JOPLIN, Mo. —
It was one of those especially clear, soft spring mornings as I walked from the parking lot toward the entrance to the church and my office. Outside was much nicer than inside on this morning.
Strolling down the sidewalk along 15th street, a neatly dressed, clean-looking young man spotted me. Changing directions on a dime, he approached me. I paused, glad for the extra time to savor the glorious morning.
Obviously he was seeking something, perhaps directions. Maybe he had questions concerning the status of our building restoration. So many interested people have made inquiries about the progress being made as we repair the damage from the tornado.
The most often asked question is, “Will the stained glass window be restored?” (Yes, it will be!)
I was mistaken. He was seeking a handout of cash to get him and his family by until he began his new job next week. As smooth as a federal agent displaying a badge, he showed me pictures of his two children. He was articulate and confident.
I had totally misread the situation. Normally, I sense exactly what’s coming when someone comes by asking for a handout. These are awkward, dreaded moments and my instincts are usually keen. But this time I was surprised.
Instead of disbursing these funds ourselves, our church contributes to organizations that can better serve those in need than we are able to do alone. As I explained what we do, he interrupted and said, “So, you don’t want to help?”
“Yes I do want to help,” I said. “And I am trying to explain how we can help.”
Not interested in our kind of help, he dismissed me. “That’s OK, forget it,” he said and turned away.
He paused, then told me that God loves me anyway. Then after a few more steps and another pause, he said, “But Jesus does not like your spirit.”
I stood there, quietly, letting him walk away. Something was wrong. The beautiful morning has suddenly gone south.
Robert Lupton is a Presbyterian minister who examines the matter of charity in his new book “Toxic Charity.”
He writes from a background of lifelong ministry and mission work in which charity is important. He has worked professionally for organizations whose stated purpose is charity. He also has been the minister of churches located in areas where charity is the primary means of living.
Out of this vast reservoir of experience comes a very thoughtful, fresh and challenging reflection upon what we call charity. No stones are left unturned and some of what he says is difficult to accept.
But as we work with the issues that surface, we begin to see sound reasoning and clear understanding. It begins to make sense. Charity can become toxic.
In a brief example of Lupton’s thinking, he illuminates my story and others just like it. Someone approaches, asking for a handout, or someone is standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign.
Identifying these instances as “one-time giving,” he concludes that giving once elicits appreciation. Giving twice creates anticipation. Give a third time, and you create expectation.
The fourth time generates a sense of entitlement and then you have dependency. Lupton does not completely discount one-time giving, but he does suggest using it only in emergency situations. This and more is fully developed in the book.
We Christians are called to care for “the least of these,” whose plight is especially important to Jesus and to whom we are bound. Accordingly, this matter is paramount to us. Fail to get it right, and we are something other than compassionate. This book will help us get it right.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.