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Sunday, November 29, 2009

.25 percent, that's point two-five percent

Point two-five, .25 percent is all. One quarter of one percent is the amount of the U.S. budget designated for foreign health aid. The U.S. government partners with organizations and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nothing But Nets, Lutheran World Relief, the Central Asia Foundation (3 Cups of Tea), Rick Warren's charitable relief non-profit, the Paul Carlson Foundation and others, to provide vaccines, anti-malarial nets, clean water, health clinics, schools, and more in Africa, Asia and other impoverished places in the world. Point two-five percent. As it turns out, that's a lot of money. Compounded by the funds given from the not-for-profit faith-based sector and other monies, these dollars save millions of lives already. Perhaps that is the message we most need to hear right now: it works. This action works. "We are most like God when we are giving." It was my good atheist -- or maybe not so atheist anymore -- friend who told me a few years ago, "the God created you with specific talents. It is your job to use them," and continued, "for the good of people." As it turns out, he's an editor. And he told me I needed to write. It seemed perhaps I might take his encouragement seriously. As I do. Making money is not a particular talent of mine. I still give some of it away, along with other material gifts in kind. Giving is a way of life, as you know. I put money in the kettle every time I walk past a Salvation Army bell-ringer, not to feel righteous or because my bits and pieces are such a great contribution to the cause. But to keep me in the habit, of always giving, reaching, going beyond myself. I don't carry a lot of cash so it might be a quarter or a dollar I put in but it is something. And my something and your something and the Salvation Army's something and Urban Peak's something and Angel Heart's something and the church's something and even the .25 percent of the government's budget add up to something that changes lives. The first fantasy I ever had about becoming enormously wealthy came one morning as I was driving up the Tri-State Tollway in grinding traffic, on my way to work in Chicago. What blurb on the radio prompted it I don't remember but I do remember my mind racing with the ways I'd give that money away. I'd have plenty to give to Mattie Butler's organization, WECAN, and to the Chicago Food Depository, and to the Nature Conservancy, and to Lutheran World Relief, and the Heifer Project, and on and on and on it went. I got greedy for more money at some point because I remembered other places I wanted it to go. Honestly, that was the most fun I'd had in ages. And it still is. One of my favorite little games to play in my mind. New needs and realities have occasioned new ideas for the recipients of my gifts. But it is one of the best antidotes for self-pity I can think of. Better yet, of course, is the actual giving. When one is depleted, physically, financially, emotionally, the natural instinct is to preserve. There is some basic nature involved, we need to do some conserving, building up, restoration. And there are humbling moments when it is remarkably more blessed to receive. But even in the middle of the mess, there is the possibility of giving. Reaching, extending, looking beyond oneself, giving beyond oneself. I believe we are never so depleted that we can't give something. It may be only a smile. I believe I've been there. It may be only a generous gesture, in traffic. It may be holding the door open, or putting a quarter in the red kettle in front of the mall. It may be almost nothing. But it is the muscle movement that matters. For the sake of staying connected, properly alligned to the world. A week ago today, for the first time in my life, I wondered where the money for a turkey dinner for our family was going to come from. I was stunned. Humbled. And eventually hopeful. A client paid, the funds were wired to our bank account on Wednesday. And, as you remember, we ate the best turkey dinner we've ever had. Other years we've filled bags and baskets with turkeys and pies and potatoes and rice and beans and a treat or two to deliver to families in Denver. I especially loved the year Angie and I set out together on slick streets to find our assigned three homes, cherishing the sweet, if brief, conversations we had with grateful families for whom our presence was a gift in addition to the foods we brought. Such giving is sometimes disparaged as charity, checkbook charity. Bandaids, not solutions. It's true we need more. Bill Gates points out that we need to create systems, infrastructures that deliver again and again and again, creating market points and capital that generates the replication of efforts and the extension of the benefits. True. True. True. But the thing is, creating wealth is not my talent. So I do what is mine to do. Write. And give. And offer it up to the ones who are here as God's hands and mouths and feet and hearts, for their health, their justice, their peace, their fullness of life. Each of us has those things we are "made to do," as my friend told me. The thing is, that we do them. And do them for the sake of the world. I keep thinking of what could be, what could happen if we gave the same amount of money we spend in military action instead to building roads and opening schools and filling bellies and planting fields and building wells and vaccinating children and putting up anti-malarial nets. Three times a billion cups of tea. It's not just a fantasy. It begins to happen every time we move our minds beyond what is to what is possible. I'm going to go downstairs to play the piano now. The Thanksgiving hymns, once more this season. We Gather Together. Come, You Thankful People, Come. And my very favorite, God Whose Giving Knows No Ending. "Gifted by thee, turn we to thee, offering up ourselves..."