Toward Full Flowering

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees, Feb. 9, 2020

Thank you. Thank you to the members and friends who have made a financial pledge in the past to this congregation. And thanks to those who will make a pledge for the coming year. 

Thanks to those who will increase their pledge to help us meet the match challenge that Jim shared with us. Your financial contribution matters. Your generosity matters to the full flowering of this congregation and our values of love and justice-seeking in the world.

Your generosity also matters to the full flowering of your own soul. Maya Angelou says, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” So thank you for doing the soul liberating work of giving. Thank you for your spiritual practice of generosity.

Often conversations about giving focus on how much our contributions can benefit others. Here at church we tend to emphasize the ways that giving can benefit our congregation’s work, here and in the broader world. 

That is certainly a significant dimension of giving and of helping move our world toward full flowering. Giving is truly transformative. Giving to the church helps to build the diverse multicultural Beloved Community we are striving to create.

And giving also has the power to transform the giver. Part of transforming the world is transforming oneself. The two are beautifully and profoundly interwoven. This transformation of self is a significant dimension of giving. So today I want to talk about giving’s power to move the giver toward full flowering. 

There’s a story about a generous man from the Islamic tradition. In this story the man faces a decision about giving. He already had a reputation as being generous. He is known far and wide as a person of faith. One day, sitting with friends having a freshly brewed cup of coffee in the village square, he is approached by a woman. She asks for money to help feed her child.

Without hesitating, he reaches in his pocket and pulls out coins. He pulls out coin after coin and piles them into the woman’s hands. He piles them up until they begin to spill on to the ground.

The woman begins to weep. She is so overwhelmed by this generosity. She bows to him to express her gratitude. She says, “May Allah bless you, Sir. You have saved my child’s life.” She gathers up the coins into a small cloth sack. She turns to him once again and offers her heartfelt thanks before she leaves.

After she is beyond view, the man’s friends begin to question him. They want to know: “Why did you give her so much money? That was foolish. Don’t you think she will tell all her friends? A line of beggars will be at your door tomorrow morning! Just yesterday, you gave your zakat, your charity. So you weren’t obliged to give her any money. Why did you do it?”  

The generous man listens. He listens to their many questions and reservations and challenges. He hears their objections and indignation. He lets them probe and question until at last they grow quiet.  

And then he says, “This woman might have been pleased with just a little money from me. But I could not have been satisfied.” He looks at each of his friends as he speaks. And then he continues, saying “I knew that unless I gave her what I was able to, I would not be happy.” (retold based on a retelling by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane in Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs; A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents, Boston: Skinner House, 2010)

It turns out that generosity makes us happy. It makes a real difference in quality of life, for the giver as well as the receiver. Faithful giving–the kind of giving that is connected with our core values and commitments– fosters physical health, happiness, and a sense of purposeful living. (“What Makes us Generous?” May 27, 2014, Christian Smith, https://generosityresearch.nd.edu/news/what-makes-us-generous/)

Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and the Director of the Global Religion Research Initiative, has studied and written about the science of generosity. He has found that:

“Generosity is … a basic orientation to life. It entails not only a moral good expressed but also certain vices rejected, such as selfishness, greed, fear, and meanness. . . . To ungenerous people, the idea of giving good things away can feel like a threatening loss to be feared and avoided—which is partly why they do not give. . . . Practicing generosity is necessary for human thriving. There is no such thing as an authentically thriving stingy person.”

Unfortunately, our nation has “a generosity problem.” A “Science of Generosity” survey, conducted by Christian Smith, reveals that a majority of Americans are ungenerous. They are financially ungenerous. This lack of generosity carries over into volunteerism as well, but today I want to focus specifically on money.

The study reveals that only 3 percent of American adults give away 10 percent or more of their income. Giving 10 percent or more of one’s income may seem like too high a bar for some and perhaps for many of us. 

So let’s lower the bar a bit. Let’s make it a bit more attainable. What about giving away 2 percent or more of income as a measurement? Smith’s survey shows that 15 percent of American adults give away 2 percent or more of their income. Only 15 percent. That’s one in seven Americans who give away 2 percent or more of their income. Three in seven people do not even give away a single dollar.

Why not? Well, there are a number of reasons people are not giving or not giving more. These include not believing generosity is essential or necessary. And they don’t see it as a moral imperative. Another reason is thinking they don’t have enough money to be able to give. Some people don’t give because they believe that those who are poor or in need should help themselves. There can also be a real or perceived insecurity about money. Perhaps the most prevalent reason for a lack of giving is fear. There is fear of not having enough.

Despite all these reasons not to give, the actual experience of being generous and studies of generosity demonstrate that giving is an antidote to fear, insecurity, and scarcity. According to Christian Smith’s study of the science of generosity, there is

“a strong and highly consistent association between [giving money away] and various measures of personal well-being like happiness, health, a sense of purpose in life, and personal growth. Generosity … has the capability of reducing the maladaptive self-absorption that many ungenerous Americans experience. By giving away some of our resources for the well-being of others we can enhance our own. By clinging to what we have, we shortchange ourselves.” (https://www.vox.com/2014/11/3/6078101/giving-money-away-makes-us-happy)

So the generous man in the story knew some ancient wisdom. He also knew himself. He looked into his own heart to see what would enable him to fully flower. And what enabled him to fully flower was also making it possible for others to flourish. Not only did he benefit himself. He also helped the woman and her child. He also inspired and modeled for his friends the spiritual practice of faithful giving.

And this is what we do as members and friends of this religious community. And this sets us apart from the generosity problem afflicting so many in our nation. We look into our own hearts and give–transforming ourselves and the world. We ask our members and friends to strive to give in a way that will be aligned with their values and make a pledge of what they will give for the coming year as part of the spiritual practice of generosity.

Like the man in the story, I have discovered that financial giving has a profound impact on me. I find it rewarding to give to causes, organizations, and initiatives that reflect my core values, especially the UU church. I give to this congregation because my giving contributes to my well-being and sense of purpose. Giving to the church liberates my soul. And it also liberates others because collectively we can do more than any of us could ever do on our own. But I didn’t always know this.

When I first became a member of a Unitarian Universalist church, before this one, I hadn’t ever joined a church as an adult. My family had regularly participated in church community growing up, and I put money into the offering plate in church. But I had not ever personally made a pledge—a financial commitment. I didn’t really fully understand why it mattered so much to the church. And also why it should matter to me.

I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you that the pledge chair had to contact me more than once before I finally made my pledge–even though I loved the church. The church had changed my life. I had found a spiritual community where I could explore feminist theology, environmentalism and LGBTQ rights. 

I loved worship and entering into that sacred space on Sunday mornings when the community came together to sing, learn, laugh, lament, and celebrate. I loved the mindfulness meditation group and the women’s group. I loved serving on committees, including the pastoral team and chairing a committee that was exploring institutional change. I loved that I had found a spiritual community where I finally felt I belonged.

But it wasn’t until I made the financial pledge and began to regularly contribute that I learned about the soul-liberating aspects of giving. I started to feel empowered by my giving. I already felt a deep belonging and then began to feel a deeper sense of purposefulness in my relationship with the church. I realized that I was working with others and contributing financially in order to build a faith that changes lives. 

I know it changes lives because it changed mine. And because I’ve witnessed the ways it has changed the lives of others. When I started giving financially, I learned that I was capable of more than I had imagined. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to contribute. I saw that I was and am part of something greater than myself, part of a collective like-hearted people.

My contribution for the coming church year, which will begin July 1, will be 5% of my income. That is an increase of $420 for the coming church year. Sometimes members and friends are curious to learn that I make a financial contribution to the church. Because, after all, the church pays my salary. I want to give to the church, just as I believe that each of you wants to contribute financially. I love to make a financial contribution to this church.

It is essential to me. It makes me happy. It liberates my soul. And I believe that our collective giving as a community—that our collective generosity–liberates us all. It opens us toward full flowering.

Today as we kick off our pledge drive, I want to encourage you to daydream a bit. I encourage you to daydream about your giving to the church. How has giving liberated your own soul? How does it help to give you a sense of purpose and well-being? How does it transform you and also the world?

Thank you for dreaming on these questions. Thank you for your generosity. Amen. Blessed be.

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