Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Joy and the Bother of Giving Alms

All of the following pictures are from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 Advent is one of the major fasting periods of the Orthodox Church.  From November 15 until the Christmas day Feast of the Nativity, Orthodox Christians are doing without meat and other animal products, with the exception of fish on certain days.  But these Fasts are intended to be about more than just doing without certain kinds of food.  The fasts are meant to be a means of repentance in our lives as well.  And an opportunity to help those in need around us through almsgiving.

Poor and handicapped people selling tapers outside a Church

I have discovered that there is no ‘look at me’ pride in doing these fasts because everyone else at Church is doing it, too.  This frees me to focus on the interior issues that need to be dealt with as the fast goes on.  Repentance is one of those issues, and all of us will make a time to spend with our spiritual father in confession.


But almsgiving is meant to be a secret discipline.  Jesus says, ‘Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’  Jesus then amplifies what He means: ‘When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.’ (Matthew 6:1-4)


When I lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I felt on some days I had been transported back to Bible times.  In front of Orthodox Churches or Mosques there would be laying in the dirt men with limbs twisted by polio or grotesquely enlarged by elephantiasis.  Women with club feet or with faces marred by tumors.  Children with deformities.  And lepers.  At intersections actually governed by a traffic light or policeman, we drivers would be approached by one, two or even three different people begging for alms.  I discovered that there was a leper hospital near where I lived.  Once these men and women had their Hanson’s disease under control, they might be capable of working, but because of their disfigurement, no one would hire them.  So they had to beg or their families would starve. 


Kenya has its share of desperately poor.  There are more opportunities to help than there are people willing to do so.  An ocean of souls in desperate straights.  Whether in Kenya or Ethiopia, it was easy to press some coins or cash into the outstretched hand and continue walking on.  It is much harder to stop and look the person in the eye and greet them and ask them their name and where they are from.  It is harder because suddenly and with a jolt I am treating the beggar, the opportunity, as a person, a person like me.  By stopping, by talking, by treating him or her as a person, I am not only giving some money but conveying dignity as well.  And dignity is something in short supply if you have been shoved aside by the community as useless or somehow cursed.


But I also discovered that not only did these beggars have faces and names, they have lives.  And regardless of what disease or misfortune had done to their frame and form, they were still, at heart, an image of the living God.  This is where giving gets hard.  It is much, much easier to give a coin or two, or write a check, or swipe a card.  But when I began recognizing different men and women and children because they were there day after day, week after week, month after month, charity took on a different meaning.  ‘Charity’ is, of course, the old fashioned English word for agape love, narrowed unhelpfully to mean doing something for the less fortunate.  But ‘charity’, love, calls me out of myself and into a relationship with the other.  We try not to go there, because relationship is hard.  Relationship means that love must enter the picture.  And with love comes engagement, time, giving and sacrifice.  Our culture is allergic to engagement, giving and sacrifice, and so are most of us, especially when it comes to engaging with those who are not in any position to give anything back to us.


Don’t get me wrong.  Giving money is better than giving nothing.  But if the exercise does not call us out of ourselves and towards the other, then it remains an exercise and not the intended engagement, not the intended relationship.


I live in my head most of the time.  The Advent disciplines of fasting, repentance and almsgiving are one of God’s signal means to draw me out of myself, in love, to love.