Secrets of the Generous Life

Reading Preceding the Sermon

My reading today comes from author Mary Jane Ryan, who lifts up one of the secrets of the generous life-that generosity heals fear. She starts by talking about something she once read in an interview with writer Anne Lamott. Here's what Mary Jane Ryan says:

I've never had the privilege of meeting writer Anne Lamott, but I have loved her books, particularly Operating Instructions. Her emotional honesty leaps off the page-here is a woman who is not afraid to show herself, warts and all. In admitting her vulnerabilities, she makes it OK for us to be just who we are too.

[I once read an interview with her, in which] she was asked about her relationship to money. As a single mother living off her writing, her financial security has been precarious at best. She spoke of having survived, at times, off the generosity of friends, and then said something that leaped [off the page] at me. "I've know that if I feel any deprivation or fear [about money], the solution is to give. The solution is to go find some mothers on the streets … and give them tens and twenties and mail off another $50 to Doctors Without Borders to use for the refugees in Kosovo. Because I know that giving is the way we can feel abundant. Giving is the way we can fill ourselves up…. For me the way to fill up is through service and sharing and getting myself to give more than I feel comfortable giving."

[That's what I read in the interview with Anne Lamott, and, among other things, it caused me to reflect on how I am a person who has a great deal of fear when it comes to money.] To me, the thought of giving money away precisely when I felt like clinging to it seemed terrifying. Sick of constantly being fearful about money, I decided to give it a try. Amazingly, it really works. I feel less afraid the more I give.

It's a paradox. If we are afraid of not having enough, we think we need to hold on tightly to what we have and work hard to get more. As Anne Lamott and I found out, that perspective only makes us more afraid, because we get caught in a cycle of clinging and hoarding. When is enough enough? Is $5000 enough? $50,000? $100,000? $1 million? A recent study found that no matter how much money people made, they thought they would be happier if only they had more. Whether they made $20,000 a year or $200,000, everyone thought they needed a bit more.

If we turn around and give instead of hoarding everything, we suddenly experience the abundance we do have. Most of us, particularly those of us living in Western societies, have a great deal, and when we share what we have, we feel our abundance. It becomes real to us, and that diminishes our fears. I read about a woman who was suffering from depression and contemplating suicide because of back pain and poverty. [One day,] she found a kid foraging in a dumpster and thought to herself, "I don't have a lot, but at least I can fix this kid a peanut butter sandwich." Giving away that peanut butter sandwich reminded her of the abundance she still had, even as she lived in the projects. If she could still give, her life wasn't so bad after all. She now runs a volunteer program in Dallas that feeds hundreds of kids a day. It started from that one day when she gave away the peanut butter sandwich.

Here ends our reading for today.

The Sermon

There's a story about the famous attorney Clarence Darrow that I'd like to share with you. He had just solved a client's legal problem, and the client asked, "How can I ever show my appreciation?" Clarence Darrow replied, "My good friend, ever since the Phoenicians invented money, there has been only one answer to that question."

Today we kick off UUCA's Stewardship Drive for 2008, and so the issue of financial generosity is unabashedly before us. It's about expressing appreciation and hope and gratitude for this congregation that weaves us together into a tapestry of love and action. Invest in this community, and you invest in people's lives. You invest in the person sitting right beside you. You invest in the child who lit our chalice today. You invest in people and in possibility and in hope. And what a privilege this is. What a blessing, to be in a position to use our money to give into a wonderful and worthy vision and to ensure that our congregation lives and grows next year and for years to come. Laura and I plan on pledging 5% of our annual income to UUCA, and I encourage you to find a giving level that feels good and right for you. Giving not out of guilt or anything else like that, but out of joy and vision.

Now, along with the Stewardship Drive for 2008 and all the wonderful Tapestry Events for you to go to (and please sign up, for participating in one of these events is THE way of being a part of the Drive)-along with all this, there's something else I'd like to kick off: an exploration of the larger meaning of generosity in our lives. Being good stewards of life resources: money as well as time and energy and talent. Fundamentally, it's a spiritual issue, since the instant we go deeper into it, we bump up against spiritual insights and implications like the ones we heard about in our reading from earlier: how a hoarding instinct operates in us, and we think that the more we keep, the happier we will be. But it's not that way at all. If we can turn this hoarding instinct on its head and not keep but give, that's when we'll enter into an experience of true security and true safety. Giving is how we can heal our fear. Giving is what will take us beyond scarcity. Giving is what will take us all the way into abundance.

Do you see? Go deeper into the question of how we spend our money and time and energy and talent and instantly we're talking about the state of our hearts and souls. We're talking about fear, and liberation from fear. We're talking about the spiritual triumph of a woman suffering from intense back pain and poverty, considering suicide, but one day she sees a kid foraging in a dumpster and she thinks, "You know, I don't have a lot, but I could fix him a peanut butter sandwich"-and right there, in that very moment, she's tasted Buddhahood, she's tapped into the Divine Spark within her, she's discovered a higher calling and higher purpose in life. That's a spiritual triumph.

Generosity is transformative. Let's take a closer look. And to do that, I want to draw on one of my all-time favorite stories. It's about a mother and her nine-year-old son, Steven. They were at a grand concert hall, black tuxedos and long evening dresses everywhere, a high society extravaganza. Paderewski, the famous composer-pianist, was scheduled to perform, and Steven's mother had hopes that her son would be encouraged to play the piano if he could just hear the immortal Paderewski at the keyboard.

Almost as soon as they were seated, the boy was fidgety and found himself strangely drawn to the grand Steinway piano and its leather tufted stool on the huge stage flooded with light. He just couldn't keep still, couldn't sit there any longer. And so, unnoticed by her and the larger audience, the boy managed to find his way onto the stage and sat down at the stool, staring wide-eyed at the black and white keys. Then he placed his small, trembling fingers on them and began to play "Chopsticks." At this, hundreds of heads turned. The buzzing crowd-hushed. Faces turned to him, frowning in confusion, then outrage. Soon they began to shout, "Get that boy away from there!" "Somebody stop him!" And then the voice of his mother: "Steven, get down from there this instant!"

Now it just so happened that backstage, the great Paderewski could hear all this and was able to put together in his mind what was going on. Hurriedly, he grabbed his coat and rushed onto the stage, towards the boy. Without one word of announcement he stooped over behind the boy, reached around both sides, and began to improvise a countermelody to harmonize with and enhance "Chopsticks." As the two of them played together, Paderewski whispered an urgent message into this boy's ear. This was what he said: "Keep going. Don't quit. Keep on playing….don't stop…don't quit."

And that's the story. I'm not sure about its historical truth, but it is true in its own profound way-morally and spiritually true. Let's use it to discover some of the secrets of the generous life.

Here's the first one: That generous people are bold. They don't have to wait until the time is perfect, or the situation, or the place. Generous people feel the fear and give anyway. Generous people feel the risk and give anyway.

They are bold; and for me, the figure in the story that illustrates this principle best is the boy. How he gave himself to his dream. How he trusted the message that his yearning and his fidgets were sending him, and he invested in it as a matter of integrity. To wait would have been to lie. To wait would have been to lose the opportunity. So he stood up for himself. He got up in the midst of a formal concert hall, amid all the glamour and extravaganza, and stepped on that stage. What audacity! What passion and focus, to be so fully possessed by a vision of possibility that you've got to give into it despite the fact that doing so disrupts the apple cart, people misunderstand and criticize, you find yourself in a place of awkwardness and terrible vulnerability…

How many of you have ever experienced the fidgets, like the boy? Your body telling you that you are in touch with something wonderful that begs to be born into your life. A personal talent that yearns to be developed; a sense that where you are right now is not where you are supposed to be. Something new begging to be born, and you are squirming in your seat to get busy-but it doesn't feel safe. It means having to change, and change is hard. It means having to stand up and ask for what you need, and people might shout you down. It means putting yourself out there on some kind of stage, and you might make a fool of yourself. That's what it means to follow your heart, to take the fidgets seriously and follow up with them. That's what it means to give generously to a dream.

And generous people do it. They don't wait until the perfect day, because that day never comes. They take the risk, and they do it. They find a way. Just like this congregation did, one year ago. One year ago from today, this congregation was facing some tough challenges. Serious conflicts. Staff turnovers. About this, one congregant writes, "You could think of it as a fire. Some of us may know it only as a hint of smoke, but others saw raging flames and wondered if we'd survive. It was in that pain that we found the strength and courage to be brave. We decided we needed to look past our own hurt and remember why we were here. We looked for a way to make a difference in the world, and like the phoenix, out of that pain the Give Away the Plate program at UUCA was born." This is what one congregant says. And now, one year later, having given away a total of $84,903 to 40 non-profit service agencies in our community-having really put ourselves out there and taken a big risk in a difficult time-here is where we find ourselves today: our Sunday morning plate collections are up 500% over what they used to be. It means we've gone toe-to-toe with the common-sense rule that you get and grow only by hoarding and keeping, and we've proven it wrong. We've proven it false. We have prevailed! We are on the way to healing, and we are better than ever before. Stronger. Wiser. Clearer about our reason for being. Integrity intact.

Generous people find ways of giving even when things are risky. They do it, and they are transformed by it. They don't have to wait until they've won the lottery to give money. They don't have to wait until they've got it all figured out to give of their time or energy. Generous people are bold. That's the first secret of the generous life, and here's the next: that generous people give out of a sense of vision.

And with this, we go back to the story-the part where the boy is up there on the stage playing "Chopsticks." This fact is but evidence that he has given himself wholly to his dream. But now the question becomes, Will others invest in his dream too? And you already know the verdict of the story: an outraged audience shouting, "Get that boy away from there!" "Somebody stop him!" And then the voice of his mother: "Steven, get down from there this instant!" They could have shown generosity to the boy, but they didn't. They all missed it. They didn't respond like Paderewski responded.

And I understand. They were expecting to see a famous pianist. They were expecting to hear devastatingly difficult and breathtakingly beautiful compositions, all done flawlessly. That's what they were expecting. But the reality of the situation was entirely different. What they saw instead was a boy plunking away at "Chopsticks." That's what they saw, and they didn't like it. Yet I want to ask a question here. The question is, Was there more to the moment that could have been seen, if the audience had had eyes to see it?

At this point, two pieces of wisdom come to mind. One is a quote by writer Leland Kaiser, who once said, "If your line of sight is even with the floor, you can starve to death in a full pantry."

The other is the story of the three bricklayers. Goes like this. There were three bricklayers, and each was asked what they were doing. The first person answered gruffly, "I'm laying bricks." The second replied in a rather blasé way, "I'm building a wall." The third said enthusiastically and with pride, "I'm building a cathedral."

Both of these pieces of wisdom illustrate how our capacity to see a situation and understand it in all its fullness is empowered by vision. Without vision, we see only the bare facts before us, disconnected from past and possibility-and no doubt the bare facts are often going to resemble the boy playing "Chopsticks." Our world is just imperfect and always in process. That's the way we are; that's the way our jobs are; that's the way our relationships and families are; that's the way our government is; that's the way this wonderful congregation is. Our world is what it is: imperfect and in process. And so, if we are without vision, disappointment is going to fill our days. Resentment and cynicism are going to fill our days. We will stand at the door of life's pantry, and because our line of sight is not visionary but even with the floor, we will see scarcity and not know the abundance that is right there-right there!-within reach. Someone will ask us what we are doing, and whereas we could honestly and truthfully say that we are building a cathedral, we won't be able to. We won't know that possibility. All we'll say, is, "Laying bricks." That's what life will amount to, or our relationships, our jobs, this congregation. Laying bricks.

And I reject that. I reject that. I reject limiting my sight only to the bare facts. If before me I see some version of the boy banging away at "Chopsticks," the last thing I want to do is act in a way that shuts the door to better possibilities. The last thing I want to do is shame him, withdraw support from him, boo him offstage. By the power of vision, I want to see the Paderewski-possibility that is in him and give to that. That's what I want to give to. Give to a future where he is able to be all he can be.

And this is what Paderewski in the story does. He gives to the dream. He refuses to snipe at the boy's audacity or just stand back and withhold support until he withers away. Paderewski gets right out there, steps across the stage, reaches around that young boy who dares to be great, whose fingers tremble on the keyboard, who is doing the best he can, and he gives the gift that he can give. He improvises a countermelody to harmonize with and enhance the "Chopsticks" that is being played. He encourages him. Out of a sense of vision, he gives to that boy's dream.

I want to give to my life like Paderewski. Do you? What in your life needs to hear you say, "Keep going. Don't quit. Keep on playing….don't stop…don't quit"? What in your life is aching for you to reach your arms around it and improvise a countermelody to make it more beautiful?

Generosity is about giving out of a sense of vision. And so, we have our denominational president, Bill Sinkford, headed to Capitol Hill in Washington in just a few days, on October 10, to call for an end to the War in Iraq. "Not another dollar. Not another life." He wants to take 25,000 signatures with him, indicating the kind of strength his vision represents. If this has your support-if you want to see an end to the Iraq war sooner rather than later-then I encourage you to sign the petition, which is available at the Peace Network table in the social hall.

In encouraging this, I want to acknowledge the diversity in this room around political matters and reaffirm the right of personal conscience. But there is at least one thing I hope we can all agree on and unite around 100%: that what this congregation stands for-and the future it is reaching towards-is far more than a simple matter of laying bricks or building a wall. We are building something great. We are building a cathedral. No matter what happens in the moment-no matter if at times things feel frustrating or feel like they've been fumbled-we need to remember that we are ultimately about cathedral possibilities. And so we need givers with cathedral-sized vision. We need givers who look around this place and don't get stuck on individual bricks or walls. We need givers who give into the big vision and give in a big way. And, when the going gets tough, they whisper words of encouragement like Paderewski. "Keep going. Don't quit. Keep on playing….don't stop…don't quit." Too much is at stake ever to quit.

Visionary giving. Generous people give out of a sense of vision. And now let's turn to the third and last secret of the generous life: Generous people create miracles.

Thank back to the story again, but this time, imagine that you are actually in it, part of the audience. You are sitting in your chair, and you see the great Paderewski rushing on the stage. Perhaps in that moment you think that he is about to forcibly remove the boy from the piano-that would be the reasonable guess. But he does something that causes you to drop your jaw-you and everyone else around you. You see him playing "Chopsticks" with the boy. You see him whispering something in the boy's ear which makes him smile and energizes his playing. Suddenly, plain old "Chopsticks" has been elevated to a work of true delight. And you sit there speechless. A spirit of wonder has taken over the room. You look over to see the mother of the boy, and she is shedding tears of happiness. That's what you see.

And what is the miracle here? The miracle of hearts and minds transformed. The miracle of people whose way of seeing has been expanded and extended. A mother moving from shame to pride; an audience suddenly seeing a possible future pianist in what had just been a mischievous boy. Paderewski steps forward and does what all generous people do-he acts boldly, he gives out of a sense of vision-and the contagious spirit of his act leaps from person to person, from heart to heart. One person going first and leading through generous giving, and people seeing this, people catching it, a culture of contagious generosity forming and growing. A stone soup miracle.

I believe in miracles like this. I believe. And if there's anything I want to ask for today, it's that you let your generosity light shine. Start something up! Be that one person who steps forward and gives. When you go home today, find a way to be Paderewski to your family, spread generosity. When you go into the world, find a way to do a random act of kindness, spread generosity. Spread the spirit of it, spark it up, make it contagious. And let generosity become contagious here. Let UUCA become ground zero for something wonderful. In your various conversations with fellow friends and members, be generous with this place. Talk about how it makes a difference for you, how you want to give to the vision and make it live. Tell your spark story. Generosity is contagious, and it changes lives. Let's create a miracle like that here.