So there I was . . .
On Saturday night, most weeks of my childhood, freshly scrubbed out of the tub. My Sunday school lesson book had no empty blanks; Sunday school came with homework back then. Mother was in the kitchen cranking off the church bulletins on the mimeograph machine—ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. Dad was in the living room ready to hand out weekly allowances to his progeny.
My allotment was one U.S. dollar, and I got it whether I was naughty or nice—it was grace. But I received this allowance on Saturday evening for a specific purpose and in a specific form. I was given ten shiny dimes, after the candy store at the corner closed, when there was no other opportunity to spend my riches until Monday. I received it in dimes, not quarters, because my father believed in a ten percent tithe. That is off the gross, not the net. When the basket came around the next morning, it was expected that I would put in one of my dimes. We belonged to a church that preached tithing, but did not make it mandatory for membership or good standing. I do not think that my dad checked up on us to see if we had put our tenth in, but he didn’t need to. He set the example, and trusted us to follow his lead. He was a good leader.
When I was 12, I became apostate. I did not, of course, tell my parents this. In protest I withheld from the church the tithe of my considerable babysitting revenues. I decided instead to send my small riches to a group that was saving baby harp seals in Nova Scotia. When I told my dad about this—the harp seals, not the apostasy—he was concerned, but asked only, "Is that what you think God would have you do?" I told him I thought Jesus really loved the baby harp seals, and that yes, it was what I felt led to do. He accepted my decision.
I have been a religious and philanthropic donor for as long as I can remember. I believe in it. I believe it is good for the giver and good for the world. I believe in giving locally, nationally, and internationally.
I support my local church. My apostasy did not last into my 20s. This is where the ancient practice of tithing comes in. If you have ten families, and everybody gives 10 percent off the gross, then the rabbi eats as well as the average member. This practice has worked for millennia; no reason to challenge it now. I happen to believe that for all their problems, religious organizations have done more good than harm. If you sit in a pew, you should support the work of that group or find another pew you can support.
I believe in doing some giving in secret. After my father left this planet to pursue other interests, I discovered that he had been giving regularly to many organizations; some of them I knew about, others I did not. There was a group on the north side of Chicago that helps male prostitutes; my dad was a regular and generous supporter of their work. I got a phone call from their director when I sent a last check and a note to them. He choked up on the phone talking to me, telling me about the notes of encouragement that my dad would send with his checks. He said to me, "I can find other money, but where am I going to find those good words?" Yeah, me too.
I believe in doing some giving spontaneously. Mostly, I like to know where my money is going. I like to see annual reports, and I like to see low overhead costs. I like accountability. But sometimes the Spirit just says, "Here, now," and I try to respond. I like to help people in the grocery line in front of me when they cannot find that last buck they are looking for in the bottom of their purse. Nobody ever has to send an item back if I am standing in the line behind them. It freaks people out, but it is a lot of fun.
I have heard a lot of lousy preaching about giving in my life. A lot of shameless hooey. Let me debunk a bit of it. Giving to the church is not the same as giving to God. This silly notion gets put out there all the time. I heard U2 lead singer Saint Bono say once, "My God does not need your cash!" It is just so obviously true. God owns it all—did before you came along and will after you are long gone. Because it tickles God’s cosmic fancy, the Divine lets us push stuff around; but don’t kid yourself, God is not a beggar. People who tell you that giving to them or their organization is the same as giving to God have ego, or possibly blasphemy, issues going on. Shame on them.
From which follows the corollary: giving does not make you acceptable to God. God finds you acceptable. Face it, God’s crazy about you—indulgent as all get out. This does not mean that God does not have issues with some of the stuff that you are doing, but you can’t fix that by writing a check.
Giving is not a get-rich formula. Giving to that which purports to be or even is God’s work does not force God to give to you. It doesn’t sway the Divine opinion of you in a way that makes God want to bless you. There is no magic here except this: when you give away some of your stuff you are freed from your slavery to stuff. You place your bet on the kindness of the universe. You trust. And that changes you and frees you from the terrible lie that says there is not enough to go around, and then you find that you have plenty. And you feel a lot richer. People who are not fearful and mistrustful are more productive.
Here are some things I have found to be true about giving. It does not matter how much you have or how much you give. If you have ten dimes, you can part with one. It is good for you to part with one. This giving develops the spiritual discipline of generosity. It is good to start when you are young, with your first job, and it is good to revisit your giving when you have a change in fortunes. It is fun to split a windfall. It is especially important to give when you don’t feel like it, when it seems risky. It changes you, and you change your world.
My dad was never a wealthy man. He did not have a professional job or a college degree. We rented our home for most of my childhood. But he left his children a nice little bit, and when I took over his books at the very end, I discovered that he was giving 40 percent of his retirement income away. And that was off the gross, not the net.