VIEW VIDEO When we moved to Danville, 25 years ago, most of the houses now in our neighborhood weren’t yet there. We were pioneers, along with the Comers, who lived on the other side of the neighborhood, we could just see the smoke from their cooking fire. In between our two houses was this vast expanse of wilderness full of bears and wolves and other fearsome creatures. Our boys, then six and three, were keenly aware of the danger and seldom left home without some weapon strapped to their side—a slingshot, a rubber knife, or some other means of protection. People would drive past in their cars and see them and say, “Those are the Quaker children who just moved in.”
We’d lived in our house a year or so, there in the Great Woods, when a man and woman bought a lot to the west of us and began building a new house, which fascinated our sons, who would walk up there and watch the builders and converse with the new owners, whose own children were grown and gone, moving far away as grown children sometimes do, to Plainfield and Avon and other far-flung locales. The man, the principal of the high school, was named Jim, and his wife was named Virginia. When I first met her, I didn’t know what she did, it was never explained to me, but in time I realized she was an angel sent by God, the best and most important kind of angel, one who teaches small children there are people other than their parents who also love them.
Our first Easter there, we woke up to find two Easter baskets on the back porch, filled to the brim with various treasures, one for Spencer and one for Sam. There was no note claiming credit, just the names of the boys written in flowing Palmer script cursive writing like they used to teach. At Halloween and Christmas there were more baskets. By then I’d seen our neighbor Virginia leaving the presents on our back porch, but didn’t ruin it by acknowledging her, knowing there is great joy in the anonymity of generosity. If Virginia had never left anything for our sons, we still would have thought well of her. She had no need to curry our favor. But because generosity was her go-to pattern, she couldn’t help but be kind, and we couldn’t help but love her.
We’ve been talking about depression, reminding ourselves each week to see your doctor if you’re experiencing depression in order to determine if it has biological causes that can be addressed with medication. Beyond that, we’ve been reflecting on the habits and patterns that can elevate and enrich our lives, which brings us to the topic of today’s message, the power of generosity and its positive effect on our lives. Our quality of life is directly connected to our generosity with the people in our lives. Our neighbor Virginia exuded a sense of vitality and well-being, rooted in her generosity. I try to avoid generalizations, there are enough of them in religion as it is, but I will say this, that I have never met a generous person who was habitually unhappy. Generosity produces contentment. It is a rule of life as sure as the law of gravity.
We see in Jesus this wealth of generosity in which he lived, worked, and walked. The true essence of Jesus wasn’t that he, through his death and resurrection, saved us from God’s wrath. Can we dispense, once and for all, with that absurd notion? What a terrible thing it says about God’s generosity of spirit. Isn’t that just like religion, to take something noble and generous and turn it into something ugly about God? Let’s you and I affirm with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength the generous compassion of Jesus. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “each person must decide whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Jesus walked in the light of creative altruism, taught his disciples to do the same, and holds before us that possibility for ourselves.
While you and I have experienced this altruism and generosity in Jesus, it is also true that others have witnessed this largeness of spirit in the heroes of their faith. This is how important compassion and generosity are, that I don’t know of a single religion in the world that has at its center a mean and stingy being. We honor those who exemplify the ideals we revere. We elevate the men and women who personify our highest qualities. Generosity was central to the teachings of Jesus. When you give, do it quietly. Don’t call in the reporters. When you’re struck on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone is cold, give them your coat. If someone is hungry, feed them. If someone is hurt, help them. In every instance, generosity. Creative altruism.
Most of you have met my friend Jim Mulholland. We met the first day of seminary, 35 years ago, standing in line to pay for books. He was complaining about how expensive the books were, and it made me think he was a Quaker, except he turned out to be an American Baptist. It took another 13 years to turn him into a Quaker. The thing I like about Jim is that he’s one of these people who can sniff out the stench of injustice when the rest of the world acts like we’re standing in a rose garden. This past week, the governor of New York signed a bill to study the possibility of reparations for its black citizens, but Jim beat New York to it by a good ten years, when he compiled a list of black business owners—mechanics, plumbers, electricians, carpenters―and hired them for anything he needed done, and paid them generously, even extravagantly. He said he wasn’t going to wait for the government to do the right thing. He was going to start his own reparations program.
So we meet for lunch once a week, have for years. We meet at the same restaurant, eat, and solve the world’s problems. But it’s getting expensive, and I might have to stop, because every week we go, Jim has a way of making sure we have a Black server. I don’t know how he does it, but nearly every week he does. And every week he tips extravagantly, generously, even outrageously. His own reparations program. Then he looks to see what I’m tipping. I try to hide it from him, but he always sees it, and if he doesn’t like it, if he thinks I can do better, he says, “Come on, Phil. You’re loaded. You have more money than I do. You own a farm, for crying out loud. You can do better than that.”
He did it just the other day. He started in on me. I said, “We’re not sending her to college, you know?”
He got this crazy look in his eyes and said, “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
He’s got me there. Extravagant kindness, spilling-over-the-sides generosity is fun.
Joan serves as the co-clerk of our Outreach Committee with Becky Horton. They have monthly meetings where they decide what to do with the meeting outreach money. Every month, after their meeting, Joan comes out of her office with a big smile, saying the same thing, “That was the best committee meeting ever.” I wish I were on that committee, but until I am I have Jim and his reparations program.
We have to decide, don’t we, every day, whether we will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.