned is that when I fall into my scarcity mentality, it creates more scarcity.  My scarcity mentality often takes the form of distrust, a temporarily hardened heart, and a veneer of fear that separates me from my loved ones and keeps me from seeing clearly.  There is a cost to my scarcity mentality. If left unchecked it hurts me and it hurts people close to me.  It has taken a lot of intentional and patient work as an adult to recognize the signs of my scarcity mentality and to find a way to resist the urge to circle the wagons. I can make better choices when it appears.  I can choose love over fear.  I can choose to buy groceries.

Every one of us has this same dynamic going on inside us, even if you never had to worry about the basics of life.  Perhaps you grew up with a scarcity mentality about love, time, or attention, a scarcity mentality about how much approval, acceptance or patience you could expect from others.   There are these dueling impulses inside all of us between wanting to be secure in life, wanting to be generous, wanting to be the one who is there when a need arises, and wanting to hold on to what we have, to protect what we come to understand as security.  That understanding of security is different for each one of us.

Did you know that when both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged in this country in the late 18th century they were, in their own way, challenging the scarcity mentalities that were most prevalent in their time?

Early Unitarianism challenged a scarcity mentality about the human condition rooted in the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.  It questioned the assumption of human depravity, that the essence of the human condition is sinfulness.  Unitarianism proposed that we were created for godliness.  The capacity for right living was built right into our souls and spirits by God.  The religious quest was to free this potential in ourselves.  In essence, for the early Unitarians, freeing ourselves from a scarcity mentality about our own nature was holy work and a way of meeting the sacred.

For the early Universalists, they challenged a scarcity mentality about God. No longer was God a judging parent who condemned some and saved others, who was stingy with forgiveness and generous with damnation.  They said no. God was generous, kind, infinitely forgiving and so powerful that there was no sin that could escape God’s redemptive love.

Today, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t look much like it did in the 18th century.  We are now a post-Christian pluralist religion.  But still, we have much to learn from our ancestors.  I think it’s important to understand the risks they took for proclaiming what they believed.  Both Unitarians and Universalists were seen as extremely dangerous.  There were doomsday predictions about what would happen if their theologies gained any traction.  The fear was that if you took away the belief in human depravity and if you dismissed the necessity of God’s judgment, then literally all hell would break loose.  Without fear, humans would be even worse than they already were.  A scarcity mentality was necessary to keep us in line.

I don’t think we have to look far to see how this belief in the necessity of scarcity still has power today.  This scarcity mentality keeps too many people sick, too many people poor, and too many people in prison and detention centers. It energizes the continued segregation of people of color, it energizes hate groups, it turns our allies into enemies, and it negates any semblance of a commitment to truth and integrity, which was all too apparent this week.  We know how much power there is in this scarcity mentality and we know how much courage it takes to challenge it.  We see the cost of this scarcity mentality – the lives lost, the medical bankruptcies, overfull detention centers at the border, the rolling back of environmental protections, the endless wars in the Middle East, and more.  There are still those who declare that if we leave behind a scarcity mentality, it will be our ruin.  Many of us are feeling discouraged about whether we as a nation can resist the allure of this scarcity narrative and choose instead generosity for each other and for this country.

What our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did was gutsy. For their daring to choose a generous humanity and a generous God they were mocked and ridiculed, pushed out of their churches, and declared heretics.  Some lost their families, their jobs, the respect of their communities and their colleagues.  Their choice of generosity over scarcity was a risk.  What it tells us is that this risk taking is in the DNA of our liberal religious tradition.  If we aren’t taking risks in our generosity, we aren’t being faithful.

Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Burton Carley says that the very purpose of our gathering …as a religious community is first and foremost to creategenerous lives. [He writes]: “The purpose of our [congregations] is not to give you the formula or secret to receive the generosity you believe you deserve from on high, but to create generous lives. The adventure of faith for us is not to have a strategic plan for obtaining blessings, but how to live a life that blesses others.”

I think one of the reasons I struggle with crowdsourcing platforms like GoFundMe is because it’s risk free generosity where little is at stake. There is little danger of losing anything.  You pick the funds that feel most comfortable for you.  You give and you go back to your life.   I’m not against momentary generosity, feel good generosity, or generosity that happens within our comfort zones. It’s a good place to start.   But if generosity is never a risk, is it generous? Does it make us more resilient? Does it make us more loving?

I’m wondering what kind of risky generosity is calling for us at this time? The kind of generosity that makes us bigger people, stronger people, more loving people, more patient people, more determined people even as we become more vulnerable people.  The kind of generosity that maybe even asks us to risk what we understand as security, so that in the face of our fear that everything could be lost, we will still go out and buy groceries.

Let’s ask ourselves the same questions about about this community. What kind of generosity within and among us, the people of this congregation, and what outward generosity to the larger community would make this a stronger congregation, a more loving congregation, a more vulnerable and dynamic congregation?  The kind of generosity that stands out, that asks us to risk what we collectively understand as security, so that when faced with the fear of losing it all, we will hold out an even more open hand?

This past week I asked some of my friends to share with me when they had taken a risk in being generous and I found it really insightful.  Here were some of their responses:

  • I risked my job.
  • I risked going into debt.
  • I risked looking like an ass.
  • I risked my anonymity.
  • I risked a friendship.
  • I risked my privacy, telling my story when it could hurt me but help another.

So this week I would invite us to try something.  I want you to notice every time you are tempted into scarcity thinking.  You will know you’re close to it by noticing when you are feeling anxious, irritable or afraid.   You’re more likely to fall into scarcity thinking when you’re tired and when you’re with people or in situations where you are struggling to trust.  What would it look like to choose generosity in that time and place?  What relationships may you be asked to lean into?  I’m not asking us to make yourself vulnerable in a truly unsafe situation, but I am asking us to consider what it would look like to stretch and test what we have assumed that our fear and anxiety means.  Is it time to choose a different response, to choose love over fear?

Let’s close with the words of Walter Brueggeman:

By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy—blessing upon blessing.

About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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