Giving Till It Hurts
How one pastor learned that charity has its limits.
By William Whitehead
He must have seen me coming. It was like I just got off the boat, like I just fell off of the turnip truck. I was right out of seminary, just starting out in my first full time church. I had no idea that there were people in the world who would take advantage of me.
Yes, he must have seen me coming. Earl called me on the phone and said he had no more food and that he was starving. I raced into action. Rushing to my wife, I screamed that there was an emergency and we had to help. We dug into our pantry. We grabbed all kinds of food and threw it into bags. We pulled stuff out of the refrigerator. I grabbed some cash and stuffed it into an envelope. We loaded everything into the car and off I went. I dropped our big bag of generosity off at Earl’s humble apartment—mission accomplished. I had done my job; I had helped a person in distress. I felt like superman after a successful day of battling the forces of evil. When I graduated seminary, I was determined to change the world and make everyone happy. And here I was, fulfilling that lofty goal already.
However, there were a few things that bothered me about this encounter. When I reached Earl’s apartment, there was someone there ahead of me who had also responded to Earl’s call and rushed to his side. I had to get in line, take a number, and wait my turn to be a superhero. When I entered the flat, I couldn’t help but notice all of the bags on the floor. There wasn’t much in the way of furniture, but there were grocery bags all over the place. Earl might have been poor, but he certainly collected a lot of stuff.
He also had several people in the apartment with him. His mother and wife were there to greet me. They were definitely not on anyone’s best-dressed list. But they looked fairly healthy. Certainly not like people who were starving. They looked like they could have helped me bring the groceries in, which they didn’t. I left with some lingering questions. How did these people get into this dire predicament? And how could they get out of it? I didn’t find answers, but I would discover quite a lot about Earl soon enough.
Earl became my buddy. He would call regularly pleading for help from starvation. I tried to counsel him on getting help from social services. There was always an excellent reason why he couldn’t go to the government offices and fill out the papers. I remember him being afraid of vast governmental forces conspiring against him. I tried to get him to be more independent. I told him about agencies that were within walking distance of his apartment. He complained about the distance. But distance didn’t stop him from walking to other churches in the search for handouts. I would see him from time to time entering a church many miles from home.
When I approached other pastors, I found out that everyone knew Earl. Pastor Al from the Methodist Church up the street had been helping Earl for years. Other pastors said that Earl had been calling them as well. But I found out I was in the presence of greatness when I called the Salvation Army to ask for help and advice. They told me that they had a file on Earl going back to the late 1950’s. This was not an ordinary person struggling to make ends meet. This was a true professional—a master of his craft. He had honed his skills for 40 years, working tirelessly to live off of the kindness of others.
When I look back, I realize that Earl could have asked me for anything and I would have given it to him. When I first met him, I was so desperate to please and to help that he could have robbed me blind. If he asked for clothes, I would have given him my wardrobe. If he asked for transportation, I would have given him my car. But would that have been the wisest thing to do? Would God have wanted me to give Earl everything, leaving me and my family with nothing? Does God want us to give away everything we have?
Well, the answer is no. You and I were not put on this earth to make everybody happy. I consider that I have been given some responsibility over the individuals around me. But that leaves me with competing responsibilities. First things first—I have a responsibility to myself. Jesus took care of his basic needs. We see him eating and drinking in the gospel records. He lived a frugal life, but he took care of the necessities of life. A starving man isn’t much use to anyone.
And we all have a primary responsibility to our families. The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is a good example of this. Joseph has the chance to get even with his brothers for their betrayal. But instead he provides for them, thus ensuring Israel’s future. My wife and I have at times opened our home to a few needy people. However, we have been very careful about who we Sot in. Some homeless people I have met would put terrible pressure on my family and possibly ruin my home. In all of Jesus’ statements to his supporters I don’t see any that say give to the poor even if it means destroying your family. We take care or our own family first, and then we balance that out with ministering to God’s family.
One bible passage has helped me more than any other. Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 10:16 to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” At that time snakes were considered wise and cunning. Doves were looked upon as faithful to their mates. To me, this passage says: be a faithful minister of mercy to everyone God places in your path, but don’t allow yourself to be used. I wasn’t given a commission to make everyone happy. If I allow myself to be used it makes my life miserable. If I allow myself to be taken advantage of, it takes away from my family. This one passage gives me the balance I seek when I reach out to people. Give, but don’t get taken.
In the end, I quit my job as Earl’s personal valet. I realized that he could take care of his needs without my help. He was within walking distance of the soup kitchen that served a wonderful high-calorie meal everyday. He could also walk to all of the social service offices in town as well as local food banks. I also realized that by making things easier for him, I wab an enabler. So, I told Earl I thought he could take care of himself. After all, Jesus provided hope for the entire world, but he did not provide everyone with a free lunch.
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William Whitehead is pastor at First Baptist Church of Rahway, NJ. His last essay for SoMA was Little Drummer Boy Blues.
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