Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tithing and Giving Until it Hurts

Yesterday's news about the widening gap between rich and poor was very troubling and at the same time the standard same old same old. It's simply a normal trend in the US and also  worldwide. And it truly does trouble us. What can we do in the face of poverty? So often we read warnings like these opening sentences from a 2007 article in the New York Times titled "Giving Till it Hurts."

The public has rightly shown its empathy with wounded and troubled war veterans, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to private charities that claim to have the veterans’ best interests at heart. A new study details rampant abuses of the money flow. Of 29 military charities vetted by the American Institute of Philanthropy, a nonprofit watchdog group, only nine received passing grades in managing resources.

For decades I've heard sermons on tithing and giving until it hurts. I've never really understood the concept of tithing. So your family income is $20,000; you give $2,000, and live on $18,000. It means (at least in the US) that you're scraping along. If your income is $40,000, you still give 10%. If your income is $200,000 and you tithe, you're keeping to yourself $180,000.

The Apostle Paul praises certain Christians for giving not only "according to their means" but "beyond their means" (2 Cor. 8:3, ESV). For rich people that means giving a lot more than 10%.

John and I are rich. There were many times back in the day when I was teaching that I would play a little game in the classroom---most often when it at least indirectly tied in with the topic of the day relating to poverty and wealth. I would draw a line across the chalkboard. At the left I would write 1% and at the right 100%. I would tell my students that the left represented a woman I once met in Allele, Kenya who was living in a cornfield in a tiny thatched hut with a dirt floor and a pile of rags to sleep on. She had a baby less than a week old and she held him with pride, as did my 13-year-old son Carlton. I'll never forget her. A symbol of poverty. On right side of the line, representing 100%, was Donald Trump.

I would go around the class room pointing at each student demanding they give a number of where they were on the chart. They were, for the most part, relatively poor students. On occasion a student would get it right and give herself a 90 or above. When it was done, I would give myself a 97, then wipe out the 7, change it to an 8 and then maybe a 9. By world standards I am very wealthy, and I would point out to my students that I have all the food, shelter, clothing, transportation, etc. that I need---just as much as Trump has. His bath faucets may be gold-plated, but my bath water is just as hot as his is. Case closed. Now, of course, my students weren't as rich as I, but neither were they a 30 or 50 or even 70 on the percentage line.

This year John and I decided to give not a tithe but "according to our means" (though not beyond it). John added it up the other day and it came to $24,928, more than three times a tithe. But it still leaves us much more than it costs us to live economically. We simply don't need a new car or new furniture or new clothes. We already have more possessions than we need and we take wonderful vacations. So I surely do not relate this information in order to boast. But I do relate it to encourage anyone who is reading this to consider giving more if they can afford it.

Part of what has stymied us in the past is exactly what we read in the NYT piece or in other such articles. It is maddening to discover we've given to a charity that has squandered our money.  The good news is that after spending time in research we have discovered some good charities, one of which is Compassion International. The organization gets a high rating from independent watchdogs, and it recently gave a university sponsored research team full access to its records and field work. The findings showed that there is very good accountability and that money given is a good investment. The major focus is Third World education (school fees, books, uniforms, lunches, etc.). Education, it seems, is one of the best ways to respond to world poverty.  Thus we gave a large chunk of our charitable contributions to Compassion. We also donate to a select number of other charities and high-rated environmental groups. We dropped our contributions to some organizations that we had given to in the past because of our lack of confidence in how they distribute their funds.

The Apostle Paul goes on to say (2 Cor. 9:7) that "God loves a cheerful giver." I don't think he had income tax deductions in mind when he said that, but that does add a little cheer for anyone who may feel the simple act of giving is not cheery enough.