During the last Christmas season I reacquainted myself with Charles Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the nastiest, mean-spirited old men in English literature. He's found, of course, in A Christmas Carol (published 1843), Dickens' short novel about a man addicted to money and in drastic need of a powerful intervention.
It's clear at the beginning of A Christmas Carol that Scrooge's monetary addiction had paralyzed him spiritually. There was no love, no feeling in him. He was miserly to the core.
The story covers barely 24 hours of Ebenezer Scrooge's life. But that was all the time needed for this reclusive curmudgeon to become spiritually transformed into a man of unbridled, enthusiastic generosity. How that happened and what the new Scrooge looked like is instructive for us all.
"Marley (Scrooge's onetime business partner) was dead: to begin with," Dickens wrote on the first page of A Christmas Carol. But his being dead ("as a door nail") didn't deter Jacob Marley from visiting Scrooge as a terrifying apparition one Christmas Eve. His purpose? To warn Scrooge that he was about to be visited by three terrible messengers—ghosts, in fact—who would present a vision of his pathetic life: past, present, and future.
Just as Marley predicted, the ghosts soon descend upon Scrooge, and he finds himself rehearsing his long-ago tragic youth, his present-day insensitivities to human need, and his gloomy future when people would scorn his name.
What Scrooge experienced that night sounds like what alcoholics call an intervention. And the result?
A grumpy old man defined by greed awoke the next morning driven by generosity. It's crazy, but you actually find yourself liking the new Scrooge, wanting to know him better, wishing you could be more like him.
Scrooge in The Church?
As I ponder Ebenezer Scrooge's story for the umpteenth time, I find myself nursing this question: What if the old Scrooge attended one of the churches I pastored? Would I have played a part in his spiritual migration from greed to generosity?
Frankly, my question bothered me.
I realized that the answer depended upon when, during my forty-plus years of church leadership, Scrooge might have shown up. Had it been in my younger years, I wouldn't have offered him much. In my later years? Maybe …
That's because there was some changing I had to experience before I might have something of value to offer him.
I began my church leadership years ashamed of money, reluctant to discuss giving. I felt embarrassed that the subject ever had to be mentioned. My excitement was for preaching, caring for people, helping new Christ-followers grow in their faith.
But there was a hole in my ministry preparation. No one had convinced me that a giving spirit was part of the mature Christ-following life.
For me, the offering plate had only one purpose: to pay the church's expenses and to meet our "obligations" to the church's missionary interests. That shouldn't be too difficult. So, I came to assume, the less said about giving, the better.
Perhaps that's why my first church grew a bit in numbers but declined in its giving. Some in the congregation probably reasoned that since there were more people coming through the door, giving must be increasing and they could back off.
Others may have thought, Why should we take giving seriously if the pastor doesn't? He rarely thanks us for our gifts. He doesn't speak about what our giving achieves. He seems to believe that giving is optional in the Christian life, a nice thing to do when one is in the mood.
In my second year in that pastorate, we had to downsize the church's budget and cut a few programs because, while we were a happy congregation, our giving was declining.
"You need to talk more about the importance of giving," the elders began to say.
I resisted. "I don't want to offend anybody. Maybe after some of the newcomers have been around for a while, we can talk to them about it."
I see clearly what was going on … now.
If I, the pastor, regarded giving as merely an institutional obligation, why would anyone (an Ebenezer Scrooge, for example) ever gladly, cheerfully, give more than a few bucks at offering time?
I had some transforming to do first.
My Own Transformation
For me that transformational process—admittedly a slow one—began when my wife, Gail, and I made a missions trip to West Africa. On the first Sunday of our visit, we joined a large crowd of desperately poor Christians for worship. As we neared the church, I noticed that almost every person was carrying something. Some hoisted cages of noisy chickens, others carried baskets of yams, and still others toted bags of eggs or bowls of cassava paste.
"Why are they bringing all that stuff?" I asked one of our hosts.
"Watch!" she said.
Soon after the worship began, the moment came when everyone stood and poured into the aisles, singing, clapping, even shouting. The people began moving forward, each in turn bringing whatever he had brought to a space in the front. Then I got it. This was West African offering time.
The chickens would help others get a tiny farm business started. The yams and the eggs given could be sold in the marketplace to help the needy. The cassava paste would guarantee that someone who was hungry could eat.
I was captivated. I'd never seen a joyful offering before. Obviously, my keep-money-under-the-radar policy would not have worked in that West African church.
I wondered what old Scrooge would have thought had he joined Gail and me in that West African church service. Would he have cursed such "foolishness"? Or would he have been, like me, profoundly moved?
When Gail and I returned home, I took a small step in the direction of generosity. Those African believers, although they never knew it, had moved me. I began to understand that giving—whether yams or dollars—was not an option for Christ-followers. Rather it was an indication of the direction and the tenor of one's whole life.
But here was the first baby step. From now on, I said to our elders, we're going to offer the people weekly reports about our giving. And we're going to tell them thank you.
And so it was that we devised a painless, cautious, inoffensive way to publish the weekly giving performance of our congregation. Soon everyone in the church knew if we were behind in our financial obligations or ahead. I guess I believed that the people would study the numbers and be motivated to do better in their giving.
Maybe even Scrooge, if he was out there in the back row, would get the message and write a check or two. Maybe!
Oh, and I did begin to find ways to say thank you. Some people noticed and thanked me back.
I hoped good reporting would motivate people to give. But could it turn people into the hilarious givers Paul once mentioned? Could financial disclosure and occasional thanks transform a miserly Scrooge?
In a word, I was naïve.
Actually, some people appreciated our reporting initiative. Others thought it distasteful. Oh, and I don't want to forget that there were a few who thought we should do away with the offering altogether.
"Put a collection box at the back," they said. "Let people give anonymously, silently. We don't want to put anyone on the spot."
Come to think of it, I doubt that the West Africans we visited would have been impressed with any of this. Reports are nice, they might have said. But we want results, blessings for both the giver and the receiver.
Up Front and Direct
Some time later the financial realities of church life pushed me further. Why don't we stop being ashamed of money (well, duh!) and promote giving aggressively? I know! We'll call it a stewardship program!
Soon I became convinced that all we needed was a seasonal emphasis that would convert Scrooge and people like him into faithfully giving people. So one night at an all-church banquet (chicken, scalloped potatoes, and pie), we rolled out this new idea that we called "every-member giving."
I made these commitments to the congregation:
• I'd preach four quarterly stewardship sermons during the year (the finance committee loved this);
• We would have an annual FR (fund-raising) banquet with a special motivational speaker;
• We would get people to make annual pledges toward an ambitious giving goal;
• As often as possible we would have someone who had given money and experienced a personal blessing as a result tell their story on Sunday morning.
May I be honest? I came to dread those stewardship sermons. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed as if every time I preached one, someone I'd been trying to attract to our church would surprise me and show up. So I often sounded apologetic when I began to preach.
In preparing those sermons, I found myself scanning the Bible trying to find any passage of Scripture that could justify my cajoling the congregation (that's what it felt like) to be more ambitious in their giving.
Now some of the faithful givers in the church actually loved these sermons. It was their chance to feel good about their monetary disciplines.
"Great sermon, pastor," they'd say. "Our people really needed to hear that." Sometimes they must have detected my reluctance because they'd add, "Don't apologize; be bold. We need to know where you stand on this."
My passage of choice was Paul's second letter to the Corinthians where he compared the pitiable giving of the Corinthians to the bountiful giving of the Thessalonians. I enjoyed reminding our people that the Thessalonians were poor and the Corinthians relatively rich. Yet it was the Corinthians who were stingy while the Thessalonians were open-handed. I hoped they saw themselves in the comparison.
I wish I could say that my preaching did the trick: that our congregation began to emulate those West Africans. Yes, our giving numbers did climb some, but when I compared the joy I'd seen in West Africa to the level of joy in our congregation, I admit to discouragement.
Looking back I now realize our stewardship program rested on the weaker powers of obligation and persuasion. Our vision was substandard. I wasn't seeking the maturity of giving Christ-followers. I just wanted to make sure that our church would finish the year "in the black."
This is hardly a worthy dream that would open the heart of an Ebenezer Scrooge.
Glimmers of Faith
Then I took a further step forward in my personal journey toward giving as something more than simply meeting giving-goals. I came to see and began to teach that giving was not optional for Christ-followers but an evidence of genuine, grown-up faith.
I pointed out that God's very nature was a giving one, and I tried to show our people that God was actually giving in the creation-story, giving in sending to us his Son, giving in receiving us into his new redemptive community, and giving in providing us a blessed hope. As God is a Giver in these ways, I said, he invites us to emulate him in our own patterns of giving.
This was the beginning of my own formation of a theology of giving. I became increasingly serious about what I was learning. More and more I embedded the notion of giving into all my sermons.
"I do not believe one can tell how much we ought to give," I quoted C.S. Lewis as saying. "I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them."
I now loved preaching on the widow who went to her food barrel each day and found it to be inexhaustible because she had faith in the prophet's God.
I spoke of the little boy with his minuscule lunch that Jesus multiplied for thousands.
I championed Mary and her box of expensive perfume that she poured out in honor of Jesus. All these were reminders, stories of great faith.
"If you give," I told our people, "God will honor your faith in ways you cannot imagine."
Now if you struggle to see a difference between promoting giving and teaching giving, I can only say that the first made me into a pleader, a fund-raiser. The second provided the chance simply to let the Bible speak for itself. Now I heard myself saying, "Do you actually call yourself a biblical person? Then you have to deal with the giving component of scriptural truth."
The new core of my teaching: Giving is not an option for the biblical person. Giving is an evidence that one has heard the Scriptures speak and has opted to obey its economic imperative to be a faithful, systematic giver of one's money.
So if Scrooge had been there during those years of my pastoral life, it's possible—possible, mind you!—that he would have pondered this new theme in my Bible teaching and committed to becoming a regular giver.
Regular, I say, because he probably would have garnered the opinion that if he became a 10 percenter in his giving, he'd satisfy both God and me. Get us both off his back, if you understand what I'm saying.
And you know, that would not have been a problem for anyone who lived in a Scrooge-level income bracket. Hey! What's 10 percent to someone like Ebenezer Scrooge?
A Step Beyond Regular Giving
But what if there was a further step to take? What if one were to move from the status of a "regular giver" to one who might be called a "generous giver"? What would that mean?
Onesiphorus, an obscure New Testament Christian became my inspiration: "He often refreshed me," St. Paul writes, "and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me …. You know well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus" (2 Tim. 1:16).
Onesiphorus prompted me to see that generous giving is more than money. It is certainly that, but much more. Generous giving is whole-person giving. I tried defining what I was discovering: Generous giving involves a transfer of "wealth" from one person to another in a spirit of love, sacrifice, and gladness. The "wealth" may take the form of service, money, or one's personal, caring presence.
Here is how Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339) put legs on that definition: "For the Christians were the only people who amidst such terrible ills showed their fellow feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day some would busy themselves with attending the dead and burying them …. Others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city, and gave bread to all. When this became known, people glorified the Christian God and, convinced by the very facts, confessed that the Christians alone were truly pious and religious."
If you study Eusebius's words carefully, you'll see that people were busy doing loving things. They were doing them sacrificially, and they were doing them with gladness. And, Eusebius adds, people "convinced by the very facts … glorified the Christian God." You know what? Generous giving apparently had an evangelistic result.
"Generous giving" is a way of life. It is a prelude to a new kind of evangelism. It is the Christ-follower in any generation venturing from his/her home each morning asking, "How can I add value to every personal transaction this day?" Giving through my words, through my prayers, through my service, and yes, through the use of my money.
Sure, our congregation needed reports and programs and teaching. But more than anything, they needed to see generous giving as a way of life for Christians. They needed to see it modeled by the pastor, by the leadership, by veteran Christ-followers. They needed to see an entire church ministry characterized by the spirit and the action of generous giving.
And this became the transformation that I needed first so that I could pass it on to anyone who lived with the spirit of the original Ebenezer Scrooge.
God Bless Us, Every One
When Ebenezer Scrooge awakened from his horrific dreams on Christmas Day, there was something fresh and new about him. Call it the spirit of a generous giver.
Dickens writes: "[Scrooge] went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows: and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness. In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew's house."
Sound like a changed man to you?
Scrooge went on to order the largest turkey in the market sent to the home of Bob Cratchit, his company clerk whom he previously treated so badly. And this he did anonymously. Then Scrooge gave a monetary gift, a huge gift, to the local charity for the poor. That done, he headed to his nephew's home where he joined the family to celebrate the great holy day.
I see anonymous giving, mega-giving, personal-presence giving, and that sure looks like generous giving to me.
But wait! There's more. Dickens ends A Christmas Carol like this:
"Scrooge … did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim [the young Cratchit child], he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him."
If Scrooge remained something of addict, the addiction was no longer money; it was giving, generous giving.
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership Journal and chancellor of Denver Seminary.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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