Finding Generosity in a Cup of Coffee

Once upon a time, a wise woman traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry. The wise woman opened her bag to share her food.

The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.

The traveler left rejoicing at his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.

But a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious.”

“What would that be?” The woman asked her fellow traveler.

“Please give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.”

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A version of this parable surfaced a few months ago from somewhere in the vast universe of the Internet. Its message resonates deep within many of us in the place where the heart and soul and generosity reside.

What IS the special quality that enables a person to give away their most valuable possession to a stranger in need?

Love?

Moral obligation?

Complete lunacy?

In our society we are conditioned to earn, possess, consume, and receive so that we may feel satisfied and happy. How could we so easily give it all away?

But there is such potential within us for experiencing the abundance and joy in life than most of us realize. Awareness comes from reflecting deeply about why we give without an expectation of receiving anything in return.

Some years back I was attending a professional conference in downtown Toronto. I was serving on the board, which met for two full days before the conference.

These meetings began at 8:00 AM—torture! Those who know me well, know that I will go to great lengths to get my daily Espresso Americano wherever I am.

Okay, I thought, this would take planning. There would be early pre-dawn logistics: I’d get up by 6:30, be out the door by 7:15, walk the four blocks, cross the street to the coffee shop that opens at 7:30, get the Americano and something to eat, and walk back to the hotel. That should allow me just enough time to grab my computer bag and dash to the meeting, fortified for the long haul.

On the first morning, I embarked on my journey to the coffee shop. It was dark and cold, and, being alone, I walked with intention at a fast clip. Venti Americano in one hand, a bag with a big fresh croissant in the other, I started back to the hotel. No time to sip on the coffee now, I thought, I’ll have plenty of seat time during the meeting. But hungry, I pulled off one end of the croissant and popped that into my mouth, savoring it.

As I walked briskly along, I saw movement in one of the dark storefront doorways. I paused briefly to see two men huddled there, obviously cold after being there all night.

I was startled as one of the men stepped out of the shadows, hand outstretched and moving in the direction of my Espresso Americano. Without a nano second of thought, I yanked my drink back, a reflex action. After a brief pause, I held out the bag with the rest of the croissant to the man and walked on toward the hotel.

My brain began swirling with questions. The espresso was double-cupped, why couldn’t I have shared some of it in the second cup? They must have been so cold. A hot drink would have been such a kindness. Why didn’t I give them my coffee to split and walk back to get another for myself? Is this fancy, expensive coffee so important to me that I can’t live without it?

What does this say about my values and priorities? And, WHY did I give the man my croissant with the end ripped off? Arghhh!

I almost turned around, to go back and bring them the coffee. I realized there would be no time to spare and I would be late for my meeting commitment. I felt a strange mix of embarrassment and shame in my decision to walk away. Needless to say, sipping my Espresso Americano was less satisfying that day. The memory of this brief encounter stays with me, now for well over a decade. I can still see the hope-filled look in the man’s eyes in the dim light, the hand, reaching out for a gift desired but denied. The experience was transformative.

Since then, I have established a new pattern of giving which I consider a spiritual discipline. I now give away at least twice the cost of my daily Espresso Americano; just give it away….to friends, panhandlers, food servers, family members, collection cans on the counters of local businesses.

dollars in coffee cup

I choose to give more in support of my local congregation and wider faith community as an expression of who I am and what I believe. My goal is to tithe 10% through my combined gifts. I am making progress toward that goal, and now that I have a generosity plan, I take pleasure in both giving AND my daily Espresso Americano!

May your day be filled with abundant blessings~

Laurel

Giving opportunities for Unitarian Universalists beyond their local congregations: http://uua.org/giving/index.shtml and http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/

The Loaves and Fishes: A Story of Stewardship and Generosity

UPDATED POST!  Sharing the Offering Plate Findings August 2011–check out the success stories and links from congregations.

NOTE OF GRATITUDE TO LUTHER K. SNOW:  This reading was adapted and used with permission from Luther K. Snow, congregational consultant and “Good Groups Guru,” who can be reached thru www.luthersnow.com.  A version of this reading was first published in his book, The Power of Asset Mapping:  How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts,  available from the Alban Institute.  This  adaptation by Laurel Amabile, UUA, Stewardship and Development.

The Story:

Jesus went to  the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.
A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing
for the sick.  Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.
Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.  When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these
people to eat?”  He said that to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.  Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  (John 6:1-7)

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  (Matthew 14:15-16)

They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”  And he said to them, “How many loaves have you?  Go and see.”             (Mark 6:37-38)

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.  But what are they among so many people?”             (John 6:8-9)

And [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.”  (Luke 9:14)

Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.      (John 6:10)

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.   (Mark 6:41)

And all ate and were filled.   (Luke 9:17)

When they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over,
so that nothing may be lost.”  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.  (John 6:12-13)

Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand.  (Mark 6:44)

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the
prophet who is to come into the world.”    (John 6:14)

The story of the loaves and fishes is known to be the only miracle included in all four
books of the Gospel.  In both Matthew and Mark, as second, similar story is told again, with seven loaves and 4,000 people.  And in both Matthew and Mark the story comes up a third time, when the disciples say they have no bread, and Jesus reminds them of the first two incidences, saying “Do you not understand?”

Clearly the great teacher wanted to emphasize the importance of leadership and
understanding of stewardship as an essential part of building and providing for  a community.   The stewardship leader knows the resources are present among the people and must help the community recognize and tap their abundance in responsible ways.

The disciples begin with a half-empty mindset.  They are in a deserted place with thousands of needy people and immediately the conversation goes to money:  not having
enough to buy what is needed; send them away to buy their own; how can this be done?  Much hand-wringing and gnashing of  teeth, whining and complaining goes on among
the disciples in trying to address the problem.  Confidence wavers and anxiety levels spike.  Sound familiar?

Each time the disciples come to Jesus, he calmly tells them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”   They come back expressing more doubts, and Jesus asks, “How many loaves have you?  Go and see.

In the story, Jesus wisely instructs his disciples to organize the people into smaller groups
of 50 people.  The leader must also have a vision and system to help the community meet its needs, effectively manage their resources, and take care of one another.

In John’s telling, it is a child who makes the personal transformation.  A child has a supper of five loaves and two fish and offers it to Jesus and the disciples.  Could it be possible that young boy was the only one among the 5,000 who brought food with them?  Perhaps the boy was the only one who looked into his own basket and saw what he had, instead of  what he didn’t have and was willing to take action.  The boy saw the need and knew that he had something to share.

And, so all ate and were filled.

May it be so.  Blessed be.

A New Poll–Should Ministers Have Knowledge of their Congregants’ Giving?

Congregations have their unique culture around money and giving.  Ministers and congregants have varied degrees of comfort with the topic and practices involving money and giving in the congregation.   The needs, interests, and expectations do not always match up.

This question comes up frequently in my conversations with ministers and lay leaders.  It is a topic that is emerging more and more in congregational stewardship literature as congregations realize they must work harder to compete for their congregants’ charitable dollars.

As I research this topic for a future blog, I am interested in getting your responses and thoughts.  I invite you to take this latest poll and to offer your comments on the matter.