Fantastible Elements of Christian Community – Part 2February 25, 2010
Two years ago, one of our church community’s home groups had a family where both husband and wife were laid off within seven days of each other. They have several kids, a mortgage and faced an impossible battle against their bills. Two months later and all their savings were gone. Their home group met at Starbucks one Thursday evening to decide what to do. A number of ideas came up, but they finally settled on one. Each of the five families pledged to give enough money to cover a fifth of the mortgage each month for as long as it took. Five families carried their mortgage…and did this for three months, until they both got new jobs.
This is the fantastic side of Christian community when it comes to giving to each other. When a person is joined to God and has friendships with others who have a relationship with God, the desperate need of one person becomes the opportunity of the rest to show what community really means. This home group’s example is inspiring and winsome. When my wife and I were young marrieds, several times we had food given anonymously to us. We once came to our vacation time not having a cent in the bank, and a person in our church gave us $500 to spend on our trip. I know of one young couple who inherited a house, and after living in it for several years, God led them to give it to another young couple who were living in horrible conditions. Yes, Christian community is often about giving to those in need.
And wouldn’t it be nice if that were the whole story.
But any time you have close relationships, money, expectations, emotional and financial need, something is bound to go wrong – and often does. I can tell you many stories of families who have brought people into their homes to help them out, only to have the length of stay become interminable. In other cases, money that was given to pay bills is spent on booze or drugs. I once sat with a young man who bragged to me that in one month begging on the streets of Santa Barbara, he made over $3,000. Most of it was given by Christians who were gullible enough to buy every story he was selling.
For me, the most difficult situation was Jon and Annette. They had been a part of our church for a year when they came to one of the church leaders telling a story about a $40,000 medical bill that Annette had not paid. The hospital was going to make them sell their house to pay the debt. On top of that, Jon had medications he had to take every day they could not afford. The leader gave them a check for $2,000 and told them he would help raise more money to help with their house. I was told nothing about this. Over the next two months, it is estimated that about $14,000 was given to Jon and Annette. Finally, one of the single ladies in the church asked me if I knew about what was happening. She had been approached to give and when she offered $50, Annette had told her she could keep her money…they needed REAL help.
Some people reading this will assume I’m about to say they pocketed the money and ran off. Others will assume that they spent the money on a gambling spree or a Disneyland vacation. They did neither. They actually offered the hospital a settlement and it was received. But in the process of people helping them out, Jon began to hint about some of their other problems. He told about electrical problems in the house and the brakes on the car that needed repair. Every time someone aided them, they embarked on another fund-raising campaign. As I became aware of this, I sat with them and confronted them on their attitude. They had come to expect that it was the duty of people in the church to help them. This is not right. If someone did not give to them, increasingly they ostracized these people. I told them to smarten up; but if anything, they got more blatant in asking for help. Eventually they left the church and went to another community of believers and started the same thing there.
The horrible side of living in community with others is that nothing brings out human weakness faster than money. People will manipulate, coerce, use guilt and sweet-talk others into helping them. When it gets to the extreme, there is theft, lying, fraud and even violence involved. Many people who have been taken advantage of will often pull away from community, vowing not to be taken advantage of again. But is that the right approach?
I think there are two simple rules to follow when giving to others in Christian community. The first is, “Give when God tells you to do it and not when people try to convince you.” I have sent money to people who didn’t ask, and I have turned down others who did ask. When I have followed the Lord who lives inside me and been generous when God shows me it is appropriate, it always produces so much more than the mere amount of money I gave could ever do. I heard of a little girl in Georgia who sent a missionary in Hong Kong one dollar for the youth camp he was hoping to buy. The camp cost millions and he despaired when he opened her letter. But God told him to offer the one dollar to the camp’s owners. For some unknown reason, they accepted the offer of one dollar. The little girl’s gift bought an entire camp. One winter in Canada, I gave a jacket to a young man who told me a long story about his family’s car breaking down. The jacket was my new parka, but God had told me to do it. Four hours later I saw that same young man coming out of the bar with a young lady. His car had not broken down. He finally admitted he had lied to me,. But he did need a winter coat. I gave the coat to Jesus, not to the young man, so I didn’t feel slighted.
The second rule of giving in Christian community is this: “Be always giving, even when it doesn’t include money.” Give 10% of your time, energy, and talents in places, and to people, who cannot pay you back. Give a good attitude back to those who give you skunky looks. Give an hour to listen to a woman who has lost her husband who must talk to someone…even though you wanted to sleep on that plane trip. Over-tip in every restaurant, and give a fiver to the guy who smells on the corner, even though he might buy a mickey of gin with it. Get into the habit of giving, and it won’t matter what they do with it.